Feature Stories

Shhhhhhh! Don't Tell Res Life

I started as a timid little freshman, unsure of my major, unsure of what I was good at, homesick.

I ended as someone who is majoring in environmental science, and not just majoring: I feel like I couldn’t unravel it from my fibers even if I tried.

I started as someone who felt intimidated visiting professors—and when I did visit I’d show up with a carefully orchestrated list of questions—but now I just swing by with no agenda to discuss graphs and bread and life, and they have to shoo me out of their offices (“Get-out-get-out! I have class in 20 minutes!”).

For the next couple of weeks I am here, squatting in my old room (shhhhh! don’t tell Res Life) to preserve my comfy sense of denial about the fact that I will, indeed, one day have to leave Allegheny and The Bowden Lab. And enjoying all the things that I normally have to wedge between heaps of school work: visiting my favorite professors, attending evening guest lectures, playing organ, contra dancing, baking bread, biking. Soaking up what Allegheny has meant to me.

That’s one thing I’ve loved about Allegheny: I’ve definitely made a name for myself. And this has helped me work out who me is. A bread baker caring for my ancient sourdough starter like so many yeasty pets. A resourceful food rescuer. An adventurer for a semester at the School for Field Studies in Australia. A nerd. And, with the completion of my Senior Comp, a master switchgrass researcher.

How other people see you helps define how you see yourself, for better or worse. That girl who bikes in the snow. That organ student. That girl with the Tupperware containers. That girl who does the poi fire–spinning dance.



As a freshman at Allegheny, I had the misconception that college would be where I’d learn a lot of facts, get a nice crisp diploma, and then continue on my way fairly untouched. But no.

Definitely touched by this place, I have learned more than I thought possible about myself.

Heartbreak and Hope in Haiti

Johnny Six ’97 is no stranger to the damage that natural catastrophes can wreak on a population—or to the ongoing and insidious toll that poverty takes on children. In 2005, as a young doctor, he traveled to New Orleans to provide medical assistance shortly after Hurricane Katrina devastated the region. This January, after learning about the 7.0 magnitude earthquake that killed more than 200,000 and injured more than 300,000 in Haiti, he did what so many Americans wished they could do: find a way to help.

Planning was made easier because one of Six’s partners at his medical practice in Claysville, Pennsylvania, Fred Landenwitsch, had been to Haiti several times on medical missions to La Croix and surrounding villages. The two doctors coordinated their efforts through Friends of Haiti, a nonprofit organization that supports the New Testament Mission in La Croix, about seventy miles north of Port au Prince.

With another physician, a dentist, three nurses, and seven lay medical assistants, Six and Landenwitsch made the trip to Haiti in early February. “Our trip was for seven days,” Six says, “although not nearly long enough to provide the care that was needed so much either before or after the earthquake.” Although Six and his colleagues had started planning a trip to Haiti months before the earthquake, the magnitude of the natural disaster heightened the urgency and sharpened the focus of their mission.

Using the New Testament Mission as their home base, the team began each day by packing bags of medicine, wound dressings, intravenous fluids, antibiotics, multivitamins, and nutritional supplements before traveling to nearby villages.

“We would set up our medical clinic in a church or school building and word of our arrival would spread,” Six says. “Within a short period of time we would have hundreds of patients waiting to see the medical or dental teams. The large majority of patients needed routine care, from diabetes and high blood pressure to malnutrition and skin infections. But we also saw multiple earthquake survivors who had made their way from Port au Prince to stay with family or friends. Many of these patients had traveled with fractures of their extremities and with skin infections sustained from flying and falling debris during the earthquake.”

The team was also able to provide nutritional counseling and supplements to pregnant women, as well as assess the general health of their unborn babies by using a hand-held Doppler monitor to listen to fetal heart tones.

“It’s difficult to comprehend the magnitude of poverty in Haiti. But despite the limited resources available, the Haitian people are resilient, hard working, and inspiring.”

“Some of the most heart-breaking moments of our work came when assessing malnutrition,” Six says. “It’s difficult to comprehend the magnitude of poverty in Haiti. But despite the limited resources available, the Haitian people are resilient, hard working, and inspiring. Patients’ family and community members were essential in helping us to treat many ailments.”

Six, who is a member of Allegheny College’s Alumni Council and immediate past president of the Washington County Medical Society, says that the medical mission was one of the most rewarding experiences he has had, either professionally or personally. He hopes to continue his in-volvement in providing medical care to the poor in Haiti.

“It was difficult on this trip to want to do more but to be hampered by such limited resources,” he says. “But even so our days in Haiti were filled with hope.”


The Teacher-Scholar

A Glimpse into the Research and Creative Work of ALLEGHENY

Caryl Waggett & KATIE HUSER '11

Serving on the faculty at a liberal arts college requires a fine balancing act: the expectations for teaching and mentoring students are the highest in higher education, and yet those same teachers are expected to maintain a rigorous program of professional development.

For the five Allegheny faculty interviewed for this article, however—and, they would be the first to say, for their colleagues across campus—engaging in research and creative activity is not a matter of simply meeting expectations. It complements and informs their teaching, it connects them to colleagues around the globe, and it brings them tremendous personal satisfaction as they work in labs, libraries, theatres, and the world outside campus to unravel mysteries, contribute to scholarship, create new and distinctive work, and solve real-world problems.


In many cases, Allegheny faculty are also able to integrate students into their work: students often cite getting to work alongside faculty in research and creative projects as one of the most exciting and rewarding components of their Allegheny education. But whether or not it lends itself to student contributions, the work that faculty do often models for students the joy of tackling a problem and making it their own, thus helping to produce and inspire the next generation of scholars.

Faculty Members

The Model Pays Off

It’s a little counterintuitive: we expect liberal arts grad-uates to get a well-rounded education—breadth in addition to depth is the liberal arts’ bread and butter—but we might expect that researchers who want to learn their trade would flock to research universities. It’s what research universities do, after all.

The numbers reveal otherwise, however. Although residential liberal arts colleges educate about 3 percent of American college graduates, those colleges produce almost twice as many students, proportionately, who go on to earn Ph.D.s in science as do other institutions. Almost 20 percent of scientists elected to the National Academy of Sciences during a recent two-year period were liberal arts graduates.

Perhaps not so surprising—but just as impressive—liberal arts colleges were shown in one study to have produced 8 percent of the nation’s wealthiest CEOs as listed in Forbes magazine; 9 percent of Fulbright scholarship winners; and, in an almost forty-year period, disproportionately high percentages of Pulitzer Prize winners: 23 percent of the prizewinners in drama, 19 percent in history, 18 percent in poetry, 8 percent in biography, and 6 percent in fiction.

Liberal arts institutions have also produced 19 percent of U.S. presidents, including Allegheny’s own William McKinley as well as the incumbent: Barack Obama began his undergraduate education at Occidental College and finished it at Columbia University.

The Challenge

But the successes associated with the teacher-scholar model are hard-won. Even the most dedicated teacher and scholar comes up against the same insurmountable problem as the rest of us: barring a research breakthrough in temporal physics, there are only so many hours in the day.

Professor of English Diane D’Amico notes that she was able to write her book on Christina Rossetti only because at the time she had been granted a Humanities chair, with its reduced teaching load.

“What I find I can do during a regular academic year is limited,” she says. “Therefore, I have focused on writing articles, not another book. For an article, I can narrow my research down to a single question concerning Rossetti: What did it mean for a Victorian woman to have breast cancer and to decide to have a mastectomy? What did it mean for a woman poet to be living in a Georgian town-house? I find I research extensively in the summers and then during the semester I can dip back into my research as time allows in order to develop the journal article. But there are still certain points in the semester when I have to set all of this aside so I can focus on grading.”

Major works such as Professor of History Barry Shapiro’s book on traumatic politics and the early French Revolution and Professor of Theatre Beth Watkins’s new play Chewing Your Fingers to the Bone were both developed for the most part over the course of sabbaticals.

Finding funding for research and creative activity can be equally challenging. “At a liberal arts college, it’s hard to find the time to write grant proposals, so you may not be as competitive as faculty at research universities,” notes Associate Professor of Economics Steve Onyeiwu. “For some grants, you’d almost have to shut down all your work and do nothing but work on the grant proposal.

Institutional support—money that the College can provide to faculty and students, often through the generosity of alumni—often makes a critical difference. Christine Scott Nelson ’73, who has served as chair of the College’s board of trustees since 2007, endowed a research fund during the last capital campaign.

Support from that fund allowed Associate Professor of Geology Ron Cole ’87 to work with two students in Alaska during summer 2008. The data they collected formed the bedrock for a successful grant application to the National Science Foundation, which will provide more than $219,000 over the course of three years for Cole’s continued research on volcanism and mineral resources in Alaska. As many as twelve Allegheny students will participate in the work, which will take them from Meadville to Alaska to what Cole calls a “world-class geochemical laboratory” in Taipei, where they’ll have the opportunity to work with a colleague of Cole’s at National Taiwan University.

Dean of the College Linda DeMeritt makes a point of announcing faculty accomplishments, including grants, at monthly faculty meetings. “Although as we talk about Allegheny to prospective students, we tend to emphasize the quality of our teaching, it’s true as well that we have a remarkable community of scholars here, including men and women with international reputations in their fields,” she says. “That students benefit so directly from our faculty’s scholarship—and often make their own contributions to it—is worth celebrating every chance we get.”

