Shining a spotlight on student research

Even after years of running the series, I’m still always energized by the launch of a new Research Unplugged season. But last week I was even more delighted than usual. Last year, my colleagues and I hatched the idea of inviting an undergraduate student to give one of our six talks each semester. With the help of Nichola Gutgold, Associate Dean for Academic Affairs in Schreyer Honors College, we developed a list of potential student speakers.

There’s no lack of outstanding undergraduate researchers at Penn State; in fact, just the opposite. The number of exciting undergraduate research and service projects made it hard to imagine choosing. But one young woman stood out as the top choice for our Spring season. Though only a freshman, Neha Gupta has already captured the admiration and affection of not only  Penn Staters, but of the entire world, for the humanitarian work that led to her winning the International Children’s Peace Prize last November.

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Penn State freshman Neha Gupta accepts the International Children’s Peace Prize from Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

Fortunately for us, Neha agreed to be the first student speaker in this new initiative of ours, despite her extraordinarily busy schedule. (Among other things, Neha is taking part in Microsoft Office’s “Collective Project” which helps students pursue world-changing projects and tells their stories through videos, campus events and social media. )

After connecting through many emails and phone calls in the months before her Research  Unplugged talk , I was thrilled to meet this inspiring Penn State student in person yesterday.

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Neha Gupta, left, with Melissa Beattie-Moss, Manager of Research Communications

Not unexpectedly, there was a standing room only crowd at Schlow Library to hear Neha describe her journey from a 9-year-old with a vision to help orphans in India to the head of a global foundation working on behalf of children’s rights.

Standing room only at Neha Gupta's Research Unplugged talk
Standing room only at Neha Gupta’s Research Unplugged talk

Some of her fellow Schreyer Honors College scholars were in the audience, and Dean Christian Brady and Associate Dean Nikki Gutgold were there to support her as well. In her introduction of Neha, Dr. Gutgold pointed out that this is a student who embodies the values of Schreyer Honors College, most notably a passion for leadership and civic engagement.

From left, Associate Dean Nichola Gutgold; Penn State students in the audience; and at right, Dean Christian Brady

During the Q & A portion of the hour, the audience’s amazement at Neha’s accomplishments was palpable, as was their pride in her as a Penn State student. Neha fielded a wide array of questions like a pro for over 15 minutes.

While we know next semester’s student speaker will have a hard act to follow, we also are confident he or she will rise to the occasion. When it comes to Penn State student researchers, there are many exciting voices we’re eager to share with you!


Life, Death and Research

Mark Anner and Jobany Valesquez, the son of Febe Elizabeth Valesquez, who died in a the same bombing in El Salvador that wounded Anner. Jobany was six months old at the time his mother was killed. The photo was taken in front of the exact spot where the bombing occurred on the 25th anniversary of the bombing. A series of events were planned that day to celebrate the lives of those who died.
Penn State researcher Mark Anner and Jobany Valesquez, the son of Febe Elizabeth Valesquez, who died in the same bombing in El Salvador that wounded Anner. Jobany was six months old at the time his mother was killed. The photo was taken in front of the exact spot where the bombing occurred on the 25th anniversary of the bombing. A series of events were planned that day to celebrate the lives of those who died.

When you write about Penn State research, you have to be ready for a lot of knowledge and passion, maybe some controversy, and occasionally a big word or two that you pretend  you understand during the interview, but immediately try to find its definition on your iPhone as you run back to the office to start the story. Not that this has ever happened to me.

You learn a lot. But some of the lessons never make it into the story.

Here is the challenge I heard in the work of Mark Anner, associate professor of labor and employment relations and the director of the Center for Global Workers’ Rights: Would you be willing to take a stand for something you believe in?  Let’s go a step farther: Would you be willing to risk your life for something you believe in?

Anner and a colleague recently wrote a report on garment workers in El Salvador. These workers are finding themselves targets of violence and intimidation by corrupt union officials, factory owners, and even street gang members. But violence and intimidation are no stranger to Anner, who worked as a labor activist in El Salvador in the 1980s and 1990s. Early one morning in 1989, a group of armed men broke into his home and abducted him. He was taken to their headquarters, blindfolded, handcuffed, and tossed into a basement jail. For a period of time, his captors did not offer him food or water and forced him to stand for an extended time between interrogation sessions.

While Anner was released in about a day, some of his fellow unionists were held much longer, beaten and even raped.

Six weeks later, he was seriously wounded when paramilitary forces bombed the union cafeteria where he and friends were meeting. Ten people died and scores were wounded.

“Three union friends who were sitting with me at the time were killed, including a top union leader, Febe Elizabeth Velasquez,” Anner writes in the preface of his book, Solidarity Transformed.

The injuries he sustained during the attack created lingering health problems, he adds.

But this hasn’t stopped Anner from returning to El Salvador and continuing his research, work that he hopes will bring justice and prosperity to groups of people that often have no voice.

I should add that Anner did not mention any of this during our interview. I found most of the details of the attack afterward. However, the last few minutes of that interview did bring things home for me. In most releases, I try to mention all the researchers and collaborators who helped out on a study. Unfortunately, for the story on El Salvador garment workers I could not. Anner has colleagues who are still in that country and the release of their names could endanger them.

That was a quick way to put my day in perspective.



A Taste for Art in the Big Apple

Last week Research On the Road motored down Route 80 to the Big Apple for two events. The concept of both? Simply this: a number of our School of Visual Arts faculty members live and work in NYC, regularly traveling to Penn State to teach.  We thought it would be inspiring to shine a spotlight on a few of these commuting teacher-artists and introduce the public (alumni and non-alums, alike) to a taste of their diverse artistic styles and themes.

