Month: October 2019

On Main Hall Green With … Stefan Debbert: “Constantly challenged to grow”

Portrait on Main Hall Green: Stefan Debbert (Photo by Danny Damiani)

About the series: On Main Hall Green With … is an opportunity to connect with faculty on things in and out of the classroom. We’re featuring a different faculty member every two weeks — same questions, different answers.

Story by Ed Berthiaume / Communications

Stefan Debbert knows a thing or two about inclusive pedagogy.

The Lawrence University associate professor of chemistry is leading the way in reshaping the school’s teachings in the sciences to better engage students of all backgrounds and identities. When Lawrence was one of 33 schools in the country selected in 2018 for a $1 million grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute to implement its Inclusive Excellence Initiative, Debbert was tabbed as the project director.

A member of the Chemistry faculty since 2007, Debbert has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities and a Ph.D. from Cornell University.

We fired six questions at him as part of our faculty series.


Inside info: What’s one thing you want every student coming into your classes to know about you?

Every student should know that I deeply respect the work they’re doing, in and out of my class. From the synthesis of a new molecule or the construction of a tight two-page essay, nothing we try to do in my classes is easy, so it’s important that students feel like they can ask questions and make mistakes without incurring judgment from me. Our students work really hard, and I’m always impressed by their development as scientists and as people during their years at Lawrence. 

Getting energized: What work have you done or will you be doing at Lawrence that gets you the most excited?

Right now, I’m excited to help lead Lawrence’s efforts to make our introductory science classes the best, most effective, most inclusive, most engaging, most life-changing experiences we can offer. That’s a lot of commas, but with our $1 million grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) Inclusive Excellence program, we are aiming high. We’re rethinking our intro courses in biology, chemistry, and physics from the ground up so that every student is included, challenged and supported from the very beginning. We’re putting a lot of work into this, with help from a lot of people, students included, and we’re really excited about the possibilities.

Going places: Is there an example of somewhere your career has taken you (either a physical space or something more intellectual, emotional or spiritual) that took you by surprise?

I really appreciate how my job at Lawrence has led me to chase my passions, and am constantly surprised by how my day-to-day job changes. My organic chemistry lab training led me to a job where I, on occasion, make new compounds, cultivate cancer cells, write research grants, teach chemistry, teach drug development, teach poetry and art and Shakespeare, work with and advise students from new freshmen to graduating seniors, manage a research group, chair a department, help develop institutional policy, play instruments in class, etc., etc., very much etc. I think the 2005-era, new-Ph.D., slightly-better-shape version of me would be very surprised that I’d be doing all that — and that I’d do it less than an hour from my hometown of Fond du Lac.

I feel like I am constantly challenged to grow as an educator, a scientist and a person. It’s difficult, it’s always humbling, and I really appreciate it.


This or that: If you weren’t teaching for a living, what would you be doing? 

Teaching as a hobby, probably. Alternately, I could parlay my career as a Parks-and-Rec youth baseball coach into a position with the Brewers’ management, I assume.

Right at home: Whether for work, relaxation or reflection, what’s your favorite spot on campus? And why?

I have a few! My lab, obviously (Steitz 226), is awesome, but I also like hanging out by my favorite organic chemistry books in the Mudd Library (QD 262 4 LIFE). My daughter’s favorite spots, when she was little, were the skull display case in Briggs and the ramp at the bottom of Steitz (perfect for scootering). Finally, I like the gym at Buchanan-Kiewit, the site of lots of soccer highlights (and hilarious lowlights) over the years. 

One book, one recording, one film: Name one of each that speaks to your soul? Or you would recommend to a friend? Or both?

My favorite book is Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table … wait, come back! It’s a memoir, and it’s really good! It deals with the author’s life as a Jewish chemistry student in WWII Italy, his experience in a concentration camp, and his life as a chemist thereafter. It’s full of his appreciation for the tactile sensuality of chemistry, and it really speaks to me. 

One recording: Johnny Cash, At San Quentin (the unabridged version), or if I’m feeling more chill, Chet Baker Sings.

One film: Sorry, no answer on this one.

Ed Berthiaume is director of public information at Lawrence University. Email:

2 Minutes With … Shelby Siebers: Indigenized leadership, mentoring

Shelby Siebers '20 poses for a photo during her stay in London.
Shelby Siebers ’20 is spending the fall term studying in London.

2 Minutes With … is a series of short features to introduce us to the passions and interests of Lawrentians on and off campus. Find more 2 Minutes With … features here.

