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Monthly Archive for July, 2012

By studying a gene in zebrafish, Stephen Devoto and his students have a better understanding of what causes birth defects and diseases affecting human musculature.

Professor Stephen Devoto and his students have identified a gene that controls a critical step in the development of muscle stem cells in vertebrate embryos. This discovery will allow scientists to better understand the causes of birth defects and diseases affecting human musculature, such as Muscular Dystrophy, and opens doors for the development of effective stem cell therapies for such diseases. Devoto is professor of biology, professor of neuroscience and behavior.

The study, “Fss/ Tbx6 is required for central dermomyotome cell fate in zebra fish,” was published in July in Biology Open. Though the research was done on zebrafish, the gene, known as Tbx6, exists in all vertebrates, including humans. The lead author was graduate student Stefanie Windner. Other co-authors, all part of Devoto’s lab, were Devoto, post-docs Nathan Bird and Sara Patterson Ph.D. ’08, and lab manager Rosemarie Doris. Funding was provided, in part, by the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health & Human Development.

A number of undergraduate students also assisted in the research, and are extending this work further.

“Chantal Ferguson ’13 and Jaewon Chung ’13 are deeply involved in every step of research—from grant writing to discussing theories and models to doing experiments,” Devoto remarks. “They’re working side-by-side with graduate students and post-docs, part of the kind of research group typically seen only at research universities.”

For this paper, members of Devoto’s lab studied a mutant strain of zebrafish, which were missing a functional copy of the gene Tbx6. They observed that the embryos of these mutant fish had a defect in the dermomyotome—a tissue comprised of stem cells that can give rise to muscle fibers. These stem cells can either proliferate into other dermomyotome cells, or differentiate into muscle cells—which, themselves, cannot divide further. Thus, when the stem cells develop into muscle, they hit a dead end of sorts, precluding any additional muscle fibers from developing in the future. The group concluded that Tbx6 functions as a key part of the mechanism which either triggers the development of the dermomyotome, or inhibits the development of muscle.

“Tbx6 is a critical component of the switch that regulates the proportion of embryonic cells that become stem cells as opposed to muscle fibers,” explains Devoto. (more…)

Research Professor Ellen Thomas, pictured here in her lab on July 25, received the 2012 Maurice Ewing Medal for her contributions to the scientific understanding of the processes in the ocean. (Photo by Olivia Drake)

Ellen Thomas, research professor of earth and environmental sciences, has been awarded the Maurice Ewing Medal by the American Geophysical Union (AGU). The medal is one of the AGU’s most prestigious awards and will be presented to Thomas during the organization’s annual meeting later this year.

According to AGU, “Jointly sponsored with the United States Navy, the Ewing Medal is named in honor of Maurice Ewing, who made significant contributions to deep-sea exploration.” It is presented each year for significant original contributions to the scientific understanding of the processes in the ocean; for the advancement of oceanographic engineering, technology, and instrumentation; and for outstanding service to the marine sciences.

Among Thomas’ research areas is paleoceanography. She studies microscopic fossils in ocean beds and sediments that can provide clues to life and climate as it appeared on earth tens and often hundreds of millions of years ago. She is the recipient of several National Science Foundation and Keck grants. Her research has been published in Science, Geology, Oceanography, and the International Journal of Earth Sciences, among others.

“I study microscopic fossils of organisms living on the deep-sea floor to recognize the importance of the event now called the ‘Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum’ as a geological counterpart of human-induced global warming through CO2 emissions, and the recognition that there have been multiple events of that type in the geological past,” she says. “These events are now used widely to study the long-term, ecosystem wide effects of rapid emission of carbon-compounds into the atmosphere. I also used these organisms, in combination with stable isotope and trace element analysis of their shells, to gain insight on the effects of other episodes of global change on oceanic life forms, including the asteroid impact which killed the dinosaurs, and to study the effect of human actions on our environment.” (more…)

Elsa Hardy '14 presents her Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship research on July 26.

