The “Search” in Research

“I know that I am intelligent, because I know that I know nothing.” – Socrates.

By Jacque E. Day and Jane Dunbar.

Humanities: Where the Search Begins.

It is a well-documented, nationwide trend that the humanities have taken a hit in higher ed. With an intensifying emphasis on the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—STEM—fields, the humanities have been increasingly marginalized as “non-essential” programs less likely to lead to jobs after graduation.

But through the ages, the greatest thinkers have studied the humanities, not as a secondary pursuit, but as a means of making sense of what they’re searching for. Language, reason, the examination of what came before—this is where the search begins.

To that purpose, a dedicated group of Norwich faculty and deans have put their creativity to work on an interdisciplinary mission to incorporate humanities across the curriculum using Captain Partridge’s model of experiential learning. Their concept cultivates the “citizen-scholar.”
Co-directing this curriculum initiative are Amy Woodbury Tease, associate professor of English and director of the Undergraduate Research Program, and Brian Glenney, assistant professor of philosophy. “The idea is that we pair humanities faculty with faculty in the other colleges, and they work on courses that they co-design and co-teach,” Woodbury Tease says. “Humanities-plus-engineering. Humanities-plus-biochemistry.” In its early stages, the initiative has already garnered university-wide support and commitments from every college on the Hill. A grant application is pending with the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), but Woodbury Tease says they will proceed with cultivating student and faculty interest in the initiative with or without NEH funding.

We look forward to witnessing this Norwich renaissance unfold.

Because as the following stories demonstrate, before we can design structures in new ways, create novel and fascinating technologies, or cure Alzheimer’s, we need to know what it means to dream.

Grigg (left), with the help of two Norwich students, drills through the ice to take sediment core samples from a Vermont late in spring 2014. “As a geologist and a scientist, I am driven by my curiosity to understand how the natural world works, and I love to solve the puzzles of the past.”

Professor Laurie Grigg – The Search Below

On a frigid day in February 2014, Earth and Environmental Sciences Professor
Laurie Grigg stood on the frozen surface of
Twin Ponds, Vt., with two Norwich students and a collaborator from the University of Wyoming. At first glance it could appear that they were enjoying an afternoon of ice fishing. Instead, they were drilling through the ice into the deep, to collect core samples from the lake sediment. On September 23, 2017, the professor returned to the same lake with another group of students to collect more core samples. The temps topped 80 degrees, and the crew donned shorts.

A professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences, Laurie Grigg is not only used to working in extreme climates, but also studies climate change, and the National Science Foundation (NSF) has taken notice. In 2017, the agency awarded her a $132,000 grant to study the impacts of climate change on Vermont’s lakes.

Grigg’s research involves a search for variations in fossils in the sediment cores, as well as changes in the geochemistry of the sediment throughout the past 10,000 years. She will use data collected from the samples to reconstruct how the climate has changed over time, and to examine how the lake ecosystem has responded. “The goal is to use this long-term perspective, called paleoecology, to better understand the stresses facing lakes today and in the future,” she offers.

The grant supports, in part, Grigg’s collaboration with the University of Wyoming, where she and her research assistant, Irene Magdon ’18, will take advantage of the analytical equipment and expertise of a nationally recognized lab. Her work, which aligns with the mission of the Norwich University Center for Global Resilience and Security, will eventually inform future decisions concerning the conservation of Vermont’s lakes, as changes in the lake ecosystem are an important indicator of water quality. It was one of only 30 grants of its kind awarded in 2017, nationwide.

 

Environmental science major Olivia Bussiere ’18 is among a group of students assisting Pearish with his fish-personality research.

Professor Simon Pearish – The Search for Personality

There is a passage in the famous book by Dr. Seuss, One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish, that describes fish like this: “Some are sad. Some are glad. And some are very, very bad. Why are they sad and glad and bad? I do not know. Go ask your dad.” Or, ask Biology Professor Simon Pearish.

Simon Pearish, behavioral ecologist and assistant professor of biology, is Norwich University’s resident expert on the personalities of fish.

In the classroom, Pearish and his students study the personality traits of the brook stickleback.

The study of fish personalities sounds more like play than work, a question formed in a young mind on a leisurely Saturday afternoon, ambling along a brook, looking down into the water, noticing how a school of fish interacts with its environment. In fact “school” is derived from the Greek scholē, meaning leisure. The word has since evolved to denote a group moving together in unison. Imagine a school of fish, its elegant dance, how it seems to manifest as one body. Outwardly, the motion could appear leisurely. But we know that within—from abstracts like schools of thought to institutions like Norwich—schools involve complex mechanisms, a diverse range of roles and, yes, personalities.

