By Sasha Nyary
The newest faculty joining Mount Holyoke College bring exciting cross-disciplinary scholarship across a range of subjects: robotics, data science, computer science, English, studio art, gender studies, environmental studies, sociology and statistics.
They join the College’s thriving intellectual community, which was named No. 1 in Princeton Review’s “Professors Get High Marks” category in August.
“We are thrilled to welcome these wonderful artists, educators, innovators and researchers to our incredible faculty,” said Dorothy E. Mosby, interim dean of faculty and vice president for academic affairs. “While I look forward to the day when I can welcome them in person, I’m thrilled that they are joining us in this moment, when their minds, talents and intellectual energy are most valuable to our students, our community and our society.”
Meet Mount Holyoke’s newest faculty:
Leslie and Sarah Miller Director of the Miller Worley Center for the Environment; Associate Professor of Environmental Studies
Areas of study: community, race, and transformative learning in environmental education
Pronouns: she, her, hers
A first-generation college student, Olivia Aguilar was pre-law because she wasn’t sure what else to study. Then one summer she worked at a garden nursery. “It made me think a lot about my connection to plants and being in the garden with my grandmother,” she says. “I realized I would love to spend my time that way.”
Today, Aguilar’s research combines those interests to be at the intersection of environmental education and community-building and inclusivity, including race and ethnicity. “I’ve always been interested in trying to figure out how and why people care about the environment,” she says. “Environmental and science learning communities can be very exclusive. I want to know how they can be more inclusive of groups that are traditionally marginalized. A lot of my work is about building community. And teaching is part of my ability, I think, to affect change and make an impact.”
Heading up the Miller Worley Center for the Environment is the “opportunity of a lifetime,” Aguilar says. “To be able to address environmental issues both curricular and and cocurricular for the whole school, with an eye toward inclusivity and justice, is key for me. I know that those things are super important to Mount Holyoke too.”
Knowing that students are aligned with that mission and excited to be engaged in that work is also exciting, says Aguilar, who started at the College in January. “What I recognized in my short time on campus this spring, and then leaving when the pandemic came, was that students were still eager to have conversations and eager to be engaged. In this time, there’s so much uncertainty. None of us really knows how to navigate this. I want to continue to capture that excitement and desire to be engaged.”
Lecturer in Technical Theater and Master Electrician, Film Media Theater
Areas of study: technical theater and scenic, lighting and prop design
Pronouns: he, him, his
When Zachariah Ash-Bristol was 11 years old, his parents took him to his first concert, Kiss and Aerosmith. “I was so blown away that I got my parents to buy me these Kiss action figures,” he says. “They came with these lighting rigs and I started designing little rock ’n roll shows in the living room. I used a hole punch to make confetti.”
When he started on his bachelor’s degree he was still unsure about what aspect of theater to pursue. The technical director for his college’s theater program recognized his leadership skills on the very first day of classes and started training him to be the assistant technical director, a 6-month student position. Ash-Bristol held it for a year and a half.
Along the way, he discovered he loves teaching as much as being a technical director. “To see a student’s eyes light up when they finally understand what it’s going to look like when it goes from the paper to the stage! That’s what’s rewarding to me,” says Ash-Bristol, who is partially deaf due to childhood illness, and is always accompanied by his service dog, Ella. “That's the best part of teaching. There’s a light in there. They understand.”
His proudest accomplishments, he says, are when students write to him to say they’re going into theater. “I get letters like, ‘I went into college for accounting, but I just wanted to let you know I switched over to stage management, because of what you taught me and your introduction to the theater.’”
Ash-Bristol, who chose Mount Holyoke because of its strong foundations and its international student population, delights in introducing students to the world of technical theater, which offers the chance to participate without being seen. “I can help students perfect their skills and find out what they want to do for a job, while still being able to hide behind the curtain if they choose to.”
