Skip to main content

Top 15 of 2015

May 11, 2015

This weekend, more than 10,000 students will receive a bachelor’s, master’s, professional or doctoral degree during UW–Madison’s commencement exercises.

Every student’s journey is unique, but some of this year’s graduates have demonstrated extraordinary perseverance in obtaining a degree. Many have already jumpstarted their careers as entrepreneurs or cutting-edge researchers, and others are making a difference in their communities through outreach projects and public service.

Below are a handful of their stories:

1 & 2. Thinking outside the box

Photo: Emily Baumann

Biochemistry major Emily Baumann and wildlife ecology and environmental studies major Katelyn Budke have spent their senior year growing UW Boxable, a Styrofoam recycling program. The project has been awarded $105,000 in grants from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and Baumann and Budke recently helped launch similar programs at two other universities. Read more.

3. Giving others a voice

Courtesy School of Education

Nicole Bowman-Farrell balanced her doctoral studies in educational leadership and policy analysis with her full-time consulting business in Shawano, Wisconsin — a challenge that has only strengthened her commitment to education as a tool for social justice. As a member of the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohican Indians, she plans to use her degree to empower Native American communities. Read more

4. From China to Bascom — and beyond

Alan Chen, a biology major in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, moved to Minoqua, Wisconsin, from China with his family when he was in second grade. He aspires to help others by becoming a doctor, and his academic excellence, volunteerism and research earned him a prestigious scholarship from the Bascom Hill Society. 

5 & 6. Excellence on a national stage


This year, political science and economics major Neil Damron and biochemistry major Rachel Dvorak made the final round of consideration for two of the top awards in education. Damron was a finalist for the Rhodes Scholarship, and Dvorak was a finalist for the Marshall Scholarship. Read more.

7. A family journey

Earning a master’s degree from the Department of Kinesiology’s Occupational Therapy program has been a deeply personal journey for Ted Elias. He’s the primary caretaker for his 9-year-old daughter and his wife, Tabea, who suffered a traumatic brain injury nearly a decade ago. He plans to use his degree to help his wife and others struggling to overcome injuries. 

8. Going the distance 

Photo: Nik Hawkins

From her farmette in southeastern Wisconsin, Kelly Flowers logged more than 120,000 miles on the road to her doctorate of veterinary medicine. A mother of five, Flowers credits supportive faculty and classmates in helping her succeed, and she aspires to start her own specialty practice. Read more.

9. Capturing the campus spirit

Photo: Humans of Madison

Rehabilitation psychology and special education major Jenna Freeman created a photography blog based on the popular site Humans of New York to document life in Madison. The Humans of Madison project has garnered thousands of social media followers. Read more.

10. The sound of success

Courtesy Madison Public Library

Kelly Hiser, who completed a doctorate in historical musicology, is helping libraries more efficiently collect, license and share music with communities. Her startup, Rabble, grew out of a project that Hiser worked on while serving as a public humanities fellow with the Madison Public Library. Dubbed the Yahara Music Project, it’s a digital platform that features the works of independent, local musicians. Read more

11. Innovative calling

Photo: iStock

Computer science major Saul Laufer discovered a legal hack that enables smartphones to work with multiple phone numbers. The idea led to an iPhone app that received a $50,000 grant from the university’s Discovery to Product (D2P) office. Laufer plans to market the app to businesses that issue phones to employees who want to keep their professional and personal calls separate. Read more.

12. A future in bloom

Courtesy UW–Madison CALS

Some gardens are created to cultivate or showcase particular kinds of plants, others to grow food. But landscape architecture senior Lily Mank is most interested in gardens that are designed to aid healing. For her senior capstone, she developed a tranquil space for patients with eating disorders, depression, OCD and anxiety. Read more.

13. Mixing up new solutions

Courtesy Wisconsin Energy Institute

Mechanical engineering student Eric Ronning is part of a team that won multiple awards this year for inventing the Remex Static Mixer, a mixer that uses a unique design to combine chemicals or live cells in a reactor without any moving parts. Situated in a pipe or cylinder, the mixer gently blends fluids, using up to 33 percent less energy compared to other mixers on the market. Read more.

14. Taking (global) initiative

Photo: Kayla Sippl

While interning at a hospital in Kianjokoma, Kenya, biology major Kayla Sippl found it odd that patient bathrooms had no soap. Sippl saw a public health crisis — and a solution. Through a fellowship from the Morgridge Center for Public Service, Sippl now runs soap-making workshops for women in several Kenyan communities. She was recently invited to discuss the project at the Clinton Global Initiative University. Read more.

15. The sweet scientist


Maya Warren recently won $1 million, shared with fellow food science PhD student Amy DeJong, on the CBS reality show “The Amazing Race.” After completing her dissertation on fat agglomeration, she intends to homogenize her TV experience with her knowledge of ice cream, outgoing nature and self-confidence to develop a new show about frozen desserts from around the world. Read more.