Archive for 2015

Hands-on guy wants to re-democratize society

Barred windows, crumbling buildings, no safe green space for children to play, broken glass, barbed wire and hypodermic needles – this is the gritty picture Dr. Mike Stout paints of a rough neighborhood in North Philadelphia in the 1990s. Vividly, Stout, associate professor of sociology and director of the Center for Community Engagement, remembers walking past this area as an undergraduate student at Temple University on his way to class in a high-poverty area of the city. Stout came from a fairly typical middle class background, so what he saw astonished him.

“It had a tremendous impact on the way that I viewed things, like differences in educational opportunities and outcomes,” said Stout. “It taught me a lot how just by virtue of the family I was born into and the community and neighborhood that I lived in, how I had certain advantages and opportunities growing up that a large number of people didn’t have.”

“In terms of my background, I really became interested in the progress of education and how we have a systemic issue that reproduces class and racial inequalities in our society.” — Dr. Mike Stout

Stout’s parents, a pharmacist and a nurse, inspired him to go into a career helping others. Instead of entering a health field as he originally intended, though, he has become an instrument for change by helping groups of people have a voice that ordinarily feel isolated or underrepresented.

Dr. Stout talking with a colleagueHe’s a pioneer in the research of social capital – the concept that some resources are accessed more readily through connections and trust with other individuals. Throughout his career, he has repeatedly seen that a more diverse group of social connections – including friends, neighbors and colleagues from a variety of backgrounds – opens up more opportunities and encourages feelings of efficacy for all involved.

“College made me realize I was much more interested in political, social and economic forces in society and how those limit opportunities,” he said. “To be honest, if I would have gone to another undergraduate university that wasn’t located in a major city in the middle of kind of a big ghetto, I probably would have ended up continuing on with my med studies or getting into finance. Something that pays a little bit better than what I’m doing right now.”

Checking out Missourians’ civic health

Since 2010, a primary focus of research for Stout has been the production of the statewide Civic Health Index (the second was released in 2013, with another scheduled in 2015). This study looked at levels of participation in public forums, volunteer opportunities, neighborhood collaboration, voter registration, voter turnout and involvement in non-electoral political activities. These factors reveal a picture of how engaged citizens are in their communities and how much they invest in making their communities better.

“My work involves taking the expertise of faculty members, including myself, on campus and using it to provide information for local leaders, citizens and other stakeholders in the community to make better decisions about how we can collectively self-govern and increase democratic practice in community problem solving.” — Dr. Stout

To fulfill Stout’s goal of building a network of scholars and decision makers who advocate for collectively addressing community problems, he collaborated with scholars and practitioners from five other Missouri universities and Missouri Campus Compact for the 2013 report.

“What the Civic Health Index is examining is the health of the nonprofit sector – sometimes called civil society – and it shows us that the private, public and nonprofit sectors don’t operate in isolation. How our community is doing influences how representative our politics are. How our economic institutions are functioning determines how stable our communities are. How our economic sector influences our political sector determines the resources that flow through civil society, versus flowing through the private sector, and so on.”

Dr. Stout delivering a presentationStout, working along with the National Conference on Citizenship, has served as the main facilitator on this massive undertaking. It’s no big deal – he’s been busy his whole life, he laughed.

But one of the weaknesses of the report (scheduled to be released in September 2015 with analysis being conducted by the Center for Information on Civic Learning and Education (CIRCLE) at Tufts University) is that the data is collected at a national level and then filtered down to the state level.

“You really can’t – other than at the state level – dig down into what’s actually happening in different parts of the state, which limits the practical application of using this to inform policy.”

To make it more representative of what is occurring in individual communities, Stout designed a strategy to have the 19 local councils of governments in Missouri administer a version of the survey to its constituents. He’s certain that the results will be more meaningful to economic development specialists and policy makers in some of the less populated, more rural areas of the state.

‘I want to re-democratize our society’

He’s a hands-on type of guy, and he works hard to empower people often through grass roots efforts. In fact, one of his first jobs was as a phonics tutor to underrepresented minority children in Philadelphia.

Now, he teaches statistics and craves data that will back up his hypotheses. He knows it’s one of the ways that he can gather support across party lines on potential policy changes.

“The idea here is to really use data as a basis for beginning discussions in communities so that people are starting with the same assumptions,” he said. “Partisanship has become pretty bad in our society. But one area where liberals, conservatives, Republicans and Democrats do agree is that people should be empowered and have a voice in the direction of their own lives.”

Students cleaning up yard waste

In 2010, Dr. Stout and several collaborators initiated the Ozarks Regional Social Capital Study to examine social capital and citizen participation in southwest Missouri. They found that people in the region tend to have many interpersonal connections, high levels of participation in voluntary groups (especially faith-based organizations) and high levels of trust in others. However, they also found that in the Ozarks there are relatively lower levels of civic engagement compared to the national average. “It’s influenced the way people talk about issues in the local community, has led – indirectly and directly – to new positions and resources in city government, and has highlighted civic engagement as a one of the four themes tying the 13 chapters of the city’s long range strategic plan together.”

‘No safe place for kids to play? Not a place to stay’

Feeling safe and valued starts at home, and in 2011, the Community Partnership of the Ozarks in Springfield, Missouri, joined a network of four other communities nationwide in establishing the Neighbor for Neighbor project. This initiative, supported by the Kettering Foundation and Everyday Democracy, is a community effort to minimize economic challenges by letting individual citizens voice concerns about a neighborhood and making positive changes. Currently, approximately 25 local community partners are involved to facilitate dialogues and find resources that these two poverty stricken neighborhoods can tap into to address issues like safety.

