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Updated: 9 min 42 sec ago

Fast Company magazine highlights professor’s Rube Goldberg machine

Mon, 08/31/2015 - 3:51pm

The Rube Goldberg machine that St. Olaf Associate Professor of Physics Jason Engbrecht and two alumni recently built for 3M uses 25,000 Post-it notes and 75 rolls of blue painter tape, among other materials. Watch it in action here.

When Fast Company magazine wanted tips for designing an “awesome Rube Goldberg machine,” they turned to St. Olaf College Associate Professor of Physics Jason Engbrecht.

For four years, Engbrecht led teams of St. Olaf students to the national Rube Goldberg competition — where their machines twice took first place — and he recently worked with alumni Bryce Danielson ’11 and Christian Weeks ’13 to create a Rube Goldberg contraption for 3M.

The end result of that collaboration, dubbed The Brand Machine, is “a wonderful contraption that uses 10 different 3M products as gears in an insanely convoluted Rube Goldberg machine,” notes Fast Company.

Engbrecht tells the magazine that a great Rube Goldberg contraption has to have “interesting and wacky” parts; be perfectly timed; work flawlessly (and, ideally, always work flawlessly); take into account feedback from non-scientists; and have a “big and spectacular” finish — which, of course, the 3M machine does thanks to 25,000 Post-it notes.

When he’s not working on Rube Goldberg machines, Engbrecht teaches analytical physics, electronics, engineering design, and a variety of introductory and advanced laboratories at St. Olaf. His research interests focus on the interaction of positrons and positronium with ordinary matter at low energies, as well as robotics.

Read more about the first group of St. Olaf students to win a Rube Goldberg national championship in the St. Olaf Magazine.

Student launches a business with a purpose beyond profits

Mon, 08/31/2015 - 11:33am

St. Olaf student Justice Nwigwe ’18 pitches his business plan for Papa Theo’s Fish Farm at this year’s Ole Cup.

Each year, Nigeria imports 900,000 metric tons of fish — a culinary staple in the West African nation — to help meet a market shortfall of 1.8 million tons.

That prompted St. Olaf College student Justice Nwigwe ’18 to ask a simple question: Why not produce more fish in Nigeria?

And why not do so in a way that uses the profits from selling locally grown fish to help members of the community?

So rather than spend his summer interning at a company, Nwigwe established his own.

Using grants he received from two entrepreneurship programs offered through the St. Olaf Piper Center for Vocation and Career, Nwigwe established Papa Theo’s Fish Farm in his hometown of Ihitta-Ogada, Nigeria.

The farm utilizes aquaculture practices to rear fish from eggs to market. And not only will the company create jobs in the community — which has an unemployment rate of 53 percent among young people — but it will also use its profits to provide microcredit loans to local residents who want to start their own businesses.

Nwigwe hopes this endeavor will serve as a catalyst for improving the village’s economy and reducing poverty rates.

He pitched his plan for the farm as part of the 2015 Ole Cup, an annual student entrepreneurial competition at St. Olaf. His proposal received the competition’s “Best Social Venture” award and a grant to help make it a reality.

That, along with a Finstad Entrepreneurial Grant from the Piper Center and funds from several investors, enabled Nwigwe to spend four weeks this summer in Nigeria establishing Papa Theo’s Fish Farm.

Judges at this year’s Ole Cup listen to Justice Nwigwe ’18 present his plans for a fish farm in Nigeria. His proposal received the competition’s “Best Social Venture” award and a grant to help make it a reality.

“The ‘Theo’ in Papa Theo’s Fish Farm is for my grandfather, who also had a fish farm when he was alive. But after he died, the farm became dilapidated,” Nwigwe says.

This summer Nwigwe began building a new fish farm. In addition to purchasing a plot of land to build the farm, he also secured a partnership with local farmers who will assist with the business while he’s at St. Olaf.

The farm currently has three employees, a number that Nwigwe hopes to eventually increase to somewhere between 20 and 30. His goal is for the company to eventually produce about 10 tons of fish each month.

