The Spotlight Scholars initiative shines a light on faculty working for positive social change through research, scholarship, and creative activity. Learn more about the work of these leading minds.
The life’s work of Professor Ramesh Sitaraman of the UMass Amherst College of Information and Computer Sciences was severely tested when COVID-19 drove global internet traffic up by as much as 50 percent. Yet, thanks to the genius and foresight of Sitaraman’s work, worldwide computer networks have remained fast and reliable despite this unprecedented surge, allowing billions of people to work, learn, shop, socialize, and play online.
“It’s been very gratifying to see,” says Sitaraman.
Sitaraman’s work on networks goes back to the early years when the internet was slow and unreliable. In 1993, he wrote a groundbreaking Princeton University PhD thesis on how to make networks reliable. “When you think about it, the internet is an enormous collection of hundreds of thousands of networks with no central authority,” he says. “It was never something that people envisioned could support trillions of dollars of business or 5 billion users as it does now. That was unimaginable.”
Teaching “Introduction to American Politics” via Zoom from the attic of his home, UMass Amherst Associate Professor of Political Science Tatishe Nteta grabs the attention of more than 150 students as he discusses thought-provoking historical cases that relate to current affairs with his characteristic upbeat energy.
“Someone’s peaceful protest is another person’s terrorism,” he says, contrasting the FBI’s mobilization in response to the Black Lives Matter movement with the lack of preparedness ahead of the January 6 Capitol insurrection. “Get ’em Prof!” writes a student in the class’s chat window.
“When I lecture, I’m not looking for likes,” says Nteta. “I want to challenge students to think about their world in order to improve it. In the United States, there is a lack of understanding of our history regarding race and politics and the consequences of that history. We should talk honestly about these issues. My small contribution to that is my classes. We have to be committed to this project of building the best democracy that we can. I hope my students recognize there is power in this goal and in mobilizing based on the values of our country.”
For his impassioned teaching, his groundbreaking research, and his leadership of the UMass Poll, Nteta, a faculty member since 2007, was recently named a UMass Spotlight Scholar. “It is highly unusual that an outstanding researcher is also a great teacher, but with Professor Nteta we are very fortunate to have someone who is excellent at both,” says Jesse Rhodes, professor and chair of the UMass Amherst Department of Political Science.
Laura B. Balzer
A Global Impact on Public Health
University of Massachusetts Amherst Assistant Professor of Biostatistics Laura Balzer graduated first in her class from the University of Vermont, where she studied applied mathematics, and first in her class from the University of Cambridge, England, where she earned a master’s degree in computational biology. As a PhD student at the University of California, Berkeley, she pursued the discipline that combined her love of numbers and commitment to improve the health and well-being of others: biostatistics.
Within biostatistics, Balzer focuses on causal inference, which aims to isolate cause-and-effect from other biasing factors. Says Balzer: “In my first course on causal inference, I saw how statistics and epidemiology could be used to identify the best practices and interventions to improve health, both at the individual level and more broadly at the population level. I remember thinking this is what I want to do with my life.”
Black Arts Matter
James Smethurst is a scholar of 20th-century African American literature, culture and intellectual history and professor in the UMass Amherst W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies. His research and scholarship explore connections between these subjects, and how politics, social relations, and art influence each other.
Among his research topics is the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 1970s, a subject that Smethurst feels has yet to be fully explored. He says, “There is this notion that the Black Arts Movement was short-lived and not very influential. In some ways, I think it was the most successful, most grass roots, and most consequential arts movement in the history of the United States.”
Moving as We Age
What happens to our muscles as we age? And exactly where, when, and how do mobility problems develop in older adults? Chair of Kinesiology Jane Kent has a multisystem approach to addressing these questions.
