KU child research center wins $7.5M in grants to promote high-quality early education

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

KANSAS CITY, KANSAS — The Juniper Gardens Children’s Project (JGCP), located on the Children’s Campus of Kansas City in Kansas City, Kansas, has been awarded $7.5 million for four new research projects from the U.S. Department of Education Institute of Education Sciences. JGCP is one of the 13 affiliated research centers of the University of Kansas Life Span Institute. It is situated in and has been closely allied with the KCK community for more than 50 years.

In collaboration with preschool and head start programs in the Kansas City metropolitan area, Charles Greenwood, Alana Schnitz and Judith Carta will evaluate a preschool literacy intervention.

“One of ways children learn literacy skills in preschool is through interactions with their teachers,” Greenwood said. “Literacy 3D helps teachers increase these interactions threefold or more.”

The award for this project was $3.3 million. Carta is the interim director for JGCP and professor of special education and senior scientist. Greenwood is professor of applied behavioral sciences and senior scientist. Schnitz is postdoctoral fellow at JGCP.

Greenwood, Carta and Dwight Irvin, assistant research professor, will assist preschool teachers in adapting language and early literacy instruction for children who are unresponsive to instruction. The $1.4 million CIRCLE project (Validity Studies of the Classroom Code for Interactive Recording of Children’s Learning Environments) is based on prior work in the Kansas City, Kansas, community to improve educational results for young children.

Associate Research Professors Jay Buzhardt and Dale Walker, along with Irvin, are developing a data-based decision-making system that will help preschool educators promote the problem-solving skills of infants and toddlers.

“Cognitive problem-solving skills begin early and are critical to later academic achievement,” Walker said. “But early educators often lack the training and resources to identify and support children whose skills are not developing as expected.”

The web-based system will provide individualized guidance to early educators about which children may need additional support and the type of support they need. The researchers were awarded a $1.4 million grant.

The healthy social-emotional development of infants and toddlers is the focus of a $1.4 million project directed by Kathryn Bigelow, assistant research professor; Carta, Irvin and Schnitz at KU; and Mary Louise Hemmeter, professor of special education, at Vanderbilt Kennedy Center. The project will develop, test and refine a professional development program for early education teachers. The program will support teachers as they put into practice a three-tiered framework for addressing the social-emotional needs of young children, including universal teaching practices, practices for children at risk for delays and challenging behavior and intensive individualized practices for those children who continue to have problems. The project will be implemented at Kansas City and Nashville early childhood educational centers.  

Photos: Students receive instruction in these file photos from the Juniper Gardens Children’s Project. Photos by Guthrie Photography.

Graduate research fellow investigates how fungi and fire enable pine savanna ecosystem to thrive

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

LAWRENCE — For most humans, fire symbolizes destruction and death. Yet nature often adapts to fire and can wield it as a creative force. For example, in the pine savannas of the southeastern U.S., fire acts as a chrysalis from which grasslands and forests spread new stems and unfurl fresh leaves.

Jacob Hopkins, a graduate student with the Kansas Biological Survey and Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology at the University of Kansas, researches how a hidden ally helps plants and trees in this ecosystem prosper with fire: the fungi that live in the soil and among the decomposing leaves and plant matter atop the soil, called litter.

“In the pine savannas, we think of fire as a reset switch,” Hopkins said. “It prevents the pines from taking over and can prevent invasive species from coming in. It rejuvenates the ecosystem, and after the ecosystem burns we see a higher diversity of species — particularly grassland species.”

With a recently announced National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, Hopkins will spend the next several years investigating the relationship between fire and the way fungi and plants in pine savannas support each other, dubbed “mutualisms.” The NSF Graduate Research Fellowships pay U.S.-citizen students $34,000 per year plus a $12,000 cost-of-education allowance over three years.

“A plant-fungal mutualism is when a mycorrhizal fungi species forms an association with the roots of a host plant,” Hopkins said. “There will often be an exchange of resources between the two. With grassland species, fungi give plants phosphorus and get carbon or sugar in return. But we also see mutualisms in trees, where trees get nitrogen from fungi and fungi, in turn, receive carbon or sugar. Forming these associations can help plants resist attacks by insects or pathogens, or it can increase competitive ability of the plant for growing in an ecosystem.”

Hopkins’ work will include field studies of pine savannas in the American southeast, where he’ll assess plant and soil communities before and after burning, and see how plant-fungal mutualisms promote equilibrium and fire adaptation in the ecosystem.

