Spotlight Scholars Archive

M.V. Lee Badget

M.V. Lee Badgett

When economist M.V. Lee Badgett published her 1995 study on the wage gap faced by gay men and lesbians, there was nothing like it in the field. In fact, conventional wisdom held just the opposite.

"My first summer after grad school, I read an article in the Wall Street Journal about how wealthy the gay market was,” says Badgett, professor in the UMass Amherst Department of Economics and former director of the university’s School of Public Policy. “That didn’t mesh with the experience I’d seen.” Badgett’s research led her to data that confirmed her hypothesis: on average, gay and bisexual men earned between 11 and 27 percent less than their heterosexual counterparts. In other words, discrimination, not privilege, was the norm.

Badgett’s research was the first to look at LGBT realities through an economic lens. As an economist, she understood that money and power were intertwined. “I thought this was a really useful perspective to study issues of social justice,” she says. “It provided the tools to see what problems exist and the tools to make those problems better.”  

Her findings drew a lot of attention—not all of it positive. “There definitely was some resistance,” she recalls. “Some journals wouldn’t even review my articles, some of my advisors were worried about my career. Many people had never seen or known LGBT people, and didn’t see why it was interesting.”

Thankfully, Badgett received enough support to move forward with her work, becoming an instrumental figure in the LGBT rights debate as it exploded in the 1990s. Following her efforts to debunk stereotypes—the focus of her first book, Money, Myths, and Change: The Economic Lives of Lesbians and Gay Men (2001)—she turned her focus to the hot-button issue of gay marriage in her 2009 text, When Gay People Get Married: What Happens When Societies Legalize Same-Sex Marriage, which argued that marriage brings enormous benefits to same-sex couples without harming the institution of marriage.

But Badgett has never been content to leave her research on the page. “For my work to make a difference, I had to do more than write journal articles,” she claims. That led her to work with state and national policymakers to connect her findings with issues playing out in the real world. Badgett expanded her network, built think tanks such as the Institute for Gay and Lesbian Strategic Studies (which merged with the Williams Institute), and testified in support of life-changing legislation and litigation—most notably as an expert witness in California’s Proposition 8 trial in 2010, where her testimony was cited by the judge as a factor in his ruling supporting same-sex marriage. The decision set off a cascade that quickly spread to the rest of the country.

Such rapid change in attitudes has made the need for hard data even more critical, says Badgett. “I get a lot more work,” she laughs. “Businesses are clamoring for more information. They’re looking at how they can improve their bottom line by treating LGBT employees equally. Many see it as the right thing to do, of course, but it’s also nice for them to be able to share that data with their shareholders.”

Badgett and two sociology colleagues from UMass and the University of Houston recently got a U.S. Department of Labor grant to study employment discrimination charges brought by LGBT employees. These charges will provide insights into discrimination related to sexual orientation and gender identity. “At what sort of employers and companies can you predict a charge occurring?” she asks. “Our culture still has a hard time dealing with people who don't conform to gender expectations, such as men with earrings. Attitudes like these can put everyone at risk.”

That includes populations around the world. Along with participation in the creation of a UN-sponsored LGBT inclusion index, Badgett is “looking at the global economic cost of homophobia,” she says—information she’s been asked to present to the World Bank, USAID, and other global actors. “This data is helping us see the big picture and understand how all the pieces work together. Do countries with better protection for LGBT people do better economically? What do we lose out on when LGBT people aren’t treated fairly in the workplace? What would the world look like if gender weren’t constraining people?”

Now Badgett is using her expertise to help other scholars put research into action. Her latest book, The Public Professor: How to Use Your Research to Change the Worldoffers “concrete tools to help people think strategically about getting their work out in the world,” she says. Those tools range from using social media to limiting jargon to understanding the inner workings of policymaking—all skills that reflect her experience engaging the public to further the common good.

Nowhere is that reflected more strikingly than in Badgett’s work with colleagues to create the new UMass Center for Employment Equity, which links scholars, policymakers, and citizens to generate action that targets discrimination, shapes policy, and improves enforcement. “To know my research matters has made all the hard work worthwhile,” she says. “To train people who are not afraid to think differently, to create space within the economics profession for young scholars to enter this growing field, to help persuade people that policies of fairness and equality are really important--I can’t imagine a better place to be doing this work than at UMass.”

Ellen Keelan

Donald Towsley

Donald Towsley

Is there a better mousetrap? Donald Towsley, Distinguished University Professor in the College of Information and Computer Sciences, thinks so. His curiosity about life and his open, often playful approach to research and problem solving has led to several breakthroughs in computer networking that have improved how networks, especially the Internet, work.

Well known nationally and internationally in the computer networking field, Towsley's expertise spans a wide range of activities from stochastic analyses of queueing models of computer and telecommunications to the design and conduct of measurement studies.

A large part of what Towsley does is to figure out how the Internet works from a mathematical perspective. He develops mathematical models in order to understand the different phenomena at play in networking processes. If a good model of a system or process can be developed, then protocols can be created to solve a certain problem or to enable that better mousetrap.

Take watching a movie on Netflix as an example. When the service first became available, there were long wait times as the movie loaded. Once started, viewers had to put up with freezes and changes in quality. Towsley’s curiosity led him and his colleagues to study the problem to determine how to alleviate these negatives by coming up with a more robust network design. Their models captured the “loading and freezing” phenomenon, enabling them to predict conditions under which it would arise. “We then were able to develop new algorithms and network protocols to prevent these things from happening,” says Towsley.

Some of Towsley’s most widely utilized research arose from figuring out how Transmission Control Protocol (TCP), the workhorse of the internet, functioned. Just about any data that you receive on your laptop uses TCP, says Towsley. It is a network-friendly protocol that evaluates how a data transfer performs, speeding it up or slowing it down, and improving transfer quality and efficiency. “For many years, no one knew how TCP worked. We came up with the first model of its behavior. The key to figuring this out was to think of data on TCP like sending fluid down pipes and to make the pipes larger or smaller depending on whether you think conditions are good or not so good within the Internet. We came up with a way of describing these fluid flows. It was a very accurate model,” says Towsley.

Because Towsley’s theory utilized differential equations, the language of control theorists, his control theory colleagues jumped in and began designing new mechanisms that could improve TCP. “We developed a mechanism that runs in routers that controls how these pipes increase or decrease in diameter, providing better performance and user experience. A modified version of our technology was adopted two years ago as the industry standard and is included in the latest cable modems,” notes Towsley.

Utilizing path diversity to improve network performance is another area of research Towsley has tackled, developing the initial theory on how to extend TCP to use multiple paths. “If you are going to the CNN website, for example, you will likely have one path to get there and your data is transported on that one path. But in reality, there are many paths that can be taken to access and deliver content. You could connect to several servers and stream portions from each of them. If one path fails, you can use others. So it makes sense to spread the data traffic across the paths,” says Towsley. Technology based on his theory has been standardized. “If you have an iPhone it is in your iPhone. It will eventually be prevalent all over the Internet,” says Towsley.

Though smooth data transmission and quality of experience for movie-watchers is useful, there’s much more at stake for research on networks, says Towsley.

“Robustness and security are two of the most important issues facing networks. There have been numerous denial-of-service attacks over the last few years, the most notable at Sony Studios, Google, and Amazon. We need to better understand network traffic patterns, network faults and failures, and how to deal with these attacks,” he notes.

Path diversity can be a solution for network security as well, notes Towsley, helping to mitigate attacks. “When an attack is sensed, network algorithms can shunt it to other places. You must have a good mathematical understanding of how networks behave so you can see how they are going to react to these different scenarios,” says Towsley.

Lately, Towsley has joined forces with UMass colleague Dennis Goeckel and former PhD student Boulat Bash to investigate an intriguing new area of network security that blends technology with social science: covert communications. While encryption can make a message undecipherable to an unintended observer, covert communications ensure the observer is not even aware of the transmission.

“We came up with the fundamental limits of how two people can communicate over a wireless medium without a third party even being award of it when one party is not allowed to freely communicate,” says Towsley. He and colleagues are also looking at how people can hide information in images, such as those on Facebook. “There are people, some of them undesirables, sharing information this way. We are looking at what you can or can’t do without being detected and what we can or can’t do to prevent this from happening,” says Towsley. This turned out to be a very interesting mathematical modeling problem, notes Towsley, and where much of his love of the work comes in. “I didn't  have all the tools I needed to do this work, so I ended up learning a lot from my colleagues which made it very interesting. It’s fun and satisfying to master new techniques,” says Towsley.

The real beauty of this research, adds Towsley, is that it not only attacks an important societal problem, but it also opens up a new area of information theory. “Already, numerous research groups are focusing on the implications of our results and generalizing them to a greater variety of systems. It’s very exciting.”

So what’s next for Towsley? His curiosity has led him to new research investigations in quantum computing and quantum communications. “It’s a very rich, fertile area. Almost everyone has focused on quantum communication over a single link. In the future, there will be a need for an infrastructure to support distributed quantum computing and quantum communication. There isn’t anyone working on that yet. It is inevitable that we’ll need to develop the theoretical foundation from which we’ll be able to do good engineering. My hope is to borrow what I know from classical networks to apply here,” says Towsley.

In all of this, Towsley’s ultimate goal is “to have fun, to learn, and to play with others whether they be students or colleagues. My experience has been that the whole is much greater than the sum of the parts.”

Karen J. Hayes '85

TreaAndrea Russworm

TreaAndrea Russworm

If you were to meet TreaAndrea Russworm at a party and ask her what she does for a living, she might give you her short, straightforward answer: she’s an associate professor in the UMass Amherst English Department. If she has more time—and, she adds, if she’s feeling more playful—she might give you a glimpse of what she describes with a laugh as her “superhero alter ego”: as a scholar who applies the tools of literary analysis to such diverse and unexpected topics as the films of Sidney Poitier, dystopian video games, comic books, and Tyler Perry’s wildly popular “Madea” character.

Russworm teaches classes on topics such as “Studies in New Media and Textuality” and “Dystopian Games, Comics and Media.” Outside the classroom, she’s a successful writer and editor; in the past year, two books she authored or edited have been published, with one more coming out in June and another in development. Russworm’s first book, Blackness Is Burning: Civil Rights, Popular Culture, and the Problem of Recognition (Wayne State University Press, 2016), which grew out of her dissertation, looks at how popular culture during and after the civil rights era attempted—and often failed—to humanize African-American characters.

Russworm also coedited and contributed to From Madea to Media Mogul: Theorizing Tyler Perry (University Press of Mississippi, 2016), a critical analysis of the actor, producer, and director perhaps best known for his “Madea” series, in which he plays the title character, a volatile, sometimes violent but also loving matriarch. While Perry’s TV shows and movies are often criticized as “low-brow” melodramas filled with stereotypes, they nonetheless have achieved blockbuster commercial success and have made him one of the most influential African-Americans in the entertainment industry.

This summer, another book, Gaming Representation: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in Video Games, which Russworm also coedited and contributed to, will be published by Indiana University Press. And she’s currently at work on a book about race and technology.

What drew Russworm to apply her rigorous academic training in English—including a BA from Brown University and a PhD from the University of Chicago—to popular culture? “I’ve always been a little bit of a renegade,” she explains. At Brown, while she took the required classes—Chaucer, Beowulf—she also did independent studies looking at the sort of popular fiction she had devoured as a kid, by authors like Danielle Steel and V.C. Andrews. “Growing up, I loved that stuff, but I never thought about any of it in a critical way. And I wondered as an undergraduate: can you do that? What can we say about these texts? That was always intriguing to me,” she says.

 “The questions I ask about media are always humanities centered,” Russworm continues. “The theoretical, the probable, the possible—the playful. That’s where my English Department roots really show in my research. For me it felt very natural to write about different forms of popular culture, because those are all texts to me.” And while, at first blush, there might not be a lot in common between, say, The Canterbury Tales and Boo! A Madea Halloween, Russworm argues that literary analysis can, and should, be applied to both canonical and unorthodox topics.

“Even though they’re very different types of subjects, the skill set is the same. How do you read, how do you understand, the kinds of questions stay the same for me, no matter what kind of cultural product I’m writing about,” she says.

At the vanguard of the relatively new but rapidly evolving discipline of gaming studies, her interest reaches back to her grad school days, when she played video games to relax but also wondered about ways to apply critical analysis to the medium. In Gaming Representation, she considers some of the same questions she did in Blackness is Burning, about empathy and the recognition of the humanity of black characters, but in the context of video games such as The Walking Dead.

Russworm’s contributions to Gaming Representation aim to broaden the field of game studies beyond the technological issues that have dominated the discipline, by applying the lens of psychoanalytical and postmodern theory to the world of video games. “Until recently, questions about identity and race and sexuality and gender were really marginal in game studies,” Russworm says. “It took a long time to centralize questions about race in cinema studies. It doesn’t have to take that long in new areas of study like gaming. We can build these questions into how we write about and teach these subjects.”

Russworm incorporates that perspective in the classroom, where she asks her students to apply their humanities training not just to the literary canon, but also to newer, less conventional subjects. “It’s a cliché: pop culture is serious business,” she says. “But there are important questions about how popular culture and technology shapes us, how the ways we engage with culture has changed. And we need people who have the analytical skills to apply some of the same sorts of questions we have always asked to these new ways we spend our time. ”

Maureen Turner

Joshua Yang

Joshua Yang

The future of computing is anything but conventional, says UMass Amherst electrical and computer engineer Joshua Yang. An expert in nanoelectronics and nanoionics (small-scale systems which run on ions to improve functionalities and efficiencies of electronic devices), Yang and his colleagues are creating unconventional technologies for post-silicon devices that have the potential to transform computing by offering faster, more energy efficient, and more sustainable technical capabilities.

