DIGGING FOR ANSWERS
A PEEK AT SEVEN PROFESSORS’ INTRIGUING RESEARCH
Professors across St. Edward’s University ask a lot of questions. Much of the time, these questions are directed toward their students and designed to provoke thought and discussion. But professors ask questions of themselves, too, and when there aren’t answers, there’s an opportunity for research. Here, we bring you the stories of seven faculty members who set out to find answers to some pretty interesting questions.
In July 2011, an anti-government terrorist set off a car bomb in Norway’s capital. He proceeded to Utøya, an island that was home to a summer camp, where he open fired. He killed 77 people in the two attacks that left the nation reeling.
Assistant Professor of Religious Studies Jennifer Veninga traveled to Norway over the summer to delve into the complex national grief that still remains, especially as plans for a public memorial are debated. She’ll use interviews and interactions with Norwegians to analyze how trauma and theology intersect. This dovetails with her study of 19th-century Danish theologian Søren Kierkegaard’s views of trauma theory and memory, as well as Veninga’s own exploration of trauma as a public and communal phenomenon. “I believe that my scholarship on these events can contribute to constructive discourse on social trauma and collective memory in Norway and beyond,” Veninga says.
In addition, Veninga researches incidents of violence related to the media and Islam. Her book Secularism, Theology and Islam: The Danish Social Imaginary and the Cartoon Crisis of 2005–2006 will be reprinted in paperback this fall in conjunction with the 10-year anniversary of the publication of 12 images of the Prophet Muhammad in a Danish newspaper, which sparked global protest. She also has done extensive research on the violence resulting from the printing of satirical Islamic-themed cartoons in the French newspaper, Charlie Hebdo, which inspired the slogan “Je suis Charlie.” Veninga uses these attacks to explore secular societies and their relationship to growing Muslim communities.
Associate Professor of History Mity Myhr has found a reason for her students to spend more time at church — but it’s not intended to make them more religious. Myhr discovered that St. David’s Episcopal Church has a historical archive, as do a number of other churches in Austin.
Myhr has built the foundation for a freshman-level history course that explores how churches dealt with the Civil War. St. David’s, for example, had congregants that disagreed over the war and over slavery. “I think it’s important for students to hear that even within the South, there was debate,” Myhr says. In addition to church archives, students can look at archives at the Austin History Center, as well as books or other secondary sources, to put it all into context. They’ll explore different collections while becoming familiar with a specific historical period.
Myhr and the other history professors know the importance of introducing students to historical research and archives early on in their academic careers. Depending on what they find in the archives, this could lead to bigger research projects later on and conference presentations.
When the Oscars are handed out each year, the tragedies (or dramas, as they are thought of today) usually get more accolades than the comedies. While both were important to the ancient Greeks, history has tended to view the Greek tragedy as a higher art form.
Associate Professor of Philosophy Peter Wake has explored both tragedy and comedy through the lens of 19th-century German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Hegel covered a great deal of philosophical terrain, but of particular interest to Wake is Hegel’s understanding of the relationship between art and religion. Wake’s 2014 book, Tragedy in Hegel’s Early Theological Writings, explores the way in which Hegel was developing an evolutionary view of religious consciousness. Wake focused on how Hegel tried to understand the religious significance of ancient Greek tragedy, which came at a time when Greeks were developing a notion of religiosity that was inextricably tied to artistic practices.
Now Wake is flipping the coin to look at Hegel’s later writings and the philosophical significance of ancient Greek comedy. In some ways, Hegel thought of comedy as a higher form of religious consciousness than tragedy. Wake’s research explores the broader implications of comedy and its philosophical and religious meaning. His ongoing research shows students how those earlier views of tragedy and comedy translate into contemporary times.
Journalists have a knack for finding and telling compelling stories. Associate Professor of Journalism Jena Heath has a story of her own that started nearly a decade ago when she began the adoption process. Her now 9-year-old daughter, who came to this country from China at age 2, is one of many Chinese adoption stories.
But every narrative is different. Every adopted child is unique. And while the media often interprets adoption with a layer of judgment, there are many circumstances that surround it.