Kent recently received a five-year, multimillion-dollar grant from the National Institutes on Aging (NIA) for research that builds upon her 20-plus-year studies of muscle fatigue and aging. Kent asks: how much of muscular decline is rooted in the molecules of our muscular and nervous systems—due to the process of aging itself? How much of it is due to lifestyle changes that go along with our bodies growing older? Kent intends that her work, done in collaboration with assistant professor Mark Miller, associate professor Katherine Boyer, and research professors Stuart Chipkin and Carol Bigelow, will add to our collective understanding of how muscle function and fatigue impact the body’s mobility over time.
As the body ages, if a person moves around less or stops exercising, they can get caught in a vicious cycle: the perception that one’s body is less able to move about safely causes a person to engage in less activity, then their muscles break down, which renders their body less able to move with ease. “It’s a downward spiral,” says Kent. “None of our systems respond well to a sedentary lifestyle.”
History and Fiction
For Sabina Murray, professor of English, histories—both public and private—are a constant source of inspiration. She is currently completing her latest novel, The Human Zoo, which is set in the Philippines during the presidency of Rodrigo Duterte.
Murray’s short stories are anthologized in collections such as The Norton Anthology of Short Fiction, Manila Noir, Charlie Chan is Dead II: An Anthology of Contemporary Asian Fiction, and xo Orpheus, a compendium of updated, retold myths edited by Kate Bernheimer. Her screenplay for Terrence Malick’s The Beautiful Country was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award. She has written on topics as varied as Wordsworth for the Paris Review, time theory and historical fiction for Lit Hub, and Rodrigo Duterte for Vice.
It was her article on Duterte that gave rise to The Human Zoo. “I conceived of the book in April 2017 and started mapping it out,” Murray relates. “I was in the Philippines doing the article for Vice: why is Duterte so popular when he’s a dictator? People didn’t understand why poor people who were being victimized by Duterte would support him. Vice wanted someone who was familiar with Manila and would know who to talk to to figure out why he was so popular.” Murray canvassed people ranging from cab drivers to students. And she notes, as so often happens with her research, “Everything ends up turning into a novel eventually.”
UMass Amherst particle physicist Stephane Willocq has been interested in big-picture science since he was a teenager. Curious about the laws of nature and how they impact what we know about our world, he was drawn to study how things worked on a fundamental level, and how the very small connects with the very large. As the Deputy Physics Coordinator of the ATLAS experiment at CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research) in Switzerland, Willocq’s work on the very small leads toward revolutionary breakthroughs in science, the search for new phenomena, and his involvement in the largest physics collaboration in the world.
CERN is home to the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s largest and most powerful particle accelerator. The ATLAS experiment, comprising over 3,000 scientists world-wide, uses the collider to smash high-energy particle beams together at nearly the speed of light. The collisions produce new particles (new forms of matter) whose debris can be recorded and measured.
Willocq studies units of matter inside the atomic nuclei called quarks. “We collide them at nearly the speed of light at the highest possible energies. We are creating new particles that we can study to understand what are the most fundamental constituents of matter. How do they interact? This is very closely tied to how we understand the universe: how it was formed, how it evolved over time and how it ultimately will evolve,” says Willocq.
During his sophomore year of college, UMass Amherst political science professor Paul Musgrave awoke to a changed world. “I remember a Tuesday morning I was sleeping in because I didn’t have any early classes, and my suitemate kept knocking on the door, saying ‘You need to come see the TV right now.’” The 9/11 attacks that day, along with the Bush v. Gore decision and the run-up to war in Iraq, were central to Musgrave’s decision to pursue a career devoted to making sense of the political tumult he was witnessing.
“If you were a true millennial,” says Musgrave, who was born in the first year of that cohort, “your first 18 years were in a safe, ordered environment, and then there was this shock. It was such a rupture from the 1990s.”
Musgrave’s early interest in the intersection of domestic and international politics remains his focus—one that he characterizes as revolutionary. “For a very long time, people who studied international relations saw it as separate from domestic policy. The truth is, the two are everywhere and always linked.” Nowhere is that more evident, says Musgrave, than in the current president’s efforts to enlist Ukraine’s help in his reelection, and in the ensuing partisanship that reaches far beyond domestic borders.