Associate Professor of Gender Studies; Chair of Gender Studies
Areas of study: Black feminisms; Black feminist theories; race, class, and gender; motherhood; marriage and family; work and family policy; Black feminist anthropology; urban studies and public policy; housing and urban education; African/Black diaspora studies; the U.S. South
Pronouns: she, her, hers
Riché Barnes went to college planning to become an attorney, but then she fell in love with cultural anthropology — and the life of a professor.
“My type of service has always been about helping the next generation in some way,” said Barnes, a first-generation college graduate who is currently president of the Association of Black Anthropologists. “That’s what drew me, in addition to wanting to pursue my own research questions. When I realized that the life of a professor is about reading, writing and service, I thought, that’s the job for me.” Her Spelman College professors, who included her mentor, the anthropologist Johnnetta B. Cole, encouraged her to pursue a doctorate.
Barnes seeks to understand the experience of Black women in the South and their connections to the Caribbean and West Africa. Her award-winning book, “Raising the Race: Black Career Women Redefine Marriage, Motherhood, and Community,” explores what she calls Black strategic mothering as a way of understanding the complexities of that community’s survival strategies as they pertain to motherhood, work and community. Her current work explores how Black women navigate school choice, particularly as it relates to public education.
After working at several colleges, Barnes deliberately chose Mount Holyoke, she says, because she felt she would be able to continue her social justice inclusion work, such as supporting — and increasing the numbers of — first-generation college students, and students and faculty of color.
“I know the traditional Seven Sisters, the Ivies and selective liberal arts colleges weren't thinking about me when they were founded,” she says. “Mount Holyoke is thinking about me now, and those who are coming behind me. You can see the commitment. It’s not just lip service. That’s what I’ve seen so far, and not just since I started in January — that’s what I’ve seen over time. What brought me to Mount Holyoke is knowing that I can be a part of its continued strategies and continued movement in that direction.”
Assistant Professor of Sociology
Areas of study: Organizations, education, science and technology, data science, and computational text analysis
Pronouns: he, him, his
The child of an anthropologist and a sociologist, Benjamin Gebre-Medhin’s research straddles the divide between the two disciplines.
“My fundamental passion has been how universities and students combined to reshape politics and cultures in developing and developed states,” he says. His undergraduate thesis on student-led democracy movements took him to Eritrea, his father’s home country, to do field work. He later returned to Africa to pursue scholarly and development work before joining the Peace Corps and working in Jordan.
Gebre-Medhin’s research in graduate school led him to his upcoming book, “Reengineering the American Elite: Tradition, Technology, and Transformation in Higher Education.” It is to be published by the University of Chicago Press and focuses on elite universities delivering online undergraduate coursework at scale.
“Specifically, I’m looking at how Stanford, MIT and Harvard produced and responded to the MOOC [massive open online course] movement of 2012,” he says. “For me, it’s interesting to analyze how a relatively minor innovation like online learning can be a window into the world of changing educational practice, educational organization and the broader social order. Being at Mount Holyoke at the time of the pandemic — all our classes are online this fall — is an extraordinary opportunity. It gives me an amazing perspective on this book project.”
Being at Mount Holyoke at any time is a privilege, Gebre-Medhin says, noting that the College is “one of the places that represents most faithfully and excitingly the liberal arts ethos. It's a small community, full of dynamic scholars — those who are just discovering their intellectual priorities and passions and those who are at the forefront of their fields. That’s an educational ideal that I’ve come to appreciate in my own life and in my own work. It’s a uniquely American organizational form and one that has a great deal to offer both undergraduates and working scholars and society at large.”
Assistant Professor of English
Areas of study: hybrid-genre writing, experimental fiction writing, poetry writing
Pronouns: she, her, hers
Poet and author Anna Maria Hong describes her childhood self as a voracious reader who loved fairy tales, myths and fables. Her poetry often references that literature, as does “H & G,” her novella, which is a reimagining of Hansel and Gretel.