“In this era of big data and the internet of things, we are faced with tons of data. Our devices must be able to process things faster and yet with a lower energy,” says Yang. He notes, however, that current computing technology is not up to the task of processing the growing mounds of data efficiently and with sustainability in mind.

“We cannot just build on the platforms we already have. We must think differently. We must build new and different technologies that are considered disruptive or ‘unconventional’,” says Yang.

Yang believes neuromorphic computing, configuring microprocessors to mimic aspects of the human brain, holds much promise for taking computing beyond its current energy efficiency and processing limitations.

“We are looking at how human brains do information processing and storage. We want to build something with real intelligence, computers that can really think and learn, not just use software and human-programmed algorithms,” says Yang. To meet that challenge, he and his colleagues are working on hardware designs that can learn under the same principles used by synapses and neurons in the brain.

One of Yang’s recent breakthroughs, published in the journal Nature Materials is a first step toward meeting that challenge. He and his colleagues have developed a very tiny electrical resistance switch called a diffusive memristor that can emulate synapses faithfully, the place where signals pass through from one nerve cell to another in the human brain. Memristors  are devices that can store and process information while offering several key performance characteristics that exceed conventional integrated circuitry. They don’t require exotic materials or high temperatures in their manufacture and they can be used for different purposes such as memory storage, information processing, security, and as a sensor.

“Memristive technology is simple yet versatile. Memristors can be made at a very small scale—10,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair. They can also be stacked, something you can’t do with most silicon devices,” says Yang.

Universal memory is one application Yang would like to see memristive technology used for as well. “Right now we have memory hierarchies, different types of memory with different attributes and performance. Instead, we need a universal memory designed to be good at everything – to be fast, dense, have low energy requirements, and be non-volatile. Universal memory means a much simpler computer in terms of components, it will use less energy and store more information and will be faster. We will be able to process the same information with orders of magnitude less energy and faster speed,” says Yang.

Though Yang and his colleagues have had some exciting breakthroughs, he says their neuromorphic research is at a very early stage. Their recent paper on synaptic emulators for diffusive memristors is just a small part of the story.

“It’s just one building block. We now want to emulate a neuron, then integrate synapses and neurons together to build a neural network, that’s what’s next. We will pick the neuroscientists’ brains to get their latest knowledge to implement in our electronic platform. This will help the neuroscientists, too. We may have a better platform to verify their theories of the brain than animal tissues, which is still pretty much a black box. Our electronic system is well defined and can be checked. It can help us to get answers. In addition, it is also a great natural platform for novel computing paradigms,” says Yang.

Before coming to campus in 2015, Yang spent eight years at Hewlett-Packard Labs exploring new computing devices and approaches. He holds 77 granted and over 70 pending patents, most of which have been licensed by and technology-transferred to industry for product development. He has authored and co-authored over 100 well-cited papers in peer-reviewed academic journals for computer engineering technologies developed throughout his career so far. With his applied science mindset and his materials science background (MS and PhD from University of Wisconsin-Madison Materials Science Program), Yang knew he needed interdisciplinary expertise to pursue transformational breakthroughs in neuromorphic computing.

“What brought me to UMass was the strengths here in materials, devices, electrical engineering and very top artificial intelligence and polymer science programs. For instance, my colleague Professor Qiangfei Xia is a world-leading expert in nanodevice fabrication and integration. UMass also has strong activity in bio research, which has recently been further strengthened by the new Institute for Applied Life Sciences (IALS),” Yang notes.

Yang and his interdisciplinary team of colleagues are definitely on to something. In only two years, Yang has secured $3.2 million dollars of external funding as principal investigator to move this research forward. “In engineering schools we need to ask ourselves if what we are investigating is useful or not. Application-based research helps to get funding. Plus, we have a very strong team and great support from the department and the school as well,” smiles Yang.

Karen J. Hayes '85

Amel Ahmed

Amel Ahmed

Political scientist Amel Ahmed focuses her work on what she calls “esoteric topics, such as small electoral reforms” that, she says with a laugh, don’t always spark the liveliest of conversations at dinner parties. But those seemingly minor topics can have long-term, far-reaching effects on the political system, notes Ahmed, associate professor of political studies at UMass Amherst.

In her work (including Democracy and the Politics of Electoral System Choice: Engineering Electoral Dominance, winner of a 2014 Best Book Award from the American Political Science Association), she examines the development of democratic systems from a historical perspective, with a particular eye toward changes whose significance has been overlooked.

She’s found, she says, “that very small shifts in electoral system design can have a massive impact. Not just on the kind of policies that are produced, but more generally on who has a seat at the table. Who are the powerbrokers? Who’s going to have input on agenda setting?”

These historical lessons can be useful in the contentious, unsettled political climate surrounding this year’s election. “People’s energies are going in lots of different directions,” Ahmed says, “and there are a lot of important things to be pursued.”

As she wraps up a research project on democracy in interwar Europe—a historical project that she says “also has interesting lessons for the current moment”—Ahmed is now turning her attention to an area that she feels is profoundly important: congressional redistricting. Her next project will explore alternatives to the current redistricting approach.

State legislatures redraw congressional district lines every 10 years, using data from the most recent U.S. Census, to ensure that each district has roughly the same number of people. The process is governed by other rules, too—for instance, in Massachusetts and other states, communities with shared interests should not be divided—although those tend to be subjective and can leave the process open to political manipulation.

Historically, says Ahmed, redistricting has prioritized “fairness”—in other words, “making sure every constituency has a slice of the pie.” While on its face, she says, fairness certainly sounds like an admirable goal (“Who’s not for fairness?”), that approach results in a lack of competition and, consequently, a lack of public engagement.

Over the years, “certain parties have been very, very effective at controlling state legislatures and governors with the goal of making redistricting work to their advantage,” Ahmed notes. Specifically, they’ve been effective at protecting seats held by their party. “Both the left and the right are responsible for this,” she says. “Instead of pushing for competitive districts, they push for safer seats for their candidates, securing what they have.

“It’s a short-term goal with not-so-great long-term consequences,” she continues. When there’s no real competition on Election Day, people aren’t motivated to be politically involved, and “the machinery of participation gets ground down.” Only the most dedicated show up to cast their votes. The key to reform is finding a model that levels the playing field, binding both sides by the same rules so that neither feels at greater risk of losing their “safe seats,” and instead shifts the priority to empowering communities, not political parties.

Amid the turmoil surrounding the recent election, Ahmed notes “people are hypermobilized, looking for something to do” but often failing to find an outlet. She believes they’d do best to focus their energies on the less glamorous but extremely important work of local politics and organizing. “The most impactful mode of participation is something that’s visible, substantive, and aimed at public engagement,” she says: protests, celebrations, town hall-style debates on issues, events in support of a piece of legislation.

“Mobilization has to happen at the grassroots. It has to be the regular mode of activity. There have to be organizations on the ground that network people even when there’s not an election.” But in their focus on big elections, the major parties have let these sorts of local structures atrophy—inadvertently creating a vacuum whose effect is keenly felt right now.

“The short-term goal is to mobilize, organize—all of those things, absolutely,” Ahmed says. “But the long game is to figure out how to revitalize these communities so they are in a semipermanent state of mobilization.”

Maureen Turner

Baoshan Xing

Baoshan Xing

Identified as a most highly cited researcher in the area of environmental and ecological sciences by Thompson-Reuters for the past three years, Baoshan Xing, an environmental and soil chemist in the Stockbridge School of Agriculture, represents one of the world’s “most influential scientific minds.”

An expert in analyzing the chemical behaviors of soil and soil contaminants, his more than 19,000 citations put Xing in the top 0.1 percent of cited authors for journals in his discipline, indicating the originality, impact, and significance of his research.

When asked to describe his work in a nutshell, Xing, who came to UMass Amherst in 1996 after receiving his PhD in environmental and soil chemistry from the University of Alberta, sums it up succinctly: clean soil for safe food.

“We try to improve soil health and to produce safe food by understanding the soil contaminants --all contaminants—especially those of emerging concern such as antibiotics, pharmaceutical compounds, and, lately, we are working with engineered nanoparticles,” says Xing.

His approach to understanding soil contamination and its environmental impact is twofold: to enhance soil quality by taking advantage of the soil’s chemical and physical properties and to understand the behavior of soil contaminants in order to minimize or eliminate their uptake by food crops.

“We don’t want contaminants in produce, in the agricultural products to negatively affect the health of those who eat them. To reach our goals, we first needed to understand the soil composition,” says Xing.

To that end, his early work focused on developing a number of widely used spectroscopic techniques to analyze soil organic matter (SOM).

“Soil organic matter is one of the indicators for soil health, just like blood pressure is for human health,” says Xing. “Once we know the organic matter structure, then we know how organic matter promotes soil health, including how matter can attenuate contaminants in soil.”

Xing’s groundbreaking research on SOM-mineral interactions provided much-needed explanations for the long-term persistence of organic contaminants and for carbon sequestration in soils. This work spurred his interest in developing an ancient method of soil enhancement that had been used in the rainforests of Brazil (among many other places) called biochar to remediate soil contaminants.

“A thousand years ago, people didn’t know the properties of the soil. But they knew if they put charcoal in the soil, the soil performed better. About 10 years ago, a lot of researchers got into this field. Before that, we didn’t know much about biochar for soil improvement,” says Xing.

As biochar pioneers, Xing and his colleagues discovered biochar was recalcitrant—resistant to microbial degradation and able to trap carbon in the soil for long periods of time. “You notice the beautiful leaves. Once they fall to the ground, in three, maybe four years, they will degrade, return most of the organic matter into the atmosphere as CO2. But if you convert this biomass waste into char, then it can last in the soil 100 years or 1000 years, depending on how you make the char. This is good for the climate because it can mitigate the greenhouse effect,” says Xing.

Biochar can also trap other chemicals in the soil, such as contaminants, notes Xing. “Biochar adsorbs them, ties them up. They are still there, but they are not available for the plants to uptake. We are trying to find an economical way to immobilize or reduce the mobility of toxins in the soil.”

With this in mind, Xing and others in his research group are investigating smart or “designer” biochar, to target specific aspects of soil improvement. “With designer biochar we try to understand what type of problems a soil has, such as acidity issues, metal contamination, or organic contaminant problems. Then we design this special char to target that soil’s problems.”

Xing’s newest area of research delves into a topic of emerging environmental concern, engineered nanoparticles (ENPs).

“I first want to say I am a proponent for nanotechnology. In this century, two technologies already affect our daily lives: biotechnology and nanotechnology. Nanotechnology brings so many benefits to human kind. But like anything, when you have so many benefits, you may have some side effects,” says Xing.

Because nanoparticles have unique properties, there is a risk that some can cause harm to organisms, such as bacteria, plants, and animals, including humans. “So we try to study the chemical behavior and toxicity of nanoparticles,” says Xing. “How do they effect bacteria and algae?  How do they affect plant growth?”

Xing is particularly interested in the trophic transfer of contaminants, meaning which contaminants are bio-accumulated through the food chain. “We study from soil to plant to animal. The worm eats the plant leaves then the baby chicken eats the worm. We study all of the behavior with the goal of understanding their environmental behavior and to minimize our exposure through food consumption,” says Xing.  Xing’s latest book, Engineered Nanoparticles and the Environment: Biophysicochemical Processes and Toxicity, which was published by John Wiley and Sons in October 2016, covers many of these issues.

“The book explores exposure and environmental risk assessment for ENPs and how we can produce safe food when using nanotechnology. Our goal is to promote safe, sustainable, nanotechnology. We will have more ENPs in our environment. We have to understand their exposure and toxicity,” says Xing.

Next up for Xing is a collaboration with food scientist and campus colleague Dr.Lili He to develop a quick, handy technique to identify and analyze nanoparticles on vegetables. The partnership takes advantage of Xing’s early work in developing spectroscopic techniques and his growing knowledge of ENPs, which match well with He’s expertise and work on surface-enhanced Raman spectroscopy (SERS), a technique that is being explored for detecting all types of contaminants in food. “We are applying for a patent. We are not there yet, but hopefully we can make this available for use by the public in a few years.”

Baoshan Xing is a Fellow of the Soil Science Society of America (SSSA) and the American Society of Agronomy (ASA). Other significant honors include the Kingenta Agricultural Science Award (2013), the ASA Environmental Quality Research Award (2016), the SSSA Marion L. and Chrystie M. Jackson Soil Science Award (2014), the Award for Outstanding Accomplishments in Research and Creative Activity from UMass Amherst (2015), and the Distinguished Career Award from the Association of Chinese Soil & Plant Scientists in North America (ACSPSNA) in 2012.

Banner Photo from left: Baoshan Xing, PhD candidate Huiyuan Guo, and undergraduate students Lauren Thistle '17 and My Huynh '18.

Karen J. Hayes '85

Brian Levine

Brian Levine

Brian Levine wants to have a conversation with you about security and privacy. A network security expert and UMass Amherst professor in the College of Information and Computer Sciences (CICS), Levine sees the difficult tensions between protecting an individual’s online data, the use of it by private enterprise, and the need for governments to access information for law enforcement and homeland security, coming to a head.

“The Internet allows for the free exchange of information, but unfortunately, some of what people are exchanging is illegal. We feel we can’t exist without our mobile phones, yet we’re risking our privacy while using them. What interests me is dealing directly with these technical issues and trying to resolve the complications for society,” says Levine.

The recent legal wrangling between the Department of Justice and Apple to unlock the iPhone of one of the attackers in the 2015 San Bernardino, California, shooting rampage is an example of the problem. It’s a case where the right to privacy, data ownership, and corporate responsibility bump up against the government’s need to investigate crimes. Throw in the Fourth Amendment, which protects people, their property, and their personal effects from unreasonable search and seizure by the government, and you have a perfect storm of opposing positions.

