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Hawks to Watch: Jomana Qaddour, foreign policy professional

Fri, 01/08/2021 - 09:54
Why Jomana’s a Hawk to Watch:

Questions about America’s role on the global stage are deeply complex and often controversial: When is intervention appropriate? When is it not? Who gets to decide? Those issues are only further complicated during times of war and political unrest abroad. Through her work as a public servant and humanitarian, Jomana Qaddour is seeking answers to questions about the United States’ international influence — what it is, what it should be, and what it can be.

Jomana’s interest in the U.S.’ relationship with the Middle East — including Syria, her country of birth — dates back to her time as a student at KU, where she earned degrees in human biology and international studies in 2006 and a J.D. in 2009. Since graduating, she’s investigated how policymakers make key decisions, why they make them, and how those calls impact the lives of millions overseas.

According to Jomana, one should avoid saying “yes” to opportunities that don’t leave you hungry to learn more at the end of every day. That mindset has undoubtedly guided her own varied professional journey, which has included roles as a Senior Political Analyst at the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, a Senior Research Assistant and Publications Manager at the Brookings Institution, an advisor for Syrian Americans for Biden, and co-founder of a humanitarian nonprofit in Syria. Now serving on the Syrian Constitutional Committee, as head of the Syria portfolio at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center, and a doctoral student at Georgetown Law, she’s continuing her decade-long exploration of America’s involvement in the Middle East.

We caught up with Jomana, who filled us in on her newest roles and research, her mentorship for immigrant Americans and their children, and why — if you can help it — you shouldn’t take a job that doesn’t motivate you to wake up each morning.

Tell us in a sentence or two what you do for a living:

I am a foreign policy professional, working on issues that pertain to America’s involvement in the Levant and the Middle East more broadly. I am also a doctoral student at Georgetown University Law Center.

Credit: Georgetown Law.

How did you end up doing what you do?

I have always been fascinated with United States’ role in the Middle East, since my time at KU. I first came to Washington to pursue my legal career, but as the Arab Spring unfolded in 2011, I decided to make it my full-time job. I co-founded a humanitarian nonprofit in Syria, the country of my birth, and I saw first-hand the difficulty of trying to deliver aid in an active war zone, in a context unfamiliar to most Americans (America and Syria have had a strained relationship for decades now). I also saw how helpless one could feel working on conflicts but not full time (I was doing my work at my nonprofit all as a volunteer, and continue to do so). I wanted to better understand how our policy makers made decisions that impacted millions of lives in countries far away – what their interests were, their calculations, and how that impacted local populations in those countries. By 2012, I had left the law firm and landed a job at the Brookings Institution, which was my first professional exposure to foreign policy, and I decided I wanted to make the career change permanent.

What do you feel is your biggest achievement so far?

Being involved in the establishment and as an advisor for the group Syrian Americans for Biden. I’m incredibly proud of being one of the more senior Syrian Americans committed to public service for this country. Our parents came from countries that didn’t allow for vibrant democracy or even genuine elections, so being a mentor for immigrant Americans and/or children of immigrants and helping foster both a sense of responsibility and the sense of ownership over this country and the direction it is going is a meaningful experience for me. I am also very grateful for the opportunity to start a humanitarian non-profit in Syria that has served millions of Syrians, both inside the country and in neighboring host countries. Our amazing team of 1200 includes doctors, nurses, psychologists, family planning professionals, and engineers – all Syrians – who insist on serving their own countrymen and women. I am proud of do what I can to help facilitate their work and bring attention to their plight.

What is one thing you think everyone should know about your research interests?

I am interested in understanding what America’s place in the world should be and can be. It can’t do everything, despite the best of intentions and even if we had infinite resources. When is it appropriate to step forward, and when is it most appropriate to let other countries lead?

What’s your lowest career moment and how did you pick yourself up and move on?

It’s not easy to work on a conflict that has waged on for 10 years, and to watch people you know get killed, displaced, and become refugees in inhospitable lands. But every time I’ve seen this happen, the consolation I have is the great network of friends and colleagues that have experienced this as well, and that realize that we at least have the luxury of watching this as opposed to experiencing it first-hand. A good dose of self-reflection and self-care is necessary, but at the end of the day, it’s important to remember that sometimes we need to take a step back in order to have the energy to move forward.

Where do you hope to be in 10 years?

No idea! I never thought I would be here 10 years ago. Possibly teaching on the side, given I am working on my dissertation (S.J.D.) at Georgetown Law.

What do you know now that you wish you could tell your 18-year-old self?

Life is unpredictable and if things don’t turn out the way you want them, it will be OK because what you want in life changes, and human beings have a way of adapting and assimilating to change. And usually, life ends up better than you expected it would be. I never thought I would want the things I want today, and I know that I will likely change in the future too – so I try to always leave space for those changes to happen. Nothing is ever fixed.

What’s your best career pro-tip?

If you’re able to, don’t settle for a job that doesn’t motivate you to wake up every morning. Not every job will make us do this, but over the longer term, your desire to do work in the middle of the night, your desire to excel and your thirst for knowledge – all those things come when you are excited about what you do. That kind of energy is what drives me.

How did your KU degrees prepare you for your current job?

My professors in law school, especially Professors Raj Bhala and John Head, always reminded us of how big the world was outside of Kansas (I took international law classes with them). They themselves were quite experienced and had worked in different parts of the world, and that always pushed me to dream big and gave me the drive to leave the state and come to a very competitive city like Washington, D.C. I don’t regret it one bit. I also value the friendships I made while at KU, several of which remind me of the sweetness of the Midwest and the learning we did on campus and the nights we spent studying in the library.

What do you do after you’ve clocked out?

I enjoy reading, painting, taking long walks with friends, and most of all, traveling and spending long hours on sunny beaches in the Mediterranean.

What is a fun fact about you that surprises people?

My favorite hike ever was climbing up Mount Batur in Bali, Indonesia. It’s an active volcano, and you have to start the hike at 2 am, but at the top of the mountain you will be met with the most beautiful sunrise of your life.

Meet more of our Hawks to Watch. For more information, visit the Undergraduate Biology Program, the Center for Global & International Studies, and the School of Law at the University of Kansas.

Hawks to Watch are disrupters. They’re poised for greatness, inspiring their colleagues and excelling in their professions. Basically, they’re killing it. Having recently graduated, they are just starting to leave their mark and we can’t wait to see how their story unfolds. These Jayhawks span all industries including business, non-profits, tech, healthcare, media, law and the arts. 

15 KU College moments from an extraordinary year

Fri, 12/18/2020 - 11:06

2020 has been — well, take your pick of adjective: Difficult. Uncertain. Unpredictable. Unprecedented. Challenging. By now, we’ve all heard and used these words so many times that they hardly do justice to the collective whiplash and mind-boggling paradigm shifts we’ve adjusted to during the past months.

But even in a year as unusual and downright disruptive as the one we’ve just experienced, there have been countless moments of resilience, celebration, and triumph that have been welcome bright spots, representing the Heart of KU at its very finest. This year has shown us yet again that even in the face of extraordinary adversity, Jayhawks continue to do what they do best — rise to big challenges, seek bold solutions, and inspire their communities, no matter what curveballs are pitched their way.

So as we bid farewell to 2020 and look ahead to a year full of new possibilities, new opportunities, and — no doubt — new challenges, we’re recapping 2020 with 15 defining stories that intrigued, dazzled, and inspired us. And that proved yet again what our communities are capable of accomplishing, against all odds and under the strangest of circumstances.

So long, 2020. And here’s to the start of a new chapter.

Jayhawks join forces to curb coronavirus’ spread

As the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic was felt across the globe, students, alumni, faculty, and staff from the College brought their expertise to the frontlines, applying their diverse talents in labs, hospitals, non-profits, kitchens, essential businesses, and home work stations. There’s strength in numbers, and if this year showed us anything, it’s that incredible things happen when Jayhawks come together with a common goal.