“I’ve gone to Georgia several times,” he said. “We take soil cores from different plots we’ve preselected to monitor bacterial and fungal diversity. We’re looking at decomposition of plant litter by fungi, bacteria, as well as some microorganisms. With decomposition bags, we’re looking at burned versus unburned — or how different frequencies of fire can affect the decomposing ability of fungi and how that same plant litter acts as fuel for future sites.”

The KU graduate student said pine savannas are not just scientifically profound, but beautiful to behold.

“You’ll see these giant trees — some are 600-plus years old and have the largest trunks you’ve ever seen on a tree that’s multiple stories tall,” Hopkins said. “Right next to it, there are comparatively small grassland plants. We’ll oftentimes find Gopher tortoise burrows, a threatened species. There are the red-cockaded woodpeckers — a really neat bird. We’ll see rattlesnakes out there sometimes. There is so much floral and faunal diversity that you’re always seeing something new and learning something just by observing. It’s a good place to go for ideas for future experiments. You say, ‘Oh, I’ve never seen that before!’ You can find a lot of scientific inspiration out there.”

Back in Lawrence, Hopkins will conduct tests on samples to determine what makes up the microbe and plant community of pine savannas; to find out if post-fire adapted plant-microbial mutualisms exist; to see if mutualists drive changes in the composition of litter and fuels produced; and to discover if fire favors decomposition-inhibiting plant-fungal mutualisms.

Part of the work will include genetic analysis of the vast numbers of fungi present in the soil, most of which remain undescribed by science. In just one sample, Hopkins said there could be thousands of species.

“From the sequencing, they found around 12,000 taxa — some could be the same species but there’s still quite a bit of diversity there,” he said. “We could identify around a thousand of them, barely 1/12th of the samples we could give a species name. By and large, we might never be able to catch up and put a name to every species.”

Hopkins’ new NSF fellowship will enable the research, along with aiding with tuition and expenses as he works toward a doctoral degree under the mentorship of Benjamin Sikes, KU assistant professor of ecology & evolutionary biology and senior scientist at the Biological Survey.

“My lab is exploring how fire can shift soil microbial communities and alter rates of microbial decomposition of new fuels,” Sikes said. “These data appear to show positive feedbacks, with post-fire microbes slowing decomposition, increasing new fuel buildup and thus the potential for subsequent fires. Jacob’s proposed work focuses on indirect feedbacks that may be equally important. My group had thought about indirect feedbacks but had not focused on plant mutualists explicitly. His hypothesis is that fire may shift plant mutualists such as mycorrhizal fungi and nitrogen-fixing bacteria, thereby altering the production and composition of new fuels. These effects are critical to quantify because they may counteract or exacerbate direct feedback effects, thereby improving our knowledge of fire ecology and predictions for fire management.”

In exploring questions about plant-fungal mutualisms and fire-adapted pine savannah, Hopkins said he hoped to earn his doctoral degree in the next three or four years.

“I eventually would like to become professor and researcher,” he said. “I’ve enjoyed looking at how different components of ecosystems can work together, and if fire is altering microbial populations. How is that going to affect how plants are doing or affect how plant litter is decomposed? What’s the bigger picture? I’d like to pursue teaching and outreach at the same time — that’s just as important.”

Top photo: Plants and fungi form a mutually beneficial relationship that involves an exchange of resources.

Top right: An NSF Graduate Research Fellowship is supporting Jacob Hopkin’s investigation into fungi’s role in the pine savanna ecosystem.

Bottom right: Hopkins says fire acts as a “reset switch” in the pine savanna. Photos courtesy of Jacob Hopkins.


Political affiliation, weight determine your opinion on fighting obesity, study finds

Monday, March 06, 2017

LAWRENCE — People's political leanings and their own weight shape opinions on obesity-related public policies, according to a new study by two University of Kansas researchers.

Actually, Republicans — no matter how much they weigh —  believe eating and lifestyle habits cause obesity, the research found.

But among Democrats there is more of a dividing line, said Mark Joslyn, professor of political science. Those who identify themselves as overweight are more likely to believe genetic factors cause obesity.

"Self-reported overweight people were significantly more likely to believe obesity is caused by genetics than normal weight people," Joslyn said. "The belief that obesity is due to genetics tends to remove blame. Obesity is not a choice, some would argue, but rather people are simply genetically wired to be obese. In this way, overweight people are motivated to believe in the genetics-obesity link. We found normal weight people were not so motivated."

