The Physics of Changing Course: From the Materials Lab to the Medieval Institute

Deciding to move from the sciences to the humanities as a graduate student is not necessarily common or easy, especially for disciplines as substantively and methodologically distant as physics and medieval studies.

For graduate students Jill Bjerke and Luke Chambers, the attraction of medieval studies—the fascinating history of iconic kings and queens, the adventure of medieval romances and epics—was a force too strong to resist.

a photo of graduate student Jill Bjerke

Jill, who earned her M.S. in Physics from Wake Forest University, had been interested in the Middle Ages and historical fiction since she was a child. During her master’s program, she happened upon the brochure for the International Congress on Medieval Studies, a massive conference held every year in Kalamazoo (of all places!) and hosted by WMU’s Medieval Institute. Fascinated by the hundreds of sessions on topics ranging from ale-brewing and iron-smelting to semiotics, gender theory, and medievalism in gaming culture, Jill decided to give the conference a go. During her first visit to Congress, she attended a session on Angevin and Plantagenet warfare, and watched as the room erupted in a debate over medieval military tactics. The experience turned out to be a decisive one for Jill. Watching these scholars argue passionately with each other over 700 year-old warfare made her realize that, yes, people do this for a living, and that she could as well.

a photo of graduate student Luke Chambers

Luke also traces his fascination with the Middle Ages to his childhood, when his mother read to him from Beowulf and from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. After a winding academic path through interdisciplinary studies, math, and medieval literature, Luke found himself completing undergraduate degrees in Physics and Math at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. Feeling a pull to return to the medieval (along with some disenchantment with future career choices in his field) Luke took a semester of Latin at the University of Minnesota, then applied to and was accepted to Western’s Medieval Studies M.A. For him, the structures of languages provide a familiar link to his background in mathematics. Luke observes that, in both math and linguistics, “you have to recognize sets and groupings… though, in the long run, languages aren’t strict, technical things.”

Jill too concedes that there’s quite a disciplinary distance between her original research in Physics (nanotechnology and materials science) and her current work in Medieval Studies. However, she hopes that classes in paleography (the study of ancient writing) will help her to bridge the two disciplines. A mix of history and science, paleography presents the opportunity to study manuscripts and “the materials background of writing,” according to Jill. She says she’s often been curious about putting manuscripts under the microscope in the same way that she studied the composition of steel in her master’s program, yet doing so would involve cutting the medieval vellum, destroying the manuscript and losing a rare and tangible piece of history.

Making the transition from a scientific field to the humanities, Jill feels that the greatest challenges have been an increased reading load and acquainting herself with a new discipline’s writing style. Learning to write for the humanities, Jill says, “you have to pay attention to word choice, sentence structure, style… writing for the sciences is much more succinct, clear, and simple.” Luke agrees, describing different methods of persuasion in each field: style and rhetoric vs. reporting data and interpretation. Jill says that her focus now is on the writing process and establishing a voice as a historian, a much different task than writing in the sciences. As for her new reading load, she feels like she’s gone back to the beginning of school—a “new school,” as she puts it—and since the character of her work has changed so drastically, she’s not burned out yet.

Likewise, though Luke acknowledges that graduate study is a considerable commitment of time and resources, he chose to pursue his interests in medieval languages and literatures at Western because “you can’t learn as much as you’d like to learn about old languages as an undergrad,” and, as he observes, “if you want to understand the past, you have to be able to read the languages of those cultures.” As he explains, the history of language and literature tells us a great deal about our own culture: “Old English is the source of our own language, and Old Norse had a strong influence on English culture and language as well, due to their common mythology and the history of the Danish invasions of England.” Luke’s own research interests reveal the intersections of language, text, and culture. His Master’s thesis will explore the classical source material for the 13th-century Icelandic Trójumanna saga (Saga of the Troy-men), a text which adapts and recombines material from the Latin matter of Troy as well as Ovid’s Heroides. In addition to his research in Germanic languages and literatures, Luke, a third-year Master’s student, is also one of the Medieval Institute’s graduate instructors for MDVL 1450: “Heroes and Villains” of the Middle Ages.

Now in the second year of her M.A. in Medieval Studies, Jill balances a full workload of courses, as well as working as a graduate instructor for MDVL 1450. Last year, her classes ranged from classical and medieval Latin to medieval “Art and Devotion” to a course on the “Rulers and Regions” of France, England, and the Low Countries. The last of these classes provided another decisive moment for Jill, when she realized that every text on the syllabus for “Rulers and Regions” was one that she would have picked up on her own. Her lifelong love of history and enthusiasm for this course material gave her the knowledge that, despite the fact that she doesn’t have an academic background in history, she’s not a “fish out of water” here and that her decision to change fields was a good one. Her current research interests center on Richard the Lionheart and his political career, including his involvement in the Crusades. Jill speaks passionately about Richard, his mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and his global wanderings: “Richard I is everywhere. He’s King of England, yet has extensive holdings in France. On Crusade he goes to Sicily, Cyprus and the Holy Land and gets captured by the Duke of Austria on the way home. He’s a gateway into many regions of medieval Europe. And, of course, he turns up in the Robin Hood legends as well!” Jill’s excitement about this legendary king and her field makes it clear that, whatever she may have sacrificed in her disciplinary shift, it’s been worth it to her.



