Faculty

O’Connell in The Conversation: How Deep is the Ocean?

Wesleyan faculty frequently publish articles based on their scholarship in The Conversation US, a nonprofit news organization with the tagline “Academic rigor, journalistic flair.” Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences Suzanne O’Connell has written a new article for The Conversation’s “Curious Kids” series answering the question “How deep is the ocean?” The article is based on her research studying the sea floor.

Curious Kids: How deep is the ocean?

The remotely operated vehicle Deep Discoverer captures images of a newly discovered hydrothermal vent field in the western Pacific. NOAA

The remotely operated vehicle Deep Discoverer captures images of a newly discovered hydrothermal vent field in the western Pacific. (NOAA)

Explorers started making navigation charts showing how wide the ocean was more than 500 years ago. But it’s much harder to calculate how deep it is.

If you wanted to measure the depth of a pool or lake, you could tie a weight to a string, lower it to the bottom, then pull it up and measure the wet part of the string. In the ocean you would need a rope thousands of feet long.

In 1872 the HMS Challenger, a British Navy ship, set sail to learn about the ocean, including its depth. It carried 181 miles (291 kilometers) of rope.

During their four-year voyage, the Challenger crew collected samples of rocks, mud and animals from many different areas of the ocean. They also found one of the deepest zones, in the western Pacific, the Mariana Trench, which stretches for 1,580 miles (2,540 kilometers).

Sultan to Lead $2M Evolutionary-Developmental Biology Project

Sonia Sultan

In the Wesleyan Research Greenhouse, Professor of Biology Sonia Sultan studies how Polygonum plants develop and function differently in response to contrasting environmental conditions. (Photos by Olivia Drake)

With support from a $2 million John Templeton Foundation National Sciences grant, Professor of Biology Sonia Sultan will spearhead a multi-institution evolutionary biology research project over the next three years.

The project, titled “Agency in Living Systems: How Organisms Actively Generate Adaptation, Resilience and Innovation at Multiple Levels of Organization,” developed from Sultan’s research on how individual organisms respond to their environments. Sultan and her Wesleyan research group study this question through experiments with the common plant Polygonum.

Sultan's data on Polygonum plant have broader implications for understanding evolution.

Sultan’s data on Polygonum plant have broader implications for understanding evolution.

Sultan’s previous findings have shown that genetically identical Polygonum plants can develop very differently depending on their growth conditions, allowing adaptive adjustments by individual plants without any genetic change. Because these adjustments are made actively by plants, rather than pre-scripted by their DNA sequence, this insight poses challenges to prevailing conceptual models for development and evolutionary adaptation.

“Scientists are particularly keen to understand these types of induced changes because they may help populations to very rapidly adapt to novel environmental stresses caused by human activities,” Sultan said.

The Templeton Foundation grant supports a consortium to investigate more broadly this property of biological agency—the ways in which active, real-time responses by living organisms influence the organisms’ own features. Sultan and her international team of co-investigators will focus on the active response mechanisms produced by evolution that grant organisms a degree of agency in shaping their own development, behavior, and subsequent evolution.

“New findings over the past decade about gene expression, development, the nature of inheritance, and the basis of adaptation, have led developmental and evolutionary biologists to re-examine some fundamental and long-standing ideas,” Sultan said. “The concept of agency may provide a unifying framework at a time when many scientists are seeking to update and expand those ideas. This project gives us the opportunity to help move the field forward and hopefully contribute to a more nuanced understanding of organisms.”

President Roth Discusses New Book, Higher Education

On Sept. 26, the Wesleyan RJ Julia Bookstore hosted a public discussion between Wesleyan President Michael Roth ’78 and Roxanne Coady, founder of RJ Julia Booksellers, on Roth’s new book and the crises facing higher education today.

