Campus mourns loss of Robin Mittenthal

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Robin Mittenthal, who touched hundreds of student lives as manager, advisor, mentor and field course leader for the University of Wisconsin-Madison Undergraduate Certificate in Global Health, died suddenly this weekend following an accident at his farm.

“Robin was a very thoughtful, passionate family man,” says Sherry Tanumihardjo, professor of Nutritional Sciences and director of the undergraduate certificate. “His family was the most important thing to him. Some of this passion rubbed off in his mentoring of hundreds of students.”

Mittenthal managed the certificate program from just after its inception in 2011 to spring 2017, when he became center coordinator at the Upper Midwestern Regional Center of Excellence for Vector-Borne Disease.

Employed by the Department of Nutritional Sciences at the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences (CALS), he was a central contributor to the development and coordination of the undergraduate certificate. The program is co-sponsored by GHI and CALS.

As an administrative manager, Mittenthal dedicated countless hours organizing the program and advising students. “Robin was involved right from the start of the undergraduate certificate in global health,” says Jonathan Patz, director of the Global Health Institute. “The early success of the new program was due, in no small part, to his unfailing dedication and caring for the experience of each and every student.”

“Robin was an intelligent, caring and loved advisor by hundreds of students,” says Lori DiPrete Brown, associate director for education and engagement at the Global Health Institute and an undergraduate certificate leader. “He cared deeply about education, the environment and the way food systems related to health, but most importantly, his family was the center of his life.”

Mittenthal’s vibrant spirit as an advisor and educator predated his engagement with the certificate program. He served as an agricultural advisor with the Peace Corps in The Gambia during the mid 1990s and worked as a librarian and teacher for K-12 students.

At the Upper Midwestern Regional Center of Excellence for Vector-Borne Disease, Mittenthal was responsible for coordinating partners in five states and tracking the center’s progress in addressing vector-borne disease challenges. Susan Paskewitz and Lyric Bartholomay, co-directors of the Center, admired the radiance Mittenthal brought with him.

“People have said so many amazing things about him — his passion for what he did, caring for students, sense of humor and intelligence,” Paskewitz says. “One of our students said he was like a perfect human being.”

In a GoFundMe campaign to contribute to the education savings accounts for Mittenthal’s children, Bartholomay wrote: “Robin Mittenthal had a rare gift for connecting to other people. He gave us his time, his undivided attention, his radiant smile, his stories that spanned an unbelievable repertoire of life experiences, his infectious enthusiasm, his thanks and his encouragement. In so doing, he touched lives of countless colleagues in entomology and CALS, of hundreds of undergraduate advisees in the Global Health certificate, and of the students, staff and colleagues in and surrounding a new center on campus for mosquito and tick-borne disease.”

UW senior KM Barnett met with Mittenthal last week about plans for next semester’s work at the center. The short meeting became two hours to visit about her long- and short-term career goals. She remembers: “At the end of the meeting, he said to me, ‘I am so excited for all the things you’ll do.’ His words warmed me with comfort and confidence. … I am grateful for Robin’s keen ability to listen and say the right thing at just the right time.”

Sweta Shrestha, program manager for the Wisconsin Population Health Service Fellowship Program at the Population Health Institute, worked closely with Mittenthal during her time as GHI’s assistant director for education, especially in the early stages of the certificate program. “He was larger than life, and he cared so deeply,” she says. “There are so many students he’s impacted. He wanted to nurture every student, and he did — he put everyone else ahead of himself. If a student needed a recommendation letter and he was up to his ears in work, he wouldn’t hesitate to say yes.”

Across campus, students mourn. Samuel Park, a senior with a Certificate in Global Health, remembers Mittenthal as a kind-hearted, passionate advisor. “He will forever be remembered as a shining light in the campus community who inspired many, many students to pursue careers in support of our collective health,” says Catherine Goslin (’17), who earned her undergraduate certificate.

During Mittenthal’s tenure, the certificate expanded to reach hundreds of students. It has become the largest undergraduate certificate on campus. “The connections he made across campus were incredible,” says Devika Suri, who worked with Mittenthal as an undergraduate certificate advisor. “Everyone knew him and respected him. He was able to bridge different areas of campus to bring people together and collaborate.”

Mitthenthal’s impact resounded across campus. Prior to working for the certificate, he served as chairman of the board overseeing the Eagle Heights Community Gardens while pursuing his Ph.D. in entomology, studying how organic fertilizer affected insect pests.

