University of Vermont

Vermont Quarterly

Meet the Profs

Stephen Keller
Stephen Keller, assistant professor of plant biology, tends the poplar seedlings he’s growing at the campus greenhouse. His work uses poplar trees as a model system to understand how forests adapt to climate change (Photo: Joshua Brown)

Trained at Harvard, Yale, Berkeley, hailing from Glasgow, Beirut, Okinawa, with expertise in nanotechnology, performance studies, and adaptation to climate change, UVM's newest professors bring a wealth of experience and knowledge to campus. Read on to get to know nine of the dozens of new faculty members who arrived on campus this fall -- and learn about their research discoveries, their prized office treasures and what drew them to the University of Vermont.

Stephen Keller, assistant professor of plant biology

Training: Bachelor of science in ecology, Juniata College; master of science in biology, University of Alaska Fairbanks; doctorate in biology, University of Virginia.

Recent experience: Prior to coming to UVM, Steve Keller was an assistant professor at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. “During my time there,” he says, “I developed several state and federally funded projects that use cutting-edge genomic data from natural populations to understand how biodiversity is being impacted by environmental change.”

Research interests: The genetic basis of adaptive differences within and between species; forest adaptation to historical and contemporary climate change; rapid evolution during the spread of exotic invasive species.

Most important finding and where you’re taking it next: Keller has been using poplar trees as a model system to understand how forests adapt to climate change. “We've looked at specific genes in balsam poplar involved in light and temperature sensing, and have found rapid evolutionary changes in these genes during the range expansion of the species since the last ice age,” he says, “We're now using genome-wide DNA sequencing to look across the entire poplar genome for signals of adaptation to climate.” He and his lab team will combine this information with landscape modeling to predict where trees will suffer the most loss of adaptation as global warming continues.

What might people be surprised to learn about you: Keller has lived in Pennsylvania, Colorado, Alaska, Virginia, and Maryland, “but ever since thru-hiking the Long Trail in 1994,” he says “my heart has always been in Vermont. “

Favorite item in your office: A cone from a Coulter Pine, which is a species that grows in southern California. “For a pine cone, it's huge — 8 inches tall, weighs about 2 pounds, and is covered in thick, prickly scales! People have nicknamed them widowmakers,” he says, “wear your hard hat!”

Why UVM? Northern Vermont offers an ideal place to study climate adaptation in forest trees, Keller says, since, “it sits at an ecological cross-roads between the temperate forests at mid-latitudes and the boreal forests of the north” — an important transition zone for many species. And “UVM has the perfect mix,” Keller says, “of a thriving undergraduate program, excellent graduate students, and a strong network of like-minded colleagues both within the Department of Plant Biology and across campus.”

Sylvia Perry, assistant professor of psychological science

Sylvia PerryTraining: Bachelor’s degree in social psychology with a minor in statistics and research methods at the University of Texas. Doctoral degree from the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Recent experience: Post-doc at Yale with collaboration and co-mentoring from a researcher at the Mayo Clinic.

Research interests: “I’m interested in how people from different groups interact with one another and how that’s influenced by things like their attitudes, the situations they’re in, as well as their pre-existing biases. I’ve looked at these kinds of questions in kids, in college students and general adult populations. I’ve also looked at them in the medical school domain.”

More specifically, Perry says she’s interested in the extent to which individuals are aware of their subtly biased tendencies —  “aware of the fact that sometimes things might suddenly pop into their head and influence their behavior.”

Most important finding and where you’re taking it next: “For people who are higher in awareness, if they receive feedback indicating they have bias, they’re more accepting of this feedback and, in return, are more compelled to do something about these attitudes.” That population, for example, may want to “dedicate time toward helping increase and maintain diversity at their university,” she says, “relative to those who are lower in awareness.”

Next, Perry will be investigating how bias awareness influences peoples’ behavior “during actual, real, live inter-group interactions, as well as simulated interactions,”  she says. “We’re putting in a proposal now to have medical students interacting virtually with patients, and we’re looking at how factors such as bias awareness influence that.” Another line of inquiry: “how this prior awareness — or not —  influences how you perceive other people admitting that they’re biased.”

What might people be surprised to learn about you? “Vermont is the seventh state in which I’ve lived.” Others on her list: North Carolina, Texas, Georgia Illinois, Virginia, Connecticut.

Favorite item in your office? Her new caffeination source: “My Nespresso machine. I’m really excited about this.”

Why UVM? “For me, it was about fit. It was about going to a program I’d feel comfortable in, where I would be able to connect with the faculty — both on an interpersonal level as well as research interests. Other faculty in the social cluster also study stigma and inter-group related questions, so that was an important factor. And also, I was excited about the idea of living in Burlington — especially all of the good beer you can get here!”

