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Updated: 1 hour 27 min ago

St. Olaf research team earns National Science Foundation grant

Wed, 11/25/2015 - 1:42pm

St. Olaf College Professor of Chemistry Douglas Beussman (left) and Professor of Biology Eric Cole (right) received a National Science Foundation grant that supports their research and provides funding for students to collaborate on the project.

St. Olaf College Professor of Biology Eric Cole and Professor of Chemistry Douglas Beussman recently received a National Science Foundation grant of $412,500 that will support their research on Tetrahymena, a single-celled organism, and provide funding to employ eight students each year to collaborate on the project.

This three-year grant brings the Beussman-Cole collaboration to its 15th year of funded research, and the Cole lab to its 25th year of continuously funded research.

In addition to providing funding for student researchers, the grant covers travel costs for them to attend professional meetings, including meetings hosted by the Midwest Protozoology Society, the Genetics Society of America, and The American Chemical Society, as well as publication costs.

The grant also supports the purchase of scientific equipment for the lab, including four SDS-Page Rigs and a barocycler for a mass spectrometer and upgrades for a confocal microscope and the computing system used to track genetic inventory.

Beussman and Cole have worked with student researchers over the past 15 years to understand how Tetrahymena function, with a focus on how the organisms exchange DNA with each other.

“The new grant allows us to apply even more sophisticated techniques to identify and visualize the molecules that Tetrahymena cells use to communicate with one another,” Cole says.

Providing opportunities for student research is important to both Cole and Beussman.

“We’re committed to developing our research goals in a way that serves as a training vehicle for young St. Olaf ‘scientists-in-training,’” Cole says. “We are always on the lookout for new students with a commitment to learning the craft.”

Going beyond Narnia

Tue, 11/24/2015 - 10:06am

St. Olaf College Professor of Religion and Philosophy Edmund Santurri (right) talks to students in his “Beyond Narnia: The Theology of C.S. Lewis” course.

In a still, sunny classroom in Old Main Hall, Edmund is talking about Narnia.

But this Edmund isn’t the hero of the beloved children’s series The Chronicles of Narnia — he’s St. Olaf College Professor of Religion and Philosophy Edmund Santurri, and the class he teaches goes beyond Narnia, delving deep into the varied and fascinating writings of esteemed author and theologian C.S. Lewis.

According to the course description, the religion class Beyond Narnia: The Theology of C.S. Lewis “introduces students to Christian theology through examination of selected works of C.S. Lewis. It considers both Lewis’s explicitly theological writings and his fictional works as resources for theological reflection.” Students begin by reading Lewis’s works of straight theology and philosophical theology, such as Miracles and The Problem of Pain, and then move on to more literary works like The Screwtape Letters, finally ending with novels such as the science fiction Perelandra.

“I’ve always been very interested in Lewis. And I thought that since a good number of students would have heard of C.S. Lewis, mainly through the Narnia series, this might be a way to incite a certain kind of interest in theology,” Santurri says. “And the course has incited such interest. To be honest, I’m actually stunned by the kind of demand there has been for the course.”

Santurri estimates he could teach another three or four sections of the course with the number of students who are interested.

Professor of Religion and Philosophy Edmund Santurri notes that C.S. Lewis is both a rigorous intellectual and a devout Christian, and it’s useful for students to see that these two characteristics can co-exist.

A theologian for the masses
Like many of these students, Becky Bowman Saunders ’16 grew up hearing C.S. Lewis’s name. She took this class last year, and a paper she wrote for it, “Myth Becomes Fact,” was published in Avodah, the St. Olaf Journal of Christian Thought. She took the course partly to put the books she loved as a child into context, and found studying Lewis’s theology beyond the Narnia series very rewarding.

“Students learn about Lewis’s theology, and are able to synthesize it in a way that is applicable to their own lives,” she says. “Concepts of eternity, pain, and glory become relevant to everyday life through Lewis’s theology.”

A wide variety of students are drawn to the class, from religion majors to students searching for an interesting way to fulfill St. Olaf’s theology requirement. All types of people are at home in exploring Lewis’s writings.