Reviewers described “H & G” as “a mordantly funny dismantling of loss and abandonment” and “brimming with biting wit, feminist insight, psychological incisiveness, and a hybrid narrative daring that turns genre on its head.”
Hong, who has also published two award-winning books of poetry and the prose anthology “Growing Up Asian American,” specializes in teaching experimental fiction and hybrid-genre writing. “Teaching is this wonderful space where you can genuinely talk about literature and writing and the craft of writing, but even more than that, just about books, from a writer’s perspective,” she said. “Getting to be in a creative writing classroom is an unusual space. It’s exciting to expose students to different approaches and styles that they may not have encountered before. It’s really exciting to see people's work grow, which frequently happens very quickly. It’s super gratifying.”
Hong, who was a judge at the College’s Kathryn Irene Glascock 1922 Intercollegiate Poetry Competition in 2019, is delighted to be at Mount Holyoke. “I was looking for a place that privileges feminism as much as I do,” she said. “That’s pretty hard to find. And I knew English was a really friendly and thoughtful and smart department. That was hugely appealing to me. I feel like I hit the jackpot.”
“FABLESQUE” is the title poem from Anna Maria Hong's newest book of poetry.
“FABLESQUE” by Anna Maria Hong
Now gather up the elements: sleep and kiss
and fat and hair. Get me a goose and glass
a casket. Tump a princeling full of blare.
Here is the fish blown to ocean. Here,
the little basket of bittering flares.
Silver and silver, sighs the mirror.
Silver, silver, hi-dee-ho. Under each story
lies a fable, beneath the fable, a shallow
row. I put on white to stave the worry.
My lips are as red as nuclear snow.B
ring me a cup of explicable fury.
Divine the whither, if not the when.
I toss a coin in the seven-cent fountain.
The mirror tells me: Wish again.
– Anna Maria Hong
Associate Professor of Art
Area of study: multimedia artist
Pronouns: she, her, hers
While Lisa Iglesias didn’t grow up around artists, she was raised in an atmosphere of industry and creativity, including sewing and repairing of clothing, plus a respect for treasured inherited handmade objects, among other sparks and interests.
After graduating from college, Iglesias’s decision to pursue a degree in studio art felt familiar. “I realized that art can encapsulate the subjects and issues that I care most about,” she says. “I didn’t have to limit my focus to psychology or literature or education. I could actually revel in all of those research curiosities and passions — as an artist. Creating art allows me to weave all these things together.”
Working with canvas, paper, graphite, video, concrete and fibers, Iglesias creates art collaboratively and individually. In her collaborative practice, Las Hermanas Iglesias, she partners with her sister Janelle Iglesias, a sculptor who teaches at the University of California, San Diego. They regularly invite other family members, including their mother, Bodhild Iglesias, and Lisa Iglesias’s 7-year-old son, to work with them. The collaborations have often extended to musicians, writers, friends and community members. In her current individual practice, she is using graphite and paper to create a series of portraits of people who have contributed to social movements in the United States.
“There is a reckoning happening right now with potential for change and transformation,” she says. “Teaching is a privilege, and an opportunity to contribute to that process. That’s what draws me to Mount Holyoke, which has always seemed to me this really intimate place of cross-pollination, of exchange and sharing. I kept hearing that Mount Holyoke is a community where people work together, where the students are super engaged. This is a moment of intense potential. That’s both really challenging and very exciting.”
Assistant Professor of Computer Science
Areas of study: Computer systems and computer networks
Pronouns: he, him, his
James “Murphy” McCauley was always interested in building things, whether blocks or electronics. Then his older brother showed him how to write the simplest program on the family Apple.
“I was blown away,” he says. “I could spend all afternoon working up the circuits to make a light blink and here his name was flashing all over the screen in 10 seconds. That notion of going from idea to execution so quickly drew me in immediately.”
More than theory or applications, it’s still networking and systems that appeal to him, says McCauley, who approaches his research with an eye toward rethinking accepted practices.