Joslyn and Don Haider-Markel, chair and professor of the Department of Political Science, published their findings recently in the journal American Politics Research.

The research could have important implications for policymakers, especially at the local and state levels that tend to focus on public health interventions, either through appealing to healthy lifestyles by constructing biking and walking paths to encourage exercise or by passing stricter regulations on food and drinks, such as demanding publication of calorie counts and levying taxes on soft drinks.

Former New York City Mayor — and billionaire — Michael Bloomberg has donated millions of dollars to fund pro-soda tax initiatives in major cities. Berkeley, California, and Philadelphia are among those that have passed them in recent years. Obesity rates have risen recently in the United States, as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in 2015 that 71 percent of adults were overweight and more than 17 percent of youths were obese.

Still, most Americans oppose bans on large-size drinks and higher soda taxes, Joslyn said, which is likely a disparity between the perception of the problem and support for government intervention. Those who have argued against soda taxes, for example, often refer to a "nanny state," blaming government intervention when they perceive personal choice is causing the problem.

For policymakers, as obesity rates continue to climb and the debate surrounding how to make people healthier continues, the genetic attribution as a cause may continue to rise as well, which could influence people's opposition to certain practices.

"To the extent that genetic attributions increase in popularity, stronger opposition to discriminatory hiring practices by weight can be expected," Joslyn said.

Also, it's likely the issue remains politicized because most Republicans are inclined to support individual blame for obesity and not supportive of government regulations.

Finally, while the soda taxes have gained much attention, most government action recently does seem to be directed toward changing people's individual behavior, such as developing public spaces to encourage fitness and ways to discourage unhealthy eating habits, like publication of calorie counts.

"If obesity persists in the face of such initiatives, blame and discrimination of obese people is likely to continue," Joslyn said. "On the other hand, if governments treat obesity similar to diseases that afflict the population, as circumstances beyond the control of individuals, then individual blame and discrimination may diminish."

Translating Ukrainian best-seller will offer insight into geopolitical conflict

Monday, March 06, 2017

LAWRENCE — Russia’s 2014 military intervention in Ukraine brought a renewed international focus onto a region that many in the West forgot about after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

A desire to better understand the conflicts among the peoples of the region apparently played a role in the recent award of a grant from PEN America to Vitaly Chernetsky, associate professor of Slavic languages & literatures, to complete his translation of a recent Ukrainian novel.

Chernetsky was one of 15 recipients of the 2017 PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grants. He will use the $3,870 award to finish his translation of Ukrainian writer Sophia Andrukhovych’s novel “Felix Austria.” PEN calls itself the world’s leading literary and human-rights organization.

In its announcement of the grant, PEN America called the book “vividly detailed,” saying Andrukhovych “is one of her country’s most exciting young novelists, and the novel’s themes of isolation, community, otherness and the importance of history are especially relevant, and moving, in these times.” The announcement added: “Andrukhovych’s work in Chernetsky’s English rendering is keen, lifelike and endlessly exciting and perceptive.”

“Next to the National Endowment for the Arts, this is the most prominent recognition and support for literature in the United States,” Chernetsky said. Several American publishers, he said, have already expressed interest in the work, as have Europe-based movie producers.

“This is the first time they (PEN) have supported translation of a literary work from Ukraine,” said Chernetsky, who was born and raised in Odessa. “Ukraine is very much in the news.”

“Felix Austria” was Ukraine’s best-selling novel the year after the “winter revolution” of 2013-2014, Chernetsky said.

“I thought it would be good for us to learn why it resonated with the public so strongly,” he said. “It would help us to understand that situation.”

The novel, Chernetsky said, is historical, set in the year 1900.

“It’s about self-discovery,” he said. “It can apply to Ukraine as a nation at large, figuring out what makes it unique. What does it share with others? What crises might await it along its journey of self-discovery?

“It’s written in the first person, from the perspective of a woman in her early 30s, Stefania, who is the housekeeper for an up-and-coming, middle-class family in a part of Ukraine under Austrian rule before World War I. So it’s a multi-ethnic, multicultural situation. It’s also important that she’s an orphan. The woman in the household also is half-orphaned. She lost her mother in a fire, and Stefania was brought into their household, so they grow up together. So there are questions of class, ethnicity, language and religion.”

Chernetsky said there are also elements of suspense and adventure in the novel’s plotline.

The author visited the Center for Russian, East European & Eurasian Studies at the University of Kansas in December 2015 as part of a national tour, and that’s when she invited CREES’ then-acting director Chernetsky to be her translator. He was pleased to accept, he said.