“The farm is able to harness the unused labor and resources that exist in the community,” says Nwigwe, who is majoring in economics and political science at St. Olaf with a concentration in business management. “Hence, our cost of production is cheaper when factors such as the cost of transporting materials for production is taken out of the picture.”

This endeavor has not been without its lessons and challenges. The lack of modern infrastructure and utilities in Ihitta-Ogada has been an obstacle, for example.

Nwigwe says he’s learned firsthand the importance of planning each step along the way and how difficult entrepreneurship can actually be despite the best-laid plans.

Yet he’s committed to the farm, and plans to continue working on it over the next few years — and devote even more time after graduation.

“This fish farm, like the community itself, has a lot of untapped resources that can be utilized,” Nwigwe says. “I believe that once it’s fully developed, this farm will feed a lot families and can put food on many people’s tables at a good price. Why? Because this endeavor is mainly a social venture. So I really want to make this business work for the people.”

History professor receives Huntington Library Fellowship

Thu, 08/27/2015 - 3:44pm

After receiving an award from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) last summer, St. Olaf College Professor of History Gary De Krey ’71 has received a Huntington Library Fellowship to support his ongoing research into the Levellers, a political group during the English Civil War, and their influence.

As with the NEH grant that he received last year, De Krey will use the Huntington award to support his research for a book in progress, tentatively titled Following the Levellers: Radical Ideas in Seventeenth Century England, 1647-1689.

The Huntington Fellowship provides funding for one to five months of residency and full-time research. De Krey will conduct a month of research this January at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California.

The merit of his project, as he sees it, comes in response to contemporary scholarly arguments that downplay the Levellers’ importance during the English Civil War.

“The Levellers have lost the visibility they formerly held in 17th-century scholarship,” De Krey says. “The extent of their influence has been questioned. Whether the Levellers can be considered as ‘democrats’ has been disputed, and even their emphasis upon individual liberties is no longer seen as an expression of natural rights thinking.”

De Krey hopes that the book he will write with the support of the Huntington Fellowship will become a catalyst for new discussion and interest about the Levellers.

“My findings should arouse interest from early modern historians, from scholars of the ‘long Reformation’ and of 17th-century political ideas, and from students (both undergraduate and graduate) in these fields,” he says.

De Krey earned his baccalaureate degree from St. Olaf, where he majored in history, and his Ph.D. in British and early modern European history from Princeton University. He joined the St. Olaf faculty in 1988 and has since taught courses on British and European history.

De Krey has published three books about the time period: Restoration and Revolution in Britain: A Political History of the Era of Charles II and the Glorious Revolution; London and the Restoration, 1659-1683; and A Fractured Society: The Politics of London in the First Age of Party, 1688-1715. He also directs the St. Olaf Center for College History and is the archivist for the Norwegian-American Historical Association.

The Huntington is an independent research center with holdings in British and American history, literature, art history, and the history of science and medicine. Its library collections range chronologically from the 11th century to the present and include seven million manuscripts, 420,000 rare books, 275,000 reference works, and 1.3 million photographs, prints, and ephemera.

Some 1,700 scholars come from around the world every year to conduct advanced humanities research using the Huntington’s collections. Through a rigorous peer-review program, the institution awards approximately 150 fellowships to scholars in the fields of history, literature, art, and the history of science.

De Krey is one of only four 2015-16 Huntington Fellowship recipients from Minnesota.

Internship gives student hands-on experience shaping Zambian policy

Tue, 08/25/2015 - 11:49am

Tazorodzwa “Tazo” Mnangagwa ’16 takes a selfie in front of the National Assembly of Zambia, where he is working this summer with the support of an internship grant from the St. Olaf Piper Center for Vocation and Career.

For St. Olaf College student Tazorodzwa “Tazo” Mnangagwa ’16, issues like terrorism and child marriage in his home country of Zambia aren’t simply things he’s reading about in the news.