“Even if you don’t agree with everything he has to say, there is something there for everyone — compelling ethical arguments, astute observations of the human psyche, as well as a witty sense of humor that is sure to keep you in a good mood,” says Harrison VanDolah ’16, who is currently taking the course.

Paul Escher ’16, who took the class last year, agrees that the accessibility of Lewis’s work is very important. “Lewis is a theologian for the masses, explaining difficult doctrines in understandable terms without oversimplifying them, and I think his great success points to that.”

Escher adds that the way the professor teaches is just as much of a draw as the content. “Professor Santurri is a phenomenal lecturer, which really added to the interesting subject matter,” he says.

Cultivating theological literacy
Santurri notes that Lewis is both a rigorous intellectual and a devout Christian, and he says it is useful for students to see that these two characteristics can co-exist.

“St. Olaf College is committed in the mission statement to what it calls cultivating Christian ‘theological literacy’ — and what it means is not trying to convert people, but making it clear what Christianity is about and showing it at its intellectual best. And I think you get that with Lewis,” he says. Santurri particularly enjoys the way that Lewis’s critique of naturalism, or the idea that there are no moral or spiritual realities beyond the material world, challenges many students’ presuppositions.

“There’s a kind of excitement that revolves around that argument in Lewis that I just love… to see the looks on students’ faces when they’re encountering the argument for the first time,” Santurri says. “Initially they’re ready to dismiss it: ‘Oh, of course naturalism is true, and this spiritual stuff is a bunch of nonsense.’ But they see the arguments and they try to come to terms with the arguments, even as they’re fighting with Lewis; I just find that to be an incredibly exciting thing.”

VanDolah chose this class for its tight focus on one specific author.

“I would highly recommend this class to anyone looking for experience in close textual reading,” he says. “Or if you are just interested in learning more about how your favorite childhood author really thought the world worked.”

New York Times features professor’s work on affordable housing

Fri, 11/20/2015 - 3:57pm

Assistant Professor of Sociology David Schalliol says developments like Co-op City in the Bronx, pictured here, helped give New York a reputation for finding innovative ways to provide decent housing to middle- and working-class families. Photo by David Schalliol.

“The general narrative of affordable sky-rise housing is it’s failing,” St. Olaf College Assistant Professor of Sociology David Schalliol tells the New York Times.

But, Schalliol says, he found that there was much more to the story in New York.

He sets out to tell that story in the new anthology Affordable Housing in New York: The People, Places and Policies That Transformed a City.

“One of the aims of this book, this project, is not only to demonstrate the wide variety of these developments, but also the common experience within them,” he tells the New York Times.

“It’s where people make their homes, where they meet their friends. They don’t just come home, they’re actively producing community.”

Assistant Professor of Sociology David Schalliol

Schalliol’s research focuses on urban problems and how neighborhood community members address them, often without outside support. He uses photography and film in many of his projects, including for his in-process documentary film, The Area.

Schalliol teaches Urban Sociology, Visual Sociology, Race and Class, and Introduction to Sociology at St. Olaf.

He earned his bachelor’s degree from Kenyon College and his master’s and doctoral degrees from the University of Chicago.

St. Olaf launches ‘On the Road’ program with New York event

Thu, 11/19/2015 - 2:35pm

President David R. Anderson ’74 (left) and economist Dean Maki ’87 answer questions from the audience during the St. Olaf On the Road event in New York.

St. Olaf College is hitting the road this year, and at the first stop — New York City — more than 150 people joined President David R. Anderson ’74 for a discussion with economist Dean Maki ’87.

Maki, a managing director and chief economist for Point72 Asset Management, spoke about a variety of issues facing the global economy and the value of a liberal arts education.

The October 10 gathering in New York marked the first St. Olaf On the Road event of the academic year. The program — which brings alumni, parents, and friends of the college together with prospective students for conversation and networking — will also hold events this year in Minneapolis, Seattle, and Denver.

