Norwich in the News (Video): Montpelier Weekly Chats With 2016 Colby Book Award Winner Nisid Hajari

Photo: Formal head and shoulders portrait of author Nisid Hajari
Norwich University Office of Communications

April 14, 2016

Nat Frothingham, the publisher of the Montpelier weekly The Bridge, interviews journalist and author Nisid Hajari, winner of the 2016 Colby Book Award. A former editor at Newsweek, Hajari is the author of Midnight’s Furies, a riveting account of the partition of India following the end of British colonial rule in 1947 and its continued relevance today.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-_KBO8sbMQU&w=560&h=315]

Astrophysicist Tabetha Hole on Supernovas, Teaching, and the Universe

Norwich University Office of Communications

March 25, 2016

K. Tabetha Hole joined the Norwich physics faculty last fall as an assistant professor. The daughter of an American doctor, she was born in Nigeria and earned her PhD from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Using computer models and Chandra X-Ray Telescope data, her ongoing research studies the structure of supernovas and massive star winds. This spring, she teaches Intro to Astronomy, the capstone Senior Seminar II, and an independent study while supervising a senior research project. In a recent interview, Hole reflected upon the beauty and mystery of the universe and teaching.

Pop quiz: In 60 seconds or less, explain dark matter.

Dark matter is a name for our ignorance. If we look at the structure of galaxies, how fast the sun is going around the center of our galaxy should tell us how much mass there is in the galaxy. When we look at that, the amount of gravitational mass is way more than we can account for by actually looking at the stuff that’s there.

Ninety percent of the mass of the universe does not correspond to anything we know about on Earth. We’ve tried to account for it. But [we] just can’t. There’s missing mass. We know its effect. But we don’t know what it is, and that’s what we call “dark matter.” It’s “dark,” because it doesn’t glow. It doesn’t interact with light. It’s some completely different kind of matter that we’ve never been able to touch or detect directly. Obviously, we’ve been trying to. But we still don’t know what it is, and we’ve been looking for decades.

What do you call yourself?

Astronomer, astrophysicist, and, of course, physics professor. I spend most of my time being a physics professor. It is my focus, because I really enjoy teaching. Generating new knowledge is wonderful. But as is true in pretty much every academic discipline, if I discover something new about stars, only a few people in the world will ever read about that. Whereas, working with students, teaching introductory physics, I am able to share with them something beautiful and amazing about the universe.

You published a research paper titled, “Can We Detect Clumpiness in Supernova Ejecta?” Well, can we?

Yes.

Why should we care about supernovas?

When a star explodes, it turns out that that explosion makes most of the heavier elements in the universe. The iron in your blood had to be made in a supernova—there’s no other way to make iron—and probably more than one. So the iron in your blood came from multiple stars exploding. We can see supernovas across the universe. They affect the stars around them. They start star formation. They end star formation. They are responsible for changing the chemical makeup of the universe over time. They are responsible for making us. They are a test for our understanding of physics in extreme conditions that we just can’t do on Earth. If you want to study how the universe changes over billions of years or how galaxies change, you have to understand what happens in [supernovas].

Does your brain ever hurt thinking about these things?

Not so much. I think maybe the bigger puzzle is how to get students to understand. Because especially in physics, you first have to remove the misconception and then you can bring in the real fun. And that’s something no one knows how to do perfectly. I mean people ask, If we can put a man on the moon, why can’t we feed the hungry? The reason we can’t is because of people. We can harness the power of a couple thousand people who want to work together to go to the moon. [But] you can’t put people in a box and poke them until they do what you want. All in all, I would definitely rather feed the hungry. Humans in some ways are a much harder puzzle than the universe. Helping people learn more about themselves and learn more about the world, that is actually in some ways a bigger challenge.

You say your interest in physics was sparked, in part, while studying astronomy in high school. You mention things like studying the phases of the moon. The moment when you visualized that relationship from space, rather than the surface of the Earth, and how that suddenly provided clarity. Can you talk about that?

By changing your perspective, something that was incredibly complicated becomes incredibly simple and elegant. That’s a larger part of what I find so amazing about the universe. You take things that are on surface incredibly complicated and you peel back the layers to find the incredibly simple rules that the universe operates by. Then you can build back up to the complication, piece by piece, and understand each one. And then the universe is not this weird unpredictable mess. It’s actually beautiful and elegant underneath, even if it’s not what we would ever have expected.

What excites you about the field today?

