We’ve moved!

18 Feb

Hello there, reader. We are so glad that you came by to check out the Research Matters blog!

Our blog has relocated to live at researchmatters.psu.edu. The look of the blog has changed a little bit, but we hope that your experience remains a good one — perhaps an even better one than before. You will be able to find all of our past posts at our new home, and be able to continue to read about the stories behind the news of research and creative activity at Penn State. If you follow us or subscribe to our RSS feed, please be sure to change your subscription.

We welcome your questions, comments, and ideas for future blog posts either in the comments section for individual posts or via email to researcheditor@psu.edu.

The Research Communications Staff

24 hours in Chi-town

13 Feb
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Ice on the Chicago River

When you agree to be a speaker at a mid-February conference in Chicago, you can’t be surprised (and I wasn’t) when the weather forecast turns menacing. With a quick change of my return flight to beat the snowstorm—and with thanks to University Park airport’s new direct flights to Chicago—I was able to arrive on Tuesday afternoon, speak on Wednesday morning, and get back to State College by Wednesday night, a few hours before the snow started to fall.

The conference was the International Public Science Events meeting, the third annual gathering of public engagement professionals from all over the world. I spoke at the group’s inaugural meeting two years ago and it was exciting to see how much they’ve grown since then.

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The keynote address was called “Science Events and the Evolving Culture of Science Engagement” and explored the ways in which the lines between science and popular culture are blurring, changing the practice of science outreach nationally and internationally. This really set a thought-provoking tone for the meeting! The speakers were Peter Linett, the “Chief Thought Officer” at an audience research consulting firm, and M.I.T.’s John Durant, founder of the Cambridge Science Festival. One comment I jotted down and will continue to think about: “Science events are part of a larger cultural change towards the informal, playful and subjective.”  Linett, Durant and attendees had a good discussion of how these changes are reflected in public science events today and debated the wider implications of this changing landscape.

The hour-long session I co-presented with Theresa Yu Huan Liao, from the University of British Columbia was titled “Building on Success: Expanding Your Outreach Programming” and was both well-attended and well-received. It always pleases me most when there is a lively Q&A session and, in this case, there certainly was. People are eager for both practical tips and conceptual frameworks that will enhance the success of their research/science programming. It was exciting to continue chatting after my session ended with many attendees from all over the country and the world. I made many great new contacts and felt recharged about my work promoting Penn State research through creative and accessible public engagement events.

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A “selfie” on Michigan Avenue, wearing my mother’s warm woolen knitwear. Thanks Mom!

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A detail of the ornate entrance to the Chicago Tower building.

There was just enough time that afternoon to stretch my legs with a brief walk across the river to the famous neo-Gothic Tribune Tower, home of the Chicago Tribune and one of my longtime favorite buildings in Chicago or anywhere! (Sadly, I discovered they recently closed their Tribune gift shop in the lobby which always was a great source for journalism-geek type gifts. It still exists, but only online. Another sign of the times.)

Then it was back to the airport–where I enjoyed their current light-show installation for the second time in 24 hours!–and hopped on my flight home.

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A snowy view of campus from my office window today.

International Science Events colleagues: I hope to see you at next February’s meeting. Though I love Chicago, might I suggest…San Diego?

Raptor in residence

10 Dec

I don’t like birds. They creep me out. Sparrows and chickadees and all those tiny birds that peck around when you’re eating your lunch outside. From a distance I don’t mind them — in fact, I think birds can be quite majestic creatures.

However, raptors are a completely different story. I love them. They totally fascinate me; I could watch them for hours. I know that raptors are birds (“birds of prey,” in fact), but somehow they seem like a different species* to me.

Red-tailed Hawk hanging out in a tree behind Ritenour Building. Photo by Patrick Mansell.

Red-tailed Hawk in a tree behind Ritenour Building. Photo by Patrick Mansell.

So you can imagine my delight when a red-tailed hawk visited our office building the other day. The juvenile hawk perched in a tree just outside of our second-floor office windows. She was beautiful! And hunting. (Sidenote: It was unclear whether our feathered friend was male or female, and so for ease of reading our hawk will be a lady.) She hung out in the tree for a long while, surveying the parking lot full of construction workers’ trailers, the sidewalk, and the ivy. And maybe us.

Eventually our visitor hopped to some lower branches toward the ground, where we could no longer see her. Of course, several of us felt the need to go find out what she was doing. And we found her in the ivy, between our building and the sidewalk, devouring a squirrel. It was pretty awesome and gruesome at the same time.

The next day she returned to her tree, and eventually snagged a squirrel again — this time eating him while perched on the 8-foot fence next to the sidewalk. It was so gross I couldn’t stop watching. From my office window, that is.

Red-tail with squirrel in ivy. Photo by Patrick Mansell.

Red-tail with a squirrel in ivy behind Ritenour. Photo by Patrick Mansell.

One of my coworkers refused to be excited about the appearance of the hawk. “What is happening to our world?” he exclaimed. “The hawks shouldn’t be this close to humans.”