Elsa Hardy ’14 presents her Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship research on July 26. (Photos by Olivia Drake)

Last summer, Elsa Hardy ’14 worked for a youth enrichment program in New York City. Several of the children came from the Frederick Douglass Academy, a middle school in Harlem where 75 percent of the students are black.

“I asked the students who went there, ‘Do you know who Frederick Douglass was?’ None of them did. They had no idea,” Hardy recalls. “I was shocked to learn that the students didn’t know who the namesake of their school was.”

Hardy, who is majoring in African American studies and Hispanic literatures and cultures, became curious as to why the average middle school student received such a diluted black history lesson in the classroom. As a 2012 participant in the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship summer session, Hardy launched a research project on “Middle School U.S. History Curricula, Black National Identity, and Academic Performance.”

“If U.S. history curriculum covers black history minimally, or not at all, what effect does this have on the ways in which black students understand their place in our nation’s history or in contemporary American society,” she asks.

The Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship Program is a highly selective mentoring program that prepares students of color and others committed to overcoming racial and ethnic disparities in education for graduate study and careers as university professors in the arts and sciences. Four fellows from Wesleyan and six fellows from Queens College spent six weeks this summer working on their preliminary research. They presented their findings and plans on July 26.

“The summer session is just the beginning of a life-long relationship with these students,” says MMUF coordinator Krishna Winston, (more…)

Hilary Barth, associate professor of psychology, associate professor of neuroscience and behavior.

“We’ve moved the meeting/truck forward.”
“That was a long wait/ hotdog.”
“We’re rapidly approaching the deadline/guardrail.”

English speakers use a shared vocabulary to talk about space and time. And though it’s not something we’re necessarily conscious of, psychologists have found that the identical words we use to describe our wait in line at the Department of Motor Vehicles and the length of an especially impressive hotdog are not a fluke, but rather are telling of the cognitive processes involved in thinking about time. Past studies have shown that priming people with spatial information actually influences their perceptions of time. For example, people primed to imagine themselves moving through space will make different judgments about the temporal order of events than people primed to imagine objects moving through space toward themselves.

Hilary Barth, associate professor of psychology, associate professor of neuroscience and behavior, is working to better understand the mental connections between space and time. She recently published an illuminating new study in the June 2012 issue of The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology. According to Barth, it seems we use the more concrete world of space to think about the more abstract world of time.

Barth and co-author Jessica Sullivan ’08—formerly one of Barth’s student in the Cognitive Development Labs, now a graduate student at the University of California-San Diego—noticed that though past studies in this area attribute the effects on participants’ temporal judgments to the spatial qualities of the prime used, most of the primes involved both space and movement. For example, previous studies have used primes that involve a stick figure walking toward a plant or pulling on a wagon—scenes that use motor words like “run” and show actors engaging in self-powered motion. (more…)

Richard Grossman, professor of economics.

In this issue of The Wesleyan Connection, we ask “5 Questions” of Professor of Economics Richard Grossman. In July, Grossman spoke to the Canadian news magazine Maclean’s about the Libor scandal rocking the global financial industry. Grossman’s 2010 book, Unsettled Account: The Evolution of Banking in the Industrialized World since 1800, reviews banking crises over the past 200 years in North America, Europe and other regions, and considers how they speak to today’s financial crises around the world. He blogs at Unsettledaccount.com.

Q: Professor Grossman, what is the Libor, and what is this scandal all about?

A: “Libor” is the London InterBank Offered Rate. Produced daily for the British Bankers’ Association, it is calculated by asking a group of banks how much they estimate it will cost them to borrow money. Banks are asked to provide estimates of borrowing costs for 15 different maturities ranging from overnight to one year in ten different currencies, so Libor is not one interest rate, but 150. Because not all of the banks deal in all maturity-currency combinations, somewhere between 6 and 18 banks are polled. The highest and lowest estimates are thrown out and the remainder—about half–are averaged to yield Libor. Libor plays a vital role in the world financial system because it serves as a benchmark for some $800 trillion in transactions–everything ranging from complex derivatives to simple home mortgages.