Story by Awa Badiane ’21

Senior year is a great time to reflect on the journey you’ve taken at Lawrence. For Shelby Siebers ’20, an ethnic studies and psychology double major, that reflection is focusing squarely on the work she has put into indigenizing education.

Getting involved

“When I came to Lawrence, I was involved in LUNA as a member,” Siebers said. “By my sophomore year, I quickly had a board position and I started doing leadership for LUNA.”  

LUNA is the Lawrence University Native Americans organization, and during her junior year, Siebers served as president.

“I think LUNA has done a lot,” Siebers said. “The biggest accomplishment each year I think is Indigenous People’s Day.” 

What was formerly known as Columbus Day has been changed to Indigenous People’s Day as a way to recognize and celebrate indigenous cultures. For the past five years, LUNA has been hosting a celebration on campus. 

“Basically, we invite the Oneida Nation dancers to do a pow-wow demonstration and to just go through what each dance means,” Siebers said. “I think it’s a very significant part of Lawrence’s culture because it shows that we Native students are there, even though our population on Lawrence’s campus is small. And it’s just a really good way to educate Lawrence’s campus.”  

During her time as president of LUNA, Siebers helped bring Matika Wilbur, creator of Project 562, to campus. Wilbur was invited to not only speak at a convocation on the representation of Natives, but also to create a mural on campus that adds a positive representation of Native people. 

Read more on Matika Wilbur’s visit to Lawrence here.

“She came to Lawrence after lots and lots of convincing, and we did a mural on the side of the Wellness Center,” Siebers said. “And it was meant to be a representation of the land Lawrence occupies currently, which is the Menominee Nation. … I feel like this mural was a really big breaking point for Native students on campus because we finally got positive representation.”   

Studying abroad  

For this term, Siebers has gone abroad, studying at Lawrence’s London Center.  

“It’s been really hard for me being a Native in London,” Siebers said. “Just because I was so used to building that identity at Lawrence, so I was feeling very secure in it. But here it almost feels like I’m starting over again because it feels like I’m the only Native.” 

The commitment to indigenized education and expressing her identity continues, however.  

“It motivates me to carry my identity even stronger than I would back at home,” Siebers said. “Being away for Indigenous People’s Day was really hard, but I still represented myself. I wore my moccasins, I wore my ribbon skirt, I wore my beaded earrings.”   

Being a mentor

This past summer, Siebers worked as a camp counselor for the Oneida Nation Arts Program, allowing her to work with Native youth.  

“It was such a rewarding experience because not only did I get to do what I love to do best, which is work with Native youth and be a mentor toward them, but I also got to be more connected to my culture,” Siebers said. 

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

On Main Hall Green With … Dominica Chang: Heavy lifting in French studies

Portrait on Main Hall Green: Dominica Chang (photo by Danny Damiani)

About the series: On Main Hall Green With … is an opportunity to connect with faculty on things in and out of the classroom. We’re featuring a different faculty member every two weeks — same questions, different answers.

Story by Ed Berthiaume / Communications

Dominica Chang, the Margaret Banta Humleker Professor of French Cultural Studies and an associate professor of French, is a classroom favorite, whether leading study abroad trips to Senegal or diving deep into French literature.

But she also has a variety of interests outside the classroom, not the least of which is the pursuit of some serious weightlifting skills. She was recently certified as an Olympic-style weightlifting coach.

Chang has a Ph.D. from the University of Michigan, a master’s degree from Middlebury College, and a bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

We fired off six questions for her as part of our new On Main Hall Green With … faculty series. She was kind enough to help us get the series started.


Inside info: What’s one thing you want every student coming into your classes to know about you?

I hope that every student knows that I truly want them to succeed, not only in my class but also in life. I want them to master the content of the specific course, certainly, but also to learn how to think critically and independently, to speak with intelligence, confidence and humility across differences, and to be sensitive and generous to each other. These basic principles guide my pedagogy, from Freshman Studies to French 101 to French Senior Capstone. My hope is that when a student believes that a teacher is in their corner, hoping they will succeed, they will also better understand — and therefore better conquer — the intellectual and social challenges we will engage in together.

Getting energized: What work have you done or will you be doing at Lawrence that gets you the most excited?

Spending 10 weeks in Senegal with Lawrence students has been a wonderful experience for me. While there, we spend most of each day as well as many weekends together, so I am able to get to know the students in a completely different environment. It’s very fulfilling to help such bright, enthusiastic young people experience and navigate a culture that is so different from our home campus.

Going places: Is there an example of somewhere your career has taken you (either a physical space or something more intellectual, emotional or spiritual) that took you by surprise?