“We’re setting up opportunities for underrepresented groups to be involved in the community dialogue – it’s part of the Dialogue to Change program – about the best ways to frame and address problems. That is something everyone can get behind because it’s about empowering communities. It’s about empowering people. It’s about democratizing the community problem-solving process.”

Woman pruning a treeAt its core, Neighbor for Neighbor, which Stout now helps to facilitate, brings people together to learn more about their neighbors and build trust – something Stout found through surveys of Springfield residents that is disproportionately low among the individuals in these particular neighborhoods. The neighbors who participate in the program talk about the issues plaguing their neighborhoods and are shown the resources at their disposal in order to make their neighborhoods feel safer – whether it be adding street lighting, building community gardens or cultivating green space for a park.

Although Neighbor for Neighbor has gained some footing, it’s a tough sell, noted Stout. The individuals in the neighborhoods are transient, so they typically don’t stay involved long. They also feel quite alienated from community leaders and socially isolated.

“Even if they wanted to get involved, they often don’t see the point because they don’t think it would make a difference. They also have the least diverse connections to social economic organizations and individuals,” he said. “It turns out, that those are significant obstacles to getting people involved in initiatives where we want to empower people.”

Man writing on transparent marker board

Mapping conflict

One of Stout’s earliest studies in the field of sociology further influenced his career path. Stout, an undergraduate student at the time, collaborated with a graduate student at Temple University to study 10 years of data on reported hate crimes in Philadelphia. They then geo-coded each incident to see how the crimes were dispersed geographically.

“What we found is the areas with the highest amount of racial and ethnic conflict were happening on these border lines where white neighborhoods meet black neighborhoods and where Jewish neighborhoods meet working class white neighborhoods,” he said. “That got me really interested in kind of the social structure of conflict and how this related to housing, segregation and all of these other things.”

The data was originally collected by the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations, and his report was later distributed to elected officials and other civic leaders in Philadelphia, which pleased a young Stout. It also helped to solidify in him that one goal in sociological study should be to influence policy changes.

Another outcome of this study still creeps up and interferes with the momentum he tries to make with the Neighbor for Neighbor initiative to this day.

“People who try to get ahead and move out of those bad situations or into better situations are often faced with prejudice and discrimination and all of these things that are kind of beyond their control,” he said.

Photo panels outside of the Center for Community Engagement

‘It’s very serendipitous the way that it worked out for me’

When Stout was looking for a position in the academic world, he wanted to find a place where he could make a difference. At the same time, Missouri State’s sociology department was shifting from a more traditional, academic sociology program to what is termed a public sociology program, where students take the classroom theories out into the community and get involved in issues they care about. The first step to that transition was incorporating community based research and engaged scholarship into the tenure promotion guidelines, which allowed Stout to teach and get involved.

Collaborative meeting within the Center for Community EngagementHe got so involved, that in fall 2014, Missouri State University’s Center for Community Engagement was established and Stout was named its first director. In a short time, he has made huge strides on building partnerships for the Center, securing funding and gaining momentum behind projects and studies that will be done – all for the greater good.

“The Center for Community Engagement here at Missouri State is the first such partner of the National Conference on Citizenship in the country. What I’m really trying to do is – locally, regionally, statewide and nationally – weave Missouri State as one of the central nodes for research and practice on social capital and civic engagement in the country. That’s kind of the bigger goal.”

Dr. Stout talking to a womanAfter Dr. Stout completed his dissertation, Racial and Social Economic Inequality and Political Participation, he decided to expand beyond electoral politics. He realized that so many decisions and agents of change happen outside of the scope of elections.

The big questions: Life and death in the Middle East

Dr. David Romano’s loved ones sometimes ask if he’d prefer to study a less volatile part of the world – Norwegian beaches, perhaps? But, he said, “The questions that got me interested in political science are the life-and-death questions.”

The opportunity to examine such questions drew his attention to the Middle East and ultimately to Kurdish communities in the region.

Romano, who holds the Thomas G. Strong Chair for Middle Eastern Studies in the political science department, has written two books tackling life-and-death questions that affect Kurds in Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey. He also dissects everything from Iranian nuclear negotiations to American influence on the Iraqi constitution in his column for the Kurdish newspaper “Rudaw.”

“It doesn’t even occur to me not to be impassioned about it.…I may have met the people in question.” — Dr. David Romano

When asked how he musters fresh concern for a region whose complexity and violence drive many to bitter resignation, Romano said, “It doesn’t even occur to me not to be impassioned about it.” On reading about 200 Assyrians captured by the Islamic State, he reflected, “Their village is on the banks of the Khabur River. I’ve swum in that river. I know exactly where it is. I may have met the people in question.”

Kids playing soccer

Interrupting radicalization

Romano’s tactile understanding of the Middle East and network of connections – both products of his extensive travel – are great assets to his current research, a global comparison of the factors that contribute to extremism.

The cross-case study of radical groups in Europe, Latin America and Asia seeks answers to one of today’s most anxiety-inducing questions: Why would someone be willing to take up arms for a cause?

Students on a trip with Dr. Romano“In the research, that person could be anyone,” Romano said, “depending on the context and the socialization that occurs.” However, he noted, “I don’t subscribe to this idea that one man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter.” Accordingly, the study focuses on groups that use radical tactics rather than assessing whether their goals are radical.

“For the purposes of this analysis, it’s the means they are willing to resort to that define whether someone’s a terrorist. Someone struggling for a clean environment for poor people will be a terrorist if they set bombs against civilians in order to accomplish it. ”

Over the course of the project, an international team of collaborators will examine some of radicalism’s most commonly cited factors, including the insertion of religious interpretations into politics, a lack of democracy, a history of colonialism and extreme poverty.