“He tried to infuse his love of the land and earth with his job,” Suri says. “Farming was his love and passion, and his dream was always to have a farm.”

A dream that came to life in Little Mammoth Berry Farm, LLC, a farm on a beautiful plot in Belleville, Wisconsin, that will reflect the energy and compassion of Mittenthal, it’s builder, for years to come.

Mittenthal was 43. He is survived by his wife, Daniella Molle, and their two children.

“He was a salt of the earth kind of guy,” Shrestha says. “He was so good, and so honest. The spaces he made for students were his way of showing how much he cared about global health, and the spaces the land makes for us.”

Mittenthal was remembered at grief sessions for faculty and staff, and students, Tuesday.

His funeral will be at 11 a.m. Saturday at Cress Funeral Home, 6021 University Avenue. Visitation for family and close friends begins at 10 a.m. His obituary has been posted.

To contribute to the GoFundMe campaign, click here.

By Yusra Murad/ December 6, 2017

Photo by George Hesselberg/Wisconsin State Journal

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Journalism, Ethics & The Battle Over Health Care

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Sponsored by the Center for Journalism Ethics.

Three experts will join faculty, staff and students with an interest in health policy or communication at the Overture Center:
•Sarah Kliff, health policy journalist at Vox
•David Wahlberg, health and medicine reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal
•J. Paul Kelleher, assistant professor of bioethics at UW-Madison

RSVP here.

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Professor Wins Award for Research on Genocide

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This story appeared first at news.wisc.edu.

UW-Madison political science professor Scott Straus has won the 2018 Grawemeyer Award for Ideas Improving World Order for his book “Making and Unmaking Nations: War, Leadership, and Genocide in Modern Africa.”

The University of Louisville presents the $100,000 award annually for outstanding works in ideas improving world order, psychology, education, music composition and, in conjunction with Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, religion. The Ideas Improving World Order award is a major honor in the field of political science, with roughly 50 nominations sent from around the world each year, says award director Charles Ziegler.

In Making and Unmaking Nations, Straus – who specializes in the study of genocide, political violence, human rights and African politics – explains how ideas and political messages can become tipping points for genocide. His research examines patterns and circumstances that have resulted in genocide and contrasts those with similar situations where genocide seemed likely to happen but did not.

“The book is about trying to understand how and why genocide happens,” Straus says. “The premise is to examine not just those cases where it did but also near misses. In doing so, I sought to isolate the dynamics and factors that distinguish genocide cases from non-genocide cases, and from there to develop a general theory of genocide.”

“Straus’s work alerts us to the circumstances under which genocide emerges and he identifies key points when action by national leaders, and efforts by the international community, can halt the slide into mass violence,” Ziegler says.

Straus became interested in genocide while working as a journalist in the mid-1990s covering the aftermath of the genocide in Rwanda and a related ward in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In his 13 years at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he has taught several courses on genocide and related topics and is grateful for the students who have shown interest in the subject. Straus worked on Making and Unmaking Nations for nearly a decade, with support including Vilas Associates and H.I Romnes Faculty Fellowship awards.

“I am very pleased that the award committee chose a book about genocide for its selection on improving world order,” Straus says. “There are many pressing global challenges. To me, understanding and preventing genocide remains a global priority, but I worry that such a view is not widely shared. The award, I hope, will bring renewed attention to the topic.”

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New Certificate Brings Humanities Into Health Care Studies

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This story appeared first at news.wisc.edu.

Last spring in a Biology and Society course, Makenzie Wydra had an aha moment. Health, she realized, isn’t just the way diseases form and how the body responds to medicines and treatments. It’s so much more, from the way notions of health have developed over time to how individuals and groups experience health care.

Makenzie Wydra. Photo by Sarah Morton, College of Letters & Science

The class, taught by assistant professor of history Nicole Nelson, explores the history of biotechnologies, ethics and how scientific developments both shape and are shaped by society. It was exciting to Wydra, who had already taken several science courses as a biology major planning a career in nursing.

“All the rest of my classes were formulas and memorization,” says Wydra, now a junior. “This introduced how things happened. It was a brief overview but it made me want to learn more.”

She is now getting that chance, as one of the first students admitted to a new certificate program that examines historical, cultural and philosophical ways people make decisions about health care.

The Health and the Humanities Certificate is a five-course, 15-credit program designed to give students a fuller and more nuanced understanding of health that complements study in the biosciences.