Dakar, Senegal! I could never have predicted that my training in 19th-century French literature and cultural studies would have led me to spending 10 weeks every few years leading our Francophone Seminar in Senegal. Each time I’ve gone, I have as much of a transformative experience as the students I accompany. I’ve made lifelong friends there and consider myself incredibly fortunate to have these opportunities.


This or that: If you weren’t teaching for a living, what would you be doing? 

I think a lot about the random contingencies in life that affect what we do and who we become, so I love this question. If I weren’t teaching, I would most likely be rescuing animals or working as an animal welfare advocate of some sort. Either that … or perhaps helping to run a local pizza joint!

Right at home: Whether for work, relaxation or reflection, what’s your favorite spot on campus?

My intellectual side loves my office; my home away from home. When I need a break from thinking too hard, I love spending time in the Alexander Gym weight room, especially since I’ve gotten more seriously into weightlifting this past year. It’s a great facility and I enjoy running into our hardworking coaches and student-athletes.

One book, one recording, one film: Name one of each that speaks to your soul? Or you would recommend to a friend? Or both?

Book: Sentimental Education (1869) by Gustave Flaubert. It’s the text that took my love for French studies to the next level and inspired my graduate work in the field. I am very fortunate to be able to teach it on occasion in The Long Novel, a course that I co-teach with professors Tim Spurgin and Peter Thomas.

Recording: New Order, Substance (1987). I’m a child of the ’80s. Just the other day, I realized that at least a few songs from this album have made it onto every single playlist I’ve put together since 1987.

Film: The Battle of Algiers (1966) by Gillo Pontecorvo. Perhaps my favorite film of all time. Time and again, I am astounded by its cinematic beauty and especially by the sensitivity and complexity with which it represents the brutality of colonial occupation.

Ed Berthiaume is director of public information at Lawrence Univeristy. Email:

2 Minutes With … Emily Austin: Singing in the birthplace of opera

Emily Austin '21 works on her vocals in the voice studio in the Lawrence Conservatory.
Emily Austin ’21, here practicing in the voice studio in the Lawrence Conservatory, spent her summer performing in Italy. “It was definitely an amazing opportunity for me to grow as an artist and performer,” she said. It was her second visit to Italy as an artist. (Photo by Danny Damiani)

2 Minutes With … is a series of short features to introduce us to the passions and interests of Lawrentians on and off campus. Find more 2 Minutes With … features here.

Story by Isabella Mariani ’21

Emily Austin ’21 took two trips of a lifetime to Novafeltria, Italy, through La Musica Lirica, an opera training program that sends promising vocalists to the birthplace of opera for an intensive five-week performing experience.

Austin, a music performance major in the Lawrence Conservatory’s voice studio, first got involved in 2017 when La Musica Lirica held one of its annual auditions at Lawrence. She was one of a handful of chosen students, and in the summer of 2018 she took the stage as Despina in a performance of Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte. The incredible experience drove her to audition again later that year and earn a spot in the 2019 summer program.

“Being in the place that opera was born and studying it was by far the most important and coolest aspect of the program,” she says.

Staying busy

Austin’s time in Italy with La Musica Lirica was far from rest and relaxation. The students’ itineraries were packed with Italian classes in the morning and rehearsal in the afternoon and evening, not to mention master classes with visiting artists, instruction in Italian diction and vocal lessons.

And then there was preparing for your role. This summer, Austin starred as Susanna in Le nozze di Figaro, one of the most ambitious roles in opera; Susanna is on stage for the entirety of the four-hour production. Austin fought through the stress and says she had the experience of a lifetime, learning much about herself and her craft.

“I was singing my big aria usually at 12:30 at night, which was a challenge and a test of stamina,” she says. “It was definitely an amazing opportunity for me to grow as an artist and performer.”

Finding her voice

Austin, from Washington, D.C., recalls how her love of music and singing was instilled in her long before she came to Lawrence. Her mother took her to baby music classes and she always loved singing along with the radio. There was never a time when music wasn’t part of her life.

“Singing was sort of innate,” she says. “It was just something that seemed right.”

She started taking voice lessons in her freshman year of high school. She scored her first role in an opera here at Lawrence as a lead in the 2018 production of Count Ory, followed by a role in Mass last year. She has since come into her own as a singer with all the skills and passion to succeed in Italy.

“It gave me so much confidence,” she says. “It was a really big challenge for me. Succeeding in that way, being recognized for the hard work that I put in in the biggest role I’ve ever done, was really rewarding. I feel like now that I’ve sung that role, I can do anything. And so many amazing memories.”

Isabella Mariani ’21 is a student writer in the Communications office.

