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The O'Shea Report: December 2003

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 December 2003.


Jill Bubier, assistant professor of environmental studies, has just learned that she has been awarded a five-year CAREER award for $500,000 from the National Science Foundation for her proposal "Strategies for Understanding the Effects of Global Climate and Environmental Change on Northern Peatlands." No one - not even Jill - expected that she would receive this award. For one thing, the NSF's Ecosystem Studies Program has been flooded with proposals, including 20 proposals for CAREER grants, almost entirely from Research I Institutions. For another, Jill had already received a hyper-prestigious $390,000 NASA Young Investigator Award just three years ago, and there is a strong desire among reviewers to try to spread the limited funds around. In the end, the Ecosystem Studies Program decided to make just two CAREER awards, and Jill's was one. Jill and her students plan to study the effect on one another of peatland ecosystems and atmosphere in response to global climate change and increasing nitrogen deposition. They will do this by studying bogs in Canada, the United States, and Finland. The reviewers heaped praise on the accomplishments of Jill and her students to date, the quality of the science, and the contribution that Jill was making to our understanding of basic biochemical function and feedback loops between environment and climate change. Some thought Jill should add more research sites, while others thought the proposal was already too ambitious. All the reviewers were blown away by the College's Cascade Mentoring Summer Research program, by which more advanced students mentor beginning students.

Sean Decatur, associate professor and chair of chemistry, has won a Henry Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar Award from the Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation. This is an incredibly prestigious award - institutions can nominate at most one member and lots of letters are required from chemists outside the institution. Award winners are chosen from among those who demonstrate dedication to excellence in undergraduate education as well as exceptional success in teaching and research and in encouraging undergraduates to become effective members of the chemical profession. The award provides an unrestricted grant of $60,000 to Sean to further his work. He plans to use it for his project "Studies of Protein Folding and Misfolding in Vitro: Isotope-Edited Infrared Spectroscopy of Protein Aggregates." His early work with students had shown that combining isotope labeling with infrared spectroscopy could improve the resolution of the latter and allow one to get a good handle on the way certain proteins fold. He proposes to use this new technique with his students to study not how proteins fold when they are behaving themselves, but how they can misfold, creating fibrous protein globs. This mechanism seems to be behind Alzheimer's and various other unwholesome disorders (such as mad cow disease and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease). Not surprisingly, Sean's work has been funded both by the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health.

The exhibition catalog "Diane Arbus: Family Albums," which was edited by Tony Lee, associate professor of art and chair of American studies, John Pulz of the University of Kansas, and Marianne Doezema, director of the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum, and which was published earlier this fall by Yale University Press, was chosen as one of the ten best art books of the year by "Art and Auction," an influential, upscale art magazine.

Andi Whitcomb, lecturer in physical education and coach of the varsity field hockey team, has just won two major coaching awards. She was selected as Coach of the Year by NEWMAC, the conference in which we compete. She also received the award for Regional Field Hockey Coach of the Year by the National Field Hockey Coaches Association.


Another book by Tony Lee has just appeared. Entitled "Yun Gee: Poetry, Writings, Art, Memories" and published by the University of Washington Press, the book is co-sponsored by the Pasadena Museum of California Art, and appears in The Jacob Lawrence Series on American Artists. If you are like me, the first you ever heard of Yun Gee was in Tony's book "Picturing Chinatown." However, as Tony points out, that book only covers Yun Gee's career up to 1927, when he was 21 years old and left San Francisco for the first of two sojourns in Paris, each of which was followed by an even longer residence in New York. Yun Gee lived an additional 36 years and was an accomplished painter, poet, and writer. The book contains selections of each medium, including about half of Yun Gee's poems, none of which has appeared in print before, and most of which are fascinating. Tony contributes four wonderful interpretative essays that tie everything together. The book also includes a critical essay by Paul Karlstrom on Yun Gee's painting, a number of articles about Yun Gee by his peers, and some reminiscences by a cousin and his daughter, Li-Lan. The result is a lovely, warm book that mixes criticism, biography, and personal remembrance and that works on many levels. It examines Yun Gee's art and traces his life and career from China to San Francisco to Europe and New York. It is a story of a career shaped by race and marginalization, by wanting to belong and rebel, by hope, creativity, despair, and alcoholism. Tony argues that racism is not tangential to Gee's life, under which lies a core sense of self, independent of what others see, but that racism is part of who Yun Gee is and how he sees himself. The materials in the book and Tony's commentary show how racism frames, guides, and ultimately stunts Yun Gee's career and, by extension, the lives of Chinese Americans in the three decades following the passage of the 1924 Immigration Act barring all Chinese immigration to the United States.

