Category: Faculty

Speaker puts focus on King’s “radical” message; students reach out in service

Rev. Sekou leads the audience in song during Monday's MLK Celebration at Memorial Chapel.
Rev. Sekou performs Monday during the 29th annual Fox Cities Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration in Memorial Chapel. (Photos by Danny Damiani)

Story by Ed Berthiaume / Communications

Lawrence University faculty, students, and staff honored the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during a day of service on Monday.

No classes were held on the federal holiday honoring the civil rights icon, but Lawrence again provided a bevy of volunteer and learning opportunities around King’s life and message. The day was topped off with the 29th annual Fox Cities Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration at Memorial Chapel, an event co-sponsored by Lawrence and African Heritage Inc.

A community celebration

Simon Balto gestures with his hands as he speaks during Monday's MLK Celebration at Memorial Chapel.
Simon Balto gives his address, “Restoring the Radical King,” during Monday’s 29th annual Fox Cities Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration at Memorial Chapel.

The evening event featured keynote speaker Simon Balto, an assistant professor of history and African American studies at the University of Iowa and author of the book, Occupied Territory: Policing Black Chicago from Red Summer to Black Power.

He implored the audience not to lose sight of the radical mission of King, not to be lulled into complacency by a modern caricature that allows politicians and others to tap into benign visions of King that they believe can impart feel-good messages.

“We treat him now like this bundle of sound bites and remember him as a lovable man with little more than a kumbaya dream of a colorblind society,” Balto said. “People, and politicians in particular, seem to think that King can be whatever they want him to have been.”

He was so much more than that, Balto said. There’s a reason that a Gallup poll in 1966 found that only 32% of Americans had a positive view of King. He sought radical change. He made people uncomfortable. And that was a good thing.

“Martin Luther King was a radical,” Balto said. “People often think of the word radical as if it is pejorative or scary. But we shouldn’t think that way.”

It’s about “challenging the status quo at a fundamental level,” he said.

King and others in the civil rights movement successfully took down Jim Crow laws in the south, ending legalized segregation. But that, Balto said, was only one phase. The next phase — fighting racism that was built into the very fabric of the nation — would prove far more difficult. It’s a battle that continues today even as we honor the great accomplishments of King.

“Yes, Dr. King did want an end to racial discrimination, but he also knew that simply ending the Jim Crow system was not going to do it,” Balto said. “He knew that racism was manifested in all sorts of different ways … and not just in the south. He knew it was baked into the housing policies in places like Milwaukee and Chicago and Los Angeles. … He knew it was baked into the ways of the criminal justice system and how it treated black people. He knew it was in the school system and the labor market, in all sorts of places the civil rights movement that had vanquished Jim Crow in the south hadn’t fixed.”

King told his followers that the new battle would be more difficult, in large part because it came with a much higher price tag for the nation, one that would run into the billions of dollars and require the transformation of many of the tenets of society, Balto said. It was an uphill fight, and remains so today.

“People died pursuing it,” Balto said. “Indeed, Dr. King died pursuing it.”

Memorial Chapel is mostly full as Lawrence student Kyree Allen sings during Monday's MLK event.
Kyree Allen ’23 sings “Lift Every Voice and Sing” during Monday’s Fox Cities Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration in Memorial Chapel.

Also at Monday’s King Celebration event, Rev. Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou, a musician, filmmaker, and theologian, led a rousing music portion of the program. The annual Jane LaChapelle McCarty MLK Community Leader Award was presented to Carla A. Manns, a local author, business owner, and community leader. And Pa Lee Moua, formerly an associate dean of students for diversity at Lawrence and now the Appleton Area School District’s diversity, equity, and inclusion officer, received the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Educator Award.

Special video tributes were given to recently departed community leaders Ronald Dunlap and Henry Golde.

Day of service activities

Nearly 400 Lawrence students, faculty, and staff took part in community outreach activities or participated in teach-ins Monday in honor of King’s legacy. With no classes being held, it was designated as a day of service.

Nearly 150 volunteers supported communities across the Fox Cities through service at Riverview Gardens, the Fox Valley Humane Association, Feeding America, Brewster Village, and the Boys and Girls Clubs in Appleton and Menasha. Another 155 attended a half dozen teach-ins that ranged from being actively engaged in anti-racism advocacy to addressing stigma and disparity within mental health treatment.

“We were very impressed by the interest from the Lawrence campus,” said Kristi Hill, director of Lawrence’s Center for Community Engagement and Social Change. “We are hopeful that we provided a variety of offerings around learning, volunteering, and celebrating.”

Students load mulch into a wheelbarrow at Riverview Gardens.
Students load mulch to be placed in hoop houses at Riverview Gardens during Monday’s MLK Day of Service. (Photo by Liz Boutelle)

At Riverview Gardens, an Appleton nonprofit that uses urban farming as a means to produce food and provide job training for struggling populations, nearly 25 students took to the fields on a cold afternoon to place mulch into hoop houses and do other chores, all aimed at prepping the farm for spring planting.

“Riverview Gardens is a really great organization because they work with job skills training for homeless and disadvantaged communities,” said Floreal Crubaugh ’20. “That’s really important for our day of service.”

She and many of the other volunteers she was working with are members of the student organization that tends to the Lawrence University Sustainable Garden (SLUG), so the outreach to Riverview Gardens was particularly close to the heart.

“We’re a club that’s really organized around community service and volunteering,” Crubaugh said. “This really meshed well with our mission of giving our time and giving our skills to the community.”

It’s work that was much appreciated by the workers who tend to the needs of Riverview Gardens on a daily basis.

“This helps us prepare for our spring planting,” said Elisse Pavletich, the farm manager. “They are putting mulch in a lot of our hoop houses, which will prevent weeds from growing in those places and it gives us a lot more time to focus on the vegetables in spring, which then helps us to help more people.”

Lawrence students sit with cats at the Fox Valley Humane Association during the MLK Day of Service on Monday.
Lawrence students socialize with cats while volunteering at the Fox Valley Humane Association Monday during Lawrence’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service.

At the Fox Valley Humane Association, a team of Lawrence volunteers focused on cleaning the facility, doing laundry, and stocking shelves before turning their attention to interaction with the animals that are currently calling the shelter home.

“I find working with animals incredibly important,” said Sara Prostko ’20. “They are a population that cannot say their needs, they don’t have a say in their environment, where they go, who they’re with.

“Lawrence is all about trying to be a voice for those who cannot have a voice for themselves. I think this is exactly that. … We’re doing a lot of cleaning and sorting of stuff, things that I’d rather us volunteers do rather than employees so they can spend their time and efforts on things to expand the organization.”

Ed Berthiaume is director of public information at Lawrence University. Email: ed.c.berthiaume@lawrence.edu

MLK Celebration highlights 9 big events on Lawrence campus during winter term

MLK essay contest winners are introduced during last year's Martin Luther King Celebration at Memorial Chapel.
The 29th annual Fox Cities Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration returns to Memorial Chapel on Jan. 20.

Story by Awa Badiane ’21

Ice skates, gloves, and the warmest of hats are all part of winter term at Lawrence. It might be getting cold out there, but don’t forget that winter term on campus also is a magical time. 

There are fun things to do all over campus (skating on Ormsby Lake, anyone?). That includes the events calendar, which gets particularly robust in winter term. Here are nine exciting things happening on campus this winter term, beginning with Monday’s celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day.    

1. MLK outreach and celebration

Every year the Center for Community Engagement and Social Change (CCE) hosts a day of service in honor of King. As Lawrentians take time out of their classes to recognize the great work of MLK, the CCE provides a space for Lawrentians to give back to their community and learn about King’s legacy. The full list of events happening on MLK Day is available on the CCE section of the Lawrence web site.  