“You are a cultural mediator,” he said. “You need to stay faithful to the ideas of the original, but you have to make the text work in the language and culture into which you are translating. You have to be faithful to one culture but have it make sense in the context of another culture. It requires a subtle negotiation and in-depth understanding of both contexts.

“If there are puns in the original or references to cultural things that would require extensive footnoting, if characters speak in dialect that is dated, how do we find equivalents of that in English?”

Chernetsky said he hopes to complete his first draft of the translation by this summer.

PEN America’s Translation Fund, now in its 14th year, received a record number of applications this year — 224 — and Chernetsky was one of 15 winners. The P.E.N. (poets, playwrights, essayists, editors and novelists) American Center was founded in 1922 in New York. PEN International was founded the year before in direct response to the ethnic and national divisions that contributed to World War I. There are 144 PEN centers in 101 countries comprising PEN International.

Top photo: Sophia Andrukhovych’s novel “Felix Austria,” cover illustration by Romana ​Romanyshyn and Andriy Lesiv of Agrafka Studio in Ukraine, adapted from "Along the Shore" (1914) by Joseph Edward Southall from the Oldham Gallery collection, United Kingdom. Top right: Professor Vitaly Chernetsky with visiting author Sophia Andrukhovych in December 2015, image provided by CREES. Bottom right: Sophia Andrukhovych, image by Rafał Komorowski, via Wikicommons.

Distinguished professor’s career path serves as platform to showcase distribution of species

Friday, March 10, 2017

LAWRENCE — University Distinguished Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Jorge Soberón will deliver his inaugural lecture, “From Policy to Theory: Geographic Distribution of Species” at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, March 14, in Alderson Auditorium of the Kansas Union. The event is open to the public.

Soberón, who also is senior scientist in the Biodiversity Institute, is an expert in theoretical population ecology, conservation biology, and informatics and policy for biodiversity. He researches how to “integrate” alternative views of biodiversity like distributional data, phylogenetic data, data about interactions and others. The work is completed in collaboration with computer scientists and colleagues in other universities. Results of this research can be applied to the more accurate conservation planning.

In his presentation, Soberón will share his evolving research journey that began with a personal connection to the field of distribution of species.

“I will be telling the story of how I got to study this as a consequence of having worked for an agency of the Mexican federal government,” Soberón said. “How the need to answer pressing and urgent questions by a government — on species conservation, invasive species and vectors of diseases — later led to posing questions of theory, and in the end, to my current area of research, which is very theoretical.”

He has published more than 150 scientific papers, chapters, books and science popularization articles, and his work has been cited more than 16,000 times (in 2015 and 2016 he was in the top 1 percent most-cited ecologists in the world). His research has been funded by major grants from the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation and Microsoft Research.

Soberón obtained a bachelor of science and a master's degree from the National University of Mexico, and he earned his doctorate from the Imperial College, University of London. From 1982 to 2005 he was a researcher at the Institute of Ecology, National University of Mexico. Between 1992 and 2005 he was supported by the National University of Mexico to serve as the executive secretary of the federal-level National Commission on Biodiversity of Mexico (CONABIO). In this capacity he helped to design and supervised the development of large databases of museum specimen data, systems for utilizing remote sensing data for monitoring the biodiversity of Mexico and the application of cutting-edge modeling techniques to the problem of predicting occurrences of biodiversity elements based on partial and biased data

He joined KU in 2005 and was named distinguished professor in 2014.

He has served as board member on many national and international organizations. He has received prizes and recognitions for his work, including a presidential award for services in preserving the biodiversity of Mexico.

Scholar to speak on Kansas-based WWI film pioneer and photographer

Saturday, March 11, 2017

LAWRENCE — The University of Kansas will host a speaker in the latest of a series of lectures related to commemorating 100 years since World War I. David Mould, professor emeritus of media arts and studies at Ohio University, will give a lecture titled “Images of World War I: The Films of Pioneer Kansas Photographer Donald Thompson” at 7 p.m. Monday, March 13, in the Big 12 Room of the Kansas Memorial Union.

On the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, media historian David Mould traces the career of Thompson, the photographer from Topeka who filmed on every front in World War I and in Russia in 1917.  The first major war to be covered by motion pictures raised issues that media, governments and audiences have faced in every subsequent conflict. Should photographers be allowed in the war zone? Is censorship justified? Are our images of war real, or are they staged? What is the effect of a “mediated war” on the public and policy agendas? Mould’s presentation will include excerpts from Thompson’s films, "Somewhere in France" and "With the Russian Army" (1915) and "War As It Really Is" (1916) and stills from "Petrograd" in 1917 and the "Allied intervention in Siberia" in 1919.