Steve Onyeiwu

Steve Onyeiwu has a great deal of respect for economists who focus solely on theory. It’s just not the kind of economist he wants to be. “I am an economist who believes economics should be about solving problems,” Onyeiwu says.

“Some economists build models—and they do good and necessary work—but I belong to the group who believe that even as we formulate abstract theories, economics should be relevant to the problems the world faces.”

Onyeiwu applies this philosophy to both of his current areas of research, one close to home in Meadville and the other much farther afield: in Africa.

Since his days as a Ph.D. student, Onyeiwu has been interested in how firms gain a competitive advantage. How do they become leading firms? What kind of investments do they make to attain that status? How do companies use technological innovation to their competitive advantage?

“There are so many factors that contribute to competitive advantage,” Onyeiwu says, “including luck.”

Although his dissertation was on the Nigerian textile industry—Onyeiwu was born and raised in Nigeria—and how they competed, he discovered upon arriving in Meadville that Crawford County was fertile ground in which to transplant his research.1 Onyeiwu is now focusing this branch of his work on the regional tool and die industry.

“We are surrounded by small companies that are very innovative,” Onyeiwu notes. “I am astounded at all of the technological innovations used by small companies in Crawford County. But at the same time these small companies are struggling because of 9/11 and competitive pressures from China.”

Onyeiwu’s second area of research—the economics of developing countries, especially in Africa—has allowed him to cross disciplinary lines and work with colleagues like Eric Pallant, in the environmental science department. Onyeiwu is especially interested in issues related to poverty and the impact of globalization on the poor in African villages. Using the poverty headcount index—the percentage of people who live below $1 per day—and access to basic necessities as benchmarks, Onyeiwu found that the impact of globalization on poor villagers in Nigeria has been marginal.

“The fun part of the research is when students start to make phone calls and people are rude to them,” Onyeiwu says. “I tell them, ‘Welcome to the world of research. Any research that is easy is probably not good research. You have to expect frustrations and challenges. A good researcher learns how to work around obstacles.’”

With Pallant and Molly Hanlon ’09, Onyeiwu is about to publish an article about the sustain-ability of agriculture in Africa, a topic they presented on at a conference in Senegal. The project began on an Experiential Learning term that Onyeiwu and Pallant led to Ghana, Togo, and Burkina Faso.

Onyeiwu has found that generally it’s difficult to include students in his research on the economics of African countries—both because of the travel involved and the sophistication of the economic tools needed for the research—but he says that Allegheny students represent tremendous value-added to his research on the tool and die industry.2

“They make phone calls, participate in designing questionnaires, explore which companies to interview, and how to distribute our findings,” Onyeiwu says. “Many of the tool and die owners are very private people, but I find that many of the shops we interview agree because they’ve heard that students are involved. Student involvement is a persuasive tool when I approach tool and die companies—it helps me gain access.”

One of the greatest benefits for students, Onyeiwu says, is to see the tools they learn in the classroom put to practical use on current problems. “My tool and die work changes its focus a little every year,” he notes. “Every year I ask my students, ‘What are the issues this year? Let’s go investigate what’s going on.’ ”

When Onyeiwu decided to research the tool and die industry, then president Richard Cook introduced him to Rob Smith ’73, president and owner of Acutec, a leading precision machining company. “That’s one of the pluses of doing research at a small liberal arts college,” Onyeiwu says, “that the president of the college can be so interested in faculty research that he would help make those connections for a junior faculty member. At a big research university, you probably would never even meet the president, let alone get to talk to him about your research.”

Diane D’Amico

When Diane D’Amico first encountered the work of pre-Raphaelite poet Christina Rossetti in graduate school, Rossetti wasn’t a major figure in the courses she was taking. “Women Victorian poets tended to be ignored,” D’Amico says. “But I was struck by the power and the beauty of Rossetti’s poetry, and I thought, ‘This is worth spending my time on.’ ”

Since that time Rossetti, who wrote more than a thousand poems, has increasingly gained stature in the literary world—and D’Amico has become one of the preeminent Rossetti scholars in the world. The research she has done on Rossetti also informs D’Amico’s work with students in the classroom.1

National Endowment for the Humanities Chair in the mid-1990s, D’Amico wrote the book Christina Rossetti: Faith, Gender and Time, published by Louisiana State University Press. Now, through a series of articles, D’Amico has been crossing disciplinary boundaries to explore Rossetti’s life and work through fields including religion, medicine, and architecture.

“What I noticed in the scholarship was a tendency to dismiss her faith—she was High Church Anglican—as unimportant or to view it through a Freudian lens as a substitute for her not marrying,” D’Amico says. “I thought we needed to take her religious beliefs more seriously and read her poetry through that lens.”

Scholars had also tended to underplay a major event in Rossetti’s life: the mastectomy that she underwent in her home in 1892. “That got me interested in the history of medicine. What did it mean for Rossetti to have breast cancer and to decide to have that surgery?” D’Amico says. “What struck me was that the early biographers avoid saying breast cancer almost intentionally until the 1970s. There was a great reluctance to talk about it and to use that language. That’s part of the reason why it’s hard to get at the story.”

Although it may be surprising to realize that mastectomies were performed in the nineteenth century, D’Amico says it was not an unusual operation. The hospital surgical records of George Lawson, who regularly performed mastectomies, still exist, although the records related to his private patients, including Rossetti, have been lost.

D’Amico’s interest in architecture grew out of a visit to Rossetti’s home, a Georgian row townhouse in London.2 Although 30 Torrington Square is now a collection of private apartments, D’Amico received permission to tour the house, where Christina Rossetti died in 1894.

“I think for many years now when students come to Allegheny they haven’t had vast experience reading poetry,” says D’Amico. “But I have found that if you place it in the context of the time and make connections to the social and cultural issues of the time, you can make it accessible. I’ve had wonderful discussions in classes.”

“I became interested in how physical place might have informed and shaped her poetry,” D’Amico says. “For her it’s especially important because in her later years she spent most of her time in that house and most of her mature poems were written there.”

D’Amico’s manuscript on Rossetti’s house and how it shaped her poetry will appear in the Spring 2010 issue of The Journal of Pre-Raphaelite Studies and will feature photos by her husband, psychology professor Bill DeLamarter. The photography includes shots of windows, D’Amico notes, “to give readers a sense of Rossetti looking out through her windows.”

“If we apply architectural terms to Rossetti’s later poems,” D’Amico says, “then her poems become windows, offering readers brief glimpses of light coming from a world just beyond the window.”

D’Amico has also made connections with descendants of Christina’s brother, William, the only one of the four Rossetti siblings to have children. Through those connections, she learned that the family still owns Christina’s writing desk—another glimpse into the poet’s world.

D’Amico has also researched nineteenth-century “penitentiaries,” which she explains were not prisons but ratherinstitutions that prostitutes entered, as “penitents,” to learn the respectable skills of laundry, needlework, and other useful work.  Rossetti volunteered in penitentiaries and may have read to the women there.

Caryl Waggett

Caryl Waggett’s research on lead poisoning in rural areas grew out of a classroom lesson that didn’t go quite as planned. A new faculty member in the environmental science department in 2003,1 she was teaching her first class and what she hoped would become her signature course: environmental health.

“I chose the topic of lead poisoning so students could see a success story. We’ve seen the rates of lead poisoning in children drop because of the regulations initiated starting back in 1978,” Waggett says. “So this would be an example for students: ‘See how we can accomplish things! You see, the country can identify and prioritize and solve these problems.’ There are a lot of environmental problems that are cool success stories.”

Before coming to Allegheny, Waggett focused her research on Lyme disease. She dissected some 14,000 ticks in the course of her research and conducted a three-year epidemiological study at a northern California commune at high risk for the disease. She still works with students at Allegheny who want to study Lyme disease and West Nile virus.

But once Waggett and her students started looking into the topic further, they discovered two things: Crawford County has many of the risk factors for lead poisoning—such as a high poverty rate and a high percentage of hous

ing that pre-dates the regulations against lead paint—and because lead poisoning had always been considered an urban problem, fieldwork hadn’t been done in rural areas. They set to work, aided by a Shanbrom Collaborative Research Grant, funded by Dr. Edward Shanbrom ’47 and his wife, Helen. Waggett and her students looked at fifty homes in the area and found enough evidence to suggest the potential for high incidences of lead exposure among the county’s children.

Just a year after that first course, and using the data gathered with their Shanbrom grant, Waggett successfully applied for a grant from the Environmental Protection Agency. Through a partnership with Meadville Pediatrics, they found that 10.4 percent of children in the county had elevated blood lead levels that could result in severe neurological problems associated with lead poisoning. That compared to 4.9 percent of children in Pennsylvania and 1.4 percent of children nationwide.

That initial work has now expanded into Healthy Homes–Healthy Children (HHHC), a program that supports parents in northwest Pennsylvania in their efforts to ensure their families’ health. In addition to its research program, HHHC not only provides free in-home testing for lead, mold, radon, and other hazards but also conducts educational outreach.