Pearish is involved in an ongoing collaboration with Alison Bell of the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign and Bronwyn Bleakley of Stonehill College. Their question: why individual animals behave differently from one another. In their study of the Gasterosteus aculeatus, commonly known as the three-spined stickleback, they have observed that the “bold” sticklebacks—those more apt to take risks—tend to be more social. Conversely, the “shy” sticklebacks tend to be loners, more likely to go off on their own. Moreover, the alternative social preferences of both bold and shy fish appear to be adaptive, leading to increased survival in the wild.

At the crux of Pearish’s inquiry is the Darwinian question, What role has evolution played in generating  personality?

“I study fish personality because I want to uncover clues about human behavior that are buried deep in our evolutionary past.”

 

Mathematics Professor Joe Latulippe.

Professor Joe Latulippe – The Inner Search

Mathematics Professor Jocelyn “Joe” Latulippe is passionate about solving difficult biological problems. And now, he stands at the vanguard of research into a universally devastating disease.

A mathematical neuroscientist, Professor Joe Latulippe uses computational models to advance the understanding of the human nervous system and the mechanisms of neuronal activity. Such models are useful in simulating long-term conditions, as well as in vivo-like environments, and carry clear research benefits.

“Because of the limitations of experimental procedures, quantitative tools can provide critical information that human trials can’t,” Latulippe explains. “Freed from the constraints of time or bureaucracy, such simulations provide reams of data in the few short minutes—or seconds—it takes to run them.”

Latulippe recently developed one such tool himself. Called a synaptic transmission model, he originally intended it to help researchers better understand the concept of “plasticity”: what variables might strengthen or weaken a synapse over time. But he has now broadened his investigation into how neurons communicate under the influence of specific organic diseases such as Alzheimer’s.

“Alzheimer’s is the manifestation of breakdowns in memory, learning, and cognition,” Latulippe says. “In other words, patients experience a progressive loss of synaptic plasticity. We know that one of the hallmarks of the disease is the development of amyloid-beta plaques and neurofibrillary tangles; what we don’t know is what triggers their development in the first place.”

Latulippe’s model simulates exactly what happens to neural pathways and synaptic transmission at the very onset of Alzheimer’s disease—before the imminent proliferation of plaques and fibrils occurs. Now, researchers can change the conditions of an experiment by controlling for individual mechanisms—such as the effect of amyloid-beta on calcium—at will.

“Although the literature on Alzheimer’s is vast, we have yet to find a cure,” Latulippe says. “Because examining individual neurons at the molecular level is exceptionally difficult, mathematical models enable us to approximate the environmental conditions of an Alzheimer’s brain—which can then help us more clearly understand how it develops, and how we can treat it.”

 

Armando Barragán ’19 snaps a selfie in front of a Luis Barragán building in Mexico.

Armando Barragán ’19 – The Search for Identity

“Have you heard of Luis Barragán?”

That was the first question Cara Armstrong, director of NU’s School of Architecture + Art, asked Armando Barragán ’19 when he entered her Fundamentals of Architecture I class as a freshman.

He hadn’t.

In the two years since discovering he shares a surname with renowned Mexican architect Luis Barragán, Armando Barragán has immersed himself in research that he ultimately hopes to parlay into a master’s thesis.

Growing up as a first-generation Mexican-American in Boston with a father who helped construct dozens of prominent buildings there, Armando had always been intrigued by structural design. But it wasn’t until he worked as a community organizer in high school—and observed what he felt to be the intrusive effects of generic architecture on neighborhood identity—that he decided to pursue a degree in it. Now, under Armstrong’s mentorship, he has discovered resonances with Barragán that extend far beyond their shared name or heritage.

“When I first saw photos of Barragán’s work, I could see he avoided the International Style,” Armando says—an approach he describes as a “cut-and-paste aesthetic” that strips all sense of place or cultural context from a building: exactly what had bristled him back in Boston. “But I didn’t know how he did it; how he created modern structures that evoked Mexico’s past without being cliché.”

Structures, in other words, that fit.

This past summer, funded by a coveted NU summer research fellowship, Armando spent four weeks exploring Mexico City to understand the how. Armed with British architect and historian Kenneth Frampton’s Towards a Critical Regionalism: Six Points for an Architecture of Resistance, Armando observed that Barragán’s own resistance to contemporary norms comprised natural, locally available materials and colors, as well as the use of texture and light.