Oh, there’s so much. One big [thing] is that we now have a new way of looking at the universe: gravitational waves. It’s like opening your eyes. When we’re in astronomy, all we can do is study what the universe sends us. Most of the information it sends us is in light, radio waves, x-rays. Gravity comes from mass. So we now have a tool for looking at things that don’t even necessarily produce light. It’s going to give us more information that we could’ve gotten in the next hundred years using regular telescopes. So that is the most exciting thing right now. That we have a fundamental new way of knowing about the universe.

5 Questions for … Norwich Neuroscience Professor Megan Doczi

Norwich University Office of Communications

September 9, 2015

Assistant Professor of Biology Megan Doczi, PhD, arrived at Norwich in 2011, shortly after receiving her PhD from the University of Vermont. She directs the neuroscience program at NU and teaches neuroscience and anatomy and physiology classes in the Department of Biology. Her research into the developmental regulation of potassium ion channels in avian hypothalamus neurons is funded by the Vermont Genetics Network. Outgoing, energetic and very busy, Doczi spent the summer writing research papers, supervising lab work, planning courses, and mentoring two undergraduate research fellows. We spoke to her recently in her second-floor office in Bartoletto Hall, amid the odd piece of lab equipment and quirky science art.

What sparked your interest in neuroscience?

The easiest and most heart-felt answer is high school psychology, I took this psych course with a few friends of mine as an elective. The instructor was a practicing psychologist and really, really interested in her discipline. Chapter two of our textbook was the neuron, and I just got stuck on that second chapter. I was like, “Wow, these neurons are amazing. I didn’t even realize how complicated these cells were. They’re so different than any other cells in the human body and I want to learn all I can about them.” So that was it. High school. I’ve been on the neuroscience track ever since.

What excites you about the field today?

The speed at which the technology is developing. We now have technology that we didn’t have ten or even five years ago, which is so much better at attacking the questions: How is consciousness even a phenomenon? How can neural networks communicate with each other? How are individual neurons able to metabolize different nutrient sources like glucose as a readout of their activity? We now have the capability of asking a patient a question and seeing what part of their brain lights up. The technology is just phenomenal and beyond what we could have imagined in the field decades before.

What questions do you explore in your research?

Personally I’m interested in ion channels, the small little proteins in the membranes of neurons that allow ions to flow through at different rates. They control the way neurons communicate with each other. So you can imagine if you have more or less of these channels, it will affect the function of the neuron itself.

The set of neurons that we’re interested in looking at are part of feeding behaviors and the circuitry for food intake and energy expenditure in animals. So the main question of the lab is, If the expression and function of these individual ion channels changes in that population of neurons, will it actually change the behavior downstream of the animal? We’re looking at developmental time points. The model system we use in the lab is the embryonic chicken, which is really nice. Because what we can do is study early, mid and late gestational time points and see if the channels are changing. There’s a lot of evidence in the literature today that what happens during development impacts what happens as an adult. So if these organisms are exposed to high levels of hormones or metabolic factors, they might actually develop the neuronal circuitry in a different way that could even result in disease in adulthood.

What’s your pitch to students? Why study neuroscience?

There’s a lot known about most systems in the human body. We’re pretty comfortable explaining how the cardiovascular system works and developing pharmaceuticals to change blood pressure, etc. You can use that analogy for other similar systems. But we still don’t understand what actually happens in the nervous system to create things like consciousness or to instill survival skills in today’s society, for example. What makes someone more resilient than someone else? Or personality characteristics? All those things are still unknown. You can’t just give a pill and fix the nervous system like you might be able to with other systems of the human body.

I think that unknown component of the nervous system and the brain, in particular, is kind of what draws me to the discipline. And I hope I communicate that enthusiasm to my students as well. I just love when they ask questions that I can’t answer. Because nobody can answer some of the questions that they’re asking, and those are the questions that need to be asked.

Any parting thoughts?

It’s important for students to be scholars and lifelong learners. It’s important to our society to have curious thinkers, free thinkers who don’t take information at face value but know how to critically analyze that information, fact-check that information. And that goes beyond neuroscience. That’s just making an informed citizen. There are so many hot topics today. Climate change is one of them. Vaccination is another. If we can just basically graduate students who know how to think about information, challenge information, and even create new information based off of researching topics, then we’ve done our job, regardless of discipline.

So when you graduate from Norwich, I don’t care if you’re a neuroscientist, a chemist, a literary scholar, or a historian, as long as you know how to really analyze information, ask the right question and move society in a positive direction, I think that’s really what I’m interested in as a professor and what a lot of other faculty members are interested in here.