“Students helped me restructure the nature of the program from lead to Healthy Homes,” says Waggett, who is also Allegheny’s representative to the Council of Environmental Deans and Directors.2 “We’ve expanded beyond lead to all the issues that affect children’s health in the home. How do you prioritize lead when there are all these other issues affecting children’s health? Parents would ask us that: ‘What should I do first when my child has asthma and we live in an old home that likely has lead paint residue?’ ”

Allegheny students continue to be an integral part of Waggett’s research program and the heart of HHHC’s outreach efforts. “Students are the ones who figured out that we should be going into children’s classrooms: it educates teachers, it educates students, and the children go home and talk about the programs with their parents,” Waggett says. “In addition, our students are able to connect with the community in a way that is not threatening. And students bring an energy to the work. As soon as the light bulb goes on for them, they turn energy into action.”

As for the lesson students took away from that first class? Even better than learning about an environmental success story is being able to create one of your own.

Waggett co-chairs a working group on the environment and health. She has been collaborating with the Institute of Medicine, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and others to develop a strategy that will aid all undergraduates as educated citizens and future political, business, and community leaders to understand the health implications of human actions in the environment.

Barry Shapiro

“The very idea of ‘psychohistory’ makes many traditional historians uncomfortable,” according to Barry Shapiro. But by applying a psychological lens to history, Shapiro has created what scholar David Troyansky calls “a work of creativity and daring”: Traumatic Politics: The Deputies and the King in the Early French Revolution, published last year by Penn State University Press.

“I wrote the first draft during my last sabbatical,” Shapiro explains. “A research fellowship at the Michigan Psychoanalytic Institute gave me access to practicing psychoanalysts. But I’d been interested in psychoanalysis over the years. And in the last ten years I’ve worked, in a number of published articles, to integrate the role of human experience and human emotions into the study of how history has unfolded the way it has and how people’s conduct is driven by their emotions as much as by their ideas.”

In Traumatic Politics Shapiro examines how the early experiences of the deputies of the first Revolutionary Assembly, when the king’s troops surrounded the assembly and the deputies feared for their lives, affected the decisions they made as they constructed a new constitution and decided the fate not only of the monarchy but of the monarch himself.

“Even though there was no major violence at that time—the blood and gore of the guillotine would come later—even though it wasn’t a massive trauma like a geno-cide, these deputies were traumatized by the fear of violent death,” Shapiro notes. “In the immediate aftermath of that trauma, their behavior was shaped and skewed by the experience they had, as they fluctuated between denial and a revisitation of the trauma they experienced.”

Barry Shapiro says that students in Citizenship, Democracy, and the French Revolution sometimes do change the course of history: “Once the Assembly voted not to execute the king—but the students playing the crowd threatened another revolution, and the deputies eventually gave in to their demand for Louis’s death.”

For the last three years Shapiro has brought these ideas into the classroom with Citizenship, Democracy, and the French Revolution, a course partially funded by Project Pericles, which supports courses connected to civic engagement. Unique at Allegheny, and perhaps in the country, Shapiro’s course focuses on role-playing, giving students the opportunity to understand history through an emotional connection to the events they’re studying.1

The class studies two crises of the French Revolution: when Louis XVI tries to escape from Paris in 1791, and the Assembly has to decide what to do with him, and the trial of the king in 1792–93, which leads to his execution.

Shapiro gives two weeks of background for the course before students take the reins. For each crisis students divide into two factions, left and right. Some take on the personae of well-known figures such as Danton or Lafayette. Others assume generic roles, such as a seamstress or an uncommitted delegate. For the second crisis, students switch sides and reverse roles, with those who played named individuals taking on less prominent roles and vice versa.

“But they don’t have to do exactly what the people in history did,” Shapiro says. “Students can go off on a tangent or even go off the rails. But it has to be plausible. It has to be within the parameters of what the character might have done. And that allows us to explore the question to what extent is history inevitable?”2

Do the results of Shapiro’s research on traumatic politics in the French Revolution have relevance to politics today, particularly in the United States? “The very terms ‘the left’ and ‘the right’ originated in the French Revolution,” Shapiro reminds us.

“My own interest in the French Revolution originally derived from living in the 1960s and being upset by the polarization and mutual lack of understanding and respect that had coalesced around Vietnam and cultural issues,” Shapiro says.“I had hoped to better understand what happened in the 1960s through the lens of the French Revolution.”

Beth Watkins

I get embarrassed using the word playwright,” says Beth Watkins. “It’s not what I do.” But even if Watkins prefers not to call herself a playwright, the fact is that she works with students and other colleagues to create remarkable original pieces for the stage at Allegheny, including November’s Playshop production Chewing Your Fingers to the Bone.1

The play was inspired by “An Error in the Code,” an article by Richard Preston in The New Yorker that relates the diagnosis and treatment—and the human anguish—of a rare genetic disorder, Lesch-Nyhan syndrome, which causes its victims to actively work against their own self-interest, including terrible acts of self-mutilation.

Watkins and local puppeteer Brian Thummler had been looking for an opportunity to work together after Thummler created shadow puppets for Venus, another Playshop production. Watkins also knew that she wanted to develop a devised theatre piece, which a company creates through improvisational rehearsals rather than by starting from a script.

In 2005 Playshop Theatre debuted Chick Joint, a play that Beth Watkins adapted from the prison correspondence of Jesse Carr, a twenty-year-old college student who was arrested with eighty other human rights activists for trespassing onto the property of the School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia.

In September 2008 Watkins invited a small group of stu-dents to join her and Thummler on the project. Thus began the back and forth of a fifteen-month collaboration.2

“We had a series of two- and three-hour rehearsals in fall 2008,” Watkins says. “In January 2009, while I was in England on sabbatical, I wrote two sequences: an opening for the play and a story centered on King Fox. I was drawing on the memory of what we had worked on and stitching those ideas together in a way that was theatrical. The actors’ improvisations would spur my work on the narrative, which would take us back to the rehearsal hall.”

In addition to dramatizing real-life events described in Preston’s article, the play employs fantastical stories within the story: Hephaestus, Zeus, and Hera all make an appearance in a comic retelling of the Greek myth of Pandora’s box, and the King Fox fable uses puppets to tell a variation of the Bluebeard tale. The two characters in the play who have Lesch-Nyhan syndrome, Joey and Mike, are also represented by puppets.

“Although Brian and I led the project, the students were very much co-creators,” Watkins says. “They would bring additional material to the rehearsal. And they brought their individual talents to the work: one student had ballet and one had tai chi, for example, and they brought those talents to choreograph a musical number. The students made significant contributions to the play, and I think they really felt they owned the piece.”

Watkins also drew on the expertise of colleagues Jeff Hollerman and Lee Coates, who both teach in the neuroscience program.

With the high-risk creative process that devising seems to present, was there ever a point for Watkins when she thought, “This is never going to work?”

“I’ve had two experiences in the past where I adapted work from other media, but I’d never sat down before without a lot of other material to build on,” Watkins says. “I don’t know that I ever thought ‘This is never going to work.’ But when I was sitting in Stratford trying to write, I did think, ‘I wonder if I’m going to get a play out of this?’”

Students in the cast of Chewing Your Fingers to the Bone—Stephanie Armstrong, Kaitlin Mackenzie, Camilo Matos, Jordan Metcalfe, Sara Odioso, Michael Andrew Pirrone-Brusse, Stephen Reaugh, and Dan Winston—include an equal number of theatre majors or minors and students who are majoring in other fields. Philadelphia composer Bob Michel wrote five original songs for the show. Student musicians Nick Adamson, Heidi Kleppen, and Isaac Salapa accompanied the cast as well as created a musical “soundscape” and effects for the production.

by Kathy Roos

The Curtain Rises on the Vukovich Center for Communication Arts

“OK, who has the memorized?” Professor Dan Crozier asks the dozen students in his advanced acting class–all of them clutching copies of Romeo and Juliet as they shiver in the cool air of early spring outside the new Vukovich Center for Communication Arts.

Crozier moved his class from the relative privacy of the center’s rehearsal room to its courtyard, a public stage where students can practice their craft. It’s the perfect venue for students to act out the play’s famous balcony scene–the aspiring Juliets climb the courtyard’s steps and fan out along the railing above, while the Romeos remain at ground level to declare their love.

Up until now, the students have been reading–almost but not quite in unison–lines from their books. “It’s not the same experience, the same rhythm, when you’re constantly looking down to read,” Crozier tells his students.

Two volunteers step forward to recite the lines from memory, with Crozier offering the occasional suggestion on how they can be more expressive. Romeo takes Crozier’s advice to heart, scaling the outside of the courtyard’s stairway to get that much closer to Juliet. Passers-by heading to the Campus Center become an impromptu audience, with most at least turning their heads to soak in a snippet of Shakespeare.

Vukovich Center courtyard
Students in Professor Dan Crozier’s advanced acting class practice in the Vukovich Center’s courtyard

Activity both inside and outside the Vukovich Center is, quite intentionally, always on display. The facility, which opened for classes this spring semester, has expansive windows and a central location in the College’s evolving “Gator Quad”–a well-traveled corridor bordered by creative spaces in Arnold Hall of Music, Doane Hall of Art, and the College’s art galleries.

Home to the popular and innovative communication arts and theatre department, the Vukovich Center is foremost a teaching and learning facility, rather than simply a performance venue. It’s a place where technology and an aesthetically direct approach to architecture combine to complement the close interaction of faculty and students that is a hall-mark of the liberal arts experience at Allegheny.

Most important, the Vukovich Center provides a state-of-the-art canvas on which students from across the disciplines can learn to express their ideas in innovative and meaningful ways.