Designed in the French Renaissance style in 1892 by architect Henry Hardenbergh, the Art Students League building is a designated New York City Landmark and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The first event featured Penn State professor of art Helen O’Leary, giving a presentation on her work as part of the  “Artist’s Talk” series at the venerable Art Students League of New  York.  Founded in 1875, the League has been instrumental in shaping America’s legacy in the fine arts. The list of their famous students and teachers is nothing short of a Who’s Who of American Artists. (If you’re interested, this short film about the League’s storied history is fascinating!)

O’Leary’s talk was titled “Serenity and Abandon:  Drawing on the Physical and Emotional Landscapes of Ireland.”

IMG_4923 As the title suggests, she discussed what it was like growing up in rural Ireland, and how the physical and emotional landscapes of that homeland have influenced the themes and aesthetics of her artwork.

O’Leary’s presentation took place in the Phyllis Harriman Mason Gallery on the second floor of the League’s landmark building on West 57th Street.

In particular, Helen spoke of the impact of her life experiences on her work: the beauty of her family’s seaside farm in County Wexford and her mother’s fierce determination to keep the farm going after Helen’s father’s tragic death.

IMG_5723Helen emphasized the way certain themes and values of her childhood still permeate her work today. Among other things, her art conveys an appreciation of craft and craftmanship, a love of tools, structures and supports, and a celebration of the creative—and, at times, tragicomic—ways people “make do and get by” in life under difficult circumstances.

The talk was attended by about 30 to 35 people  who were riveted by Helen’s hour-long presentation. The volley of questions and answers with attendees at the end included a brief discussion about how Irish writers, including Samuel Beckett and James Joyce, have portrayed their native country. These bright and quirky moments of audience dialogue were (to me, a native New  Yorker) so quintessentially New York that it was a perfect end-note to a stimulating evening at the Art Students League.

The following evening Helen was joined by two other NYC-based Penn State colleagues—assistant professors Rudy Shepherd and Brian Alfred—for a talk and reception at Mixed Greens, the Chelsea gallery that represents Rudy Shepherd.

Another sophisticated design for us by Penn State visual communicator Erin Wease

Thirty or so attendees mixed and mingled in the loft-like gallery space before the talks got started.


Brian Alfred spoke first. A Penn State alumnus himself and a former student of Helen O’Leary’s (as was Mixed Greens director, Heather Darcy Bhandari) Brian had just returned from Art Basel Miami Beach, an international art show for modern and contemporary works, where his animation work titled “UNDER thunder AND Fluorescent LIGHTS” was selected for exhibition both inside the Miami Beach Convention Center and outside on a 7000-square-foot projection wall of the Frank Gehry designed New World Center in SoundScape Park.

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As a Penn State article on Brian explains, “Under Thunder and Florescent Lights, which was scored in collaboration with the artist and the band Storm & Stress, is in line with Alfred’s current work, which has themes of auto racing, globalism, transportation, and speed as a starting point.”

Cargo, 2014 acrylic on canvas 78 × 68 in

In response to audience questions, Brian also discussed his passion for integrating music into his work, as well as the success of his self-taught animation pieces in large-scale public art installations . For instance, his animation “Help Me” was featured on the Times Square NBC Astrovision screen as part of Creative Time’s 59th Minute, and a documentary about Alfred, called ArtFlick 001, was featured at the Sundance Film Festival.

Next to speak was Rudy Shepherd. Like his colleagues, Shepherd works in a lot of different media, including sculpture, drawing, painting, video and performance.  Originally intending to become a doctor, Shepherd took a sculpture class in his Junior year at Wake Forest University and his passion for art was ignited.

IMG_4994Rudy’s recent work is often inspired by world events as reported in the news. Rather than being dogmatic or distancing, his political art is approachable, emotionally engaging and hopeful.

One example of the intention behind his work is his series of public sculptures called The Black Rock Negative Energy Absorbers. As this article points out, Shepherd’s hope is for these works to “to expunge negative energy—which may come in the form of prejudice, racism, or even quotidian disdain” —from the people walking by the piece. His goal, he has said, was to create “moments of collective reflection” that would help humanize and heal.


This video from his Disaster Fatigue solo show gives a feel for the impact of his recent work:

Last to speak was Helen O’Leary.  In this setting, she shared more about  the effects of the economic crisis in Ireland after the banking boom of the 90s and her quest to document its impact on the Irish people and landscape.  In addition to her recent work, she also shared some images that were part of her collaboration with her daughter, photographer Eva O’Leary.


I hope you’ll take a moment to watch this video of Helen describing the themes of her work, including survival, inventiveness, armor, and a literal and metaphorical process of unraveling and reclaiming the raw material of art and life.

While the crowd for this gallery event wasn’t as grand as our packed concert hall in Nashville last month, it was convivial and intimate—the perfect scale for three personal and engaging presentations by the artists and for attendees to chat and really connect with the artists and with one another during the reception.

Melissa Beattie-Moss with two attendees, Mixed Greens gallery NYC


"The artists. Bravi!"
Thank you to photographer Matt Weinstein who attended the event and allowed me to use some of his wonderful shots here!

Warm thanks go out to Brian, Helen and Rudy for their involvement with our first, but hopefully not last, Research On the Road event in New York City. It was a treat for all who attended to meet and listen to all three of you, and together you powerfully represented the high calibre of talented and dedicated faculty in our School of Visual Arts.

After logging many miles across New England, the South, and the Empire State this semester, Research On the Road will cool our heels here in State College briefly during the holidays, but we’re already hard at work planning some intriguing public engagement events for spring semester. Which Penn State faculty members will be in the spotlight next? You’ll have to wait until the new year to find out. Happy holidays to all!