Across radical groups, youth appears to offer a critical window. “That’s when people become politically aware,” Romano said. In addition, young people are strongly influenced by peer groups, and the rise of social media has created new platforms for dangerous ideologies. According to Romano, “We’re seeing this remarkable phenomenon of the Islamic State recruiting people via Facebook.”

Students around a bonfire

Engaging students at Missouri State

Yet while youth can make someone vulnerable to destructive ideas, it also marks a time of openness and growth. Romano’s scholarship has roots in his own undergraduate days, when he tagged along on a friend’s trip to Turkey. There – in the midst of a Kurdish insurgency – he found that “half the people were telling me Kurds didn’t exist in the country, and others were telling me they were fighting for their rights. Others said they were terrorists. I got really curious as to what the situation was.” A lack of Western scholarship on the issue prompted his first investigation into Kurdish identity, ideals and culture.

“Engaging students to approach issues objectively and ethically goes a long way toward fulfilling the public affairs mission [of Missouri State].” — Dr. David Romano

Dr. Romano in the classroomNow, Romano provides similarly enriching experiences for his students, including study abroad courses and multicultural interactions – such as a celebration of the Kurdish holiday Newroz that he hosts each spring.

“Engaging students to approach issues objectively and ethically goes a long way toward fulfilling the public affairs mission [of Missouri State],” he said. “When they walk out of here, they may not remember the details of dates or events, but hopefully I’ve instilled in them a way of approaching these questions… to make them better citizens. So that if someone from another ethnic or religious group moves next door to them, they will have the curiosity and background knowledge to understand them, which makes for a better society.”

Analyzing the science behind dancers’ artful movements

What do most people think about when they watch a dance performance? Probably a safe bet it’s not wrestling.

But a shared interest in the science behind movement ultimately led to a research collaboration between a former collegiate wrestler, Dr. Jim Hackney, and a former professional dancer, Sara Brummel.

“The demands of dance and the demands of sports are similar,” Hackney said. “However, many sports are a matter of what you’re doing with something else, rather than how you appear doing it. With a few exceptions, in sports the important thing is what you do with a ball. You get the ball into the basket, or get the ball over the goal line. I like dance best because it is a celebration of physicality for the sake of physicality.”

Ballet dancer jumping

To explore how different dance surfaces affect the amount of force dancers’ joints have to absorb as they leap and land, Hackney, an associate professor of physical therapy, and Brummel, an associate professor of dance, collaborated on multiple research projects, which were supported by Harlequin Floors. The support they received allowed them to offer scholarships to dance majors who participated in dance biomechanics research.

Dynamics of dance

Close up of ballerina's feet in pointe shoes

For their research, Hackney used a sports motion program to analyze dancers’ movements, and the Pedar insole system to measure the amount of force they absorbed as they landed on traditional surfaces compared with sprung floors.

“We looked at the lower extremity, the leg and foot, and the way it absorbs forces when jumping and landing on a hard floor, versus a floor that has a bit of give to it,” Hackney said. “As the surface displaces, the lower extremities have to give less. What this is showing is that the legs and feet of the dancers don’t have to absorb as much of the force because the floor is absorbing some of it instead.”

Though dancers are known for their seemingly effortless ability to glide through the air and pivot on the tips of their toes, Brummel and Hackney note that dancers’ bodies are working hard in each move. They must stiffen joints, adjust trajectories and absorb forces without consciously thinking about it.

“When you watch a group of dancers jumping on a sprung floor, you can see the floor moving.” — Sara Brummel

“First of all, in the takeoff, a dancer needs to produce enough energy from her supporting leg to accelerate against gravity, so that the lift-off force exceeds gravity,” Hackney said. “Then, she needs to generate sufficient stiffness in the joints of her lower body to keep from collapsing. If there were no stiffness of the joints in her lower extremity and trunk, she would collapse into a heap on the ground.”

Line of ballet dancers practicing pointe technique

Inspired by the mechanics behind movement

“I think we live in a society where it’s often considered that everything that is important about us is from the neck up, and this body is just something that I cover with clothes and schlep around,” Hackney said. “Physical therapy is really an exploration of not only the neck up, but also the neck down as well; considering the person as an integrated whole. I was drawn to dance because it is a celebration of the physicality of our humanity.”

Sara Brummel working with ballet studentsThat same beauty in movement also captivated Brummel as a child when she watched ballerinas on television and on stage. “When I was seven, I begged my mom to enroll me in dance classes,” Brummel, said.

Dancers often retire in their mid-30s due to complications from overuse injuries and a variety of other factors. When Brummel experienced these issues in her own career, she dedicated her life to spreading the love of dance to another generation.

“After my body began to give out, I returned to school and to teaching. I was always one of those people who was analyzing how to get better.” — Sara Brummel

The insights they gained from the project inspired them to pursue follow-up research on the same topic. Their collaborative work has been published in the Journal of Dance Medicine and Science and Medical Problems of Performing Artists.

Nigerian women can treat malaria, but few study hard sciences

In Enugu, Nigeria, many women and girls know how to treat malaria and dysentery and some men have better results treating bone breaks than Western doctors. But they didn’t learn these skills in school; it’s knowledge that is passed down through the generations.

Dr. Jamaine AbidogunDr. Jamaine Abidogun, professor of history at Missouri State University, has been interested in Nigeria and indigenous knowledge for a number of years. She won her first Fulbright award to conduct research in Nigeria in 2004-05 and completed her second research trip in 2014. She learned that many Nigerian girls and women have a great deal of indigenous knowledge related to medicine and agriculture, but few of them pursue formal education in the hard sciences. She wanted to know why.