Unwinding with College researchers

Researchers in the College are searching for answers to big questions — how to make cities more compassionate, human trafficking prevention, global health. In the Unwinding podcast, we talk with them about their latest discoveries, why they matter, and what makes them tick as humans.

This year, our conversations spanned topics ranging from efforts to close the gender gap in politics and what we can learn from zombies in popular TV shows and movies to who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls and why Zora Neale Hurston’s work resonates in the era of Black Lives Matter. Stream new episodes on Spotify.

11 KU faculty members honored with 2020 College Awards

Faculty contributions in research, teaching and mentoring were recognized this spring with a series of awards from the College. The prizes acknowledge outstanding professors for commitment to advising and teaching undergraduate and graduate students, as well as community-engaged research.

This year’s honorees:

Community Engaged Scholarship Award 

  • Gregory Rudnick, professor of physics & astronomy 

Steeples Service to Kansans Award

  • Claudia Dozier, associate professor of applied behavioral science
  • Scott Harris, senior specialist and KU Debate coach, Department of Communication Studies
  • Ken Fischer, professor of mechanical engineering

Gene A. Budig Teaching Professorship Award

  • Alison Gabriele, professor of linguistics

Byron A. Alexander Graduate Mentor Award

  • James Bever, Distinguished Foundation Professor of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology

John C. Wright Graduate Mentor Award

  • Jarron Saint Onge, associate professor of sociology

Grant Goodman Undergraduate Mentor Award

  • Bruce Hayes, professor of French literature & culture

J. Michael Young Academic Advisor Award 

  • Kevin McCannon, lecturer and academic program associate, Department of Sociology
  • Laura Mielke, Dean’s Professor of English
  • Maya Stiller, associate professor of the history of art
Jayhawks flock to Iowa ahead of 2020 caucuses

Two months before the pandemic became the center of collective national attention in the U.S., political rivals across the ideological spectrum journeyed to Iowa with their teams for a marathon of non-stop campaigning, hand-shaking, and rallies in an all-hands-on-deck final push to amplify their messages and ultimately find a path to victory.

As the events unfolded in the Hawkeye State, back when the democratic race seemed to be anyone’s game, three research teams of undergraduate and graduate students, along with their faculty advisors, from the University of Kansas, South Florida State University, and the University of Alabama went out in the field to see how candidates’ messages were playing with caucus goers. They explained how their findings could reveal insights about American voters’ preferences, biases, and hopes for the country’s future.

Bringing Black authors’ work out of digital shadows Part of the collection of the Project on the History of Black Writing. Credit: Rick Hellman / KU News Service

First, the Project on the History of Black Writing worked to preserve physical copies of novels by Black writers, often rescuing works from dusty attics and estate sales. In the 21st century, HBW began digitizing its library. And now, with the help of a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, it is moving to make the collection even more accessible to future scholars worldwide.

For Maryemma Graham, the HBW project — growing out of her grad school discoveries in 1983 — came with her to the University of Kansas in 1999. Now the Distinguished Professor of English is one of three principal investigators for a $500,000, two-year grant that will bring the collection out of the digital shadows.

Hawks to Watch: Young alumni making their mark

Having recently graduated, our Hawks to Watch are just starting to leave their mark in their industries and communities. They’re poised for greatness, inspiring their colleagues and excelling in their professions. Basically, they’re killing it.

We caught up with some of our recent alums about their work, plans for the future, and how they’re navigating this year’s many challenges and plot twists. Meet our newest Hawks, whose career paths and individual stories – a former NFL athlete, an energy justice advocate, a professional dancer inspiring change outside of the studio, a molecular virologist working to develop faster testing for COVID-19, and so many others – showcase the endless possibilities of a KU degree in the liberal arts and sciences.

Undergraduate student discovers 18 new species of aquatic beetle in South America

It would be striking for a seasoned entomologist with decades of fieldwork to discover such a large number of species unknown to science. But for Rachel Smith, an undergraduate majoring in ecology & evolutionary biology, the find is extraordinary: Smith recently published a description of 18 new species of aquatic water beetle from the genus Chasmogenus in the peer-reviewed journal ZooKeys.

“The average size of these beetles, I would say, is about the size of a capital ‘O’ in a 12-point font,” said Smith of the collection of new species. “They spend a lot of their life in forest streams and pools. They’re aquatic, so they’re all great swimmers — and they can fly.”

KU joins ALICE project at Large Hadron Collider with new funding from Department of Energy

Daniel Tapia Takaki, associate professor of physics & astronomy at the University of Kansas, has created a new research team at KU to exploit the unique opportunities to research physics at high energies available at the ALICE experiment at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the largest and most complex particle accelerator in the world.

For his new research program at ALICE, Tapia Takaki recently earned a $447,000, two-year award from the Nuclear Physics program in the Office of Science at the Department of Energy. The award is titled “Research in Heavy-Ion Nuclear Physics: Studying the Initial State of QCD Matter.” He has also received funding to serve as a visiting professor at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and University of California-Berkeley during the 2020-2021 academic year.

College alum tapped by Governor Kelly to fill Lt. Governor position

College alum and Kansas Secretary of Commerce David Toland has been appointed by Governor Laura Kelly to serve as the state’s next Lieutenant Governor. Toland, who earned a B.A. in political science in 1999 and an M.P.A. in city management & urban policy in 2001, will begin serving in his new role in January.
“Jobs and economic growth have never been more important than now, and building on the tremendous gains of the economic development team at the Department of Commerce will continue to be my focus going forward,” he said in a press release from the Governor’s Office.

Oscar-winning College professor releases two new films Photo: Associated Press.

Filmmaker and professor of film & media studies Kevin Willmott followed an extremely busy awards season with two new releases this year. Willmott and writing partner Spike Lee, who directed 2019’s “BlacKkKlansman,” teamed up again for “Da Five Bloods,” an action drama that chronicles five Black veterans’ journey back to Vietnam. “There’s been a few small films that dealt with the black Vietnam experience, but nothing like this,” Willmott said of the film, which premiered on Netflix on June 12. And with “The 24th,” co-written, co-produced and directed by Willmott and released via independent distributor Vertical Entertainment on Aug. 21, the KU professor provides a timely look at police violence during the Houston Riot of 1917.

College KUdos: This year’s roundup of good news

Faculty, staff, students, and alumni in the College bring life to the Heart of KU through their hard work and amazing support. And in a year full of so many anxiety-inducing headlines and news alerts, we’ll take all of the good news we can get! From election wins and film festival selections to teaching awards, student scholarships, and White House Fellowships, see the latest achievements from the College in one place here.

Explore KU’s Max Kade Center

Ever wonder what’s in the stone house nestled on the northwest corner of campus? In this episode of Habitat, watch as we explore the interior of the Max Kade Center for German-American Studies. As part of the German Studies Department, the Center provides a link to German immigration to America and Kansas. See why it’s one of KU’s best hidden gems.

Federal grant bolsters Russian, East European, Eurasian studies at KU Photo: Students attending the 2019 CREES spring festival. Credit: Courtesy CREES

With the phrase “Russian hacker” on everyone’s lips, a federal grant will give KU more tools to study the area of the world from which the threat is deemed to emanate.

Increasing expertise and course offerings in the areas of cybersecurity and intelligence is just one purpose to which KU’s Center for Russian, East European & Eurasian Studies (CREES) will put a newly announced two-year, $426,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Education. The money will also strengthen the university’s language and other course offerings and support outreach to the surrounding community.

But foremost, as stated in its grant application, compiled by Vitaly Chernetsky, former CREES director and associate professor of Slavic and Eurasian languages & literatures, the new CREES programs are designed to “respond to critical national needs,” including the intelligence capabilities that foreign language speakers can provide.