They’re issues he’s analyzed and authored policy statements on as part of his summer internship with the National Assembly of Zambia.

The experience, supported with an internship grant from the St. Olaf Piper Center for Vocation and Career, has given Mnangagwa a front-row seat to Zambia’s law-making process.

In the past year, 146 St. Olaf students have received Piper Center funding for unpaid or underpaid internships. Another 47 students have received internship funding through college cohort programs such as the Rockswold Health Scholars Program and the Svoboda Legal Scholars Program. An additional 165 students earned academic credit for their internships.

Working in the National Assembly of Zambia’s Research Division, Mnangagwa has written policy statements for assembly members on topics ranging from “Terrorism: The Need to Enhance Global Cooperation Against the Threat to Democracy and Individual Rights” to “The Need to Ban the Indiscriminate Use of Private Firearms During Elections.”

These topics are then either be debated in the Chamber of the Zambian Parliament Assembly or discussed at national, regional, and global parliamentary forums.

Mnangagwa, a Davis United World College Scholar, has developed a strong passion for international development, particularly that related to issues of governance and public policy in the developing world. His interest began while he was a student at the Li Po Chun United World College in Hong Kong and has been fostered through a variety of classes he’s taken at St. Olaf.

The National Assembly of Zambia, the country’s legislative body, meets in Lusaka.

His internship this summer has enabled him not only to see the theories he’s studied in action, but to take a hands-on role in crafting legislation that could instigate real change.

“My experience has sharpened my knowledge of government protocol and procedures and how the legislative system works in Zambia and other Commonwealth nations,” says Mnangagwa, who is majoring in economics and political science at St. Olaf.

He’s also come to realize that his work at the Research Division is essential in providing National Assembly members with up-to-date information.

“Everyone in Parliament represents the people and the country; therefore, it is very important that they have appropriate information in relation to Zambia’s development to disseminate and to ensure that there is oversight in Zambia’s governance system,” Mnangagwa says.

The internship has also provided multiple opportunities for Mnangagwa to network with influential policy makers. He’s been involved, for example, in the Southern African Development Community’s initiative to fund efforts aimed at eradicating HIV/AIDS in the region, a role that involves partnering with various stakeholders who have similar interests in the goal of Zambia’s development.

The most significant thing Mnangagwa says he’s taken away from his time at the National Assembly, however, is the opportunity to work and interact with smart, hardworking, and ambitious Zambians. These ordinary citizens, he says, truly believe in Zambia’s ability to achieve full political and economic development.

That patriotism has helped fuel Mnangagwa’s desire to return to Zambia after graduating from St. Olaf and contribute to the development of his country. He also plans on pursuing a master’s degree in public policy or in a field closely related to international development and governance.

“I believe that if young Zambians like me, who are studying abroad, do not apply our unique experience and education back home and contribute to development in whatever aspect, no one else will do so,” he says.

Retired Professor of English Steve Swanson ’54 dies

Mon, 08/24/2015 - 4:54pm

Retired St. Olaf College Professor of English Steve Swanson ’54, who helped bring the set design of the St. Olaf Christmas Festival to life for more than two decades, died August 23. He was 82 years old.

A service will be held at 11 a.m. on Monday, August 31, at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Northfield. Visitation will be at the church one hour prior.

Working alongside his wife, Judy Seleen Swanson ’57 — a liturgical artist who designed Christmas Festival backdrops from 1992 to 2014 — and their children, Steve Swanson helped construct the set annually. The family’s work was featured in a St. Olaf Magazine story several years ago.

A graduate of St. Olaf, Swanson earned a theology degree from Luther Seminary and was a parish pastor off and on for many years.

He also followed his love for literature and teaching, earning a master’s degree and doctorate at the University of Oregon and teaching literature and creative writing at four Lutheran colleges.

Swanson also wrote a number of books, collaborated with theater faculty on plays, and created metal sculptures.

Read more in his obituary.