“In this Fulbright research project, the main goal was to identify indigenous knowledge, specifically science knowledge, and see how it can be used in formal education and the sciences to help increase women’s participation by the time they get to higher education, to university level,” said Abidogun.

Igbo women act as herbalists, healers

Abidogun primarily studied the Igbo culture in her most recent research. She was surprised about the amount of indigenous knowledge that is still in practice.

“So we met a man and his son that have a thriving business in setting bones,” she said. “While a lot of that practice was banned during colonialism, in the last 10 or 15 years they’ve actually been asked to come into the Western clinics and hospitals that are Nigerian-run to demonstrate their techniques, because they have a better rate of retaining muscle mass with recovery of broken bones..

Woman talking with student“And then for the women, so many women still used most of the herbal remedies from their grandmothers and great-grandmothers. Even though they had access to clinics, they said they just knew that practices of their ancestors worked and there wasn’t any reason to go pay a doctor’s fee when you knew that these things were taking care of it.”

Abidogun said Igbo women are responsible for taking care of their daughters after they give birth; and the practices they use to prevent bleeding or hemorrhaging is nearly identical to Western medicine practices. In addition, indigenous herbs are used that support these practices.

“Women traditionally hold a significant amount of medical knowledge, even if they’re not officially herbalists,” she said. “Out of the people that I interviewed both this time and some interviews that I did in 2004-05, any adult woman could give me the basic remedies for malaria or dysentery. They knew the basic properties of several herbal plants – like for stomachaches you use lemon grass.

Women listening

Indigenous knowledge does not lead to formal education

Despite the fact that many Igbo women and girls know a great deal about medicine and agriculture, Abidogun said the number of girls who study hard sciences – such as chemistry, biology, physics or astronomy – is very low.

“The education system is really strong in terms of the hard sciences, but the integration of indigenous knowledge is really lacking because, just like a lot of other cultures, ours included, people tend to think of it as folk lore.” — Dr. Jamaine Abidogun

Dr. Abidogun sharing with colleaguesAbidogun and her colleagues from Missouri State and the University of Nigeria are developing curriculum that would incorporate indigenous knowledge into the teaching of hard sciences. They are optimistic that their recommendations may be implemented by the Enugu State Board of Education.

“I really hope and I think that we’ve made some of the right contacts to, one, integrate as much indigenous science as possible into the national science curriculum for Nigeria,” said Abidogun. “Then, two, see that the historical gender assignments are talked about and included in that curriculum so that girls in particular, but also boys, have a respect for the fact that science is for both genders.”

Communication professor turns childhood curiosity into passion for conflict resolution

Adults take for granted the ability to resolve conflict — a skill perfected over a lifetime. Children, particularly those termed “at-risk,” haven’t had the necessary experiences or guidance for it, sometimes landing them in juvenile detention as a result.

Missouri State professor Dr. Charlene Berquist hopes to offer victims, offenders and other at-risk youths the opportunity to build the skills needed to pull themselves out of a justice system that may swallow them up.

“We’re loud and we’re boisterous. When there’s a conflict, we yell and deal with it, and then we hug and make up.” — Dr. Charlene Berquist

Dr. Berquist giving a presentationHer passion for this work started as an inquisitive fourth grader.

At that time Berquist recognized not all families argued like her own. “We’re loud and we’re boisterous. When there’s a conflict, we yell and deal with it, and then we hug and make up.”

The idea that other families react differently sparked a curiosity that would endure as a communication scholar and as director for the Missouri State’s Center for Dispute Resolution (CDR).

Center for Dispute Resolution analyzes long-term effects of mediation

As director, Berquist is uniquely positioned to study the effects of conflict resolution programs, for both participants and facilitators. The center, serving as a laboratory of sorts with students, staff and volunteers, gathers research data throughout the mediation process.

“I would describe my research as being very qualitative. Typically I’m more interested in interviews and focus groups and the ‘why’ about research. Not just, ‘Am I satisfied with this program?’ But, ‘Why am I satisfied? How do I understand the experience?’”

The center’s mediation services, such as the Circles for Girls and Restorative Justice programs, were based on needs identified by its community partners. Berquist’s team used existing research to develop each program and distinguish research components to be analyzed, making tweaks over time based on the resulting data.

“We’re asking some fairly cutting edge questions,” she said. “I’m also interested in how particularly at-risk kids understand those experiences and how they apply what has happened in that program to their lives.”

Dr. Berquist in front of a class

Circles for Girls helps area teens build skills, self-esteem

Radical changes occur in pre-teen and teenage girls and the difficult transition into adulthood can lead to unhealthy relationships, body image issues and substance abuse. Area schools identify those struggling youths, aged 12 to 17, referring them to the CDR to meet with facilitators in groups of four to 10 for up to 10 weeks. Through skill-building exercises and journaling, the center hopes to impact social, emotional and physical well-being.

“…we had examples of girls, two or three years down the road, who remembered what their facilitators had said in journals to them that had a real effect on a choice they made or a different trajectory in their lives.” — Dr. Berquist

Berquist said the CDR has made some amazing discoveries, including improvements to the participants’ grades and that families often continue to use communication skills gained.

“I think most striking was that we had examples of girls, two or three years down the road, who remembered what their facilitators had said in journals to them that had a real effect on a choice they made or a different trajectory in their lives.”

Restorative Justice programs provide closure, accountability

Offenders rarely meet or speak to victims face-to-face; they are punished and put in the system with little to no rehabilitative support. Victims are left wondering why them and what kind of person would hurt another. Through its Restorative Justice programs, the CDR attempts to facilitate that closure and accountability between victims and offenders.