Roth’s new book, Safe Enough Spaces: A Pragmatist’s Approach to Inclusion, Free Speech, and Political Correctness on College Campuses, was published Aug. 20 by Yale University Press. In the book, Roth takes a pragmatic and empathetic approach to the challenges facing higher education. He offers important historical, sociological, and economic context, as well as firsthand observations from his decades as a higher ed administrator, to debates over free speech, political correctness, safe spaces, affirmative action, and inclusion. As the book’s title suggests, he envisions a higher education space that is “safe enough” for students to openly explore new ideas and perspectives—even those that are unpopular or cause discomfort—and where no idea is protected from reasoned challenge.

Roth also is the author of Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters (Yale University Press, 2014).

The discussion concluded with a Q&A, reception, and book signing. (Photos by Nick Sng ’23)

Roth booktalk

Wesleyan in the News

NewsIn this recurring feature in The Wesleyan Connection, we highlight some of the latest news stories about Wesleyan and our alumni.

Wesleyan in the News

  1. The Hill: “Analysis: 2020 Digital Spending Vastly Outpaces TV Ads”

The Hill reports on a new analysis by the Wesleyan Media Project, which finds that 2020 presidential hopefuls have spent nearly six times more money on Facebook and Google advertising than on TV ads. President Donald Trump and the Republican National Committee lead the way in digital advertising, having spent nearly $16 million so far. All told, Facebook and Google have raked in over $60 million on online ads this cycle to date. “At this stage in the campaign, candidate spending is driven by supporter list-building and investing heavily to secure enough donors to qualify for the Democratic debates,” explained Associate Professor of Government Erika Franklin Fowler, co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project.

2. Religion News Service: “Sixty Years Later, Only Frank Lloyd Wright Synagogue Continues as ‘Work of Art'”

Joe Siry, Kenan Professor of the Humanities and professor of art history, speaks about Beth Sholom Synagogue, the only synagogue designed by the distinguished architect Frank Lloyd Wright, on the 60th anniversary of its opening. Siry is an expert on Wright’s work, and the author of Beth Sholom Synagogue: Frank Lloyd Wright and Modern Religious Architecture (The University of Chicago Press, 2011). Read an interview with Siry about the book.

3. KERA “Think”: “Do Colleges Really Need Safe Spaces?”

President Michael Roth joins host Kris Boyd for a wide-ranging conversation in connection with his book Safe Enough Spaces: A Pragmatist’s Approach to Inclusion, Free Speech, and Political Correctness on College Campuses. They discuss Roth’s ideas of how to balance students’ needs to feel safe and included on college campuses while keeping them open to exploring new ideas, as well as common misunderstandings about the concept of “safe spaces,” and the effects of the backlash against political correctness. Roth also recently spoke about his book on Tablet Magazine’s “Unorthodox” podcast. (Roth comes in around 49 minutes).

4. WTIC “Todd Feinberg”: “Richard Grossman”

Richard Grossman, professor and chair of economics, is interviewed about what’s going on with the US economy, why he’s not too worried about prolonged low interest rates, concerns over a recession, and what can be done to fix income inequality.

5. Exhale Lifestyle: “Award-Winning Boston Filmmaker Sparks Conversations About Change”

This profile describes how Tracy Heather Strain, professor of the practice in film studies and co-director of the Wesleyan Documentary Project, became a filmmaker specifically because she wanted to make a film about her longtime idol, Lorraine Hansberry. Like Hansberry, the author of the monumental play A Raisin in the Sun, about black families living under racial segregation in Chicago, Strain is “concerned with contemporary society’s obvious injustices.” Strain earned a Peabody Award for her 2017 documentary about Hansberry, Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart.

Alumni in the News

1. Chicago Sun-Times: “The Music of Alsarah & The Nubatones Transcends Borders, Cultures”

Mary Houlihan profiles Sarah Elgadi ’04, noting, “From a young age, Alsarah, who fronts the Brooklyn group Alsarah & the Nubatones, found refuge in music.” Elgadi was 12 when her family arrived in United States. “Now, years later, the 37-year-old singer, songwriter, bandleader and ethnomusicologist (she has a degree from Wesleyan University) has forged a career with ties to her background, bringing a fresh sound to world music.”