Keti Kintsurashvili, who joins us this year as a Fulbright Scholar in Russian and Eurasian studies, has just had her book entitled "David Kakabadze: A Twentieth-Century Classic" appear with Arbat Press. The book is about the life and work of the early twentieth-century Georgian artist David Kakabadze (1889 - 1952). Multitalented, Kakabadze became interested in photography at an early age and painted in a wide variety of styles. The book traces Kakabadze's life and work, organizing the account into five different periods: early, 1889 - 1913; Saint Petersburg, 1913 - 1918; Tbilisi, 1918 - 1919; Paris, 1920 - 1927; and Tbilisi 1927 - 1952. In each period, Keti covers Kakabadze's work and what and who influenced it. If, like me, you had never heard of Kakabadze, the book will be a revelation: his early sketches are lovely; the painting entitled "My Mother Imeretia" from his early Tbilisi period is amazing (I'm sure I've seen reproductions, but now would love to see the original); and the sheer range of his work and his willingness to experiment is stunning. Keti's account of the Paris period is fascinating. Kakabadze worked with an incredible collection of Georgian artists who lived there in the early 1920s, among them Lado Gudiashvili (also a dancer) and Elene Akhvlediani, persons whose acquaintance I first made in this book. On returning to Tbilisi, Kakabadze fused abstract techniques with folk elements to create some unforgettable landscapes. The book itself is a joy. It is filled with photographs, many taken by Kakabadze himself, many in margins. It functions as a biography, as a critical outline of the artist's work, and as an account of the extraordinary creative scene in early twentieth-century Georgia, of which Kakabadze was a crucial part.

Assistant professor of history Holly Hanson's book "Landed Obligation: The Practice of Power in Buganda" has just been published by Heinemann. The book is an ambitious retelling of the history of Buganda, a region and people within the present day Uganda. Holly tells the story from the point of view of the Buganda people, using their categories and cultural framework. Thus, she talks in terms of love and reciprocal obligation instead of the more traditional Western categories of power, capital, political hierarchies, and modernization. The result gives hugely different, and very satisfying, explanations of interactions among the Bugandan peoples and colonial authorities through the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Holly completely changes how the land issues of the early twentieth century were viewed by arguing persuasively that the Bugandan expectations of reciprocal obligation were still in force, even as the accepted practices were imploding. Read this book, and you will wonder about how the categories that Western historians use distort traditional historical accounts. This book will almost surely touch off a vigorous debate among historians. Stay tuned. My favorite chapters are the last two: they are stunning.

A volume edited by Bob Schwartz, professor of history, and his colleague Robert Schneider has just appeared from the University of Delaware Press. Entitled "Tocqueville and Beyond: Essays on the Old Regime in Honor of David D. Bien," it is a collection of fascinating articles on the French Revolution. In college I learned that sharpening class conflict driven by economic transformation caused the French Revolution. Bob's introductory essay to this volume and the essays themselves make it clear that the way that historians understand the origins of the French Revolution has changed utterly. In a few absolutely lucid pages, Bob's introductory essay describes the different theoretical approaches to the French Revolution (all of which was news to me - what I had been taught turns out to be the orthodox interpretation). Bob also describes how the ferment makes room for the classical account of Tocqueville (and Michelet), which had been largely ignored by social historians. I'm pretty sure that this essay will appear in course packets around the world. Bob also contributes an essay contrasting Tocqueville's assessment of late eighteenth-century French peasantry with one based on a different set of archival sources pertaining to a number of Burgundian villages.