To wrap up the day, the 29th annual Fox Cities Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration, co-sponsored by Lawrence and African Heritage Inc., will be held at 6:30 p.m. in Memorial Chapel.

Dr. Simon Balto, an assistant professor of history and African American studies at the University of Iowa, will deliver the keynote address. It also will feature the music of Rev. Sekou.

Balto holds a degree from the University of Wisconsin. He wrote the book, “Occupied Territory: Policing Black Chicago from Red Summer to Black Power,” and his writing has appeared in TIME magazine, the Washington Post, and other popular and scholarly outlets.

The event also will feature tributes to the late Ronald Dunlap and Henry Golde. MLK youth essay contest winners will be honored, and the recipient of the annual Jane LaChapelle McCarty MLK Community Leader Award will be announced.

2. Great Midwest Trivia Contest 

What has been fun, trivial, exhausting, and ongoing at Lawrence since 1966? That is correct, the Great Midwest Trivia Contest. It’s billed as the world’s longest running trivia contest because of its tradition of having the final question of the contest serve as the first question of next year’s contest. This year is no different, with the much-anticipated trivia contest starting Jan. 24 at precisely 10:00:37 p.m. and ending at midnight on Jan 26. Find details here.

3. Lunar New Year 

A table at last year's Lunar New Year draws visitors.
Lunar New Year, an annual celebration on campus, returns Jan. 25.

To celebrate the Lunar New Year, various clubs on campus host a Lunar New Year Celebration each winter termThe event features food, music, performances and information on different Lunar New Year Celebrations around the world. This year’s celebration will take place from 6 to 10 p.m. Jan. 25 in the Warch Campus Center. Cultural performances include traditional lion dance (Tay Phuong Lions from Savage, Minnesota), Japanese Taiko drummers (Taikoza from New York City) and Hmong dancers Nkauj Suab Nag (Gao Shoua Nah from Appleton). There also will be a Cultural Expo with educational activity booths sponsored by student organizations: Chinese Student Association, Japanese Student Group, Korean Culture Club, Pan-Asian Organization, Vietnamese Cultural Organization, and more. Find information here.

4. Winter Carnival and President’s Ball 

Gingerbread competitions are back as part of Winter Carnival.

No need to hide from winter. Let’s embrace it. The week-long Winter Carnival concludes with the annual President’s Ball in the Warch Campus Center on Feb. 1. Every year the Student Organization for University Programming (SOUP) hosts the picture-perfect President’s Ball. It gives all Lawrentians — students, faculty, and staff — the opportunity to enjoy live music, take photos in the photo booth, and get on the dance floor. Winter Carnival, meanwhile, kicks off Jan. 27 and runs through Feb. 2, featuring activities ranging from a scavenger hunt to a ping pong tournament to a ski outing to broomball games on Ormsby Lake to a gingerbread house competition. It’s highlighted by the President’s Ball on the evening of Feb. 1. A day of service follows on Feb. 2. Details can be found here.  

5. Jazz Series concert featuring Bill Frisell 

Music starts to heat up winter term in February. Guitarist, composer, and arranger Bill Frisell will be gracing the Lawrence campus as part of the ongoing Jazz Series. Frisell has been recognized for his unique sound as he transforms the modern guitar. Frisell and friends will be in concert at 8 p.m. Feb. 7 at Memorial Chapel. For more on the Jazz Series (and other 2019-20 music series at Lawrence), see here.

6. Richard III on stage 

Winter term isn’t complete without a production from the Theatre Arts department. Richard lll, by William Shakespeare, will take the stage at Cloak Theatre for four performances from Feb. 20 to 22. It is directed by Timothy X. Troy. Visit here for more details on this show and others in the 2019-20 season.

7. Artist Series concert featuring Tine Thing Helseth 

Here’s another big concert happening in winter term, this one as part of the Artist Series. It’ll feature Norwegian trumpet virtuoso Tine Thing Helseth. She has established herself as one of the foremost trumpet soloists of our time. The performance is set for 8 p.m. on Feb. 28. More details can be found here.

8. Cultural Expressions

Students perform on stage during last year's Cultural Expressions.
Cultural Expressions is a winter term highlight. It’s back on Feb. 29.

The Lawrence University Black Student Union hosts an annual Black History Month Celebration called Cultural Expressions. It offers a space for members of the Black Student Union to showcase their talents — everything from music to dance to spoken word — to the entire Lawrence and Appleton communities. This year’s Cultural Expressions will be held at 7 p.m. Feb. 29 in Warch Campus Center. See the calendar on the Lawrence web site for more information.

9. Opera takes center stage 

Opera is a huge part of the Lawrence Conservatory of Music, and the annual opera is must-see viewing on campus. This winter term performance will feature Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, set for March 5 through March 8 in Stansbury Theater. Check the calendar for show times. 

Awa Badiane ’21 is a student writer in the Communications office.

D-Term in London: Exploring entrepreneurship past and present

Lawrence students and faculty gather for a photo in London during D-Term. (Photos by Samantha Torres)

By Marty Finkler and Claudena Skran

The D-Term course Entrepreneurship in London: From the Mayflower to Brexit featured a variety of different aspects of entrepreneurship, both contemporary and historical.

Additionally, we explored different types of entrepreneurial ventures including: private for-profit, social not-for-profit, and public/ private partnerships. A significant portion of the course was devoted to the regeneration of economic activity for parts of London that had deteriorated and fell into disuse and then have benefited from unique entrepreneurial initiatives. Students selected initiatives to explore in an oral presentation and often revisited these sites.

Our Lawrence traveling classroom was led by two faculty — Marty Finkler and Claudena Skran — and included 10 students representing majors in music, philosophy, art history, biology, psychology, government, economics, theatre arts, and global studies. 

We arrived in the Rotherhithe area of south London just after Thanksgiving. The group began with a historic tour of the area, learning about the launch of the Mayflower ship in 1620, and the many connections between seafaring and the subsequent development of the community. At the Brunel Museum, its founder, Robert Hulse, stressed that we were standing inside the tunnel that made possible the very first underground train system in the entire world. Students also celebrated a public theatre event, starring members of the Bubble Theatre group, and volunteered with community members at Time and Talents, one of the oldest social enterprises in the area.

More D-Term: Lawrence students study history of video gaming

From Rotherhithe, the group moved further east to the Docklands area of London, which thrived in the 18th and 19th century and part of the 20th century but lapsed into abandonment by the early 1970s with the rise of large container ships that the Thames River was not deep enough to accommodate. The globalization of the production and trade in material goods further diminished the economic viability of east London in general and Docklands in particular. 

As finance for such globalization became a new source of income for London, the city began to expand, but central London could not cost-effectively provide the space needed for such expansion. This led to the development of Canary Wharf, which one of our speakers (Ralph Ward) actively participated in. He briefly described this high rise lavish commercial and financial sector development as well as the need for less lavish housing in east London.

Ward led us on a walk that literally went across the tracks to one of the poorest neighborhoods of London known as Poplar, where he introduced us to Danny Tompkins, who heads Poplar HARCA (Housing and Regeneration Community Association). Tompkins led us around the area and explained how Poplar HARCA regenerated housing opportunities for its residents through a mix of private and public funds and developments. He pointed out the controversy related to selling some of the land for private development in order to have funds for social housing.

Ten students and two faculty members spent the two-week D-Term in London.

The following day we focused on another regeneration effort in the Docklands known as the Canada Water project. This new project envisions a buildout of commercial and residential developments over the next 10 to 20 years. The project director, Roger Madelin gave us an in depth tour of the area, which already features a significant increase in activity around the Canada Water transit station and some of its entertainment venues. Madelin showed us a physical model of the development and explained the different influences and problems that needed to be resolved to complete the project.