2. Eureka Alert: ”Study: Adults’ Actions, Successes, Failures, and Words Affect Young Children’s Persistence”

The American Association for the Advancement of Science reports on the study led by Julia A. Leonard ’11, MindCore postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania, who observes: “Our work shows that young children pay attention to the successes and failures of the adults around them and, reasonably, don’t persist long at tasks that adults themselves fail to achieve.”

3. Boston.gov: “Dr. Taylor Cain [’11] Appointed to Lead Boston’s Housing Innovation Lab”

In the release announcing her appointment, Cain said: “As the new director, I cannot wait to grow the threads of this work. I am looking forward to partnering with the many communities that care deeply about housing in Boston and exploring projects that grapple with the connections between housing, transportation, employment, and other important dimensions of urban life.”

4. NPR.org: “How UAW’s Strike Against GM May Affect Ford and Fiat-Chrysler”

In this interview with New York Times reporter Steven Greenhouse ’73, P’08, author of Beaten Down, Worked Up: The Past, Present and Future of American Labor, NPR host David Greene asks about the strike that the United Automobile Workers union launched earlier this month in more than 30 factories after failing to reach a deal with GM.

5. Core77: ”frog’s Francois Nguyen [’94] is Actively Helping Shape What the Future Looks Like

Writer Alexandra Alexa notes in this interview—which is part of a series on the presenters in this year’s Core77 Conference, exploring the future of the design industry—that Nguyen was one of the lead designers of the original “Beats Studio” headphones by Dr. Dre. She writes: “Even when he’s not working, Francois Nguyen never really stops envisioning what the world might look like. More than a decade into his industrial design career, Nguyen knows a thing or two about staying resilient and nimble as the discipline changes.”

6. International Examiner: “‘Carrie Yamaoka [’79]: recto/verso’ is Not So Much About What You See as How it Happens

Susan Kunimatsu writes about the artist’s retrospective, currently at University of Washington’s Henry Art Gallery through Nov. 3: “Yamaoka is fascinated with transformations, like the moment when exposed photo paper hits the developing chemical and an image starts to appear. Many of her artworks are about capturing that moment.”

Wesleyan in the News

NewsIn this recurring feature in The Wesleyan Connection, we highlight some of the latest news stories about Wesleyan and our alumni.

Wesleyan in the News

  1. The Washington Post: “How the NRA Highjacked History”

In this op-ed, Associate Professor of History Jennifer Tucker writes about the history of the legal debate over the Second Amendment, and explains how the court’s understanding of that history may shape the nation’s response to the current gun violence epidemic. Her op-ed was reported on in The Trace.

2. The Hill: “A Tragic Misperception About Climate Change”

Gary Yohe, the Huffington Foundation Professor of Economics and Environmental Studies, Emeritus, is co-author of this op-ed that argues “The U.S. contributes to global warming not only through its own emissions of greenhouse gases but also by the effect of its behavior on the actions of other countries.” The U.S. must first “get its own house in order,” then take steps to encourage other countries to take similar action to reduce carbon emissions, he writes.

3. Process: a blog for American history: “The Politics of Statehood in Hawai’i and the Urgency of Non-Statist Decolonization”

In this essay, written on the 60th anniversary of the United States claiming the Hawaiian islands as the 50th state of the union, Professor of American Studies J. Kēhaulani Kauanui reflects on the dispute over Maunakea, a sacred mountain that is currently under threat by those who want to construct a major observatory at its summit. She writes that the dispute “can be seen as a microcosm of the history of Hawai‘i’s (U.S.) statehood and earlier American encroachment.”

Wesleyan Welcomes 48 New Faculty, Postdocs, Scholars

2019 faculty

New faculty gathered for a group photo during New Faculty Orientation on Aug. 26. (Photo by Olivia Drake)

This fall, Wesleyan welcomes 48 new faculty to campus.

Of those, there are 16 tenure-track, 10 professors of the practice, one artist-in-residence, one adjunct, and 20 new visiting faculty members.

The new faculty bring a diverse skill set to campus. Among them are experts in international political economy; Indian cinema and film; environmental archaeology and ancient DNA; German poetry and aesthetic theory of the 18th century; music and expressive culture in Kazakhstan; politics in the African diaspora; Russian and Anglo-American literature; physiological and psychological effects of alcohol; and digital video production.