Because so much money is riding on Libor, traders have an incentive to pressure their banks into altering submission estimates to improve their profitability. The scandal is that they did just that. Even a small movement in Libor can lead to millions in extra profits–or losses–for banks.

It has also been alleged that the British authorities encouraged banks to lower their submissions in the wake of the 2008 Lehman Brothers bankruptcy to give the impression that banks had access to plentiful and cheap funds and were therefore less vulnerable to the crisis than they actually were.

Q: Sounds like a big deal for the banks, but why should an average person like me care?

A: If the interest rate you pay on your mortgage, home equity loan, or credit card balance is tied to Libor—and it may well be—then you should be concerned that the rate is set fairly. (more…)

Wesleyan students taught a five-week pilot Kindergarten Kickstart at Macdonough Elementary in Middletown this summer.

Inspired by her students’ passion for education reform, Assistant Professor of Psychology Anna Shusterman and several of her students launched an innovative five-week pilot program this summer to prepare children entering kindergarten at Macdonough School in Middletown.

Fifteen children participated in this research-based program, with a curriculum designed by Shusterman, her students and a Macdonough teacher. According to Shusterman, children in low-income neighborhoods start kindergarten with academic skills up to two years behind their peers. Research shows that quality early childhood education makes a huge difference in helping to shrink this achievement gap. In fact, economists estimate a $7 return for every $1 invested in early childhood education, resulting from lower spending on school remediation, incarceration, unemployment and other programs that become necessary when children do not start out on the right foot. About 80 percent of Macdonough students are on free and reduced lunch programs.

The summer program was taught by Taylor Deloach ’13, Sydney Lewis ’14, Julia Vermeulen ’14 and Andy Ribner ’14 in collaboration with Shusterman and an early-education certified teacher, Felicia Johnson. Julie Kastenbaum ’06, who is working toward a Ph.D. in school psychology, volunteered her time to administer a standardized assessment at the beginning and end of the program.

Rani Arbo, a local folk singer, visited the Kickstart program.

The daily and weekly lessons were designed to help children walk in as ready as they can be for the first day of kindergarten. According to Shusterman, activities were designed to boost a few high-impact target areas based on current research in child development and school readiness. These included dramatic play; outdoor play; science and math games; stories and letters; focus games and goal-setting conversations. The group also took weekly field trips to the local children’s museum and the library, and participated in daily activities led by Wesleyan students, including dance, yoga, sign language and music. Children were also provided with free breakfast and lunch.

A graduation ceremony will be held Aug. 2 at Macdonough School.

The project was made possible by an intensive collaboration between Shusterman, Macdonough Principal Jon Romeo, and Izzi Greenberg ’05, executive director of the community organization NEAT. Shusterman and her students independently raised funds to run the program.

Ongoing updates are available at a blog written by Lewis. Ribner ’14 shares photos of the program on his web site.

Wesleyan has been accredited by the Commission on Institutions of Higher Education of the New England Association of Schools and Colleges since 1929 and was last reviewed in 2002.

Wesleyan has been accredited by the Commission on Institutions of Higher Education of the New England Association of Schools and Colleges since 1929 and was last reviewed in 2002.

Wesleyan University will undergo a comprehensive evaluation visit Sept. 30 through Oct. 3, 2012, by a team representing the Commission on Institutions of Higher Education of the New England Association of Schools and Colleges.

The Commission on Institutions of Higher Education is one of seven accrediting commissions in the United States that provide institutional accreditation on a regional basis. Accreditation is voluntary and applies to the institution as a whole. The Commission, which is recognized by the U.S. Department of Education, accredits approximately 240 institutions in the six-state New England region.