Heath received a Presidential Research Grant to travel to China to look more deeply at the stories surrounding the adoption process. She started with her own, by traveling to the orphanage where her daughter spent the early years of her life. She also talked to families from the United States to find out what they know about their adopted child’s story. “What my research is looking at is how that narrative has changed. In the time that I’ve been intimately involved, the discussion about international adoption in general and about China has evolved,” says Heath. “While adoptive families, including my husband and me, once felt certain that we were ‘saving’ an abandoned baby from a poor country, we are now racing to understand the ‘new’ China, with its economic growth and explosion of personal wealth, and what place international adoption will (or possibly won’t) continue to have in it.”
Heath wants to create a centralized online forum in which families can find resources, as well as share their adoption stories and hear the stories of others. “I think it’s important to let people speak for themselves,” Heath says. Together, these multiple stories will paint a broader picture of the adoption narrative.
For non-chemists, it might be tricky to understand the study of nanosystems, which range in size from one to 100 nanometers (one billionth of a meter). In fact, even experimental chemists are sometimes limited in their ability to measure the properties of these systems. That’s where people like Professor of Chemistry Tricia Shepherd come in. She’s a computational physical chemist who uses computers to model and simulate the dynamics of physical systems at the nanoscale.
She’s been working on coarse-grained models to study the transport of water and ions in confined environments to better understand protein channels in biological systems. Her research can be used to learn more about the high selectivity and enhanced water transport observed in nanometer-sized tubes.
Shepherd received a Presidential Research Grant to build on past studies about the structure of water at various interfaces. Her current research looks at interactions between water and ions under confinement at the hydrophobic nanopore surface. These simulations could provide insight about the function of complex biological ion channels and improve the design of synthetic membranes that can be used for water purification and desalination.
With computer technology continually improving, what used to take scientists months to simulate now might only take a week, says Shepherd. For her and other computational chemists, that means that they’re able to study nano-sized biological systems that, previously, were too large to examine under experimentally relevant conditions.
While some might call it binge watching, Assistant Professor of Accounting Katherine Lopez calls it research. No, really — she’s been viewing episode after episode of the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine series to find relevance for her accounting classes. As Trekkies know, the earlier iterations of Star Trek revolve around an idealistic world where there is no money. But in Deep Space Nine, there are many different types of aliens involved, and for the first time, viewers start to see a common currency being used.
The Ferengi businessmen show the best examples of accounting principles, like a scene in which one of them explains how he has been tracking profits based on the performance of a musician at a bar. Although Lopez doesn’t know if the writers of the show had MBAs, she does know that they were paying attention to business concepts, or at least were watching closely what big companies have been doing.
Lopez is also studying memory-cue research, which will be key in incorporating the material into her teaching. The videos can serve as a memory cue: If, on an exam, a reference is made about a Ferengi bar, a student may better remember the accounting principles discussed in an earlier class period. “I’m going to put Deep Space Nine examples together with memory-cue research that’s been done and see how this can best be used in a course,” Lopez says.
Primate diets may provide insight into how human diets have evolved. Assistant Professor of Environmental Science and Policy Michael Wasserman began studying the red colobus monkey in 2007 in Uganda to evaluate its consumption of naturally occurring phytoestrogens from plants. These phytoestrogens, which correlate with changes in hormones and behaviors in monkeys, may also have been present in early hunter-gatherer diets.
“If humans began eating phytoestrogens after the rise of modern agriculture, then the effects of these plant chemicals are likely to be more dramatic than if there’s a long evolutionary history between our ancestors and these types of plants,” Wasserman says.
This summer, Wasserman collaborated with Karline Janmaat, a Dutch researcher from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, who is studying a traditional hunting-and-gathering society in the Republic of the Congo. She is interested in cognitive abilities related to their diets. “We hope to collect plant foods for nutritional analysis, as well as look for phytoestrogens in their diets — to potentially see what the effects of those compounds are on physiology and behavior in humans,” Wasserman says.
Wasserman also envisions a long-term project that includes researching primate communities in Africa, Southeast Asia and Latin America. This will widen the scope beyond one species and give a better understanding of an evolutionary relationship between primates and plants that produce estrogenic compounds. “It will give me a bigger picture of how common it is for a primate species to eat these types of plants and how common it is for these plants to have an effect on the primate,” Wasserman says. “We can use the data from primates to better inform us about human health. Such research is relevant today considering the prevalence of soy in our processed foods and endocrine-disrupting compounds in many of the synthetic chemicals we use in our day-to-day lives.”
By Lisa Thiegs
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