Which led me to ponder why indeed the hawk was here on campus — our building is close to the HUB — the student union building — and we are very much in the midst of human traffic. Turns out this is not unusual behavior for a red-tail at all.

I spoke with Doug Steigerwalt, director of the Raptor Center at Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center, who confirmed that our hawk friend was indeed an immature red-tailed hawk. Red-tails are what Steigerwalt called generalists, because you can find them all across North America — they are possibly the most common hawk on the continent.

Steigerwalt also told me that red-tails do well around people because we tend to create a good habitat for them to hunt. And he pointed out that there are a few known red-tails who reside in New York City — one of whom hatched in 1990 and is still living and breeding on a 5th Avenue building.

A view of the red-tail from behind. Photo by Patrick Mansell.

A view of the red-tail from behind. Photo by Patrick Mansell.

Back to our resident raptor, Steigerwalt said that she could easily have flown in from elsewhere in the country. Red-tails are partial migrants — they can spend winters in the same area that they breed in, which is not true of all birds.

This is our hawk friend’s first winter, said Steigerwalt, so she doesn’t have a pattern yet. If she survives this winter, she’ll be in good shape. Winter is basically the make-or-break period for red-tails. Many don’t make it through the winter, but those who do are likely to be able to survive many winters afterward.

If you aren’t lucky enough to have a hawk outside your window, you can visit the Raptor Center where Steigerwalt works. There are two red-tails in residence there — a male and a female. They aren’t housed together, because they would compete for food and such, so they are separated. But interestingly, (to me, at least) one hawk bunks with a turkey vulture.

We haven’t seen our hawk in a while now, so she has probably moved on to a different area to hunt. I probably would have moved away from the clamor of campus as soon as possible if I were her, too. Although she certainly had many fat squirrels to feast on while she was here — if you’re a regular reader, you know how I feel about squirrels.

*Addendum, Dec. 16: My uncle (who read my post — hurrah!) kindly pointed out to me that raptors are a different species — “several in fact,” he says. He is right, and shame on me for not catching this. In terms of scientific classifications, a species is as specific as you can get.

As many of us were taught in general biology class, there are 7 major classifications, remembered by a mnemonic device such as “King Phillip Came Over For Good Spaghetti” — Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Genus, Species. All birds are in fact in the same class (Aves), not the same species. Thank you, Uncle Erich, for keeping it real!

St. Augustine, Thanksgiving here first En Español

22 Nov
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St. Augustine Lighthouse

Thanksgiving is coming.  A holiday enjoyed by nearly everyone in the country and perhaps my favorite secular holiday.  And yes, unlike in other places, Thanksgiving in the U.S. is secular although everyone of every faith celebrates in their own way.  A truly diverse holiday.

The first Thanksgiving celebrated in 1621 in Plymouth Plantation is usually what we think of when we think of the origins of the holiday, but is that true?  How Northern European centric are we being with that celebration?

A few weeks back I was in Gainesville, Florida, for a meeting and had the opportunity to go to St. Augustine with an archaeologist as a guide — at least for part of the day.  St. Augustine, founded by the Spanish crown in 1565 as a military installation, is still the oldest European-based settlement in the U.S.  When the Spanish landed, they immediately fortified an area, offloaded their ships and had a mass of thanksgiving and a feast.  The first Thanksgiving.  Probably, but not important really.  The settlement site was attacked, burned down a number of times and rebuilt, and while it moved from Spanish to English to Spanish to English hands, there were always people in the area.

What is important is that nearly everyone outside of Florida who is not an American history teacher of some kind thinks of the Plymouth colony, or Jamestown settlement.  The first European child born in what would become the U.S. was not Virginia Dare, but Martín de Argūelles, born in 1566.  St. Augustine was also an unusual place in that while it had slaves, they weren’t all from Africa and there were many African freemen as well.  Why? Because if you pledged allegiance to the Spanish crown and converted to Catholicism you could be a resident and protected.  Slavery, as ugly as it is, was of a different sort.  A Spanish slave could buy his or her freedom and many did.

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Castillo de San Marcos National Monument, St. Augustine, FL
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Some of the early 17th century town still exists and has been conserved.  The 17th century fort, the oldest in the continental U.S., still stands on the water’s edge facing the bay.  The chapel, living areas and the “necessary” are still there.

These men and women, whether Spanish soldiers, their wives, native Americans from the Saturiwa or Africans undoubtedly spoke Spanish as their common language.  They attended church together, and while excluding other faiths, they embraced other differences.

It is only because England won the wars against Spain and France and Florida was a prize passed back and forth that St. Augustine is not what we look to at Thanksgiving.  I suppose it is a case of to the victors go not only the spoils but the place in history.

Archaeologically, we know a lot about the St. Augustine settlement and its original location in what is now Fountain of Youth Park.  A new exhibit, “First Colony: Our Spanish Origins,” curated by Kathleen Deagan of the University of Florida at the Florida Museum of Natural History, opened last week and we had a preview at Old Colony House in St. Augustine, where the exhibit will remain until 2016.  Eventually, this exhibit will travel across the country, bringing the Spanish origins of many of our citizens to light.

