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The O'Shea Report: April 2002

At every monthly faculty meeting during the school year, Dean of Faculty Donal O'Shea presents brief overviews of recent publications and other achievements by the Mount Holyoke faculty. Here are excerpts from his report for April 2002.

Sarah Bacon, Clare Boothe Luce Assistant Professor of Biology, has been awarded $110,480 by the National Institutes of Health AREA program for her project "Maternal-Fetal Immune Interaction and Pregnancy Success." One of the mysteries of mammalian pregnancy is that the embryo and its mother are genetically distinct individuals, yet the mothers immune system does not reject the embryo; in fact, there is some evidence that the more the genes coding for immune responsiveness (the genes of the so-called MHC, the Major Histocompatibilty Complex) differ from mother to embryo, the better the embryo fares after conception. Bacons work and that of her students will examine and quantify this effect in pregnant rats. The proposed work uses some research techniques that have not previously been used in rats to type the MHC.

Wei Chen, Mary E. Woolley Assistant Professor of Chemistry, has received a $114,000 grant from the National Science Foundation for her project "Independent and Simultaneous Tailoring of Surface Topography and Chemical Structure for Controlled Wettability." The grant will run three years. Chen proposes to create and study surfaces with different degrees of wettability. How a liquid wets a surface is a key parameter in characterizing the relationship between a solid surface and a liquid in contact with it. There is still not a good understanding of the relationship between roughness of a surface and wettability; indeed, when one talks of roughness, one has to specify at what scale or scales a surface is rough. Chen and her students propose to stick little polymer particles to surfaces to create surfaces that are rough at very fine scales and to examine the effects of this roughness on how well water and other solutions wet the surface. No data is available for scales less than two micrometers. Chen and her students will systematically explore this. They will also vary the surface chemistry by introducing OH and NH2 groups in the surface layers. Both the deposition of very fine particles on a surface and the introduction of OH and NH2 groups require a firm control of technique. The analysis of the surfaces uses both scanning electron microscopy and the new XPS facility at the University of Massachusetts. This work will allow our students to work in the forefront of polymer chemistry.

Professor of Economics Eva Paus has received a grant from the Marion and Jasper Whiting Foundation in support of her project "From Clothing to Computers through Foreign Investment: Lessons from Costa Rica and Ireland for Industrial Leapfrogging in Small Middle-Income Developing Countries." She plans to do a comparative study of Costa Rica and Ireland to determine the conditions under which foreign direct investment can be used to stimulate a middle-income developing country to shift from an economy characterized by low-skilled, labor-intensive production to one characterized by high-skilled, technology-intensive production.

Professor of English Don Weber has been awarded $5,000 by the Lucius N. Littauer Foundation to work on completing his book on modern Jewish culture, tentatively titled Accents of the Future. The book will establish the importance of key words of immigrant Jewish expression such as memory and repression, civility and table manners, shame and self-hatred, mourning and nostalgia, and use them to show how a variety of Jewish American writers and makers of popular culture negotiated their creative encounters with the new world.

Passion and Paradox: Intellectuals Confront the National Question, a new book by Professor of Politics Joan Cocks, has just appeared with Princeton University Press. "I had avoided the national question for most of my life, in part because other questions seemed more pressing to me and my generation but also because of my almost instinctive antipathy toward nationalist sentiments," writes Cocks. The outburst of patriotic fervor in this country surrounding the Gulf War changed Cockss avoidance to a horrified fascination and led to this highly nuanced and beautifully written reflection on nationalism and what such intellectuals as Marx, Luxemburg, Arendt, Nairn, Naipaul, and Said have to say about it. Cocks discusses the ambiguities, complexities, and contradictions that inhere in nationalist ideas and movements. She devotes a chapter to Jewish nationalism and considers, more generally (and none too fondly), ethnonationalism. Her discussion of intellectuals highlights conceptual antinomies, such as particularism and universalism, ethno- and civic nationalism, separation and assimilation, and nationalism and cosmopolitanism. The book defies easy characterization; to read it is to be privy to a supple and passionate conversation that acknowledges complexity and double-sidedness, but that never fails to take a stand.