“Barragán said, ‘Don’t ask me about this or that building; don’t try to do what I do: see what I saw,’” Armando explains. “I saw the history, culture, and natural environment that drove his designs.”

Looking forward, Armando hopes his research into Barragán will inform his own designs, and those of his peers, “to better reflect individualism and local culture, and help us replicate those strategies around the world.”

“Plus, every architecture professor I’ve had asks the same question Professor Armstrong did,” he laughs. “I had to find out more about this guy.”

 

Assisted by exhibitions associate Katherine Taylor McBroom, Physics Professor Art Pallone shows museum registrar John Hart what the near-infrared imaging reveals in the painting.

The Intersection of Science & Art – The Search for What Lies Beneath

It was standing room only last Homecoming weekend in the Todd Multipurpose Room when the veil fell away from a life-size c. 1827
painting of a Norwich cadet. Now, the discovery of the painting’s story has grown into an interdisciplinary effort involving the Sullivan Museum and History Center and Norwich Physics Professor Art Pallone.

Sullivan Museum and History Center registrar John Hart discovered the painting when it was listed for sale by New York City’s Hirschl & Adler Galleries, where for decades it had been mislabeled as a portrait of a West Point cadet. Through painstaking research and documentation, the museum staff correctly identified the cadet as one from Captain Partridge’s Academy in Middletown, Conn. But the cadet’s identity eluded them.

There was something else: a shadowy figure in the lower right corner, known in the art world as a pentimento, the presence or emergence of earlier images that have been changed and painted over—in other words, a painting beneath the painting. While they could make out what appeared to be the figure of a small child, they couldn’t see details. What Hart needed was a camera that could reveal the detail without harming the artwork.
The answer lay just a few hundred paces away in Tompkins Hall with physics Professor Art Pallone, an expert in multi-spectral imaging.

Near-infrared imaging uncovered symbols in the pentimento consistent with a Masonic Apron.

In the basement of the Sullivan Museum, using a near-infrared camera, Pallone took pictures that peeled back another layer of the mystery. The boy appears to have a piece of fabric draped over his arm containing symbols consistent with a Masonic Apron. The museum staff had already traced the possible identity of the cadet to the Starr family. This discovery revealed another link to the theory, as Jehoshaphat Starr was the founder and inaugural Grand Master of the Middletown Masonic Lodge, which in 1825 sent a contingent to the cornerstone-laying ceremony for Partridge’s Academy in Middletown, Conn.

Among the many looming questions: Why was the child removed from the original painting?

For Pallone, who will continue to work with the museum to uncover the painting’s story, a foray into the world of fine art has been a rewarding one, not to mention a natural offshoot from physics. “Leonardo da Vinci understood what we, in modern times, sometimes need to rediscover,” he says. “Art is scientific, and science is artistic.”

 

D’Aponte co-designed this Waitsfield, Vt., house made of poured concrete formed in fabric. First, the team built frames to support the concrete pour. From the framework, they hung sheaths of polyolefin, a heavy fabric, one inside each frame. They affixed 2” x 3” wooden slats, evenly apart, outside the fabric. They poured the concrete, which bulged between the slats. After the concrete dried and solidified, they removed the slats and fabric. One advantage to pouring concrete into a fabric frame, D’Aponte says, is that excess water can escape through the fabric’s pores.

Professor Eleanor D’Aponte – The Search for Stability

Architecture Professor Eleanor D’Aponte is on a
mission to help revitalize the use of poured concrete in American building design. And, she’s doing so using fabric.

Just inside Architecture Professor Eleanor D’Aponte’s office in Chaplin Hall, a sculpture catches the eye. It is a table with bulging legs, like balloons filled with water, but made of solid concrete. “A group of students in a seminar created this table, which was formed with fabric,” she explained. The students sewed polyester fabric into the shape of the legs as they envisioned them. They built a supporting rig, hung the fabric, poured in the concrete, and let gravity do its job. “The weight causes the fabric to bulge,” she concluded. “For design students this technique is incredible because it requires them to build a negative of what they’re envisioning.”

The cover of the 2017 book, The Family Cabin, features a house with inner and outer solid-concrete walls that bulge in controlled, horizontal rows. The house, located in nearby Waitsfield, Vt., was “formed with fabric” using a more sophisticated version of the method D’Aponte’s students employed to create the table. D’Aponte co-designed the house with ArroDesign, a local architecture firm that also experiments with fabric.

