Tag Archives: research on the road

24 hours in Chi-town

13 Feb

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.


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?


A Big Texas Welcome for Penn State Laureate Ken Womack

23 Oct

Texas is a blue and white place, from its famous bluebonnet meadows and its vast azure skies dotted with white clouds, to the blue and white on the Lone Star state’s flag.  But for three days in late October, Texas was extra blue and white, when Research On The Road rolled into town with Penn State laureate for the 2013-14 academic year, Kenneth Womack, associate dean for Academic Affairs and professor of English and integrative arts at Penn State Altoona.

Penn State Laureate Ken Womack with books he has authored.

Penn State Laureate Ken Womack with books he has authored.

Research On The Road is a Penn State program that brings our faculty members to locations around the country with active Penn State alumni chapters for lively public talks on timely topics.


The topic this fall couldn’t have been more timely, a celebration of the Beatles on the 50th anniversary of the iconic band. Fortunately for us, Penn State’s laureate happens to be both an internationally recognized Beatles scholar as well as a native son of Texas. (Did you know that Texas is home to some of our largest and most active–and rapidly expanding–alumni chapters?)


Lake Lewisville, outside of Dallas, the location for our North Texas event.

Craig and Judy Micklow, North Texas chapter leadership.

Craig and Judy Micklow, North Texas chapter leadership.

Each of the three alumni chapters (all equally spirited and each locale turning out in large numbers for the events) would show us what makes them unique. The Penn State alumni in and around Dallas were organized go-getters and had the largest age range of the three chapters. Ask any member for the secret of their chapter’s success and they’ll tell you in two words: The Micklows. Craig and Judy Micklow have been running a tight ship for years as chapter president and treasurer, and do a phenomenal job. Our Research On The Road evening was a heartwarming mix of very young and very young-at-heart Penn Staters! The North Texas alumni also win the award for the most rousing Penn State team spirit, with a “We Are” chant led by Craig that shook the room! After folks mixed, mingled and enjoyed light refreshments, Ken took the stage for his entertaining and informative talk about the Beatles, little-known facts about their rise to fame and musical techniques, and the lasting impact of their legacy.

North Dallas alumni chapter members

North Dallas alumni chapter members


Alumni and future alumni sample the appetizers.

The youngest Penn Stater in the room.

A Beatles cover band played after the talk and inspired many to get up and shake a tail feather or two. People lingered until the very last note…what a great night!



The next morning we headed down the road a piece, 250 miles of road, to be exact. Our Houston event couldn’t have happened without help from the fine folks from the Penn State Chapter of Greater Houston, headed up by chapter presidents Jen Lemanski and treasurer Greg Kelley, and the Woodlands Area Chapter president Robina Radar. Thanks to all of them!


Melissa Beattie Moss (left) with Houston chapter president Jen Lemanski.

Houston is Ken Womack’s hometown and fittingly was our largest event, with about 150 people attending the evening talk. An article about our Research On The Road event in the Houston Chronicle (the largest newspaper in Texas and the sixth largest in the nation) didn’t hurt either.

The indoor/outdoor venue was perfect for our full house.




In addition to being our largest crowd, the Houston chapter distinguished itself by having perhaps the liveliest Question & Answer session of the three events. The other cities held their own, make no mistake, but Houston attendees included some really hardcore Beatles experts who tested—and fully appreciated—the depth of Ken’s scholarship on the topic.


It was a “standing room only” crowd, including some folks lined up outside the establishment to hear Ken’s talk.


Ken’s voice was put to the test; he talked for hours!


The leadership of PSUCenTex!

Last but by no means least on our Research On The Road trip: Austin! The PSU Central Texas chapter is in the very capable hands of president Sam Thomas, treasurer Steve Burke, and a whole team of active and energetic board members who helped make our Austin evening such a success.

The venue for our final Research On The Road event was Threadgill’s, an Austin institution steeped in music history. Janis Joplin got her start there, among others.  The room was packed with over about 115 Central Texas area Penn State alumni and friends, all in the mood to listen, learn, celebrate Penn State scholarship—oh, and to dance too!



We were especially honored to have Penn State Altoona Chancellor and Dean Lori J. Bechtel-Wherry in attendance. Many thanks for the tremendous support!


Chancellor Bechtel-Wherry showing that Penn State lives in Austin!


Melissa Beattie Moss, left, with Chancellor Bechtel-Wherry, in the Janis Joplin Memorabilia Room at Threadgill’s.