Madelin previously led the development of the regeneration of Kings Cross, another area we explored in depth. Kings Cross had fallen into disrepair and disrepute as industrial activities left London in the second half of the 20th century. The development over the past decade took advantage of the two major transportation centers (Kings Cross and St. Pancras) to provide significant office space for Google, Facebook, and Nike as well as many commercial activities. For the most part, these commercial venues now serve upper income groups. 

A guide at the Visitors’ Centre provided us with an overview of the history and prospects for the development. On their own, students then explored the fascinating architecture of the new buildings before getting together for lunch and discussion of their observations.

After 10 days in London, we headed to Oxford, to consider how both innovation and entrepreneurship have shaped this historic university town. Students visited the Oxford Foundry, a hub for start-ups, attended a talk by Dr. Evan Easton-Calabria at the Refugee Studies Centre on humanitarian aid, and had lunch with Gil Loescher, the distinguished professor who was awarded an honorary degree from Lawrence.

The student experience

Samantha Torres ’20 was among the students taking part in the D-Term class in London. She shared some of her observations:

I participated in the London Centre program in the Fall of 2018. I had no idea when I’d return, but when I saw the opportunity to go back during D-Term, I knew I had to go back. However, what I thought would become an add-on to my past experience became a stand alone, standout program that offered a completely different taste of London that could only be obtained through insider connections. 

Having both professors who’ve previously lived in London made it truly one of a kind and remarkably immersive. Alongside tours, we experienced the idiosyncrasies that make up London. From learning about the inception of the Mayflower to the current debates on Brexit, my cohort was able to identify the complexities that continue to define one of the oldest cities in the world. 

During my time at Lawrence, I’ve found the most impactful experiences have been those of the traveling classroom. I’ve had the fortune of traveling to London and Jamaica with Professor Skran, a big advocate for this unconventional learning. And I couldn’t agree with her more. The traveling classroom model has taught me that there are intangible lessons that cannot be learned through lectures or textbooks.

Life lessons I’ve learned were ones that provided personal development and an independence that traditional classroom settings simply can’t challenge you to do. There’s a whole world out there, and sometimes you need to experience it to learn from it. As a Lawrentian, we are encouraged to go beyond. Because of the traveling classroom, I’ve been able to go beyond places I could ever imagine.

Marty Finkler is the John R. Kimberly Distinguished Professor Emeritus of the American Economic System and a professor of economics, and Claudena Skran is the Edwin and Ruth West Professor of Economics and Social Science and a professor of government.

NewMusic Initiative takes composer Asha Srinivasan on a 3-year creative journey

Asha Srinivasan stands for a portrait in Memorial Chapel.
Asha Srinivasan, an associate professor of music at Lawrence University’s Conservatory of Music, has been commissioned to write a choral piece for East Carolina University’s NewMusic Initiative. (Photo by Danny Damiani)

Story by Ed Berthiaume / Communications

Composer Asha Srinivasan has been no stranger to navigating the world of music creation over the past decade.

The associate professor of music at Lawrence University has composed 21 commissioned pieces since arriving at the Lawrence Conservatory of Music in 2008, mostly at the behest of performance groups seeking new chamber music from emerging composers. But the request that came to her a year ago took her by surprise and kicked off a three-year musical relationship with students at a college more than a thousand miles away.

Srinivasan was chosen to write a piece of music commissioned as part of East Carolina University’s NewMusic Initiative. She’s now into the second year of a three-year process that is allowing her to stretch her musical boundaries and to represent Lawrence in new ways. She spent two days in Greenville, North Carolina, during Lawrence’s fall term reading period working with East Carolina composition students, a prelude to the choral music she’ll be writing in the months ahead.

“It’s a prestigious commission because it’s such a selective process,” Srinivasan said.

The ECU initiative works like this: Undergraduate and graduate students in the school’s music program spend the better part of a semester listening to music and surveying the landscape for composers they’d like to work with. Composers need not apply. Any composer from anywhere may be in the mix, unbeknownst to them until someone from the program reaches out.

Once a selection has been made, the school contacts the composer to make an introduction and an offer, to talk about committing to a three-year process and, if interested, to hammer out the details. The first year is about doing that groundwork, making the connection, and giving the composer the opportunity to choose which ECU music group he or she would like to write for. The second year involves interactions between the composer and the students — hence Srinivasan’s recent two-day trip to Greenville — and the start of the writing process. The third year brings the completion of the piece and eventually a premiere performance.

Through it all, the ECU students get an education in the commissioning process. Srinivasan gets a chance to tackle her work in a whole new way. And Lawrence gets an important connection with a new batch of young musicians.

One never knows when those types of connections will circle back, Srinivasan said, noting how she first came to the attention of the ECU students.

“It turns out that one of the cello graduate students had been an undergraduate at Western Illinois University when I was featured there as a guest composer several years ago,” she said. “She had heard a flute and cello piece of mine called Dviraag. She got interested in my music, and so she’s the one who first put in my name.”

For more on the Lawrence Conservatory of Music, see here

Because it’s a three-year process — most of her commissioned work has happened in five- or six-month windows — this project gives Srinivasan new possibilities. Not only did she get to choose the ensemble she’d be writing for, but composer Edward Jacobs, a professor in ECU’s School of Music and the founding director of the NewMusic Initiative, encouraged her to try new things.

“He said, ‘This is a chance for experimentation,’” Srinivasan said. “It’s usually a performance group that commissions me, and it’s usually chamber music, and so the instrumentation is already a given. But in this case, I got to choose the instrumentation. I chose to write for their chamber singers, which is kind of like our concert choir. I haven’t done much work for the choir. That isn’t an opportunity that’s come my way, but it’s also something I’ve stayed away from or veered away from. So, I’m using this as an opportunity to embrace something that would be major growth for me and push myself out of my comfort zone a little bit.”

A new commission is launched in the three-year cycle each year. The process, ECU’s Jacobs said, benefits both the composer and the students, in part because of the collaboration that’s built in.

“The lengthy span of a commission allows a composer to become a part of our community through multiple visits to campus,” he said. “It allows for students and composer to collaborate on sketches during the work’s development, and allows the composer a longer time-span than usual for a commissioned piece to be written.”

Srinivasan said it was on her two-day excursion to the ECU campus that she realized how valuable this sort of thing was for the Conservatory here.

“I listened to their ensemble and talked to their composition students,” she said. “I gave nine private lessons. I met with master’s students. And I came as a representative of Lawrence, of course, so they got to know Lawrence.

“I think it helps give Lawrence more notice. People already know of it. But it helps to have that personal connection. People see my teaching and it represents Lawrence’s commitment to me as a composer and shows that my work as a composer is supported.”

Srinivasan said she’s in the early stages of writing. The composition will be finished in time for its premiere at ECU in the spring of 2021.

Ed Berthiaume is director of public information at Lawrence University. Email: ed.c.berthiaume@lawrence.edu

D-Term course has students playing, studying old-school video games

Rehanna Rexroat '20 sits on a couch and plays "Missile Command" on the Atari 5200 in the Kruse Room of the Mudd Library.
Rehanna Rexroat ’20 plays “Missile Command” on the Atari 5200 in the Mudd Library during the “History of Video Games: 1977-1996” D-Term class. (Photos by Danny Damiani)

Story by Ed Berthiaume / Communications

Watching college students enthusiastically play Mortal Kombat II on Sega Genesis controllers while friends look on — minus blood mode but with plenty of talk of cheat codes and jump punches — might put you squarely in a dormitory circa 1994.

Nah.