A small but growing architecture paradigm is emerging around this principle. The technique found its U.S. origins with Mark West, who introduced the idea to D’Aponte when he spoke at Norwich University a decade ago. Since then, she has written several papers on the subject and recently received a Marion and Jasper Whiting Foundation grant to study poured-concrete buildings in Europe.

 

Professor Brian Bradke (right) is a former USAF F-16 instructor pilot and a recent NASA astronaut finalist. In 2016–17, he led a team of Norwich students on a design project of a lighter-weight exercise suit for astronauts to wear in space. The work earned the Norwich team an invitation to NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C., where in June, team leader Scott LeFevre ’17 (left) presented the research. Now in flight training at N.A.S. Pensacola, the Navy ensign aims to attend graduate school and test-pilot school with the ultimate goal of becoming an astronaut.

Professor Brian S. Bradke – The Search for New Heights

Mechanical Engineering Professor Brian Bradke wanted to be a professional trombone player.

Instead—fueled by his insatiable curiosity, supreme intellect, and the singular drive of an Air Force Top Gun—he has rocketed to the forefront of cutting-edge research: investigating how to improve the safety and efficacy of pilots operating under high-performance flight conditions.

“Every square inch of a military aircraft is instrumented, with instant access to the data,” explains Brian Bradke, assistant professor of mechanical engineering. “Yet we have no way to objectively monitor its weakest link: the person flying the plane. We rely on pilots themselves to recognize the signs of potentially catastrophic conditions such as hypoxia—but by the time they do, it’s often too late.”

Leveraging the resonances between mechanical and biomedical engineering—his primary areas of expertise—Bradke ultimately hopes not only to monitor the real-time effects of acceleration and altitude on pilot physiology, but also to proactively counter them. “Once a pilot is incapacitated, the outcome is always the same,” he says. “This research can preserve a multimillion-dollar asset. More importantly, it will save lives.”

The launching pad for Bradke’s inquiry rests at NASA—and the trajectory of his preparation spans more than a decade’s worth of experiences that have uniquely prepared him to conduct it.

During a summer internship following his first year of college—“I decided it would be better to be an engineer with a music hobby, than a musician with an engineering hobby,” he laughs—Bradke examined the impacts of space flight on astronauts’ health, in part via remote instrumentation. There, at Kennedy Space Center, he realized two things: he was utterly fascinated by the role engineering could play in medicine. And, he wanted to fly in space.

Within four years, Bradke had earned a both a bachelor’s degree in biomedical engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) and a master’s in mechanical engineering from Stanford University, with a specific focus on the effect of flight on body mechanics. Within seven years, he had commissioned into the Air Force, graduated at the top of his officer candidate class, and earned his pilot certification. And, by the time he completed his PhD in biomedical engineering from RPI in 2014, he was a decorated combat pilot, having flown sorties in both Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom.

Although he narrowly missed qualifying for astronaut school (he finished in the top one-half of one percent of 18,000 candidates), Bradke’s landing at Norwich has been soft.
“Norwich is a perfect fit for me: I can pursue my scholarship in a military environment, and apply my knowledge toward solving problems I’m personally passionate about,” he says. “And I love being in the classroom.”

Already, Bradke has invented and prototyped a standalone hypoxia warning system for pilots and aircrew, and has developed a revolutionary new musculoskeletal countermeasures suit that may help astronauts maintain healthy bone and muscle mass while on extended missions.

The implications of this work, Bradke believes, will soon extend into commercial space travel. For this reason, he has proposed the Norwich University Airborne Research Center: an interdisciplinary development, test, and evaluation center focused on the discovery and implementation of new technologies to enhance the safety of civil and military air and space flight.

“The challenges we face, as humans seek to go ever higher and faster, are largely physiological in nature,” Bradke says. “My work blends theoretical, computational, and applied aerospace and biomedical technology to mitigate those challenges.”

If funded, the center would be the first of its kind in the country.

 

Lit Corner

In searching for the gravesite of American environmental writer Edward Abbey, author and Norwich English Professor Sean Prentiss found himself on a quest for his own identity. The resulting book, Finding Abbey, has won multiple national awards.

In her search for the story of Isabel Jennings, an Irish abolitionist who distinguished herself as a leader in the anti-slavery campaign, English Professor Patricia Ferreira embarked on adventures in Ireland that led to her book, Merchant Princess & Abolitionist: Isabel Jennings’s Story, from Cork University Press.

Through his research and inquiry into the spirit world, English instructor and paranormal writer Glennie Sewell not only answers his own questions about what lies beyond—in the process, he also helps people, and spirits, find peace and solace.

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