The Wisdom of Waisman

Neil Heinen, editorial director, Madison Magazine

Now celebrating its fortieth year, the Waisman Center meets a critical need in our community

It has always been a challenge to describe the Waisman Center on the University of Wisconsin–Madison campus. This is due in part to the very nature of the research conducted at the facility, which claims as its mission “the advancement of knowledge about human development, developmental disabilities and neurodegenerative diseases through the life span.” Think genes, stem cells and the stuff that makes up the human brain. A walk through the halls of the eight-story, 253,585-square-foot tower across from UW Hospital and Clinics reveals entire walls full of the types of mathematical equations that appear indecipherable. Part of the challenge as well is the breadth of services the center provides, including a laboratory preschool, brain imaging center, early intervention and outreach programs and clinical biomanufacturing facility.

But as the Waisman Center celebrates its fortieth anniversary this month, it is time to give the world-renowned facility its due. Named for the late pioneer in developmental disability research, Harry A. Waisman, and created with support from the Kennedy Family Foundation, it is one of just fifteen national facilities of its kind. But perhaps more importantly for Madison, the Waisman Center meets a critical need in our community. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that one in six children has a developmental disability. These kids need an informed clinical practice and the best approach to diagnose their disability. The Waisman Center is that place.

Marsha R. Mailick, PhD, has been the director of the Waisman Center since September 2002. Her passion and pride for the center, its faculty and staff, and the work done there is refreshingly enthusiastic and genuine. “We are part of resources of the city of Madison, for this segment of our community,” says Mailick. “I don’t think there are many people who don’t know a family who has been affected by autism, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy or another degenerative disease. So we are part of the resources for the children … We are the focal point of expertise on developmental disease in our community.”

Part of the palpable sense of energy and stimulation at the center is the interdisciplinary nature of the research. Mailick says it was Harry Waisman’s vision to bring together basic scientists, educators and clinicians in one place with one purpose, “because he felt that the solution to the problems of people that had these conditions can’t come from just one angle. So, our building embodies that.  And it’s in this space where we all come together that progress is made toward understanding the classes of these disorders, the consequences for the person who is affected and their family and for society. And what treatments and cures we can develop and offer and what we can do to ameliorate the difficulties that are associated with them.”

That is so much more than just finding the right pill. “[It’s] also how can we respect people and how we can respect the world, make people with disabilities full citizens and optimize the quality of their life? That’s the overarching roof.” And that philosophy extends to the entire family. “We now have the Grandparents’ Network. [It’s] the idea of supporting all members of the family, and not just the parents. They can make the community a better place for their grandchild.”

Mailick says the next forty years will bring extraordinary opportunities, in particular the expansion of a relatively new perspective that these are lifespan conditions, not childhood conditions. “So, sort of the dream come true would be bring that knowledge together and roll it into the community. There aren’t many communities that have a place like the Waisman Center. This is where we can try to make a difference in the quality of life in our city.”

Neil P. Heinen is editorial director of Madison Magazine.