“…it was the first time they had really thought about a different way to react to someone doing something bad to them….” — Dr. Berquist

First- and second-time juvenile offenders are paired with their victims or community volunteers who have been victims to discuss the impact of the crime. Berquist said the offender’s observations of victims’ reactions have been interesting.

“Kids described that it was the first time they had really thought about a different way to react to someone doing something bad to them — not just lashing out at that person, but forgiving them or acting in a different way.”

CDR paves the way for more conflict research

Dr. Berquist talking to a classThrough these discoveries, Berquist said the CDR continues to make changes to accommodate future participants. In addition, she noted that they are also analyzing data about how the process affects facilitators.

“Because we’re doing so many different kinds of programs here, we present at conferences and write about what our experiences have been like in doing these programs, and hopefully other people can learn from both some of our successes but also some of our mistakes.”

What’s so serious about child’s play?

Since the 1970s, there has been an increase in mental disorders among children. Although some people believe that is largely a result of the decline in children’s freedom, policymakers and powerful philanthropists continue to push in the opposite direction — toward more schooling and testing, more adult direction for children and less opportunity for free play.

Dr. Joanna Cemore Brigden, associate professor of childhood education at Missouri State University, is committed to emphasizing the importance of play for children.

As a woman of many appellations, Brigden is most proud of her title as play researcher. She teaches outdoor play classes at MSU along with the graduate course, Life as Play, which teaches students the importance of giving children time to play, explore, create and imagine.

“The problem for us in the U.S. is we don’t have a lot of ‘play’ in school anymore, coupled with a reduction in free play outside of school. That’s a really huge concern of my research and advocacy efforts.” — Dr. Joanna Cemore Brigden

Dr. Brigden playing outside with girlBrigden is currently the Association for the Study of Play book review editor, an international organization of play scholars. In addition, she is also on the board of the International Play Association (IPA). The IPA’s purpose is protection, preservation and promotion of the child’s right to play as a fundamental human right.

“IPA works cooperatively with organizations through the UN in the service of children’s right to play throughout the world. This can range from research and advocacy in schools to facilitating play in war torn areas of the world or escaping slavery and trafficking,” said Brigden.

Brigden is currently working on a project studying outdoor play in a more compact, indoor urban play space, and she’s looking at it from a child’s perspective.

“It’s important to know how children view play in order to create a workable space for them,” said Brigden. “This is also a great way to determine how emotionally intelligent children are these days.”

Child looking into slide

Brigden strives to educate community on the importance of foster families

Her interests go beyond fun and games; she has a passion for improving the lives of children which also includes parent and teacher education and advocacy for greater community resources.

Brigden and Deanna Hallgren, director of the Missouri State Child Development Center, recently received a grant from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) to enhance childcare, improve services and provide training for professionals who work with foster parents and children. In the training, teachers receive information specific to the needs of foster and adopted children in the classroom.

Brigden, who is also a foster parent, believes teachers sometimes do not understand the struggle it is for a child to uproot their lives and behave normally after joining the foster system.

“The goal we are trying to achieve with DESE is for all children to be ready to learn,” said Brigden. “If an child would not be ready to learn, it would be a foster child whose world has been completely turned upside down in a new house and possibly a new school.”

Dr. Brigden next to children on a slideGet moving: significance of interactive play

The relationship between play and emotional intelligence caught the attention of producers for the children’s program and off-broadway show “The Ohmies.” They enlisted the help of Brigden in constructing a social and emotional curriculum for one of their shows, which incorporate imagination play, yoga and dance to get children out of their seats and using their bodies to have fun.

Solving real-world problems with high-level math

Dr. Jorge Rebaza sees so much beauty in mathematics, it’s only natural that he finds ways to connect math to almost everything else.

Rebaza, professor of mathematics, teaches numerical analysis and applied mathematics at Missouri State. His recent research interests range from showing how your brain processes language to exploring a way to predict the spread of waterborne diseases.

“The work we’re doing is important”

Dr. Rebaza-VasquezMath professionals usually specialize in one of two areas. One is pure mathematics, which is largely abstract, and done for the sake of deeply exploring mathematics and constructing general results. The other is applied mathematics, which uses concepts from pure mathematics to solve problems and develop math tools for science, industry, business and other areas.

“Mathematicians can get lost in the beauty of pure mathematics…” — Dr. Jorge Rebaza-Vasquez

Rebaza, professor of mathematics, teaches numerical analysis and applied mathematics at Missouri State.

“Mathematicians can get lost in the beauty of pure mathematics — many of us do not properly explain why the work we’re doing in pure or applied mathematics is important to society.”

He uses applied mathematics to collaborate with faculty colleagues both on- and off-campus, and often has students involved.

“We believe students don’t have to be in their master’s or PhD studies to do high-level research.”

Math is at the heart of research projects

So you have a research project, and have gathered some quantitative data — which is any information that can be measured with numbers. What do you need next? Mathematical modeling, Rebaza said.

“If you don’t have some of the tools needed to help you solve the given problem, mathematicians can create those. This is at the core of mathematics.” — Dr. Rebaza

These models help researchers interpret quantitative data. This allows them to next predict, and then verify, actions or results. And he is excited to share in such varied studies across so many disciplines.

What role does math play in the public health field? Rebaza shared that he is collaborating on a project mapping the spread of waterborne diseases, such as cholera and E. coli. Using multiple variables and parameters — such as the size of populations, the distance between those populations and the volume of water in the river that flows between those groups — Rebaza and some students developed and analyzed a mathematical model to predict how diseases will spread. It’s a complicated problem: They may need as many as 60 equations to determine the pattern of an outbreak.

Math equations on computer monitors

Dr. Erin Buchanan, associate professor of psychology at Missouri State, collected data showing that the brain reacted at different speeds to words that were related versus words that were not.