Lori Erbrederis Meyer, assistant professor of early childhood and early childhood special education

Training: Doctorate in special education from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

Recent experience: Meyer worked as a research assistant on several studies, taught classes for undergraduate and graduate students, and was the recruitment coordinator for an early childhood special education personnel preparation grant as a doctoral student at the University of Illinois. She is a member of the Division for Early Childhood (DEC) Recommended Practices Commission, a group tasked with advising the revision and update of practices used by practitioners in field of early childhood intervention.

Research interests: She studies contemporary kindergarten classroom environments and strategies used by administrators and kindergarten teachers to support the social-emotional and social relationship skills development of young children with developmental delays and disabilities. “I am also am passionate about increasing the use of evidence-based and recommended practices in the field of early childhood intervention and translating research into practice.”

Most important finding and where you’re taking it next: “From nationally available data, we know about 40 percent of young children with disabilities will enter kindergarten without age-appropriate social relationship skills,” she says. “This number is striking because social relationship skills help young children with disabilities form friendships with peers which in turn supports smoother transitions in kindergarten and may prevent later peer victimization. My current research is exploring teacher’s perspectives about meeting these needs among kindergartners with developmental delays and disabilities.”

What might people be surprised to learn about you? “I know Morse Code! I earned my amateur radio license when I was 8 years-old.”

Favorite item in your office: Photos of family and friends. “They bring me lots of joy.”

Why UVM? “There are many things to love about UVM, but it’s the passion of UVM students, faculty, staff, and leadership to make a positive difference in the lives of others that really draws me in. When you’re surrounded by heartfelt individuals who focus on the strengths of others, keep their core values in mind, and strive for a better tomorrow...you can do amazing things. I am proud to be a part of that UVM spirit.”

Reuben Escorpizo, clinical assistant professor or rehabilitation and movement sciences

Reuben EscorpizoTraining: Master of science in kinesiology, York University (Toronto); doctorate in physical therapy, Des Moines University.



Recent experience: Assistant professor, Louisiana State University, Health Sciences Center; fellow, Outcome Measures in Rheumatology; adjunct scientist at Swiss Paraplegic Research in Switzerland.



Research interests: His current focus is on effective return-to-work interventions for people with spinal cord injuries; disability evaluation within the context of social security; measuring worker productivity outcomes in people with arthritis; and clinical practice guideline development in the area of work rehabilitation. “My fascination for ‘work’ issues started early on while I was in graduate school studying occupational biomechanics.” He also works on issues related to the international classification of runctioning, disability and health -- the World Health Organization’s framework for measuring health and disability at both individual and population levels.

Most important finding and where you’re taking it next: Escorpizo wants to create a robust system of return-to-work assessments that is integrated with practical return-to-work strategies and interventions based on evidence. “Work is a major life area, yet we find again and again that there is a huge disconnect between what we find is a problem with returning to work and what work rehabilitation strategies we implement.”



What might people be surprised to learn about you? “After having lived in the German-speaking part of Switzerland for four years, I like everything German from food to drinks to cars, but my German is pretty sloppy.”

Favorite item in your office: His whiteboard. “It’s a blank canvas for ideas and if already filled, you can easily erase, add, modify, draw arrows and figures. It is strategically placed where I can see, so it is a constant reminder that every time I cross out something on that whiteboard, I have done my job.”



Why UVM? “If you ever got invited to a place for the first time and you felt so at home and there are so many things you like about it, but don’t quite have a single word to express them, that is UVM!

Jennie C. Stephens, associate professor, Blittersdorf Professor of Sustainability Science and Policy

Jennie StephensTraining: Bachelor of arts in environmental science and public policy, Harvard University; master of science and doctorate in environmental science and engineering, California Institute of Technology.

Recent experience: Stephens arrived at UVM this summer from Clark University in Worcester, Mass., where she was an associate professor of environmental science and policy.

Research interests: Stephens’ work centers on “transitioning away from fossil-fuel based energy toward renewable-based energy systems,” she notes on her website. Through social science research she aims to, “help navigate a world of extreme complexity, radical uncertainty, increasing connectivity, unprecedented rates of change, and overwhelming unsustainability,” she says. This broad goal informs her many other areas of research that include the social dynamics of electricity system change, smart grid, wind power, carbon capture and storage and energy transitions. She is also engaged in questions of how people learn; this has led her to conduct research on stakeholder engagement in climate modeling, sustainable energy clusters, shared action learning, sustainability education, and climate and energy literacy.