“The whole iPhone issue is a very complicated one where few people knew all the details,” says Levine. “On the one hand, people have qualms about the government’s demand that Apple unlock the phone. On the other hand, the government has a responsibility to protect society. The facts are that people were murdered and the person who carried the phone has died. It was an employer-issued phone. That employer was the federal government. The government was asking Apple to give them access to their own phone,” says Levine.

Though difficult, Levine has experience reaching middle ground on Internet privacy. Building on his early research in peer-to-peer networking and file-sharing privacy, Levine began working with law enforcement to develop tools for criminal digital forensics, specifically research and technology that is used to thwart online sharing of child pornography and Internet-based child sexual abuse. With support from the Department of Justice and the National Science Foundation (NSF), his lab has produced a number of novel methods for forensic investigation.

“We’ve built tools for use by law enforcement that abide by the Fourth Amendment while allowing investigators to measure how big this problem is on a global scale. For example, we’ve found that over 600,000 unique computers are sharing child pornography per month worldwide,” says Levine.

According to CICS Dean Bruce Croft, investigators in every state make use of Levine’s research daily. “At least 350 children have been rescued from sexually abusive situations by U.S. law enforcement in the last three years using tools developed at UMass. Brian’s work has helped quantify the problem and has brought attention to this crime for policy makers, law enforcement, and the public,” says Croft.

The impact of Levine’s work is also felt worldwide. Thanks to collaborations with the Department of Justice and the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force (ICAC), the tools developed in Levine’s lab are being used by law enforcement agencies in 24 other countries.

Levine’s recognition for his work is wide-ranging as well. He’s received over $2 million in funding from the Department of Justice during the last four years for research to thwart Internet-based sexual exploitation of children. Recently, he was awarded $150,000 from Operation Underground Railroad to assist law enforcement internationally in the hindrance of online child trafficking and the dissemination of child exploitation material. He’s also a sought-after speaker, having been invited to the office of the National Coordinator for Child Exploitation Prevention and Interdiction, where he spoke to a group of the country’s top federal law enforcement officials who investigate such crimes. Levine also gave a keynote address on Internet-based crimes against children at the 2015 Yahoo! Tech Pulse, an annual employees-only event of the company’s researchers and engineers.

Though criminal forensics is a large part of Levine’s current focus, privacy continues to be a research priority. Next on his radar: Internet mosaics.

“If someone were to follow you for say, 30 days, they can piece together this mosaic about your private life. They might see you visit one location and then several others. Put together, the observer can infer something about you that they couldn’t learn from a single trip,” says Levine.

The problem is that now they don’t need to physically follow you. Whether it’s the phone company that does it by analyzing your data, or whether it’s an advertiser whose ads follow you online and perhaps get your GPS information, digital mosaics raise privacy issues. It’s a legal issue right now according to Levine.

“Courts don’t know exactly what to do about it. If these mosaics, which are increasingly easy to discover because of technology, deserve privacy protections, there will be complications. We need to be thinking ahead on these issues” says Levine.

According to Levine, finding good solutions for Internet privacy and security requires an interdisciplinary approach. The need to cross disciplines, combined with the campus’s deep and broad expertise in data sciences, spurred creation of the UMass Amherst Cybersecurity Institute, which he directs. The Institute brings together dozens of internationally recognized faculty to address both the critical need for innovative security research as well as well-trained cybersecurity professionals.

“The institute is where we’re linking it all together. The goal is to increase our reach, our impact, and our visibility,” says Levine.

A $4.5-million grant from the National Science Foundation and $3 million from the Massachusetts-based MassMutual Foundation to support the institute will help Levine and his colleagues reach their goals. The federal money is being used to bring a CyberCorps® Scholarship for Service (SFS) program to the campus. In partnership with the Department of Homeland Security, CyberCorps SFS supports the educational and professional development of domestic students who will help the nation address threats to national security including critical infrastructure such as utilities, defense systems, and refineries. UMass Amherst is the first public university in New England to receive such an award. The private funds will support new research and education activities, such as the institute’s new Trust, Assurance and Cybersecurity Certificate program offered at the MassMutual Foundation/UMass Springfield Center for Training in Cybersecurity. The funds include support for new faculty hires to develop and teach the classes and to bring more research to campus.

“We are offering training to people in security, expecting they’ll come with backgrounds ranging from management to statistics. We are offering classes on policy, risk management, and computer science to broaden the government’s and industry’s ability to address cybersecurity challenges. Problems in security and privacy are no longer only technical gaps that can be solved with a better algorithm,” says Levine.

Karen J. Hayes '85

Andrea Nahmod

Andrea Nahmod

Professor Andrea Nahmod’s interest in mathematics began in early childhood. Her fondest memories include sitting in her mother’s kitchen as an elementary school child doing her math homework. “I found it very peaceful,” says Nahmod.

Growing up in Argentina, Nahmod found the logic of mathematics a safe harbor in the political upheaval of the 1976-1983 military coup and dictatorship that threw the country into turmoil during her high-school and first university years. “Things were so oppressive during that period in our history," says Nahmod. "Math was a place where things were logical. It made sense to me at a time when what was happening around me made no sense."

Having come from a family of medical researchers and physicians, Nahmod decided early on to study medicine. But her initial focus on how mathematics applied to genetics, as well as a key conversation with a former neighbor who worked for NASA and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, led her to reconsider her choice. “He showed me how math was the basis of many other disciplines,” says Nahmod, “and encouraged me to do math as a career. Somehow he opened my head for math and I was convinced.”

It turned out to be good advice. An expert in the two separate but interrelated classical areas of mathematics called harmonic analysis and partial differential equations, Nahmod has risen to national prominence in her field. Since receiving her PhD from Yale University in 1991 she has received many prestigious honors: a Radcliffe-Sargent Faull Fellowship in 2009 took Nahmod to the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard University for a year to expand her research program; she was selected for a highly-competitive Simons Fellowship in 2013 allowing her a full-year sabbatical at MIT; and she’s been twice selected a Member of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. In 2014 Nahmod was one of a select few mathematical scientists from around the world to be named a Fellow of the American Mathematical Society in recognition of her contributions to nonlinear Fourier analysis, harmonic analysis, and partial differential equations, as well as service to the mathematical community.

Most recently, Nahmod received a Simons Professorship at the Mathematical Science Research Institute in Berkeley, California, where she also co-directed an international effort in which more than 200 researchers worked in concert on a set of problems in partial differential equations. Additionally the National Science Foundation recently awarded Nahmod and collaborators a $1.4 million Focused Research Grant to fund their research for the next three years. “This continues her sterling record of NSF funding in every year that she has been at UMass Amherst,” says Farshid Hajir, professor and head of UMass Amherst’s Department of Mathematics and Statistics.

When asked about her research, Nahmod says “I’m an analyst. I study how to decompose objects in forms we can understand and that give us information about their most relevant features, their structure and patterns.” Using techniques called harmonic and nonlinear Fourier analysis, Nahmod and her colleagues apply these decomposition techniques to problems in the material world in order to find solutions and to understand their behavior.

“We can break down images and signals such as speech, radar or wave propagation in optics into modulated wave-forms, the signal’s basic building blocks which capture their main features and are easy to compute,” says Nahmod. “At the same time this gives us a way of putting them back together using only some parts without losing the signal’s basic qualities. It’s an important process that has revolutionized digital technology.” This ability to compress signals into wave packets has been helpful when reconstructing digital fingerprints or developing face recognition software, two technologies important to public safety and national security.

Nahmod’s related area of expertise is in nonlinear partial differential equations (PDEs) modeling different wave propagation phenomena in nature. Nonlinear wave models arise in quantum mechanics, fiber optics, ferromagnetism, water waves, Bose-Einstein condensate, and many other phenomena. One of the most ubiquitous of these PDEs is the nonlinear Schrödinger equation (NLS).

“Because waves in nature interact in a nonlinear fashion as they propagate and have different properties such as amplitude, length, oscillation, speed, and position over time, it’s important to understand how they may behave under certain conditions or when introduced to certain media,” says Nahmod. Understanding the most efficient way to send a signal through a fiber optic cable or being able to anticipate the properties of a gas when the temperature approaches absolute zero are two very different phenomena in nature but are both aspects of solutions to the same equation, she adds.

“Being able to understand and describe the dynamics and behavior of solutions to NLS is fundamental to accurately predict wave phenomena,” says Nahmod. That’s an important tool to have in your toolkit when studying the natural world.”

What’s next for her research? Nahmod has always been interested in bringing new tools to bear on current mathematical methods in order to open up new research directions or define new paradigms. “I like being able to approach a problem in new ways,” she says, “to move the problem forward in a different fashion. That is a strength for me and of the faculty at UMass Amherst.” To this end, her current research investigates the role of data randomization in nonlinear wave phenomena and how probability can be applied to shed light on behavior and dynamics of ‘generic’ solutions.

“Roughly,” Nahmod explains, “the idea is that you don't need to look at the dynamics of equations for every single initial profile of a class to predict an outcome. Probability introduces the notion that you can look at it generically: pick one at random that has certain prescribed properties, and understand the long-term dynamics of it by approaching it from a non-deterministic viewpoint.”

Two attractions drew Nahmod to UMass Amherst: it gave her the opportunity to teach at a public institution and it fulfilled her desire to be at the forefront of something new. “When I came to campus in 1998 the department was in transition,” she recalls. “It soon lost 15 faculty members to early retirement and began hiring a lot of young faculty. There was this energy—a group of young people who were somehow going to take the lead in shaping the future of the department. UMass was a place where I saw something bright, a place where nobody else was really doing what I was doing and in which I could have a role in building something. I liked that.”

As a product of the public school system in Argentina, Nahmod appreciates the role public universities such as UMass Amherst play in citizens’ lives. “There is something that I like that is a little bit of a challenge at a public school,” she says. “The body is larger and more diverse and includes an enormous number of bright kids. To find them and tap their potential, to reach out to them is rewarding. I was helped in that way when I was their age. It's time to pay it forward."

Karen J. Hayes '85

Christian Appy

Christian Appy

Historian Christian Appy had been taking a break from academic life when he arrived on the UMass Amherst campus in 2004. Having just completed a monumental oral history of the Vietnam War called Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered from All Sides, Appy was offered a one-year visiting professorship which included the chance to teach a class about the war to UMass Amherst students. “Students were clearly interested in learning about the war,” says Appy. “They had a sense that this was an important point in history that they should know more about. They were not getting this in high-school.” The experience was so gratifying, Appy applied for a full-time position in the history department. 

Appy is a foremost authority on the effects of the Vietnam War on American culture and identity. He has authored three ground-breaking books on the subject, each with a different focus and each addressing an aspect of the war that was missing in the literature. He also edits a books series for UMass Press called Culture, Politics and the Cold War which now has more than 30 volumes in print.

His first book, Working Class War: American Combat Soldiers and Vietnam examines the experiences and perspectives of U.S. soldiers before, during, and after their wartime service. It focuses largely on the striking contradictions between what American leaders claimed the war was about and what the troops were actually ordered to do. “We were destroying the very country we claimed to be saving and it was obvious to GIs that the Vietnamese people did not view them as liberators. American forces were not there to win hearts and minds or secure territory, but were mostly sent out on 'search and destroy' missions to kill as many people as possible. The “body count” was America's main measure of success in Vietnam.”

The aforementioned book Patriots is a collection of oral histories that explores the war’s impact from the eyes of those who lived and fought it on both sides. “I wanted to broaden our vision of the war. We had come to focus very narrowly on a small range of American experiences.” Appy interviewed both Americans and Vietnamese, military generals and grunts, journalists and artists, nurses and doctors, pilots and protesters, guerillas and CIA operatives. Appy purposely chose the title to be a bit provocative: to remind people that patriotism is a term with different possible interpretations. “There’s not only patriotism in our country but very much so in Vietnam. I don’t think that the United States and the South Vietnamese government would have been defeated if the other side had not been fueled by this intense patriotism that had roots going back thousands of years,” notes Appy. Patriots won the 2004 Massachusetts Book Award.

Appy’s latest book American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity examines Vietnam’s impact on American culture, foreign policy and national identity, and the failure of U.S. policymakers to heed the lessons of that war in the wake of 9/11 and the protracted wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. American Reckoning asks the question “what happened to us as a country because of the effects of the war?” Appy believes the Vietnam War shattered the broad faith in American exceptionalism, the sense that we are the greatest nation on earth, endowed with extraordinary power, values and resources. “When word began to spread about atrocities like the My Lai massacre—where U.S. troops slaughtered 500 unarmed, unresisting civilians—Americans not only began to see the war as fundamentally wrong but also began to question the idea that America puts a higher price on life than other nations—one of the tenets of American exceptionalism. And the fact that we lost the war meant that even hawks had to confront the fact that we were not invincible.”

When asked what drew him to explore the social impacts of the Vietnam War, Appy says “I don’t have a dramatic story to explain the mystery of why I've devoted so much of my career to this subject. As a kid, I didn’t know a single person who fought in Vietnam and I didn't know anyone deeply involved in the antiwar movement. But by the time I got to college I did feel a moral obligation to learn more about the war. It says something about the times that despite having no personal connection to the conflict I could still feel something of the emotional and political undertow of the war,” he notes. Appy was drawn to the history of the conflict at a time, he says, that all of history was being called into question. “As a student in the 1970s we were studying history from the bottom up. We were seeing that everyone’s history counts. I figured I would become a labor historian” he says smiling.

Since the publication of American Reckoning, Appy has given dozens of talks around the country and been interviewed on nearly 50 radio programs. He was a featured panelist at the 2015 Library of Congress National Book Festival in Washington DC where he spoke about the “Human Side of War”. Closer to home, Appy organized a campus “teach-in” last April in recognition of the 40th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War, where a panel of veterans, peace activists and historians shared stories of combat, activism and post-war life. Presented by the history department and the Veterans Education Project, the teach-in aimed to further understandings of the realities and myths of America’s most controversial war and its impact on veterans, the national psyche, and the lives of Americans and Southeast Asians.