The event in New York included 34 current students participating in the St. Olaf Connections Program. The Connections Program, organized by the St. Olaf Piper Center for Vocation and Career, brings students to cities around the country to meet with alumni and see firsthand how Oles are succeeding in all sorts of endeavors.

In his role with Point72 Asset Management, Maki is responsible for analyzing and forecasting the U.S., Asian, and European economies and monetary and fiscal policies. From 2005 to 2014, he was a managing director and the chief U.S. economist at Barclays. Bloomberg News named him “the most accurate forecaster” of U.S. Gross Domestic Product in 2009 and the Consumer Price Index and Producer Price Index from 2008 to 2010. He was also awarded the 2013 Lawrence R. Klein Award for Blue Chip Forecast Accuracy for being the most accurate overall forecaster of the U.S. economy from 2009 to 2012.

Listen to his discussion with President Anderson in the video below.

St. Olaf receives award for sound financial practices

Mon, 11/16/2015 - 10:25am

St. Olaf College has earned a four-star rating from Charity Navigator, the country’s largest and most-utilized independent evaluator of charities.

Charity Navigator evaluates the financial health, accountability, and transparency of America’s largest charities. Its rating system examines two broad areas of a charity’s financial health: how responsibly it functions day-to-day and how well positioned it is to sustain its programs over time. This system is used to assess the financial health of more than 8,000 of the country’s best-known charities, and works to advance a more efficient and responsive philanthropic marketplace.

A rating of four stars from Charity Navigator indicates that St. Olaf College adheres to good governance and other practices that minimize the chance of unethical activities, and consistently executes its mission in a fiscally responsible way.

St. Olaf ranks No. 1 in study abroad for seventh straight year

Mon, 11/16/2015 - 9:02am

St. Olaf College sent more students to study abroad during the 2013–14 academic year than any other baccalaureate institution in the nation, according to the Open Doors 2015 Report on International Educational Exchange.

This marks the seventh straight year the college has ranked first among its peers in the total number of students studying abroad.

St. Olaf currently offers study-abroad programs in nearly 50 countries, including 65 semester or year-long programs and nearly 25 off-campus courses during Interim. Faculty-led semester programs include Global Semester, Mediterranean Semester, and Environmental Science in Australia.

According to the Open Doors report, St. Olaf also ranked first in short-term study abroad numbers for baccalaureate institutions.

Open Doors is the comprehensive information resource on international students in the United States and on the more than 200,000 U.S. students who study abroad as part of their academic experience. The Institute of International Education publishes the Open Doors report annually with funding from the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.

Recent graduate published in New England Journal of Medicine

Fri, 11/13/2015 - 3:30pm

Just one month after her graduation from St. Olaf College, Anisha Chada ’15 was published in The New England Journal of Medicine.

Chada was part of a Mayo Clinic research team that published a paper about brain cancer treatment. She and the other team members found that brain cancer treatment is most effective if it is customized according to the genetic makeup of the tumor. This approach to cancer treatment, known as precision medicine, differs from the traditional practice of studying and assigning grades to tissue samples under a microscope.

The research project focused on gliomas, which account for approximately a third of brain cancer cases. The team grouped tumors into different genetic categories that each require a certain type of treatment, such as chemotherapy alone or a combination of chemotherapy and radiation therapy.

“The results from this study can have great clinical implications for the many thousands of patients affected by gliomas,” says Chada.

The study, along with another research project that was coordinated by the National Institutes of Health, was featured earlier this year in The New York Times.

Chada, who majored in biology at St. Olaf, was accepted into the Mayo Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship after her sophomore year. This program enables students interested in the biomedical field to conduct research in the clinic’s facilities for 10 weeks.

Chada’s research mentor at Mayo, Robert Jenkins, was one of the principal investigators of the project, and Chada was presented with the opportunity to contribute to the team’s research when she returned to the clinic the following summer. Working alongside Jenkins and the other members of the research team, Chada says, enabled her to “see the process of scientific inquiry and publication unfold.”

