Dean of Faculty Report, September 2007

At every monthly faculty meeting during the school year, the Dean of Faculty presents brief overviews of recent publications and other achievements by the Mount Holyoke faculty. Here are excerpts from the September 2007 report of Donal O'Shea, Dean of Faculty

New on the Web

Check out Politics Professor Doug Amy’s website. It’s great. It contains a whole book that Doug has made freely available to all. To quote Doug, “This site challenges many of the common conservative criticisms of government -- that it is massively wasteful, incompetent, the enemy of economic prosperity, etc. An objective examination of the actual record of government reveals that most of these charges are exaggerated, misleading, or simply wrong. This is not to deny that American government has its problems. For one thing, it is certainly not as democratic and accountable as it could be, and special interests have way too much political power. Such problems need to be fixed—and this site identifies several needed reforms. Nonetheless, whatever drawbacks this institution has right now are far outweighed by the enormous benefits that we all enjoy from a vast array of public sector programs. On the whole, government is good.”

Also on the online front, Robin Blaetz, Associate Professor of Film Studies and Gender Studies and chair of Film Studies, and Vinnie Ferraro, Ruth Lawson Professor of Politics and chair of international relations, have been collaborating with the New York Times in developing online courses for a worldwide audience, including, of course, Mount Holyoke alumnae. By all accounts the results so far are really good, the Times is excited, and Robin and Vinnie have been enjoying themselves.


Assistant Professor of Religion Susanne Mrozik’s book Virtuous Bodies: Physical Dimensions of Morality in Buddhist Ethics has just appeared with Oxford University Press. Most studies of Buddhist ethics have placed heartmind at the center of inquiry. Susanne examines a single text, Santideva’s eighth-century Compendium of Training, working out the implications of the work of contemporary theorists, like Michel Foucault, Paul Ricoeur, and Elizabeth Grosz, for Buddhist ethics. She observes that even negative references to corporality implicitly acknowledge the importance of the body, but she points out that these do not even come close to exhausting the references to the role individual bodhisattva bodies play in ethical and spiritual maturation of others. She thoroughly analyzes the metaphor of ripening living beings. By the end of the book, the notion that bodhisattva bodies do not play a key role in Buddhist ethics is unthinkable. Her argument is twofold. First, she persuasively argues that questions about how much of the Compendium is singly authored are irrelevant. Its existence as a compendium, as opposed to the work of a single author, and the many commentaries it contains, bespeak a shared context and understanding. Secondly, she clearly demonstrates that the concern of individual bodies is a huge part of the Compendium. Her reading of the Compendium will profoundly alter any future interpretations of it. It is hard to imagine anyone maintaining that it is all about heartmind. The book surely will thrill experts, but it offers amateurs huge amounts of pleasure, including a window into a vast world of Buddhist scholarship and an unflinching treatment of the gendering of Buddhist ideals.

New Stuff

I just received a copy of visiting Assistant Professor of History Patrick Healy’s book The Chronicle of Hugh of Flavigny: Reform and the Investiture Contest in the Late Eleventh Century.

Professor of History on the Ford Foundation Joe Ellis’s latest book, American Creation: Triumphs and Tragedies at the Founding of the Republic, will appear at the end of next month. More on both later -- the first print run of Joe’s book is a mind-boggling 650,000 copies.

Grants and Awards

Martha Ackmann, senior lecturer in Gender Studies, has received a Yoseloff Baseball Research Grant from the Society for American Baseball Research for her proposal Curveball: Toni Stone’s Challenge to Baseball and America. The grant will help Martha complete her research on women in the Negro baseball leagues. (Yes, women!) Incidentally, her Mercury 13 book is the common read at Eastern Kentucky University this fall.

Wei Chen, Associate Professor of Chemistry and chair of Chemistry, has received $218,568 from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for her project "The Exploration of New Bio-Relevant Materials Using Surface-Initiated ROMP of Low-Strain Cyclic Olefins in the Vapor Phase." A critical question faced by researchers in biomaterials is the biocompatibility of artificial implants (tubes, pacemakers, artificial organs, prostheses) in the human body. What happens with most things is that proteins stick, then cells, and lots of other stuff. Not good. So a lot of work has gone into trying to get surfaces to which proteins won’t stick. Wei and her students’ previous work, also NIH-funded, had focused on grafting a couple of well-known adsorption- and adhesion-resistant molecule types to surfaces. In this project, they are focusing on an entirely new and exciting technique that may allow them to custom-design surfaces with desirable properties. There are several favorite materials, poly(ethylene glycol) and phosphorylcholine-containing molecules. Wei proposes to look at some other materials made by sticking smaller molecules together on surfaces. Instead of working in solution, she and her students will work with a class of materials in their vapor phase. Some very recent techniques make this possible, and there is reason to be optimistic that it will eventually yield ways of constructing new biomaterials.