When asked if he would share one thing with prospective students about the value of studying history, Appy replied, “History informs who we are in the present and how we act and think in the present. The more conscious we are of these historical roots the better decisions we can make.”

Karen J. Hayes '85

Julie Caswell

Julie Caswell

Professor of Resource Economics Julie Caswell is internationally known for her research on the economics of food safety and nutrition. Her many appointments to national food safety and nutrition boards richly attest to the importance of her work keeping consumers informed of the quality of the food they eat.

While researching the economics of food safety, Caswellhas examined both the costs and incentives of creating safe foods on local, national, and international scales. She has focused on the benefits of food labeling, the impacts of sanitary and phytosanitary regulations on international trade, and risk-based food-safety regulation. She made a special impact by joining campus colleagues to study the impacts of trans-fat labeling, which was not required until 2006. Emily Wang, Hongli Wei, and Caswell examined the food industry from 2000 (pre regulation) to 2011 (post regulation) to track how the market changed in response. Caswell has also served on four National Academies committees that delivered major policy reports on dioxins in food, the benefits and costs of seafood consumption, the Food and Drug Administration’s use of risk-based approaches to food safety, and the public release of meat plant inspection data by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“The supermarket is a lab for me,” she said recently. “It is where we can see what nutrition and other quality claims companies think are important to consumers, and track the development of the market for quality. Food safety policy is all about reducing risk. The question is how to best do that in a local, national, and international market for food products.”

In 2011, Caswell was recognized for her research in this area by being named a fellow of the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association, the premier U.S. and international professional organization for agricultural and applied economists. She has consulted with international organizations on risk-based food policy, most recently with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations during fall 2013. UMass Amherst has also recognized Caswell for her notable contributions, first with the Chancellor's Medal in 2005 and again in 2011 with an Outstanding Accomplishments in Research and Creative Activity Award.

“I’m interested in people, the consumers,” said Caswell. “Many universities in my field work on agricultural production, but UMass is attractive to me because I get to work on the consumer end of the food system.”

While she enjoys research, Caswell finds her hands-on work with students to be just as rewarding. In 2014 she was named associate dean in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences (SBS). There, through the newly developed Pathways Program, she works with colleagues and with students from their freshman year onwards to create integrative-learning experiences that combine portfolios, first-year seminars, and professional-development workshops. SBS hopes that these components will help students maximize their college experience through personal advising and mentorship from members of the college and its departments.

“Graduating seniors often think back and wish they’d made more out of their college experience,” she said. “My job is to help prevent such regrets.”

Valerie Inniss '16

Danny Schnell

Danny Schnell

Biochemist Danny Schnell sees a time in the not-so-distant future when automobiles will run solely on electricity but air travel will still depend on liquid fuel. Given this expected evolution in technology, Schnell is applying his knowledge of plant photosynthesis to develop seed crop oil that could be the sustainable aviation fuel of the future.

“Our main focus is to develop plants which are very similar to those that produce canola oil. However, these plants contrast with others because the oil they produce cannot be used as food,” says Schnell.

An internationally-known expert in plant physiology, photosynthesis and plant biochemistry, Schnell and his team of academic and industrial collaborators have been working with the plant Camelina sativa under a $4.2 M Department of Energy PETRO (Plant Engineered to Replace Oil) grant because of its unique qualities as a biofuel source. In addition to the plant’s adaptation to grow on very marginal lands, Camelina is also resistant to water stress and requires minimal fertilizer for productivity. These three attributes combine to make Camelina more sustainable and economical to grow than other types of non-food-based biofuel feedstock.

Despite existing methods that are used to convert the plant oil to air craft fuel, scientists have still been unable to produce enough of the feedstock to provide that supply chain. Schnell’s group is working on increasing that yield.

“With the approaches that we’ve taken we have seen upwards of a 50 percent increase in the production which is a big step forward,” says Schnell. “Given our work and understanding of how photosynthesis can be enhanced to increase production coupled with traditional plant breeding approaches, we believe we can achieve up to a 200 percent increase in yield,” he adds.

​Schnell feels one of his greatest contributions to meeting this challenge has been his ability to demonstrate that one can in fact increase crop yield by improving the efficiency of photosynthesis, (increasing the capacity of plants to capture CO2 from the atmosphere and convert it to a useful product). However, he acknowledges his greatest challenge to also be the most exciting in the sense that plants don’t evolve to meet the needs of humanity but instead to survive.

“The most exciting part of this research has been our ability to take advantage of evolution and investigate other organisms that are able to do photosynthesis more efficiently,” said Schnell. “Given this knowledge we were then able to utilize these approaches to get the Camelina plants to utilize similar biochemical processes to increase photosynthesis significantly, approximately 20 percent, which results in an increase in crop productivity of around 50 percent.”

Schnell has received wide acclaim for broadening our understanding of the biochemistry of plants and their potential to help meet our future energy needs. In 2013 he was named a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) for his “distinguished contributions to the field of biological sciences.” In 2012 he was elected a Fellow of the American Society of Plant Biologists, an honor granted to no more than 2 percent of the association’s membership each year. Schnell has also published a compilation of book chapters and journal articles which have generated over 2,500 non-self-citations making him an “international leader in the biochemical analysis of protein translocation into chloroplasts.”

“It is important to note that his research papers are truly fundamental in the field [of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology] because of their impeccable quality and interpretation,” says Jennifer Normanly, head of the campus’s Biochemistry and Molecular Biology department. “He is a scientist of the highest rank,” she adds.

Valerie Inniss ’16 and Karen J. Hayes '85

John Bracey

John Bracey

Few scholars can boast the academic pedigree of Afro-American Studies professor and chair John Bracey. His family comprises four generations of teachers. Bracey’s grandparents were teachers and his mother taught at Howard University. His sons teach, as does his wife, sister, aunt and several cousins. “I have two uncles who were college presidents. In my family, if you don’t teach we forgive you,” chuckles Bracey.

Growing up on Howard’s campus in the 1940s and early 1950s, Bracey was surrounded by a body of the leading black intellectuals of the 20th century – John Hope Franklin, Sterling Allen Brown, E Franklin Frazer, Dorothy B. Porter and others. He has autographed first edition books from these scholars that were given to him as a child. “They tolerated me. They were very brilliant people so I learned from them,” says Bracey.

This background, as well as a genuine love for teaching, led Bracey on his way to becoming a pre-eminent scholar of black history and the black arts movement in which he was both a witness and a participant. He wanted to be involved in this area of scholarship, he says, because “this is where the field was going. I was convinced the most important scholarship would be the role of black people in general and black women in particular. I think that’s been correct.”

Bracey had gone to school at Howard with Ekwueme Michael Thelwell, a founder in 1970 of the campus’s W.E.B. Du Bois Afro-American Studies Department, one of the first of its kind at a public research university and the second nationally to offer a PhD program in 1996. When Thelwell called Bracey to ask him to teach in the budding department while they needed to fill a vacancy, he agreed.  “I said, yeah I’ll come for a year and I’ve been here 42,” smiles Bracey. 

Bracey’s comment about his UMass Amherst tenure mirrors how early black studies programs were viewed. Considered a “flash in the pan,” black studies were often formed as programs rather than departments because they were not expected to last. “We wanted a department because we knew better,” says Bracey, who with Thelwell and others successfully lobbied campus administration to do just that. The group had foresight to understand the importance of black studies would persist beyond the heyday of black social movements.

“In every major discipline the study of black people and now the study of black women is the … dominant topic,” says Bracey. 

During Bracey’s early years he was in involved in “radical” movements - civil rights black liberation and later a supporter of the women’s movements. On campus, he became active in seminal projects within that context that would take black arts and black history scholarship to the next level.

Bracey recounts a “crisis on campus between black students and Jewish students” in the late 1980s and early 1990s over a visit by Louis Farrakhan. To address this, he and Maurianne Adams, a colleague from the College of Education, led a faculty seminar and then an undergraduate class on black-Jewish relations. The research and teaching that resulted from this effort led to the creation of a massive volume edited by Bracey and Adams, Strangers and Neighbors: Relations Between Blacks and Jews in the United States (University of Massachusetts Press). Though the book is an exceptional source on the subject and groundbreaking in nature, Bracey notes it is not the definitive resource nor the end of the story. “It’s a problem solving book,” says Bracey.

More recently, Bracey has focused on shepherding a new African American Studies series into existence at the UMass Press. As part of the series, he did much to bring Meyer Weinberg's The World of W.E.B. Du Bois back into print and his newly released work SOS: Calling All People, A Black Arts Movement Reader co-edited with the renowned poet Sonia Sanchez and Afro-Am colleague James Smethurst is set to be another groundbreaking book in the field. Created because of a dearth of academic material on the black arts movement, Bracey, Sanchez, and Smethurst needed a resource for faculty who wanted to teach the subject.

“We wanted to get in one place, between one set of covers, all the things you needed to know to get through the black arts movement.  We did a lot of thinking, a lot of arguing, and a lot of conceptualizing,” says Bracey.

Over the last year alone, John Bracey's honors and accomplishments have been many.  Leading younger and older scholars honored Professor Bracey for his lifelong contributions to the fields of African American Studies and History in 2013 in a featured plenary session at the annual meeting of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History. He collaborated with Sanchez on a haiku mural project in Philadelphia involving thousands of poets, scholars, students, and community members from across the country. A haiku of Professor Bracey was chosen to appear on the final mural in part as a tribute to his work on the project in particular and the community in general.

Bracey received an honorary doctorate from the College of Wooster for his lifelong work in building African American Studies and for his work as a social historian. And according to friend and colleague James Smethurst, his invited lectures across the country are too numerous to list. “And this is only in the past year,” notes Smethurst.

When asked what he thinks about most when he reflects on his accomplishments and career, he talks about teaching and the impact those who teach can have on students. “I would have taught for free because it’s one of the most important things you can do,” says Bracey. “Helping young people to open up their minds and comprehend the world is what’s important.”

Karen J. Hayes '85

Photos: Kayla Setters'15

Jane Fountain

Jane Fountain

For as long as there has been a virtual state, UMass Amherst Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Public Policy Jane Fountain has stood as an undisputed leader on the topic. As governments and large international organizations continue to learn how to adopt our rapidly evolving technology, Fountain provides the tools, consultation and expert analysis necessary to help them make best use of it.

In 2001, Fountain published the seminal book, Building the Virtual State: Information Technology and Institutional Change, which outlines the American public sector’s path towards a fair, successful use of digital governance. As the book uses a rich collection of case studies to highlight the institutional and political hurdles to that success, in addition to the technological ones, the book remains a leading resource on the topic. It has been cited more than 1,200 times and translated into Chinese, Portuguese, Japanese, and Spanish. The Chinese translation is in its second edition.

“Dr. Fountain has done more than almost anyone to advance the study of digital government,” says Chancellor Kumble R. Subbaswamy. “Indeed, Dr. Fountain literally wrote the book that defined this field. This book is universally acknowledged as by far the best publication on its topic.”

In spring 2014, Fountain was named to the “Top Federal 100” by Federal Computer Week. She is one of only two academics to make the list. Soon after, she was also appointed to a three-year term on the Experts Advisory Committee of the E-Government Research Center of the Eastern Regional Organization for Public Administration (EROPA). Fountain is the only non-Chinese member of the approximately 10-member Experts Advisory Committee.

As founder and director of the National Center for Digital Government, Fountain has a long history researching and evaluating federal IT policies and practices. In 2013, she released a report through the Administrative Conference of the United States titled “

Examining Constraints To, and Providing Tools For, Cross-Agency Collaboration.” She also translated that work into a report for IBM’s Center for the Business of Government titled “Implementing Cross-Agency Collaboration: A Guide for Federal Managers.” Both examine how the traditionally divided federal bureaucracy has sought to become more collaborative in light of technological innovations. Her guidance on how to improve such collaboration has also earned her the title of “collaboration guru” by Federal Computer Week.

Since joining the UMass Amherst faculty in 2005, her research has focused on institutional perspectives on technology and governance, public organizations and institutional change, women and IT, and the intersection of science, technology and society. Fountain has received numerous awards and recognitions during her tenure, including election to the National Academy of Public Administration and selection as an Inaugural Senior Fellow of the Information and Politics Section of the American Political Science Association. She has also received two of the highest campus honors: the Chancellor’s Medal in 2012 and the 2010 Chancellor’s Award for Outstanding Accomplishments in Research and Creative Activity. Fountain is credited with a number of scholarly publications, including three co-edited volumes, 19 book chapters, 27 working papers, and numerous keynote addresses and conference presentations internationally. She has also served as principal investigator or co-principal investigator on $6.25 million in grants since joining UMass Amherst.

The impact of Fountain’s ideas stretches far beyond academic texts and grants, however. She serves as an appointee to the Governor’s Innovation Council of Advisors for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and served on the American Bar Association’s Blue Ribbon Panel on e-Rulemaking. She has also been the chair, co-chair, and a council member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on the Future of Government, a leadership role working with government and corporate leaders in places such as Davos, Istanbul, Dubai and Vienna.

What’s next for Fountain? She remains dedicated to assisting governments around the world as they make the difficult transition to a more virtual state.

“It’s not an easy thing to take something as complex and variegated as a central government through what I think is a fairly significant transformation,” says Fountain. “For them to become infused with digital information, digital communications and all of the other tools that are available takes some reorganizing. My work is aimed at helping governments understand what their alternative paths are and to help them make more intelligent decisions.”

University Relations

Aura Ganz

Aura Ganz

Electrical and computer engineer Aura Ganz spent the first part of her career increasing bandwidth capabilities to perfect optical and wireless networks—networks many of us use daily when we search the internet or turn on our smartphones. It was this research that first established Ganz as a leader in the wireless networking field. Since then, she has worked passionately to use the technology she helped build to develop applications that assist people and save lives.