Wesleyan has been accredited by the Commission since 1929 and was last reviewed in 2002. Its accreditation by the New England Association encompasses the entire institution.

For the past year and half, Wesleyan University has been engaged in a process of self-study, addressing the Commission’s Standards of Accreditation. An evaluation team will visit the institution to gather evidence that the self-study is thorough and accurate. The team will recommend to the Commission a continuing status for the institution. Following a review process, the Commission itself will take the final action.

The public is invited to submit comments regarding the institution to:

Public Comment on Wesleyan University
Commission on Institutions of Higher Education
New England Association of Schools and Colleges
209 Burlington Road, Suite 201
Bedford, MA 01730-1433

E-mail: cihe@neasc.org

Public Comments must address substantive matters related to the quality of the institution. The Commission cannot settle disputes between individuals and institutions, whether those involve faculty, students, administrators, or members of other groups. Comments will not be treated as confidential and must include the name, address, and telephone number of the person providing the comments.

Public Comments must be received by Oct. 3. The Commission cannot guarantee that comments received after that date will be considered.

Ao Wang, assistant professor of Asian languages and literatures, assistant professor of East Asian studies, will teach “Third-Year Chinese” and “Man and Nature in Classical Chinese Literature” this fall.

For the past two years, Ao Wang has shared with his students at Wesleyan a passion for Chinese poetry and intellectual debate over East Asian cultural issues.

Wang came to Wesleyan in fall 2010 as a visiting professor. He was hired in the 2011-12 academic year as an assistant professor of Asian languages and literatures and East Asian studies.

Originally from Qingdao, China, Wang was drawn to the United States because of his love of American culture, particularly music and poetry. Though he didn’t have a specific career goal at that time, he eventually decided to become a translator of poetry—from Chinese into English, and English to Chinese. Wang went on to earn a Ph.D. from Yale in East Asian languages and literatures.

Prior to teaching at Wesleyan, Wang taught briefly at the University of California-Davis, and then for two years at Trinity College in Hartford. He was attracted to Wesleyan because of its vibrant and active intellectual community. “The students at Wesleyan are serious about their studies,” he says. “They dedicate themselves to their work, and push their teachers to do a better job.” In fact, Wang says, his students actually ask for more homework—the opposite of what he encountered in previous teaching jobs—and push for more intellectual challenge.

This past year, Wang taught “Introduction to Chinese Poetry.” Students in this course, who were not required to know the Chinese language, compared different translations of classical Chinese poems to examine how the image of ancient Chinese poetry was constructed in the process of cultural exchange.

Wang also taught “Gender Issues in Chinese Literature and Culture,” which he called a “fun class.”

“The students are very interested in the daily lives of ancient Chinese women—how they saved money, how they raised and educated their children—and Confucian ideas about Chinese women. These are all very interesting ideas, and still relevant for our time,” he says. The class read excerpts from Yale Law School professor Amy Chua’s parenting memoir, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, and watched debates on YouTube over its messages. A diverse classroom make-up, with about half the students of East Asian descent, made for a very interesting discussion, says Wang.

Wang’s own research focuses on Medieval Chinese Poetry, which he says is not well studied. “There are still numerous important and great poets who have not yet been introduced to the Western world,” he says. “They need study and translation, and eventually will become part of world literature.” Wang is currently co-editing an anthology of contemporary Chinese poetry.

When not working, Wang enjoys reading, playing drums and guitar, and practicing a form of martial arts known as Kuntao.

Kathleen Roberts, residential operations coordinator, helps students with the technical aspects of living on campus.

Q: Kathleen, in July, you joined the Residential Life staff as the residential operations coordinator. Briefly describe your new role.

A: I oversee all key and access operations.I provide technical support to students. I work with students to help them understand our policies and why they are important. Otherwise I just help where I can in the Residential Life department.