“Over the years we’ve had so many students who have worked in the Playshop Theatre or the scene shop or in TV production but have never taken a class in the department, or have only taken one or two classes,” says Crozier, who also chairs the communication arts and theatre department. “What’s great about Allegheny is that any student can walk in and get involved with these programs. In a lot of other places, you would have to be a major or minor.”

That cross-departmental ethos is especially fitting since the Vukovich Center is named in honor of Robert Vukovich ’65–a biology major at Allegheny–and his wife, Laura. The couple provided the lead gift to construct the center, which also received support from many other generous donors.

Immense Yet Intimate

Generosity Transforms Vision Into Reality

Without the support of generous donors, the Vukovich Center for Communication Arts would not exist to provide meaningful opportunities for Allegheny students today and for generations to come.

“I’m overwhelmed by the generosity of Allegheny’s loyal alumni and friends whose support has made this project possible,” says Marjorie Klein, Allegheny vice president for development and alumni affairs. “But, beyond that, it’s been a delightful experience for me, personally, to have witnessed and participated in the incredible collaboration that transformed their visions for a world-class center into reality.”

Donors and guests gathered on campus on April 17-18 to celebrate the dedication and grand opening of the Vukovich Center. The festivities included an encore performance of the Playshop Theatre’s production of You Can’t Take It With You–complete with cameo appearances by Gladys Mullenix Black ’54, in whose honor the new theatre is named, and Allegheny president emeritus Richard Cook. The weekend also featured the second annual ACTV Film Festival and a community open house with tours of the facility.

Robert ’65 and Laura Vukovich
Vukovich Center for Communication Arts
Laura’s Garden Terrace

Gladys Mullenix Black ’54
Gladys Mullenix Black Theatre

Dorothy Brennen Miller ’39
Dorothy Brennen Miller Lobby

Lee* & Sue ’55 O’Connor Idleman
Lee & Sue O’Connor Idleman Production Wing

Barbara Webb Robinson ’48
Barbara Robinson Green Room

Eden Hall Foundation

Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program

In addition, former Allegheny trustee Marvin Suomi and his wife, Mariclare, have made a significant pledge to the Vukovich Center.

And many alumni and friends of Allegheny helped to support the project with their financial contributions.


The $23 million Vukovich Center spans 40,000 square feet near the campus’s northeastern edge, just south of the North Village residential complex and east of Caflisch Hall. Even with that impressive footprint, the building doesn’t overwhelm or seem out of place on Allegheny’s historic campus.

The center was built into a hillside to increase its energy efficiency and minimize the perceived height of its fly tower–which houses the system of ropes, counterweights, and pulleys that allows the technical crew to quickly move lights, microphones, and scenery in the Gladys Mullenix Black Theatre.

“We wanted to make sure that, in burying parts of the building, these spaces didn’t become too dark, because dark internal spaces don’t promote people lingering and interacting,” says Todd Schliemann, a partner with Polshek Partnership Architects, the firm that designed the Vukovich Center. “We wanted to ventilate the building with sunlight so that people outside could see inside, and so people inside could see outside.”

Thanks to those abundant windows as well as skylights, sunlight does penetrate far into the building. It’s especially evident in the first floor’s central spine, known as “The Street,” through which one must travel to reach many of the center’s rehearsal, instructional, and production spaces.

All of that foot traffic creates a sense of vibrancy and community in the Vukovich Center, what Schliemann calls “productive collisions” among the building’s occupants and visitors. It’s not unusual to see students linger–talking, studying, working on their laptops–at the tables and chairs that dot open spaces and hallways on all three of the building’s floors, even at times when they don’t need to be there for class.

But those common areas aren’t just for hanging out. Ishita Sinha Roy, an associate professor of communication arts who specializes in media, rhetorical, and cultural studies, has held several class discussions in the center’s lobby. She also has assigned students in her Media Criticism course to work as teams to build sculptures–“related to the class, believe it or not,” says Sinha Roy–from snow packed in front of the building.

Crozier likewise sees exciting performance pos-sibilities for the facility’s rooftop garden, named “Laura’s Garden Terrace” in honor of Laura Vukovich. The garden–which includes perennial grasses, bulbs, shrubs, trees, and lawn space–has environmental benefits, insulating the building and absorbing rainwater that would run off a traditional roof.

It’s also a space that welcomes visitors, with cedar-plank pathways and benches throughout. Crozier says the garden, along with the courtyard, is reminiscent of the outdoor settings in which Shakespeare’s plays were originally performed. “I don’t think students realize yet how exhilarating it’s going to be to perform in these spaces,” he adds.

Using the Vukovich Center’s nontraditional learning spaces stimulates discussion in multiple ways, explains Sinha Roy. And it encourages students to see themselves as creative and their environment and culture not as preformed but as something they can shape.
“We’re re-inventing what teaching spaces mean and what teaching itself therefore means,” she notes. “It’s a much more collaborative, interactive kind of exercise.”

Amy Vietmeier ’09, a communication arts major and psychology minor, sees the Vukovich Center as an ideal learning environment, thanks to its advanced presentation equipment and spaces that transcend the conventional classroom. “The facility will definitely help prepare me for my career,” says Vietmeier, who took five classes in the center this spring.

Realizing Their Imagination

The Vukovich Center’s second floor features technology-enhanced classrooms used for a variety of communication arts courses, while the third floor houses offices for communication arts and theatre department faculty.
But it’s the facility’s first floor that has generated the most enthusiasm.

Grid Above Black Theatre Stage
Technical director Scott Choffel ’72 (second from right) works with students on the grid above the Black Theatre’s stage.

“Students now have the tools to realize their imagination,” says River Branch, an assistant professor of communication arts with expertise in media production. “The way the building is set up helps them to imagine their work moving beyond Allegheny. They’ve reframed their own expectations of their work.”

Branch points specifically to the first floor’s media screening room, which allows students to experience their work on a movie-theater-style screen and in surround sound. That means students can now conceive of sound and motion–versus sound as static and coming from one source–as part of the creative process.

The department’s visual production courses have found a new home in the Lee & Sue O’Connor Idleman Production Wing. The wing features a large television studio with three high-definition cameras, professional lighting, and an adjoining control room. In addition, there’s an editing lab with ten Mac Pro computers, a smaller post-production room for introductory courses, space for community-based media projects, and offices for ACTV, the student-run television station.

“Everything that was crammed into two small rooms in Arter Hall is now spread out,” says communication arts professor Mike Keeley. The additional space gives students and faculty the opportunity to try things they couldn’t before, such as having multiple sets in the television studio. That was impossible in Arter because large items couldn’t be moved through the studio door.

Communication arts major Pat Wysor ’09, who experienced the Vukovich Center for one semester before graduating in May, says he appreciated the opportunity to work in a professional-level studio. “There are so many ways to utilize the spaces there,” says Wysor, who served as president of ACTV and minored in German studies. “The equipment allowed us to produce much higher quality programming in the studio.”

At Allegheny, even a highly technical field like visual production is taught in the context of the liberal arts, Keeley says. “It’s not just learning to push the buttons or run the equipment,” he adds. “It’s having something to say, being exposed to the history of the art form, thinking about it in cultural and political terms. For anyone who’s going to be a filmmaker or a television producer, it’s important to have that background.”
There’s particular excitement surrounding the rehearsal room in the Idleman Production Wing. It has the same flooring material as the theatre’s stage, providing students with an authentic rehearsal experience when the large space is unavailable.

Its location in the production wing encourages stu-dents and faculty from different fields in the department to interact and collaborate in distinctive ways. Next year, Crozier and Keeley will teach an Acting for the Camera course that brings together elements of visual production and the theatre. It’s something they had long planned to do–and now can thanks to the flexibility offered by the Vukovich Center.

A Teaching Theatre

The center’s rehearsal and instructional spaces play key supporting roles to the building’s star, the 250-seat Gladys Mullenix Black Theatre. Stunning yet unpretentious, it’s a place where instruction and performance meld in exciting ways.

“Because it’s a teaching theatre, it’s very different from a regular performance space,” says Schliemann, whose firm oversaw the construction of the New York City Planetarium as well as the restorations of Carnegie Hall and the Lincoln Center. “Our feeling was that we should try to com-bine the audience and stage so that it was all one teaching environment, so that if students were out in the audience chamber, they could feel as though they were part of the production, which we thought would give them a better feeling for how these performances actually happen.”


The horseshoe shape of the theatre’s seating creates a closeness and synergy between audience and actor. The theatre also includes a balcony–which Schliemann notes is relatively uncommon in smaller venues–to bring spectators that much closer to the stage.
And the technical aspects of the theatre–including the catwalk, lighting grids, and pipe grids–are exposed, providing a unique behind-the-scenes perspective to teachers, learners, and theatergoers alike.

“Even though the Playshop Theatre [in Arter Hall] was really fabulous, it posed a lot of limitations in what we were able to do in the theatre itself and in the support facilities and classrooms,” says Michael Mehler, an assistant professor of theatre who specializes in scenery and lighting design. “The people here have always had the capacity to work in a much greater realization of production and the new theatre allows us to do that.”

For example, a trap room sits below the new theatre’s stage, with a scaffolding system that allows sections to be lowered or removed completely to accommodate the needs of different productions. (Dropping the eight-foot-deep front of the stage takes a crew of four people nearly eight hours–so it’s a process that is entered into with considerable forethought.)