A national expert in networking, Ganz has published more than 250 papers on the subject. Her book, Multimedia Wireless Networks, introduced wireless networks practitioners to the art of wireless system design at a time when the field was growing exponentially. She is an IEEE Fellow—a prestigious honor awarded through the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers to the top electrical engineers in the field.

Ganz prides herself in her ability to develop what she refers to as “whole” technologies—innovations that require interdisciplinary collaboration to make them available to those who can use them.

Though Ganz has many successful projects to her credit, she has worked passionately to bring two in particular to fruition: PERCEPT, an electronic indoor navigation system, or “seeing-eye directory,” for the blind and visually impaired that employs a smartphone app to detect NFC (near-field communication) tagged landmarks; and DIORAMA, a tracking system for first responders to use in mass casualty situations that has proven to enable a 50-percent faster evacuation time than current practice. With unprecedented funding from the National Institutes of Health (grants are not commonly awarded to projects with engineers as the principal investigator), both are moving into trial studies with PERCEPT being piloted at the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority’s (MBTA) Arlington station. Ganz is eager to see her technologies help more people and would like to see more altruistic endeavors from the field.

“It’s very exciting,” Ganz says. “It’s a new era and I hope more professors and inventors will take up this charge.”

In developing PERCEPT and DIORAMA, Ganz demonstrates a unique ability to use advanced technology to build on existing practices. She worked extensively with the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind and disaster managers, fully acquainting herself with their current practices in order to best bring the technologies forward.

“I cannot come with a revolutionary idea where the users have to throw away what they know now—it will never get accepted,” Ganz says. “You have to understand what they currently do and how to improve the process with technology.”

In the coming months, Ganz will continue to work with the National Federation for the Blind to see how they can help lobby for a federal mandate that would require public building deployments of PERCEPT. She is also moving DIORAMA into large-scale trials. In order for the technology to be used in disaster drills around the globe, she must prove it can handle a large number of victims over a large geographical area.

Just as Ganz works on whole technologies (rather than a single slice of a project), she prefers to be thought of in her entirety—as a wife, a proud mother of three, a leader, and an engineer. While other female professionals have felt pressured to separate their family lives from their professional ones, Ganz says her family inspires her work.

“Perhaps I caught the ‘helping bug’ from my children—my two oldest are doctors, now,” says Ganz. “You really can see the immediate result these technologies have for people. You really can improve their lives.”

Amanda Drane '12

Barbara Krauthamer

Barbara Krauthamer

Historical accounts of slavery and emancipation in the Americas abound in school textbooks and history classes, but according to UMass Amherst historian Barbara Krauthamer, there are holes in that history—important details of race and gender that she is dedicating her career to uncovering.

Her recent book, Envisioning Emancipation: Black Americans and the End of Slavery, co-authored with photographic historian Deborah Willis of New York University, has been widely praised. The book presents 150 historical photographs that Krauthamer and Willis have amassed through their overlapping research, providing a more visceral as well as intellectual account of the end of slavery. Well-timed with the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation in early 2013, the book landed both Krauthamer and Willis the 45th Annual NAACP Image Award in non-fiction and has been honored by the Black Caucus of the American Library Association. Since the book’s release, it has garnered national attention through major media outlets such as the New York Times and CBS.

Krauthamer has quickly moved into the national spotlight as one of few historians researching the underrepresented areas of slavery and emancipation in the Americas. Her work covers a range of topics typically overlooked. Her more recent book, Black Slaves, Indian Masters: Slavery, Emancipation, and Citizenship in the Native American South, was the first study of slavery in the Choctaw and Chickasaw nations. The book details how conflicts among Choctaw, Chickasaw, and U.S. lawmakers left countless former slaves and their descendants in the two Indian nations without citizenship of any kind.

In order to bring this history to light, Krauthamer pours over slave owners’ records, abolitionists’ records, newspaper accounts, court documents, autobiographies, and other narratives. In all her research, Krauthamer works to present a more inclusive view of the past, as she believes slavery is too often defined by the male experience.

“I think it’s a time period in which African American women, especially enslaved women, have been overlooked as intellectuals and political actors,” says Krauthamer.

Because so much remains unknown about women’s lives in slavery, Krauthamer’s next book will focus on enslaved women and their liberation. It will include stories of enslaved women who ran away, who escaped and had to change their names and identities in order to remain hidden, and of those who sued for their freedom.

“What I hope my work does is to really make clear the roles that African American women played,” says Krauthamer. “Both freed women and enslaved women, and their intellectual engagement with the world around them in the antebellum period. They were certainly acutely aware of the political debates over slavery and women’s rights. Even for women who were enslaved, they had a clear understanding of what was at stake.”

Krauthamer believes that telling the untold stories of enslaved women enables a broader look at what life was like in slavery, including people’s religious practices, their family life, and their ideas of beauty and fashion.

“It gives us a much richer understanding of the African American experience in slavery. I also think it gives us a much richer understanding of points of connection within the African American diaspora,” says Krauthamer.

What’s next for Krauthamer? Through the UMass Digital Humanities Initiative, Krauthamer is working to create a digital map of the Mahaiwe Cemetery in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, where W.E.B. Dubois’ family was buried. She plans to connect that map with other maps of African American gravesites in Berkshire County, which will serve her larger goal of aggregating sources of African American history scattered across Western Massachusetts. Here on campus, she will soon take over as the History Department’s graduate program director, where she looks forward to ensuring a rich experience for students pursuing advanced degrees in History.

Amanda Drane '12

Léonce Ndikumana

Léonce Ndikumana

The societal issues that stand between many African countries and economic stability vary, but according to economist Léonce Ndikumana, strong public policy can lay the framework for more equal, inclusive development across the continent. With a foot in both the research and policy worlds, Ndikumana is peeling back the impoverished, conflict-ridden layers of African society to reveal its vastly underexploited potential—potential he insists can be realized through open dialogue and informed policies.

In addition to serving as the director for the African Development Policy program in the UMass Amherst Political Economy Research Institute (PERI), Ndikumana(above) is a member of the United Nations Committee on Development Policy. Ndikumana believes strongly that good policy is based on good research; that their union is essential to the formation of sound policies in developing nations around the world.

In 2011, Ndikumana was appointed as the first Andrew Glyn Professor of Economics, an endowed chair held jointly in PERI and the Department of Economics. Ndikumana embodies the spirit of the late economist Andrew Glyn—British scholar, researcher and activist known for tackling real-world problems with a commitment to social justice.

Ndikumana recently co-authored a book with PERI colleague James Boyce entitled, Africa’s Odious Debts: How Foreign Loans and Capital Flight Bled a Continent. The book has been highly praised for providing a compelling analysis of the problem of capital flight, one of the structural problems that perpetuate Africa’s low performance and its economic dependence.

“This [capital flight], we find, is a severe drain on African economies. This is almost like a paradox…at the same time capital is fleeing the continent, the continent needs a lot of money,” Ndikumana says.

Ndikumana is uniquely equipped to address these research problems because of his extensive experience in the field, to which he attributes a large part of his academic success. He served as Chief of Macroeconomic Policy Analysis for the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa for two years, and consecutively the Director of the Department of Development Economics Research and Director of the Department of Operational Resources and Policy at the African Development Bank for three years—a period of time he refers to as his “other” doctoral work.

“It was actually a big eye opener as to how little I knew about Africa…being in the field was like going to another school—like life economics,” Ndikumana says.

Ndikumana is employing this expertise at PERI as he researches the role of financial systems in promoting development in African countries. His work has uncovered large African populations without access to even the most basic financial resources, such as bank accounts and loans. Ndikumana says there is a huge disparity there—small business owners are the ones charged with providing employment, yet many African countries lack the required resources to invest and create investment.

Ndikumana says that researchers in the US are just beginning to broach the issues that plague African countries. For this reason he was inspired to return to UMass to contribute to expanding teaching and research on Africa.

“The idea is to give a chance to the UMass community to actually see what are the burning issues in African development and how we can get engaged, and hopefully inspire students to do research in these areas. I think it’s a huge opportunity for us,” says Ndikumana.

In addition to teaching his UMass Amherst students, Ndikumana helps develop training modules for African policy makers as part of PERI’s African Development Policy program. Most recently, he and his colleagues delivered training workshops on “capital flight reversal and development financing” in Dakar, Senegal and another on “Macroeconomic Policy for Inclusive Growth, Employment Creation and Poverty Reduction” in Nairobi and Kenya. They are planning more workshops on themes including policies in conflict and post-conflict countries in Africa’s Great Lakes Region and Central Africa. These workshops explore ways to resolve current conflicts, recover from past conflict, and prevent the conflicts from happening again. Ndikumana also helps organize a high-level speaker series devoted to specific obstacles to progress in Africa. He is proud of the university’s support of his work, of PERI’s policy oriented research and of the Economics Department’s heterodox economics—a branch of economics that sits outside of “mainstream economics.”

“I see ourselves trying to develop a convening space for a dialogue on African development—that’s my dream. If people could see UMass as a place where they can come and actually breathe African development policy...that’s what I would like to see,” Ndikumana says.

Amanda Drane '12

January 2013

Elizabeth Vierling

Elizabeth Vierling

Proteins, crucial elements in all life forms, often perform the same functions across species. Biochemist Elizabeth Vierling is curious about this interspecies connection and her research sheds light on the molecular mechanisms of plant proteins, especially their response to environmental stress, and what they can reveal about human health. 

Vierling studies molecular chaperones (a diverse group of proteins that assist in protein folding, transport, modulation, and regulation) and the processes that affect plant stress tolerance. She and her research group have focused their investigations on how two classes of molecular chaperones, the Hsp100/ClpB proteins and the small heat shock proteins (sHSPs), function in higher plants.

Small heat shock proteins are critical components of the cellular “protein quality control network” of molecular chaperones and enzymes that work to prevent the accumulation of abnormal or damaged proteins. Studies of sHSPs are relevant to human health because abated protein quality control often leads to diseased states and is associated with aging. Mutations in the related human proteins are responsible for eye cataracts, muscle myopathies, and neuropathies. Defining the mechanism of sHSP chaperone action has vast implications for understanding cellular stress and disease processes.

“Because they are capable of immediately binding unfolding proteins, sHSPs are the ‘first responders’ to cell stress. Understanding how sHSPs accomplish this feat is critical to defining their roles in protection of cells from stress,” says Vierling.

While much remains unknown about these environmental stresses and their associated impacts, Vierling’s work is showing that sHSPs may protect plants from heat stress. She and her colleagues have established that molecular chaperone Hsp101 is essential for plants to survive in high temperatures. Heat stress can severely limit crop productivity, particularly at critical stages of plant development.Vierling and her colleagues are also working with Synechocystis (pond scum) to further investigate these effects.

As a post-doctoral researcher in the 1980s, Vierling was part of a group that isolated genes connected to high-temperature stress response—research that formed the foundation for what scientists now refer to as ‘chaperones.’

“I started out working on how plant chloroplasts—the photosynthetic organelles of plants—respond to high temperature, and ended up discovering it involved chaperones,” Vierling explains.

Vierling has a well-established reputation in the field and is a Distinguished Professor at UMass Amherst. She was awarded a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship in 2000, named a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2002, received an Alexander von Humboldt Senior Research Fellowship in 2007, and in 2012 was named a Fellow of the American Society of Plant Biologists. Vierling’s work has been supported by the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, and the Department of Agriculture. Prior to coming to UMass Amherst in 2011, Vierling was a program director at the National Science Foundation (2008-2010) and a Regents’ Professor at the University of Arizona.

Vierling says that a strong biochemistry department, along with the state’s increasing support for the life sciences, brought her to UMass. She plans to continue her work on chaperone mechanisms, investigating precisely how they protect plants from stress, and looking more closely at how other proteins are connected with plant stress response.

“Elizabeth is considered a world leader in heat stress in plants…as a result, she’s a focal point for research both on and off campus,” says Jennifer Normanly, department head. “She gives generously of her time to university initiatives. She’s a wonderful colleague—a lovely addition to the department and to the campus.” 

Amanda Drane '12

October 2013

Lisa Chasan-Taber

Lisa Chasan-Taber

Until recently, expectant mothers had little information about how physical activity could affect their health and the health of their unborn children. Research by epidemiologist Lisa Chasan-Taber and her colleagues is shedding light on how healthy lifestyle programs based on physical activity affect health risks in pregnant women.

Chasan-Taber is an internationally recognized expert whose research explores how modifying behavioral risk factors can decrease disease rates in mothers and their offspring. Her goals are threefold: to develop the best tools to measure physical activity in pregnant women, to use those tools to detect associations between physical activity and disease outcomes in pregnant women, and to see that programs derived from this research are incorporated into clinical practice and care.

To these ends, Chasan-Taber in 2000 led a national research team that developed the Pregnancy Physical Activity Questionnaire (PPAQ), the first scientifically validated instrument for determining guidelines for exercise during pregnancy. It has formed the basis for international scientific and medical studies of physical activity and its effects on maternal and fetal outcomes. Currently being translated into several languages, the PPAQ is being used by researchers in 40 countries and at 28 U.S. universities. Each year Chasan-Taber fields numerous queries by investigators interested in utilizing the PPAQ in their research.

“Up until fairly recently,” says Chasan-Taber “there were very conservative guidelines about exercise and pregnancy. Women were first told not to exercise at all and then were told only to exercise up to a certain body temperature, duration, and intensity. These recommendations were based on very little research. We, and others, are finding that exercise does not increase risk and is actually beneficial against certain diseases of pregnancy.” 