“I wondered about some cool, interesting ways to analyze this data,” Buchanan said. “I contacted the math department, and he was interested in using the numbers in a class.”

Rebaza and his students came up with a curve model to more precisely measure how much faster or slower the brain reacts. “We wrote a short program to come up with the answers they wanted,” he said.

Across the world, a geology professor in Germany wanted methods to accurately approximate the gravitational potential energy of the Earth. Rebaza was happy to help, even as he was working on a project to develop algorithms to more precisely and more rapidly predict how a search engine will rank various websites. Meanwhile, he also agreed to a photography-related project that uses cosines to determine how much an image can be compressed before the human eye starts to detect oddities in color frequencies.

Bringing top math minds to MSU

Rebaza doesn’t just work with Missouri State students. For six years, he and other MSU math professors have been involved with a National Science Foundation sponsored program called Research Experiences for Undergraduates in Mathematics.

Each summer, nine students from universities across the country come to Missouri State for eight weeks to work on cutting-edge research.

“These are the best-of-the-best undergrads.” — Dr. Rebaza

Becoming a host school for this program is competitive; only about 50 schools in the nation have hosted. In some cases, the undergraduates who participate at Missouri State transfer to MSU, or come here for graduate studies.

Rebaza, who grew up in Peru, earned a master’s degree in Germany and a PhD from Georgia Tech. He has been working at MSU since 2002, and is happy to mentor students from all around the nation.

“This grant has been a wonderful gift for our department and MSU — now we’re on the same page with many other big mathematics schools.”

Logos, layouts and logistics: Franchising in today’s market

Hearing the word “franchising” usually brings to mind the golden arches of McDonald’s, the lively pink and orange of Dunkin’ Donuts or the “Eat fresh” slogan from Subway. In actuality, franchising encompasses far more than just restaurant chains and their identifiable marks. Dr. Vinay Garg, associate professor of management, has been studying franchising and its applications in the business world for the past 15 years.

Dr. Garg standing in a restaurant“Most people think of franchising as an industry, but the fact is that franchising is actually not an industry; it is a business model,” said Garg. “Franchising is everywhere. It’s in education, hospitals, aviation training and even interior decoration.”

Over the years, Garg conducted most of his research in franchising, particularly multi-unit franchising, by surveying more than 100 franchises in various fields. The results provided Garg with enough information to create statistical models that explain the success of multi-unit franchising. But surveying comes with its own challenges, so he also employs triangulation.

“Franchising is everywhere.” — Dr. Vinay Garg

“Essentially, triangulation is the use of various methods to come to a similar result to ensure a one-time result is not generalized across different populations and settings,” says Garg. “For example, a respondent may say only good things in order to be looked favorably upon or avoid pulling down their image or that of the company. By using published records in combination with survey data and interviews, we are provided with a more accurate picture.”

Garg has had his research published more than 20 times since 2000, a testament to his dedication and findings concerning franchising.

The basic business model

So what is franchising? When an entrepreneur is looking to start their own small business, they have the option to buy a franchise. With a franchise, the franchisee will follow established procedures that have previously been proven successful and pay regular royalties to the franchisor.

“Instead of the franchisor having a 500-restaurant chain, they can make 5,000 or 10,000 in the same time because they don’t have to invest their own money or task their managers with the job of building one restaurant at a time,” said Garg. “McDonald’s has over 36,000 franchises in 100 plus countries. More than 80 percent of McDonald’s restaurants worldwide are franchised. Each day a new franchisee is building a store somewhere in the world, but McDonald’s is free from having to invest and worrying about the nuts and bolts of creating and operating it.”

Dr. Garg talking with a group of peopleFranchises can be a great opportunity for entrepreneurs looking to start their own business without the hassle (or struggle) of the trial-and-error that comes with starting a business from scratch. In addition, franchises benefit from the name recognition that comes with a well-established brand.

There are some drawbacks, though. Franchising doesn’t allow much, if any, creative freedom, and franchisees often feel undue pressure to offer deals that can reduce their profit margins. Franchisees are also required to enter into a contract that includes strict guidelines for things like marketing and operations.

“Let’s say a person who owns a McDonald’s starts selling cakes or cookies at their store and the quality is poor,” said Garg. “Then McDonald’s pays the penalty. Although it had nothing to do with McDonald’s typical menu items, its brand gets tarnished. So, strict contracts allow franchisors to avoid these sorts of issues and control the behavior of franchisees.”

The future of franchising

Though Garg has examined many issues over his years researching franchising, this is only the tip of the iceberg. Garg is delving into research about new forms of franchising, such as store-within-a-store (a Subway within a Patriot gas station) or a small food court comprised of many brands (such as Taco-Bell, KFC and Pizza Hut) owned by the same corporation (Yum Brands) within one location.

“It will be interesting to discover what the challenges are in new approaches to the franchising business model,” he added.

Dr. Ann Rost

ACT now to avoid depression and anxiety

Like the jabs she delivers while kickboxing in the gym, Dr. Ann Rost, Missouri State University associate professor of psychology, is giving cancer a one-two punch through her research. Whether Rost is dealing with the emotional side of cancer, mentoring students or “CrossFitting” with her 12-year-old daughter Maggie, she is impacting people and helping them improve their quality of life.

Rost discovered that late-stage ovarian cancer patients achieved a better quality of life when they participated in a modern therapy called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) rather than traditional therapy. By learning to accept difficult thoughts and emotions, the women were better able to cope with their situation and less likely to suffer from anxiety and depression. Rost worked with MSU Associate Professor of Psychology Dr. Erin Buchanan and researchers from the University of Mississippi, University of Nevada-Reno and Washington University Medical School on the project.