Even after hearing Ken’s talk on the Beatles several times, I still learned new things each time. What an inspired teacher he is!  The Austin crowd was fascinated by his insights into such things as the band’s relationship with George Martin and their experiments with techniques like the “wind up piano” which relies on recording a song’s piano part at half-speed and then doubling it to normal speed to produce a harpsichord-like effect.

Our event in Austin was made even more special by the presence of Ken’s family and friends in the audience.

Penn State Laureate Ken Womack, native Texan, with his parents.

Penn State Laureate Ken Womack, native Texan, with his parents.


The Womack family enjoyed a front-row seat for Ken’s talk.

A personal highlight for me, throughout the week, was meeting Penn State alumni who rarely participated in their chapter’s events, but were inspired to connect with their alma mater because of Research On The Road! This is the kind of thing that makes the months of advance planning extra meaningful.


Mr. Wicker graduated from Penn State in 1969 and this was his first-ever event with the alumni chapter. Great to have you with us, sir!

It was sad to say “so long” to our Texan Penn Staters but it feels good to know that so many people were able to meet and learn from laureate Ken Womack and take pride in our University’s broad array of research strengths and deep commitment to teaching—including bringing life-long learning opportunities directly to our alumni chapters! Look for more adventures from Research On The Road this spring, y’all!


CSI Penn State: An Evening of Crime & Merriment with the DC Alumni Chapter

1 Jun

Sure, crime doesn’t pay. But when you have the chance to explore the Crime Museum after hours and to learn about DNA investigation from one of the top names in the business, it pays to attend. The folks from the spirited Metro Washington, DC Penn State Alumni Chapter knew it would be a crime to miss out and turned out in large numbers for the third “Research on the Road” event we’ve organized for and with them.


Chapter board members greet attendees in Crime Museum lobby.

More than 60 alumni chapter members of all ages and backgrounds joined in the evening’s activities, which kicked off with an interactive event at the National Museum of Crime & Punishment, aka The Crime Museum. Participants took a serial killer profiling quiz, explored the science of fingerprinting, got (temporary!) old school prison tattoos and found out what the images symbolized, and even swung a hammer into red paint to learn about blood spatter analysis techniques.

The "America's Most Wanted" studio at the Crime Museum

The “America’s Most Wanted” studio at the Crime Museum

Afterward, we moved the party next door to DC’s well-known Chophouse restaurant for a private reception and talk by Penn State’s own Jenifer Smith.  Jeni, a retired FBI special agent and DNA analyst, is a Penn State alumna herself as well as a former member of the Blue Band. After retiring from the FBI, she joined Penn State’s Forensic Science faculty in 2010. Jeni’s professional expertise is matched only by her warmth and humor. She led us through a fascinating look at the field of forensic science, the myths and realities of life as a crime scene investigator, and some memorable cases she helped crack—as well some unsolved mysteries. We also learned about the growth of Penn State’s Forensic Science Program within the Eberly College of Science (check out the Probing Question on the program’s home page!) and had a lively Q&A session with Jeni, who graciously stayed chatting with us long after the event.


Jenifer Smith had the crowd intently listening, laughing
and learning.

DC folks, you lived up to your reputation as one of the most vibrant groups of PSU alumni anywhere! Thanks for helping make the evening such a big success, packed with learning and fun.


Jeni stayed after the talk to make personal connections and answer questions. So appreciated!

Take a look at these additional photos for a peek at some of the evening’s highlights. Looking back, Research on the Road has shared great events centered around Penn State experts on political beliefs and the science of our taste buds. What’s next, guys? We’d love to bring more Research on the Road to our capital alumni in the ’13/’14 academic year!

A Taste of Penn State in our Nation’s Capital

28 Nov

Penn State’s Research on the Road speaker series closed out its first season yesterday evening with a stellar event at the National Press Club in D.C.  This was our second program (but hopefully not our last–ideas abound for spring semester!) with the enthusiastic folks from the DC area alumni chapter. The talk was titled “The Science of Wine Tasting: Can Anyone Learn to Taste the Nuances in Wine?” with food science assistant professor and sensory evaluation researcher John Hayes. 

About fifty us gathered in the Holeman Lounge at 6:30 p.m., many alumni coming straight from work, for half an hour of socializing and networking—and eating!—before the talk kicked off at 7.

Some alums were longtime chapter members, but some were new Penn State graduates just starting their careers in D.C.

Attending their first event as new members of the Penn State Metro Washington DC chapter!