This is the Kruse Room on the fourth of floor of Lawrence University’s Mudd Library, and it’s early December 2019. The eight students taking turns on the sofa are duking it out in a video game that is considered a classic, but one that 25 years after its release for home play is a bit primitive when compared to the slick graphics and realistic play of today’s most popular games. It’s part of a history lesson these Lawrence students are happily absorbing in History of Video Games: 1977-1996, a D-Term course being taught for the third time by reference and learning technologies librarian and assistant professor Angela Vanden Elzen.

“I did not grow up playing pretty much any video games,” said Miriam Syvertsen ’22, a mathematics major from Madison who is among the students who signed up for the two-week D-Term class. “But, and this is going to sound really nerdy, I like analyzing cultural products and the cultures they come from. Video games are cultural products and I really just like watching and studying the progressions.”

Fall Term at Lawrence ended in late November. Most students headed home for a five-week break before Winter Term begins. But a couple dozen students signed up for D-Term — or December Term — classes, some for this one on video game history, some for a class exploring entrepreneurship in London, and others for a class on improved learning and memory.

An Atari 5200 controller is used to play "Missile Command."
Students are using the original consoles to play the old video games. Here, an Atari 5200 controller is used to play “Missile Command.”

Video games as scholarship

The Vanden Elzen class isn’t just an excuse to play old-school video games. This is about exploring the history and influence of the gaming world over the past four decades. Other pop culture mediums such as movies and television have long been in the mix for scholarly exploration; video games not so much. But that has started to change.

“That’s one of the reasons I wanted to create this class,” Vanden Elzen said. “Working in the library, I noticed more and more video game scholarship coming out, and it was all very interesting and coming from so many different academic disciplines. It was coming from media studies, it was coming from gender studies, it was coming from history, from computer science.”

Vanden Elzen taught the D-Term class in 2016, 2017, and now 2019. Come Winter Term in the 2020-21 academic year, she and Film Studies support coordinator Jose Lozano will co-teach a new course, Introduction to Game Studies, that will be added to the Film Studies curriculum.

“That course has been a long time in the making,” Vanden Elzen said.

She said she first started pondering such a class in the late 2000s. A visiting teaching fellow had offered a couple of courses focused on virtual worlds. Those classes, Vanden Elzen said, drew interest from the Gaming Club on campus and sparked an idea that eventually led to the D-Term video game course and now the expanded gaming course coming a year from now.

“It really resonates with some students, being able to study one of their passions,” she said.

For Amy A. Ongiri, the Jill Beck Director of Film Studies and associate professor, the introduction of the new class simply takes the curriculum where the students already are. Students have been pursuing new media projects for independent studies and capstones for several years now, an indication that there was an appetite for this type of course.

“Visual culture is one of the strongest and most pervasive influences on our contemporary culture, and film and video is just one component of that influence,” Ongiri said. “We want to explore as many aspects of visual culture as possible within our program. The new game studies class will help us expand the focus we already have in new media studies in classes offered by John Shimon and Anne Haydock. It will allow students to engage not only in the act of creating games but also to understand their aesthetic and cultural importance through the study of the history and theory of games.”

Angela Vanden Elzen watches as Jake Yingling '20 plays Ms. Pacman during the D-Term class.
Angela Vanden Elzen is teaching “History of Video Games: 1977-1996” during D-Term for the third time. Here she watches as Jake Yingling ’20 plays Ms. Pacman on the Atari 5200.

A two-week immersion

The D-Term class is broken into two parts each day. For the first hour, the class studies a particular slice of video game history, analyzing media from the time and digging into how gaming has influenced societal trends and cultural debates. The second hour is spent in the Kruse Room, where the students play selected games from yesteryear on the consoles that existed at the time the games came out. An analysis of the game follows.

In advance of Monday’s Mortal Kombat II gaming session, the class discussed violence in video games, the earliest games that introduced fighting, and the development, for better or worse, of the video game rating system.

“Growing up, I always played a lot of these old-school video games, and it’s just interesting to study them from a more historical perspective,” said Dylan McMurray ’22, a neuroscience major from Chicago.

“There was an article we read about the parallels in video game subjects and what was happening in world politics at the time — the Cold War, nuclear weapons crisis, and terrorist attacks like 9/11, and the trend toward first-person shooter games,” Syvertsen said. “It’s just really interesting, and getting a little bit of literacy about video games because I did not grow up with them is really helpful.”

Vanden Elzen launches her D-Term course in and around 1977, when video games began to emerge in the mainstream. She takes the class in fairly rapid order through the rise and fall of Atari — Space Invaders, anyone? — early video game marketing, the crash of 1983, high-stakes battles between Sega and Nintendo, the use of music and sound in games, early sports franchises, ties to movie themes, the introduction and evolution of violence in video games, gender and other representation, the development of marketable characters, and more.

“Video games have been such a major part of our culture in the United States and worldwide for a really long time,” said Vanden Elzen, a dedicated gamer herself. “Just by studying the games it gives us insight into that time when the game was released. Games can provide so much insight. They are so immersive and they can be such interesting forms of art and creativity.

“It’s important to study video game history to really understand where we’ve come from with video game technology, content, representation, narrative, and how that ties in with our culture and society. It tells us a little about ourselves.”

Ed Berthiaume is director of public information at Lawrence University. Email: ed.c.berthiaume@lawrence.edu

Podcasting evolves into increasingly popular teaching tool at Lawrence

Fallon Sellers and Georgia Greenberg sit at a table with a microphone as they record a podcast for their War and Pop Culture class.
Fallon Sellers ’20 (left) and Georgia Greenberg ’20 record a podcast for their War and Pop Culture class. (Photos by Danny Damiani)

Story by Ed Berthiaume / Communications

Eyes got a little wide when Jason Brozek told his Government 425: War & Pop Culture students they’d be researching, scripting, and recording a series of podcasts during fall term.

Fallon Sellers ’20 just smiled and nodded.

The Lawrence University senior, one of about 20 students in the class, knew the drill, having done a podcast in the spring in Brozek’s Environmental Justice class and already being deep into a podcast in Linnet Ramos’ fall term Psychopharmacology & Behavior class.

“I was able to be a little reassuring to everybody else,” Sellers said.

Welcome to the world of classroom podcasting.

As the popularity of podcasts has exploded over the past few years and the technology for recording and sharing podcasts has been streamlined, professors have increasingly turned to the format as an alternate means of research and study in their classes. Instead of an end-of-term paper being due, students are showcasing what they’ve learned by creating episodes of podcasts that will in many cases be accessible to anyone who wants to listen.

At Lawrence, the creation of podcasts as part of coursework is becoming more frequent. Brozek and Ramos are the latest, but they are far from alone. Marcia Bjornerud in geosciences, Brigid Vance in history, and Israel Del Toro in biology, among others, have all experimented with podcasting in their classes.

“First, the barrier to entry is low,” Jedidiah Rex, a designer on Lawrence’s Instructional Technology staff, said of the increase in podcast usage as a teaching strategy. “The tools necessary to create podcasts are easy to use. Second, podcasting makes use of writing skills but offers an opportunity for students to express creativity. There is a pedagogical value in students doing this work.”

Podcast numbers keep growing

According to a survey from Edison Research and Triton Digital, released earlier this year, the percentage of U.S. residents 12 and older who have listened to a podcast at least once surpassed 50% for the first time. That milestone marks a “watershed moment” for podcasting, Edison Senior Vice President Tom Webster wrote in a blog entry about the report.

“With over half of Americans 12+ saying that they have listened to a podcast, the medium has firmly crossed into the mainstream,” he wrote.