In addition, the theatre has easy access to the Vukovich Center’s spacious scene and costume shops, allowing sets and props to be designed and moved efficiently. That’s a striking transformation from the old scene shop. Detached from Arter Hall, it required sets to be constructed in pieces, transported through the often uncooperative elements of late fall and early winter, and then assembled in the Playshop Theatre.
The Vukovich Center also features a green room that can be used by performers and speakers before shows and other times they’re not on stage.
Named in honor of Barbara Webb Robinson ’54, the green room even includes showers–a requirement should a unionized professional actor perform at the facility.

The theatre officially opened with a production of the Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman comedy You Can’t Take It With You, directed by Crozier. After four performances in early April, the cast presented the play again in the middle of that month for the dedication and grand opening of the Vukovich Center.

That weekend, the theatre also showcased both student and alumni works at the second annual ACTV Film Festival–testifying to the versatility of the Vukovich Center in accommodating a wide variety of public events.

A Center of Collaboration

Just as the Vukovich Center has deepened collaboration within the communication arts and theatre department, faculty there are hopeful that the facility will foster partnerships across campus and the community. Natural connections exist at Allegheny among students and faculty in art, music, theatre, and film, says Keeley. And he sees those ties becoming even stronger now that those departments are in close physical proximity.

Adds Sinha Roy: “This has the potential to become an interdisciplinary center. I can imagine faculty from English literature, psychology, even the sciences, working with us on projects, if not classes.”

Black Theatre Audience

She offers the hypothetical example of teaching a course on advertising, working with the department of environmental science to promote and market green programs on campus. “Suddenly, there’s a magic there with students seeing how these things come together–and how they’re not discipline-bound,” Sinha Roy explains.

There’s also tremendous interest in using the Vukovich Center to reach out into the local community, the region, and beyond.
Crozier sees possibilities for workshops and festivals for high school students and teachers that draw from the expertise of communication arts and theatre faculty as well as those from the music and art departments; Sinha Roy hopes to invite community partners to lead and attend special events as part of next year’s “Year of Social Change” programming; and Keeley anticipates increased opportunities–like the ACTV film festival–for students to share their works with a wider audience.

Even as those channels for collaboration and outreach expand and evolve, the core mission of activity in the Vukovich Center will remain the same–to prepare students to formulate ideas and communicate them in persuasive and engaging ways.

“The technology has changed a lot, and it’s going to continue to change,” says Keeley, “so I think we have to remember that, under the technology, there’s a liberal arts foundation of being able to express yourself and having something compelling to say.”

This article appeared in the Winter/Spring 2009 issue of Allegheny Magazine.

Skittles? Yes! Diapers? No!

Inaug-FlagsDSC00423 copyLet me start by saying this, that despite rumors flying around (thanks, Mom), I did not wear diapers for the Inauguration. Despite the fact that the Office of Diversity Affairs, which had organized and funded the trip, bought enough for everyone on the bus. I don’t think any of the students wore one. I can’t speak to the faculty and staff. Having cleared up that misconception let me proceed with my story.
The bus ride from Meadville lasted about seven hours, arriving in D.C. at 4 a.m. None of us had been drinking or eating that much—we knew the bathrooms were something to avoid. After we piled off the bus, group leaders handed us maps, money, metro cards, foot and hand warmers, and emergency contact information. I was wearing two pairs of pants, a shirt, two sweaters, my heavy winter jacket, and my purple vest—not to mention a scarf, gloves, wool socks, boots, and a hat. Under my vest, I carried my purse, with my camera, wallet, Skittles, and phone.
Inaug-3 StudentsWe broke down into groups of five to seven in order to be freer to move around. Our leader was George Byrnes, the husband of Dean of the College Linda DeMeritt. We love George, let me tell you. The man charged off as soon as we started following him and didn’t stand for anyone getting in his way. We called ourselves “Team George” and spent much of the time wandering through the crowds playing “Where’s George?” and then finding him three people ahead of us. We finally figured out the best way to get to a shuttle was to latch onto each other and be dragged along.
George learned our names quickly, identifying us by our hats. We reached our drop-off point and followed the crowds past other buses. At first, we thought these buses were lucky people who got to take their bus into D.C., but we soon realized they were full of D.C.’s finest. But they weren’t all from D.C. Throughout the day we saw police officers from Los Angeles, Massachusetts, Atlantic Beach, and countless volunteer fire departments from who-knows-where America. They leaned out their windows waving at us, and we waved back.
We walked a couple of blocks to the Mall, where we got our first glimpse of the Capitol itself. Everyone stopped as soon as they saw it and took a picture, so there was a huge cluster of people. We stopped, too, then followed George at full speed.
We passed people as much as we could until we reached as close to the front as possible: a little in front of the Air and Space Museum, just to the right of the first Jumbotron that people without tickets could see. We settled down for a long wait—it was still only 4:30 a.m. A couple of us tried sitting down, but there were so many people there wasn’t space to bend your legs.
There was an incredible sense of camaraderie in the people around us. We were all there for one purpose: to participate in one of the most important events in recent history. It was an incredible unifier for the crowd, and we kept each other awake and excited all morning, sporadically beginning songs that everyone joined in: “American Pie,” “Lean on Me,” “This Land Is Your Land,” and the National Anthem to name a few. There was also plenty of chanting, “Oh-bah-mah” being the favorite. “Bye-den!” and “First Lay-deez” came later in the day. Each chant was accompanied by American flags waving to stress each syllable.
Inaug-This is Betsy, JedWe waited. Stamped feet. Put warmers where we could—feet, hands, pockets, hats. Hoods were up, scarves across our faces like ninjas. We traded stories with those around us. We watched the sun rise over the Mall, a gorgeous sight. I wouldn’t want to see it again—it would mean being up way too early—but on this occasion, nothing was more appropriate.
At eight, the Jumbotrons began a re-broadcast of the concert at the Lincoln Memorial from the night before. It gave the crowd—by then restless and cranky—something to cheer for and instantly lifted the mood. We sang and danced and laughed our way through the music and speeches by various actors (my favorite was Jamie Foxx’s impression of Barack Obama).
At around nine, Amanda, Francheska, Kerry, and I went looking for one of the “warming stations” advertised on the Jumbotrons. Unfortunately, none was in our gated area, which we wouldn’t be allowed to return to if we left. So we hung around the fringes of the crowd for about an hour, glad to be free of the pressing bodies.
When we returned to our group, we found that the arrival of VIP guests had begun. We saw on the Jumbotron such cultural icons as Beyonce, Jay-Z, Dustin Hoffman, and John Cusack. They also showed the arrivals and motorcades of other important people, and each one would cause the Mall to erupt into cheers—endless, deafening, and thrilling.
Then the ceremony started. Aretha was so incredible I could hardly breathe. We all stood there, mouths open, agog to be seeing a living legend. When she was done, we screamed so loud and so long that I thought I didn’t know which I’d lose first: my voice or my ears. Turns out, it was my voice. When Yo Yo Ma and his crew played, the crowd went ballistic. I could not believe how lucky I was to be seeing these people perform.
I’m not sure if I can put into words what I felt when Biden and Obama took their oaths, but I’ll try: joy, elation, pride, relief, faith in America and change, love, the sense of being smaller than the world but knowing that you are important. And these only scratch the surface. I was screaming and crying, laughing and hugging, jumping and waving flags, and flashing my camera all at the same time.
There was so much energy and love in the group at that moment. I’ve never felt anything like it before and I doubt that I will feel anything like it for a long time to come. As for Obama’s speech, the man is an incredible public speaker. There’s a part of me in hindsight that realizes he’s still a politician and that he will make mistakes and fail on some promises, but in that moment we believed everything he said. He cast a spell of promise and hope.
I would do this again in a heartbeat, despite the amount of sleep I lost and the hundreds of pages of reading I had to do to make up for the thirty-six hours of school I missed. But I would not have changed a moment. I am so lucky that I got to go. I cannot believe I was there. =

Making Their Mark

Corey Rieger ’01
Feat-Rieger2Actor, playwright, director, producer, and musician Corey Rieger has excelled on stage and off. No matter the role, he draws inspiration from a vital lesson learned from theatre classes at Allegheny: “First and foremost it’s about communicating with your audience,” he says.
In college, Rieger was al-ways performing, whether in Playshop Theatre productions or his own forms of theatre. Rieger’s comic roots began at Allegheny, where he and Nathan Hollabaugh ’00 started a sketch comedy group, Mr. Goodbird U.S.A., that later performed in Pittsburgh. In addition, Rieger and Sean Donaldson ’01 started White Meat, a two-man acoustic comedy band that went on to record two CDs.
Mr. Goodbird and White Meat “are a great example of the kind of ‘take-initiative’ mentality that Allegheny fosters,” says Rieger.
After graduation, Rieger worked primarily with the Pittsburgh Playwrights Company as an actor and director. He soon became a Pittsburgh playwright, too. The first of his plays, Stain, was praised by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, which noted that Rieger’s “dark comic instincts are intriguing.”
In 2004, Rieger moved to Chicago, where he performs in at least three shows a year, including Titus Andronicus and Oresteia at the Court Theatre. This June, he produced and performed the lead role in The Seagull at the Pittsburgh Playwrights Theater.
Although Rieger says his career is difficult at times, he’s not giving up. “I’m still entertaining the idea that this is what I want to do,” he explains. “I have had some great achievements that I’m really proud of.”