These days Chasan-Taber is using the PPAQ to understand the effects of healthy lifestyle programs on postpartum Hispanic women with a history of gestational diabetes (elevated blood glucose levels during late pregnancy). “Hispanic women are an underserved population,” says Chasan-Taber. “They really haven’t been represented in intervention studies. Because of their health disparities such as higher rates of obesity, inactivity, and diabetes, Hispanic populations are at greater risk for negative health outcomes.”

According to Chasan-Taber, gestational diabetes has been known to lead to large babies but new research has shown there is a generational effect – it increases the child’s risk for future obesity and diabetes. The mother is also at very high increased risk for future type-2 diabetes. Gathering data on these women will help researchers understand more about proper interventions and the relationship between gestational diabetes and adverse post-pregnancy health outcomes for both mother and baby.

“If we can intervene up stream to have women change their behaviors to reduce their risk in pregnancy, then these interventions can have a positive impact on the health of future generations. That’s a goal we have been chipping away at,” she says.

UMass Amherst and its surrounding community are ripe for conducting such research, Chasan-Taber says. The expertise of her colleagues in kinesiology and biostatistics was critical to helping her blend the physical-activity and epidemiology aspects of her research. “What’s unique about UMass too,” she adds, “is that we have access to various local medical-center populations. Penny Pekowbiostatistics, also works at Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, where many of my studies are based. I’m collaborating on a study with colleagues at UMass Medical Center in Worcester as well. Both institutions are rich environments for my studies and serve large Hispanic populations. ”

Chasan-Taber’s latest studies focus on behavioral interventions. She is leading a team of health educators who work with Hispanic women to incorporate modest, incremental behavioral changes into their daily lives. For example, she says, it’s easier to get women to do 10 minutes more a day of moderate activity than it is to get them to commit to a more ambitious regimen. “We’re still testing,” she explains. “The question is whether such changes can make a clinical impact on gestational diabetes.”

Chasan-Taber joined the UMass Amherst Biostatistics and Epidemiology faculty in 1997. She holds a B.A. in psychology from the University of Pennsylvania, an M.P.H. from UMass Amherst, and a Sc.D. from Harvard University.  She is Associate Editor for Medicine Science Sports and Exerciseand was a standing member of the Infectious Disease, Reproductive Health, Asthma, and Pulmonary Epidemiology Study Section of the National Institutes of Health. She received the 2000 American Diabetes Association Career Development Award and is a Fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine. In 2010, Dr. Chasan-Taber served as a member of a writing group for the American College of Sports Medicine and the American Diabetes Association sponsored position paper “Exercise and Type 2 Diabetes." Chasan-Taber has consistently been funded by the National Institutes of Health as principal investigator on a number of multi-million dollar grants totaling over $7 million.

Karen J. Hayes '85

Jennifer Ross

Jennifer Ross

Fresh from Philadelphia where she accepted the Biophysical Society’s Margaret Oakley Dayhoff Award for “substantial contributions to science” and “showing very high promise in her early research career,” Jennifer Ross is ready to tackle the next big questions in biophysics.

An accomplished researcher who builds bridges between the disciplines of biology and physics in order to better understand what goes on inside living cells, Ross lays claim to several early career accolades, of which the Dayhoff Award is just the latest.

An assistant professor of physics, Ross is nationally known for her study of microtubules, strong, hollow microscopic tubes about 1-50 micrometers in length and 25 nanometers in diameter that provide structure to a vast variety of cells from plants to humans. "In plants, they direct cellulose deposition to give plants rigidity. They make up the tails of swimming sperm and the cilia in your intestines," says Ross.

According to Ross, failure to create the correct microtubule networks results in a range of diseases and abnormalities including cancers, birth defects, neuromuscular diseases, and cell death. For example, microtubules play an important role in providing support for developing nerve tissues. New nerve axons need microtubules to grow, and mature ones need their support to maintain structure. Without healthy microtubules, nerve cells retract, contributing to neuromuscular diseases such as ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) and Alzheimer’s.

For her investigations into the role of microtubules for intracellular transport and their nanoscale motor proteins that act as shuttles, Ross won a prestigious Cottrell Scholarship from the Research Corporation for Science Advancement. The award recognizes leaders in integrating science teaching and research at leading U.S. research universities.

Driven by a desire to better observe these tiny tubes in action and tapping Cottrell award funding, Ross built a special microscope to capture images of single microtubule motors and their associated proteins. The "single molecule total internal reflection fluorescence microscope," is so powerful it can look at single molecules inside live cells.

Ross has a history of “hands on” innovation. She built her first microscope with start-up funds received from UMass Amherst when she first came to campus. In 2009, she and Patricia Wadsworthbiology, were awarded $684,000 grant by the National Science Foundation to build a super resolution microscope called STORM (Stochastic Optical Reconstruction Microscopy) that is so sensitive it revealed molecules 10-100 times smaller than were visible by using traditional microscopy. STORM has immensely improved the ability of scientists to view nanoscale proteins, structures, and organelles inside cells.

Ross’s experience building custom microscopes inspired her course “Optics for Biophysics” which helps students acquire the innovative thinking and tinkering skills needed for modern, competitive scientific industries. The course is open to advanced undergraduate and graduate students from the life sciences, physical sciences, and engineering. Its curriculum covers basic optical design and a lab focuses on designing and building an optical microscope.

For all her standing as a serious scientist, Ross infuses fun into her work. When her group’s research was featured in the May 18, 2011 issue of Biophysical Journal, Ross rallied her students to create the cover art for the issue. They came up with a captivating Japanese dojo scene of microtubule dragons and sword-wielding ninja proteins, an allegory for the biological interplay of microtubules and a severing enzyme called Katanin.

Ross further encourages her students to have fun with science by making music videos. She and her students have produced science spoofs – short videos that transform popular-song lyrics into wacky exposés of the group’s research activities. “Our music videos are a way to have fun as a group and let off some steam. They also give us a funny venue to show off our microscopes and what they are capable of to a general audience,” she says.

Jennifer Ross came to campus in 2007 as the first member of a new biological physics group in the Department of Physics. She received her Ph.D. from the University of California, Santa Barbara in 2004 after having received a bachelor’s degree in physics and mathematics from Wellesley College in 2000. In addition to the Dayhoff Award and Cottrell Scholarship, she has earned the March of Dimes Foundation’s 2009 Basil O’Connor Starter Award, UMass Amherst’s 2009 Armstrong Fund for Science Award, the National Institutes of Health’s 2005 Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award, UCSB‘s 2001 Ferrando-Fithian Award for Outstanding Woman in Physics, and several others.

Karen J. Hayes '85

Naomi Gerstel

Naomi Gerstel

Sociologist Naomi Gerstel’s research has brought to light the issue of gender inequality and how equality is promoted or discouraged through women’s and men’s participation in work and families. As she sees it, “I entered a field with arbitrarily narrow, even myopic, images of woman’s place, of work, of families, and their connections. And I worked throughout my career to change and broaden those images.”

Gerstel’s early work examined marriage. Her first book, Commuter Marriage, focuses on couples who live apart to pursue their jobs and, as she emphasizes, to maintain their marriages. More recently, her articles on how marriage limits social ties to relatives, neighbors, and friends have been widely cited in the media—from The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Postand The Chronicle of Higher Education, to the Oprah Winfrey ShowCharlie Rose and Good Morning America.

In more recent work, Gerstel seeks to broaden the vision of what constitutes a family to include elderly parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, adult siblings, cousins, nieces and nephews, a vision that runs counter to sociology’s historic focus on the nuclear family. In her book Nuclear Family Values, Extended Family Lives, coauthored with Natalia Sarkisian ’01G, ’05PhD, they demonstrate that in addition to gender, both race and class shape caregiving and social connections with these relations.Gerstel and Sarkisian have coauthored a number of articles examining how race and class shape caregiving and the extended family, one of which was awarded the Rosabeth Moss Kanter International Award for best international research on the family.

Gerstel is a two-time Russell Sage Foundation scholar, an appointment offered to a select group of individuals each year to pursue their writing and research at America’s principal foundation devoted exclusively to research in the social sciences. During her most recent time there, she worked with colleague Dan Clawson, sociology, on a forthcoming book explaining the processes that influence the unpredictability of work schedules. Their research shows that work hours—whether shifts, vacations, or sick time—are shaped by inequalities rooted in gender and class. That work began in what Gerstel says was “a wonderfully productive time at the UMass Amherst Center for Research on Families” where she and Clawson were Family Research Scholars.

Gerstel has spent her career shaping society’s conceptions of work and family, and plans to make the results of her work more publicly available. She has begun working with the Public Engagement Project (PEP), whose role is helping faculty learn how to bring their research outside of the academy—whether to domestic or international students, the media, Congress, local groups, or various social movements.

Gerstel’s work clearly has impact beyond academia, addressing the limits and promise of public policies that affect American families. She has written about three aspects of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), including the political process shaping its passage, utilization of the act and compliance with its mandates. Collaborating with Amy Armenia ’97, ’02G, ’06PhD, her work shows that women are much more likely to take the leaves mandated by the act and that affluent white women are most likely to take the unpaid leaves that the FMLA mandates. Their research also shows high rates of non-compliance even among organizations mandated to comply with the act. This work has been the basis of plenary addresses, talks and consultations at the National Academy of Science and at the Yale Law School, and was featured on the Contemporary Council on Families and the Institute for Research on Women’s websites as well as in various news outlets.

Gerstel’s career is marked by a passion for passing her knowledge on to others. She loves to teach and was a recipient of the University Distinguished Teaching Award, the highest teaching award at UMass Amherst. Gerstel served as director of graduate studies in the Department of Sociology and has mentored numerous undergraduate and graduate students. She has included students as co-authors on publications and, as graduate students’ letters warmly attest, she has proven to be an exceptionally caring and wise mentor, helping them to complete their dissertations and to move into productive post-graduate careers.

Gerstel’s groundbreaking research and scholarship has garnered her other awards, including the 2010 Robin Williams Award for Outstanding Scholarship, the 2008 American Sociological Association Race, Class and Gender Section Award for Distinguished Article, and the 2007 Samuel F. Conti Fellowship for Excellence in Research, and the title Distinguished Professor from the university’s Board of Trustees. She was recently elected a Fellow of the Sociological Research Association, the prestigious international research honorary society in sociology.

Karen J. Hayes '85

Susan Hankinson

Susan Hankinson

An estimated 230,480 women were diagnosed with invasive breast cancer last year, which is why epidemiologist Susan Hankinson has made it her mission to investigate the “underlying etiology and biologic pathways” that lead to the cancer’s development. By bringing information to light about lifestyle and biological predictors of the disease, Hankinson is helping others to develop new preventative strategies for breast cancer.

Hankinson is conducting in-depth research around the associations between hormones and breast cancer. She has already helped establish that sex steroids and prolactin are breast cancer indicators in postmenopausal women, and now is fine-tuning that research to more accurately evaluate their contribution to individual risk prediction. Hankinson was also granted funding to research the role androgens, hormones that can be converted to estrogen in the breast, play in the development of the disease.

Plasma androgens have been associated with breast cancer, but whether that association is because they are converted to estrogens is unknown.  If androgens are found to be important, existing or new anti-androgen therapies might provide an alternative prevention strategy for breast cancer. Her work with hormones recently earned her a position on the Endocrine Society Task Force on Hormone Measurement and the title of associate editor for the society’s journal Hormones and Cancer.

The former Harvard Medical School professor joined the School of Public Health and Health Sciences’s Division of Biostatistics and Epidemiology in fall 2011 with the intention of bringing her world-renowned research to the next level.

“I think with the new dean, there’s a real increased emphasis on research and growing the school and what the school does, and it seemed like an exciting time to become part of that,” says Hankinson.

One of the great unsolved mysteries of breast cancer—and another of Hankinson’s research interests—is why the relationship between body size and breast cancer changes throughout life. Overweight children and adolescents are at lower breast cancer risk as adults, while overweight postmenopausal women are at higher risk of breast cancer. Working with colleagues at Baystate Medical Center and Joseph Jerry at the Pioneer Valley Life Sciences Institute, Hankinson is hoping to identify some of the underlying biologic pathways responsible for the early life adiposity association.   

“Breast cancer is a tricky disease because it’s not only the exposure you have but when you have it that really makes a difference,” Hankinson explains. “Clearly it is not appropriate to suggest that children become overweight to decrease their breast cancer risk later in life. But if we can find out why this association exists, we may be able to find ways to reap those benefits, without also gaining weight”.

What’s next for Susan Hankinson? After almost 20 years, the National Institutes of Health continues to support Hankinson’s breast cancer risk research. She and her colleagues continue to pursue funding to research the perplexing relationship between obesity and breast cancer. Hankinson also hopes to collaborate with colleagues in the Kinesiology Department to investigate the relationship between exercise and cancer risk and survival.

Hankinson has served as a senior investigator with the Nurses’ Health Study (NHS) I and II, two long-term ongoing cohort women’s health studies, for over 20 years—including a stretch as NHS principal investigator from 2006-2011. Her breast cancer research landed her a prestigious spot as a Susan G. Komen for the Cure Scholar—an international award which grants funding, resources and access to an active network of scientists.

Karen J. Hayes '85

Barry Braun

Barry Braun

Research by Barry Braun, associate professor of kinesiology at UMass Amherst, reveals that exercise is a medicine that can be prescribed just as any other in the fight against some of society’s most pernicious health challenges.

Braun, an endocrinology and metabolism expert, directs the campus’s Energy Metabolism Laboratory. He investigates the integration of exercise, pharmacology and diet to prevent and manage metabolic disorders such as Type 2 diabetes. The method is called metabolic rehabilitation and it’s a prescription for better health. 

According to 2011 data from the Centers for Disease Control, an estimated 26 million Americans have diabetes and another one-third of U.S. adults over 20 are pre-diabetic. Effective drugs are needed to combat that trend. For Braun, one of those drugs is exercise.