Growing up as a first-generation American in a working-class neighborhood in Brooklyn, Jamila Lyiscott learned how to navigate the contrasts between her family’s Caribbean background and an educational system that demanded assimilation. “I was an A-student only because I knew how to do school,” recalls Lyiscott, now an assistant professor of social justice education in the UMass Amherst College of Education, a senior research fellow at Columbia University’s Teacher’s College, and a nationally renowned spoken word artist.
As she became involved in her community, though, Lyiscott noticed a disconnect that she found increasingly disturbing. “The brilliance that exists throughout the African Diaspora wasn’t centered in school,” she says. “Instead, it was in these out-of-school spaces I could see the ways that brilliance was valued.”
This disconnect brought her to a turning point at age 19 when Lyiscott was speaking on an academic panel and a woman told her how articulate she was. “I knew that if she’d heard me speaking the way I spoke at home or with friends, she wouldn’t have said that,” says Lyiscott. “What was it at this intersection between language and race that allowed this woman to make an assessment of my value?”
Associate professor Britt Rusert has taken what some would consider a circuitous route to her faculty position in the UMass Amherst W. E. B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies. A published scholar of black literature and culture, Rusert’s first love was biology, which she hoped would lead her to medical school. An unfortunate (or fortunate as it may be) turn of events led her down a very different road. Says Rusert, “I decided not to go on to medical school after I passed out from seeing blood while I was doing an internship at a local hospital. I thought, ‘I need a different career path.’”
While Rusert was working on her biology degree she was also pursuing an English major and specializing in LGTBQ literature and queer theory.
“I went to a small liberal arts college where it was possible for me to redirect and finish up a major in English. We had faculty in the English department at Allegheny College who were thinking about the cultural valences of science and medicine. So my particular cross-section of interests really fomented early on. I continue to think of my work as being at the intersections of feminist and queer studies, literary studies, cultural studies and black studies,” says Rusert.
In more specific terms, Rusert’s work addresses unique aspects of the history of racial science in the United States. Her first book, “Fugitive Science” (NYU Press), is an accounting of African Americans’ responses and resistance to the rise of racial science in the nineteenth century. It won an Honorable Mention from the 2019 Modern Language Association Prize for a First Book, and was Sole Finalist Mention for the 2018 Lora Romero Book Prize presented by the American Studies Association.
Does “sleeping on it” help us make better decisions? Are sleep disorders just a natural part of aging? How important are naps, anyhow? Rebecca Spencer, Professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences and director of the UMass Amherst Sleep Monitoring Lab is finding answers to these questions.
“There are so many sleep myths out there, and so few have scientific support,” says Spencer. That’s starting to change, as researchers rush to solve the mysteries of sleep and to decipher its complex relationship to mood, learning, memory, and aging.
“People are talking about sleep a lot more now,” says Spencer. “Doctors have realized that they need to ask patients about sleep, but they don’t have the answers. So they send them for a sleep study. Well, everyone has some level of sleep disorder—we just don’t know enough about how to delineate them.”
That’s where Spencer’s work comes in. Right now she’s focused on two populations that may seem disconnected but have a surprising amount in common, sleep-wise: preschoolers and the elderly. “Sleep changes developmentally, and sleep changes with aging; memory changes developmentally, and memory changes with aging. There’s a strong connection there. Before our studies, nobody had looked at whether sleep and memory are related in older adults and kids,” says Spencer.
The answers may provide not only medical but legislative guidance. Preschools are under pressure to reduce naps to make more time for active learning. In Massachusetts, laws mandate just a 45-minute “rest period”—a decision that was “based on nothing in particular,” says Spencer. Her research, funded by grants from the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, indicates that preschoolers who nap remember 100% of what they learned before they napped; without a nap, they lose 12% of that recollection. Spencer hopes her data, the first of its kind, will help set national accreditation policies and American Academy of Pediatrics recommendations.
