University of Vermont

Vermont Quarterly

Faces of our Future

Sustainability to workplace dynamics to mathematics pedagogy, new faculty advance UVM’s research tradition

Jenny Stephens with solar panels

Sustainability to workplace dynamics to mathematics pedagogy, new faculty  advance UVM’s research tradition

REALITIES OF CHANGE

Energy expert Jennie Stephens has led her students to the edge of a dam. They’re standing on top of Green Mountain Power’s hydroelectric plant #19 along Route 2A in Essex, Vermont. It’s a sunny morning, but a sparkling torrent of water pouring over the concrete spillway is strangely silent. It’s March and in Vermont that means winter. With a closer look, it’s clear that the whitewater is frozen solid.

The course is “Natural Resources 385: Energy System Transitions.” Stephens’s graduate students, in wool hats and Ray-Bans, chat amiably about the falling cost of solar panels and ask their tour guide, GMP plant operator Bob Young, questions about this power station and carbon markets. It’s a cheerful scene.

But Stephens, hired last year as the Blittersdorf Professor of Sustainability Science & Policy—with appointments in both the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources and the College of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences—wants her students to take a closer look at the realities of our energy situation.

“We know fossil fuels are limited, and we’re eventually going to move away from them to renewables—but the important thing to consider is that an energy system transition is not primarily a technological change,” she says. “Some may think it’s about switching from coal to wind—but more fundamentally it requires deep cultural change.”

With ever-rising global demand for energy, land, and materials, “and with an expanding population—it’s impossible,” she says, “unless we voluntarily limit consumption.” In other words, while humanity may benefit from technological innovation, cleaner power, and improvements in efficiency, there is, finally, no engineering fix to problems from “our ideology of endless economic growth,” she says. Which is why her own social science research explores the interconnections between emerging social movements “that aim for human well-being instead of growth,” and new expectations for energy production and consumption—both in Germany and Vermont. “We can’t know the future,” Jennie Stephens says, but she and her students are looking closely for ways to avoid a drop-off into what she calls “overwhelming unsustainability.” —Joshua Brown 

 

Stephen Keller

EVOLUTION ON FAST FORWARD

Evolution is not just a theory to plant biologist Steve Keller. He watches it happen. “Most people think of species evolving very gradually,” he says. And, indeed, sometimes change within a lineage of plants is imperceptible over millions of years. But when environmental conditions shift quickly—as with human-caused climate change or when people carry species across oceans—“evolution can happen fast too, year-to-year, generation-to-generation,” he says.

In his work, studying poplar trees and other plants, “evolution is not a cartoon that people debate philosophically,” Keller says. “Exploring evolution is an experimental science just as much as any other science.”

“The key is that it’s measurable,” he says. “I can go out there and quantify and measure it.” Which is exactly what he and his students do. “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.

In other words, trees can change and move fast. Not quite so fast as the Ents in The Lord of the Rings, walking on huge bark-covered feet, but almost. At the end of the last ice age, about 20,000 years ago, much of North America was scoured to bedrock. Then, as temperatures warmed, the trees, squeezed into the south, started marching north again, bits of their DNA getting constantly rejiggered by natural selection as they recolonized millions of square miles in a few thousand years. 

Today, balsam poplar is the hardwood found farthest north in North America—and a keystone forest species across the whole continent, taking Keller to field sites from Alaska to Vermont. Back in the lab, he uses an advanced technology called “Genotype by Sequencing,” or GBS, to discover slight genetic differences between hundreds of poplar trees from many different regions. “We’re looking across the entire poplar genome,” he says, “for signals of adaptation to climate.” 

Keller and his team have focused on the southern edge of the poplar’s range to better understand the genetics of trees already adapted to the warmest growing season poplars currently face. Now they’re combining this knowledge with landscape modeling to predict which stocks of these economically and ecologically important trees might be able to keep pace—as global warming gathers unprecedented speed.           —Joshua Brown 


Randall Harp

CHARTING  BOUNDARIES

Imagine that you’ve lost your hard drive. Argh. There goes your term paper. Now jump forward into a foreseeable future and imagine that you’ve lost a hard drive—that’s wired into your brain. There goes…what? Your memories? The behavior modification software that controls your heroin addiction?