Brozek said he was intrigued to incorporate podcasts into his teaching in part because it gives his students a chance to create something that can be shared much wider. Topics his students are exploring in the areas of environmental justice and war and pop culture have potential audiences across the globe.

“They’re out there,” Brozek said of the eight episodes on environmental justice his students did in spring term. “When I go through my podcast app, they are just in my list of podcasts along with the other things I listen to. I like the idea that they’re available for a much wider community.”

In the process, the students are learning technical skills, writing strategies, script creation, interviewing techniques, and copyright laws, all valuable things no matter what career path they might be eyeing.

“I thought this was a way we could keep expanding the quiver of professional skills that we’re trying to help students learn,” Brozek said.

They’re also learning and discussing privacy topics — putting yourself in the public conversation, and what that means. That’s an issue professors using podcast technology need to navigate.

“One of the challenges of doing public-facing scholarship in classes is that students have reasonable privacy concerns, but we can always find a way to work within those boundaries,” Brozek said. (To that end, the release of some or all of the podcasts created in the War and Pop Culture class will be held until early in winter term to make sure all participants are comfortable with the process).

While most of the students in the Brozek and Ramos classes were new to creating their own podcasts, most had long been consumers of the format.

“Podcasts are ubiquitous, consumed by this generation, and it’s a genre that they largely already understand,” said Andrew McSorely, a reference and digital librarian in Lawrence’s Seeley G. Mudd Library. “It’s not a huge leap to apply it to the classroom, and, generally speaking, it’s as easy to set up and get students to engage with as a blog. Because of that, it’s hard to say how many classrooms are utilizing podcast assignments, but there’s no question that more instructors have asked about this technology in the library the past few years.”

From left: Fallon Sellers ’20, Georgia Greenberg ’20, and Basil Eastman-Kiesow ’20 record a podcast for their War and Pop Culture class taught by government professor Jason Brozek.

Finding an audience

The appeal comes as podcasts have transitioned from the domain of sports and pop culture to something that can find niche audiences in almost any sector.

“Where once it was distinctly for entertainment purposes, it now can hold scholarship and be taken seriously,” McSorely said. “For content creators in the academy, this serves as a way to engage with new audiences, and for undergraduates, it’s a means of expression that can seem more natural than a traditional essay.”

In Ramos’ psychopharmacology course, the students, working in groups of three to five, are recording video podcasts where they explain, critique, and discuss research articles on a specific drug. The episodes are being made available on the class’s new YouTube channel.

“Often times in classes, students read an article, create a PowerPoint presentation that describes it and mention a couple of ideas on how it can be improved,” Ramos said. “But rarely do I get to hear how students felt after reading the article or get to hear their opinions on why it matters, what they learned from it, how it can impact other sciences or society.”

In Brozek’s War & Pop Culture class, the students have dug into topics ranging from post-nuclear apocalypse to how terrorism is depicted in the media to the use of propaganda to influence audiences during wartime. Doing that in a podcast allows not only for substantial research but also thorough discussion.

“Part of what they’re required to do in the podcast is bring in academic scholarship,” Brozek said as the fall term course got rolling. “This new course is designed around thinking about the way political science scholars write about and think about issues related to war, like terrorism, extraordinary, exceptional circumstances, torture, things like that. Think about the way political science crafts narratives and asks and answers questions and the way pop culture crafts those narratives — where they may have some overlap, where there are differences, what those differences mean, how concerned we ought to be about the differences.

“If (pop culture) is where most people are getting their perspective on terrorism, what does it look like and how consistent is it with the political science literature? So, those are the kind of questions we’re asking in this course.”

For the students, that kind of scholarship isn’t out of the ordinary. Academic work is almost always question-driven. But channeling that work through a podcast takes it in a different direction. That is where excitement meets anxiety, Sellers said.

“Most of the anxiety comes with just learning the technical stuff,” she said. “A podcast is essentially just a conversation. You’re talking through something with your peers. That’s pretty natural to do. I don’t think that’s the hard part. The daunting part was I didn’t have any experience with the computer-related things, the audio techniques, and learning how to use Audacity and how to navigate that.”

Learning those technical skills and related communication skills will pay off later as students enter the job market with a wider breadth of knowledge and know-how. For Sellers, a government major, that’s no small thing.

“Media is so pertinent in our society, and I think it’s so important that higher education is also moving along with that, and we’re learning how to adapt,” she said. “Being able to go into a job and say, ‘Hey, I’m able to produce a podcast, I know how to use these techniques,’ I think people are generally pretty excited about that.

“By the end of my Lawrence career, I will have done podcasts on the dairy industry, on pedagogy and propaganda in pop culture and on opioids and how they impact social behavior,” Sellers said. “So, it’s very Lawrence, and very well-rounded.”

Ed Berthiaume is director of public information at Lawrence University. Email: ed.c.berthiaume@lawrence.edu

Lawrence Conservatory’s Albright in the mix on Bon Iver’s Grammy-nominated “i,i”

Tim Albright, assistant professor of music, and junior Allie Goldman play trombones during a teaching session Thursday in Shattuck Hall of Music.
Tim Albright, assistant professor of music in the Lawrence Conservatory of Music, works Thursday with Allie Goldman ’21 during a trombone teaching session in Shattuck Hall. Albright and his trombone are on Bon Iver’s “i,i” album. (Photo by Danny Damiani)

“Justin took me aside to say he wants to share his studio with students, Lawrence students included. He wants his studio to be a place where budding musicians can experiment with recording and creating music.”  

—Tim Albright on Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon

———

Story by Ed Berthiaume / Communications

When Grammy nominations were rolled out Wednesday, Bon Iver’s i,i snagged three of them, including in the headline-grabbing Album of the Year and Record of the Year categories. The album, released in summer, also is starting to show up on critics’ best-of-the-year lists.

That’s all of particular note to a Lawrence University music professor who lent his considerable trombone talents to the album.

Tim Albright, a professor in the Lawrence Conservatory of Music, spent four days in recording sessions in Justin Vernon’s home studio in Eau Claire, part of a horn section dubbed the Worm Crew.

“The horn section was made up of the unusual combination of trumpet, French horn, two trombones, saxophone and bass harmonica,” Albright said. “It was an unconventional assortment of instruments, but the sound was gorgeous.”

Vernon, the creative mastermind behind Bon Iver, has carved a deeply respected reputation for collaboration and musical experimentation. His annual Eaux Claires music festival — it took a hiatus for 2019 with an expectation to return in 2020 — and other musical outreach has raised Eau Claire’s arts profile considerably. His home studio, 180 miles west of Appleton, has become known as a gathering place for talented musicians.

“We rehearsed and recorded for four days and nights,” Albright said of the recording sessions. “When we weren’t making music, we shared meals, slept in bunk beds, and listened to music in Vernon’s state-of-the art control room. I was struck by his warmth and hospitality. He made us all feel completely at home, which helped the music come alive. 

“I think the album sounds amazing.”

Indeed, it does.

The album, Bon Iver’s fourth, was one of eight nominated for album of the year. The track “Hey, Ma” (it features Albright’s trombone) got a nod for Record of the Year, and the album also was nominated for Best Alternative Music Album. The Grammys will be held Jan. 26.

Cover of Bon Iver's "i,i"
Bon Iver’s “i,i” earned three music Grammy nods and a fourth for album packaging.

Esquire magazine included the album on its list of 50 Best Albums of 2019 (So Far), posted on Nov. 11.

“Twelve years after the seminal album For Emma, Forever Ago, Wisconsin singer Justin Vernon and his extended band find new ways to break your heart with their unusual indie-folk music,” Olivia Ovenden writes. “As on 22, A Million, follow-up i,i is filled with noodling jazz riffs, auto-tuned vocals and glitchy electronic samples.”

