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Xavier Magazine | May 29, 2017

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Other Worlds

Felix Winternitz

A Star is Born

Forgive anyone who suggests that Marco Fatuzzo sometimes keeps his head in the clouds.

The affable physics professor might well agree. After all, his area of expertise is theoretical astrophysics. “In a broad sense,” he says, “it means using physics and applying it to what processes occur in space—how stars live and die, that sort of thing.”

All this birthing and dying takes place in molecular clouds, those regions of space with a lot of gas, so that’s where the physicist spends his time—in a virtual sort of way, via computer models and data spreadsheets. Examining stars that are one-tenth to 100 times the size of the sun, Fatuzzo seeks to sort out some of the interstellar mysteries.

“The puzzle is, no matter where we look in the galaxy, it’s the same,” he says. “The reason it’s a puzzle is that things are very different in varying locations—environment, heat, magnetics.”

In contrast to other aspects of nature, for instance, this becomes baffling. “If you are comparing the environment at the North Pole with the environment in the Sahara Desert, for instance, you would expect differences.”

As part (and particle) of his interest, Fatuzzo focuses his research on the emission of cosmic rays and how they impact star formation. He’s particularly fond of particle acceleration and high-energy radioactive signatures, and enthusiastically launches into a discussion of gamma rays, protons, black holes, pulsars and supernovas at the broach of the subject. All the action, in short, that takes place at the universe’s “Galactic Center.”

“It’s complicated,” he says. “Basically, I take my knowledge of physics, how particles move and collide with other particles, and essentially build computer models. Then you compare predictions with actual signals from these stars, and try to make the picture make sense.”

Herding Bacteria

Imagine that bits of bacteria are actually like herds of cattle. Only tiny. Really, really tiny. Then you can begin to appreciate the challenges that Heidrun Schmitzer faces on a daily basis. The associate professor of physics is charged with corralling these miniscule munchkins while, get this, they are still squirming around inside the human body. No small feat.

Schmitzer—who holds 19 patents in the fields of nonlinear, polarization and quantum optics—now focuses her research on one of the few strains of bacteria in the world that are born with actual magnets inside, specifically, iron oxide nano-particles. Apparently, these magic magnets mutated over eons so they could better orient themselves with the earth’s magnetic field. “It knows, for instance, whether it’s swimming up or down in the water. In this case, they want to be down, in an environment that’s not oxygen rich.”

Schmitzer jumps from the dusty chalkboard in her office where she scribbles formulas and tries to mimic how the bacteria start to rotate, to the nearby physics lab to test her ideas. “It’s interesting to try out, because nobody did this before,” she says. “There are also applications to the findings. There is the idea out there in the medical science field to minimize.”

Whether you’re a physician dealing with cancer drugs, blood cells or body fluids, you end up wanting to pump things through small capillaries or channels. The challenge is how to do that. “You could fabricate tiny metal propellers, but that would be really expensive,” she says with a laugh.

The key to these creatures’ effectiveness, besides a naturally magnetic personality, is their spiral shape. Think a helix, or corkscrew, capable of speeding to 360 rotations per minute. “The test is in how fast you can transport fluid by dragging something in a whirl,” she says, peering into a microscope. A roto-rooter, as it were, on a nano scale.

New Testaments

It’s all Greek to Art Dewey. And it should be. When the professor of theology began researching the writings of St. Paul with three other New Testament scholars, they went back to Paul’s original letters, which were in Greek. And for 17 years, off and on, they scoured the original Greek texts, stubbornly delving into hidden meanings and arguing over intricate phrasings. “It was a long slog,” he says. “Sometimes, we’d spend an hour on a word or a sentence.”

The foursome endured weekly long-distance confrontations, brutal seven-hour conference calls and face-to-face meetings in an effort to achieve the analysis and introspection necessary to reach some kind of truth. And they did. The culmination of the research was The Authentic Letters of Paul: A New Reading of Paul’s Rhetoric and Meaning, a new book that immediately became the publishing house’s best-seller ever and forced a second printing after its November release. The tome distinguishes Paul’s letters from others attributed to him in the canon, disentangling “composite letters” and attempting to free Paul’s voice from 2,000 years of orthodoxy.

Tinkering with the Scriptures or challenging their historical authenticity is, in the eyes of some, blasphemy. Dewey’s heard it all before, though. He is a founder of the Healing Deadly Memories Program, which addresses anti-Semitism in the New Testament, and is a member of Jesus Seminar, a group of academics researching the historical Jesus. To him, it’s just part of his job as a New Testament scholar.

“People think of Paul as a closet Lutheran or a micromanager or anti-women,” he says. “None of these things is true if you read the authentic Paul. People don’t even think about why Paul was beheaded. What he wrote was counter-cultural, counter-imperial letters about who was the true ruler of the cosmos, over the empire of Rome.”

The first key is determining what Paul actually wrote. It was accepted practice in the ancient world for followers of famous figures to write in their names. That happened with Paul. Dewey and his fellow scholars finally judged just seven letters to be authentically penned by Paul—roughly half those that are attributed to him. So they removed the rest and then reversed the traditional order of chapters.

“We also don’t use the usual terminology,” he says. “We don’t use ‘faith’ or ‘Christ’ or ‘flesh.’ We don’t use ‘sin.’ We had to really look at the deep metaphors of Paul’s speech and how they can be translated into comparable metaphors today. What you get ordinarily is a rather wooden translation rather than one that reflects the vigors of Paul’s challenge itself.”