“If I am really tied in to my iPhone—in the sense that it has taken over some of my cognitive functioning—should it get a protective status now?” wonders Randall Harp, assistant professor of philosophy. “Should technologies have a moral and ethical status as part of me?”

As a teacher, Harp wants his students to think deeply about questions like this—about what, exactly, does “me” mean? And as a researcher, Harp has thought deeply about how that me—that self or “agent” as the philosopher-speak puts it—can be understood to have chosen to act.

Harp tips back in his chair and directs his eyes toward the ceiling when he is thinking. Musing out loud, he quotes famed philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein from memory: “What is left over if I subtract the fact that my arm goes up from the fact that I raise my arm?”

Far from daydreaming, Harp’s field of action theory has pressing relevance for guiding new developments in behavioral science, neurobiology, and law. “If you hit somebody while having a seizure, generally we say, ‘Oh that’s unfortunate, but that’s not your fault,’” Harp says, but figuring out “what the boundaries of agency are is very important. A growing strategy in law—neuro-law—is to reduce all of the things we do, to some extent, to something like seizures.” Not guilty, your honor, my brain did it.

“Is it taking away free choice if you know how someone is going to choose based on the way their brain works?” Randall Harp wonders. “These are the kinds of questions that we are going to need to face up to, the more advanced our behavioral sciences get. Asking them is my job.”                                           
—Joshua Brown 


Adrian Del Maestro

SMALL MATTER

It’s hard to suck a milkshake through a straw,” says Adrian Del Maestro, assistant professor of physics. Not so with helium. When cooled to just above absolute zero, it forms a bizarre state of matter, called a superfluid, “that has no friction,” Del Maestro says. “It’s a perfect liquid.” Once it has been stirred, a closed ring filled with superfluid helium will continue circulating for months.

Now, “think about a wide river heading into a narrow canyon,” says Del Maestro. “What’s it going to do?” Common sense tells us that liquids speed up as the channel containing them tightens. But what if a faucet were so amazingly tiny that only a few atoms of helium could squeeze through its opening at once? There, slippery perfection—and common sense—reach their quantum limits, it seems.

According to a longstanding model of quantum mechanics, once the pipe shrinks to the nanoscale, the bizarre behavior of superfluid helium should become even more odd: far from speeding up, it should actually slow down. For more than seventy years, scientists have been studying the flow of helium through ever-smaller pipes. Now, Del Maestro and a team of researchers from Canada and Germany have successfully created the world’s smallest faucet: a pore through silicon nitride that is less than thirty atoms wide. In results published in May, in the journal Science Advances, Del Maestro and the other researchers report that the flow of helium through this microscopic pipe does, indeed, appear to slow down.

Del Maestro used computer simulations on the Vermont Advanced Computing Core at UVM to understand just how small the faucet will have to be before this new physics fully emerges. “This ‘Luttinger liquid,’ as it’s sometimes called, is a very strange state of matter,” he says. “Because it exists in strictly one dimension, it’s not really a liquid, it’s not really a superfluid, it’s not really a solid—it’s everything, all at once.”

“We’re almost there,” he adds. “This knowledge could lead to novel technologies including ultra-high-precision rotation sensors with application to the GPS system.”        
—Joshua Brown 


Katie gough

UNLIKELY COUSINS

At first glance, Katie Gough’s work life is marked by the disparate. Even her resume includes academic positions in three different countries, in three different disciplines. Now, as resident dramaturge in UVM’s Department of Theatre, she’s enjoying her role as “the academic wing to a creative arts department, where everyone is a designer or playwright or acting teacher.” It may be a position that’s different from her peers in Royall Tyler, but she’s in an environment, she says, that “feeds my theoretical interests really well.”

Those theoretical interests happen to be rooted in finding connections among unlikely subjects. She’s published a book on relationships between Irish and African-American culture, Kinship and Performance in the Black and Green Atlantic. She’s also at work on a project that explores the relationship between medieval and digital performance and culture, two areas that seemingly have nothing in common, but in fact, she says, mirror and relate to each other in interesting ways.

Broadly, her work focuses on “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,” she says. “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.”                              
—Amanda Waite '02, G'04 

 

Patrick GarciaPhotograph by Sally McCay

WORKPLACE YIN-YANG

If Patrick Garcia, assistant professor of management, finds himself feeling a little depressed while researching employee aggression and deviance in the workplace he can always turn to his other area of expertise: career development and self-efficacy.