Esquire points in particular to the song “Salem,” which features Albright. “A patter of soft bleeping notes layer over each other and lift into a euphoric chorus which cries, ‘So I won’t lead no lie / With our hearts the only matter why.’”

Craig Jenkins of Vulture calls the album one of the best of the year.

“The lyrics are heavy on close inspection, but the music makes them buoyant,” he writes.

Making a connection

Albright’s connection to Vernon and Bon Iver comes via a trumpet player friend who had hooked him up in the mid-2000s for a recording session with The National, a then-unknown band that was preparing for the release of the album Boxer.

“I’ve known CJ for about 15 years from my time working in New York City,” Albright said. “When the band The National was just getting started, he said, ‘I wonder if you could come out to my friend Bryce’s house and record for a group called The National. I think they’re going to become big.’ Not thinking much of it, I took the train out to a tree-lined street in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn, to record a one-minute fanfare in a stranger’s living room.”

Bryce turned out to be Bryce Dessner, one of the founding members of The National. And the trumpet player friend would prove prophetic. Boxer would indeed put the band on the map.

It was a couple of months later when Albright and his wife were walking through the Atlantic Terminal Shopping Mall in Brooklyn when he heard a new song playing overhead. It caught his ear.

“I nudged her and said, ‘Hey, listen, there’s trombone on that record,’” Albright said. “A moment later I realized the trombone player was me from the track I had recorded in Ditmas.”

That same trumpet player friend reached out to Albright again in 2018 when Vernon was looking for collaborators on his coming album. They needed a trombone.

In a media statement he released just prior to the release of i,i, Vernon noted contributions from a bevy of musicians, some with widely recognized names like Bryce Dessner and Bruce Hornsby, others more under the radar.

“This project began with a single person, but throughout the last 11 years, the identity of Bon Iver has bloomed and can only be defined by the faces in the ever-growing family we are,” Vernon said.

Albright, on the Lawrence faculty since 2016 and a member of the Atlantic Brass Quintet, is now part of that extended Bon Iver family. He doesn’t know if he’ll get to record with the band again, but he knows having that connection with Vernon could build other important bridges, perhaps involving his Lawrence students.

“Justin took me aside to say he wants to share his studio with students, Lawrence students included,” Albright said. “He wants his studio to be a place where budding musicians can experiment with recording and creating music. He cares deeply about giving back to the Wisconsin community that helped shape his musical voice.”

In the meantime, Albright will cherish his contributions to an album that will almost certainly be showing up on additional best-of lists between now and the end of the year. His name is all over the credits, which isn’t a bad place to be.

“It’s fun to be in that world, to touch a little bit of stardom,” Albright said.

Ed Berthiaume is director of public information at Lawrence University. Email: ed.c.berthiaume@lawrence.edu

STEM-to-Ph.D. rankings, pedagogy changes build excitement in the sciences

Brianna Wilson '21 (left) looks at a fish while teaching assistant No'eau Simeona '20 stands beside her and collaborates on a lab project for Morphogenesis of the Vertebrates.
Brianna Wilson ’21 (left), a biology major, works with teaching assistant No’eau Simeona ’20, in a Morphogenesis of the Vertebrates lab at Lawrence. Wilson is charting a course she hopes will take her to graduate school and an eventual Ph.D. (Photos by Danny Damiani)

Story by Ed Berthiaume / Communications

Caitlin White Magel ’09 isn’t surprised that Lawrence University is showing up on national rankings of schools whose science graduates have most consistently taken a STEM-to-Ph.D. path.

As she closes in on her doctorate at Oregon State University, Magel points to guidance during her sophomore year at Lawrence that set her on the road to being a marine scientist.

She came into Lawrence as an environmental studies major, and early interactions with her advisor, geosciences professor Marcia Bjornerud, further locked in her desire to study human impacts on natural ecosystems. But, she quickly learned, there were more options to consider.

“I was encouraged by other science faculty — and my scientist father — to consider the option of a double major in order to have disciplinary depth in a particular field while still being able to explore broader issues through the environmental studies classes,” Magel said. “By the end of my sophomore year, I declared a second major in biology.”

That led to participation in the LU Marine Program (LUMP), jump-starting what would become a deep interest in marine ecology and putting her on a path toward her Ph.D.

She’s not alone in that experience. The number of Lawrence students earning degrees in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields on their way to successful completion of doctoral degrees places Lawrence in select company, according to a new report from the Council for Independent Colleges (CIC). In a national ranking that measures the percentage of a school’s STEM graduates from 2007 to 2016 who eventually earned a Ph.D., Lawrence comes in at No. 17, sandwiched between Harvard at 16 and Princeton at 18. It is a jump of 11 spots from the previous rankings, released in 2013. When the new rankings are broken down to women only, Lawrence comes in at No. 29. The CIC used National Center for Education statistics and National Science Foundation datasets that included public and private schools.

More science: Recent Nobel announcements hit close to home for Lawrence profs

Those rankings aren’t by happenstance. They speak to the deep commitment Lawrence has made in the STEM fields, and the power that comes with small class sizes and the opportunity to do hands-on research in the sciences as an undergraduate in a smaller, liberal arts setting, said Stefan Debbert, associate professor of chemistry.

“The rankings are a sign that we are doing something right, that we are getting students invested enough in the sciences that they are considering future study,” he said. “But it’s also a challenge to us to make sure we’re sending them to graduate school well prepared. The goal isn’t just to get students to enter graduate school. The goal is, if that’s the correct choice for them, to have them in a position to succeed.”

Elizabeth Ann De Stasio writes on a whiteboard as she teaches Integrative Biology: Cells to Organisms at Lawrence.
Elizabeth Ann De Stasio, the Raymond H. Herzog Professor of Science and professor of biology at Lawrence University, teaches Integrative Biology: Cells to Organisms.

A new approach

There is still much work to be done. Lawrence doesn’t show up on the CIC’s STEM-to-Ph.D. rankings when it measures African American or Latino graduates. The school’s numbers aren’t large enough to qualify.

That’s an issue that’s being addressed head on by Lawrence administrators and faculty across the sciences.

Debbert is leading an initiative to restructure how introductory-level science courses are taught. Lawrence was one of 33 schools selected last year to receive a $1 million grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) to implement its Inclusive Excellence Initiative via its Science Education Program. Another 24 schools were selected the year prior, part of HHMI’s push to reimagine science education to better engage students from all backgrounds.

Debbert is working with other science faculty at Lawrence to reshape how subjects are introduced and explored, how classrooms are structured, and how faculty interact with students. It puts more emphasis on the front-end science courses in hopes it’ll keep more students — and a greater diversity of students — in the sciences for the long haul.

“HHMI is motivated to help America fix its STEM pipeline problems,” Debbert said. “We have lots of students come into college thinking they want to major in the sciences, and we lose a lot of those students. HHMI is really pushing us to think about why we lose those students. Sometimes we lose them because we’re just not engaging with them enough. Students look around a giant science classroom and they think, ‘I don’t see people who look like me’ or ‘I don’t see myself as fitting in this environment.’ And then we lose them.”

Much of the HHMI work over the past year has involved training sessions with faculty and the redesigning of curriculum for introductory science courses, all with a focus on inclusive pedagogy. The revamped courses will be rolled out over the next two years.

There’s also a desire to retool a large lecture hall in Youngchild Hall to create a more modern science space, with the traditional tiered seating replaced with a dozen or so tables equipped with interactive technology. It would cater to the intro classes and serve as a launch point for science learning. Creating what Debbert calls a “science commons,” with a welcoming environment, is a big part of the new approach. Additional fundraising is being sought to make that happen, hopefully with construction beginning no later than summer, said Amy Kester, director of corporate, foundation, and sponsored research support. The goal is to have the room ready for the 2020-21 academic year.