“Think of exercise as you would any other drug,” he says. “There’s a dose and frequency with which it needs to be taken to get the best response.” Braun is working on ways to optimize exercise’s disease-fighting effects. He says that, like all drugs, exercise interacts with other substances we put in our bodies, including nutritional supplements, prescription medications, and the foods we eat. Understanding those interactions is important in determining when and how to prescribe exercise.

In studies funded by the American Diabetes Association and the National Institutes of Health, Braun conducted experiments on the effects of exercise and metformin, the most-prescribed drug for Type 2 Diabetes. He hoped to determine whether combining drug treatment and exercise regulated blood sugar better than either exercise or drug treatment alone. The surprising results: “Exercise combined with metformin was not better than exercise alone; it might even be worse. We’re now trying to understand the mechanisms to explain that.” According to Braun, everything—diet, exercise, and pharmaceuticals—works together in a complex biological system.

His collaborators who study drugs and diseases on the molecular level are drawn to Braun’s translational work on living, breathing human beings. “It’s hard,” he notes, “to isolate a single factor in a messy biological system like the human body, but it’s also difficult to make the direct connection to human health when the experiments are done in isolated cells.” Braun adds that one of UMass Amherst’s strengths is it that it has dozens of faculty members, in Kinesiology and elsewhere, tackling the problem from both perspectives.

Braun joined the UMass Amherst faculty in 2000. He received his Ph.D. from UC-Berkeley in 1993 after having received an M.S. from UMass Amherst in 1990 and a B.A. from the University of Pennsylvania in 1982. He is a Fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine and a past chairperson of its Nutrition Interest Group. Braun has published more than 65 research articles in top journals and serves as an associate editor for Exercise and Sport Science Reviews. What’s more, he practices what he preaches, taking frequent doses of medicine as a member of the Coffee Cake Running Club.

Karen J. Hayes '85

Julian McClements

Julian McClements

Food scientist David Julian McClements sees the food we eat as key to unlocking a healthier future. Looking at food from a structural design perspective, McClements uses fundamental scientific principles to improve the quality and healthfulness of foods.

In particular, his research aims at using natural ingredients—proteins and polysaccharides—to create foods that look and taste good, but that are also healthier than their current counterparts.

McClements’s research utilizes the fundamental principles of physics and chemistry to understand, design, and fabricate foods with increased quality, stability and healthfulness—for example, preserving nutrients during food storage and optimizing their delivery to the human body.

Eric Decker, professor and head of the UMass Amherst food science department explains that McClements’s research has benefited the food industry by leading to high-quality and healthy food products, by making more efficient use of agricultural commodities, and by developing technical practices that improve U.S. food companies’ viability in the global market.

McClements’s current project involves working on food materials less than 100 nanometers wide, a measurement many thousands of times smaller than the width of a human hair.  He’s experimenting with nanoemulsions, a combination of two liquids with small particles of one liquid suspended in the other, to protect and encapsulate healthy food components for targeted release in the digestive tract. These nanoemulsions have the potential to increase the amount of nutrients or other health-promoting compounds that can be absorbed by the body.

Understanding both the challenges and benefits of working on such a small scale and making sure these new delivery systems are safe for consumption are what’s next for McClements and his research group. “We are investigating both the potential risks and benefits of using nanoscopic particles in foods,” McClements explains. “Smaller particles increase the bioavailability, which means the body absorbs the compounds in these particles better. When materials become more bioavailable it’s possible they might behave differently, such as become more potent.”

The Fergus M. Clydesdale Endowed Professor of Food Science, McClements is also the recipient of numerous research awards, including the 2010 Marcel Loncin Research Award from the Institute of Food Technologists, the top award in the field. He is nationally recognized as one of the most frequently cited authors in agricultural sciences, with 425 total publications and over 8,400 citations. In addition, his work has brought over $6 million in research grants to the campus.

Karen J. Hayes '85

Anna Nagurney

Anna Nagurney

When you think of the word “network” what comes to mind? Perhaps the network of roads we travel every day, or the television network that provide us with news, or perhaps the telecommunication network that connects our cell phones. For Anna Nagurney, John F. Smith Memorial Professor of Operations Management at the Isenberg School of Management, the world of networks only begins there.

Nagurney is a global expert in supernetworks, which, simply put, are networks of networks. She and her students try to capture the interactions among networks and their impact on business and society. “There are so many networks: energy, communication, transportation, financial, economic, political, and the Internet, which is a very distributed network. There are fundraising networks, environmental networks, distribution networks, social networks. They are all interrelated. What happens in one affects another,” says Nagurney.

Nagurney established the Virtual Center for Supernetworks in 2001 as a vehicle for research and scholarship surrounding the role of networks and the management of them in a global economy. Her research on network systems, from transportation and logistics, including supply chains (both commercial and humanitarian ones), to the Internet, has brought recognition nationally and internationally to the campus.

“Most people think of networks as the links and the nodes, but what my students and I find interesting are the flows between the nodes, including the role that human decision making plays,” says Nagurney. How decision makers use and manage networks and how they respond to network disruptions are the keys to improving network performance and to identifying vulnerabilities.

When networks are designed and managed well, goods and services flow efficiently and smoothly, but when disrupted, chaos may result and the ensuing economic and social costs can be devastating. “Managing disruptions requires collaboration and cooperation among network managers, businesses, governments, and even users,” says Nagurney. She notes that you don’t have to look far for examples of the chaos that network disruptions cause—just pick up the newspaper.

“The number of natural disasters and the people affected by them is growing,” says Nagurney. She points to the devastating 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami which, among other things, led to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear meltdown, more than 43,000 people dead or injured, nearly 400,000 collapsed or partially collapsed buildings, and widespread severe road, rail and infrastructure damage. Around 4.4 million households in the north eastern region of Japan were left without electricity and 1.5 million without water. The estimated economic losses totaled up to $34 billion, one of the most expensive natural disasters in world history. Although it happened in Japan, it was felt in America. “Supply chains were disrupted and Americans waited for new cars for months. Auto manufacturers in Japan didn’t have a plan B,” says Nagurney.

Nagurney and her students model not only how supply chains can rebound more quickly after a disaster, but also how to save lives by studying how businesses, NGOs and governments can better manage, warehouse, and deliver life-saving supplies such as food, water, and medicine to affected areas through enhanced humanitarian logistics.

“My students have a lot of interest in humanitarian logistics and several of them have written dissertations in this area,” says Nagurney.  She consequently created a new course, Humanitarian Logistics and Healthcare. According to Min Yu, one of Nagurney’s doctoral students, she and others in the class have heard from experts from the Red Cross, the National Guard, and even from the UMass Amherst campus emergency preparedness department. “With so many recent disasters the research is timely and fascinating,” says Nagurney.

Nagurney believes that there are many interesting problems that need to be addressed in networks and supply chains that require interdisciplinary expertise, along with good data and mathematical models. “We strive to be the leaders in this area. We are pushing the frontiers of education and research and solving problems that will make the world a better place,” says Nagurney.

Part of that is educating the next generation of experts. “I have many international students who are taking this work out into the world,” says Nagurney. “The education in the Isenberg School is simply outstanding and the Operations Management majors are amazing. My students are highly sought after and they make our faculty proud.”

Nagurney is the John F. Smith Memorial Professor in the Department of Finance and Operations Management in the Isenberg School of Management and the Founding Director of the UMass Amherst Virtual Center for Supernetworks. She received her AB, ScB, ScM, and PhD degrees from Brown University. She has authored or co-authored nearly a dozen books on supernetworks, logistics and decision making. Her many honors include: Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study Fellow, Distinguished Fulbright Chair, AT&T Industrial Ecology Fellow, and a National Science Foundation Faculty Award for Women. In 2007, Nagurney was elected a Fellow of the Regional Science Association International (RSAI), and, in 2012, was appointed a Visiting Professor of Operations Management at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden.

Karen J. Hayes '85

Vincent Rotello

Vincent Rotello

Professor of Chemistry Vincent Rotello’s research on nanoparticles--tiny objects that have an array of unique physical properties—is having a huge impact on disease diagnostics and treatment. His work in nanoparticle development, chemical synthesis, materials fabrication, and advanced manufacturing furthers UMass Amherst’s world leadership in nanomedicine.

Rotello’s specialty is developing and testing Velcro-like coatings that allow nanoparticles to bind and interact variously with other molecules. One particularly innovative application of these coatings is a “chemical nose” that might someday transform cancer detection and treatment. “Our new method,” Rotello explains, “uses an array of sensors both to recognize known cancer types and to signal that other abnormal cells are present. Though it may have never before encountered a given particular type of abnormal cell, the chemical nose can tell us something isn’t right, like the ‘check engine’ light in your car.” Unlike current detection methods, the sensor can perceive minute differences in concentrations of the cell-surface biomarkers that indicate cancer.

Nanoparticles can also be used to attain greater control and accuracy in disease treatment. Effective, accurate drug delivery is a significant challenge in treating cancer and other diseases. Treatment drugs, including chemotherapy, can affect healthy cells as well as diseased ones, causing unnecessary cell death and undesirable side effects. Current tumor treatments only kill cells on a tumor’s exterior, leaving open the threat of the tumor’s return. When attached to nanoparticles, however, drugs can be delivered inside of the tumor and completely destroy it.

What’s next for Rotello? The chemical nose and the drug delivery method need further testing, but he’s working with several companies to bring them to market. Last year Rotello and his team developed a strip that easily and in just a few minutes detects bacteria levels in water. The group is now working with the UMass Center for Hierarchical Manufacturing to make the strips stable enough to be easily transported to developing countries.

Asked about his success in so many areas of nanoparticle research and application, Rotello replies, “We’re a ‘hammer lab’: our research on nanoparticles is the hammer, and we look for nails to hit.”

Vincent Rotello has been Charles A. Goessmann Professor of Chemistry since 2005. He is a fellow of the AAAS and of the Royal Society of Chemistry and is executive editor of Advanced Drug Delivery Reviews and associate editor of the Journal of Materials Chemistry. He also serves on the editorial boards of Chemical Society ReviewsLangmuirThe International Journal of Green Technology, and other publications. Rotello holds three independent and two collaborative NIH grants, two independent and two collaborative NSF grants, as well as other funding that since 2005 have garnered his group more than $6 million. His latest research can be found in Nature ChemistryNature Nanotech, and other journals.

Karen J. Hayes'85

Barbara Osborne

Barbara Osborne

Since coming to UMass Amherst in 1985, Professor of Veterinary and Animal Sciences Barbara Osborne, a renowned immunologist, has followed her research through a number of twists and turns. “I like to think of my scientific process as being like a detective’s: I follow leads,” she says.

“That means that my work 15 years ago may have looked completely different from what my lab is up to now, or what I’ll be doing in five years.”

In the 1990s Osborne earned international renown as a researcher of apoptosis, or programmed cell death. “We were interested in how a particular protein killed cells,” she says. “Along the way we discovered that another protein, Notch, acted as an anti-apoptotic protein in T cells.” Notch is a signaling protein that spans both sides of cell membrane and determines whether a T cell will become a Th1 (short for “T-helper 1”) cell, useful in mounting immune system responses to viruses, bacterial infections, and other pathogens.

Hematech, a start-up Osborne co-founded in 1999, pioneered the use of cloned animals for the development and production of antibodies for therapeutic uses. It recently developed cattle that can efficiently produce human antibodies expected to help treat viral or bacterial infections, autoimmune disorders, and other conditions in humans.

Now, with support from a 2011 UMass President’s Science and Technology Initiatives Fund, Osborne is working with Greg Tew and Maria Santore of the Department of Polymer Science and Engineering to open the groundbreaking Center for Soft Materials Immunology, where UMass faculty and collaborators are developing biologically compatible synthetic materials that allow the body’s own cellular mechanisms and pathways to control the immune system in order to fight disease.

“As biological scientists,” says Osborne, “we know something about how immune cells work but don’t know how to access the immune cells and deliver desired payloads to them. That’s where polymer scientists can help.”
“Her lab is thriving,” says Samuel Black, head of the Department of Veterinary and Animal Sciences. “It’s wonderful and generous that at a senior level in her career she has taken on this leadership role in interdisciplinary sciences on campus.”

After receiving her PhD from Stanford University and performing postdoctoral training at the National Institutes of Health, Osborne moved to UMass Amherst. She was nervous at leaving NIH, where she worked strictly within immunology, but on campus found interdisciplinary opportunities and the pool of high-quality graduate students and post-doctoral researchers who have graced her lab over the past 25 years.

Osborne co-authored Immunology, a leading textbook in the subject. She is part of a multi-institutional team of researchers given a $5 million NIH grant to study the role of Notch in the pathologies of cancer, Alzheimer’s, and autoimmune diseases. Osborne has received the NRE Dean’s Award for Excellence and an Award for Outstanding Accomplishments in Research and Creative Activity.

Karen J. Hayes '85

Robert DeConto

Robert DeConto

When it comes to climate change, Geoscientist Robert DeConto sees the big picture. An international expert in global-climate modeling, he’s working to better predict our future climate by challenging popular theories of why the earth warmed or cooled millions of years ago.

One of a small group of climate scientists whose research spans the past, present, and future of climate change, DeConto is highly sought after by both the data-collection and climate-modeling communities. “I bridge the gap,” he says. “I travel with the field scientists who collect climate data and then use it to create detailed models to help predict future climate.”

Thanks to his big-picture perspective, DeConto has been recruited to take part in one of the largest-ever climate research projects, the Antarctic Geological Drilling (ANDRILL) program. This $30 million international geological paleoclimate research initiative is one of the first of its size to match modeling experts with field experts to study global change. It includes representatives from five nations and five American research universities, including UMass Amherst.

