Friends of the Waisman Center Annual Awards

The Friends of the Waisman Center present seven awards each year to Waisman students, staff, and and family volunteers. The awards acknowledge outstanding achievements by students, exceptional job performance, skills, and accomplishments of staff, and significant contributions by family volunteers. The awards include a plaque and a $500 check.

The awards underscore the importance of Waisman Center students. staff, and family volunteers in furthering the mission of the Waisman Center.

The awards are presented annually at the Friends of the Waisman Center annual meeting and reception.

The Waisman Center also presents several Wisconsin Distinguished Graduate Fellowships at the Friends meeting. These competitive awards are given to graduate students working with a Waisman principal investigator and supports research, training, and tuition remission for a nine-month academic year.

Wisconsin Distinguished Graduate Student Fellowships

Ellie BreitfeldEllie Breitfeld
Nominated by Jenny Saffran, PhD

Ellie is a doctoral student in psychology. She was nominated for this award by Jenny Saffran for her work in Saffran’s Infant Learning lab which is focused on investigating how infants learn about the auditory world. Ellie’s research looks at how infants learn words and then further at why they learn the words that they do. Specifically, she is studying what active learning processes motivate infants. As Saffran states in her nomination,

“Ellie is poised to be an immensely successful scientist. My own ideas have already been influenced by Ellie’s input as I was not working on any of the questions she’s posing before she arrived in my lab. She is dedicated and deeply engaged by her studies, and she has already developed multiple fascinating lines of independent research. She is highly motivated and an excellent communicator. She has exhibited a great deal of perseverance and drive. Ellie cares deeply about how her work fits within our field. She is also drawn to interdisciplinary questions and is not afraid to stretch beyond her intellectual comfort zone. Ellie is a rising star in our field and has all the skills to become a highly impactful scientist.”

Ryan RisgaardRyan Risgaard
Nominated by Andre Sousa, PhD

Ryan is a graduate student in the Medical Scientist Training Program where he is working on both an MD and a PhD. He was nominated for this award by Andre Sousa for his work in the Sousa lab both during his research rotation in the lab and now as an official graduate student. Ryan’s research for his dissertation is focused on looking at a specific population of inhibitory neurons that display human-specific features particularly in the prefrontal cortex, temporal cortex, striatum, and olfactory bulb in order to trace their developmental origin. His work will take a cross-species approach to study the unique properties of these cortical neurons further refining the understanding of the human brain architecture.

As Sousa states in his nomination letter, “Upon meeting Ryan, I was immediately impressed by him. He demonstrated a very solid knowledge on several topics in developmental biology, genetics, and neuroscience. His excitement for answering the questions he’s posing is obvious to everyone in the lab. He has always interacted with his colleagues with enthusiasm and has presented his research in a clear and thorough manner during lab meetings. On top of his research qualities, Ryan has also shown that he is very organized and reliable. Ryan truly deserves this fellowship and I have no doubt that he will be successful.”

Graduate Student Awards

IDDRC Graduate Student Award

Megan Braun

Megan Braun
Nominated by Luigi Puglielli, MD, PhD

Megan is a graduate student in the Neuroscience Training Program who is currently working on her thesis project in Luigi Puglielli’s lab which is focused on molecular mechanisms of neurodevelopment and neurodegeneration. Her research overall is zeroing in on uncovering the molecular mechanisms of human disease with her thesis work focused on two different aspects of the endoplasmic reticulum acetylation machinery that was discovered by Puglielli.

As Puglielli states in his nomination letter, “I was immediately impressed by the fact that Megan wanted to learn biochemistry and tackle questions that are key to our understanding of fundamental cellular events. She clearly understands the potential impact of her research and appreciates the translational impact it can have. She is truly a talented, serious, hard-working, and highly motivated student with a great future in biomedical research.”

IDDRC Graduate Student Award

Nicole WestNicole West
Nominated by Anita Bhattacharyya, PhD

Nicole is a graduate student in cellular and molecular biology and is part of Anita Bhattacharyya’s lab which investigates brain development in intellectual and developmental disabilities such as Down syndrome and fragile X using stem cells. Her research is looking into the cellular and molecular mechanisms that may be behind the neurodegeneration of basal forebrain cholinergic neurons that is strongly correlated with cognitive function and an early indicator of Alzheimer’s disease in Down syndrome.