A big year of recognition for College scholars

Representing the very best of KU, numerous scholars from the College were recognized this year for excellence in teaching, dedication to research, and outstanding contributions to their respective fields. Here are just a few of this year’s honors and honorees:

  • Maryemma Graham, a University Distinguished Professor in the Department of English and the founder and director of the Project on the History of Black Writing, was named as the 2020 Chancellors Club Teaching Award recipient.
  • Sarah Deer, who has a joint appointment in the School of Public Affairs & Administration and Department of Women, Gender & Sexuality Studies, was named a University Distinguished Professor. She was also selected as one of 27 researchers in the 2020 class of Andrew Carnegie Fellows.
  • Donna Ginther, professor in the Department of Economics, was awarded a Roy A. Roberts Distinguished Professorship.
  • Joan Sereno, professor of linguistics, and Joane Nagel, University Distinguished Professor of Sociology, were named as fellows of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).
  • Bozenna Pasik-Duncan, professor of mathematics, was named to the 2021 Class of Fellows for the Association for Women in Mathematics (AWM) for her support and encouragement of women and girls in mathematics and engineering.
A Year in Instagram Photos

They say a picture’s worth a thousand words. But considering the stunning images we saw over the past twelve months, that figure seems far too low. This year, members of the KU College community shared with us their photos capturing the beauty of Mount Oread and its iconic landmarks, moments of discovery, celebration and creation, and the extraordinary perseverance of our Jayhawks, who pushed ahead to pursue their dreams and make new connections in spite of physical distance.

Keep up with the latest news from the Heart of KU. Check out recent stories on the College blog, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn, and explore our website.

Hawks to Watch: Don Davis, senior director of player affairs for the NFLPA

Wed, 12/02/2020 - 13:47
Why Don’s a Hawk to Watch:

Don Davis’s love for the game of football runs deep. With two Super Bowl rings to his name and 11 years of professional playing experience under his belt, the Kansas native is continuing to leave his mark on the sport — this time, off the field.

Born and raised in Olathe, Don played as a three-year starter with the Kansas Football team, racking up 238 tackles and 9.5 sacks during his time at KU. A College graduate, he earned his B.G.S. in Human Development in 1997, a focus, he says, that sharpened his communication skills and shaped his outlook on the value of lifelong learning.

After years playing with the New Orleans Saints, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and the St. Louis Rams, in 2003 Don signed with his final team — the New England Patriots. During his four seasons as a linebacker for the Patriots, the team chalked up two Super Bowl victories in 2003 and 2004. Now retired as an athlete, Don is on a mission to improve working conditions for football players as the Senior Director of Player Affairs for the National Football League Players Association (NFLPA). A tireless advocate for athletes’ rights, he’s applying his strategic strengths and longtime passion for education to fight for fair wages, hours, and treatment for NFL players.

Photo by Rick Stewart/Getty Images.

Tell us in a sentence or two what you do for a living:

I advocate for the rights of professional football players and work to improve their wages, hours and working conditions.

How did you end up doing what you do?

During my professional career I had the pleasure of being voted as player representative six times. This opened my eyes to the NFLPA and how valuable the organization is to players.

What do you feel is your biggest achievement so far?

I oversee the engagement and education of all active players in the NFL. We have worked hard to improve the relationship with our players and I am most proud of the fact that we have increased the number of players who attend our annual events.

What’s your lowest career moment and how did you pick yourself up and move on?

In 2014, I had coworkers questions my integrity and character. This was especially difficult because I considered these two individuals my friends. The only way I was able to move through that year was to keep my head down and focus on my work. I had to ignore the noise around me and trust that in the end that the truth would eventually come out. I am thankful that it did.

Where do you hope to be in 10 years?

I have a passion for teaching. Education is the ultimate equalizer. In ten years, I hope to be on a tenured track at a university and running a sports institute that focuses on athletes.

What do you know now that you wish you could tell your 18-year-old self?

Stop worrying about what everyone else thinks. Know exactly who you are and never try to be something you are not. In the end, you will work way too hard to gain the appreciation of people who don’t matter.

What’s your best career pro-tip?

I have two: Under-promise and over-deliver, and master the mundane.

How did your KU degree prepare you for your current job?

Human Development is all about learning, growth and people. My degree has allowed me to communicate with a diverse group of people and engage in the process of being a lifelong learner.

What do you do after you’ve clocked out?

100% family man. I have no real hobbies. I work, workout and spend my time with my family.

What is a fun fact about you that surprises people?

I am 100% an introvert, even though I fake extroversion on a daily basis.

Meet more of our Hawks to Watch. For more information, visit the National Football League Players Association (NFLPA).

Hawks to Watch are disrupters. They’re poised for greatness, inspiring their colleagues and excelling in their professions. Basically, they’re killing it. Having recently graduated, they are just starting to leave their mark and we can’t wait to see how their story unfolds. These Jayhawks span all industries including business, non-profits, tech, healthcare, media, law and the arts. 

Unwinding: Emily Vietti works to close leadership gender gaps

Thu, 11/19/2020 - 10:49

August 18, 2020 marked the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment which gave women the right to vote. 100 years later, women still lag behind men in holding elected office both nationally and regionally. Institute for Leadership Studies Lecturer/Program Associate and Communication Studies Ph.D. Candidate Emily Vietti is working to close the gaps. Hear about her research on gender gaps in politics, her work with Appointments Project & Ready to Run Kansas Women’s Leadership Series, and how she is hoping to inspire more women to run for office on the latest Unwinding.

Unwinding is a podcast that tells the human stories driving the minds and talents of the University of Kansas. In each episode we sit down with KU researchers to chat about what they’re working on, why they’re passionate about it, why it matters, and what makes them tick as humans. The conversation explores the fascinations and motivations that produce new discoveries.

Unwinding is a production by KU’s College of Liberal Arts & Sciences. The College of Liberal Arts & Sciences is the heart of KU. It’s home to more than 50 departments, programs and centers, offering more than 100 majors, minors and certificates. A collaborative and creative community, the College is committed to making the world better through inquiry and research.

Source for blog intro can be found here.

Mason Hussong

Thu, 11/12/2020 - 14:58

Mason Hussong’s passion for language goes back to high school, where he spent four years studying Latin. After learning about KU’s nationally renowned Slavic Language program and earning a scholarship from the KU Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps, he knew it was the right fit for him.

His interest in Russian was sparked by an introductory class that inspired him to a double major in Slavic and Eurasian Languages, and Literatures and Russian, Eastern European, and Eurasian Studies. This allowed him to work alongside a diverse student body and enrich himself in the culture and language he’s come to love by studying abroad. In Riga, Latvia, Mason took immersive Russian courses and went on excursions to surrounding countries, an experience that confirmed he had chosen the right academic and career path.

Meet Mason and learn about where he plans to study abroad next, his new job with the Navy, and a KU professor that’s helped him direct his passion.

Where are you from? And why did you decide to come to KU?

My triplet brothers and I grew up in Norman, Oklahoma. I am a fourth generation Jayhawk (skipped a generation with my grandparents, but great-great grandmother, great grandmother, and both my parents attended KU). At first, I was hesitant to head to the alma mater of my parents, but after I learned about the nationally renounced Slavic Language program and received a 4-year Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps scholarship to KU, I was sold. My triplet brother Grant made it to KU in 2018 and we are now living together in an apartment off campus.

Why did you choose your major and minor?

In high school, I took four years of Latin and through my studies, developed an interest in linguistics and learning foreign language learning. During my senior year, I had the opportunity to take classes concurrently at the University of Oklahoma. I ended up taking an introductory Russian class there at the recommendation of a friend and absolutely fell in love the language. After receiving a language and regional studies scholarship from the Navy, I knew it was the right path for me. I decided to double major SELL and REES because I have a passion for both the region and the language and couldn’t pick just one area to focus on.

What is the most exciting part of your major and minor?