This hands-on experience with medical research profoundly influenced Chada’s professional development. In particular, her mentorship with Jenkins, who works as a pathologist at Mayo Clinic, played an important role in her vocational search after graduation. “Through him, I was exposed to the field of pathology and the importance of genetics to clinical practice,” Chada says.

Chada now works as the education coordinator at Hospital Pathology Associates, which is based out of Abbott Northwestern Hospital. “In this clinical setting, I have seen how genetic studies are so important to streamlining the diagnosis of various cancers,” she says. “Though the Mayo study is relatively new, the neuropathologists at HPA have already begun to discuss how to integrate tests for these molecular markers into their practice.”

Chada plans to attend medical school in the future and hopes to someday work as a doctor — an ambition sparked by her summer research experience. “My research at Mayo has greatly deepened my interest in genetics and made me want to become a physician who can impact patients in both a research and clinical setting,” she says.

“The work was challenging and intensely detail-oriented,” Chada admits. But the medical research at Mayo and the paper’s publication in The New England Journal of Medicine have imparted practical experience, professional recognition, and personal engagement that will guide her as she advances in her career in medicine. Chada affirms that “the many long hours were worth it.”

Researchers examine what retirement means for pirates

Wed, 11/11/2015 - 3:42pm

In examining the connections between 18th century pirates and land communities, Claire Bents ’16 uncovered a New York City ring devoted to making money from the pirate trade — a discovery that Professor of History Steven Hahn calls a “game changer” for his research.

What exactly does a pirate do after he ‘retires’?

That’s the question Claire Bents ‘16 investigated with Professor of History Steven Hahn as part of a project through St. Olaf College’s Collaborative Undergraduate Research and Inquiry (CURI) program.

The question grew out of Hahn’s research on pirates of the Caribbean. In 1718, pirates were offered a pardon for piracy crimes if they promised never to return to the life of a pirate. Hahn is working on writing a social history of ‘retired’ pirates.

Bents looked over records from the British Customs Offices and compared names, cargo, ship names, and dates to the names listed on the Pardoned Lists from Nassau, Bahamas. She found that pirates only took the pardon if they thought they had something to lose, but many returned to their pirate ways shortly thereafter.

Using existing information of the New York Harbor, who was there and who was related to whom, she started to see connections between the pirates.

“I started writing names on the whiteboard and drawing connections, and the whiteboard became quite a mess,” she says.

Claire Bents ‘16 created a chart to demonstrate the close connections that seafarers had with the land community in New York City.

Scholars have typically thought that pirates were not well integrated into land communities because of the distinct pirate culture and nationless identity that pirates had. But in drawing the connections, Bents was able to show that the pirates were quite important to land communities.

“At least two very prominent New York City merchants provided the capital that enabled ship captains to trade with pirates. In other words, Claire discovered a New York City ‘ring’ devoted to making money from the pirate trade, and uncovered a subplot to my story that had been hitherto unnoticed,” Hahn says. “Claire’s discoveries were a game changer for my research.”

Additional family history work brought to light that United States President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s fourth great-grandfather William Walton was well-connected to a few pardoned pirates, including William Pinfold and John Mutlow.

Bents turned her whiteboard mess into a chart to demonstrate the close connections that seafarers had with the land community in New York City. She used this chart as part of a poster presentation for CURI and also presented her work to fellow history majors at the annual History Majors Meeting.

Land and sea
Bents continues to investigate the dichotomy between land and sea communities as part of an independent research course under Hahn’s supervision this semester. Her current research focuses on logwood trade in the Caribbean during the 18th century. Logwood is a tree that was used as a dye. Logwood was prized for the deep colors it produced. The culture surrounding the logwood trade was vital to the success of traders. If traders did not treat the captain and crew to an elaborate feast, the captain and crew would hollow out the logs and fill them with rocks and tar.

“I am a much stronger researcher than I was before I came to St. Olaf,” says Bents. “It has been an incredible opportunity to get to participate in individual research guided by a faculty member who is an experienced researcher. I believe you learn best by working with experienced people, and these research opportunities have certainly taught me a ton.”