Student joins alumna’s pioneering work through clinical internship

Fri, 08/21/2015 - 1:05pm

St. Olaf student Emma Fulton ’16 (left) with her supervisor, Eva Mureithi, who is the registered nurse manager for the Positive Health Program clinic.

It’s one thing to have a hands-on internship in an area of medicine you’re passionate about.

It’s another to do that work alongside a St. Olaf College alumna who’s a world-renowned pioneer in the field.

And that’s exactly the opportunity St. Olaf student Emma Fulton ’16 had this summer as part of her internship at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) General Hospital’s HIV/AIDS Division, more commonly known as the Positive Health Program.

While there she worked with St. Olaf alumna Diane Havlir ’80, whose research has helped define the most effective treatments for patients with HIV/AIDS in the U.S.

Currently the chief of the HIV/AIDS Division at USCF General Hospital, Havlir co-founded the “Getting to Zero” coalition that aims to make San Francisco the first city with zero new HIV infections, zero stigma, and zero HIV-related deaths.

The Positive Health Program is a key component to reaching that goal. The program is the largest HIV clinic in San Francisco, and primarily serves patients who are HIV positive and without private health insurance. Many of the clinic’s patients also cope with issues such as homelessness, mental illness, and drug addiction.

As part of her internship, Fulton worked with Havlir and other staff members to ensure that every patient in the program has the amount of HIV in their blood tested every six months in an effort to examine the efficacy of and adherence to treatment, while also identifying and reaching out to patients who might be drifting out of care.

Fulton was also involved in other initiatives, such as helping host a women’s clinic each week. She and others provided breakfast to patients waiting to see their primary care provider, social worker, and case manager. The goal, Fulton says, is to foster a sense of community between the women who come to the Positive Health Program clinic every week.

“The hope is that by providing this consistent support, patients will be more consistent with their treatment — improving their long-term health while also decreasing HIV transmission in the community,” she says.

Fulton says talking to the women and listening to their stories each week left her humbled by the things they have had to overcome, and astonished by the progress they are making.

“Even in a city as progressive as San Francisco, there is much headway to be made in combatting discrimination based on sexuality, race, and socioeconomic status,” she notes.

Fulton landed her internship after reaching out to Havlir, who delivered a Founders Day Guest Seminar at St. Olaf in the fall of 2013 titled The Beginning of the End of AIDS.

The St. Olaf senior received an internship grant from the St. Olaf Piper Center for Vocation and Career to support her work this summer.

In the past year, 146 St. Olaf students have received Piper Center funding for unpaid or underpaid internships. Another 47 students have received internship funding through college cohort programs such as the Rockswold Health Scholars Program and the Svoboda Legal Scholars Program. An additional 165 students earned academic credit for their internships.

The Positive Health Program internship has given Fulton, a biology major at St. Olaf, unique insight into the various challenges in providing care to an underserved population. From funding issues to clinic overcrowding to simply getting patients to show up to appointments, the scope of obstacles in this work far exceeds the clinical management of HIV.

Despite the challenges, Fulton believes her experience at the clinic has provided her with invaluable preparation for medical school and a career as a health care provider.

“This internship has instilled confidence in me and reaffirmed my desire to pursue a career in medicine,”  Fulton says. “Furthermore, it has given me a powerful perspective on the challenges I will someday face as a provider, but more importantly on the overwhelming adversity faced by so many patients.”

Former St. Olaf Choir Conductor Kenneth Jennings ’50 dies

Thu, 08/20/2015 - 9:58pm

St. Olaf College Professor Emeritus of Music Kenneth Jennings ’50, who led the St. Olaf Choir for more than two decades, died August 20. He was 90 years old.

The funeral is planned for September 18.

“The world of choral music lost a great giant,” St. Olaf Choir Conductor Anton Armstrong ’78 tells Minnesota Public Radio. “He was an immense influence on many of the leading choral directors of his time, both those who were able to sing under his baton or his beautiful hands, and those who experienced his performances with the St. Olaf Choir and the other choirs he conducted. We will remember him with great love and great admiration, and most of all, with great appreciation for the beauty he brought to the world of choral music.”