The Bug Detective

As a child, Mollie McIntosh was chided by her mother, “Don’t play with bugs.” She didn’t pay attention, and today her world revolves around either grotesque dead bugs or live ones that carry horrid diseases. Eccckk.

McIntosh is Xavier’s resident bug brain. The assistant professor of biology is an aquatic ecologist and forensic entomologist with a self-professed passion for scaly, leggy, creepy creatures. Preferably ones that are dripping wet.

Lately, the first-year professor’s attention has been focused on two water bugs in Ghana. A mystery malady, Buruli Ulcer Disease, is sweeping 30-35 tropical countries and McIntosh has been called in to discover if the disease is transported by aquatic bugs. “Not mosquitoes, which is typical,” she says. “But two water bugs: Naucoridae and Belostomatidae. We have both these in Ohio, so that’s how we became involved in investigating.”

So are these water bugs turning out to be the culprits? “We don’t think so. They might possibly be vectors for the disease, but our evidence is showing there are just not enough of these bugs around to affect all the people who have been afflicted.”

McIntosh is still on the trail, however.

“All cases are associated with aquatic habitats,” she says, “and all are habitats that have been modified by humans through deforestation, flooding, agriculture, dams and such. We think it’s something very complex going on in the environment that allows the bacteria to become more numerous.”

It’s all a long way from the recreational Field & Stream magazine. More akin, actually, to Freshwater Biology and the Journal of Forensic Sciences, where McIntosh has documented her other wetland ecosystem studies, such as the effect of water diversions on aquatic communities in tropical Hawaiian streams. But research hasn’t been all fun in the sun. She and her students recently became embroiled in a “CSI” kind of investigation in which a nursing home was being hauled into court over a patient becoming infested with maggots. “It got a little gruesome, yes.”

The Criminal Mind

Gail Hurst spends a fair amount of her time behind bars. Or inside halfway houses.

Don’t get the wrong idea, though. Hurst’s forays into the seedy side of Cincinnati are all part of her research role as an associate professor and chair of the Department of Criminal Justice.

Largely through the auspices of the Talbert House—a local social services agency—Hurst works with incarcerated women who are drug addicts and/or physically abused in an attempt to figure out if the services they’re offered really help them when they get out.

“Being in criminal justice, you see that there are a lot of people we could benefit or help if we knew more about the female offending population before they are forced by circumstances to offend yet again,” she says. “Sometimes when we are making policy decisions, we don’t ask the group affected. We need to get it from the horse’s mouth.”

Hurst, who first got the attention of the criminal justice community for her research on juvenile delinquency, is compiling her data and analyzing results, and she plans to have a research article ready for publication in the fall.

“We can provide some kind of service to these women who are going to get out of prison,” she says. “These are women with a host of issues that we, society and the criminal justice system, will have to address.”

Better, she says, to be pro-active before the offender knocks at (or breaks down) society’s door once again.

Defending the Little Guy

Ann Marie Tracey has always been on the lookout for the “little guy.” As lead prosecutor in the United States Attorney’s office for the Southern District of Ohio. As assistant city solicitor for Cincinnati’s consumer protection division. As a longtime Common Pleas Court judge. So it’s no surprise that in her role as associate professor of legal studies and co-director of the Cintas Institute for Business Ethics, she’s still looking out for the little guy. And sometimes the older guy.

“For the past couple of years, I have been focusing on discrimination issues,” she says. “And, more particularly, age discrimination issues.”

As the nation’s Supreme Court churns out new decisions every legal season affecting the realm of consumer rights and age discrimination law, Tracey is finding her research work garners new relevance. “The Supreme Court once really limited what a plaintiff could recover in an age discrimination suit, for instance. Now, there are new ways to look at age discrimination claims.”

Along with a Canadian co-author, Tracey has produced a study titled “Building a New Bridge Over Troubled Waters,” examining different approaches in age discrimination in the two countries.

“My description of research is different,” Tracey says. “In the legal field, it’s really based on legal developments. So we don’t do the kind of hard data collection or statistical analysis that many professors here would do. Much of what I do feeds off what the Supreme Court is doing.”

Right now a key Supreme Court case she’s watching is “AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion” in which AT&T believes any company that issues a contract to customers should be able to stop the option of a class-action lawsuit in advance—a case right out of the George Clooney movie “Michael Clayton.”

Social Studies

Some people see sports fans as nothing more than people spending their time playing games. Not Christian End. The associate professor of psychology sees diehard NFL types and college boosters as the ultimate petri dish in which to test the predictions of social identity theory, sorting out how people privately and publicly act. When he mulls over human beings and why they do the things they do, he first scans the bleachers and sidelines.

“Being a sports fan is an important social identity for some people,” End says. “So the results of comparisons between groups are very salient in sports.”

Determining this cause-and-effect has become something of a specialty for End. From tracking sport fan identification in obituaries to the influence of game outcome on romantic relationships, End has found no lack of fodder in the sports/psychology linkage. His published research includes the effects of seat location and ticket cost as indicators of sports fans’ potential hostile aggression, and sports fans’ impressions of gay male athletes.

End has also published on such topics as the economic impact of NFL franchises as well as the non-sports-related impact of cell phone rings while students are testing. “I usually use sports as an example for my social psychology classes,” he says. “You have people from different backgrounds or in different parts of the world, and they can overcome barriers to begin a conversation just because they see someone in an airport wearing a team hat.”

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