Professors Serving Scholarship and Social Good

Sunday’s Nicholas Kristof’s column (NYT online) was entitled “Professors, We need You!”  He begins this way, “Some of the smartest thinkers on problems at home and around the world are university professors, but most of them just don’t matter in today’s great debates,” and then he quotes former Princeton prof Anne-Marie Slaughter: “All the disciplines have become more and more specialized and more and more quantitative, making them less and less accessible to the general public.”

I think there is a lot of truth to this line of thought, and it is worth emphasizing that most graduate programs do promote specialization at the expense of broader communication. Acquiring deep expertise in molecular biology, macroeconomics or romantic poetry is a vital endeavor, but that doesn’t have to mean that the experts lose connection with the broader public. Here at Wes, I can think of so many people on the faculty who defy the trend that Kristof is describing. I hesitate to name some individuals for fear of omitting others. But here goes.

Let’s begin with the programs developed here over the years that draw on deep expertise but accentuate cross-fertilization and translation skills. The College of Social Studies and the College of Letters have depended on faculty stretching beyond their given fields for more than 50 years. The teachers don’t do this as a tired obligation but engage in these programs with real passion. The same can be said of the College of the Environment, which explicitly connects to policy and public culture through its Think Tank. The new College of Film and the Moving Image combines deep expertise about cinema with public outreach in Middletown and popular historical scholarship in the widely celebrated work of Jeanine Basinger. Newer interdisciplinary investigation is also thriving at Wesleyan. I’m thinking of our folks working in Animal Studies or in Food Studies through, say, the Long Lane Farm. There are specialists in all these programs, but they are eager to go beyond their areas of specialization and have an effect on the world.

And I can’t help but think of Richard Grossman, an economics prof who has been churning out op-eds on monetary and banking policy with great regularity, even as he publishes important scholarly economic history books. Or I think of Gina Ulysse (who teaches anthropology, FGSS and African-American Studies), who has published ethnography and also engaged in dance, spoken-word and performance pieces. I just read some of her art criticism on the Huffington Post, and I know she is also preparing her own installation/performance. That’s not what she was told to do in graduate school.

Mary-Alice Haddad in government has combined her research on civic mobilization with teaching students how to participate in political movements in our own region. Her real expertise doesn’t put her in a cloister, to use Kristof’s word; it helps her engage vital social and political issues. Similar things might be said about anthropologist Kēhaulani Kauanui’s work with indigenous people around the world or economist Gary Yohe’s efforts to understand questions of probability and risk in regard to climate change. Both have worked with the United Nations, and both reach wide audiences with serious scholarship.

Our scientists, of course, are taking on big questions in specific research through which they can make a measurable difference. This may be in regard to epilepsy (Laura Grabel, Janice Naegele, Gloster Aaron), or muscular development and degeneration (Stephen Devoto). As a group, the science faculty has undertaken an initiative to help students from under-represented groups prepare for graduate work. This pipeline program can have a powerful effect on a number of fields and on our public culture.

Historians are no strangers to a public role. Magda Teter, for example, has explicitly used her deep archival research on Polish-Jewish relations to influence the way groups interact today. Lois Brown, professor of African American Studies and English, knows more about particular slave lives than anyone alive today. She is a specialist. But she can also be an impassioned contributor to educating Americans about slavery and abolitionism through mass audience public television programs.

Speaking of “mass,” I should definitely mention Scott Plous’ enormously successful Social Psychology class on Coursera. It wasn’t just that Scott attracted more than 200,000 people to his class, it was that at every turn he connected his teaching to action in the world. On campus and on his Social Psychology Network, Scott is a leader in “action teaching.” On campus and online, he aims to ensure that the lessons of social psychology — lessons about how we live together — are not “merely academic.”

The Allbritton Center for the Study of Public Life (which houses the Patricelli Center for Social Entrepreneurship, Center for Community Partnerships and Prison Education and the Quantitative Analysis Center) can stand for countless other efforts that our faculty make to connect deep academic learning to work in the world that makes a difference.

This intellectual cross-training and the translational research that is a part of it have been hallmarks of the Wesleyan experience for decades – and reason for pride for all involved with this institution.