An important project and where you’re taking it next: Stephens is the co-author of a forthcoming book, Smart Grid (R)Evolution: Electric Power Struggles, published by Cambridge University Press, to be released in January 2015. “Strengthening connections among engineering, environmental science, and social science to more holistically address sustainability, energy, and climate changeis very important,” she says, “so I look forward to catalyzing new connections within UVM and fostering collaborations in the state of Vermont.”

What might people be surprised to learn about you? “Our daughters were born when my husband and I were both graduate students in California. Stephens says, “Our daughters are now 13 and 15”  

Favorite item in your office: “My favorite office item is a painting of two tall power-plant chimneys in Dublin, Ireland visible from Sandymount strand where I lived when I was a child. This painting is special because it was painted by a family friend in Dublin, and it connects childhood memories with my recent work on energy system change."

Why UVM? “Sustainability science is an emerging field that takes knowledge to action and connects technology, natural science, and social science,” Stephens said in a recent interview, “It is not everywhere you can do that. UVM is unique, and this position is unique. I am excited to get involved at UVM and in Vermont where innovative things are happening in energy, environmental policy and sustainability.”

Patrick Lee, assistant professor of mechanical engineering

Training: Bachelor of science in mechanical engineering from the University of British Columbia; master of science and doctorate degrees in mechanical engineering from the University of Toronto. Two years of postdoctoral study in the Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science at the University of Minnesota.

Recent experience: As a research scientist and project leader in Dow Chemical’s R&D organization, Lee led multiple cross-functional global project teams to innovate, develop and commercialize high-value products.

Research interests: Creating smart, lightweight polymeric and hybrid structures that could lead to eco-friendly, sustainable solutions in a variety of applications from bridges and roads to food packaging. Some of Lee’s work involves self-healing structures that mimic biological systems: when a bridge, building or container is damaged, for instance, an “embedded self-healing agent would burst into action and repair the structure,” Lee says.  

Lee has 20 published journal papers, three book chapters, 45 refereed conference papers, three technical papers, and nine issued or pending U.S. and international patents.  

Most important finding and where you’re taking it next: Lee is working on micro and nanoscale thin film structures for food packaging applications only tens of nanometers thick. The product improves barrier properties by orders of magnitude over conventional foil and has a much smaller carbon footprint. Lee is also developing the concept of controlling micro and nanostructures in automotive, aerospace, renewable energy, biomedical, electronics and sensor applications. 


What might people be surprised to learn about you? “That I have six years of industry experience in one of the Fortune 500 companies,” he says. “So I have extensive background on how industry people think.”

Favorite item in your office? Pictures drawn by his children.

Why UVM? “One thing that really attracted me was the small size of the engineering departments; there was less barrier between programs,” he says. “So I expect great collaboration and interaction with other faculties beyond mechanical engineering. I'm also cross appointed to material science. If you look at my CV, I’m a mechanical engineer by training with postdoc work in material science, and I worked for a chemical company for six years. So my research is very interdisciplinary. The access to other faculties and interdisciplinary collaboration I’m looking for is very possible here.”

Kathleen Gough, assistant professor of theatre

Katie GoughTraining: Bachelor of arts in English literature, Catholic University in Washington, D.C; master of arts in English literature, University of Maryland, College Park; doctorate in performance studies, University of California, Berkeley.

Recent experience: Since January of 2006 to this year, Gough was assistant professor of theatre studies within the Department of Theatre, Film and Television, at the University of Glasgow, Scotland. In 2008, she served as a visiting professor in Concordia University’s Center for Irish Studies in the Department of History.

Research interests: She recently published a book, Kinship and Performance in the Black and Green Atlantic, about relationships between Irish and African-American culture. For the past year and a half, Gough has been at work on a project on the relationship between medieval and digital performance and culture.

Broadly, Gough says her research methodology explores “people, performances, objects, or time periods that don’t seem to have a lot to say to each other, or that you wouldn’t think had anything in common. I think there’s always an ethical imperative in my work to see interconnections and relationships across cultures, situations, people who maybe wouldn’t think of themselves as the same. Yet, often times these diverse cultures and people were involved in similar projects and worked within and against similar political structures. Those principles are an effective means of seeking common ground.”

Most important finding and where you’re taking it next: Gough says her biggest finding when working on her book, “was realizing in a highly palpable way that we can’t think about history without technology. The importance that it plays not just in making life easier or more complicated — but how it actually helps to produce our own subjectivity and our own agency. That’s the research finding that brought me to thinking about relationships between medieval and digital culture.”