Video: Jill Bjerke on Richard the Lionheart and Eleanor of Aquitaine

The Institute currently enrolls 22 graduate students, each with widely varied research interests. In addition to Jill’s and Luke’s research in late medieval English history and Germanic  languages, our medievalists are interested in topics including monasticism and anchoritism; medieval Bohemia and Central Europe; women, peasants, and Islam in the Byzantine Empire; medieval and Renaissance drama; and medieval economies, among other areas. In addition to physics and mathematics, our current students have undergraduate backgrounds in philosophy, history, varied languages and literatures, music education, film, international relations, political science, psychology, and classics. With graduate students coming from far afield to pursue their research passions at the Medieval Institute, and graduate instructors sharing their lifelong “medieval fascinations” with students, it seems that Medieval Studies is in good hands at WMU.

Postscript:

WMU’s Medieval Institute (LINK: www.wmich.edu/medieval) is known worldwide as the home of the International Congress on Medieval Studies (LINK: http://www.wmich.edu/medieval/congress/index.html) , which brings thousands of medievalists to Kalamazoo every May, and offers a Master’s program in Medieval Studies (LINK: http://www.wmich.edu/medieval/academics/ma-program.html]. The program is also well known for its Richard Rawlinson Center for Anglo-Saxon Studies (LINK: http://www.wmich.edu/medieval/research/rawl/index.html) , and houses Medieval Institute Publications (LINK: http://www.wmich.edu/medieval/mip/index.html) . The Institute has over thirty affiliated faculty members from the departments of English, History, Theatre, Comparative Religion, Japanese, Spanish, Classics, German, Art, Music, and University Libraries.

Louise Schuster 91 – Awarded Second Master’s Degree

Louise Schuster got the surprise of her long life when Dean Susan Stapleton of the Graduate College at Western Michigan University showed up at her door to deliver Mrs. Schuster’s third diploma. At 91 years of age, Mrs. Schuster had already earned a Bachelor of Science in 1968 and a Master of Arts in 1969 from Western. She had also completed coursework toward a Master’s degree in Literacy Studies through 1980, but had never gotten that degree. With only imaged transcripts from 1962 through 1980 to work with, some detective work was needed.

A photo of Louise Schuster being presented her diploma by Susan Stapleton, Dean of the Graduate College

Enter Mallory Bourdo, Academic Auditor in the Registrar’s Office and Lauren Freedman, Professor in the Department of Special Education and Literary Studies, College of Education and Human Development. They combed through Mrs. Schuster’s records, evaluated her credits, and found she had enough credits to receive a Master of Arts in Literacy Studies. With the help of Carrie Cumming, Senior Associate Registrar, and Stacey Doxtater, Graduation Auditing Supervisor, a decision was made to issue a diploma for June 2012. Mallory worked with the family, especially Mrs. Schuster’s granddaughter, Darcy Kelly, to make sure Mrs. Schuster would receive her diploma, and between all parties they agreed to have the diploma hand-delivered to Mrs. Schuster in her Sturgis home by Dean Susan Stapleton. Mrs. Schuster knew she would be receiving a diploma, but did not know it would be delivered to her home with pomp and circumstance. With her family surrounding her, Louise Schuster finally received her second Master of Arts and her third diploma, in its ceremonial cover, made possible by her hard work and the efforts of Western Michigan University faculty, staff, and administrators.

Dr. Tova Samuels

 First WMU Mi-AGEP Graduate from the College of Arts and Sciences

The Graduate College is proud to announce that Ms. Tova Samuels graduated with herPhD in chemistry in June 2012, the first Western Michigan University affiliated MI-AGEP student to graduate from the College of Arts and Sciences at WMU since the inception of the program. MI-AGEP stands for Michigan Alliance for Graduate Education and the Professoriate, a National Science Foundation grant program geared toward increasing the number of under-represented students in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) and Social, Behavioral and Economic (SBE) fields.

Besides Western Michigan University, other member institutions are Michigan Tech, Michigan State University, University of Michigan and Wayne State University. AGEP students may be supported in their pursuit of doctoral degrees for up to four years.

Ms. Samuels’ advisor in the Chemistry Department was Dr. Sherine Obare, whose tireless work on behalf of recruiting and retaining highly qualified students has resulted in a number of AGEP awardees in the Chemistry Department. Ms. Samuels’ specialty in the field of chemistry is nanoscience; her dissertation title is “Strategies for Studying the Interaction of Nanoscale Materials with Chemical and Biological Contaminants.” In this area of specialization, Ms. Samuels primarily studied the interaction of silver, gold, and bimetallic-silver/gold nanoparticles with pesticides, specifically organophosphorus pesticides. These are a particular class of pesticides that are similar in structure to some chemical warfare agents.  She also used silver and gold nanoparticles coated with an antibiotic, ampicillin, to study their effects on antibiotic resistant bacteria.