Rost became interested in ACT her last year in graduate school at the University of Kansas, when she was working with patients with cancer and chronic pain conditions. The traditional therapy at the time focused on patient behavior and changing the content of thoughts.

“There was nothing to change about their thoughts, as they were being realistic in their fears and concerns about their health conditions,” she noted. “Telling them to think differently about their situation felt like it invalidated their whole experience.”

Rost added that in the short run cancer patients might feel better avoiding thoughts and cues about their health status, but if they do not think about it, they miss out on opportunities to engage in meaningful activity such as spending time with family, addressing relationships, and investigating and planning health-care options and end-of-life outcomes.

Accept, commit, repeat

The first step Rost uses during ACT is to learn what strategies the patient has tried in order to cope with the situation and whether the actions have worked. If the individual still feels bad, Rost takes a values inventory to find out what is most important to the patient, and then she determines whether that person has been living in a way that matches his or her values. For example, if the relationship with the patient’s friends is most important, what is that individual doing on a day-to-day basis to build these bonds? Rost stressed that even if the individual feels sad or mad and being connected is hard due to deteriorating health, the patient must commit that this is what he or she wants.

“Most end-stage cancer patients move quickly emotionally and get in there and make changes in a hurry.” Dr. Rost

Rost recalls working with a patient who had end-stage ovarian cancer and was married with kids living outside the home. The woman was so invested in never feeling bad that she put a towel over her head during treatment so she would not see other sick people. She stayed in her room and would not answer the phone, which cut her off from her social support and made her life “smaller.” ACT enabled the woman to have meaningful interactions with her family at a time when that really mattered.

Restoring a sense of self

Referring to Rost’s research, Dr. Bob Jones, Missouri State University psychology professor, said one of the few moments in people’s lives when you can make changes in the way they see themselves and treat those around them is when they have cancer.

“Cancer changes everything for all of us. We are faced with our mortality. Managing this transformation can be incredible. People are able to be who they are, living to their full potential.” — Dr. Bob Jones

Kirby Williams, an MSU graduate student in clinical psychology from Grove, Oklahoma, shares Rost’s interest in health psychology. Rost helped Williams with the research for her senior honors thesis on diabetes care management in undergraduate college students. After working with Rost as an undergraduate student, Williams plans to pursue a Ph.D. in psycho-oncology.

“Dr. Rost cares about community and is passionate about health. She wants to make a difference in people’s lives. I am lucky to have found her,” she said.

Fiction to fact: Researchers advancing artificial intelligence

Two Missouri State researchers, Dr. A. Steven Younger and Dr. Emmett Redd, are developing machines with more brain-like intelligence and capabilities. They believe that, despite the capabilities of modern digital computers, their research could contribute to the development of an advanced machine with a knack for common sense and the ability to learn well beyond the parameters of its programming.

Man standing with robot

Younger’s inspiration — his dad, Reat — was featured in Popular Mechanics in 1948 with a robot he built.

Science fiction writers from Issac Asimov to Roger Zelanzny have written about the coming age of robots and artificial intelligence for many years. Generations of viewers raised on “Star Trek,” “Star Wars” and even “The Jetsons” grew up expecting our world to be eventually populated by intelligent machines doing many of the mundane tasks for us.

Believe it or not, two Missouri State researchers are actively working to make that vision a reality. Dr. A. Steven Younger, applied science and engineering research professor, and Dr. Emmett Redd, physics, astronomy and materials science professor, are directing their research efforts toward developing machines with more brain-like intelligence and capabilities.

Younger and Redd believe that, despite the capabilities of modern computers, their research could contribute to the development of an advanced machine with a knack for common sense and the ability to learn well beyond the parameters of its programming.

Notes on a marker board

Pursuing brain-like flexibility

Research for this project is being completed in conjunction with Dr. Hava Siegelmann, professor of computer science at the University of Massachusetts–Amherst, with financial assistance from the National Science Foundation. Siegelmann’s work focuses on neural networks, circuits designed to mimic neurons connected by synapses. The system could theoretically result in incredible computing power. Redd and Younger were aware of her work before realizing their research was moving in the same direction.

“We are trying to build a machine that can make computations a standard Turing machine (the model for a standard digital computer) can’t. We are particularly interested in machines that have properties that are important for more brain-like, intelligent capabilities: learning, adaptability, pattern-recognition robustness and flexibility.” — Dr. Steve Younger

The approach the researchers have taken involves a chaotic system, which is very sensitive to small changes. This analog system can react to bigger and smaller changes, which can feedback to cause other bigger and smaller changes. The system, therefore, becomes driven by unpredictable and extremely variable noise, which Younger and Redd are convinced creates the less rigid approach of a chaotic-neural network and is more likely to lead to more brain-like intelligence.

Close up of laser

Differences between analog and digital

Most people know that digital is a binary system based on combinations of “1” and “0.” An analog system, however, includes all the space between. This approach sacrifices the ultra-precision of digital computation for a more complex and flexible process. The random nature of an analog process can lead to mistakes, which just might be a good thing, since the machines could learn from these mistakes and be less likely to make the same errors later.

Redd elaborates: “A car can’t fly; an airplane can, although they share many of the same components. We’re trying to build components and designs that allow us to go beyond what the Turing machine offers.”

In addition to the inherent complexity of a super-Turing machine, there are also size and power advantages. “We are reaching size and power limitations of digital computers,” Redd said.

“Think about Google’s search computers; they aren’t as powerful as the human brain and yet the brain operates on far less power.” — Dr. Emmett Redd

The practical applications from this research are potentially vast. “Probably the biggest application would be pattern recognition and robotics,” said Younger. “We can see where there could be an analog computer that could talk together and work together with a digital computer, because there are several things that digital computers are so good at.”