Lawrence experience inspires, informs Madhuri Vijay’s path to “The Far Field”

Portrait of Madhuri Vijay
Madhuri Vijay ’09 has earned critical praise for her debut novel, “The Far Field,” including being long-listed as a semifinalist for the Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction. The 24 semifinalists will be narrowed to six on Nov. 4. (Photo courtesy of Manvi Rao)

Story by Ed Berthiaume / Communications

Madhuri Vijay ’09 was taken aback by the critical praise that accompanied the January arrival of her debut novel, The Far Field.

Now, nine months and a multi-continent book tour later, comes the announcement that her novel, published by Grove Press, has been long-listed for the prestigious 2020 Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction, a literary honor that could push her visibility to new heights.

“The whole thing feels somewhat surreal and a bit like a dream,” Vijay said by phone from her home in Hawaii, where she and her husband are preparing for the imminent arrival of their first child. “It’s always hard to take (the honors) seriously because it always seems like someone is going to call and say, this has all been a big mistake.”

That is not going to happen.

Ten years removed from her days as a Lawrence University undergrad, Vijay has arrived as a significant young novelist. The Far Field has been short-listed for the JCB Prize for Literature, long-listed for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, and has drawn stellar praise in book reviews from the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, New Yorker, and others. On Nov. 4, the 24 books long-listed for the Carnegie medal in the fiction category will be narrowed to six finalists.

Along with accolades from the literary awards circuit comes much admiration from faculty members at Lawrence who nurtured Vijay’s storytelling skills a decade ago, not to mention current students who see her as a rock star in the making.

“When Madhuri visited my creative writing class last winter — she read at LU on the day her novel was officially released — my students saw her as a kind of superhero: glamorous and whip-smart and on the verge of international fame,” said professor of English David McGlynn. “But they only glimpsed the end result of an awful lot of work and an endless amount of dedication and determination.”

The publishing of The Far Field came after a six-year writing and editing process that Vijay called grueling, exhausting, and exhilarating. The book, set mostly in Bangalore, a metropolitan area in southern India where Vijay grew up, and the more remote, mountainous regions of Kashmir, tells the story of Shalini, a restless young woman, newly graduated from college and reeling from her mother’s death, who sets out from her privileged life in Bangalore in search of a family acquaintance from her childhood. She runs smack into the unsettled and volatile politics of Kashmir.

When Vijay launched her book tour early this year, Lawrence was an important stop. She points to her time as a student here as the impetus to a life of writing. She will tell you she arrived in the fall of 2005 as a determined but narrowly focused freshman. She’ll then tell you she left four years later having explored, sampled, and embraced every nook and cranny of the liberal arts experience, a creative enlightenment that rerouted her plans, turned her focus to fiction writing, and led her to the story that became The Far Field.

She double-majored in psychology and English at Lawrence, but it wasn’t until she was midway through a 12-month Watson Fellowship following graduation that she called off her plans to go to graduate school for psychology, applying instead to the Iowa Writers Workshop, a highly focused two-year writing residency at the University of Iowa.

Details on Lawrence’s English major here

“Lawrence itself was one of the best things that ever happened to me,” Vijay said. “I grew up in India, and our system of learning is in some ways very good because it’s very thorough and it’s science-based and it’s very rigorous, but it doesn’t allow for a lot of experimentation and play.

“So, when I got to Lawrence, I was overjoyed to discover that I could just dabble in all of these different things. I would take biology and Latin and I would sing in the choir and I would do all of these different things, which is the foundation of a liberal arts education. But it’s also, as I see it now, the foundation for being a good fiction writer, in that you have to be interested in everything all of the time and that nothing is divorced from the other thing. … Everything is worthy of study and everything is worthy of interest. That’s the thing I discovered at Lawrence.”

McGlynn was in his first year on the Lawrence faculty in 2006 when he first encountered Vijay, then a sophomore in his English 360 class. He recalled her being smart, poised and articulate, but her writing was far from polished.

“Her writing showed promise, but it also needed to be refined and to mature,” he said.

What made her stand out, though, was a willingness to work. That was evident from the get-go.

“She recognized her intellectual capacity, but she also knew capacity was only the beginning,” McGlynn said. “She knew she needed to work. She knew she needed to walk the path. That, more than anything, was her great gift. She remains one of the most dedicated and passionate students I have ever taught in my 13 years at Lawrence.”

With additional guidance from Tim Spurgin, the Bonnie Glidden Buchanan Professor of English Literature and associate professor of English, Vijay applied to and was selected for a Watson Fellowship, funding a year of travel and study. Her Watson study was focused on people from India living in foreign lands. Her travels took her to South Africa, Malaysia, and Tanzania, among other places, and her desire to write and create grew along the away.