As Bhattacharyya states in her nomination letter, “Nicole is a fast learner with good scientific hands, as evidenced by her ability to easily master human stem cell culture in the first months in the lab. She is highly goal-oriented and very well-organized. Nicole’s greatest strength is her ability to plan and execute rigorous experiments. I consider Nicole among the top graduate students at her career stage. She has a genuine passion for research that will help pave the road for a successful career for this talented young scientist.”


UCEDD Graduate Student Award:

River SteenRiver Steen
Nominated by Allison Ackerman, MS, CCC-SLP & Abygail Marx, CCC-SLP

River was a graduate student in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders and a Wisconsin Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental and Related Disabilities (LEND) trainee. River completed clinical placements in several of the Waisman Center Clinics and in the Waisman Early Childhood Program.

As Allison Ackerman and Abygail Marx state in their nomination letter, “River has demonstrated exceptional clinical abilities in her placements here at the Waisman Center, but it is the work that she has accomplished above and beyond the standard clinical and leadership expectations that has set her apart. She made the choice to take on this extra clinical work and then spent her own time creating a sensory board for one of the children in the preschool. The board was carefully planned out and beautifully designed for the specific needs and preferences of this child. River designed and completed this project completely of her own volition and using her own time and resources. It has served as an example of her deep commitment to the children that she works with and her willingness to do extra work to support them. We cannot think of a more deserving graduate student for this award.”

Staff Awards

Staff Award:

Jinkuk Hong, PhDJinkuk Hong, PhD
Nominated by Marsha Mailick, PhD & Leann DaWalt, PhD

Jinkuk was nominated for this award by Marsha Mailick and Leann DaWalt for his 23 years of work as a researcher and statistician in the Lifespan Family Research Lab. The lab is dedicated to the advancement of knowledge about families who have a member with an intellectual and developmental disability with a special emphasis on how these families change over the lifespan. He has been a crucial member of the lab and plays a central role in multiple ongoing research studies.

As Mailick and DaWalt state in their nomination letter, Jinkuk has been a treasured colleague as he has offered his significant expertise and support to the entire group. His valuable collaborations within and outside of the lab have resulted in important advancements in our understanding of individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. His work has been outstanding, with a strong commitment to rigor and innovation. Jinkuk consistently goes above and beyond to very quickly, efficiently, and carefully prepare data and provide highly technical analyses to keep projects going. He is the ‘keeper of the data’ for multiple studies and his efforts have been central in securing grant funding for the entire program. Jinkuk is the glue that holds the lab’s various projects together.”

Staff Award:

Melissa HenningMelissa Henning
Nominated by Bernadette Gillick, PhD

Melissa was nominated for this award by Bernadette Gillick for her expertise and outstanding skill as the Waisman Center’s human rtesources manager. Melissa has been with Waisman for 11 years and works diligently to ensure that the right people are brought into the center.

As Gillick states in her nomination letter, “Melissa is an example of a staff leader who not only understands the importance of the Waisman mission, but also that hiring and retaining an engaged and productive team is a key component to research success. Throughout the process of building my lab here, Melissa has displayed outstanding communication and problem-solving abilities to work with me and my team when we have questions about their position and trajectories. The importance of having such an individual as Melissa in a leadership role during a time of transition is pivotal for incoming faculty. Time and time again, Melissa has proven herself an outstanding resource and a valued colleague.”


Family Appreciation Award for Volunteer Efforts

Family Appreciation Award for Volunteer Efforts:

The Ptaszynski FamilyThe Ptaszynski Family
Nominated by the Brittany Travers Motor and Brain Development Lab

The Ptaszynski family was nominated for this award by Brittany Travers, Emily Skaletski and Olivia Surgent for their involvement in the Motor and Brain Development Lab’s community advisory board and for helping with training efforts for the UW LINK study – which is Waisman’s Signature Research Project on the center’s core grant. The family consistently dedicates time to assist the lab in whatever ways that they can.

As stated in their nomination, “Katy Ptaszynski is an exceptionally knowledgeable person with fantastic communication skills. Her perspective as both a parent and advocate is remarkable. She is realistic but positive, and sees the best in people. Xander Ptaszynski has helped with training efforts by coming into the Waisman Center to help train newer team members on assessment administration, an important task for the execution of studies. The family has helped make sure our lab is doing the most neurodiversity-affirming and rigorous research that we can. In so many ways, our lab’s research has benefitted because of Katy and Xander’s incredible efforts and willingness to share their time and talents with our team.”