“There’s so much new stuff in computer science all the time,” he says. “I look at the everyday things and ask, are they still the best that we could do? I often find that the way people use something, or a piece of technology, has changed. A solution that we’ve had for a long time may not be the best solution anymore. I like trying to address that, to ask, if we weren't doing it this way, how would we do it?”
McCauley worked as a programmer in the early years of the internet before going to college, which was life-changing. “When I think of myself as a student, it really started there,” he says.
He found his true role models in graduate school, inspiration that he hopes to pass on to his students. “Getting on the other side has been attractive to me for a long time,” he says. “Teaching is a way to make an impact on the world.”
He was drawn to Mount Holyoke specifically because of the campus — and the passion of the computer science department. “Among the faculty there is such a combination of ambition for, and sincere belief in, the department and the students and the institution,” he says. “I also met with a number of students and former students who saw their time here as so positive, so constructive,” he says. “It’s difficult to argue with people finding their own version of success. It was a really powerful experience.”
Assistant Director, Teaching Leadership Programs; Master of Arts in Teaching, Teacher Leadership (M.A.T.L.); Professional and Graduate Education (PaGE)
Pronouns: he, him, his
Eric Schildge’s perspective on teaching is informed by his experience as a professional bike racer: His job was to contribute to the team in order for the team to achieve its goal, even if that meant that a teammate won and not him.
“That’s a really good mentality for people who work together on a team, like with your colleagues in the school building,” he says. “It’s not so much about claiming the glory for yourself but focusing on executing the team’s overall mission.”
Schildge brings his team-first approach to his classrooms, whether teaching graduate students at Mount Holyoke — his courses include education policy and instructional design for online learning — or 8th graders at Nock Middle School in Newburyport, Massachusetts, where he teaches English.
Schildge enrolled in Mount Holyoke’s graduate program in part because his wife, Carleigh Beriont ’10, had an experience he calls “unique and transformative” as an undergraduate, as did his sister, Anya Schildge ’07.
Still, he was a little wary about online learning, he says. “But over the course of the program, I was absolutely blown away. My cohort created such a strong bond. And we’ve stayed connected, interacting as resources and sources of support for one another, particularly during this pandemic. I was amazed at how through these Zoom classes and online experiences we could forge such a strong bond. That’s a testament to the way Mount Holyoke approaches in-person and online learning. It places such a premium on what really is effective in terms of building a strong community.”
Mount Holyoke offers what Schildge calls “an implicit emphasis on acting in the service of good.”
“It’s in the DNA of what you’re learning that goes back right to the beginning,” he says. “Mount Holyoke has always been involved in societal transformation. When you see events like the Laurel Parade and you hear the graduates singing ‘Bread and Roses,’ it brings you back to the radical mission that the school had from the start. I like being a part of that. It’s a privilege. I’m really lucky to be able to do that and to help further its mission in some small way.”
Assistant Professor of Statistics
Areas of study: mathematical framework for machine learning, Bayesian inference, high-dimensional data analysis
Pronouns: she, her, hers
As a child, Shan Shan believed that mathematicians were old boring men who were so preoccupied they walked into trees. But then she took her first calculus class in college and fell in love with math’s clarity and structure.
Today, Shan Shan develops computational tools to define biological surfaces, such as teeth and bones, to help biologists in their study of evolution.
“Even chocolate factories use some of the algorithms that we’re interested in,” she says. “They look at the features on the chocolate surface to decide what chocolate shape will trigger taste buds.”
In her work, Shan Shan examines both the individual shape and the space of all possible shapes.
“I’m asking, how do you use numbers to describe the very different structures of shapes?” she says. “For example, the teeth of lemurs from Madagascar — the ridges, the grooves, the basin. I want the computer to do the heavy lifting of the computation in a stable and robust way.”
She also examines shapes from a macro perspective, Shan Shan says. “We believe that each shape can be represented by a small number of variables. My research is to find these intrinsic low-dimensional structures in the space of all shapes.”