It stems from a problem Dija Selmi and Susan Nelson noticed a few years back while working at the Center for Pre-Health Advising, which sees about 3,000 students a year and helps about 500 apply to medical school annually. The advisors saw that students were excelling academically and gaining strong experience in labs, yet they weren’t well-versed in the bigger picture of health care.

And they weren’t ideally prepared for the Medical College Admission Test, or MCAT, which in 2015 was revamped to include sections on social and behavioral determinants of health and critical and analytical reasoning skills.

The advisors knew the university had a variety of classes on health — in departments ranging from Gender and Women’s Studies to anthropology, and history to English — and worked to bring faculty from those disciplines together to create the certificate program.

Certificate director Nicole Nelson says courses that count toward the certificate make students aware of the cultural, religious and other backgrounds that people bring with them when they interact with the health care system — and that gaining an understanding of these perspectives gives them a competitive edge.

“There’s a trend toward medical schools nationally seeking out students who are more well-rounded,” Nelson says, adding that the health care industry has increasingly focused on interpersonal aspects of the field as well.

Students begin by enrolling in one of five core classes — Biology and Society, 1950–Today; Bodies, Diseases and Healers: An Introduction to the History of Medicine; Introduction to Social Medicine; Literature and Medicine; or Exploring Religion in Sickness and Health — before they apply to the certificate.

If accepted, they then take two intermediate or upper-level courses with a focus on health and illness in social context, as well as a cultural competency class that may not necessarily focus on health and illness but that considers the experiences of at-risk or underserved populations in health care. They finish with a capstone, either through a special Health and the Humanities class or a health-focused service-learning course.

Certificate advisor Julia Dauer says some students have expressed concern about how much reading and writing the program will entail, since most of their sciences courses utilize problem sets, lab experiments and multiple-choice tests.

“The modes of assessment are so different,” she says.

But those different approaches ultimately will help students be able to communicate better and use evidence in discussions and debates about health. And the certificate helps organize coursework so students can gain expertise in an area.

Judy Houck, co-director of the certificate who teaches a class about the cultural history of disease, says students are often surprised when a course piques their interest in a new way. Some like learning about how elements of health care have changed over time, while others gravitate to “thorny” issues such as how to weigh individual rights against the public’s health.

Houck believes the certificate will prepare students to be better future doctors, nurses and pharmacists who know that “the patient sitting in front of you is not a mere physiological problem to be solved.”

But she also hopes aspiring policymakers, playwrights and other types of professionals see value in studying health in conjunction with the humanities.

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Health access program bridges micro-finance, health for Uganda’s poor

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This story appeared first at news.wisc.edu.

Patients, mostly mothers and children, outside a clinic along Lake Victoria, Uganda. As the sign indicates, the clinic relies on health workers from the government Ministry of Health, transported by Health Access Connect (HAC). KEVIN GIBBONS/HEALTH ACCESS CONNECT

In 2008, Kevin Gibbons began research in Uganda’s fishing communities. His goal, as a student at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, was to understand how efforts to promote sustainable fisheries affected family income.

And then a series of “smack yourself on the forehead” moments caused him to switch gears from fishery management to the problem of access to health care.

Today, Gibbons is executive director of Health Access Connect (HAC), a non-profit that merges microfinance and health-care access in Uganda. HAC lends to taxi drivers wanting to buy a motorcycle. In return, the driver agrees to spend three days a month transporting government health workers to nearby villages for a monthly clinic.

Gibbons received his Master’s degree from UW–Madison in 2012 in conservation biology and sustainable development.

The first head-smack occurred during interviews at a fishing community on the shore of Lake Victoria, when he learned that villagers were still dying of HIV/AIDS, even though the government was offering free, effective medicine just three miles away.

Children fetch water at sunset at a fishing community on Lake Victoria, where many residents have difficulty reaching the health system. KEVIN GIBBONS/HEALTH ACCESS CONNECT

A second bit of enlightenment occurred at a remote island on Lake Victoria. “It was a very exotic trip, and I was enjoying myself,” Gibbons recalls. “When I asked about life on the island, my source said, ‘If I could leave, I would leave tomorrow. If I get sick, if a mother is in labor, or a child breaks an arm, it’s an eight-hour boat trip’” to the nearest clinic. Gibbons adds, “Afterwards, I didn’t see those hours-long motorcycle and boat rides in the same way.”