Sean Decatur, Marilyn Dawson Sarles, M.D. Professor of Life Sciences, Professor of Chemistry, and Associate Dean of Faculty for Science, has received $399,412 from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to fund his project “Effects of Solvent-Backbone Hydrogen Bonding and Backbone N-methylation on Peptide Conformation.” Sean and his team of students study various factors that contribute to the formation, or more accurately, misformation of protein molecules. Proteins are made by chaining together a large number of smaller molecules called amino acids, but it is the various three-dimensional shapes that give them so much of their function. How they fold into the shapes they take is one of the biggest mysteries of our times and the subject of much experimentation and computational modeling. Recent computational algorithms and processors have improved to the extent that one can now create and run mathematical and theoretical models to simulate how water molecules in a solution might prop up, support, and interact with the backbone of protein molecules. On the other hand, Sean’s group uses some equally new experimental techniques to allow them to insert isotopes into specific spots on the proteins’ backbones and to test what actually happens to parts of the protein molecule chain when interacting with water molecules. They can test the theoretical models, allowing the modelers to refine their models. Likewise, they discover new phenomena, which the modelers try to capture. This iteration between experiment and theory has produced exciting advances in understanding protein formation and shape that have consequences for our understanding of protein function and diseases like Alzheimer’s. Incidentally, apart from the science, of the 55 students who have worked in Sean’s group in the last dozen years, 15 are either in, or have completed, Ph.D. programs in chemistry and related fields. This is a stunning record.

On the purely educational side, Sean has received a $36,000 award from the Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation for his project “Assessing and Strengthening the Pipeline of Underrepresented Minorities into Successful Undergraduate Degrees.” This proposal will further develop and assess a project piloted the last two years, which involved identifying especially promising high school seniors who had been admitted to Mount Holyoke and who were from underrepresented groups. These students spend the summer following their high school senior year working in a lab on campus with Mount Holyoke students. This creates a cohort and there is special advising during the first year. In future years, these students then mentor other first-years, etc.

Becky Packard, Associate Professor of Psychology and Education, has received a $426,502 NSF grant for her project entitled “Working Class Women Using Community College Pathways to Four-Year STEM Degrees.” The proposal is informed by her CAREER grant. Recall that it has been well known that there are a number of studies of things that have caused students to leave the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields. But the studies have focused either on 1) fairly traditional students who have followed the traditional high school, then four-year college pathway or 2) urban, underrepresented youth who exhibit at-risk behavior. What about low-income urban students, whose career paths are necessarily very different? Such students frequently have periods of study interrupted with employment, or combine employment and a job. They usually go to community college. Becky’s CAREER grant looked at this understudied, but huge, group, focusing not on at-risk behavior, but on their educational and career aspirations, effective mentoring strategies, and patterns in their motivation to study science and technology. Her initial findings have been so impressive and the national need for STEM folks so great that NSF program officers approached her about undertaking a new project even before her CAREER grant expired. Almost unheard of. Becky’s new project will follow two cohorts of 75 female African American and Latino students from lower income families over a 15-month period. One will consist of high school graduates entering community college for the first time, the other of community college graduates entering four-year programs in STEM fields. There is a lot more -- construction of models, dissemination, and the like. It promises to be truly exciting (and exhausting).

Incidentally, Wei, Sean, and Becky’s grants are impressive for an additional reason. It is difficult to get a first research grant, but it is even more difficult to obtain funding for a second and third grant, especially from NIH and NSF. At that point, the honeymoon is over and the break that peer-reviewers give to promising scientists beginning their careers gives way to a more hardheaded approach to value of the science. These awards are a testimonial to the caliber to the science being done with students at the College.

Nieves Romero-Diaz, Associate Professor of Spanish and chair of Romance Languages and Literatures, received a Millicent McIntosh Fellowship of $15,000 from the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation for her project “Strategies of Influence: Engendering Politics of a Monarchy in Crisis (Advice of Women to Philip IV).” The proposal is riveting reading. Begins with 1629 when distraught Countess of Uceda writes to his majesty Philip 1V, telling Philip about how she had been deceived by don Diego de Cárdenas, Marquis of Bacares, who had promised her his hand in marriage, enjoyed her home and bed, and left her pregnant with a son. She outlines the details of her lawsuit against the Marquis and asks the king to take responsibility for herself and her son. How does she dare? What is going on? Nieves points out that the political essayists of the time link the well-being of the family to that of the state. Nieves proposes to study these writers, and four women among them in particular, who shaped the notion of the family-state and educated the poor king on his role as its head.

Al Werner, Professor of Geology, is co-PI on an NSF grant for $730,000 through Hampshire College. It will continue Al’s first Research Experiences for Undergraduates Grant, which brought our students to the Svalbard research station north of the Arctic Circle to study ice cores, allowing their teams to study climate change since the last Ice Age.

Don O’Shea