What do health management, energy conservation, and online education have in common? They are all complex issues that benefit from data-informed decision-making, and they are all being brought to the next level by researchers at the University of Massachusetts Center for Data Science.
The Center was established in 2015 by its current director, Distinguished Professor Andrew McCallum, whose pioneering work in machine learning, information extraction, and artificial intelligence has helped steer the center, and the university, to the forefront of data science research and development.
“UMass Amherst has long had tremendous strength in machine learning, artificial intelligence, databases, and other areas related to data science,” says McCallum. “The creation of the Center for Data Science is helping UMass build on that strength, increase our impact, and gain visibility in this increasingly high-demand area.” What that means in real terms is developing research that’s among the most cited in the field, creating software that runs in Fortune 500 companies, and vastly increasing production of graduates exceptionally trained in turning big data into real-world breakthroughs.
“The world’s highest priority challenges––in food, water, energy, medicine, economics, education, and social balance––are increasingly complex, and will require sophisticated decision-making,” explains McCallum. “The basis for informed decisions is the underlying data. Building tools for wading through the vast quantities of available data in order to extract actionable insight —that’s the focus of data science.”
Imagine trying to solve a Rubik’s Cube while the squares are constantly changing color. That’s what it’s like to wrestle with issues of policy making and governance, according to Alasdair Roberts, UMass Amherst professor of political science and the inaugural director of the university’s new School of Public Policy.
It’s also what piqued Roberts’s interest in the study of government as far back as middle school. “I’ve always enjoyed looking at these problems because they’re so important but also so complex,” he says.
Roberts’s fascination with problem solving and aptitude for clear-headed analysis has earned him a reputation as a voice of reason in a changing world. He’s not afraid to ask thorny questions, as he does in his latest book, Can Government Do Anything Right? (Polity, 2018). His answer? Yes, though it may not always look that way.
“A lot of experts today are talking as if the world is coming to an end,” he explains. “But there have always been moments in our history where it feels like things are falling apart. When people say it’s never been as bad as it is today, they’re almost always wrong.”
Arindrajit "Arin" Dube
Working at McDonalds in high school for minimum wage, Arindrajit "Arin" Dube knew he had a path forward to college and a professional career. That wasn’t the case for most of his co-workers. “There’s a mistaken notion in the United States that we have a lot of mobility—that increased mobility can substitute for a more equal distribution of income. For many people, that’s just not true,” says Dube, a professor in the UMass Amherst Department of Economics. The fact that people spend years at low-wage jobs tells us how dependent workers are on these jobs and contradicts the notion that they are stepping stones, says Dube.
Widely considered one of the nation’s foremost experts on the economic effects of minimum wage policies, Dube has been interested in issues of income and wage inequality “probably longer than I’ve known those terms,” he says. Throughout his student years at Stanford, Harvard, and University of Chicago, he focused his efforts on increasing wages for campus service workers, including those contracted from outside firms, who are often paid less than workers hired directly.
Since Dube’s days slinging burgers in the 1990s, the face of the low-wage worker has changed. Then, nearly half of all minimum wage earners were teenagers. Today that figure is less than one in five. Meanwhile, inflation has grown faster than wages, and while some states and municipalities have taken it upon themselves to raise their minimum wage, the federal standard lags behind.
It’s a struggle Dube is all too familiar with. His landmark research on the effects of minimum wage hikes across county and state borders showed no significant job loss in communities that raised wages versus neighboring communities where wages stayed the same—countering the perennial argument of opponents. President Obama referenced those studies in his 2013 State of the Union address in support of an increased federal minimum. “It’s nice to know someone was paying attention,” Dube laughs. The information also played a key role in Dube’s testimony before Senator Elizabeth Warren at Senate hearings on a 2013 bill to increase the federal minimum, and importantly, tie future increases to the Consumer Price Index in order to help wages keep pace with inflation.