As Gibbons and HAC co-founder Carolyne Ariokot were incubating ideas to bridge the gap, a friend asked Gibbons for a loan to buy a motorcycle to use as a taxi, which is a standard way to get around in rural Uganda. “Mike Nsubuga walked me through the business,” Gibbons says. “Motorcycles cost $1,300, so most guys rent, which makes for an expensive, unstable livelihood.”

By 2014, he and Ariokot began to see a solution in micro-finance loans that would provide income and health transport.

HAC program director Carolyne Ariokot and borrower Mike Nsubuga discuss logistics. Mike paid off the first motorcycle loan in February, 2017, and now owns this cycle. KEVIN GIBBONS/HEALTH ACCESS CONNECT

Although treating HIV/AIDS had been the initial impetus for thinking about expanding the reach of existing health services, the goal has broadened.

“There are issues of privacy,” says Gibbons. “If that’s all we did, you would know that patients were HIV-positive. Also, there is demand for other services.”

Frequent clinic services include HIV and malaria testing, vaccines for children, family planning and perinatal care.

All care is delivered by government employees, Gibbons emphasizes, with HAC simply providing transport to and from the villages.

Lisa Naughton, who is chair of the department of geography at UW–Madison, says Gibbons was “a great communicator and a force for good in the world.” Naughton, who has studied the links between poverty and the environment in Uganda, says “you find people in the poorest remote areas, languishing, ill at home, because they can’t even get $3 to get to a clinic in a nearby town.”

With HAC’s win-win approach, she says, “A lot of young men are helping their homes and families by becoming motorcycle taxi drivers.”

HAC motorcycle loan recipient Steven Ssenkubuge delivers medical supplies to a mobile clinic in Uganda. KEVIN GIBBONS/HEALTH ACCESS CONNECT

Health Access Connect now has three full-time and three part-time employees. Motorcycle loans are just the start. HAC has bought four ambulance trailers that can trail behind a motorcycle, is surveying health access in Uganda, and it’s hiring. “The common thread is that we are always trying to serve the health needs of those in remote areas,” Gibbons says.

At present, HAC’s bread and butter is the micro-finance enabled transport of health workers. For the 18-month term of the loan, one motorcycle and its driver serve three villages with a monthly clinic. Then, if the driver has paid the loan every week, “he owns the motorcycle and is not obligated to drive for us,” Gibbons says. “At that point, we may keep them on retainer, or take the money and loan it out for another motorcycle.”

Committing three days will trim the driver’s income, “but it’s a great loan and a great opportunity,” Gibbons says. Over the 18-month course of one loan, he says, that driver can enable 2,625 people to be treated. “And it’s no problem at all to find guys who want a loan.”

Health Access Connect starts its annual fund-raiser on Giving Tuesday, Nov. 28.

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Five UW-Madison Professors, including GHI Advisory Committee member Jeanette Roberts, named AAAS Fellows

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Jeanette Roberts, Ph.D. Medicinal Chemistry, University of Minnesota; Masters in Public Health, University of Utah

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) has elected five professors from the University of Wisconsin-Madison as AAAS Fellows.

They join 391 other fellows who have been recognized by their peers for significant contributions to their fields and the scientific endeavor as a whole.

UW-Madison’s honored professors are:

-Amy J. Barger, professor of astronomy, for important contributions to our understanding of the evolution of black holes and dust-obscured galaxies from the early universe to the present day.

-John F. Berry, professor of chemistry, for novel synthetic, spectroscopic, and computational approaches to structure and bonding in catalytically-relevant coordination compounds that are unstable, highly reactive, or show unusual properties.

-Zhenqiang (Jack) Ma, professor of electrical and computer engineering, for distinguished contributions to the field of flexible electronics, particularly for inventing fast flexible electronics, flexible optoelectronics and nanomembrane-based photonics.

-Jeanette C. Roberts, professor of pharmacy, for distinguished contributions to the field of chemoprevention and chemoprotection, for sustained service to AAAS, and for excellence in administrative contributions as dean until 2013 of the UW-Madison School of Pharmacy.

-Lydia Zepeda, professor of consumer science, for research, teaching, and outreach in agricultural economics, including innovative studies of consumer views of agricultural products and their food preferences.

AAAS, the world’s largest general scientific society, has elected distinguished members as fellows since 1874. This year’s fellows will be honored at the organization’s annual meeting on February 17th, 2018, in Austin, Texas.

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