And for the dozens and dozens of colleagues I could have mentioned in this blog…please forgive me. But perhaps you (or your students) will send in examples through the comments…


Wesleyan Scientists Win Big Grant (Again)

Reading the Hartford Courant, I came across the following story:

The latest round of state funding for stem cell research — totaling $9.8 million — will go to 23 research projects, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s office announced Thursday. The Connecticut Stem Cell Research Advisory Committee chose the recipients from among 109 applicants. The largest award, $1.49 million, went to Janice Naegele at Wesleyan University for a project titled “HESC-Derived GABAergic Neurons for Epilepsy Therapy.”

I wrote to Professor Naegele, who told me that the “grant is a multi-Investigator grant with Gloster Aaron and Laura Grabel. These funds will allow us to embark on new studies to determine whether human embryonic stem cell-derived GABAergic interneuron transplants restore memory and reduce seizures and anxiety in mice with severe temporal lobe epilepsy. The grant also provides stipends for graduate students and undergraduate researchers.”

This is the kind of project that is many years in the making, and I know that Profs. Naegele, Aaron and Grabel (and their students) have been dedicated to stem cell research in the epilepsy field for a long time now. When I’ve visited their labs, I’ve been so impressed by the students’ dedication and expertise. This is a great example of how scholar-teachers at Wesleyan are having an impact on the world and on their students. Congratulations to everyone who worked on the grant!


Science, Ethics and Liberal Arts Education

I’ve recently had a series of talks with education officials, journalists and families about liberal arts education. There are international dimensions to these conversations that are exceptionally interesting to me, and I want to return to those in some future blog postings. Some of these discussions have concentrated on contrasts between a broad liberal arts education and a focused, technical study of STEM fields. This has struck me as odd because broad liberal learning also serves these fields so well. Today I am thinking about the ways in which the sciences are linked to the other liberal arts. In some contexts, people talk about the liberal arts and the sciences, as if biology and chemistry, physics and astronomy weren’t already part of the liberal arts. Even at Wesleyan there had been a tendency to make this two cultures mistake, which risks separating the sciences from our liberal arts mission. Regardless of which disciplines come to mind when we hear “liberal arts,” the fact is that almost all our science majors take classes in the social sciences, arts and humanities, and that there has been increasing interest among humanists, artists and social scientists in scientific research practices.

Many of our scientists have been interested in the intersection of their work with the broader community. Peter Patton, long-time faculty member in Earth and Environmental Sciences, recently led a field trip with students to study changes to some deep-rooted ecosystems in Puerto Rico. Last week biologist Janice Naegele spoke with a group of faculty from across the curriculum about her lab’s stem-cell work on brain seizures, and she also teaches classes that emphasize writing about science —   translating research into clear terms for the generally educated reader. Suzanne O’Connell, a scientist now directing our Service Learning Center, has a similar concern about the dissemination of research. You can tune in to her “Science on the Radio” class. And there are plenty of other science faculty I could mention in this regard, as well as students who are helping to teach science to youngsters in Middletown.

Wesleyan’s Science in Society Program is at the heart of our efforts to maintain robust interconnections between the sciences and all the other fields on campus. For example, for many years philosopher Joe Rouse (who heads the program) has explored how scientific legitimacy is achieved, and how specific disciplinary practices in the sciences create modes of understanding. Laura Stark, a sociologist who also teaches in the SiSP program, has just published Behind Closed Doors: IRNs and the Making of Ethical Research. Laura’s work explores how institutional review boards come to approve some experiments and not others, and how their criteria for decision making reflects conceptions of what it means to be human and to have rights. In history, Bill Johnston, Paul Erickson and Jennifer Tucker all connect the sciences to their cultural contexts, as does Gillian Goslinga in anthropology. Jill Morawski, another member of SiSP and a psychologist who has been directing the Center for the Humanities, has been linking the topics at CHUM with issues in the sciences that intersect with philosophy, history, gender studies and ethics. Speaking of ethics, philosopher Lori Gruen’s work in animal studies has been very much influenced by her team teaching over the years with scientists. She has been at the forefront of the university’s curricular development in ethics.

