Most of us take our sense of smell for granted. Under the hood, however, it’s an incredibly complex biological phenomenon. Millions of specialized neurons in the human nasal cavity bind to molecules floating in air, setting off a wave of bioelectrical signals that trigger a vast web of circuits in the brain. All this happens in a fraction of a second, letting us sniff out things like cut grass, lemon zest or Grandma’s shampoo.
Angela Dixon, assistant professor in the Department of Biology, has recently devoted some of her research efforts to harnessing the power of those neurons, which reside in a specialized region called the “olfactory system.” As an interdisciplinary researcher, she studies the precise ways they work and creates tools to interface them with electronic devices in the lab. Her investigations are paving the way for sensors that can reveal trace amounts of airborne pollutants.
“I just find the olfactory system—and the nervous system in general—so fascinating,” Dixon says. “Most of the research I’ve conducted has involved simulating aspects of the nervous system and building new research models. Some are for basic research—I use them to answer scientific questions. Others are devices we can use as tools to monitor people’s health.”
Dixon, who joined the biology department in January, is the first faculty member to be recruited through Case Western Reserve’s North Star Faculty Opportunity Hires Initiative, which aims to diversify the university’s pool of incoming researchers and professors.
“We created the initiative to bring exceptionally talented candidates to Case Western Reserve and to complement our existing roster of distinguished faculty,” says Provost and Executive Vice President Ben Vinson III. “Angela’s broad skill set fits directly into our mission. We’re so pleased to welcome her to campus.”
Dixon can claim another distinction as well: She is the first engineer to join the biology department. A position like this has been on the department’s wish list for some time, says professor and former chair Mark Willis. Biologists at CWRU have a long history of collaboration with the university’s aerospace and mechanical engineering faculty; Professor Hillel Chiel, for example, works with engineering colleagues on bio-inspired robots. Until now, however, the department has lacked someone who can act as a go-between, helping to translate the concepts and techniques of each discipline into common terms.
“That’s where Angela excels,” Willis says. “She’s like the poster child for interdisciplinary research. It’s rare to find an engineer who has such deep experience working with biological questions.”
Students, too, will benefit from Dixon’s diverse expertise: She plans to design courses that will attract future biologists and engineers. First on her list is a class that explores interfacing electrodes with the nervous system, with the goal of understanding and treating neurological disorders. If all goes well, she says, the class will be available to students in the spring of 2023.
Before accepting the offer from Case Western Reserve, Dixon was a senior research associate and consultant at the Air Force Research Laboratory in Dayton, Ohio. As part of her work there, she combined her knowledge of medical CT scans, 3D printing and human neurons to create a “biohybrid robotic human nose simulator”—a faithful replica of a human nasal cavity, lined with a complex array of sensors and airflow meters. The device mimics the way a human nose breathes, helping researchers measure the precise exposure a soldier might have to airborne toxins.
“That’s really useful for evaluating airborne hazards at a munitions range or a simulated field environment, where soldiers would be inhaling fumes from ammunition and large explosions. Those can contain a lot of toxic components, including tiny bits of metals,” Dixon explains. The device could also be useful for testing breathing systems in aircraft, where stray fumes from engine exhaust and other sources could quickly disable a pilot.
Dixon’s cross-disciplinary thinking first caught Willis’ attention in 2020, when the pair agreed to work on an innovative project: building an ultra-sensitive chemical sensor using moth antennae. These delicate, feathery structures are effectively the insect’s “nose”—they let a moth detect even the faintest scent of a food source, host plant or potential mate, and then follow the scent to its source.
“Human-made sensors are pretty good at detecting volatile compounds, but in this case, Mother Nature built one that is much faster and more sensitive,” Willis says. “If you can surgically attach those insect antennae to an electronic circuit, you can use them as biosensors to find any number of toxins.” The problem, however, is that the antennae live for only a few hours once they’re cut from a moth.
Dixon’s work with olfactory neurons may help to change that. Using processes she developed to keep neurons alive in the lab, she hopes to deliver liquid nutrients straight into the antennae, keeping them alive longer than any previous method.
“The limiting factor of this technology is the biological element,” Dixon says. “If you could keep those antennae alive, you could potentially increase the operational lifetime of a sensor. Mount the sensor on an unmanned drone, and you could thoroughly search an area for volatile airborne threats before exploring it on foot.”
Looking ahead, Dixon thinks this technology could be used for more than just detecting airborne toxins. Her work with Willis could eventually lead to something truly groundbreaking: devices that can diagnose serious diseases using only a patient’s breath.