Working with extensively published and renowned Slavic Linguists Steven Dickey and Mark Greenberg has been an incredible treat. The course selection KU SELL offers to students is unparalleled. Over my academic career, I have taken courses specifically on Russian linguistics, verbal aspect, translation techniques, Central Asian history, Eastern European linguistic landscapes – the list goes on and on. The coursework challenges and excites me – it’s the main reason why there is no place like KU.

The most valuable aspect of this programming is undoubtedly the faculty. They bring not only expertise, but true passion to the classroom and are eager to share with their students. Outside of the classroom I have spent hours talking to professors about everything and anything – from content I didn’t quite get the first time in class to their personal research interests. The academic relationships I have gained thus far at KU blew my expectations away. KU CLAS, SELL, and CREES have been a huge part of making that happen.

What is the benefit of being in the KU College alongside students studying sciences, arts and humanities?

A huge benefit to the KU College is being able work around a diverse student body with unique interests, backgrounds, and experiences. Over the years some of my best friends have studied from physics, to women and gender studies, to policy sci. Having a rich mixture of folks with common and diverging interests is incredibly helpful toward building a sense of community and helping me see where my interests fit in the larger global and academic picture. 

Give a shout-out to a professor, mentor, advisor, or someone at KU who has helped you?

Irina Anatolyevna – When I got back from Latvia, I took her contemporary Russian culture (RUSS 604 – sign up!) to help maintain the Russian skills I made while abroad. She helped me direct my passion and introduced me to some of my favorite Russian musicians and authors (check our Victor Tsoi and Sergei Shnurov – seriously cool stuff). I am currently taking her Russian stylistics course (RUSS 716 – another must take) and she organized a Russian / English language exchange with students taking EFL classes at KU through zoom in Russia! I am very appreciative of the extra support she has shown me to help achieve my goals inside and out of the classroom! Спасибо Вам огромное!)

Additionally, I would like to thank Dr. Steven Dickey and Mr. Ray Finch helping develop my interests in Slavic linguistics and Central Asia. The passion for your respective fields is evident and has certainly rubbed off on me!

Tell about your experience studying abroad in Latvia. What advice would you give students who want to pursue similar learning experiences?

In the summer of 2019, I studied in Riga, Latvia and took immersive Russian courses at the Baltic Center of Professional Development on a Project GO scholarship. While I was there, I lived with a Russian-speaking host family and went on international excursions to Poland, Lithuania, and Estonia. My biggest takeaway from the trip was a certainty that I made the right choice in my education and career path. It 100% confirmed my love for the region and I made lifelong friendships and bonds with the people I met.

My piece of advice to anyone looking to study abroad and learn a foreign language– step outside of your comfort zone. It is incredibly easy to stay in your English bubble and speak the target language only when forced – expand your horizons! Make friends with the native speakers around you. Go out of your way to speak as much of the language as possible. Being conscious of this will go a long way to helping you on your language learning journey! 

Have you done any other internships, study abroad programs, or been involved in any organizations you’d like to tell us about?

In April 2020 I received the NSEP Boren scholarship to travel abroad at the Kazakh National University in Almaty, Kazakhstan during the 2020-2021 academic year. While COVID-19 has delayed my start date, I plan to reschedule my time abroad to next January or 2021-2022 academic year.

During summer 2020, I received another Project GO scholarship and took an online intensive Russian class hosted in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. The 8-week program spent over 40 hours a week either in the classroom, with personal tutors, conducting virtual homestay visits, cooking classes, yurt building and much more! While initially concerned about the quality of online language instruction, the dedication of our instructions and real-world interactions made all the difference. While it is hard to match up to the real deal – I would definitely encourage language learners to seriously consider intensive online education.

Additionally, I am a member of the Naval ROTC unit at the University of Kansas. During my time as I midshipman, I’ve had opportunities to travel from coast to coast and learn more about the communities the Navy has to offer. The battalion here is small and operates like a family. This semester I received the billet (battalion job) of company commander and am responsible for the conduct and well-being of 24 midshipmen. Working in a constantly changing COVID environment has taught the importance of planning, flexibility, and most importantly – taking care of your people. The lessons I’ve learned and friends I’ve made here will last me a lifetime. And last but not least – go Navy, beat Army!

What would you tell your freshman self?

Nobody judges you more than you judge yourself. Take a step back and stop taking yourself so seriously.

What do you want to do when you graduate?

When I graduate, I will become a commissioned officer in the US Navy. I hope to serve on a surface ship or submarine for several years, then laterally transfer to work in intelligence or as a Foreign Area Officer in Eastern Europe.

What motivates you?

When you love what you do the motivation finds itself. My curiosity and love for learning fuels most of my drive. Coffee takes care of the rest. 

Meet more of our students. For more information, explore Slavic and Eurasian Languages & Literatures and the Center for Russian, Eastern European & Eurasian Studies at the University of Kansas.

Hawks to Watch: Tony G. Reames, energy justice scholar

Fri, 10/30/2020 - 09:18
Why Tony’s a Hawk to Watch:

The most urgent issues our communities face — such as equitable access to clean energy — don’t exist in a vacuum. They’re tied to a vast network of forces and systemic factors. Which is why, for Tony Reames, the key to eliminating barriers to affordable, sustainability energy lies in addressing the interconnection of energy, race, place, and class. And through his energy justice activism and scholarship, he’s working to close the energy-efficiency gap.

Before landing on prestigious lists like the 2019 Grist 50 Fixers for his “game-changing” work and being named among the “40 Under 40” by Midwest Energy News and the Oakland County, Michigan Elite, Reames dived into research on energy efficiency for low-income households as a doctoral student in KU’s School of Public Affairs and Administration.

Now as an assistant professor in the School for Environment and Sustainability and director of the Urban Energy Justice Lab at the University of Michigan, Reames is exploring “spatial, racial, and socioeconomic disparities” in access to energy, with the goal of pinpointing solutions to break down inequities in energy access and affordability. His research has attracted interest from the National Science Foundation, which recently awarded him a 4 year, $2.1 million grant to study ways to reduce energy insecurity in Detroit. And on October 1, 2020, he was called on to testify before Congress about ways to generate equity through clean energy.

See what Reames had to say about the need for green scholarship, what he’d tell his 18-year-old self, the time he tasted the Greenland ice sheet, and how he hopes to continue championing energy democracy in 10 years time. Discover what makes him a Hawk to Watch.

Tell us in a sentence or two what you do for a living:

I’m a scholar, teacher, activist. I’m an assistant professor at the University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability and Director of the Urban Energy Justice Lab.

How did you end up doing what you do?

Like most PhD students I had a ton of research ideas and my advisor Dr. Steven Maynard-Moody let me explore several of them until I landed on the one that was just right. He encouraged me to investigate what was happening with a unique initiative in Kansas City called the Green Impact Zone that was being funded by the federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (aka ARRA, aka “the stimulus”) during the last economic recession. The idea was to geographically concentrate public and private dollars in a disinvested urban area of the city focusing on social, economic and environmental sustainability. It was through studying the implementation of the Green Impact Zone that the need to do deeper research into the intersections of energy, race, place and class became even more important to me and led me to entrench myself in the study of energy justice.

What do you feel is your biggest achievement so far?

I was just awarded the largest grant of my career thus far, a 4-year, $2.1 million grant from the National Science Foundation to study ways to reduce residential energy insecurity in Detroit through an integrated, case-management, data-driven, community-based approach. I’m so excited to be able to support the ongoing, meaningful work that is happening in Detroit and proud to report that nearly 40% of the grant’s direct costs are going straight to support community groups and residents.

What’s your lowest career moment and how did you pick yourself up and move on?

Rejection is a beast. Whether it is a paper rejected by a journal, a grant that does not get funded, or a student you have been recruiting that decides to go to another school, rejection is tough. As a brand-new PhD submitting your first paper from your dissertation that you have spent 4 to 5 years working and getting that first rejection letter with reviewers tearing your paper to shreds is devastating. However, in the grand scheme of life and a career, it is but one more stepping stone to better. I know this now, 6 years in. By the way, that first rejected paper has yet to be published.