Q: Prior to Res Life, you were working as the administrative assistant for the Center for the Humanities. How long were you there?

A: I was at the Center for a bit longer than two years. The Center is such an amazing place. I’ll miss working so closely with faculty, specifically Professor Jill Morawski, who was director of the Center while I was there. As a student in the Graduate Liberal Studies Program here at Wesleyan, it was a gift to be party to, and at times part of, relevant conversations about such a broad array of studies, (more…)

University major Andrew Ribner ’14 is working in the Cognitive Development Lab this summer. He’s also a photographer, a campus tour guide and a baker.

Q&As with outstanding students is an occasional feature of The Wesleyan Connection. This issue we speak with Andrew Ribner from the Class of 2014.

Q: Andrew, you’re a rising junior, working toward a university major in educational psychology and learning theory and biology. Please explain what a university major is and why you chose this degree path.

A: A university major is essentially an interdisciplinary create-your-own major. It’s an option that isn’t very highly publicized, and is completely unique to each student who does it. It’s an intense application process that involves writing a formal proposal and four-year class schedule, finding three advisors who will support and recommend you to the committee, and justifying the necessity of the major. Essentially, it’s creating an entire unique department using classes that are already offered in other departments. For my university major, I’ll be investigating how children learn through a combination of psychology, sociology and neuroscience.

Q: This summer, you’re working in the Cognitive Development Lab with Anna Shusterman, assistant professor of psychology. Why did you want to spend your summer at Wesleyan?

A: I chose to stay at Wes this summer for a number of reasons. Anna is the primary advisor on my university major, and I’m planning to do an experimental thesis through her lab as it intersects with sociology. She recommended I stay this summer to get a start on my thesis research because she’s going to be on sabbatical in the fall and I need to start running participants while she’s out. I also just wanted to see what research was like and whether it’s something I enjoy—which it is. (more…)

Ben Jackson received a Cardinal Award.

Benjiman Jackson, personal computer specialist in Information Technology Services, received a Cardinal Achievement Award in June. Jackson was honored for demonstrating extraordinary initiative or providing outstanding service with regard to specific tasks in his department. This special honor comes with a $150 award and reflects the university’s gratitude for those extra efforts.

The award recipients are nominated by department chairs and supervisors. Nominations can be made anytime throughout the year.

For more information or to nominate a staff member for the award, visit the Human Resources web site  and scroll down to Cardinal Achievement Award under “Forms.”

Recipients will continue to be recognized in The Wesleyan Connection.

Krishna Winston

Krishna Winston, the Marcus L. Taft Professor of German Language and Literature, began serving as Wesleyan’s Service-Learning Center Director on July 1. Suzanne O’Connell, who adeptly led the Center for the past five years, returned to her role as an associate professor of earth and environmental sciences, associate professor of environmental studies.

Winston has long been known for her deep commitment to service, on campus and in the greater Middletown community, explains Rob Rosenthal, provost, vice president for Academic Affairs, and the John E. Andrus Professor of Sociology. Many years ago, Winston was part of the group of faculty and students who created the Community Research Seminar, the first service-learning course at Wesleyan.

On campus, Winston has served as Campus Fulbright Program Advisor since 1979, and as Coordinator of the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship since 1993. She also was acting Dean of the College during the 1993-94 academic year, and Dean of the Arts and Humanities from 2007 to 2011.

Off campus, she has been chair, since 1991, of the Middletown Resource Recycling Advisory Council, now a city commission. Last year, she became a board member of the Jonah Center for Earth and Art, and she has served on the Independent Day School’s Board of Trustees for 25 years.

As a scholar, Winston has translated over 30 books from German, including works by Günter Grass, Peter Handke, Werner Herzog and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. She is a winner of the Kurt and Helen Wolff Translation Prize and of the Schlegel-Tieck Translation Prize, having won the latter award twice. Since 2002 she has served on the jury for the Wolff Prize.

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