Jenny Crooks ’02
Feat-Crooks-Ido!They say you can’t go home again, but for Jenny Crooks returning has proven to be a successful move. The writer, director, and actor grew up just outside Washington, D.C., and moved back there after graduating to pursue a career on stage.
Crooks worked as a house manager at Studio Theatre and took classes through its conservatory program. Since then, she’s found a home at several companies, including the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company. This June she performed as Viola in Twelfth Night and served as the show’s assistant director as well.
Her involvement in the D.C. theatre scene is no surprise given that Crooks performed in at least one production each semester at Allegheny. “My parents joke that they had driven to California and back because they came up and saw me in every dance or theatre show I was in,” she says.
Cross-departmental studies at Allegheny helped to shape Crooks’ success. “It’s funny that I ended up being more involved in theatre and the arts than my actual major of environmental studies, ” she says, “and the opportunity to be involved in the dance program with Jan Hyatt influenced where I am now because I take on more physical styles of theatre.”
Crooks also has tried her hand at directing, with two plays to her credit: Love and War: with the Bard’s Women in 2007 and Iconicity in 2008.
And she doesn’t have any plans to leave the area in which she has achieved so much. “There are a lot of opportunities here and a lot of great, small theatres in D.C.,” she says.

John Reilly ’04
Feat-ReillyFilmmaker John Reilly is always thinking about the big picture but never forgets his roots and why he loves movies.
“I try to replicate the same kind of feelings that I had when I was younger,” Reilly says. “I’d be so pulled into it that I’d forget that I was watching a movie. I don’t think many other art forms replicate that.”
A communication arts major, Reilly wanted to pursue his dreams of creating films in New York City. Shortly after graduating, he became one of only thirty-six students (from 1,200 applicants) selected for the 2005 class at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.
When the Erie native returned home last May, he began brainstorming for his thesis and was inspired by a local TV star who directs and stars in his own fitness show on public access television. This film won’t be the first of Reilly’s works inspired by his hometown. Presque Isle, a silent film that he created in 2007, was featured in several national festivals.
But Reilly is most proud of the film that he made during his second year at NYU. Celeriac was a finalist in the Halloween Horror Nights Film Competition run by Universal Studios Hollywood.
“I don’t think I would’ve gotten to go to NYU if I hadn’t gone to Allegheny,” he says. “They look for someone with a voice, with a story. I think if I was from a bigger school I would have been a statistic instead of a voice.”

Feat-Seremet 130bwMolly Seremet ’04
Some people were born ready to survive in the big city. Though Molly Seremet came from a small Pennsylvania town, she’s adapting to New York City like it’s old hat.
After graduating, Seremet moved to Pittsburgh to pursue a career in acting. She worked on several productions, and an internship with the Pittsburgh Public Theatre in costuming gave her behind-the-scenes experience. “But that really wasn’t as satisfying for me as being on stage,” she says.
So Seremet decided in 2007 to move to New York City, where she studied with the Atlantic Theatre Company, an off-Broadway company founded by David Mamet and William H. Macy. Last year, she started her own company called Morse Code Theatre, producing and starring in My Name Is Rachel Corrie, which ran for several weeks in both Brooklyn and Manhattan.
“There are times when it’s overwhelming,” she says, “but putting together a show that says exactly what I want it to say–it was so worth it.”
In March, Seremet was in a production at the Broadway Comedy Club called Burlesque-o-rama. She also has a day job that allows her to act–performing children’s theatre at the Museum of Natural History.
The broad-based education that Seremet received at Allegheny has proven beneficial to her career. “I took back-stage and theatre and poli sci and English, and now I’m in a situation where I’m producing my own company and largely political theatre,” she explains. “I don’t think I’d be able to do what I do now without that background.”

Jon Abrams ’06
Feat-Abrams_MG_4996In college, Jon Abrams was known for his amazing piano playing and his love of Billy Joel. Three years after graduating, he has become the Piano Man himself, performing in the second national tour of Movin’ Out, a musical set to Billy Joel’s greatest hits.
“It’s a little unreal because I’ve been wanting to perform these songs for a lot of people for a long time and now I’m able to do it professionally,” Abrams says. “The band is tight, the dancers are amazing, and the show looks and sounds just like the original Broadway production.”
When Abrams graduated from Allegheny in 2006, he went directly into teaching music at elementary schools in Lowell and Lexington, Massachusetts. “I loved it and loved the kids,” he says.
But he still wanted to perform. So Abrams started the Strangers, a Billy Joel cover band, working with some of the original members of Billy Joel’s band. One of them was also performing in Movin’ Out and passed along Abrams’ name. He auditioned for Stewart Molina, a Tony Award-winning orchestrator.
Abrams says that Allegheny music professors Ward and Vicki Jamison helped pave the way for his success. “Ward instilled his sense of professionalism in me and demanded the best,” says Abrams. “Vicki taught me how to use my voice and be more comfortable.”
And Movin’ Out mirrors Abrams’ experience at Allegheny. “The liberal arts ties together music and theatre,” he notes. “Our show is such that everyone in it is doing something different.”

Chemistry Grads Compete and Collaborate to Develop Treatment for Breast Cancer


By Doug McInnis

The effort to create new cancer treatments is a process that often ends in failure, despite years of work and hundreds of millions of dollars in research outlays. Only 8 percent of cancer drugs considered by the Food and Drug Administration win approval, and other promising prospects are derailed before they even get to the FDA because they don’t quite work. A notable exception is Ixempra, a newly approved drug used to treat advanced breast cancer patients after first-line treatments have stopped working.

The breakthrough came about in part because of the persistence and ingenuity of two Allegheny chemistry graduates, Greg Vite ’82 and Bob Borzilleri ’89, who work as scientists at the cancer research unit of Bristol-Myers Squibb. They were able to help turn a substance secreted by African riverbank bacteria into a potent new weapon against cancer. Scientists believe that the bacteria produce the substance, called epothilone, to attack its enemies in the soil.

When German scientists tested epothilone on cancer cells in a petri dish, it killed them. That discovery set off a race among cancer research centers to turn the substance into a commercial drug. The competitors included the famed memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, where another Allegheny chemistry grad, Aaron Balog ’91, was assigned to its epothilone research team. Bristol-Myers Squibb eventually won the race, but not before Balog made a breakthrough in epothilone research that may play a role in future cancer treatments.

The work of these three researchers illustrates not only the molecular sleight-of-hand that chemists routinely use to create new drugs but also the strength of Allegheny’s chemistry department, which teaches the kind of analytical thinking required to solve complex problems in drug discovery.

The story of Ixempra begins in South Africa along the banks of the Zambezi river, where a variety of epothilone compounds were discovered. It had once been thought that epothilone might prove useful as a plant fungicide, but that didn’t pan out. When epothilone was applied to fungus-infected plants, it killed them.

chemistry2 From left: Bob Borzilleri ’89, Greg Vite ’82, and Aaron Balog ’91 in a 2008 photo.

But the lure of a new cancer treatment drew the interest of other research labs, among them the cancer unit at Bristol-Myers Squibb, where Vite serves as director of oncology chemistry and Borzilleri worked as one of his researchers. Bristol-Myers Squibb already had a breast cancer treatment based on the substance taxol, which is derived from a type of yew tree found in the Pacific Northwest. But there was a problem: over time, breast cancer can become resistant to taxol-based treatments.

Company researchers found references in scientific studies to epothilones and their ability to work against cancer cells that had become resistant to taxol when the experiment was carried out in a petri dish. “You put the epothilones in the dish, and voila, the resistant tumor cells die,” Vite says.

That didn’t mean that epothilone would kill cancers in living organisms, however. When the company tested it on laboratory animals, it became unstable and failed to work. But Vite and his researchers concluded that it might work if they could change the structure of epothilone. At Sloan-Kettering, researchers had similar ideas.

The competing scientists took radically different paths toward that end. At Bristol-myers Squibb, they decided to try to tweak a naturally occurring molecule of epothilone. Vite’s team theorized that epothilone might remain stable in living organisms if they made a single alteration: exchanging an oxygen atom for a nitrogen atom.

Sloan-Kettering, by contrast, sought to create a series of synthetic versions of various epothilone molecules. “You can change every portion of the molecule if you’ve got a synthetic approach that uses simple building blocks,” says Balog. “If you start with the natural molecule, you’re somewhat limited in the changes you can make.”

ixempra A computer model showing how Ixempra (illustrated in green) binds to tubulin protein in cells (illustrated in red, white, and blue).

Sloan-Kettering eventually created synthetic versions of four different epothilone molecules, with Balog serving as the lead researcher on a team that created two of them. But before Sloan-Kettering’s breakthroughs could pay off, Bristol-Myers Squibb came through with a working drug. “This is where Bob Borzilleri came in,” Vite explains. “We had just hired him. It was his first job out of graduate school. As his first assignment, I asked him to make this new molecule.”

To do that, Borzilleri relied on the kind of analysis he had learned at Allegheny. “First you go to the scientific journals for ideas,” he says. “You might come up with two thousand things. Then you use intuition to try to figure out what will get you furthest. Here you use your liberal arts training. It teaches you how to think through problems.”

Borzilleri proposed an innovative, yet surprisingly simple approach–and it worked. “Bob found a way to open up the molecule and make the switch of oxygen for nitrogen,” Vite explains. “eventually, we found the entire process could be done in one vial. You could come in in the morning, take the epothilone off the shelf, and have a drug by the afternoon.”

