It’s a well-known fact that most full-time professors are paid not just to teach but also for research.
And while we all know the “publish or perish” cliché, it’s not often that we get to see the research happening right under our noses. Here are just a few of the projects coming out of the UO.
UO chemist takes materials science to a whole new level
The brilliant minds at the UO are churning out more research than ever, and a recent paper by chemist David Johnson and his fellow scientists may lead to a new world of materials production. Ultimately, this development means that scientists can take three elements, like iron, silicon and sulfur, and instead of making just one compound, they can now make 20,000 different compounds.
Johnson’s research has contributed to the accumulating body of knowledge on the creation of new materials. He isn’t completely sure what practical applications this technology might have, but that’s only because the possibilities are so vast. One potential use is insulation — by using their synthetic approach, Johnson and his team were able to design a material ideal as an insulator, with a structure that is solid like glass but more similar to air in terms of its ability to conduct heat. When this concept was first published two years ago in a research journal, Johnson and his colleagues received calls from interested buyers, even though the material hadn’t been produced yet.
Other applications might include finding more sustainable ways to make smooth surfaces in solid materials like television screens. With 20,000 different compounds to work with, it will take some time to figure out just what can be produced in practical terms.
“All I can say at this point is that we can make way more things than we could make before,” Johnson says. “We’re just beginning to look at how you can use this ability to get desired properties.”
Going forward, Johnson says, the goal is to determine which products are useful and how they can be applied. Since science is a collaborative process, researchers and theorists around the world can look more closely at the 20,000 compounds and find the materials that exhibit desired properties, like conductivity or smoothness.
“Being able to make 20,000 things is great, but you don’t really want to make 20,000 things,” Johnson says. “You want someone to tell you that this would be the one to make and why it would be better than the others.”
As a seasoned chemist and member of the Center for Sustainable Materials Chemistry, Johnson not only does research, but he also shares his knowledge at Science Pubs around the state (including the OMSI Science Pub at Cozmic), where scientists connect with the public and discuss their research in an engaging way. He’s learned through his own research that innovation comes from good problem-solving skills, and that’s something he hopes he can help everyone learn. — Amy Schneider
Kate Mondloch bridges contemporary art with new technology
Not all research is done in a laboratory. According to University of Oregon Associate Professor and Director of Graduate Studies Kate Mondloch, art galleries serve as her very own scientific Petri dish where she examines how contemporary art is becoming increasingly intertwined with new technology.
“I came of age as a scholar almost at the same time the internet was becoming widely disseminated,” Mondloch says. Watching the world wide web evolve led the art history buff to focus on how artists use new technologies — biotechnology, nanotechnology and digital technology — to change the way people view and experience art. “Artists are able to ask questions about these new technologies in a way that we wouldn’t have thought about before,” she says.
Mondloch’s most recent book Screens: Viewing Media Installation Art explores how and why artists use screens and videos in installation exhibitions. Between television, paintings, books and now tablets, Mondloch realized, “Our culture is so trained to look at screens.” She began to explore how our rectangular fixation applies to contemporary art installations in a novel way. Rather than focus on the content that was shown on screens, she asked, “What happens when these videos or screens become sculpture?” Screens opened up a dialogue for artists, scholars and art viewers to discuss this new artistic process and experience.
Now, Mondloch is going one step further and seeing how artists are using new technologies to redefine feminism. “We’re struggling to define what feminism means for the 21st century,” she says. “I’m really interested about how artists are answering that.” Her next book project Eye Desire: New Media Art After Feminism focuses on the work of five artists, including Pipilotti Rist, Mariko Mori and Patricia Piccinini, and it examines how they’re showing viewers new ways of cohabitating with new technologies in a feminist way. “They’re often dismissed as being too girly or colorful,” she says of the artists. “I know there’s something more interesting there, and I’m trying to figure out what it is.”
When it comes to teaching, Mondloch exudes the same enthusiasm that she does for her research. “Getting a job as a professor is kind of like Major League Baseball,” she beams. This fall, she will be directing a new graduate certificate program about new media in cultures, in addition to her research. For this modern scholar, it’s always out with the old, in with the new. — Lauren Messman
A sociological look into female Appalachian activists
Coal-mining has wrought environmental and health-related destruction on Appalachia, and before Shannon Elizabeth Bell began working on her Ph.D. in sociology at UO, she was living and working in southern West Virginia when mountaintop removal mining was taking off and causing a lot of public health problems.
“What I noticed was that the people speaking up about environmental problems tended to be women,” Bell says. In an area where traditional gender dynamics are very prevalent, Bell became interested in how women’s identities as protectors of their families and communities contributed to their roles as activists and how that activism changed them.
While traditional gender roles empowered the women Bell studied, they also made it more difficult for men to speak up. “Even though a lot of men in this area were not working for the coal industry, they were still tied to the masculinity that was connected to coal mining,” she says, which discouraged them from taking a more active role.
The women Bell studied weren’t only fighting for their communities; they were transforming their own lives. “Some of the women had never spoken out publicly before becoming involved in this movement,” she says. “Through this movement, they talk about how they feel like they have something important to contribute.”
Now a professor at the University of Kentucky, Bell has authored a new book, Our Roots Run Deep as Ironweed: Appalachian Women and the Fight for Environmental Justice (see wkly.ws/1ki). She says that the social sciences are important fields of research because they can expose political and social power dynamics that enable pollution and harm communities.
“Through publishing these activist women’s stories, I am attempting to fight back against polluting industries’ attempts to silence local communities and people who suffer because of their polluting practices,” Bell says.
Bell’s book and research are also an effort to write history as it happens, and to show just how grassroots the Appalachian environmental justice movement was in the beginning, even as it changes.
“As the movement has received national and international attention, many people (both women and men) from outside the region have come to the coal-mining region of Central Appalachia to aid in the struggle,” she says. “This has meant that the rank-and-file of the movement has expanded to include a more diverse group of activists. However, this movement was primarily started by local women, and I want to ensure that these women’s central role is not written out of the history of this movement, as it has been with so many other social movements in the past.” — Shannon Finnell