What excites her about being at Mount Holyoke is the thriving data science culture on campus, she says.
“What’s unique about Mount Holyoke is that the students are earnest to learn and they have a sense of responsibility for the events happening around them and they want to play a role,” she says. “I want them to use what we learn to advance their fields and engage with the social and intellectual challenges of our times. I see remote teaching as a challenge, but also an opportunity to help students engage in these new media of learning and feel empowered that they can learn anywhere, anytime.”
Assistant Professor of Gender Studies
Areas of study: critical race, affect studies, aesthetics, visual culture, Black diaspora, Black and transnational feminisms, queer and trans* of color critique, photography and time-based media, contemporary art, cultural studies, performance theory.
Pronouns: she, her, hers and they, them, theirs
As a professor, scholar and artist, Sarah Stefana Smith exemplifies cross-pollination.
Smith uses scholarship and visual arts to explore Black art and culture, queer-of-color critique, affect studies, performance and aesthetics. Their current book project explores proliferations of anti-Blackness, power, art and nation in relation to contemporary art from the United States and South Africa. Their artwork is based in sculpture, photography and what they call “photo-based weavings” and installations.
“Deconstructing the image, crafting the image and imagining something new has always been interesting to me,” says Smith, who is working on a project called “Amends,” which uses the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments as a mechanism of exploration. “I’m interested in abstraction and its connection to thinking about racial and sexual differences. What does it mean to amend or mend something, to make it just or right?”
In their role as a teacher, Smith says, using many disciplines and practices becomes a way to explore learning.
“Engaging through interdisciplinary work is applicable to studio art, whether you’re thinking about sculpture or painting, and also when you’re thinking about gender or mathematics or science — these fields are always informing and shaping each other,” they say. “It becomes a way of seeing unlikely connections. It’s where innovation lives. You’re imagining relationships between ideas and people and beliefs that are often viewed as separate.”
The College’s history is one of the many reasons Smith is excited about her new position. “Mount Holyoke is at the forefront of rethinking a women’s college by being adamant about including trans students and revisiting its history,” they say. “That makes me hopeful in terms of thinking about historical moments of time, where really amazing coalitions emerge.”
That’s what made their interviews with Mount Holyoke students so exciting, Smith says. “One of the first questions they asked me was, ‘How are you thinking about incorporating studio art practices in a gender-studies classroom?’ They were willing to be experimental and creative and try some things. When I have opportunities to work with students who are willing to take the leap, that’s really exciting.”
Assistant Professor of Computer Science
Areas of study: computer vision, haptics, medical robotics, bilateral teleoperation, image segmentation, 3D reconstruction
Pronouns: she, her, hers
Growing up in Taiwan, Yun-Hsuan “Melody” Su first became interested in robotics as a child because she couldn’t have a pet. One Christmas she received a robotic puppy. She loved it so much she broke it apart to see how it worked, but was then unable to put it back together.
Today, Su studies the integration of computer vision and haptics — communication and perception via touch — in order to improve surgical robots. She uses vision camera information from real-time videos taken during surgery to predict or estimate haptic feedback during surgery. Unsurprisingly, she works across disciplines with experts from a range of fields, including biology, bioengineering, computer science, electrical and mechanical engineering — and of course physicians.
She’s excited about being at Mount Holyoke for several reasons, first and foremost because it is a liberal arts college. “What I love about teaching is that I really like the interaction I can have with students in the classroom setting,” Su says. “I like the fact that Mount Holyoke provides those smaller class sizes that allow students to voice their opinions on different matters. I would love to create in my future classes a more engaging environment for students.”
She’s also looking forward to collaborating with her colleagues at Mount Holyoke and in the region, Su says. “I’m excited to develop some passion in the robotics field. On my first day as a freshman in college I was literally the only female student in my class, which was a shocking and abrupt change after coming from an all-girls high school. I really am grateful to my professors who encouraged me and sparked my passion for doing research in robotics. I love to be in that role now, inspiring students.”