“We had no idea whether it would work,” Borzilleri says. “This is a time-sensitive field. You have hundreds of ideas and you have to prioritize them. In this case, the time could have been spent on other things. But Greg was very supportive of the idea. He said we should try it.”

The FDA approved Bristol-Myers Squibb’s drug last October. Approval came after researchers at various centers had worked for roughly a decade to turn epothilone into a drug. But that doesn’t end research into epothilone. Bristol-Myers Squibb continues to do epothilone research, and it recently moved to supplement its own findings by acquiring the rights to research done at Sloan-Kettering. Among the Sloan-Kettering breakthroughs to be acquired were the synthetic epothilone molecules created by Aaron Balog, who has joined Vite’s research team. “Things have come full circle,” Vite notes.

In the meantime, the first patients have begun to benefit from Ixempra. “They had no option before this was approved,” says Vite. “Like most cancer treatments, it’s buying time. But from anecdotal evidence, it’s quality time. It’s time for patients to spend with their families. But it also buys time for new treatments to come along.”

This article was featured in the Summer/Fall 2008 issue of Allegheny Magazine.

Inauguration Celebration

mullen-inaugAlthough the inauguration of James H. Mullen, Jr. as Allegheny’s 21st president on October 17 had its solemn moments, it resembled nothing so much as a large family celebration. Both the ceremony itself and a dinner later in the day took “We Are Allegheny” as a theme. Student musicians and dancers took center stage at the dinner, while artwork showcased the talents of students and faculty.

Among the speakers at inauguration was Molly Corbett Broad, president of the American Council on Education, the nation’s premier organization dedicated to higher education. A “Last Word” by Molly Broad appears on page 48.

“History has granted us a unique moment. It has afforded us the high privilege of setting the foundation for Allegheny’s third century,” said Dr. Mullen in his inauguration address. “This privilege will come to only one generation of Alleghenians. And as that fortunate generation, each of us who know and love this place, each of us whose life has been framed by this place, each of us who is a better person and a more fully engaged citizen because of this place–each of us owes our full measure as we define a future for Allegheny College that is at once relevant and powerful and true to our tradition.”

The full text of the inauguration speech–as well as video–is available at www.allegheny.edu/administration/president.

This article was featured in the Summer/Fall 2008 issue of Allegheny Magazine.

James H. Mullen, Jr.: The Short Course

Place in Allegheny History

  • The 21st President of Allegheny College

Previous Experience in Higher Education

  • President of Elms College and Professor of History, 2005-2008
  • Chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Asheville and Professor of Political Science, 1999-2005
  • Senior Vice President of Trinity College, Vice President for Student Services, Vice President for Strategic Planning and Community relations, lecturer in Public Policy, 1995-1999
  • Executive Vice President of Middlesex Community College, Vice President for Fiscal and Development Affairs, Dean of Planning, Research and Development, Assistant to the President, 1988-1995

Other Work Experience

  • Special Projects Coordinator, City of Springfield, Massachusetts, 1988
  • Special Assistant to the Director of Aviation, Port Authority of New York and New Jersey; Executive Assistant, Office of the Executive Director; Administrative Assistant to the Executive Director; Trainee, Management Training Program, New York City, 1984-1988


  • Ed.D., Higher Education Administration, University of Massachusetts, Amherst
  • M.P.P., International Affairs and Security, Harvard University, John F. Kennedy School of Government
  • A.B., History, College of the Holy Cross


  • Wife Mari Elizabeth Sullivan Mullen
  • Daughter Mary Frances (Franki)
  • Son James Charles

This article was featured in the Summer/Fall 2008 issue of Allegheny Magazine.

Meet the President An Interview with James H. Mullen, Jr.

By Kathy Roos

presmullenEven before Jim Mullen officially assumed the presidency of Allegheny College on August 1, he and his family seemed almost as familiar a part of the campus landscape as Bentley Hall. While the president’s house on Jefferson Street was undergoing extensive repairs to its foundation in July, the Mullens spent their first two weeks on campus literally on campus: in an apartment in the North Village residential complex. It was an opportunity the Mullens relished: a chance to get to know the College from a different vantage point, as part of the close community of students and guests who live on campus for all or part of the summer.

Dr. Mullen and his family – wife Mari, daughter Franki, son James, and presidential pooch Sonsy – made the trip from Holyoke, Massachusetts, to Meadville in the family van, with just enough belongings to last them till the moving van was to arrive two weeks later – or maybe not quite enough. He admitted to one new colleague, who couldn’t keep her eyes from wandering to Dr. Mullen’s loafered but sockess feet, that it wasn’t a fashion statement – he simply hadn’t remembered to paack socks and there’d been no chance to shop yet.

By August 2, only the second day on the job – and a Saturday at that – the Mullens turned out in force (and, by this time, in socks) to serve as carhops at the Market House for a community fund-raiser that re-created Johnnie’s Drive-In, a Meadville staple from the 1950s.

Dr. Mullen admits that he’s happiest when he’s in motion, when he’s out on campus meeting students, visiting with faculty, and greeting guests, but early in the semester we convinced him to sit still long enough to answer a few questions for alumni and friends.

So many people in higher education work in this field because they want to make the same difference in young people’s lives that a teacher or mentor made in theirs. Can you tell us about a teacher/mentor whose example led you to your calling in higher education?

At every step in my life, I have been fortunate to have teachers and mentors who have inspired me by their example. I attended a small public high school in Granby, Massachusetts in the 1970s. Granby High had some of the most remarkable teachers you could imagine.

Each of them was unique in his or her approach to teaching, but the common denominator was an ability to inspire students to achieve, to be more than any of us thought we could be. Most of all, they conveyed to us a sense of responsibility to use our talents and abilities in the service of others. I owe more than I could ever say to each of them: Mrs. Scherpa, who made literature come alive; Mr. Sarnelli, who gave up his Saturday mornings to help me in chemistry; Mrs. St. John, who was very demanding but inspired much of my love of history. I have always felt that the best way I can thank them is to try to help other young people realize the possibilities in their lives.

When you were introduced to the campus community on February 28, you mentioned in the talk you gave the influence of another mentor, Mike McGrath, who has been a visiting professor of chemistry at Allegheny and whose wife, Alice Deckert, is chair of Allegheny’s chemistry department. How did a chemist end up mentoring a historian/political scientist?

mullen-flowers Professor of Environmental Science Richard Bowden (left) Ernst Conservation Seeds horticulturalist Mark Fiely and President Mullen discuss the ecology of a wildflower demonstration site at the College.

The role that Mike McGrath played in my life really captures the magic of what learning on a liberal arts campus can be. My father, who passed away when I was seven, had been a dentist, and I simply assumed that I would pursue dentistry as well. I entered Holy Cross as a pre-dental student and met the legendary pre-med advisor Professor McGrath.

Mike was a larger-than-life figure at the Cross, having built a nationally ranked pre-med program. To be honest, I was scared to death when I went in to meet him. But, from the moment we first spoke, he became a true mentor to me. I think he realized from the start that I was pursuing dentistry for all the wrong reasons – also, I think after my third or fourth accident in lab, he realized that I could be dangerous treating patients. It was Mike who advised me to be a history/pre-dental major, and it was Mike who helped me walk through the process of realizing that I could pursue another career. Who would have thought then that it would lead to Allegheny and that he and Alice would be here?

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

I’ve received a lot of good advice from a lot of great people through the years. Probably the best, though, was from my mom, who would so often remind me to be myself, not to be what others wanted me to be or what I thought others would want me to be. I haven’t always been as good at this as I wish, but particularly as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized what wonderful counsel it was.

And, if we do our jobs right at liberal arts campuses, we will help students understand who they are and to have confidence in who they are and help them to remain true to who they are in a very complicated world.

What are the challenges facing liberal arts colleges? And how does the mission of a liberal arts college change–if it does–in an era where students relate to one another and the world through YouTube, MySpace, and text messaging?

It has always been a challenge to inspire young men and women–and at times their parents–to see the utility of the liberal arts. In this country, there is the push for technical or job-specific skills. We need to continue to make the case for general education, for the advantages of breadth in learning, for giving students the chance to explore and to change their minds about who they are and what career they will pursue–but for my having done so, there would have been some pretty unhappy dental patients in the world! We also need to continue to make the case that the liberal arts are the best preparation for a complex, inter-related world where information is flowing and technology is changing. It is a world that demands that we be flexible, to be able to synthesize data, to make decisions, to articulate those decisions, and to build consensus among others whose cultures or worldviews are different from our own. The Allegheny graduate is uniquely prepared for that world–and we need to make the case for “why.”

We need to be relevant in this world where information comes at us so quickly and through so many different avenues. Too often, I think that some of us may fear this world because we do not understand it and, for that reason, we only see the downside of these modes of communication. I hope that we can set our fear aside and be open to the ways that YouTube, MySpace, text messaging, and other communication vehicles might enhance our learning possibilities. To do this means truly listening to our students and learning from them–something Allegheny has always done very well.

You’re the product of another historic, selective liberal arts college: Holy Cross. What do you think the best liberal arts colleges have in common?