In addition, three are Wesleyan alumni.

Bios of the new ongoing faculty are below:

Joseph Ackley

Joseph Ackley

Joseph Ackley, assistant professor of art history, is a specialist in precious metalwork of the European Middle Ages, circa 800–1400. He received his BA from Dartmouth College (2003) and both his MA (2008) and his PhD (2014) from New York University’s Institute for Fine Art. His dissertation focused on portable, liturgical objects such as chalices, reliquaries, figural statuettes, and jewelry. He has investigated the symbolic associations of gold and gilding, the preferred media for these works, and has theorized “the radiant aesthetic” that underlies and informs them. His work not only expands the corpus of medieval art, but also deepens our understanding of the “multi-media glory” that would have characterized medieval architectural spaces, draped with silks and enlivened by processional objects.

3 Wesleyan Faculty Honored with Prizes for Excellence in Research

Wesleyan President Michael Roth, left, and Interim Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs Rob Rosenthal, right, congratulate the three recipients of the second annual Faculty Research Prize. They include Natasha Korda, professor of English; Joseph Rouse, the Hedding Professor of Moral Science; and Tsampikos Kottos, the Lauren B. Dachs Professor of Science and Society.

Wesleyan President Michael Roth ’78, left, and Interim Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs Rob Rosenthal, right, congratulate the three recipients of the second annual Faculty Research Prize: Natasha Korda, professor of English; Joseph Rouse, Hedding Professor of Moral Science; and Tsampikos Kottos, Lauren B. Dachs Professor of Science and Society.

On Sept. 3, during the first faculty meeting of the fall semester, three Wesleyan professors were honored with the Wesleyan Prize for Excellence in Research.

The faculty-nominated prize is presented to members of the faculty who demonstrate the highest standards of excellence in their research, scholarship, and contributions to their field. Interim Provost and Senior Vice President for academic affairs Rob Rosenthal acknowledged the recipients during the faculty meeting. Each winner received a plaque and funding for his or her research.

This year’s recipients include:

Natasha Korda, professor of English, plays a highly visible role in keeping scholarship on Renaissance drama a thriving and intellectually dynamic field. Her work combines deep, interdisciplinary learning, wide-ranging archival research, and keen critical insight, illuminating the complex and profound relations among gender, theater history, and economic history. Her recent monograph and edited collection have brought attention to the many and varied forms of labor that enabled dramatic production in early modern England and that linked the stage to the international trade in goods and services of a developing capitalist economy. Korda is widely admired by her colleagues for her scrupulous, innovative, and dynamic scholarship, as well as for her willingness to contribute through work on multiple editorial boards and with the Shakespeare Association of America.

Poulos Studies Endangered Grass on Texas-Mexico Border

Pictured third from right, Helen Poulos, adjunct assistant professor of environmental studies, gathers with the “Fescue Rescue” team at Maderas del Carmen Protected Area in Mexico. There, the scientists are studying Guadalupe fescue, an endangered grass species.

field sites in the Sierra del Carmens, Coahila Mexico

Helen Poulos, adjunct assistant professor of environmental studies, works at a field site in the Sierra del Carmens, Coahuila Mexico. In September 2017, the U.S. government determined that Festuca ligulata needed protected species status and designated it a critical habitat under the Endangered Species Act of 1973.

The rare Guadalupe fescue once thrived in abundance atop mountains spanning the Texas-Mexico border, however, the desert-growing perennial grass is now so endangered, it only flourishes in two locations on Earth.

The rapid population decline is leaving scientists puzzled.

“Developing an effective recovery plan is essential for protecting Guadalupe fescue, however, the lack of basic information about this species’ ecology is a serious barrier to that goal,” explained Helen Poulos, adjunct assistant professor of environmental studies. “Urgent action is needed to stabilize the two extant populations.”