Ms. Samuels received her Bachelor of Science in Chemistry from Cedar Crest College in Allentown, PA, in 2007. She chose Western Michigan University for graduate study on the strength of a recommendation by her advisor. She has earned several scholarships, awards and honors at WMU, including the Gwen Frostic Doctoral Fellowship for Spring 2011, the Graduate College Graduate Travel Fund award, 2010, and the MPI Research, Inc. Graduate Research Scholarship, 2011. When asked about her most outstanding experience at WMU, she said the entire experience of earning her PhD was memorable and life-changing. In five years, she sees herself wearing many hats and serving many positions. She has interests that expand far beyond the classroom, leading her to pursue a career as an educator and a business entrepreneur.

Her extra-curricular professional activities include membership in NOBCChE, the National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers. She volunteers for the Secondary Education division of NOBCChE and plans to pick up more volunteer opportunities outside of NOBCChE now that she has graduated. She also does free-lance tutoring. Ms. Samuels is interested in promoting an eco-friendly, natural lifestyle and proudly states, “I’m out to change the world!” Given her outgoing personality and her many professional skills, the Graduate College has no doubt that she will do just that and congratulates Ms. Samuels on her achievement in attaining a Ph.D. in Chemistry at WMU.

Kevin Grazioli—Winner of Two EMMY awards!

Kevin Grazioli, MBA student at Western Michigan University, has two beautiful golden statues to commemorate his undergraduate film career. His film “Seeing Stars in Indiana” won two EMMY awards from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences in 2012. Completed while he was a senior at Ball State University majoring in telecommunications, the film has been airing on Public Broadcasting System stations across Indiana since 2011.

In “Seeing Stars in Indiana,” Grazioli’s film crew followed professional and amateur astronomers as they traveled through Indiana and to Arizona to explore the night sky.

The film, which was created to, in Grazioli’s words, encourage people to “look up!” was nominated by PBS station WIPB-PBS, which funded the work. It won the overall prize for Health/Science Program or Special. Grazioli also won an EMMY for his role as Director—Post Production. In pre-production, Grazioli proposed the idea, obtained funding, and hired the crew, including narrators for the voice-overs and film editors.  In post-production he hired the film editors and consulted with them as they edited the work on its journey to completion. Grazioli has made contacts in Los Angeles while working on the film and this worked to his advantage in hiring his crew.

Since it has come out, the film has been a stepping stone for Grazioli as he has worked on commercials for Wal-Mart as well as on Fox Sports and ESPN. Acting as producer, writer and director, as well as cinematographer,  has given him great experience in his future career. Grazioli, who is from Canton, Michigan, is in his first year in the Master’s of Business Administration program at Western Michigan University. He works on campus as a Graduate Residence Hall Director at Ackley-Schilling. He has been working on a film project with Sindecuse Health Center and wants to pursue the financial and accounting side of filmmaking. For more information please visit his website at www.kevingrazioli.com.

Dr. Zella Jackson Hannum

Western Michigan University’s First AGEP Ph.D. Graduate in Engineering

Zella Jackson Hannum, who will be WMU’s first National Science Foundation (NSF) Alliance for Graduate Education and the Professoriate (AGEP) grant doctoral graduate in engineering, successfully defended her dissertation on May 16, in Walwood Commons.  Western Michigan University is partnered in a special AGEP Alliance with the University of Michigan, Michigan State University, and Wayne State University in a federally funded initiative aligned with efforts to increase participation among underrepresented groups in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Dr. Hannum was awarded a Ph.D. at the June 2012 commencement ceremony from the Department of Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering, which is chaired by Dr. Paul Engelmann.

Dr. David Lyth, professor and co-director of the Engineering Management Research Laboratory in the College of Engineering, served as Dr. Hannum’s dissertation chair and guided her research, titled Development of a New Technology Balanced Scorecard Derived from Critical Factors that Impact Product Quality.  Hannum’s study used multiple linear equations to predict critical factors that drive product quality and that demonstrated significant correlations with measures of product quality management practices and product quality performance.  The second part of the study developed and tested scorecard performance capability and usability and demonstrated significant correlations with measures of scorecard performance capability and managers’ decisions to use the scorecard as a tool in making quality management decisions. Such a performance measurement tool will be important to business environments interested in cultivating new technology ventures (NTVs) through the use of continuous process improvement and quality efforts.

Other members of Dr. Hannum’s dissertation committee include the following: Dr. Tarun Gupta and Dr. Leonard Lamberson, professors, WMU Department of Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering, and Dr. John Lloyd, University Distinguished Professor emeritus, College of Engineering, Michigan State University.