Details on the Watson Fellowship here

“Being on the Watson means you are alone for a year,” Vijay said. “You’re absolutely independent in that nobody is looking over your shoulder. You either do the work or you don’t, which, in a nutshell, is what it means to be a writer. No one is waiting for you to produce anything. You either do the work or you don’t. All the urgency has to come from you, and it’s a lonely profession.”

Interestingly, it was during her Watson year that she first encountered Shalini and some of the other fictional characters that would eventually become key players in The Far Field. And it was her continued correspondence with McGlynn that in part set the wheels in motion.

“I wrote a short story during the Watson that had some of these same characters in it,” Vijay said. “It was very bad. But David McGlynn read it. He is one of the few people I trust to read even my worst writing. He was the one who literally suggested, ‘Why don’t you make this a novel?’ So, I wrote about 30 pages, and that’s how I got to Iowa, on the strength of those 30 pages. But it was a very different version. It had nothing to do with the book that eventually got published.

“After I got into Iowa, I didn’t touch those 30 pages, and I didn’t think about those characters for two years. It was only after Iowa when I was thinking about what to do next that I began thinking about those characters again. … If David hadn’t said that to me, I probably wouldn’t have written this book. I may have written something different, but not this book.”

Vijay is now a year into a follow-up book project that she says has yet to fully take shape. She knows the positive reaction to The Far Field assures nothing. It’s about continuing to put in the work.

“There is no point where you arrive at some sort of certainty where you say, ‘OK, this is a guarantee,’” she said of her life as a novelist. “Every single day feels like a gamble, feels like a risk, feels like you could fall at any given moment. That point (of certainty) hasn’t arrived, and I don’t think it ever will. And I don’t think it ever should. … You should always feel like you might fall flat on your face. That is the only way to do it honestly.”

Ed Berthiaume is director of public information at Lawrence University. Email:

2 Minutes With … Nick Vaporciyan: Exploring history via quantum physics

Nick Vaporciyan ’21 poses for a photo in the Mudd Library.
Nick Vaporciyan ’21 took his physics education in an unexpected direction when he began doing research for a book project with Associate Professor of Physics Megan Pickett.

2 Minutes With … is a series of short features to introduce us to the passions and interests of Lawrentians on and off campus. Find more 2 Minutes With … features here.

Story by Isabella Mariani ’21

Nick Vaporciyan ’21 spent a memorable 10 weeks on campus over the summer. The Lawrence junior did physics research assisting Associate Professor of Physics Megan Pickett with her forthcoming book, which will tell the history of quantum physics through largely forgotten, old or overlooked narratives.

“It’s very easy to find these giants of modern science that everyone knows about who are in every physics textbook,” Vaporciyan says. “Their stories have been told countless times. But it’s very neat and difficult to find these smaller stories that are no less interesting, and even no less significant in some cases.”

He references a particular story he found about Sir George Gabriel Stokes, the man who first investigated fluorescents and learned they’re caused by ultraviolet light. This work is the foundation for a technique called laser pulling that led to our ability to build quantum computers today.

“It’s a pretty obscure connection,” he says. “Most people who have taken quantum physics know how laser pulling works, but the history underlying when we first began to investigate that is not well known. So, it was very cool for me to find that out.”

The process

While most other students were doing hands-on physics research in a lab, Vaporciyan found himself happily hunkered down in the library.

“It was actually a lot of fun for me because I hadn’t done book research in quite a while,” he says. “It renewed my interest in more historical aspects of science that sort of get pushed by the wayside when you’re doing all the technical work in your classes.”

Vaporciyan had to turn away from physics textbooks for this research. The vast history of physics reaches far back in time and includes a multitude of cultures; much of this knowledge doesn’t enter into the mainstream physics consciousness.

What lies ahead

Vaporciyan’s travels through physics history rekindled his love for the subject.

“You just sort of get swept away,” he says. “It’s really fascinating to see how interconnected some of these things really are historically, not only on a technical level.”

Underlying the science and history, it was also the pedagogical aspect at the core of Pickett’s book that had him hooked. Though he’s not planning on a career in teaching, he’s very interested in education. Participating in the making of a resource for physics — especially one that takes such a different approach — combined his interests.

There’s still much to be discovered. Though the summer research has ended, Vaporciyan will continue investigating the topic for his Chandler Senior Experience.

He’s earning his physics degree through the 3-2 cooperative degree program, which will transfer him after three years to an accredited engineering school for two years to also obtain an electrical engineering degree.

Isabella Mariani ’21 is a student writer in the Communications office.