This summer, under Poulos’s leadership, Wesleyan received a National Park Service Grant to study Festuca ligulata through the Southwest Borderlands Resource Protection Program. She joined a bi-national team of scientists known as “Fescue Rescue” to research the two isolated fescue populations in Texas’s Big Bend National Park and the Maderas del Carmen Protected Area in Coahuila, Mexico.

Said Poulos, a plant ecologist who has worked at desert borderland sites for more than a decade, “The Guadalupe fescue has become so endangered that this has become a significant national and international conservation concern.”

Backed by the NPS grant, the Fescue Rescue team will conduct onsite visits from October to mid-November 2019 during Guadalupe fescue seed maturation. Seeds will be collected during this time and transported to labs at Sul Ross State University in Texas and Universidad Autónoma Antonio Narro in Mexico. At these locations, scientists will germinate the seeds and grow their own fescue refugial populations for multiple research purposes.

“Together, they’ll provide a springboard for future plant population genetics, enrichment planting, and adaptive management research on both sides of the border,” Poulos said. “Such information is vital for elaborating site-specific management plans for the species on both U.S. and Mexican soils.”

They’ll study environmental variables, inventory seed production, identify key factors that promote reproductive viability, and ultimately establish refugial populations on both sides of the border.

Although virtually nothing is known about the environmental influences on the growth and reproduction of Guadalupe fescue, Poulos believes the fescue’s population decline is a result of multiple factors.

“Environmental factors that have likely negatively influenced the fescue populations include a recent shift to a hotter and drier climate, the genetic and demographic consequences of small population sizes and isolation, trampling by humans and pack animals, trail runoff, competition from invasive species, and fungal infection of seeds,” she said.

In addition, naturally occurring wildfires, which play an important role in rejuvenating ecosystems, are rare due to livestock grazing in the early 1900s and subsequent direct fire suppression continuing to the present. The remaining plants in the two disjunct populations are likely highly inbred and lack genetic diversity. This can threaten the capacity of populations to resist pathogens and parasites, adapt to changing environmental conditions, and colonize new habitats.

Poulos hopes to deliver her final reports to the National Park Service by summer 2020.

Brunet’s Dissertation Summarized in the Journal of Economic History

A summary of Assistant Professor of Economics Gillian Brunet’s dissertation, “Understanding the Effects of Fiscal Policy: Measurement, Mechanisms, and Lessons from History,” was published in the June issue of the Journal of Economic History. She wrote the paper while pursuing her PhD in economics at the University of California, Berkeley.

The global recession of 2008 and the resulting fiscal stimulus packages in many countries have reignited academic interest in government spending multipliers. Despite a growing theoretical and empirical literature, there is little consensus on the impact of government spending on macroeconomic aggregates. Gillian Brunet’s dissertation makes significant contributions to this contested literature by focusing on the largest fiscal shock in modern American history—WWII. Besides providing novel estimates of the fiscal multiplier during the war period, her work also seeks to understand how the economic and institutional contexts affect this important statistic.

The dissertation also won the Economic History Association’s 2018 Allan Nevins Prize Competition.

Brunet’s research interests lie at the intersection of economic history, macroeconomics, and public economics. Her work uses microeconomic data to study macroeconomic questions, often in historical contexts. She is particularly interested in understanding the United States economy during and after World War II.

This fall, she is teaching Economics of Alexander Hamilton’s America and Macroeconomic Analysis.

Kuenzel’s Paper Examines the International Monetary Fund’s Forecast Accuracy

David Kuenzel

David Kuenzel

David Kuenzel, assistant professor of economics, is the co-author of a new paper published in the July–August issue of International Journal of Forecasting titled “Forecasts in Times of Crises.”

In the paper, Kuenzel and his co-authors examine the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) forecast accuracy of 29 key macroeconomic variables for countries in times of economic crises. In general, forecasts of the IMF add substantial informational value as they outperform naive forecast approaches. However, the paper also documents that there is room for improvement: Two-thirds of the examined macroeconomic variables are forecast inefficiently, and six variables (growth of nominal GDP, public investment, private investment, the current account, net transfers, and government expenditures) exhibit significant forecast biases.

