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Wednesday, October 1, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 49.0° F  Overcast
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Science Constellation concept unites campus facilities
Twinkle, twinkle massive institution
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Tom Zinnen: 'These are places where award-winning
discoveries have been made.'
Tom Zinnen: 'These are places where award-winning discoveries have been made.'
Credit:Amber Arnold

Tom Zinnen sees it as a matter of geography.

"If you fold a map of the UW-Madison campus in quarters, Babcock Hall is at the center of the creases. It's the heart of the life sciences and engineering campus," says Zinnen, the university's biotech outreach specialist. "The center of gravity on campus has shifted."

Zinnen should know. He's one of the forces driving this shift. About a decade ago, he launched an annual science open house on campus. Next, he helped organize the UW-Madison Science Alliance to strengthen collaborations among campus science outreach groups. Then he created Wednesday Nite @ The Lab (WN@TL), a weekly showcase of campus research open to the public.

Last August, Zinnen returned to Madison after being loaned to the National Science Foundation in Arlington, Va., where he served a two-year stint as the director's speechwriter. Now he's hitting the ground running, blazing a trail for an invigorating new concept. He calls it the Science Constellation, a way of mapping and connecting the UW-Madison's science facilities.

These will appear on special campus maps and be stops on guided and self-guided tours. Computer-based maps that visitors can access on their smart phones are also in the works.

Key stops include the Geology Museum, Washburn Observatory, Physics Museum, Wisconsin State Herbarium, Microbe Place, the Insect Research Displays in Russell Laboratories, the Dairy Cattle Center and the new Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery.

"This is a land-grant institution, and exploring our Science Constellation will give people a better feeling about what they own," says Zinnen, 53. "Each star has an X-marks-the-spot factor. These are places where award-winning discoveries have been made, and more are under way. Researchers here are figuring out things that nobody has ever figured out before."

Steve Amundson, the UW's director of visitor and information programs (VIP), is equally enthusiastic.

"The Science Constellation," he says, "is going to be a new way to promote our world-class institution. We are looking forward to engaging a number of scientists and researchers on campus in this pursuit. We are really excited about Tom's concept. He's passionate about sharing science, and it's infectious."

A native of Dixon, Ill., Zinnen earned a B.S. degree in biology at the UW-Platteville, an M.S. in plant pathology at the University of Illinois and completed his Ph.D. in plant pathology at the UW-Madison in 1985. He remembers his first trip to the Madison campus as a college junior, which felt a bit overwhelming.

"It's a big campus," Zinnen reflects. "This place was a maze, but it was also amazing." Both cognitions are at the heart of his vision for the Science Constellation: "We want to maximize the amazement and minimize the maze."

Zinnen has mounted a large campus map outside his office and placed a star at every science venue. Many of the stars mark buildings under construction or just finished, like the Wisconsin Institutes of Discovery.

According to Zinnen, exploring the constellation is "a lot like going to the Boundary Waters. You need an outfitter - someone you can phone and get a feel for the experience, learn what you will need and where you can go. Here on campus, you need a science outfitter to help you plot your trek across campus."

To this end, the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF) is coordinating with the UW Information Office to station a resident science outfitter at the Institutes of Discovery to act as guide.

"We hope to create a virtual front door where people who are not from the university can go one-stop shopping and find out what is going on," says Laura Heisler, WARF director of programming. This will eventually include a visitor database to get input and keep people informed of future program offerings.

WARF patents the discoveries of UW-Madison researchers and licenses the technologies that come out of them. That generates more than $45 million annually, which in turn funds additional research on campus. Since 1925, WARF has funneled more than $1 billion back to the university.

Heisler says WARF is thrilled to play a role in realizing Zinnen's Science Constellation concept.

"The university has long nurtured dozens of groups who have a shared mission to bring science to the broader community," she notes. "With the Science Constellation concept, a lot of lights can shine brightly in a cohesive unit, and I applaud Tom for conceptualizing it that way."

What pleases Zinnen most about the Science Constellation is that it is, like the universe, expanding.

"The new buildings add energy to the scientific process," he says. "They represent the commitment to expand physical infrastructure. We have built it, and now we want to get people to come."

Importantly, the constellation can be completed at minimal cost. "We are building the system from existing components," says Zinnen. "The major cost is to support a web manager for the expanded website and a new staff member to assess visitor satisfaction. We are putting in grant proposals for these."

One of Zinnen's first concerns is logistical. "Of course," he says, "the most difficult thing about visiting this campus is parking. And the second most difficult thing is parking."

Much of the Science Constellation will take place at night, to make use of ramps that are open to the public after 4:30 p.m.

"Both Union South and the Institutes for Discovery will be offering science programming in the evenings, so instead of bankers' hours, we will have Barnes & Noble hours, with hands-on workshops and Science Saturdays. It's going to be worth the trip."

Perhaps it's his metaphor of focusing on the heavens that makes Zinnen take a long view.

"When you think of this campus 500 years from now, which is how long some of the campuses in Europe have been around," he says, "it's inspiring to contemplate not only what has been done but what is going to be done here."

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