What do you know now that you wish you could tell your 18-year-old self?

I would tell 18-year-old Tony to prepare to embrace every opportunity to the fullest extent possible, because each new journey has a lesson to teach and it builds the toolkit necessary for future success.

Where do you hope to be in 10 years?

I would love to have a Center for Energy Justice where we focus on increasing equitable access to clean energy technology and energy efficient homes, improving energy affordability, and championing energy democracy and greater public participation in energy decision-making.

What’s your best career pro-tip?

Respect and protect the power of two important words: yes and no.

How did your KU degree prepare you for your current job?

I was a commuter from Kansas City, so the time I spent on campus and in Lawrence was very special to me. I made lifelong friends and mentors, participated in amazing fellowship programs, engaged with practitioners who were advancing their careers through our MPA program, and just a host of unforgettable moments. My PhD from the School of Public Affairs & Administration prepared me to think critically about our governance structures and the institutionalization of the production and persistence of the inequities that I research and teach my students about every day, and hopefully provide solutions to eradicate them. 

What do you do after you’ve clocked out?

Summers in Michigan are pretty short, so I try to spend as much time outdoors as I can exploring local parks and nature trails, or riding bike. Pre-COVID, I enjoyed traveling to Mexico and the Caribbean.

What is a fun fact about you that surprises people?

I’ve tasted the Greenland ice sheet.

Meet more of our Hawks to Watch. For more information, visit the School of Public Affairs and Administration at the University of Kansas and the Urban Energy Justice Lab.

Hawks to Watch are disrupters. They’re poised for greatness, inspiring their colleagues and excelling in their professions. Basically, they’re killing it. Having recently graduated, they are just starting to leave their mark and we can’t wait to see how their story unfolds. These Jayhawks span all industries including business, non-profits, tech, healthcare, media, law and the arts. 

Unwinding: Paul Scott hunts the cultural impact of zombies

Thu, 10/29/2020 - 12:24

Ever wonder why the zombies in film and on TV act the way that they do? Associate Professor of French Paul Scott can provide some insight. Working on a new book while on sabbatical in Crete, Professor Scott sat down with us to talk his soon to be completed book on zombies, his time on sabbatical, and much more on the latest episode of Unwinding.

Unwinding is a podcast that tells the human stories driving the minds and talents of the University of Kansas. In each episode we sit down with KU researchers to chat about what they’re working on, why they’re passionate about it, why it matters, and what makes them tick as humans. The conversation explores the fascinations and motivations that produce new discoveries.

Unwinding is a production by KU’s College of Liberal Arts & Sciences. The College of Liberal Arts & Sciences is the heart of KU. It’s home to more than 50 departments, programs and centers, offering more than 100 majors, minors and certificates. A collaborative and creative community, the College is committed to making the world better through inquiry and research.

11 College classes for a better future

Mon, 10/26/2020 - 09:30

It’s been a challenging year, full of disruption, uncertainty, and one unprecedented event after another. And with a myriad of new and ongoing challenges still ahead – the pandemic, climate change, racial injustice, political turmoil, international tensions, and more – it’s more important than ever for leaders to understand and seek solutions to today’s problems.

From government intelligence and border patrol to COVID-19, environmental justice, and Black Lives Matter, topics covered in classes in the College will help prepare you to critically analyze and take on some of the biggest issues facing our communities. Here are 11 classes that will spark inspiration and help make the world a better place.

RUSS 104 Russian – Elementary Russian I

In today’s globalized world, knowing the basics of another language can lead to exciting opportunities and stand out to job recruiters. So whether you’re hoping to pursue careers in government or intelligence, looking to expand your language skills, or just curious about other cultures, get started with the fundamentals of the Russian language in RUSS 104.

First semester. Five hours of basic language acquisition and oral practice per week. Essentials of grammar, practice in comprehending, speaking, reading, and writing Russian. Satisfies: Foreign Language 1st Level (F1), U Undesignated elective (U)

POLS 130 Political Science – US Intelligence Community

Agents in the United States intelligence community are experts in keeping secrets about high-priority missions and issues of nationally security closely guarded, which has led to speculation, mystery, and conspiracy theories from curious members of the public. But what does the work of US intelligence actually look like on a day-to-day basis? How are they structured, and what are their processes? Pull back the curtain and see for yourself in POLS 130.

This course provides a comprehensive look at the roles, missions, and structure of the U.S. Intelligence Community. Students will develop an understanding of the components of the intelligence process used by the U.S. Intelligence Community: (1) planning and direction, (2) collection, (3) processing, (4) analysis and production, and (5) dissemination. This course also addresses the various polices and executive orders shaping intelligence collection both domestically and abroad, such as, intelligence oversight and restrictions on sharing and dissemination of information within and between local, state, and federal government agencies and the private sector. On completion of the course, students will have an in-depth understanding of the roles of the various components of the U.S. Intelligence Community and the intelligence processes used to support national security decision makers. Satisfies: Social Science

ABSC 150 Applied Behavioral Science – Community Leadership

Widespread change often starts at the community level with dedicated leaders and vocal support from local organizations. In ABSC 150, you’ll be introduced to service-learning activities and gain a deeper understanding of issues facing local communities and the role of leadership in finding solutions.

An introduction to analysis, intervention, evaluation, and leadership in contemporary problems facing local communities. Readings, lectures, and service-learning activities enable students to understand community problems and how citizens and professionals can address them. Satisfies: Goal 5 Outcome 1 (AE51), S Social Science (S), SF Public Affairs PC (SF) 

ENGL 203 English – Consumerism, Comp & Pop Culture

Material culture – whether in the form of Amazon Prime orders, Cheerio boxes, wrench sets, or any other object produced or used by humans – shapes our routines, our interactions with others, and our own conceptions of ourselves. Yet the power of these objects often goes unnoticed in our everyday lives. In ENGL 203, you’ll explore popular and material culture, the rhetorical agency of materials, and their influence on writing by analyzing and creating various forms of communication.

Upcycling, thrifting, Zach King YouTube videos, TikTok challenges like #DJatHome or #FlipTheSwitch—What do they have in common? They are all evidence of how people can find new ways of looking at the objects around them. Our material culture consists of all objects produced or used by humans—Amazon purchases, leaf piles, potholes, and family-sized boxes of Cheez-Its included. This course is all about seeing, wondering, and calling attention to the often-overlooked parts of our everyday lives: the things we usually notice and the things we usually don’t. Whether we’re thinking about them or not, objects have rhetorical agency. In other words, they influence what we say, what we do, what we buy, what we believe, and how we create and communicate. If you counted, how many objects surround you? How many are you wearing? How many do you carry with you in a bag, a wallet, or your pockets? How many of them did you buy and how many did someone buy for you? How many of these objects do you think matter? What are they worth? In this class, students will create a diverse portfolio of compositions that attempt to address these questions. Assignments & lessons will focus on popular and material culture, rhetorical agency, and their influence on writing. Students will analyze and create a variety of communication forms, such as multimedia projects, explorative essays, and short research papers. Satisfies: Goal 1 Outcome 1 (GE11), Goal 2 Outcome 1 (GE21), Goal 3 Arts and Humanities (GE3H), H Humanities (H) 

COMS 230 Communication Studies – Fundamentals of Debate

As we’ve seen during the 2020 Presidential and Vice Presidential Debates, being able to communicate ideas clearly and construct sturdy arguments can positively or adversely affect one’s chances of getting through to others. In COMS 230, you’ll be introduced to the fundamentals of the art of debate and learn how to better use words as tools of persuasion in whatever career path or field of study you pursue. 