Having a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science signals genuine achievement. Aaron Ellison, Marjorie Fisher Professor of Environmental Studies, and his coworker, Nicholas Gotelli, have just had an extraordinary paper appear there. The paper begins with two seemingly unrelated remarks. The first is that the release of nitrogen into ecosystems as a result of human activities is a serious problem but one that is difficult to handle because of the difficulty of measuring nitrogen depositions. The second is that it seems that pitcher plants are carnivorous because they grow in habitats that are poor in nitrogen; collecting rainwater and insects in pitcher shaped leaves allows them to get access to nitrogen not available in the soil. Ellison and Gotelli actually run a careful experiment verifying this (they sprayed plants with nitrogen over the course of a summer and showed that the pitcher shaped leaves opened up and that the plants became less reliant on carnivory when nitrogen was present). They then turn things around and show that one can count pitcher plants and observe their leaves to determine excess nitrogen depositions. The remarkable conclusion is that merely counting plants in bogs gives a way to measure how much nitrogen is being deposited in the area.

Dale Seymour Publishers has just published four new books and two new videos in the "Developing Mathematical Ideas" series by Virginia Bastable, director of SummerMath for Teachers and lecturer in mathematics, and her collaborators. This series grows out of "Teaching to the Big Ideas," a joint NSF Teacher Enhancement Project with SummerMath for Teachers, Educational Development Corporation, and TERC, a not-for-profit education research and development organization in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Preliminary, prepublication editions of the books came out last year. These are the final editions of the books and deal with geometry; one is devoted to the properties of shapes and the other to measuring them. As was the case with earlier elements of the series, in which Assistant Director of SummerMath for Teachers Jill Lester was also an author, each topic is the subject of two books, a casebook that introduces the topic and contains excerpts of actual classroom dialogues with very patient teachers, together with a facilitators guide that contains extra material and suggests exercises to the student. Each topic is also accompanied by a videotape. The books are fascinating. My favorite is Examining Features of Shape; it has topics that you dont see in texts but that bother first-time learners (such as, what really is an angle? is it the intersecting lines? just the inside, in which case does it go off forever? the degree measure? etc., or what is two dimensional and what is three dimensional?). If you are trying to explain things to a child or someone else, I can think of no better books to pick up. Even if you hate math, these books are for you; you come away with the sense of it as a profoundly human activity.

Richard Robin, professor emeritus of philosophy, has just received the Herbert Scheider Award, which is the highest honor bestowed by the Society for Advancement of American Philosophy. It is awarded for distinguished contributions to the understanding of American philosophy over ones career. The society cites Robins work on Charles S. Peirce.

I have a growing backlog of papers and have just received a number of others: Scott Brown, director of Career Development Center and adjunct lecturer in psychology and education, and his collaborators have a paper discussing qualitative methods as a way of building theory in student affairs research; Sirkka Kauffman, director of sponsored research, has a paper on assessment of student learning; Francesca Santovetti, visiting associate professor of Italian, has written "Chronicles of a Death Foretold"; Charlene Morrow, codirector of SummerMath for Teachers and lecturer in psychology and education, has written on "Using Graphs to Color Origami Polyhedra"; Roberto Marquez, William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Latin American and Caribbean Studies, has an article in the new issue of Latino(a) Research Review; and Carolyn Collette, Professor of English Languages and Literature on the Alumnae Foundation, has one in Studies in the Age of Chaucer. Christopher Pyle, professor of politics, gave the Forefathers Day Address at the Pilgrim Society of Plymouth Massachusetts. I have others from Idella Plimpton Kendall Professor John Varriano, Assistant Professor of Classics Geoffrey Sumi, and Professor of Art Michael Davis.

Wendy Sutherland, visiting instructor in German, has just received word that her dissertation has been accepted by the University of Pennsylvania.

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