What might people be surprised to learn about you? “I’ve worked in three countries in three different disciplines!”

Favorite item in your office? Looking around at what was already in her office when she came in July, Gough was decisive about what to keep: “The fainting couch stays!” she said. The item from Royall Tyler’s prop shop “lets me know I’m definitely working in a theatre department,” she says.

Why UVM? “I had been wanting to come back to the states in the last couple of years,” she says. “And there are only a couple areas in the states you want to come back to — maybe in general! — but for theatre, the Northeast is definitely one of those areas.” Her position at UVM, she says, is the first time she’s been “the academic wing to a creative arts department, where everyone is a designer or playwright or acting teacher.” That environment, she says, “feeds my theoretical interests really well.” Welcoming faculty members were also a deciding factor: “I thought, wow, this would be a really nice place to live — and I haven’t been disappointed!”

George Atweh, M.D., professor of medicine

Training: Bachelor of science, American University of Beirut, Lebanon; M.D., American University of Beirut, Lebanon; internship and residency in medicine, American University Medical Center, Beirut, Lebanon; fellowship: hematology/oncology, Duke University Medical Center; postdoctoral research fellowship: Yale University School of Medicine.

Recent experience: Before coming to Vermont, Atweh served as the chief of the Division of Hematology/Oncology and the director the UC Cancer Institute at the University of Cincinnati. "My last experience ended 15 years in major leadership roles in academic institutions and convinced me to go back to the basics and take care of patients and conduct clinical research."

Research interests: Atweh conducts research in the field of inherited blood diseases, including sickle cell disease and thalassemia -- a condition where the body makes an abnormal form of hemoglobin -- as well as leukemia and prostate cancer.

Most important finding and where you’re taking it next: The discovery of a molecule named stathmin that plays an important role in the regulation of blood cell development and cancer. "I am focusing my efforts now on clinical care/clinical research in the area of blood disease," he says.

What might people be surprised to learn about you? "People might be surprised that my arm was twisted to accept leadership roles in academic medicine for a total of 15 years, and that I made the decision to walk away from leadership voluntarily and go back to being a real doctor!"

Favorite item in your office: "The thing I like the most about my current office is the minimalist décor. All I have is a desk, a computer and a phone that I rarely use."

Why UVM? "I was sold on the relatively small size of the institution, the friendly environment, the very smart colleagues, and the fact that I could be just a professor," he says. "The mountains and skiing helped seal the deal!"

Melissa Pespeni, assistant professor of biology

Melissa PerspiniTraining: Bachelor of science in biology, bachelor of arts in critical gender studies from the University of California, San Diego; doctorate in biology from Stanford University as National Science Foundation predoctoral fellow.  

Recent experience: Postdoctoral fellow leading a collaborative project between Stanford University and the University of California, Davis. Most recent: National Science Foundation postdoctoral fellow at Indiana University.

Research interests: Understanding the genomic and physiological bases of how organisms live across diverse habitats and how they might fare in changing climate conditions.

Most important finding and where you’re taking it next: In a recent, much written about study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, Pespeni found that, compared to a control group, sea urchin larvae raised in high carbon dioxide, acidified water mimicking the oceans of 50 to 100 years from now showed genetic changes that would be beneficial in the new environment. The larvae showed changes in genes that control skeletal growth and in ion homeostasis genes that could help maintain internal pH. This is one of the first studies to demonstrate the importance of existing genetic variation for a species’ ability to cope in future climate conditions.

The purple sea urchin species studied periodically experiences comparably acidic waters through upwelling from the ocean deep. In the next phase of her work, Pespeni wants to see how generalizable her findings are by measuring genetic change in a wide range of organisms that have evolved in more and less variable environments to determine which factors are most important for predicting who the “winners” and “losers” will be in future climate scenarios.

What might people be surprised to learn about you? “That I grew up in Okinawa, Japan,” she says, thanks to her dad being stationed there with the Air Force. She went to English schools but learned conversational Japanese speaking with her parents’ Okinawan friends. Alas, that facility is gone, she says.  

Favorite item in your office? Her office is being repainted and carpeted so is bare except for a dilapidated chair she calls the green monster that “doesn't sit upright unless you are in it and you balance it.” Will it survive the office upgrade? “I don’t think so.”

Why UVM? “I was really excited about the balance of teaching and research that's offered here,” she says. “The university values both, and my colleagues want to excel and integrate both of these realms of academia. Also, the faculty in the Department of Biology are superb. Not only are they collegial and supportive people, they’re also excellent teachers and collaborators. There's a lot of collaboration within the department and across the university and around the world, so that really exemplifies the way science is done these days.”

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