First of all, they share an unyielding passion for academic excellence. They recognize that teaching and learning across the disciplines is the foundation for everything else, and they apply the necessary resources to achieve excellence. Second, the best liberal arts colleges recognize that teaching and learning occur most powerfully when there is a strong sense of community–when there is an environment that is open and supportive and energized by the free flow of ideas. Third, I believe the best liberal arts colleges embrace and celebrate their individual traditions, creating a spirit of intergenerational responsibility for alma mater. Fourth, they convey a quiet confidence about who they are. They don’t try to be someone else; they focus on who they are and what they do well. While the best liberal arts colleges are not arrogant, they are confident. And this confidence allows them to try new ways of doing business and to be on the cutting edge. And finally, I think that the best liberal arts colleges recognize that they are not islands in the broader community–rather, they seek to be active and cooperative participants in serving the world beyond their campuses. I would say that across each of these criteria Allegheny sets the highest standards.

mullen-school Dr. Mullen shares a story at the Meadville Co-operative Preschool, located in the Odd Fellows Building.

What do you think are the greatest challenges that face Allegheny in the next dozen years?

Allegheny is in a very strong position. Certainly, it has the challenges that every college faces, such as the need to build endowment and enhance resources for teaching and learning. These challenges are real and they will be central to our next strategic plan. But the great challenge, I think, is a wonderful one to embrace–it is to very strategically and in a manner true to our identity take the steps necessary to achieve national pre-eminence among residential liberal arts colleges.

All the pieces are here. Allegheny is already setting the standard of excellence in so many areas. As we point to our 200th anniversary, it is now time for us as a community to claim our rightful place among the very best institutions in the nation. When that is done, young men and women from all across this nation will look to this College. The opportunity to define such a vision of excellence at the moment of a college’s bicentennial is an historic privilege to this generation of Alleghenians. And to be president of Allegheny at this moment in its history is the highest honor for me.

You’ve said that “Allegheny has a singularly powerful story to tell.” What do you think is most compelling about Allegheny’s story?

Allegheny has a great story to tell, and I look forward to telling it. Across its curricular and co-curricular life, Allegheny at once invites young people to explore and to take risks while at the same time challenging them to assume the responsibilities that come with being a citizen of the world. There are liberal arts colleges that do a wonderful job in the classroom; there are colleges that have great co-curricular programs; there are those that offer terrific service programs. Allegheny does each of these at the highest level and, most importantly, connects them into a meaningful holistic experience. moreover, it does so with a great spirit of family–a quiet pride in who we are and what we represent.

At Trinity College you oversaw a nearly $300 million public/private partnership that revitalized the neighborhood surrounding Trinity’s campus. Meadville has its own economic challenges, and the College has partnered with the city to address some of these. What lessons from your experience at Trinity can help inform Allegheny’s partnership with Meadville?

Allegheny is already a leader in terms of reaching out to its surrounding community. I have been most impressed by not only the range of service programming in place but the deep commitment to Meadville that extends across faculty, staff, and students. As to the Trinity experience, I believe there are a couple of lessons for all of higher education. The first is that colleges and universities have a responsibility to their communities–a responsibility that not all have fully embraced. In my estimation, it is wrong to teach the liberal arts on campus while ignoring what happens beyond the front gates: How can a college call its students to engaged citizenship if it turns away from its community? Second, the Trinity experience reinforced for me the importance of partnership. In the learning Corridor Project, we partnered with Hartford Hospital, the Institute for living, the state government, the national Boys and Girls Club, and others. Third, the experience taught me that a bold, compelling vision can succeed and can make a difference. Finally, and in many ways most important, partnering in the community means listening to the community. I think too often institutions act like they are listening but in reality they are imposing their will. This is a recipe for bitterness and distrust that can last generations. Thankfully, this has not been the case at Allegheny.

mullen-inaug2You’ve taught both history and political science, with the American presidency the focus of some of your work. Are there lessons from your study of the American presidency–specifically the traits and practices that allow a president to succeed–that you think apply to college presidencies?

I think that one characteristic that successful presidents often displayed is a comfort level with who they were. In the modern era, for example, whether we are talking about the Roosevelts or Truman, or Eisenhower or Reagan, they were comfortable in their own skin; they didn’t seek to be or represent something they were not. That said, each of them had the capacity to learn and to grow in the office. For the most part, they were also curious and engaged students of the world. Kennedy, for example, endured tremendous failure at the Bay of Pigs early in his presidency but learned lessons from that failure that served him well during the Missile Crisis. They were also good listeners, able to hear the nuances of what was happening around them. Finally, they drew good people to them and built strong executive branch leadership. There is a lot in all of this that a college president can learn from.

What’s the oddest job you’ve ever had? If you hadn’t become an academic, what do you think you’re likely to have done with your life?

I was a security guard on the late-night shift in a parking garage while I was in graduate school at Harvard. Although I wouldn’t necessarily say it was odd, it certainly gave me a different look at life in Cambridge than that of my classmates. My first job after Harvard was as a management intern, then an assistant in the executive director’s office at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. The Port Authority is one of the largest public agencies in the nation, and I think I would have continued on in public service, perhaps considering public office at some point.

I am very glad life took me in the direction it did, however. Life on college campuses challenged me to use the full range of my abilities in a way that I find tremendously fulfilling.

What has surprised you most about your career path in higher education?

I have been very lucky to be part of some wonderful institutions at important moments in their history. Although not a surprise per se, I have been struck at every step of the way by how terrific the students are and by the power of their impact in my life and my family’s life. Without fail, they have inspired me to be better: I have fed off their energy and their passion; I have been given hope by their promise and potential. The chance to share a special time in their lives with young people has been a blessing to me, every day a gift that I cherish. I can’t wait to know the Allegheny students and to learn from them.

mullen-davies Dr. Mullen and community leader Ellie Davies. Meadville’s community center is named for Mrs. Davies’s late husband, Lew ’40.

How do you balance family life with such a demanding job?

It is a great challenge–one that Mari and I work very hard at. my first responsibility is to be a good husband and father. If I am failing at that, I’m not going to be a very good college president. I think I feel this responsibility even more profoundly because my dad passed away when I was seven years old. my mom was the best, always there for me, but I remember so many times when I really wished that my father could see me play in a game or share in a special moment. I don’t want my kids to have that feeling, so I do all I can to be there for games, plays, and just to share quiet family times. I have found that folks understand that and respect my commitment to family. And Allegheny is a family-oriented community where people do find balance. Quite honestly, that was a major part of the attraction we felt toward Allegheny and Meadville.

You and your family have a free weekend. What do you do?

We have so few free weekends that we try to pack in a great deal. If there are no college events and neither of the kids have a game, we love to explore. This past weekend, that meant going to Erie and Presque Isle. Generally, these weekends include a family movie (this weekend was Shrek III for about the fifth time!). Sometimes, it also includes a few holes of golf as a family or a family wiffle-ball game. Almost always, it finishes with a very tired family reading together in the evening.

How would your kids describe you?

Oh boy, that might depend on when you ask them! We are a very close family and we thoroughly enjoy each other’s company. So I hope that Franki and James would describe me as someone who is there for them, someone they trust, and someone they can be proud of–and, of course, someone they love. They might also tell you that I am the soft touch–especially with Franki. mom is a better disciplinarian than I am–in fact, sometimes she has to discipline me right along with Franki and James.

If you could teach any course at Allegheny–even if that means creating a new one–what course would you want to teach?

I do plan on teaching. The political science department has been kind enough to invite me to do so; so, once I settle in, I will look forward to returning to the classroom.

My favorite course to teach is on decision-making by modern American presidents. I am fascinated by how presidents reach decisions, particularly on matters of foreign policy. My mentor at Harvard was the late Richard Neustadt, who focused on how presidents accrue and use power and how history influences their decision-making. This has always been of tremendous interest to me.

mullen-fans If McKinley’s were to offer a meal called the “President’s Special,” what would it be?

I better be careful here because someone will assess my answer according to the old saying “you are what you eat.”

I love to eat and am pretty open to anything–as long as there are no visible green peppers! My special favorite, though, is shepherd’s pie. You can bet if it’s on the menu, I will order it. I suppose that isn’t a surprise coming from an Irishman.

You’re a self-described sports nut. Just how bad is it?

It can be pretty bad, although I’ve mellowed with age! Seriously, I love athletic competition, particularly the way it is carried out at the best Division III colleges. Athletics reveals so much about a person: the ability to be part of a team, the quality of one’s character and integrity. If someone cheats in athletics, I’ve found that he or she will also likely cheat in business; if a person cannot be part of a team in sports, he or she will likely be a poor part of a team in life.

What is so great about athletics at Allegheny is that in addition to a distinguished record of championships through the years, the real focus is on life lessons and about using athletics to draw out the best character in every individual, allowing our students a means of self-expression and exploration. Whether it is athletics or theater or any one of our student organizations, that is the magic of co-curricular life at a residential liberal arts campus: the opportunity to challenge oneself and to share the best of oneself with others.

If you could have any superpower, which one would you choose?

I must confess that growing up I loved all the superheroes. If I had a superpower, though, I think it would be the ability to travel back in time. For someone who loves history, this would be such a privilege. of course, the temptation to intervene in historical events would probably be overwhelming–but it would still be an amazing experience even if “the rules” would only allow me to observe.

Did anyone warn you about Meadville weather?

I was told that the weather is very mild–soft winters with an occasional bit of snow. That’s correct, isn’t it?

This article was featured in the Summer/Fall 2008 issue of Allegheny Magazine.