Last year I joined the board of the Hastings Center, a non-partisan research institution dedicated to bioethics and the public interest.  The president of the organization asked me to address the links between its mission in bioethics and the mission of universities and colleges dedicated to liberal arts education. The founders of the Hastings Center knew that science was too important to leave in the hands only of specialists, and over the years the staff has developed a robust research organization that connects advanced scientific work with ethical and policy issues. In a similar vein, I think it’s crucial that liberal arts colleges and universities ensure that higher education isn’t left in the hands only of specialists. We are connecting our schools to the worlds of public life, the economy and the broader culture. These connections will make for healthier and more successful scientific and educational institutions.

Here’s a link to my talk for Hastings:



Science (and other things) to Cheer About

I had written most of this blog before last night’s fire in the Hall Atwater Chemistry Building. Fortunately, there were no serious injuries, and thanks to the dedicated work of the Fire Department, Public Safety and our Physical Plant staff, we are preparing for the re-occupancy of most of the building very soon. We are currently rescheduling classrooms. For more information about Hall-Atwater, check:

WesFest is over now, and it was a great weekend for introducing prospective students to the campus, the academics, and the special culture of Wesleyan. I described this as best I could each morning as I welcomed parents and their (recently accepted to Wes) students gathered in Beckham Hall. Our visitors acquired a more meaningful feel for the university from panels, from classes, from the vibe on Foss Hill as the spring sun finally arrived, and from the great music emanating from WestCo or even from interlopers on Andrus Field.

Courtesy of Olivia Bartlett
Mad Wow Disease – Foss Hill

Almost every time I go around showing the campus to others, I myself discover something about our school that deepens my appreciation of what goes on here. This weekend there were plenty of athletic contests to look in on. I watched tennis, track and lacrosse, and in each case the students put forth impressive efforts. This was no surprise to me because I’d met the coaches and many of the players already.  On Saturday I also discovered the dynamic wonder that is Nietzsch Factor, Wesleyan’s Ultimate Frisbee team. Peter Lubershane ’10 had let me know that the team had organized a multi-school tournament at the Long Lane fields. Even from my brief visit to the sidelines, I could see that Wes is a real powerhouse in this sport. And have athletes ever had more fun? I often talk about the exuberance of our students, and it was in full flower Saturday in that competition.

On Friday I stopped in at the Science Center and saw some student work displayed in the lobby. The students were holding a poster session on their research projects — from computer science to astronomy, from physics and earth science to neuroscience and mathematics.  I was struck by how conceptually sophisticated and empirically grounded the work was. In short, there was plenty to cheer about.

Jan Naegele introduced me to a few of her students, including Keith Tan ‘09, who gave me a fine description of his work on cell death. It seems that cell death is something at times to be encouraged, and Keith’s research explored some of the biochemistry that made the process possible.

Courtesy of Olivia Bartlett
Listening to Professor Naegele and Keith Tan ’09 @ the poster session

Hannah Sugarman ‘09 talked to me about her thesis research, through which she discovered more than a dozen new black holes in our “local universe.” Who knew? Certainly not I. The collaborative nature of the work across the sciences was especially impressive.  As I was I checking out the astronomy project of Anna Williams ’09, I noticed some printed papers appended to the poster board and asked about them. She cheerfully replied that she and some astronomy colleagues had already published some of the results in a scientific journal. It was the reprint that was hanging from the poster, and there are more publications to come!

Courtesy of Olivia Bartlett
Hannah Sugarman ’09 and Professor Laurel Appel

Scientific research at Wesleyan is one of the distinctive aspects of the university. Our students are not just spectators of science; they are active participants in it. Our small graduate programs allow our undergrads to establish working relationships with more experienced students while they continue to do research with faculty engaged with projects of international import. Wesleyan has shown for decades that a small liberal arts institution can contribute to advancing scientific fields. The poster session during WesFest underscored how vital that contribution continues to be.

All photos courtesy of Olivia Bartlett

[tags] Halls Atwater fire, Fire Department, Public Safety, Physical Plant, WesFest, Beckham Hall, Mad Wow Disease, Nietzsch Factor, Peter Lubershane, research, Jan Naegle, Keith Tan, Hannah Sugarman, Laurel Appel, Anna Williams, Olivia Bartlett[/tags]