I've received loads of papers. Two of the nicest were written by Lester Senechal, Professor of Mathematics on the John Stewart Kennedy Foundation, for a volume collecting some works of the influential Viennese émigré mathematician, Karl Menger ("Karl Menger: Selecta Mathematica" published by Springer, 2003), famous for his work on dimension theory. The first comments on Menger's papers on the problems and various methods of defining the lengths of curves in very general spaces, where one only has a notion of distance between two points, but no other structure. The problem is very delicate and Lester gives an overview of the issue in four spare pages. But it is the second paper, entitled "A Mengerian Tour along Caratheodory's Royal Road," written jointly with Professor Bert Schweitzer, that is truly lovely. Two of the most elegant mathematical books to appear in the early twentieth century were written by legendary Greek mathematician and Munich professor Constantin Caratheodory. Among many other things, Caratheodory reformulated both thermodynamics and the calculus of variations in a stunningly concise and transparent manner. (Just as the usual one-variable calculus gives methods of finding numbers that maximize or minimize functions of real numbers and is indispensable in elementary formulations of mechanics, the calculus of variations allows one to find functions that maximize or minimize functions of functions and is indispensable in more advanced mechanics.) However, his formulation of the calculus of variations has been largely forgotten. Lester gives Menger's reformulation of Caratheodory's reformulation of the calculus of variations. It is even more elegant, more transparent, and more powerful than Caratheodory's treatment. In six short pages, he and Schweitzer work out the main equations governing analytical dynamics.

Gary Gillis, assistant professor of biological sciences, is one of 16 experts retained by the "Journal of Experimental Biology" to write up quarterly reviews of articles published in other journals for a section of the journal entitled "Outside JEB." Gary does the reviews for the articles on locomotion and biomechanics, and the resulting short articles are minor masterpieces that I cannot recommend highly enough. Check out, as examples, his articles in numbers 5, 11, 17, and 23 of JEB. Which would you rather read: an article entitled "Determinants of Maximal O2 Uptake in Rats Selectively Bred for Endurance Running Capacity," or Gary's explanation of it entitled "Evolving Couch-Potatoes and Endurance Athletes?" Want to get the real lowdown on viscosity and Reynolds Number (and on how to quantify the difference between the hydrodynamic environments encountered by sperm and sperm whales)? Read Gary's article,"Swimming with the Larval Fishes." Want to know about energy expenditure in walking or a new theory on how insect wings might have evolved? Check out his articles, "Pedestrians Pay to Push" and "Row, Row, Row your Wings." This is really fine science writing (as are a couple of other book reviews that Gary has done).

Scott Brown, director, Career Development Center, has written a hilarious article entitled "Career Confidential: Confessions of Not-So-New Director" for the fall issue of the "NHCE Journal." The article deals with his experiences since coming to Mount Holyoke. Not only did he change employers, he made a career shift from residential life to career development. His comments on the different cultures are too good to miss (as are his comments on himself: "I have also learned that my sense of humor appeals to about three people, and they all live in one house outside of Los Angeles.").

One wonders what the three folks in the one house in LA would think of associate director of communications Kevin McCaffrey's story, "Revenge of the Meat God," that has just appeared in the Pets and Beasts section of the online journal "Exquisite Corpse" ( Darkly humorous and unabashedly demented, this piece is beautifully written, but should be read only by those with an exceedingly strong stomach and extremely short-lived visual memory. Imagine the inevitability (and tastelessness) of Sophoclean tragedy, the horror (and tastelessness) of H. P. Lovecraft, the broody atmospherics (and tastelessness) of cult classics like "Dark City," and the helplessly sick humor (and tastelessness) of Monty Python, and you will begin to get the picture. Don't say you weren't warned.

"The art of writing for women who were expected to place domesticity at the center of their lives was an act of creating rather than burying a self capable of song" writes Leah Glasser, dean of first-year studies and lecturer in English, in a paper that has just appeared in "American Literary Realism." Leah offers a lovely analysis of how Celia Thaxter's writings about landscape she loved (the islands off Portsmouth, New Hampshire), and by extension the writings about landscape of other nineteenth- and early twentieth-century American women writers, provided a means to explore self-identity in ways that defied the traditional gender constructions of the time.

--The October 2003 O'Shea Report more>
--The September 2003 O'Shea Report more>
--The May 2003 O'Shea Report more>
--The April 2003 O'Shea Report more>
--The February 2003 O'Shea Report more>
--The December 2002 O'Shea Report more>
--The November 2002 O'Shea Report more>
--The October 2002 O'Shea Report more>
--The September 2002 O'Shea Report more>
--The May 2002 O'Shea Report more>
--The April 2002 O'Shea Report more>
--The March 2002 O'Shea Report more>
--The February 2002 O'Shea Report more>
--The December 2001 O'Shea Report more>
--The November 2001 O'Shea Report more>

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