Stefan Debbert folds his arms as he poses for a portrait on the Lawrence campus.
Stefan Debbert on efforts to engage with science students early on: “We are working with them, getting to know what part of science motivates them.”

Building on success

The changes at the intro class level will build on the successes Lawrence has had elsewhere in the sciences. The “rallying cry,” Debbert said, is to get students excited about and engaged with science in those early classes so they stay with it long enough to see the possibilities that come with deeper, more specific study in the higher-level courses, be it in biology, chemistry, physics or related subjects.

Part of that approach is giving students opportunities to do significant research, sometimes as early as freshman year. Students in the sciences at Lawrence are often doing research that students at other schools might not see until grad school.

“We have these students do research with us,” Debbert said. “So, they’re not just sitting in the back of a giant lecture hall falling asleep while someone talks at them. We are working with them, getting to know what part of science motivates them. We’re getting to know how they feel they can contribute, not just to their scientific field but to the world at large.

“I think that’s what drives a lot of our students to pursue graduate school. This idea that you really can have a massive impact in science.”

Lawrence, of course, has a much smaller enrollment than many of the public and private schools in the CIC rankings. Lawrence, with a student body of about 1,500, might graduate 10 to 12 chemistry majors, another 10 to 12 physics majors, and about 40 biology majors in a given year. Those smaller numbers, and the school’s 8-to-1 students to faculty ratio, help make the hands-on approach in the sciences possible.

That approach hooked Brianna Wilson ’21, a third-year biology major from Kenosha who wants to pursue a Ph.D. so she can eventually teach biology at the college level. An intro biology course during her freshman year opened her eyes to that possibility.

“The last five weeks of the term you design your own experiment with the professor,” Wilson said. “I was taken aback by that, that they’d throw us into a lab and let us design our own experiment. … I thought I wouldn’t be able to get a chance to do that until … I went to graduate school. That was pretty memorable.”

Path to a Ph.D.

Mug of Caitlin White Magel.
Caitlin White Magel ’09

Wilson is now envisioning a path not unlike that of Magel and other Lawrence grads working their way toward doctoral degrees.

For Magel, it was an opportunity to take part in LUMP that opened her to a new world. The Lawrence program provides a hands-on undergraduate experience in marine biology, including a two-week field study of a Caribbean island, the study of coral and fish biodiversity, and the exploration of reef ecosystems.

“It was an incredible experience,” Magel said. “It was my first scientific experience in marine ecosystems, and also my first experience doing field-based research.”

Then, following her junior year, Magel garnered a summer internship with the NSF Research Experience for Undergraduates at Oregon State’s Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, Oregon. That built on what she had taken from the LUMP experience.

After graduating from Lawrence, she would return to Newport for a two-year research assistant position with the EPA’s Pacific Coastal Ecology Branch, studying coastal salt marshes. That led her to her doctoral program focused on coastal marine ecology.

“Undoubtedly, the support and encouragement of many of my Lawrence professors, especially Marcia Bjornerud, Bart De Stasio, and Jodi Sedlock, helped put me on a path to success in graduate school,” Magel said.

That’s music to Debbert’s ears. The ongoing connection between student and faculty is a key selling point in a liberal arts education, the sciences included. That starts early at Lawrence and continues post-graduation.

“We really try to help students find out what it’s like to be a researcher,” Debbert said of the undergraduate work. “Being a scientist isn’t just sitting in a lecture hall and taking tests. Real science is about being curious and being OK with not knowing something and then going out and figuring it out. That’s what we really try to stress to our students.

“Yes, we’re going to teach the quantitative skills and the math and how to use the instruments, but we also want to make sure we’re teaching them how to communicate with each other, how to work with people who might not be very similar to you, how to come up with a research question, how to fail, and how to succeed after that.”

No one on the faculty is focusing on the STEM-to-Ph.D. rankings, Debbert said. The rankings are nice because they remind people that there is some serious science happening in the halls of liberal arts colleges, Lawrence included, but they don’t change a professor’s classroom approach or a student’s experience.

“Sometimes people seem surprised that you can have an actual honest-to-goodness real laboratory experience at a small school,” Debbert said. “If anything, these rankings show people that, yes, we do real science at Lawrence, and we care about it and we care about having our students learn how to be researchers, independent researchers.

“To us, that’s the main thing. It helps us communicate our story, and the story for liberal arts schools in general, which is, send us your scientists and we can help them grow in that way.”

Ed Berthiaume is director of public information at Lawrence University. Email: ed.c.berthiaume@lawrence.edu

Nobel inspiration: Lawrence scientists, economists embrace new momentum

Megan Pickett, associate professor of physics, stands beside a whiteboard showing some of her astrophysics research in Lawrence University’s Youngchild Hall of Science. (Photo by Danny Damiani)

Story by Ed Berthiaume / Communications

If you sensed a surge of excitement in recent days coming from the halls of Lawrence University’s Youngchild, Steitz, and Briggs halls, you were not mistaken.

When the Nobel Prizes for chemistry and physics were announced earlier this month, the news hit close to home for a couple of science faculty members and their students, creating momentum for the research they’ve been working on here at Lawrence.

The same can be said for a pair of economics faculty members who have focused their research on topics tied to the groundbreaking Poor Economics, a book that’s been a mandatory read in Lawrence’s Freshman Studies since 2016. More on that later.

The win in chemistry went to three chemists — Stanley Whittingham, John Goodenough, and Akira Yoshino — who were instrumental 30 years ago in the development of the lithium-ion battery, which now powers many of our wireless electronics, most notably cell phones. That’s a subject near and dear to Allison Fleshman, an associate professor of chemistry who has dedicated much of her research over the past two decades to ion mobility, work that could potentially improve the next generation of those lithium batteries.

The win in physics, meanwhile, went to two astronomers — Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz (they split the prize with a cosmologist on a separate project) — who in the mid-1990s discovered a fiery, uninhabitable planet orbiting a distant sun-like star, a breakthrough that set the course for the discovery of thousands of exoplanets in the Milky Way galaxy. Megan Pickett, an associate professor of physics, was fresh off her Ph.D. and working for NASA when word of the discovery came through. She has since spent much of her career studying the formation of those stars and planets, simulating how solar systems are formed.

Both Fleshman and Pickett drew inspiration early in their careers from the groundbreaking work these scientists were doing. To see them now honored with Nobels, well, there were celebrations in recent days to rival those of football fans on a Sunday afternoon.

“As soon as the Nobels were announced, my Facebook was a flutter with all of my old colleagues from graduate school and my post-doctoral work,” Fleshman said. “We were all very, very excited. There’s a subgroup of scientists, and we were just going absolutely bonkers when we heard. And I may have run through the hallway shouting, ‘lithium for the win.’”

Pickett had a similar response when the physics award was announced, not just because she was happy for Mayor and Queloz but also because of the momentum and validation it provides for the science she and her students are doing in Youngchild.

“I was wondering when this group would get the Nobel Prize,” she said.

How solar systems form

It was in 1995 when Mayor and Queloz first announced the discovery of the Jupiter-like planet, having tracked a periodic wobble in the colors of light from the star that indicated a planet was circling. They determined it to be a four-day orbit. Scientists at the time already believed there were planets other than Earth that were orbiting sun-like stars. But they had no proof. And then they did.

“The scientific community was skeptical, as it ought to be with new discoveries like this,” Pickett said. “There had been a lot of false discoveries and false alarms in the past. But this stood the test of time. And as people started using this method, more and more solar systems were found. We now know of 4,000 planets that orbit stars.”