Introduction to the principles of debating. Emphasis on debating techniques, analysis of the question, methods of using evidence, refutation, and brief making. This course fulfills the College argument and reason requirement. Satisfies: Satisfies: Goal 1 Outcome 1 (GE11), U Undesignated elective (U) 

ISP 304 Indigenous Studies – Indigenous Peoples of North America

Throughout history, the histories and cultures of Indigenous Peoples have been misunderstood, misrepresented, and oversimplified in popular culture and academia. In ISP 304, you’ll gain a deeper understanding of major issues – such as survival, self-sufficiency, empowerment, and decolonization – facing Indigenous Peoples of North America.

This course concentrates on selected problems in the interdisciplinary field of Indigenous Studies. Courses in this field utilize methods developed in various disciplines to examine issues related to the survival, self-sufficiency, mutual support, empowerment, and decolonization of Indigenous Peoples throughout the world. May be repeated for credit when the topic differs. Satisfies: H Humanities (H) 

AMS 320 American Studies – Border Patrolled States 

For years, President Trump has pushed the idea that a new Mexico-United States border wall will deter crossing into the US and serve as an easy fix for conflicts on the border. But the realities on the ground of border patrolled states – as well as the subsequent experiences of immigrants who make the crossing – are far more complex. In AMS 320, you’ll explore the politics of immigration and citizenship by looking at responses to the growth of Latinx populations in the US and to international migration to and from Mexico and Central America.

Examines the politics of immigrant, citizenship and space through official, intellectual and popular responses to the growth of Latino/a populations in the U.S. and to international migration to and from Mexico and Central America. Topics include consideration of how responses to immigration articulate racialized and culturally specific (including linguistic and religious) concepts of the nation, and how questions of citizenship and residency dovetail with issues of community “voice”, public space, and diverse notions of “security”. Satisfies: H Humanities (H) 

GEOG/ATMO 321 Geography & Atmospheric Science  – Climate and Climate Change 

Climate change is frequently referred to by scientists and politicians as the greatest existential threat we face as a global society. To combat the worst perils of climate change, researchers first need to have a firm grasp on the principles of climate systems and the various drivers of change to the climate. If you’re interested in learning more about Earth’s climate, its impact on living organisms and the human environment, and the future of climate change, look no further – enrolling in GEOG/ATMO 321 will broaden your knowledge of these urgent subjects. 

This course is designed to introduce students to the nature of the Earth’s physical climate. It introduces the basic scientific concepts underlying our understanding of our climate system. Particular emphasis is placed on energy and water balances and their roles in evaluating climate change. The course also evaluates the impact of climate on living organisms and the human environment. Finally, past climates are discussed and potential future climate change and its impact on humans is evaluated. Satisfies: N Natural Science (N) 

AAAS 323 African & African-American Studies – Black Lives Matter

The police killings of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and other Black Americans in 2020 ignited social uprisings and calls for racial justice across the U.S. In AAAS 323, take a closer look at the movement that became a rallying cry for a generation of change-makers: Black Lives Matter.

Lecture and discussion course in African-American area of current interest. May be repeated for credit toward the major. Satisfies: Satisfies: H Humanities (H) 

BIOL 420 Biology – Stimulating the COVID Pandemic 

The COVID-19 pandemic shook the whole world in 2020, impacting practically every corner of daily life and society. For a better understanding of the biological elements at work in the development and spread of the coronavirus, take BIOL 420. 

The preparation and presentation of oral reports on selected topics from the recent research literature. Students may choose one interest group each semester, but may enroll in a given interest group only once. Enrollment in each interest group limited to twenty students. Satisfies: N Natural Science (N) 

EVRN 420 Environmental Studies – Global Environmental Justice

Meaningful change to and participation in the development of environmental policies, regulations, and laws that affect us all is made possible when diverse voices and backgrounds are brought to the table. In EVRN 420, you’ll examine global environmental justice concepts and initiatives – their successes and challenges, impact, and goals for a better, more equitable future.

Courses on special topics in Environmental Science and/or Policy. These courses may be lecture, discussions, or readings. Students may enroll in more than one interest group but may enroll in a given interest group only once. Satisfies: Lab and Field Experiences (LFE), N Natural Science (N) 

For more information, check out KU’s schedule of classes. Ready to discuss options? College of Liberal Arts & Sciences majors can schedule an appointment with their advisors at

Unwinding: Brett Bricker applies KU Debate experience to national stage

Thu, 10/22/2020 - 14:08

After a career as a debater at KU and now as Co-Director of KU Debate, Brett Bricker knows how to craft an argument. Yet, there is more to success in the world of competitive debate than having your points in order. On the newest Unwinding, Bricker lets us into the world of KU Debate, discusses his time as a member of the KU Debate team, and talks about how that can translate to the political debate stage.

Check out KU Debate in action here and hear from the team here.

Photo credit: Steve Puppe

Unwinding is a podcast that tells the human stories driving the minds and talents of the University of Kansas. In each episode we sit down with KU researchers to chat about what they’re working on, why they’re passionate about it, why it matters, and what makes them tick as humans. The conversation explores the fascinations and motivations that produce new discoveries.

Unwinding is a production by KU’s College of Liberal Arts & Sciences. The College of Liberal Arts & Sciences is the heart of KU. It’s home to more than 50 departments, programs and centers, offering more than 100 majors, minors and certificates. A collaborative and creative community, the College is committed to making the world better through inquiry and research.

Abigail Vegter investigates religion, politics and gun ownership in America

Wed, 10/14/2020 - 11:42

Religion and politics in America can be messy, divisive, and contentious, certainly. But, as Abigail Vegter points out, the topics are anything but boring. In her doctoral research in KU’s Political Science program, Abigail is looking at the overlapping issues of gun policy and religious and political beliefs in the United States. More specifically, she’s investigating the impact of religion on policies and attitudes about firearms, subjects she developed an interest in working with KU faculty who encouraged her curiosity. “As my faculty mentor aptly put it, ‘I caught the research bug,’” she said.

So in moments as tumultuous, hyper-partisan, and volatile as our current era, how are these complex and controversial issues influencing one another? What should we expect from these intersections? And how might the COVID-19 pandemic affect the political and religious landscape? We talked with Abigail about these issues and more.

What are your research interests and why did you choose them? 

My scholarship focuses broadly on religion and politics, with a specific attention given to how religion impacts gun attitudes and gun policy in the United States. I have always had an interest in the relationship between religion and politics. I went to religious schools growing up, yet the way I understood the relationship between faith and politics differed significantly from that of my teachers and classmates. My goals were solidified when I was a senior in high school. It was 2012 and I was sitting in an American Government class listening to how my classmates vocalized their political views and how it was rarely separated from their religious views. I wanted to better understand how these two features of identity interreacted with one another. 

When I began my undergraduate education, I was able to participate in a research lab. It was there I was exposed to the impact that social science research can have on the world. I learned to love the process of research, from the initial development of meaningful research questions to the collection of data to the dissemination of findings. As my faculty mentor aptly put it, ‘I caught the research bug.’ When I arrived at KU, I was exposed to the gun politics work of my advisor Dr. Donald Haider-Markel and his colleagues. I saw clearly how my interest in religion and politics fit into this research agenda and I have been pursuing this avenue ever since. I can say studying politics, guns, and religion never gets boring! 

Tell us what your PhD thesis is in under 200 characters:

My doctoral dissertation uses diverse methods to examine the intersecting identities of religion and gun ownership and the subsequent effects on policy preferences and the policy process itself.

What is one thing you think everyone should know about your research project or research interests? 

Religious individuals are far less monolithic than people tend to believe. While it is undoubtedly helpful to look at them as a group, through both my quantitative and qualitative research, it is clear to me that there is more diversity among religious populations than assumed. Understanding the nuances of religion’s impact on politics is one of the driving forces of my scholarship.

What have you found to be unusual or noteworthy about the role of religion in the political landscape in the time of the COVID-19 pandemic?