DeConto was in part selected for the project for his pioneering work on polar-climate and polar-region modeling done with colleague Dave Pollard of Penn State. Their landmark 2003 article in the journal Nature described their use of models to successfully simulate one of the most important climate changes in our planet’s history: the rapid formation of Antarctic ice sheets 34 million years ago. DeConto and Pollard challenged conventional scientific dogma by theorizing that the decrease in temperature and the buildup of ice sheets on Antarctica were due not to plate tectonics isolating the continent and creating cold ocean currents around the Southern pole, but rather to a precipitous drop in carbon dioxide levels. This research demonstrated a fundamental link between greenhouse gasses and ice-sheet buildup or melting.

“Rob’s Nature article is one of the most innovative and important modeling papers in pre-Pleistocene climate that has been published in 20 years,” says Mark Leckie, who heads the UMass Amherst Geosciences Department. In fact, the ice-sheet image DeConto and Pollard created for the article has become iconic, with governmental and scientific organizations regularly using it as a cover image for climate-change reports. Since the article’s publication DeConto and others have been trying to reconstruct past greenhouse gas changes and simulate their climatic consequences using sophisticated computer models.

DeConto’s latest submission to Nature challenges the current theory of a global super-warming event 55 million years ago. “Carbon dioxide and global temperatures rose very quickly during this time, comparable to the rate of change happening today,” he says. Popular theory attributes that rise to large amounts of methane gas being released by ocean-floor sediment, but DeConto believes the super-warming event was caused by carbon released on land, not at sea.

“The Antarctic continent would have been rich in permafrost 55 million years ago; permafrost contains peat, and peat stores a lot of carbon,” says DeConto, whose modeling suggests that as the permafrost thawed it released massive amounts of carbon into the atmosphere, causing extreme warming and ocean acidification. “We can see this beginning to happen today, in areas near the North Pole,” says DeConto.

What’s next for Robert DeConto? In 2010 he was one of 12 scientists worldwide chosen to develop a science plan for the new $2 billion Integrated Ocean Drilling Program. Over a 10-month period this panel of distinguished scientists developed a 100-page strategic document outlining key objectives and an operational plan for scientific ocean drilling from 2013 to 2023. As part of that plan, DeConto will focus on investigating and modeling the impact future climate change will have on sea level—a topic near and dear to all who reside in coastal areas. By comparing ocean-sediment cores with computer models of the world’s ice sheets and glaciers, DeConto hopes to “model the environmental impacts that sea-level rise will have on Earth’s environment and its people.”

Karen J. Hayes '85

Magdalena Bezanilla

Magdalena Bezanilla looking at plant cell growths

Cell Biologist Magdalena Bezanilla is unlocking the secret life of plants. She’s seeking answers to how cells grow, a fundamental, yet still-open biological question. Her research focuses on a special form of growth in plant cells known as tip growth, which is essential for development in plant species ranging from algae to flowering plants. “What we learn from tip growth in plants and how we learn to manipulate these unique cells helps us to understand more complex biological processes,” says Bezanilla.

Known on campus as the “moss lab,” Bezanilla’s research group has pioneered the use of moss as a model system to study tip growth. In the pecking order of plant life, moss may seem uninteresting. But Bezanilla discovered that moss is particularly well suited to her studies because its simplicity makes it amenable to modern genetic tools and allows scientists easy access to the proteins they want to study.

Understanding how plant cells grow determines plant cell shape, which ultimately dictates the plant’s appearance and other qualities. Molecular biologists and geneticists hope to manipulate tip growing cells to, for example, engineer hardier plants that can thrive in sub-optimum environments. “If you think of growing biofuel crops, the goal would be to grow crops that could survive in marginal lands, in soil that is not desirable for food production,” says Bezanilla.

The proteins Bezanilla studies in her moss plants are some of the same proteins found in animal cells, including those found in nerves. Though the work is in its early stages, she believes there are important similarities in the functions of plant and animal protein. “Since these proteins are so similar it is likely there are some parallels between plant tip growth and animal nerve cell growth,” says Bezanilla.

It’s likely she’s onto something because at this early stage in her career she’s collected an impressive list of awards to fund her investigations. Among them are the first Packard Fellowship that the campus has received in nearly a decade, and most recently, the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE), the highest honor bestowed by the U.S. government on outstanding scientists and engineers beginning their independent careers. Bezanilla and Polymer Science colleague and fellow PECASE winner Ryan Hayward were honored recently at the White House by President Obama.

Bezanilla earned a bachelor’s degree in physics from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and a doctorate in biochemistry, cellular and molecular biology, from the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. She was a post-doctoral fellow at Washington University in St. Louis before coming to UMass Amherst in 2005. She was selected as the Chancellor’s Junior Faculty Fellow in 2008 and by the Provost in 2010 as one of our campus’s Exemplary Faculty.

Karen J. Hayes '85

Steven Tracy

Steven Tracy playing instrument

Afro-American Studies professor Steven Tracy is a man who blurs boundaries. A writer and editor of works about African-American literature and culture and an accomplished blues musician, Tracy’s made a career of mixing music and literature and of “being in places he shouldn’t be.” While in high school, Tracy won a national harmonica competition that landed him on the “Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson. With just a year of playing experience, Tracy was given an opportunity more seasoned musicians only dream of – the chance to launch his musical career on one of the most popular television shows of the time. “I really had no business being there,” laughs Tracy.

The “Tonight Show” experience was the beginning of Tracy’s love affair with music, especially the blues. His love would take him to places other people said he shouldn’t be, like Cincinnati blues clubs where he was the only white kid in the crowd, and to the University of Cincinnati where faculty raised eyebrows at his desire to pursue Afro-American studies. But his love of Afro-American music and the culture that gave birth to it gave him the courage to keep showing up, to keep blurring the boundaries.

As one of the few white African-American scholars in the ’80s, Tracy’s search for an academic position wasn’t easy. His desire to blend African American literature, history and music also presented challenges. He now believes he’s right where he should be. His scholarly pursuits and musical interests are a great fit for the campus’s very diverse W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies.

According to Amilcar Shabazz, professor and chair of the Afro-American Studies Department, Tracy deserves to be in the Spotlight. He is known for his comprehensive, highly technical, and thorough analysis of Afro-American writers and musicians. “Steve’s helped to build the literary standard of Afro-American scholarship and literature on such figures as Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison and Sterling Brown. His work on these great writers as well as on African-American culture in his hometown of Cincinnati drives his national and international reputation as an Afro-American studies scholar,” says Shabazz.

A singer and harmonica player, Tracy’s comfortable in the spotlight. He’s recorded with his own band, Steve Tracy and the Crawling Kingsnakes, as well as Cincinnati blues legends like Pigmeat Jarrett, Big Joe Duskin and Albert Washington, and he’s appeared and recorded with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. He’s opened for B.B. King, Muddy Waters, James Cotton, Canned Heat and other blues greats. Tracy’s literary accomplishments include authoring books about the blues and about African-American literary giants Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison and Sterling Brown. He’s also written liner notes for more than 50 music CDs.

Tracy has presented and performed at conferences all over the world. Most recently, he’s given keynote addresses and a series of lectures on American and African American literature and music at a number of universities in China. To break the ice with the Chinese students he met, Tracy would pull out his harmonica and play. Once connected, Tracy was able to feel the infectious enthusiasm these Chinese students had for Afro-American literature and for his work.

Thanks to Tracy’s visits, word was getting around in China that UMass Amherst has a great Afro-American Studies program. Each time Tracy went back to visit, more students wanted to connect with him. “Dr. Tracy was hailed as a great star among the students, both graduates and undergraduates here,” says Luo Lianggong, professor of English at Central China Normal University (CCNU) in Wuhan. “He has awakened the academic interest in African-American literature and culture among many Chinese scholars and young students by his eloquent and inspiring lectures and lively performance of the blues,” Lianggong says.

“The students I met in China have a love for Afro-American literature,” says Tracy. That love has led student Fangfang Zhu, whom Tracy met at one of his visits to CCNU, to enroll in the department’s Ph.D. program. According to Zhu, her interest in Afro-American literature was enhanced by hearing Tracy’s perspectives of history, politics, literature and culture during his lectures. “Professor Tracy’s own research on music and Afro-American literature opened a new field for me,” said Zhu. A second Chinese student has since applied for acceptance into the department’s graduate program.

What’s next for Tracy? He’s been working with the Office of International Programs to set up a more formal collaboration between the campus and these Chinese universities. His designation this year as a Fulbright senior specialist will help. “When you are put on the roster by the Fulbright Foundation it means you can be invited by participating universities to spend time at their school teaching a class or lecturing,” says Tracy. “I hope to do that and to facilitate visits to our campus by Chinese faculty who are also on the roster.” Tracy has two teaching-lecturing projects with Chinese universities under initial development for Fulbright approval.

While things jell here at home, Tracy continues to blur the boundaries. He is scheduled to return to China in January for a keynote address at the International Conference on 20th Century Literature in English from a Cross-cultural Perspective to be held at the Harbin Institute of Technology in Heilongjiang, China.

A member of the Afro-American Studies department since 1995, Tracy is the author and editor of more than 30 books about Afro-American history, culture and music, including “Langston Hughes and the Blues” (University of Illinois Press, 1988), “Going to Cincinnati: A History of the Blues in the Queen City” (University of Illinois Press, 1993), winner of Association for Recorded Sound Collections’ award for outstanding volume on blues, jazz, or gospel music, and “A Brush with the Blues” (Rep House, 1997). Tracy received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Greater Cincinnati Blues Society in 1996.

Karen J. Hayes '85

Margaret “Peggy” Speas

Margaret “Peggy” Speas

For more than 20 years, Professor of Linguistics Margaret “Peggy” Speas has worked alongside native speakers and community members to preserve the Navajo language, one of several hundred endangered Native American languages. For these efforts and for her talents as a linguist, Speas, a specialist in syntactic theory who joined the faculty in 1989, has been named a UMass Amherst Spotlight Scholar.

Although Navajo is the most widely spoken of the threatened Native American languages, Speas says, “There are only 100,000 or so native speakers of Navajo left and fewer than 5 percent are children under age 5.” The historical and social factors behind this, Speas explains, include a school system that up until the mid-1960s punished children for speaking any language but English. Consequently, several generations of parents were reluctant to bring up their children speaking Navajo.

As fewer children became fluent at home, schools on and around the reservation instituted classes in Navajo as a second language. Speas is a founding member of a non-profit group, the Navajo Language Academy (NLA), that supports Navajo language education. The NLA began in the 1970s and formally incorporated in 1998. Speas did much of the legwork for the incorporation and has served continuously on the board, including two years as president.

The NLA’s annual summer workshops bring together Navajo language teachers to share ideas about teaching and study the intricacies of Navajo grammar. Navajo scholars, some of whom hold PhDs in linguistics and pursue research on Navajo language and pedagogy, teach most NLA classes. Speas has co-taught classes with these scholars and also has collaborated on projects analyzing Navajo syntax. Additionally, she worked with Evangeline Parsons-Yazzie, a native speaker and professor of Navajo at Northern Arizona University, on an introductory Navajo language textbook. Published in 2008, the book was the first such text by a native speaker, and is used in high schools on and around the Navajo reservation.

Speas strongly agrees with her late mentor, Kenneth Hale of MIT, that languages belong to those who speak them, not to outsiders who study them. She says, “There’s a long history in our country of non-native people trying to help native communities in ways that turned out not to be so helpful.” She takes to heart Hale’s belief that linguists who study languages not their own should contribute back to the language’s community. Says Speas, “I wanted to help in ways that supported the needs and desires of native speakers, to create a space where they can set their own research agenda and define those things they want to know about.”

This year, Speas brings her national efforts to preserve native languages to campus. UMass Amherst is hosting the16th annual Workshop on the Structure and Consistency in the Languages of the Americas, which Speas co-organized, from February 11 to 13. A session on native language revitalization in New England will feature presenters from the Mohawk, Abenaki, Maliseet, and Narragansett communities. 

Karen J. Hayes '85

Sankaran “Thai” Thayumanavan

Sankaran “Thai” Thayumanavan

Shine a spotlight on the campus’s clean energy research programs and you’ll uncover some of the brightest innovators, like Sankaran “Thai” Thayumanavan, Professor of Chemistry. His recent breakthrough to improve proton conductivity, or “charge transport,” is helping solve one of the biggest problems holding back development of affordable fuel cells.

Thayumanavan, who is an authority on charge transport and molecular design, was recently chosen as the campus’s first Spotlight Scholar in recognition of his research and innovation in clean energy science.

Thayumanavan co-directs the Massachusetts Center for Renewable Energy Science and Technology (MassCREST). With colleagues Ryan Hayward, polymer science, and Mark Tuominen, physics, he discovered a new material that improves charge transport—a key energy-generating process for efficient and affordable hydrogen fuel cell design. Using a polymer nanostructure that provides an excellent conduit for transporting protons from one side of a fuel cell membrane to another, they demonstrated how to improve proton conductivity under very low humidity conditions, where fuel cells prefer to operate but where few materials perform well.

Hydrogen fuel cells are an appealing source of clean energy because they have the potential to power anything that uses electricity—from computers and cell phones to cars and ships—without toxic emissions. The discovery could lead to commercial development of fuel cell membranes that stay chemically and mechanically stable much longer than current materials allow. The results are so promising that Thayumanavan received $40,000 from the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center to help demonstrate the technology’s viability. “Our work should lead to a lighter, more efficient and sustainable source of clean power,” says Thayumanavan.

Thayumanavan, who came to UMass Amherst in 2003, earned high praise from Spotlight Scholar nominators for his multi-faceted work, noting that his research in molecular design is also relevant to the life sciences. He’s created a nanoscopic gel that can effectively encapsulate and then release drug molecules inside cells. Such a feature is useful in selectively delivering chemotherapeutic drug molecules to cancer cells. The campus’s technology transfer office and Thayumanavan are pursuing commercial venture opportunities for bringing this technology to clinical trial.

Karen J. Hayes '85