Remembering Professor Daniel Walden

21 Nov

Earlier this month, Penn State University lost a true legend. Daniel Walden, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of American Studies, English, and Comparative Literature, died Friday, November 8, 2013 at Mount Nittany Medical Center at age 91, after a brief illness. 2319566Arriving on campus in 1966 — the same year Joe Paterno became Penn State’s head football coach—Walden was a faculty member at Penn State until 1988. Whether he ever really retired is a matter of some debate though. Writer Cynthia Ozick paid tribute to Walden at the time in an article fittingly titled “Remarks on Dan Walden’s Retirement (Even Though He Is Tireless and Didn’t Retire and Never Will!)”

Walden remained a familiar and beloved presence on campus, as he continued to teach one course each semester, alternating between the departments of English and Comparative Literature. He was able to teach for two weeks  this semester (a course on ethnicity and literature)  before his ailing health prevented him from continuing.

When someone has lived a long and productive life, it is impossible to summarize them. The task takes many years and many people, many conversations and recollections, all adding up to a rich kaleidoscopic perspective. The abundance of articles on, interviews with and tributes to Dan Walden are a testament to the multifaceted life he lived.

Some pieces touch on his Philadelphia childhood and family; some on his Army experiences and his pre-academia career as a Broadway singer (including a 1949 role in the chorus of Annie Get Your Gun with Mary Martin) while others focus on his degrees from the City College of New York, Columbia University and New York University. Almost always mentioned prominently are his pioneering works such as On Being Black: African American Literature from Douglass to the Present (1970), with Charles Davis, and On Being Jewish: Jewish American Literature from Cahan to Bellow (1974.)

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Earl Merritt (left), director of multicultural equity programs, College of the Liberal Arts, and the late Daniel Walden, professor emeritus of American Studies, English, and Comparative Literature.

No article on Walden’s career would be complete without noting that he founded the journal Studies in American Jewish Literature in 1975 and served continuously as its editor from then into 2011. SAJL was published by Purdue University but as of 2012 will be published by Penn State University Press.

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In 1984 Walden published “The World of Chaim Potok,” a whole issue of SAJL. The following year, he published Twentieth Century American Jewish Fiction Writers (Greenwood Press), DLB 28. Conversations with Chaim Potok came out in 2002 (University Press of Mississippi).

While these academic achievements are impressive,  they don’t begin to capture the full impact of Dan Walden’s life on the people who knew him. The outpouring of online condolences are filled with remarks such as these:

“Professor Walden, your life was a model for what I hope mine to be: one of curiosity, generosity, and love. Thank you.”

“He achieved so incredibly much but managed to remain one of the most generous and sweet human beings I’ve ever met in my life.”

“He was a good and kind man, and his smile lit up the whole world.”

“He served as an inspiration to us on how to lead a good life.”

“What a life; what a legacy. Many of us who were graduate students in the Department of English in the 1980s considered the Walden residence to be our home. Some of us were international students, thousands of miles away from home and family, and had nowhere to go for Thanksgiving or the winter holidays. My friends and I knew that when money was short (which was most of the time) and we could not return to Europe or to India, we had a seat at the Waldens’ Thanksgiving table.”

Many of these comments pay tribute to Dan’s beloved wife Bea Walden, who passed away exactly two years ago today  and who is remembered with great fondness by so many. The warmth and devotion of their marriage and generosity of their home comes through so many of the remembrances.

Professor Willa Silverman shared with me this poignant and telling recollection of Dan and Bea:

“Dan and Bea Walden were among the first people I met when I came to Penn State in 1988. I contacted Dan when I came to look for a place to live…He took me under his wing, driving me around wherever I needed to go, bringing me to his home for meals (which I remember as being lively, busy, warm, with people bustling in and out). He showed me extraordinary kindness as a new colleague and newcomer to Penn State. As many others know, Dan was an exemplary, generous, supportive colleague, who would always write a note of congratulations and encouragement on any ‘milestone’ (promotion, book published etc.). A pillar of our Jewish community, he always tried to attend milestone events of other members of our congregation. He was instrumental in the developing the Jewish Studies Program at Penn State, contributing his vision, time, energy, human qualities (his commitment to social justice and to the equal treatment of ethnic and religious minorities), and scholarly expertise. That the program is a thriving unit today is in good part a testament to Dan’s commitment to it.”

My own connection with Dan was as a friend of his family. I’ll always treasure the chats we had, and I can only imagine how much those closest to him will miss him. I hope they’ll take solace in knowing that, as associate professor of journalism Russell Frank recently wrote, a university is made truly great by luminaries such as Daniel Walden whose brilliance–not only as a scholar but as someone with true empathy and devotion to his fellow human beings— gives us all cause for “Penn State pride” in that slogan’s truest sense.

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