Born in the United Kingdom, Mould worked as a newspaper and TV journalist before moving to the U.S., earning his master’s degree in radio-TV-film from KU in 1980. He is the author of "American Newsfilm, 1914-1919: The Underexposed War" (Garland 1983, Routledge 2015) and articles on motion picture and television coverage of war. He has written for Times Higher Education, The Christian Science Monitor, History Today, American Heritage, History News Network, Transitions Online, and other print and online outlets.  His latest book, "Postcards from Stanland: Journeys in Central Asia," was published by the Ohio University Press in March 2016.

On March 14, Mould will speak at the CREES Tuesday Brownbag lecture, on “Publish and Maybe Perish: The Dangers of Journalism in Central Asia,” at noon in 318 Bailey Hall.

These lectures are sponsored by KU’s Center for Russian, East European & Eurasian Studies, the William Allen White School of Journalism & Mass Communications, the European Studies Program, the Department of Film & Media Studies, the Department of History and the Max Kade Center for German-American Studies. 

TRIO McNair Scholars Program selects diverse group of undergraduates for 2017 research cohort

Wednesday, March 08, 2017

LAWRENCE — Selected from a large pool of applicants, the TRIO McNair Scholars Program’s 2017 research cohort assembles 18 high-achieving University of Kansas undergraduate students who aspire to join America’s next generation of university professors, researchers and professionals.

The McNair Scholars Program, established at KU in 1992, is part of the Achievement & Assessment Institute’s (AAI) Center for Educational Opportunity Programs (CEOP) and provides low-income, first-generation and underrepresented minority students with the necessary skills, resources and support to prepare and earn placement in graduate programs to pursue doctoral degrees. Fields of study represented in the new group include education, biology, neuroscience, political science, psychology, community health, medical chemistry, accessibility, African African-American studies, women’s/gender/sexuality studies, environmental science and theatre. Six of the 18 scholars have previously been active in another KU TRIO program, TRIO Supportive Educational Services.

“KU students who qualify for the TRIO McNair Scholars Program have strong research potential. Their academic and research interests are greatly influenced by their personal narrative, and a commitment to create new legacies for their communities,” said Program Director Mulu Negash.

McNair Scholars receive paid research opportunities, faculty mentors, a GRE preparation course, tutoring, and assistance with graduate school applications. Scholars begin their work by taking an interdisciplinary-research-method course facilitated by Achievement & Assessment Institute Director Neal Kingston and his colleagues. During the course, students design independent-research proposals that they begin work on during the summer.

During their research, McNair Scholars work closely with faculty mentors to:

  • Identify and read literature in their research areas,
  • Refine research methods and academic writing skills,
  • Learn about the nature and rigors of research along with the multiple professional pathways for doctoral holders, and
  • Build professional networks with scholars in their fields.

“We are happy to welcome our newest cohort of scholars into the program,” said Academic Services Coordinator Jameelah Jones. “As higher education becomes more aware of the need for inclusive campuses, our scholars are conducting research at a time when it is most important to share a diverse range of perspectives on scholarly topics.”

The 2017 McNair Scholars:

  • Jacob Arvidson, West Palm Beach, Florida, senior. Arvidson is majoring in chemistry and biochemistry. His research interests include medical chemistry and development of new medications.
  • Rachel Atakpa, Wichita sophomore. Atakpa is an English major, minoring in Spanish. She is interested in researching body politics, space and accessibility.
  • Christian Boudreaux, Rose Hill junior. Boudreaux is majoring in theatre performance and creative writing. His research interests include social change through contemporary playwriting.
  • Benjamin Lee Brown, Overland Park sophomore. Brown is majoring in secondary English education and is interested in researching diversity in education and approaches in style and method for both teaching and learning.
  • Constanza Castro Zuñiga, Santiago, Chile, sophomore. Castro Zuñiga is a political science major. Her research interests include looking at the influence and efficacy of constituents on legislative agendas.
  • Veronica Heredia, Galveston, Texas, junior. Heredia is a psychology major with several research interests including multiculturalism, LBGTQIA+ communities and the sentiments towards their relationships, as well as examining families and their access to education.
  • Rose-Bertine Mercier, Port-Au-Prince, Haiti, senior. Mercier is majoring in community health and interested in increasing accessibility of mental health services for underrepresented groups through improving policy and programming.
  • Katherin Morales, Flagstaff, Arizona, senior. Morales is majoring in behavioral neuroscience and psychology. She is interested in continuing ongoing research in T. Chris Gamblin’s lab at KU.
  • Emma Murrugarra, Fort Riley senior . Murrugarra is majoring in biology with a minor in psychology. She is interested in further research on the topics of empathic experiences through novels and menstrual dysregulation.
  • Natacha Namphengsone, Winfield sophomore. Namphengsone is a sophomore majoring in biology interested in studying photoreceptors.
  • Emily Reno, Lawrence junior. Reno is majoring in environmental studies and Spanish. She is particularly interested in studying sustainability.
  • Quaram Robinson, Albuquerque, New Mexico, junior. Robinson is majoring in African African-American studies. She is interested in research topics which include environmental racism, sustainable practices and Somalian piracy.
  • Melissa Saldaña-Fuentes, Garden City junior. Saldaña-Fuentes is a psychology, women & gender studies double major. She is interested in studying human trafficking or machismo and the Latino trajectory in academia.
  • Niki Salehian, Santa Monica, California, senior. Salehian is majoring in psychology. Salehian is interested in researching post traumatic stress disorder, learned helplessness and Alzheimer’s disease.
  • Consuelo Sobalvarro, Garden City sophomore. Sobalvarro is a math major. She is interested in exploring the intersections of math and psychology.
  • Aubrie Stricker, Overland Park sophomore . Striker is majoring in biology and minoring in psychology. She is interested in health and biomedical research, including neurology and the development of the nervous system. 
  • Alyssa Vasquez, Odessa, Texas, junior. Vasquez is a history major interested in researching William F. Buckley Jr. and military history.
  • Kareem Wall, North Charleston, South Carolina, junior. Wall is majoring in secondary English education. He is interested in researching education curriculum construction through a literary lens.

The 2017 Rising Scholars: The Rising Scholars initiative prepares promising students for summer research internships the next academic year. Students in the rising scholars will receive coaching to engage with research in their departments and prepare for undergraduate research experiences at the university.

  • Savannah Adams, Topeka sophomore, microbiology
  • Tabitha Moore, Leavenworth junior, psychology
  • Giovana Silva, Lenexa junior, psychology


More on the program

The McNair Scholars Program is funded by the U.S. Department of Education as one of the TRIO programs and was established at the University of Kansas in October 1992. It is one of 151 Ronald E. McNair Post-Baccalaureate Achievement Programs nationwide. By preparing students for doctoral study from groups traditionally underrepresented in graduate education, the program is designed to help ensure that the next generation of American faculty members represents the diversity of our society at large.

Renowned sci-fi writer will deliver lecture at KU

Wednesday, March 08, 2017

LAWRENCE — The University of Kansas Department of English will host author Karen Joy Fowler as the 2017 speaker for the Richard W. Gunn Lecture. Fowler will lecture on “Exploring and Expanding Gender in Speculative Fiction: The Tiptree Award at 25” from 7-8:30 p.m. Tuesday, March 14, in the Jayhawk Room of the Kansas Union.

Fowler is the author of author of six novels and three short story collections. She’s written literary, contemporary, historical and science fiction. Her most recent novel, “We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves,” won the 2013 PEN/Faulkner, the California Book Award, and was shortlisted for the Man Booker in 2014. She's won the Nebula and World Fantasy awards for short fiction, and this year, she will be the GoH at the World Fantasy Convention in San Antonio, Texas. She lives in Santa Cruz, California where she is currently “pretending” to write a new book.

Among her many achievements, Fowler co-founded the James Tiptree, Jr. Literary Award, first announced at the 1991 WisCon, the world’s only feminist-oriented science fiction convention. For 25 years, the Tiptree prize has been awarded annually to a work of science fiction or fantasy that contemplates shifts in gender roles in ways that are particularly thought-provoking, imaginative and perhaps even infuriating. The lecture will provide an opportunity to hear from a pioneer thinker about the relation among feminism, gender and speculative fiction, and from one of the most important and accomplished writers working in the field today.

The lecture is free and open to the general public. For more information, please contact Professor Kij Johnson at kij@ku.edu or Professor Paul Outka at paul.outka@ku.edu.