Jennings became the third conductor of the St. Olaf Choir in 1968, taking the helm of a renowned ensemble that up to that point had only been led by founder F. Melius Christiansen and his son, Olaf Christiansen ’25.

Brilliant Sound

Under Jennings, the choir developed what one reviewer described as “a more vibrant, warm tone — a resonant, lively, brilliant sound that rings with vitality and conviction.” Jennings coaxed his students to reach their highest musical potential with a quiet leadership style and a graceful form of conducting.

Jennings also expanded the choir’s global reach. The St. Olaf Choir celebrated its 75th anniversary with a tour of Asia in 1986, and in 1988 it was one of only five choirs in the world invited to participate in the Olympic Arts Festival in Seoul, South Korea.

“He inherited a treasured musical tradition from the Christiansens, respected it and let it sing, and added his own musical artistry to the growth and enrichment of the St. Olaf Choir,” wrote Joseph M. Shaw ’49, professor emeritus of religion at St. Olaf and the author of The St. Olaf Choir: A Narrative. “What he accomplished will live on through his compositions, recordings of the St. Olaf Choir under his direction, and especially through the hundreds of students he inspired.”

Listen to Armstrong talk with MPR’s Cathy Wurzer about Jennings’ legacy.
Watch videos of Jennings conducting and listen to his music.

Alumna’s appointment to White House staff garners international attention

Wed, 08/19/2015 - 6:11pm

St. Olaf College alumna Raffi Freedman-Gurspan ’09 made international news this week as the first openly transgender staff member hired by the White House.

Freedman-Gurspan, a former policy adviser at the National Center for Transgender Equality, will serve as an outreach and recruitment director in the White House Office of Presidential Personnel.

Valerie Jarrett, a senior White House adviser, said in a statement that the hiring “demonstrates the kind of leadership this administration champions. … Her commitment to bettering the lives of transgender Americans, particularly transgender people of color and those in poverty, reflects the values of this administration.”

The news has been reported by National Public Radio, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Christian Science Monitor, Paris’ Le Monde, the Times of Israel, International Business Times, ABC News, and CNN, among others.

Chemistry professor receives Henry Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar Award

Tue, 08/11/2015 - 9:59am

St. Olaf Assistant Professor of Chemistry Dipannita Kalyani (center) stands outside Regents Hall of Natural and Mathematical Sciences with summer student researchers (from left) Yiming Liu ’16, Eliza Thompson ’17, Noelle Olson ’17, Rylee Wander ’17, Zubaoyi Yi ’17, and Bryce Sadarananda ’16. Kalyani has received the prestigious Henry Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar Award.

St. Olaf College Assistant Professor of Chemistry Dipannita Kalyani has received the Henry Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar Award, a prestigious national honor that recognizes accomplishment in scholarly research with undergraduates and a compelling commitment to teaching.

The award, given to talented young faculty members in the chemical sciences, provides an unrestricted research grant of $60,000.

Bob Hanson, the Larson Anderson Professor of Chemistry at St. Olaf and Department Chair, says there’s no question that Kalyani’s work in Pd- and Ni-catalyzed C-H bond functionalization — which has been supported by awards from the American Chemical Society, National Institutes of Health, and Research Corporation — is outstanding. Yet what is truly exceptional, he says, is the way she has involved “an enormous number” of undergraduates in that research.

“She believes that any student expressing an interest in research should be given a chance to try it,” Hanson says. “And they do. Students flock to her as a no-nonsense, straight-shooting supervisor and a passionately supportive mentor.”

Kalyani has seven publications with St. Olaf students, and several more on her own or with colleagues from St. Olaf and other institutions. Her first St. Olaf students, now just graduating, are entering highly respected graduate programs.