It’s not so far-fetched. When the human body is under attack by certain diseases, including cancer, it releases a volatile compound called octenol. That same compound also attracts biting insects like mosquitoes, which use it to home in on the source of their next meal. By harnessing mosquitoes’ natural ability and using it in a medical context, Dixon says, it may be possible to build diagnostic tools that reduce the need for invasive biopsies.
Dixon is quick to note that this prospect is a long way off—but the more distant the goal, the more driven she becomes.
“Even if a project doesn’t seem doable, it always helps me to set the bar really high,” she says. “I always tell my students to dream big. There’s no limit on what you can imagine with the technology and innovations we have today—and it’s those futuristic dreams that drive real innovation and research.”
David Levin is a freelance science writer in Boston.
BY SHEEHAN HANNAN
It’s a scene that happens all too often. A few teenagers, gathered on a stoop, are chatting and hanging out. A police car screeches up to them, its lights and sirens ablaze. An officer springs out, wearing a badge and a gun, his scowl betraying deep suspicion. One hand is clenched into a fist. The other hovers near his weapon. He stalks up to the teens and leans toward them aggressively. He does not speak so much as growl. The teens fearfully hold their hands up, unsure of what to do.
It is incidents like this—involving overaggressive police interactions with youth—that Gabriella Celeste, policy director of the Schubert Center for Child Studies and co-director of the Childhood Studies program in the College of Arts and Sciences, has been working for years to prevent.
Since the killing of 12-year-old Tamir Rice by a Cleveland police officer in 2014 and the adoption of a consent decree to overhaul the Cleveland Division of Police (CDP) in 2015, Celeste and the center have pushed for new policies to protect young people. “Our office was committed to trying to see that children and youth were not left behind when it came to improving the community’s relationship with law enforcement and ensuring better outcomes in those interactions,” Celeste says.
Their effort bore fruit in February of last year, when the CDP became one of the few police departments in the nation to adopt a policy governing interactions between young people and police. The policy, which the center helped draft while engaging in discussions with the police department, mandates that officers keep interrogation times to a minimum, refrain from arresting children under 13 for nonviolent offenses, and approach youth on the street calmly and respectfully.
The new policy is a tacit recognition by the CDP that children and teenagers are in a unique developmental stage and thus require special protections. The part of a teenager’s brain that controls judgment and executive function, the prefrontal cortex, is among the last areas to fully develop, which makes youth more susceptible to misunderstanding and impulsivity. Without appropriate police training on these features of adolescence, interactions between police and young people can quickly escalate.
The policy seeks to defuse tensions by encouraging officers to approach teens in a measured way and refrain from using derogatory language or making fun—both of which can quickly spark a confrontation.
“Understanding where teens are developmentally helps inform officers’ expectations of young people,” Celeste says. “It helps them adapt and respond in a way that makes kids feel less threatened and more willing to engage. Officers should recognize that their very presence is going to heighten stress and that they have to be more attentive. They need to slow down and not take things personally.”
Former police chief Calvin Williams, who was in office when the policy was enacted, discussed the reasons for it during a virtual community forum last October.
“We put this policy in place to ensure that officers have a guideline, that they have the necessary tools in writing that basically dictate how we as a police agency will interact with the youth in our community,” Williams said. “It starts with having respect, being professional, being equal in their treatment, and also understanding and treating youth in an age-appropriate manner.”
To spread word of the new policy, the Schubert Center, with support from the George Gund Foundation, produced a set of instructional materials for officers, youth and community organizations. This “toolkit,” released last October, includes a five-minute video—made by local graphic designer and advocate Jamal Collins and Columbus-based animation studio Pixel Park—which features the scene with an overbearing officer.
The next scene, however, demonstrates how to turn that negative, aggressive interaction into a positive one. Instead of leaning forward as if in anticipation of conflict, the officer lounges casually on the hood of his cruiser. And instead of speaking to the group of teens in gruff tones, he asks calm, measured questions. The teens are still wary. But instead of cowering in fear, they keep their hands at their sides and start a conversation.
Cleveland-area young people participated in making the video, thanks to the center’s partnership with Earl Ingram, program director at the Boys & Girls Club of Cleveland at St. Luke’s Manor. Four teens—Nazli Collins, Ryan Greer, Caleb Harmon and Mabry Harris III—voiced characters who had struggled with negative police interactions in the past. The narrator is another local teen, Brice Peak, whom Celeste met at a police-community forum organized by the Boys & Girls Club. “Over the years, I’ve had so many conversations with young people,” says Celeste. “I felt it was really, really important to find a way to elevate their voices.”