While untangling history of aquatic beetle group, NSF graduate researcher discovers flaw in model used by biologists

Wednesday, March 08, 2017

LAWRENCE — Stephen Baca’s path to earning a prestigious National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship and becoming a world “authority of consequence” on the aquatic beetle family Noteridae was anything but a straight line.

He grew up the son of a Hispanic-American restaurant owner in small-town New Mexico, where his family has dwelled continuously since the early 1800s, long before the region was annexed by the United States. As a boy, Baca was hardly exposed to the idea of a science career — yet found himself drawn more to the natural world than ordinary childhood pursuits, like sports.

“My parents would tell you I loved things like catching lizards, snakes and bugs and went to the library and got all the books about them,” he said. “My dad used to coach our little-league team, and it got boring in the outfield. When the ball would finally get hit to me, I’d be on my hands and knees looking for a spider. ‘Get your head in the game,!’ my dad would yell. But, sorry, baseball is boring — this spider is cool.”

Baca’s family was a source of support for his growing fascination with biology.

“Mom was the one who would take me to the library when I was a kid,” he said. “And even though my dad would be frustrated by me playing with bugs in the outfield, he and my mom had my back at every step and without condition. They never asked that I do anything with my life that I didn't want to — except as a kid when they made me go to school. My grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, the same. They taught me all about hard work and dedication but encouraged me in all my endeavors.”

After high school and a bit of college as a business major, Baca dropped out and “bummed around” for a few years. “Actually, I hated school,” he said. “It was boring.”

For a few years, Baca drifted through occupations and places.

“I worked a lot of different jobs,” he said. “Roofing, landscaping, bartending or waiting tables. I worked on a ranch in Montana for a while. Having been raised in the restaurant business, food service was always my go-to.”

He cobbled together enough credits for associate’s degree through coursework at a community college and transferred to the University of New Mexico, where he started to feel a pull toward the study of biology. But it was during a trip to visit Kenya where his boyhood love of entomology came rushing back.  

“I saw these crazy insects up close —  it was my first out-of-country trip, and it had a profound impact on how I wanted to take my career,” he said. “I said, ‘I think I want to do entomology.’ Eventually, my professor at UNM offered me a volunteer position in his lab, a chance to help out with research — and then he and other students encouraged me to apply to grad school.”

In the lab of UNM biologist Kelly Miller, Baca befriended a graduate student who had previously studied at KU in the lab of Andrew Short, associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology. Within a few years, Baca found himself in Lawrence, pursuing a doctoral degree in Short’s KU lab, where he focuses his research on Noteridae aquatic beetles.

“You can find my family of beetles distributed worldwide except for Antarctica,” he said. “They like tropical areas like Africa, South America and Asia. Their diversity in Florida isn’t that bad if you dig around. There are even some really interesting species that live underground. If you go to Japan, you could tap a well into an aquifer, filter the water coming up and find these blind little beetles living in the subterranean aquifer.”

Recently, Baca was lead author of a definitive parsing of the evolutionary history of Noteridae, appearing in the peer-reviewed journal Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution.

Along with co-authors Short and Emmanuel Toussaint of KU and Miller of UNM, Baca determined the relationships of 53 species of Noteridae representing all subfamilies, tribes and 16 of 17 genera within the family. By sequencing and comparing DNA sequences, the team’s work has led to a “comprehensive phylogenetic reconstruction” of the evolutionary history of the aquatic beetles.

“Basically we had to completely redo most of the classification within my family because my study, in terms of looking at the evolutionary history of these beetles, it kind of destroyed the previous classification,” he said. “In systematics the nomenclature should follow the phylogeny or evolutionary relationships. So the names we give to groups reflect the relatedness of them. In that way, we had to sync up the classification with the phylogeny, which required some synonymies.”

In the process, Baca and his co-authors uncovered faults in a computational method for partitioning genetic data for subsequent analysis and reconstruction of evolutionary histories using said genetic information. The method was only just gaining traction.   

“My research pointed out a flaw in a partitioning method that could have led to inaccurate results down the road,” he said. “Comparing partitioning strategies isn’t a common practice when reconstructing evolutionary histories. This method had been getting credibility among scientists. It basically saved people who aren’t doing comparative analysis from using a flawed method.”

After Baca and his team sent their findings to the creator of the partitioning method, he decided the model was to be discontinued.

“Our paper was kind of a final nail in its coffin,” Baca said. “We opened a can of worms, but it shows that science is very self-correcting.”

