Live Biology!

From my windows at South College, the campus looks very quiet. The young students from the Center for Creative Youth and other programs stroll across Andrus Field for meals in Usdan, but on the whole it’s just too calm. So just before leaving for some time away from Wesleyan, I stopped into the Hall-Atwater labs to check out the action there

The pace changes completely when you cross Church Street and visit the science labs. There dozens of undergraduates and graduate students are busily working with faculty on sophisticated research projects in chemistry, molecular biology, physics and neuroscience (to cite just a few of the examples). There are countless examples of interdisciplinary work in fields like neuroscience, biophysics and environmental science. Much of the research going on during the summer month is funded by the Hughes Summer Research Program — — as well as funding from departments and faculty research grants. Many of our students will turn this work into theses projects, and some will be fortunate enough to become co-authors with faculty on articles in the best scientific journals. Graduate students play a crucial role in the ecology of research in the sciences. They bring experience and a depth of learning that allow them to help mentor younger students, and they complete independent projects that launch their own careers after receiving their degrees. Grad students don’t substitute for faculty at Wesleyan, but they are an essential complement to them. One of the reasons our science faculty is extraordinarily productive compared with our peer institutions, is that they have great collaborators at different levels. This benefits everyone, and it helps advance the fields in which our faculty work.

My final stop in my little tour was at Prof. Janice Naegele’s lab. Jan‘s work is in neuroscience and stem cell research, and several of her students are working on problems related to epilepsy. I was so impressed by the students’ presentations of their specific projects. They were able to explain their specific investigations and also give this non-scientist a sense of the context for their advanced work. Fludiona Naka ’11 and Raghu Appasani ‘12 gave concise yet informative descriptions of their lab activities. It also helped me that senior Efrain Ribeiro is a joint philosophy-neuroscience major, and so he could put things in terms even I could understand! All were clearly excited about their independent experiments, and they also had an impressive ability to describe how it fit into the work of the team. Other members of the lab are Debra Hall, Xu Maisano, Jia Yang and Sara Royston.

You can learn more about the exciting work of the biologists at Wesleyan by visiting the cool new website:

The sciences at Wesleyan exemplify the success of the scholar-teacher model that has long been key to our school. Long live Biology!

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Through the Eyes of Visitors on Independence Day

July 4th weekend in Middletown has been a wonderful time to show off our town and campus to some relatives visiting from Norway. It’s always interesting to see where one lives through the eyes of visitors. We grow accustomed to the beauty of the campus, with its impressive array of facilities — from the Freeman Athletic Center to the Center for the Arts. Kari’s cousins’ reactions to seeing Wesleyan for the first time was a reminder of how special university environments are. As the gloomy weather lifted, Middletowners came out in force to enjoy a perfect 4th. Check out recent posts by biology professor Steve Devoto and by alumna Jennifer Alexander ’88 on the Middletown Eye.

I had the curious task of leading my weekly Torah study group on the 4th of July, pinch-hitting for our vacationing rabbi. This week’s texts included the famously paradoxical purification ritual of the “red heifer.” I didn’t attempt to solve the enigma that is said to have stumped even Solomon but instead used the coincidence with the American holiday to talk about how a people achieves “independence.” In the case of the Jews wandering in the desert, this has to do with independence from the experience of slavery (without forgetting that experience). In the case of America, one might say that we are still working out what independence means in a dynamic, multi-polar world.

American Studies has been at the forefront of interdisciplinary academic work at Wesleyan, for years inspired by the popular culture analysis of Richard Slotkin. His work in film studies along with Jeanine Basinger’s has been fundamental to establishing film studies here. Recently, American Studies at Wes has been in a “post-national” key, exploring social and cultural formations that go beyond national borders. I’ve learned about that trend from Professor Claire Potter, who recently stepped down as Chair of the program. Claire writes about pornography, the FBI and has a very active blog: . Wesleyan’s government department is home to prolific and influential scholars of American law and politics who are also great teachers. Here are just two examples: John Finn, an expert on law, civil liberties and political violence who has just published a new edition of his co-authored American Constitutional Law; and Elvin Lim, whose incisive work on the American presidency and politics has been getting enormous attention (check out his blog: ).

Although I am a European historian, I’ve often written on American topics, especially in the press. In some of my classes we read Emerson’s take on self-reliance, or Stanley Cavell’s essays on the “unfinished project” of freedom for Americans. A few years ago I was asked to review a French philosopher’s take on the USA in American Vertigo, by Bernard-Henri Levy. Like many other reviewers, I thought the book shallow and self-serving. Today the San Francisco Chronicle published my view of Simon Schama’s new book, The American Future: A History. Although the book has its faults, I thought this British historian (now a long-term US resident) provided an interesting perspective on recent American politics in relation to some long term historical themes:

Well, my Norwegian guests are ready for the next round of activities. I wonder what else I’ll learn about Middletown from them!

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New Plans and Old Connections

Today is the first day of Wesleyan’s 2009-2010 fiscal year, a time for planning and also for a continuing review of how we performed in the year just coming to an end. That’s characteristic of summer work here: evaluating past performance and working on plans for the future. Glancing out my window at a rain-soaked Andrus Field, I look forward to summers when we will have more students on campus. As soon as faculty return for the fall semester we will brief them on our plans for a pilot for a Wesleyan Summer Session in 2010. We expect to have classes across all three divisions of the university, giving students an opportunity to pursue studies they haven’t been able to get to in the regular semester framework. I’ll be writing more about the summer program as we continue our consultations with faculty.

photo12As is often the case, as we think about new programs we are also reminded of our past. In the final days of the fiscal year Wesleyan was the beneficiary of a significant bequest. John Pallein graduated with an English major in 1950, and spent the next two years in the US Army, serving in Japan and Korea. He began working as a technical writer, first for Pratt and Whitney and later for Beckman Instruments. I met John in California just before I moved back to Middletown, and it was clear that he felt a strong loyalty to alma mater. We talked about his work in the President’s House for Victor Butterfield’s family, and his enthusiasm about recent Wes students he had met. A gentle and amiable person, we spoke about the difficulties of leaving the West Coast after so many years. John had settled in one of the most beautiful spots I’d ever seen, Dana Point, but it was clear that Middletown was a locus of cherished memories for him.  John’s bequest of more than $3 million will endow financial aid packages for Pallein Scholars in perpetuity, so that deserving students can also have access to the kinds of transformative educational experiences that served him so well.

New plans and and old connections. Early July at Wesleyan.

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