Dr. Mark Levenstein, an active inventor and champion of student research opportunities at UW-Platteville, has been named a 2021 Carl. E Gulbrandsen WiSys Innovator of the Year.
The award is bestowed upon UW System faculty, staff or students who make exemplary contributions as a WiSys innovator. The award is named for the former managing director of the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation who supported WiSys throughout his tenure.
Active Researcher and Inventor
Levenstein, who specializes in molecular biology and biotechnology, is an assistant professor of biology and director for the Master of Science in Applied Biotechnology program at UW-Platteville. He has been involved with multiple invention ideas submitted to WiSys and excels at collaborating with colleagues in different fields.
He and Dr. Gokul Gopalakrishnan, an associate professor of engineering physics at UW-Platteville, have worked together on biological applications for filters with nanoscale pores.
Gopalakrishnan, a previous WiSys Innovator of the Year, developed technology for creating porous silicon nanomembranes with varying-shaped pores, creating a specialized and more effective filter based on the shape of the material being filtered. Gopalakrishnan said he developed that technology for electronics-related use, but he also wondered about possible biological applications.
“When I talked to Mark about my idea, his eyes lit up right away, and he had four different ideas to pursue,” Gopalakrishnan said.
Levenstein’s work has centered on using the filters to separate biological materials that are similar in mass but not in shape or structure. Currently, trying to separate such materials with more uniform filters proves difficult.
Levenstein and Gopalakrishnan’s cutting-edge work is patent pending and WiSys is currently seeking a partner to develop and manufacture membranes. For more information on accessing the technology, contact WiSys at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“I think my greatest satisfaction in teaching is being able to introduce students to bench research and to generate some excitement in them to pursue that as a career. I like to get students in the lab to see what research is like and to see if they like it. The lab is such a wonderful, vibrant place to be.” – Dr. Mark Levenstein
Levenstein and Gopalakrishnan also work closely with Dr. James Hamilton, professor of chemistry at UW-Platteville, on NASA-funded research testing an adhesive polymer Hamilton invented. The polymer is currently used to clean and protect optical surfaces, such as telescopes and satellites, and Levenstein and fellow researchers are working on expanded uses for that polymer, including isolating and preserving microorganisms captured by that polymer so that they can be studied.
“It’s very interesting from NASA’s point of view, that they wouldn’t just lose those microorganisms,” Levenstein said.
An Eager Mentor
In addition to pursuing his own research interests, Levenstein is an eager mentor. He encourages students to pursue research and lab work as undergraduates and both of his major research projects involve student work.
“I think my greatest satisfaction in teaching is being able to introduce students to bench research and to generate some excitement in them to pursue that as a career,” he said. “I like to get students in the lab to see what research is like and to see if they like it. The lab is such a wonderful, vibrant place to be.”
Recent UW-Platteville graduate Colton Lysaker was one of the students on whom Levenstein had a profound influence. Lysaker, now a Ph.D. student in the neuroscience graduate program and Alzheimer’s Disease Center at University of Kansas Medical Center, began doing undergraduate research with Levenstein as a first-year student.
“As the principal investigator for my projects, and advisor outside the lab, Mark helped me discover a passion for research,” Lysaker said. “He challenged me to think critically and ask new questions every day I was in the lab.”
In addition to assisting with the NASA-related research on the adhesive polymer, Lysaker also researched stem cell differentiation with a focus on cardiac fate decisions. Lysaker said Levenstein was a strong influence throughout his time at UW-Platteville and helped him to prepare for graduate school and training as a biomedical scientist.
“My time working under Mark was unforgettable and I relished my time as a student in his lab,” Lysaker said.
Levenstein is also an active collaborator with WiSys in continuing to strengthen UW-Platteville’s vibrant innovation culture.
He advocates for WiSys programming, including helping to organize and promote WiSys Innovation Mixers, serving as a judge in the WiSys Prototype Hackathon and encouraging students to be WiSys Ambassadors and serve as a liaison between WiSys and the campus innovation community.
“While his research and collaborations have led to new discoveries, it is perhaps his enthusiasm for mentoring young researchers and his work to create and support new innovation opportunities for students that are most impressive,” said WiSys President Arjun Sanga. “His efforts continue to build the culture of innovation at UW-Platteville make him truly worthy of this recognition. Mark embodies everything we look for in a WiSys Innovator of the Year.”
For his part, Levenstein views WiSys as an ally in research and opportunities. He noted that WiSys has provided the means for students to attend educational conferences, receive grants for research projects and gain insight on patenting and commercializing inventions.
“I’m humbled by this acknowledgement,” Levenstein says. “I view all of the things that have happened here with WiSys as opportunities that WiSys has offered me and made available to me, and when they choose me to be Innovator of the Year, that suggests those benefits go the other direction too—that there are things I’m doing to make WiSys better, and I’ve never thought about it that way.”
WiSys is a nonprofit organization that works with faculty, staff, students, and alumni of the UW System to facilitate cutting-edge research programs, develop and commercialize discoveries and foster a spirit of innovative and entrepreneurial thinking across the state.