If all goes according to plan, Baca will earn his doctorate from KU in 2019 or 2020. In the meantime, he’ll be in the field and in the lab, further investigating Noteridae. So far, he’s described a new genus with two species previously unknown to science. Further, he said he has “at least a dozen” that he plans to name and describe by the time he earns his doctoral degree.

It’s a long way from the sandlots of New Mexico’s little-league baseball. But Baca is doing his utmost to stay true to his roots and pave the way for other researchers from under-represented communities in science.

He’s the current president of KU’s chapter of the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS). It’s a commitment that stems from his time tending bar back in New Mexico, when his own scientific future was less than certain.

“I got involved through Maggie Werner-Washburne at UNM, who was the president of the whole national society,” he said. “I knew her through a restaurant in Albuquerque. I was working, and she’d come in to eat and have a beer. One day we were talking and I said, ‘I’m a biology student.’ She answered, 'I’m a professor of biology.’ Eventually, I asked her to write me letters of recommendation when I was applying to KU and the NSF.”

The professor agreed, but with one condition, Baca said.

“She said, ‘Fine, but I want you to attend a SACNAS meeting,’” he said. “I didn’t know why, but after I headed here, I joined to help with this outreach-to-minority work. We advocate for Chicanos and Native Americans in STEM fields, and that’s pretty much the demographic of my hometown.”

Photos, from top: KU graduate student Stephen Baca conducts fieldwork in Nicaragua. At right, Baca performs taxonomic work in a Paris museum. Photos courtesy Stephen Baca.

'Playing God' examines the Bible on Broadway

Wednesday, March 08, 2017

LAWRENCE — As perhaps the most influential written work of all time, replete with drama, the Bible has been an irresistible source of material for the Broadway stage.

University of Kansas Department of Theatre Professor Henry Bial’s latest book, “Playing God: The Bible on the Broadway Stage” (University of Michigan Press, 2015), surveys the 100-plus shows that have been based on the Good Book, assessing why some flopped while others packed them in, becoming standards and influencing the state of the art.

Bial said he was interested in exploring “how the most secular, explicitly commercial venue in American theater and the most sacred text can coexist.”

While Bial calls “Jesus Christ Superstar,” “Godspell” and “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” the “the big three” of biblical Broadway, he traces the phenomenon back to the “biblical fan fiction” of “Ben-Hur” in 1899. Staging that melodramatic spectacle, including the famous chariot-race scene with live horses, required technical innovation, while representing Jesus as a beam of light and not an actor overcame potential theological objections from the public even as it advanced stagecraft.

Biblical adaptations continued at a pace of about one a year ever since. Bial undertook research on the phenomenon with the help of graduate students, poring over industry journals and newspaper reviews to arrive at a definitive list.

“There were a lot of judgment calls,” Bial said. “There were a lot more plays that were religiously influenced than straight adaptations from the Bible. For instance, I didn’t include Thornton Wilder’s ‘Skin of Our Teeth,’ even though it’s loosely based on Adam and Eve. I do include Neil Simon’s ‘God’s Favorite,’ which is an allegorical version of the Book of Job.”

The book covers some productions that are largely forgotten today but were influential in their time. Archibald MacLeish’s “J.B.,” a 1958 adaptation of Job, and Clifford Odets’ 1954 “The Flowering Peach,” the tale of Noah and the Ark, are two such plays.

“‘The Flowering Peach’ showed that Broadway audiences and critics could find universal meaning in the story of an ironic yet faithful Jewish family ten years before ‘Fiddler on the Roof,’” Bial writes. “Walker’s ‘Book of Job’ and MacLeish’s ‘J.B.’ showed that ‘the legitimate aids of the theatre’ could engage the thorniest of theological dilemmas.”

The two big New Testament musicals of the 1970s were similarly influential, Bial writes: “'Jesus Christ Superstar’ heralded the way for a wave of megamusicals that transformed Broadway as an industry, while at the same time ‘Godspell’ demonstrated that small, intimate musicals that drew on the aesthetics of downtown theater also had a place in Times Square.”

Sacred texts continue to provide fodder for the stage, and Bial considers the recent hit show “The Book of Mormon” in “Playing God,” even though it’s not based on the Bible.

Nor, despite its many adaptations, does Bial think the Bible is played out as source material.

“I suppose there is a Book of Ruth musical out there,” he said.

Photos, from top: "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat," via Tulane University, Wikicommons. At right, Henry Bial, via KU Marketing Communications. Bottom right, "Jesus Christ Superstar," Theater Basel, by Sandra Thon, Wikicommons.


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