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Bradley J. Burt
The Scientific Communication Feature Profile Story
Badgers bring hope to MIA families through the field of eDNA research
Bradley Burt, Clarion business director
The Universities of Wisconsin collaborates with the Defense POW MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) through Badger alums William Belcher and Charles Konsitzke at the Biotechnology Center at the Madison campus where Konsitzke serves as the associate director. Konsitzke’s “University of Wisconsin Missing-in Action Recovery and Identification Project” helps DPAA locate missing service members through a team of researchers, who located three MIAs so far, one being an MIA named LT. Frank Fazekas.
Archaeology identification methods used by the UW MIA repatriation project, specifically eDNA analysis, reduce time spent and money invested for repatriating and locating lost service members through DPAA’s oversight. The project has implemented eDNA analysis through anthropologically surveying airplane crash sites from World War II for positively identifying lost service members through multiple mixed method platforms. The project seeks opportunities to locate cold cases, with the help from DPAA regarding each MIA’s last known whereabouts, who studies abroad as a self-funded mission.
“It brings a lot to the table. You look at the project, it is a very wide spectrum,” Konsitzke explained during the interview at his strategic planning room at the Universities of Wisconsin Biotechnology Center. “We’re working on historical analysis with students, and we are working on field recovery with students when I talk about these academic backgrounds.”
The project processes human remains through the Center for Genomic Science Innovation. The challenge the team faces is the advanced decaying of the missing dating back to World War II and the likelihood of positive identification. Belcher’s applied research collaborates with Konsitzke’s eDNA analysis UW Biotech equipment, which also utilizes artificial intelligence for cross checking forensics databases to match human remains with a service member’s DPAA chart.
Belcher serves the team in the field of forensic anthropology as a researcher for the UW MIA repatriation project. Belcher did not respond to an interview request. For profiling Belcher’s work, an online investigation of Belcher’s Linked In profile revealed:
- Belcher works as the team’s connect with DPAA, whose employment with the agency assists recovering missing service members as a research liaison.
- Currently working as an associate professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
- Discusses recovering “America’s war dead” from the perspective of his caveats regarding applied anthropological research techniques.
Universities of Wisconsin-Madison Communications Specialist Leo Barolo Gargiulo’s, “eDNA brings soldiers home” reporting journal, explains how eDNA forensics identification happens over a three-step process, which uses an applied research methodology. Prior to analysis, the process investigates records and locates eyewitness accounts before considering a hypothesis. The cross-collaboration process sifts through clues first for saving time and money.
The eDNA process must be examined further for science communications storytelling purposes. The field of POW MIA recovery lacks press coverage and the team struggles to convey the importance of eDNA research and recovery methods. The recovery of MIAs faces a forensics research methods eDNA controversial issue, which includes:
- The reference “eDNA” refers to environmental DNA analysis, which analyzes organisms located in the environment according to U.S. Geological Survey.gov.
- For positive identification, DPAA selects specific researchers before providing confirmation of repatriation to the missing service members family.
- eDNA analyses poses a potential threat to protecting previous research methods and that validating a “close enough” confirmation poses controversy to research ethics.
The UW MIA Recovery and Identification Project currently receives donations and uses crowdfunding for planning trips. The project seeks $360,000 from the State of Wisconsin for locating three Wisconsin specific MIA cases. Konsitzke has gone before senators three times and has backing by the Volk Airfield namesake’s niece, Jeri Volk-Barry, who speaks publicly about her family’s hope their missing uncle’s remains may return home.
“The other thing I do is they’re actually inspiring families,” Konsitzke explained. “They are getting some type of closure. So, it’s absolutely rewarding, but don’t get me wrong, everything is rewarding in an academic environment.”
Konsitzke’s research interview (condensed)
Several questions were asked regarding archaeology specific details and how Konsitzke identifies cold cases with the funding he receives. The project does not receive funding from any federal or state research or legislative agency but accepts donations. Konsitzke’s interview sought information regarding his passion and love for researching MIAs and how his project operates.
Konsitzke’s strategic planning center at the UW Biotechnology Center.
Hi. I am Charles Konsitzke. I am the associate director of the UW Biotechnology Center, and the associate director of the Center for Genetic Science and Innovation, as well as the director of the UW MIA Recovery and Identification Project.
Q: Let’s talk about it. How does the University of Wisconsin Missing-in-action Recovery and Identification Project work from funding all the way to studying abroad? Let’s talk about that.
At the moment, we do not have any funding. We’re a really grass roots group that’s been working on mostly Wisconsin cases. And as you know, a lot of these Wisconsin cases transition into other cases and losses nearby. All MIAs are important to us, but for the Wisconsin objective Wisconsinites are our primary focus.
Q: Give me a little bit of an idea for me, what would it look like if I were to come out with you and go overseas, what would it look like where you are at right now? Tell us a little bit about where you are and what it looks like out in the field.
So, currently we are near Bastogne, Belgium, I can’t give the exact location because we don’t want to give any false hopes to family members. It is a location that is on the top of a hill next to a tree farm. The site impact was at the top of a hill, which is about a foot into the sand until it turns to bedrock. So, the impact was substantial over a very large range of area as well as down the hill and on the tree farm. We were there in 2019, and we will be there finishing out this year. We sifted through over 305 cubic meters of soil.
Comment: So basically, what you do is what you see in an archaeological dig and it obviously being a cold case file, what’s happening is, you are studying abroad not even knowing where this person is and there when you get down with your group.
Q: Roughly, how many people usually deploy with you?
In 2019, we had roughly 22 people with us and that ranged from faculty members to staff and students. And we usually have support in the field as well like local excavators, surveyors, service providers, so it’s a very good group, a large group of individuals where we have a briefing every morning and we have objectives, and we get those out on a daily basis.
But I have to say, the interesting part is me telling the students “Hey, we have to leave the field” you know after recovery. If they had the opportunity, they would stay out there all day long. This summer, we will be taking a team of adult volunteers.
Q: And what you are providing us here at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Biotech Center is a service for everybody. So, in closing, is there anything else you want to talk about? Is there anything you want to bring up?
Go to our website and you will learn a lot about our losses. You will be surprised that you have losses in your community. Learn about them. Understand who they are and how you can help. Maybe you can provide information and visit your local historical society, maybe have information that could help us help in recovering these individuals.
The MIA Specific Connect
According to the Wall Street Journal, DPAA funds eDNA research. Through the DPAA connect with Belcher, Konsitzke works with DPAA to improve the advancement of eDNA scientific research. The collaboration between forensic anthropology and the evolution of eDNA analysis, families of the missing begin a new era of hope after finding out eDNA can locate human DNA in water as discussed in the Wall Street Journal’s report.
As innovators in the field, Konsitzke and Belcher implement their vision as Badgers for bringing hope to MIA families and advancing the use of eDNA research methods. Collaboratively, the UW MIA Recovery and Identification Project incorporates a community of scholars and government employees into a global repatriation and recovery peace keeping mission.
Through science, the field of eDNA research reaches those lost at sea and captures their DNA, unheard of when the DPAA recovery mission first began during the Carter Administration, bringing the Universities of Wisconsin to the front of the line of a new era of bringing home soldiers deemed lost, who are now being found, thanks to the collaboration between Konsitzke and Belcher who started out in the Badger classroom.