“My research interests involve two parallel research streams,” says Garcia. “I call this my yin and yang. People often ask me how I got into doing research on the ‘dark side’ of organizational behavior. Looking back, I guess it has something to do with my background and training in clinical psychology, where we usually focused on psychopathology and mental illness.”

Garcia became even more intrigued with the yin side of his research after working as an employee in organizations in the Philippines. “Like most of us, I encountered my share of abusive, aggressive, and dominant colleagues and supervisors,” he says. “These experiences further motivated me to find answers to the questions ‘why do they behave the way they do?’ and ‘what happens to the rest of us if they behave that way?’” 

Garcia hopes to produce evidence-based approaches for how to detect, prevent, and/or minimize aggressive behavior at work. “My ultimate goal is to be able to use what I find in my own research to develop specific training programs that organizations can implement to manage abusive supervision.”  

As for the yang side of his research, Garcia is exploring how employees adapt to the ever-changing career landscape and how adolescents and older workers make decisions regarding their future career goals. “The answers to these questions would have important implications for career counselors, educators, students, and employees,” he says.               
—Jon Reidel G'06 


Carmen Petrick Smith

MATH THROUGH MOVEMENT

As a high school math teacher, Carmen Petrick Smith found that her students learned geometric principles more easily when she incorporated physical movements into her lesson plans. Today, as an assistant professor of mathematics education, she is reimagining what a math class looks like based on a similar question: What if instead of manipulating symbols on a paper, you manipulated your body?

Her latest research in the Journal of Mathematical Behavior shows significant gains in the understanding of angles and angle measurements by elementary school students who performed body-based tasks while interacting with a Kinect for Windows mathematics program. “Maybe they don’t know the words quite yet, but they have a way to express it using their body that they didn’t have before when they were sitting in a row of desks looking up at the teacher and searching for an answer.”

Smith and her research team engaged thirty third- and fourth-grade students in a series of tasks that involved moving their arms to form angles projected on a large Kinect screen that incudes a motion sensor input device that allows people to interact with computers based on their natural movements. 

“We’re finding that these kinds of activities are giving students new ways to think about mathematics and new ways of expressing their ideas,” says Smith, who once taught students how to write geometric transformations by having them do the Electric Slide on a giant coordinate plane she placed on a dance floor. “Our hope is to continue to develop these activities and support teachers in integrating them effectively in the classroom.”                      
—Jon Reidel G'06


Jianing Li

CHEMISTRY’S CODES

“The typical image of a chemist is a guy wearing a lab coat, shaking a flask,” says Jianing Li with a big smile, “that’s not me.” Li is a chemist, but she does her experiments in a virtual way—simulating chemical processes on supercomputers, including on the Vermont Advanced Computing Core at UVM.

Her goal: “to help decipher the sugar code,” she says. Besides nucleotides (like DNA) and amino acids (that form proteins), sugars are considered “the third alphabet of life,” Li explains. For example, “the sugar coating on a disease virus recognizes specific proteins on the surface of the human cell,” she says.

Li’s research simulates the motions of atoms in these sugars and proteins as they interact. “If we can block parts of these interactions, we might come up with new ways to treat diseases. But these molecules are super-large. Even with a supercomputer, it’s impossible to see all the atomic detail at once,” Li says. “So in my lab we are coming up with a smart way to adjust the resolution of the model to study different parts of the interaction.”

Li grew up in China, a few hours from Hong Kong, and went to college near Shanghai before coming to the United States to complete her doctorate at Columbia. Her parents are doctors who practice traditional Chinese medicine. “The reason I chose chemical physics is because when I was young I loved how my parents grew and prepared different herbs. You drink the black soup and you can get better. For a kid, it’s like magic. So I became interested in how they did this. I wanted to learn this magic.”

“A goal for me would be to marry computational chemistry with traditional Chinese medicine—but we’re not there yet!” Li says. “Someday we might be able to isolate each compound, each molecule, but it’s very difficult to do.” In the meantime, she carries a bit of her upbringing into her workday routine: “I drink tea everyday,” she says. “Monday green tea; Tuesday black tea; and flower teas over three or four different days.” She swirls a pale-green liquid around in an oversized cup and holds it up to the light. “See what I’m drinking this out of? It’s a beaker actually.”        
—Jon Reidel G'06
 



 

 

 


 


 

 

 

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