Suggestions from local youth even shaped the substance of the video, such as having the animated officer change his posture to lean back on the squad car so as not to appear threatening. “The kids gave us that idea,” Celeste says. “We want officers to know that when they come out of a squad car and talk to kids, their body language matters.”
Celeste hopes the video and the rest of the toolkit will spark additional dialogue in local police departments, schools, community centers and other organizations that work with youth about how to make interactions between police officers and youth better. The center has encouraged its community partners to share the free materials on social media, using the hashtag #BetterPolicing4Kids.
The toolkit was released late last year, but its relevance has only increased as youth in Cleveland are buffeted by events that could place them in contact with police officers. These include a tide of local homicides, the victims of which are overwhelmingly young people, and a rising wave of mental health crises exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I’m grateful we got this policy adopted,” Celeste says. “I hope it’s one of many reminders for us adults about how we can’t rely on our system of last resort, our criminal justice system, and only pay attention to kids when they become a political problem. We need to pay attention to kids earlier, and in many other ways, before they become a problem to the rest of the community. Because they’re hurting. They’re hurting deeply right now.”
Sheehan Hannan (CWR ’14) is a freelance writer in Columbus, Ohio. He was formerly an associate editor at Cleveland Magazine.
Timothy Beal, the Florence Harkness Professor of Religion, was named a Distinguished University Professor during Fall Convocation last August. This title, Case Western Reserve’s highest faculty honor, recognizes his scholarly achievements, his service to the university and his contributions to CWRU’s national and international reputation.
A faculty member since 1999, Beal has published 16 books and received 17 prestigious national grants and fellowships. His body of work, including journal articles and essays for the popular press, has enhanced scholarly and public understanding of the history of religion and its contemporary manifestations.
Beal has served as director of the university’s Baker-Nord Center for the Humanities, chair of the Department of Religious Studies and interim dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. Currently, he is the director of h-lab, an initiative that invites scholars and students to experiment with and reflect on the use of computational tools in humanities research. In 2018, when Beal accepted the university’s Baker-Nord Award for Distinguished Scholarship in the Humanities, he gave a lecture explaining how he has applied machine learning to translating the creation story in Genesis.
Beal’s newest book, When Time is Short: Finding Our Way in the Anthropocene, will be published in May. In it, he asks how religious traditions that have fostered “a belief in our godlike dominion over the natural world” might be reinterpreted to help us acknowledge and come to terms with “the very real and imminent potential for human extinction.”
The moment Thrity Umrigar published her ninth novel, Honor, at the start of the year, it found a prompt welcome in the literary world. Independent booksellers placed the novel on their Indie Next List of recommended titles for January. Then, actress Reese Witherspoon named it the January pick for her influential online book club.
Umrigar, Distinguished University Professor in the Department of English, was unable to go on a multi-city tour to promote the novel; the omicron wave made that impossible. But she has appeared at virtual events held by bookstores and libraries across the country, including a public conversation with New York Times foreign correspondent Ellen Barry, whose stories about the oppression of women in an Indian village stirred her imagination.
“Barry’s description of the punishment meted out to those who strayed from tradition made my hair stand up,” Umrigar writes on her website. “But at the same time, I was impressed by the determination displayed by the women of the village who rebelled against the old ways.”
Like some of Umrigar’s previous fiction—including her 2006 international bestseller, The Space Between Us—Honor explores the relationship between two women of different classes. Meena, who marries against her rural family’s wishes, comes to know Smita, a journalist who has returned to India after many years in the United States. Umrigar wrote a portion of the novel in Meena’s voice, breaking the silence imposed on women in the world the novel describes.
In making the theme of honor central to the book, Umrigar says she was reacting against the ways the word is “abused and shorn of its meaning in traditional, male-dominated societies, where it is simply a cover for the domination of women by their fathers, brothers and sons.”
With this novel, Umrigar explains, “I wanted to reclaim the word and give it back to the people to whom it belongs—people like Meena, a Hindu woman, and her Muslim husband, Abdul, who allow their love to blind them to the bigotries and religious fervor that surround them, who transcend their own upbringing to imagine a new and better world. … There is something incredibly tender and beautiful about people who have never known a day’s freedom deciding to love whomever their heart chooses.”
Lydia Kisley, the Warren E. Rupp Assistant Professor in the Department of Physics, has been awarded a Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF). The program recognizes junior faculty members “who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education and to lead advances in the mission of their department or organization.”
The five-year, $625,000 grant—the most prestigious honor NSF confers on early-career faculty—will support Kisley’s lab in its molecular-level investigation of the electrochemical reactions that underlie corrosion, catalysis and other phenomena in metals. The research may have applications in developing battery and solar energy technologies, energy-efficient chemical reactions and innovations to prevent the degradation of infrastructure.
