Jeanan Yasiri Moe
WARF Director of Strategic Communications

WARF Discovery Challenge winners take on biofuels, Alzheimer’s detection and more

2016 Discovery Challenge winners. From left: Michael Vaughn, Robert Stankey, Andrew Merluzzi, Mahmoud Sharara.
2016 Discovery Challenge winners. From left: Michael Vaughn, Robert Stankey, Andrew Merluzzi, Mahmoud Sharara.

MADISON, Wis. – Smarter biofuel production, an algorithm to make life easier for novice programmers and a technique for imaging aging brains have won Discovery Challenge Awards from the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF).

Dubbed a “primordial soup of ideas,” the fifth annual Discovery Challenge is a research competition open to UW–Madison graduate students and postdoctoral researchers from all departments and fields of study. The goal of the competition is to promote cross-disciplinary collaboration.

Part I of the competition, the spring symposium, attracted more than 90 presenters ranging from industrial engineering to dairy science, psychology to statistics. The symposium featured two poster sessions and cash prizes awarded to the most creative, impactful and collaborative proposals.

Three prizes were awarded by faculty judges and WARF staff:

Robert J. Stankey (bacteriology) for his project on engineering bacteria to accept plant material as a food source and ultimately produce high value bioproducts including fuels – Industrial Streptomyces Strains Engineered for Heterologous Secretion of Lignocellulolytic Enzymes Acquire Enhanced Capabilities to Consume Lignocellulosic Materials.

Mahmoud A. Sharara (biological systems engineering) for his work on balancing the economic costs with the environmental impacts of supplying biomass to cellulosic ethanol facilities – Spatially Explicit Life Cycle Optimization of Cellulosic Ethanol Supply Base: Case Study in South Central Wisconsin.

Michael Vaughn (computer science) for a method that suggests possible fixes when programmers write buggy commands that trigger commonly occurring errors – NoFAQ: Synthesizing Command Repairs from Examples.

Additionally, a peer prize was awarded to Andrew Merluzzi (medicine and public health) for his project comparing healthy and impaired brain matter using a new imaging technique – Brain Tissue Microstructure Is Altered in Healthy Older Adults and Is Associated with Early Cognitive Dysfunction.

“The Discovery Challenge showcases the next generation of researchers keeping UW–Madison on the leading edge of innovation,” says Carl Gulbrandsen, managing director of WARF.

Discovery Challenge activities wrap up in the fall with the research award competition, which is open to original research ideas proposed by interdisciplinary teams.

“It is enriching for me to learn about these different topics,” says prizewinner Stankey. “The competition is a cool way to show off what we are trying to do with this project, which I feel could really have an impact on society. The early results are very exciting.”   

Participants can now look forward to phase II of the competition, held in autumn.

All spring symposium presenters and participants — not just the prize winners — will be eligible to compete for mini-grants of up to $7,500 at the fall event.

About WARF
The Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF) helps steward the cycle of research, discovery, commercialization and investment for the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Founded in 1925 as an independent, nonprofit foundation, WARF manages more than 1,700 patents and an investment portfolio of $2.6 billion as it funds university research, obtains patents for campus discoveries and licenses inventions to industry. For more information, visit