The coronavirus pandemic has led to a really interesting time for scholars, given that we get to study, in real time, how different coalitions are responding to similar conditions. Religious attitudes and behavior have motivated some of these responses. I have had the opportunity to explore specifically how the global pandemic matters for guns and religion, as churches and gun stores have both shut down and fought hard to remain open. Individuals, activists, politicians, and pastors alike are claiming serious threats to first and second amendment rights. Conversely, religious individuals and organizations who support restrictions often do so for religious reasons. I continue to work with an exceptional group of scholars nationwide who are seeking to capture religious responses to the pandemic and how COVID-19 will shape religion in the United States for years to come. 

What advice would you give students applying for research funding opportunities?

I would advise students to go for opportunities that may be out of their comfort zone. Each research opportunity I have had has taught me something, even if it was related to a topic that I no longer explore. My first ever research job was my freshman year of undergrad. I was tasked with entering and cleaning data pertaining to charter school performance. I have never since pursued any research related to charter schools, but the experience was invaluable as it taught me the basics of empirical research and opened up so many other doors. Likewise, I never thought I would be studying gun politics, but saying “yes” to a project that first year of my PhD has led to multiple publications and a research avenue that I’m truly passionate about. 

Give a shout-out to a professor, mentor, advisor, or someone at KU who has helped you?

I have to thank my advisor, Dr. Donald Haider-Markel, for opening up so many doors for me. He consistently chooses to elevate his students above himself. I have the confidence needed to pursue this career because he has trusted my abilities and provided me with so many research opportunities. I owe a lot to that trust. Additionally, I am extremely grateful for the culture among KU graduate students. It’s uncommon to feel so supported by those this career wants you to see as competitors. 

What is the most valuable experience you have had while studying at KU?

In the first month of my second year, Dr. Haider-Markel sent me to Boston to present a paper we were working on at the biggest political science conference in the country. The fact that he trusted me to do well in that high-pressure environment meant a lot for my confidence. I went alone to Boston, delivered the presentation, and received positive feedback. That weekend, I talked to NPR, the Washington Times, and other major news sources about our work. Self-doubt is something that a lot of graduate students and young scholars struggle with but being sent on this trip by people who knew my capabilities and knew I would do well (and living up to their expectations) was one of the most valuable experiences of my time at KU. 

What do you plan to do after you graduate from KU?

I hope to secure a tenure-track position as a political science professor. 

What motivates you?

I am motivated by my goal to produce scholarship that matters and to make proud the many people who have poured into me. I hope to achieve success in a way that allows me to lift up others that come after me.

Meet more of our students. For more information, explore the Department of Political Science at the University of Kansas.

Alex Pang seeks to promote diversity, equity and inclusion in higher education

Fri, 10/09/2020 - 08:57

From the day of his college visit in 2017, Alex Pang knew he wanted to be a Jayhawk. “I wanted to attend a university that felt like a college campus and that had ties to the community,” he said. KU checked both boxes. After a period of exploration, he eventually found his fit in the College as a sociology major with an environmental studies minor, a combination of studies that allowed him to pursue his passions for serving marginalized identities and the natural world. He also found opportunities to connect with peers, dedicated staff, and expert faculty who supported — and challenged — him.

We caught up with Alex, now a senior, who told us about choosing a major and minor that fit his interests, the KU connections that have impacted his journey, and his plans to make higher education a more diverse, equitable and inclusive space.

Where are you from, and why did you decide to come to KU?

My hometown is Topeka, Kansas. I decided to come to KU after attending my first college visit here, and I fell in love with KU. My mom still teases me about how I cried during the first introduction video during that visit — it was an emotional day, what can I say! I actually remember walking down Jayhawk Boulevard in late January 2017 during my college visit, and KU felt like a place where I wanted to be. I wanted to attend a university that felt like a college campus and that had ties to the community.

Why did you choose your major and minor? 

It was a long journey to becoming a Sociology major and Environmental Studies minor. I started my freshman year as a Political Science major on a pre-law track. I knew I wanted to help people, but after my introductory political science classes I realized that a career in law was not quite the fit I was looking for. I didn’t even know what population I wanted to help at the time. It wasn’t until I was on a pre-professional track that I ended up taking another Sociology course, SOC 104. I had taken SOC 110, previously but I was so focused on the pre-law track that I never gave other areas of study a chance. While in SOC 104, everything seemed to click. The course material aligned with a lot of my personal beliefs, the sociological theories we discussed were fascinating, and I had a professor and GTA who were invested in my education. 

I added Environmental Studies as a minor, after bouncing around to other areas of study for a while. I took a course titled ‘Environmental Sociology’ (SOC/EVRN 385) during my junior year, and I was actually excited to learn how my major and minor could interconnect. The journey to finding a major was difficult at times because I really wanted to fit in somewhere with an interesting area of study. I didn’t feel invested in my classes until Sociology and Environmental Studies, which have laid a solid foundation for my next steps.

What is the most exciting part of your major and minor? 

Sociology and Environmental Studies to me, make sense. As a gay Asian American male, Sociology as a major is the perfect fit because I have the ability to learn more about people with identities similar to mine. I grew up asking questions about the ozone layer to my mother, and I have always been concerned about the environment. My major and minor fit with my interests and what I value. I care about marginalized identities, specifically LGBTQ+ and people of color, and their experiences, along with the environment and the natural world. The opportunity to learn under dedicated and knowledgeable faculty is one like no other. I think what is valuable about my areas of study are that they are interdisciplinary in nature, along with the benefit of being customizable to what I want to study and learn more about.

What has been your favorite class at KU? 

This one is tough! It comes down to two classes, ultimately for me. SOC 400: Sociology of Sexuality and WGSS 327: Perspectives in Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Studies. WGSS 327 was largely about the histories of the LGBTQ+ community, and it focused in particular on the different movements for LGBTQ+ acceptance and rights. As a member of that community, a lot of the history was familiar. However, I gained a new lens to look at people’s experiences and identities. Sociology of Sexuality with Dr. Brooker was also a great experience, since it reinforced a lot of the previous material that I learned about in WGSS 327. I would recommend that everyone take at least one course about human sexuality or about minority and marginalized identities in their time as a college student.

What is the benefit of being in the KU College alongside students studying sciences, arts and humanities?

One benefit of being in the College is the experiences with faculty that truly care about their students and their success. Once I committed to my areas of study, I felt like I started connecting with like-minded students and was challenged by my professors to think critically about ideas that I had just accepted in the past. Critical thinking skills are one of the many benefits from learning in the KU College.

Give a shout-out to a professor, mentor, advisor, or someone at KU who has helped you!

Tanay Adams from the Office of Multicultural Affairs. Tanay has acted like another stakeholder in my life since she was one of my former supervisors when I was a Social Justice Peer Educator at the OMA. Her knowledge, compassion, and humor make her relatable. I would always come into the office to chat with her before heading home from campus, and I am positive that I was a big distraction from her work at times. Tanay would always make sure we were doing self-care, completing schoolwork, and putting ourselves first ahead of all the busyness that college student life can bring.

Have you done any internships, study abroad programs, or any other learning experiences you’d like to share? 

In my time at KU, I have mainly worked in a few student positions that have given me exposure to the work I would like to do in the future. I was an Orientation Assistant after my freshman year, a former Social Justice Peer Educator, and I currently am a Multicultural Scholars Program Student Assistant. Although I am not in the program itself, I am learning valuable skills and gaining experience for a future career. Similar to my previous position at the Office of Multicultural Affairs, my current position has allowed to me to be an advocate for those of marginalized identities. All of that being said, these opportunities have solidified my desire to work in diversity, equity, and inclusion in higher education.

What would you tell your freshman self?

Take it easy. Whenever I see my grandfather, he always tells me that, and I never understood why. Well, he’s 93 and I believe one of his secrets to a healthy, long life is taking it easy. To me, that means not stressing over the small stuff. As someone who tends to overthink easily, I am reminded to take it easy and realize that I’m only in control of my actions.