The CAREER award was announced in March, only six months after Kisley received another major award: a five-year, $1.9 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). This grant will support her research team’s use of super-resolution microscopy to image biophysical environments outside of cells—the “extracellular matrix.”
“Our studies seek to identify and characterize how proteins function within this matrix,” says Kisley, who joined Case Western Reserve’s physics faculty in 2019. “Our results can be applied broadly to therapeutic delivery, tissue engineering and understanding of disease development.”
Kisley notes that the NIH grant enabled her to bring “two excellent postdocs” to CWRU and will support a doctoral student as well. In addition, she says, the grant will fund “construction of a new type of microscope that will let us image in 3D, versus the 2D images we typically get.”
Joy K. Ward, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, calls Kisley a “remarkable researcher, educator and leader” whose work has already had a significant impact on material design.
“I look forward to watching Lydia’s career continue to flourish in the years to come,” Ward says. “It is an honor to have her in the college.”
For the past 18 years, geologist Beverly Saylor has typically spent two weeks in February in the Afar region of Ethiopia, studying sediments and fossils, seeking an understanding of what the environment was like more than 3 million years ago. Along with colleagues in multiple disciplines, she explores how features of different habitats may have influenced the evolution of pre-human species in that part of the world.
Saylor, professor in the Department of Earth, Environmental and Planetary Sciences, is the principal investigator on a three-year project, funded by a $1.2 million grant from the W. M. Keck Foundation, to apply advanced technologies and techniques to this research. Because of civil strife in Ethiopia, however, she and her collaborators could not conduct their usual field season this winter. Instead, they organized a Zoom workshop in February to formulate strategies for analyzing immense amounts of data already collected at two sites—Hadar and Woranso-Mille—where major discoveries have been made. Saylor’s co-principal investigator on the project, paleoanthropologist Yohannes Haile-Salassie, has led the research effort at Woranso-Mille since 2004.
Saylor’s other colleagues include Jeffrey Yarus, a research professor in Case Western Reserve’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering. Saylor and Yarus are developing ways to apply spatial modeling techniques to the study of environments critical to early human evolution.
“I’m disappointed we didn’t get to go to the field,” Saylor says. “But the silver lining is that this workshop is going to set us up to make the most of our time when we do return.”
Toward the close of the 2020-21 academic year, several members of the College of Arts and Sciences faculty were recognized for outstanding teaching and mentoring.
Cyrus Taylor, the Albert A. Michelson Professor in Physics, and Anthony Wexler, lecturer in the Department of English and SAGES teaching fellow, each received a Carl F. Wittke Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching.
Jessica Fox, associate professor in the Department of Biology, and Daniel Goldmark, professor in the Department of Music and associate dean for interdisciplinary initiatives and international affairs, each received a John S. Diekhoff Award for Distinguished Graduate Student Mentoring.
Gabrielle Parkin, interim director of the Writing Resource Center, lecturer in the Department of English and SAGES teaching fellow, received the J. Bruce Jackson, MD, Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Mentoring.
Lisa Nielson, lecturer in the Department of Music and an Anisfield-Wolf SAGES Fellow, received the Richard A. Bloom, MD, Award for Distinguished Teaching in the SAGES Program, a prize established in 2008 by alumnus Richard Bloom (WRC ’74, MED ’79).
Ralph Harvey, professor in the Department of Earth, Environmental and Planetary Sciences, received the Jessica Melton Perry Award for Distinguished Teaching in Disciplinary and Professional Writing.
Henry Adams, the Ruth Coulter Heede Professor in Art History, is the author of a new biography, The Sensuous Life of Adolf Dehn: American Master of Watercolor and Printmaking. He also wrote the catalogue for an exhibition at the Western Reserve Historical Society, The Golden Age of Cleveland Art: 1900–1945.
Julie Andrijeski, senior instructor in the Department of Music, appears on a new CD by Quicksilver, an acclaimed Baroque ensemble she co-directs. Early Moderns: The (Very) First Viennese School features 17th-century works originally performed at the Viennese court.
Cynthia Beall, Distinguished University Professor and the Sarah Idell Pyle Professor of Anthropology, has been named editor-in-chief of Evolution, Medicine, and Public Health, one of the top 10 journals in evolutionary biology.
Erin Benay, associate professor in the Department of Art History and Art, is the author of Italy by Way of India: Translating Art and Devotion in the Early Modern World.
Robert W. Brown, Distinguished University Professor and Institute Professor in the Department of Physics, received an award from the Ohio Section of the American Association of Physics Teachers recognizing his “lifetime service to physics education.”