Former NATO commander to lecture about military’s role on global stage

Mon, 11/09/2015 - 8:27am

Retired U.S. Navy Admiral James Stavridis will visit St. Olaf College November 11 to deliver a lecture titled American Foreign Policy: Exploring the Military’s Role on the Global Stage.

The lecture, hosted by the college’s Political Awareness Committee, will begin at 7:30 p.m. in Boe Memorial Chapel. It will be streamed and archived online.

Stavridis, who is now the dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, spent more than 30 years in the Navy.

He completed four years as the supreme allied commander of NATO, where he was responsible for 120,000 troops on three continents and oversaw operations in Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, the Balkans, and piracy off the coast of Africa.

Stavridis was also commander of the U.S. European Command, overseeing 100,000 Department of Defense employees in 51 countries, and served as senior military assistant to the Secretary of the Navy and the Secretary of Defense.

Throughout his career, Stavridis has influenced change in the Department of Defense. As commander of the U.S. Southern Command, he reshaped the organization into an interagency, private-public model of “smart power.”

He was the first commander of the Navy’s “Deep Blue” strategic and tactical think tank after the 9/11 attacks and focused on innovation solutions to complex problems, including hospital ship operations.

He has been awarded the Athenagoras Human Rights Award on behalf of the humanitarian work of the United States Military and the Intrepid Freedom Award.

Stavridis is the author or editor of six books on leadership, maritime affairs, Latin America, and innovation including his new book, The Accidental Admiral: A Sailor Takes Command at NATO.

Richey to deliver fall Mellby Lecture on randomness

Fri, 11/06/2015 - 10:04am

On a college campus, it’s not unusual to hear students exclaim “That’s so random!” to describe everything from running into an old friend to being surprised by the material on a midterm.

But what does it actually mean to say that something is “random”?

In this fall’s Mellby Lecture, St. Olaf College Professor of Mathematics, Statistics, and Computer Science Matthew Richey will discuss the slippery definition of randomness and what “random” actually means in mathematical terms. He’ll even conduct some applications of randomness in real time.

Richey’s November 10 lecture, titled Take What You Have Gathered From Coincidence: Understanding and Using Randomness, will begin at 7:30 p.m. in Viking Theater. It will be streamed and archived online.

“Mathematicians have thought a lot about randomness and cleared out the clutter, but there are still differences of what constitutes as randomness and what it means to be random,” Richey says.

In terms of statistics, randomness is defined as a process of selection in which each item of a set has an equal probability of being chosen.

Randomness has been a part of human history as far back as the Greeks and Romans, but in those days it wasn’t considered random — it was fate. The future was thought to be predetermined.

“It’s possible we understand randomness as best as we can, but the corner has been turned and now we actually use randomness in a proactive way,” says Richey.

In a modern era where it is not possible to sift through the immense amount of data and information available, randomness has become very valuable.

For example, Siri — the “intelligent personal assistant and knowledge navigator” used on many Apple phones and tablets — uses randomness to provide information. When spoken to, Siri receives a bunch of bytes through a processor that randomly searches for the alignment of bytes that most matches the words spoken.

Richey has taught courses in pure and applied mathematics, computer science, and statistics. He has supervised numerous undergraduate research projects in areas that include neural networks, statistical modeling, and, his favorite, the mathematics of baseball.

Richey earned his bachelor of arts degree from Kenyon College in 1981 and his masters of arts and Ph.D. in mathematical physics from Dartmouth College in 1983 and 1985, respectively. He joined the Mathematics Department at St. Olaf in 1986.

The Mellby Lectures
The annual Mellby Lectures are named in remembrance of St. Olaf faculty member Carl A. Mellby and were established in 1983 to give professors the opportunity to share their research with the public. Mellby, known as “the father of social sciences” at St. Olaf, started the first courses in economics, sociology, political science, and art history at the college. He was a professor and administrator from 1901 to 1949, taught Greek, German, French, religion, and philosophy, and is credited with creating the college’s honor system.