One of just seven faculty members nationwide to receive the Henry Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar Award, Kalyani will use the bulk of the grant to create a 10-week summer research position for five St. Olaf students over the next five years. In addition to research, the position will include funds for the researchers to travel to a chemistry conference and return to their high schools to deliver a presentation on their college and research experiences.

The Dreyfus grant will also be used to support participation in St. Olaf’s Science Conversation program; provide funding to Student Support Services for the purchase of chemistry textbooks for low-income students; and develop new hypothesis-driven experiments for the organic chemistry curriculum.

Kalyani says she’s honored to receive the award and is excited that it will expand opportunities for students interested in the chemical sciences.

“For these students, hands-on research is such an impactful experience,” Kalyani says. “They are working together, teaching each other, and becoming mentors. I develop the research ideas, but they are really the ones who carry it through and gather the results.”

St. Olaf student selected for summer Fulbright program in Scotland

Mon, 08/10/2015 - 12:46pm

St. Olaf student Liam Hannan ’18 (standing third from right) and his fellow Fulbrighters at Urquhart Castle, which is located on the north shore of Loch Ness.

St. Olaf College student Liam Hannan ’18 was one of 10 American undergraduate students selected to participate in the Fulbright-Scotland Summer Institute.

As part of the program, Hannan spent the past five weeks at the University of Dundee and the University of Strathclyde, where he and the other students participated in a series of lectures, seminars, and field trips.

The Fulbright-Scotland Summer Institute aims to provide American undergraduate students with a unique perspective on the cultural and political forces that have shaped modern Scotland, with a strong emphasis on its pioneering role as a technological nation.

Among the places that Hannan and the other students visited are National Museum of Scotland, National Galleries of Scotland, Royal Collection at the Palace of Holyroodhouse, Edinburgh Castle, and Scottish Parliament.

Through these excursions, Hannan developed deeper insight into the complexity of Scottish culture and identity.

As part of the Fulbright-Scotland Summer Institute, Liam Hannan ’18 visited the site of the Battle of Stirling Bridge, where William Wallace won a decisive victory against English forces in 1297.

“My most memorable experience was a conversation I had with a homeless man on the streets of Dundee. As the talk went on, I began to realize that Scotland suffers from many of the same inequality-based problems as America, and many of the problems have roots that stretch back hundreds of years,” he says.

The Fulbright-Scotland Summer Institute is one of several programs offered through the US-UK Fulbright Commission, which was created in 1948 to promote leadership and foster mutual cultural understanding through educational exchange between the US and the UK.

Participants are selected for their academic excellence, involvement in extracurricular and community activities, and demonstrated ambassadorial skills.

A history and studio art major, Hannan has long maintained a passion for northern European history, which was one of the reasons he applied for the Fulbright-Scotland Summer Institute.

“This experience has been completely life-changing,” he says.

A fascination with tiny organisms is taking recent grad big places

Thu, 08/06/2015 - 4:14pm

For recent St. Olaf College graduate Serina Robinson ’15, the best kind of research comes in small packages.

And, notes a story in the Sioux Falls Argus Leader, “her fascination with tiny organisms is taking her big places.”

Robinson, one of nine recent St. Olaf graduates named Fulbright fellows for 2015-16, will use the prestigious award to travel to Norway to study the impact of rising Arctic temperatures on the metabolism of methane-oxidizing bacteria.

“I think it’s important that we understand that for our own applications, but also for the health of the earth and ecosystems,” Robinson tells the paper.

After her year in Norway, Robinson will return to Minnesota to pursue her Ph.D. through the MICaB (microbiology, immunology, and cancer biology) program at the University of Minnesota. She’ll do so with the support of a three-year Graduate Research Fellowship from the National Science Foundation.

A chemistry and Norwegian major at St. Olaf, Robinson hopes to become a university professor and research advisor.

“I think that bacteria are fascinating,” she tells the Argus Leader. “They can be little factories, you know, and they can do a lot of really cool processes that we learn from.”