Lauren Calandruccio, the Louis D. Beaumont University Professor II in the Communication Sciences Program in the Department of Psychological Sciences, was named a Fellow of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. In addition, she received a 2021 Think Big Leadership Award from the Office of the Provost at Case Western Reserve.
Michael W. Clune, the Samuel B. and Virginia C. Knight Professor of Humanities in the Department of English, received the 2022 Baker-Nord Center Award for Distinguished Scholarship in the Humanities at Case Western Reserve University. In addition, he wrote the cover story for the April 2022 issue of Harper’s Magazine: “Night Shifts: Can Technology Shape Our Dreams?”
Georgia Cowart, professor in the Department of Music and interim chair of the Department of English, was elected president of the American Musicological Society for 2022-24.
Margaretmary Daley, associate professor in the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures, is the author of Great Books by German Women in the Age of Emotion, 1770-1820.
Dale Dannefer, the Selah Chamberlain Professor and chair of the Department of Sociology, is the author of Age and the Reach of Sociological Imagination: Power, Ideology and the Life Course.
Julie J. Exline, professor in the Department of Psychological Sciences, is the co-author (with Kenneth I. Pargament, professor emeritus of psychology at Bowling Green State University) of Working with Spiritual Struggles in Psychotherapy: From Research to Practice.
Matthew Garrett, associate professor in the Department of Music and director of the University Center for Innovation in Teaching and Education, is the co-author (with Joshua Palkki, assistant professor of music education at California State University, Long Beach) of Honoring Trans and Gender-Expansive Students in Music Education.
Elina Gertsman, the Archbishop Paul J. Hallinan Professor in Catholic Studies II in the Department of Art History and Art, was recently elected a Fellow of the Medieval Academy of America, the highest honor the Academy bestows on North American medievalists. In addition, Gertsman’s latest monograph, The Absent Image: Lacunae in Medieval Books, received the Charles Rufus Morey Book Award from the College Art Association.
Melvyn C. Goldstein, the John Reynolds Harkness Professor of Anthropology and co-director of the Center for Research on Tibet at CWRU, received the Association for Asian Studies’ 2022 E. Gene Smith Inner Asia Book Prize for his 2019 book A History of Modern Tibet, Volume 4: In the Eye of the Storm, 1957-1959.
Brian Gran, professor in the Department of Sociology, is the author of The Sociology of Children’s Rights.
Maggie Kaminski, administrative director of the Baker-Nord Center for the Humanities, was among the winners of Case Western Reserve’s 2021 President’s Award for Distinguished Service.
William Marling, professor in the Department of English, is the author of Christian Anarchist: Ammon Hennacy, A Life on the Catholic Left.
Amy Przeworski, associate professor in the Department of Psychological Sciences, received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts for a project she developed in collaboration with Christopher Bohan, instructor in the Department of Theater. The project, launched with seed funding from the college’s Expanding Horizons Initiative, will explore how improvisational theater techniques can help reduce social anxiety, general anxiety and depression in adolescents.
Damaris Puñales–Alpízar, associate professor and chair in the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures; Michelle Corcoran, department administrator in the Department of Sociology; and Jessica Salley Riccardi, a doctoral candidate in the Communication Sciences Program in the Department of Psychological Sciences, were among the winners of the 2021 Mather Spotlight Prize, awarded by the university’s Flora Stone Mather Center for Women.
Einav Rabinovitch-Fox, lecturer in the Department of History, is the author of Dressed for Freedom: The Fashionable Politics of American Feminis
Sandra Russ, Distinguished University Professor and the Louis D. Beaumont University Professor in the Department of Psychological Sciences, is senior editor of The Cambridge Handbook of Lifespan Development of Creativity. One of the co-editors, Jessica Hoffmann (GRS ’19, clinical psychology) was once her graduate student and is now a research scientist at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. Along with Russ, two other members of the college faculty contributed chapters to the book: Anastasia Dimitropoulos, associate professor in the Department of Psychological Sciences, and Eva Kahana, Distinguished University Professor and the Pierce T. and Elizabeth D. Robson Professor of the Humanities in the Department of Sociology.
Daniel Scherson, the Frank Hovorka Professor of Chemistry and director of the Ernest B. Yeager Center for Electrochemical Sciences, received one of Case Western Reserve’s 2021 Faculty Distinguished Research Awards.
Gillian Weiss is the co-author (with Meredith Martin, associate professor of art history at New York University) of The Sun King at Sea: Maritime Art and Galley Slavery in Louis XIV’s France.