These forecast biases and inefficiencies are mostly driven by low-income countries, perhaps reflecting larger shocks and lower data quality. Most importantly, errors in private consumption growth forecasts are the main drivers of GDP growth forecast errors. The results can help to shed light on which macroeconomic variables require further attention by the IMF in designing future forecast models.

The paper is co-authored by Theo Eicher (University of Washington), Chris Papageorgiou (International Monetary Fund), and Charis Christofides (International Monetary Fund).

Kuenzel is also the author of a paper published in the August issue of the Review of International Economics titled “Do trade flows respond to nudges? Evidence from the WTO’s Trade Policy Review Mechanism.” In the paper, Kuenzel examines whether interactions between WTO members through the Trade Policy Review Mechanism, the WTO’s prime transparency institution, lead to subsequent changes in trade flows. This question is of particular interest, as relatively little is known about the economic effects of WTO members’ communications outside of official negotiations and dispute proceedings. Kuenzel’s analysis shows that trade policy concern submissions by WTO members are more likely to lead to positive trade responses when (i) the receiving country is less concerned about terms‐of‐trade losses, (ii) the submitter is more willing to engage in WTO disputes with the reviewed member to challenge controversial trade policies, and (iii) the submitting country challenges trade policies in the nonchemical manufacturing sector. However, nudges through the TPR process are not successful in raising agricultural trade.

Wesleyan in the News

In this recurring feature in The Wesleyan Connection, we highlight some of the latest news stories about Wesleyan and our alumni.

Wesleyan in the News

1. Where We Live: “The Life and Legacy of American Composer Charles Ives”

Neely Bruce, the John Spencer Camp Professor of Music, is a guest on this show about the legacy of composer Charles Ives. Bruce is the only pianist who has ever played all of the Ives music for solo voice, in a project called the Ives Vocal Marathon, which took place at Wesleyan in 2009. He is also the co-editor of a new collection of Ives songs, a former member of the board of the Charles Ives Society, and the chair of the Artistic Advisory Committee of the society.

2. The New York Times: “Don’t Dismiss ‘Safe Spaces'”

In this op-ed, President Michael Roth argues that while “safe spaces” can be taken too far on college campuses, the much-maligned concept actually “underlies the university’s primary obligations” to its students. He advocates for creating “safe enough spaces,” which “promote a basic sense of inclusion and respect that enables students to learn and grow—to be open to ideas and perspectives so that the differences they encounter are educative.” Roth further explores this topic and many others in his new book, Safe Enough Spaces: A Pragmatist’s Approach to Inclusion, Free Speech, and Political Correctness on College CampusesHe was interviewed recently about the book on several radio shows, including The Jim Bohannon Show, The Brian Lehrer Show, WGBH On Campus Radio, and Wisconsin Public Radio, among others, and published op-eds in the Boston Globe and The Atlantic.

A Right to Bear Arms? Coedited by Tucker Explores History of Gun Debate

Jennifer Tucker

Jennifer Tucker

Associate Professor of History Jennifer Tucker is coeditor of a new book, A Right to Bear Arms?: The Contested Role of History in Contemporary Debates on the Second Amendment, published Aug. 20 by the Smithsonian Institution Scholarly Press.

This collection of essays offers a glimpse into how and why historical arguments have been marshaled on both sides of today’s debate over the Second Amendment. It includes writings by leading historians on firearms and the common law (including Saul Cornell, Kevin Sweeney, Joyce Malcolm, Priya Satia, Patrick Charles, Lois Schwoerer, Randolph Roth, and others) and—for the first time in one place—by the lawyers who have served as leading historical consultants in litigation for both sides (Mark Anthony Frassetto, counsel for Everytown for Gun Safety, and Stephen Halbrook, legal counsel for the National Rifle Association).

Taken together, these essays offer both general readers and specialists a valuable study of how history itself has become a contested site within the wider national legal debate about firearms. It fills a major gap in public historical writing about firearms and the law, a field characterized by strong polarities and in which scholarly exchanges among people with different perspectives on the history of firearms are relatively rare.