Learn more about Physics at Lawrence here.

Pickett had just finished her Ph.D. at Indiana University earlier that year and was working at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California. She remembers hearing the news of the discovery like it was yesterday.

“I was in the space science research laboratory,” she said. “The entire floor that I was on, mostly theoretical astrophysicists, were running down the halls excited about this. Everyone at first was trying to show that it was wrong, but they were really excited. They were either excited one way or the other. If it was right, we would finally have proof that there were planets outside our solar system. And it turned out to be right.

“And it turned out to be the kind of stuff I was interested in studying. So, I was very lucky in terms of my career, being in the right place at the right time studying the right thing.”

Scientists now believe that the number of planets in our galaxy could number in the billions.

“Twenty years ago, or 25 years ago, you would have been laughed off the stage if you had said something like that,” Pickett said. “Now people are taking it very seriously based on the statistics we’ve seen.

Allison Fleshman, associate professor of chemistry, stands for a portrait in her lab in Lawrence University’s Steitz Hall of Science. (Photo by Danny Damiani)

The study of ions

Meanwhile, over in the Steitz chemistry labs, Fleshman and her students are busy talking about the charge that the Nobel announcement has given their work. They aren’t necessarily doing lithium battery research per se, but they’re studying a piece of the process that could affect the ongoing development of the battery technology. Fleshman has been doing research in and around that topic since her doctoral studies at the University of Oklahoma.

“Part of my Ph.D. was in developing a new way of describing ion transport, which is what this field of research is called,” Fleshman said. “Ion transport is how well the ions can move, or their mobility between two electrodes. If you have an electric field, how well can the ion adjust to responses in that electric field?”

Learn more about Chemistry at Lawrence here.

Keeping that and related research alive could one day lead to changing the electrolyte — the chemical medium that carries the positively charged lithium ions — from a liquid to a solid, eliminating potential issues related to leakage or expansion in the battery.

“That would be kind of like the Holy Grail,” Fleshman said. “That’s the next big thing. Until then, the idea is to improve the material that carries the charge. My students and I apply a new model to describing that transport.”

The Nobel for the lithium-ion battery is a momentum changer in part because it’s something people can relate to. They may not understand the science behind it, but they appreciate the rapid advances in the cell phone and other electronic tools that they can hold in their hands. The message from Fleshman is simple — we’re not done yet.

“Once it gets to the consumer’s hands I think people assume there is no more innovation to be made,” she said. Not true. While the Nobel award acknowledges that the work of Whittingham, Goodenough, and Yoshino was cutting edge, there are a lot of questions yet to be answered.

“If you’re in the field, you know these questions,” Fleshman said. “You know there are limitations with the electrolyte. There’s a misunderstanding about why lithium moves. There are misunderstandings of how lithium interacts with the electrolyte as a whole.”

The possibilities for the next generation of lithium batteries are just now being explored, and it’s more than just making our electronic toys run faster. The prospect of communities redirecting some of their energy usage in more sustainable ways is in play.

“The Nobel puts those questions on the international stage,” Fleshman said of the continued study of lithium technology. “I think it gets more people interested, people who thought the technology was basically at its end. We’ve made a lithium battery. It works great. My cell phone stays charged for forever. But there is so much more innovation to be had.

“There are really good scientists out there trying to answer the question of how can we redirect our energy demands to energies that are sustainable, and rewarding those scientists with a Nobel is yet another way of saying we need a global conversation about renewable energy sources,” Fleshman said.

The book on development economics

When the winner of the Nobel in economics was announced, you might have heard a smattering of applause across campus. The work of development economists Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo of M.I.T. and Michael Kremer of Harvard is plenty familiar to students and faculty here. The 2011 book from Banarjee and Duflo, Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty, has been part of Freshman Studies since 2016, meaning most every current Lawrence student has dissected the book at some point over the past four years, or will next term.

Dylan Fitz
Hillary Caruthers

The book — and now the Nobel – has shined a light on the growing field of development economics. In this case, it’s the work of economists who zero in at the micro level in the study of poverty and other economic issues in developing countries, gathering and using specific on-the-ground data to analyze outcomes. Instead of taking a big picture view, they run real-world trials of local groups or communities to test how certain factors — be it in the areas of education, health care, food, family planning or others — are affecting the economics of a region.

Nowhere on the Lawrence campus was the applause for the Nobel louder than in the offices of Hillary Caruthers and Dylan Fitz, both assistant professors of economics who specialize in the micro approach to development economics. Both have counted the Poor Economics authors and Kremer as role models since their graduate school days a decade ago, even before the book was published.

“I do find it extremely validating,” Caruthers said of the Nobel announcement. “It’s exciting that when you look at all of the Nobel laureates going back through time, this is by far the closest to our research. So, it’s exciting to see people be honored who we have admired and who have inspired us in our field of study and have really shaped the field so much. It’s like seeing our idols rewarded for their work.”

Learn more about Economics at Lawrence here.

Caruthers and Fitz said they both were driven to pursue development economics on the micro level because it is so tightly tied to the people affected. It is analysis of open-ended micro data from individuals and households with an expectation that it’ll add to the larger economics conversation, and, in the end, help improve living conditions.

It’s not that the more macro approach to development economics isn’t valuable, Fitz said. It’s just the micro approach and what it can bring to the table is another important piece, and it’s what drew him to the field.

“The type of work in Poor Economics is why I’m an economist,” he said.

Some of the research done by Caruthers, for example, has focused on how poor nutrition in utero can affect someone through life. That touches on the same themes explored in Poor Economics, studying how early health care, or lack thereof, can have ramifications that affect one’s ability to ever escape poverty.

“Economics is a social science, of course, but often it’s easy to forget that we are ultimately interested in people and the well-being of humans,” Caruthers said. “So, de-emphasizing systems and instead emphasizing that micro impact is very appealing to me as a scholar.”

Poor Economics has been a great fit for Freshman Studies, introducing non-economics students to a part of the economics curriculum many don’t know exists.

“A lot of freshmen come in and they don’t know what economics is,” Fitz said. “Some of them think it is just business or just defending free markets, which is not at all the case. Economics is something that can help us make the world a better place — to try to understand the world first of all, and then to improve it for people.”

Ed Berthiaume is director of public information at Lawrence University. Email: ed.c.berthiaume@lawrence.edu

Columbia professor returns to Lawrence to talk on rise of “identity politics”

John Huber ’84

John Huber ’84, a professor of political science at Columbia University, will deliver a talk Tuesday on the rise of populist appeals that focus on “identity politics.”

Huber will present his talk as part of Lawrence’s Povolny Lecture Series in International Studies. The talk, Trump, Le Pen and Brexit: Inequality and Right-wing Populism, will be at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday in the Wriston Art Center at Lawrence. It is free and open to the public.

In democracies around the world, there has been a rise in populist appeals that focus on “identity politics,” with a strong voting component based on race, religion, ethnicity and/or national identity, Huber says. This phenomenon influenced the election of President Donald Trump, the Brexit vote, the support for Marine Le Pen in France and the rise of right-wing parties across Europe. Why is this occurring, and what are the consequences?  

Huber will argue that the rise of identity-based populism can be linked to the parallel rise of economic inequality around the world. His talk will focus on this dynamic and its implications for ways we might address both the rise of populism and the rise of inequality in Europe and the world today.

Huber’s teaching and research focuses on the comparative study of democratic processes. His recent studies have focused on a range of topics, including bureaucratic politics, civil war, inequality, ethnic politics, the politics of redistribution, and the role of religion in elections. He is the author of three books from Cambridge University Press as well as numerous articles. Huber served as chair of Columbia’s political science department for six years, and he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2013.