What do you want to do when you graduate?

I am currently in the process of applying to graduate schools for Fall 2021. It is super exciting but can also be very scary! I am hoping to study Higher Education/Student Affairs at an institution in the Midwest. And, yes, KU is of course on my short list! When I was offered the opportunity to be an Orientation Assistant, I had never really considered Higher Education to be a field to go into. Through that position, it awakened my desire and determination to help college students, primarily through diversity, equity, and inclusion which has been a central focus in my later time at KU.

What motivates you?

There are so many people who have influenced me and helped motivate me to get where I am today. Although, I would say one of the biggest cheerleaders in my life is my sister, Abby. I am thankful for our little brother/big sister bond, and as we grow up, it is awesome to see each other thrive and succeed in our respective areas. I can’t forget about my cat, Leo, and how I feel motivated for him. Ultimately, I know that I wouldn’t be anywhere without the support everyone has given me. I am thankful for my friends, family, and faculty and staff who have helped shape me into who I am today.

Meet more of our students. For more information, explore the Department of Sociology and the Environmental Studies Program at the University of Kansas.

Unwinding: Ayesha Hardison connects lessons from the work of Zora Neale Hurston to current events

Thu, 10/08/2020 - 13:45

Examining our past can provide clues on how to avoid problems we’ve already encountered. For Zora Neale Hurston scholar and associate professor of English and Women, Gender, & Sexuality Studies Ayesha Hardison, there are similarities in the themes of Hurston’s work and social uprisings happening on American streets in 2020. Learn more about Hardison’s work on the latest episode of Unwinding.

Unwinding is a podcast that tells the human stories driving the minds and talents of the University of Kansas. In each episode we sit down with KU researchers to chat about what they’re working on, why they’re passionate about it, why it matters, and what makes them tick as humans. The conversation explores the fascinations and motivations that produce new discoveries.

Unwinding is a production by KU’s College of Liberal Arts & Sciences. The College of Liberal Arts & Sciences is the heart of KU. It’s home to more than 50 departments, programs and centers, offering more than 100 majors, minors and certificates. A collaborative and creative community, the College is committed to making the world better through inquiry and research.

Hawks to Watch: Heba Mostafa, molecular virologist

Tue, 09/29/2020 - 14:33
Why Heba’s a Hawk to Watch:

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in early 2020, KU community members across the globe joined forces to curb the disease’s spread and provide relief to communities in need, showing the world what’s possible when Jayhawks rise to major challenges. One of these Jayhawks, Heba Mostafa, who earned a doctorate in microbiology in 2014, made national and international headlines this spring for her efforts to develop quick, reliable testing for the virus — innovative work that put the research and technical skills she sharpened at KU to the test in the most consequential ways imaginable.

Since the first wave of the pandemic, Heba and her team at Johns Hopkins Hospital have been collaborating with scientific leaders to increase the availability and efficiency of testing for COVID-19. In just a few months, they have tested more than 150,000 samples, catching 12,000 positive cases in the process. It’s been an unpredictable and at times difficult year, Heba admits. But with plenty of hands-on training and extensive research experience under her belt, she’s been well-prepared for any professional obstacle that’s thrown her way.

Get to know Heba, our newest Hawk to Watch. See what she had to say about relocating from Egypt to the Sunflower State, what people should know about the virus, and the value of teamwork during “extraordinary circumstances.”

Tell us in a sentence or two what you do for a living: 

I am the director of the Molecular Virology Laboratory at Johns Hopkins Hospital and an Assistant Professor of Pathology at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.

How did you end up doing what you do?

It was a long but exciting and enjoyable journey. I earned a medical degree from the faculty of Medicine, Alexandria, Egypt. I realized really early in my career that I am most interested in microbiology and started my Master’s degree and residency in clinical pathology. I moved to the US to join my husband as he started his PhD at the University of Kansas and I got accepted in the microbiology program in the same department. I earned my PhD after 5 years of hard work. I then moved to Memphis, TN for a post-doctoral research fellowship at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

At the end of the three years, I realized I need to find a career that allows me to combine my medical and research interests, background, and expertise.  I then applied to the CPEP medical microbiology fellowship program and got accepted at the URMC program, Rochester, NY, where I completed my fellowship in two years, followed by the American Board of Medical Microbiology Exam and certification. I then was offered the position of the director of the Molecular Virology Laboratory at Johns Hopkins Medicine.

How has your day-to-day life and work changed since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic?

With the start of the pandemic, our first priority was to implement SARS-CoV-2 diagnostic testing in our laboratory and we were among the first few labs that offered the molecular diagnostics for COVID-19. We put a lot of effort to expand testing and overcome challenges of supply chain issues. We validated nine different assays to build redundancy to assist with the high testing volumes and shortages in supplies. We assisted testing for Hopkins Hospital system, multiple local and community hospitals and practices, community screening, and research. We so far tested more than 150,000 specimens and diagnosed about 12,000 positives.

Alongside the clinical diagnosis, I initiated SARS-CoV-2 whole genome sequencing in the clinical laboratory for epidemiological surveillance and to answer plenty of research-based questions. I also initiated multiple research projects that answered questions related to diagnostic assays’ performance, understanding prolonged viral shedding, correlating viral polymorphisms with disease severity, among others.

The pandemic experience has been very challenging but exceptionally rewarding. I have gained a lot of experience leading an amazing team under extraordinary circumstances. I got to work and collaborate with experts inside and outside Hopkins and exchange experiences with leaders in the field. Although the pandemic was associated with major disruption on all levels, it was associated with unprecedented learning opportunity and an exceptionally unique teamworking environment that brought the best from each and all of us.

What do you think people should know about the coronavirus and its spread that they might not already?

The disease affects all ages and can be severe in healthy people. Please take all the necessary precautions until efficient preventive measures become available.

What developments do you hope to see in the near future in terms of efforts to combat the spread of the coronavirus? What do you think the timeline looks like?

The vaccine is our way out of this, or of course an effective and specific treatment. The vaccine timeline might vary but trials are progressing quickly. We should be cautiously optimistic but we shouldn’t rush bringing a vaccine to the market until safety and efficacy are fully elucidated.

How did your KU degree prepare you for your current job? 

My KU degree prepared me for both my research and my CPEP clinical microbiology fellowships. It provided me with the basic knowledge, research and technical skills, troubleshooting skills, and plenty of published research articles that shaped my career. I would like to take the chance to thank my mentor Dr. David Davido, and all the members of my committee by names: Dr. Susan Egan, Dr. Kristi Neufeld, Dr. Scott Hefty, Dr. Steve Benedict, and Dr. Tom Yankee. Along with many other Jayhawks who supported me. 

What do you know now that you wish you could tell your 18-year-old self?

I would have told the 18-year-old Heba that there are non-conventional career pathways, and to explore and talk to experienced people.

Where do you hope to be in 10 years?

I hope to be a full professor leading a state-of-the-art molecular diagnostic lab and an outstanding researcher.

What’s your best career pro-tip?

Explore and do what you like. Work as hard as you can and enjoy your work and life. Don’t be afraid to try and trust yourself. And on top of everything, time is very valuable and runs faster than we think, so what can be done in one minute shouldn’t take more than one minute. Lost time can’t be restored unfortunately.

What do you do after you’ve clocked out?

I spend the time with my kids and my husband.

What is a fun fact about you that surprises people?

I love singing and I am good at it!! Singing is my alternative career plan.

Meet more of our Hawks to Watch. For more information, visit the Department of Molecular Biosciences at the University of Kansas, Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, and Johns Hopkins Hospital.

Hawks to Watch are disrupters. They’re poised for greatness, inspiring their colleagues and excelling in their professions. Basically, they’re killing it. Having recently graduated, they are just starting to leave their mark and we can’t wait to see how their story unfolds. These Jayhawks span all industries including business, non-profits, tech, healthcare, media, law and the arts.