The National Press Club—where Penn State alum and chapter board member Joshua Funk works as director of business development—was a convivial location for our gathering, and has been host to other Penn State events, most recently President Erickson’s talk there earlier this month.

Faculty researcher John Hayes, second from left, with Metro DC alumni chapter members at our second Research on the Road event in the area.

Rather than being a talk about wine per se, John’s discussion centered on the science of taste buds and sensory perception, and guided us through the wine tasting to illustrate his points. Every attendee had four wine glasses with different varietals to sample, at John’s direction, throughout the talk.

John (who has given an NPR interview on this topic) debunked some common myths for us (the tongue map?—bogus!) for us and helped us understand how environment and biology work together to influence our taste preferences. Did you know we’re hardwired to like the sweet taste? Babies in utero like it when sugar is added to their amniotic fluid and make “the yucky face” when bitter flavor is added. Did you know that, despite bitterness being our least favorite taste, we learn to overcome the distaste—and even grow to like it, as with coffee or a bitter ale—because we appreciate the effect the substances have on us.

Did you know that there are tools such as flavor wheels that help us become “callibrated instruments” when it comes to being able to taste and describe the nuances in things like chocolate, coffee and wine?

Everyone learned a lot, with much laughter during the hour presentation, and some tough questions from the audience as well. (“Can we develop more protein in our saliva as a result of being exposed to astringent tastes, such as dry red wine?” asked one alum. Answer: “Great question. I don’t know.” I warned you, John! Penn State grads will keep you on your toes.)

John Hayes with chapter communications chair Maria Recupero

Many thanks to everyone at the Metro DC chapter—Dave, Josh and Maria, in particular—for making our two events with you such a success. And ongoing thanks to University Relations and all those supporting the Research on the Road initiative. It has been a busy and successful semester of travel with our faculty researchers, touching down for talks in Chicago and Los Angeles, as well as the nation’s capital, and we look forward to good things to come this spring!

Research on the Road brings The Beatles to L.A.

1 Nov

As the East Coast tracked the approach of Hurricane Sandy, Research on the Road beat a path westward to bring acclaimed Beatles scholar Kenneth Womack to Santa Monica where he gave a talk on Sunday to our enthusiastic Los Angeles area alumni chapter.

Ken Womack about to speak to a great group of Penn State alumni at The Britannia in Santa Monica.

The venue couldn’t have been more appropriate for Ken’s talk on “50 Years of The Beatles.” The Britannia is a popular restaurant/pub with Penn State alumni (and an eclectic mix of local hipsters and British ex-pats) in the L.A. area and has Beatles’ memorabilia adorning the walls.

Restaurant proprietor Adrian Rooney shows off a Beatles-themed door prize.

Penn State alumni turned out to hear Ken—professor of English and integrative arts at Penn State Altoona, as well as associate dean for academic affairs—discuss why and how the Fab Four rose from a ragamuffin band with instruments “literally taped together” to an iconic band that revolutionized popular music.

Ken Womack making a point about the musical roots of the Beatles.

The attentive crowd enjoyed Ken’s expert insights (as author of three books on the Beatles, not even the staunchest Beatles fans in the crowd could stump him with the most obscure questions), and all toes were tapping to the selection of Beatles tunes he played as examples of the group’s innovative techniques.

Ken Womack’s most recent work on the Beatles

The Beatles had a knack, explained Ken, for crafting ‘middle-eights’—the eight-bar refrains that characterize their songwriting in the early 1960s. The middle-eight is where the song unfolds into a contrasting section before returning to the original musical and thematic material. Ken played some examples of middle-eight sections in Beatles songs, such as the lyrics “A love like ours/Could never die/As long as I/Have you near me” from And I Love Her and the lines “And when I touch you/I feel happy inside/It’s such a feeling that my love I can’t hide” from I Want to Hold Your Hand.

Noted Ken, the Beatles also employed techniques such as artificial double tracking of vocals and instrumentals, as well as sampling, sped up tape loops, and backward recording , to achieve a variety of effects in their songs.

Before and after the Research on the Road talk, alumni and friends dug into the “British-themed appetizers” while networking and socializing with new and old friends.

Penn Stater and husband attend Research on the Road event

Manager of Research Communications Melissa Beattie-Moss, left, and Research on the Road attendee.

After the successful event, it was time to head back east…a long and winding road, made even longer by a hurricane named Sandy. Despite it being “a hard day’s night” on the travel front, we were delighted with the warm welcome and enthusiastic participation in Research on the Road’s time in Los Angeles!

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