Why the weekly spelling test doesn’t stick

When Dr. Julie Masterson noticed her then second-grade son was having difficulty learning to spell some 20 years ago, she approached his teacher and inquired about ways to help him improve his skills. His teacher replied with a simple “Oh that’s normal. He’ll learn.” She took the instructor’s word for it and dropped the subject.

During his third grade year, Masterson noticed her son was still having a hard time making his marks on his spelling tests despite extra study time. Again, she spoke with his teacher and received the same response as the teacher from the year before: “Oh that’s normal. He’ll learn.”

Masterson refused to accept the idea that individuals could not improve a skill.

She dropped the subject for a second time and continued to help him study at home. As he later progressed in the fourth grade, his teacher noted his poor spelling skills but said that nothing could be done about it because, “people are either good at spelling or they aren’t.”  As a speech-language pathologist, Masterson refused to accept the idea that individuals could not improve a skill. She had indeed observed her son’s struggle to spell words, but she had also spotted something else: He was a very strong reader despite his poor spelling skills.

Why was this? This question motivated Masterson for the next 20 years as she researched literacy development in young children. Her findings suggested that the way in which we teach our children to spell may be wrong.

What is spelling awareness?

“How were we taught to spell? Most of us were given a list of words on Monday that we had to study at home, memorize really, throughout the week and then we took a test on Friday,” said Masterson. “What we’ve initially found in our research is that spelling isn’t dependent on memorizing. It may work for the Friday test, but kids will go back to spelling the words the way they did after that.”

Masterson found that in order to learn how to spell, you need three things: sound awareness, meaning awareness and spelling pattern awareness.

Using the word “burned” as an example, the reader must know that “burned” has four sounds, and this is sound awareness. They must also know that “ur” sound can be spelled a variety of ways, such as “-er” or “-ur,” and this is spelling pattern awareness. But what about meaning awareness?

“How were we taught to spell? Most of us were given a list of words on Monday that we had to study at home, memorize really, throughout the week and then we took a test on Friday.” — Dr. Julie Masterson

“When you hear the word ‘burned’ the last two sounds in that word are the ‘n” and the ‘d’ sounds,” said Masterson. “Well because you know that the word refers to an event that occurred in the past, you know not to just end that word with a ‘d;’ you know to spell it with an ‘-ed.’”

After readers have successfully mastered all three features of spelling a word or set of words, they must develop automaticity. Automaticity is the ability to know how a word is spelled without having to go through its three features. It involves having clear “mental pictures” of words and allows a reader to instantly recognize a word or a writer to automatically spell a word.

Dr. Julie Masterson talking with children

Improving both spelling and reading

In order to define exactly what it is kids need to learn and how best to teach them, Masterson designed tailored interventions based on how children spell various types of words. She and her collaborators (including many MSU students) developed software to analyze spellings and indicate goals and methods for treatment as well as a metric to monitor student progress. The team conducted treatment studies and found that the children’s spelling did get better, but their reading improved to an even greater extent. Improvement in reading is particularly important in an era of school accountability.

With this metric, they’ve been able to do several group comparisons on children from various backgrounds, including kids of aboriginal descent in Australia and those who are African American versus not African American. They also tested children who were living with certain conditions like speech disorders or deafness.

“People would have assumed that if you were deaf for a number of years, your spelling errors would be primarily due to a lack of awareness of sounds because you weren’t hearing them…Yes, some of them were, but a lot of them were just like errors in people who are hearing yet have failed to learn the necessary spelling features. The good news is that our tailored treatment can be used to help them learn what they need to learn.”

Lost? Here’s a map for early literacy development

Beyond Baby TalkThe three spelling features and more are discussed in Masterson’s newly-revised book “Beyond Baby Talk: From Speaking to Spelling: a Guide to Language and Literacy Development for Parents and Caregivers.” Co-authored with Dr. Kenn Apel and sponsored by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA), the book provides parents with the resources necessary to properly monitor their child’s development from infant to the third grade. Masterson had no intention of writing a book, but when she was approached by the executive director of ASHA she quickly saw the topic’s potential for a wider audience. Her expertise on the subject and second edition of the book led to her being featured in articles for NBC’s “Today Show” about how to tell the difference between normal developmental variation and potential disorders, gender differences in language development, and how to teach young children to be kind.

Metals move front and center to target cancer

As a child growing up in Ukraine, Dr. Nikolay Gerasimchuk, professor of chemistry, learned about chemistry even sitting at the kitchen table.

“In our household was a jar of water at the table. In it was an old Czar Russian silver ruble at the bottom — a pure silver coin. That silver leeching slowly out in the solution provided pretty good sterilization of water.”

Dr. Gerasimchuk working on lab equipmentThe antimicrobial property of silver is one key to a current research project Gerasimchuk is conducting 30 years after receiving his first doctorate degree in Kiev, Ukraine. He is developing a set of compounds that, when added in a small amount to light-curable polymeric medical adhesives, could be used to properly set medical indwelling devices and prevent infections at those sites. This coating mixture, which is also water insoluble, light insensitive and thermally stable to withstand the rigors of medical and dental procedures, is patent pending and not available yet. Gerasimchuk envisions a day, though, when it will be used with pacemakers, joint replacements and in dental implants.

“What we are hunting for is to make that interface between tissue and any indwelling device antimicrobial. Because what happens in many cases is that infection comes in place where the device is set, and we know what that means: The loss of productive lifetime, increased post-procedural rehabilitation and recovery time, pain and significant material cost needed to address the problem. ”

“The more I was doing this work, the more I realized how beautiful this group of molecules is.” — Dr. Nikolay Gerasimchuk

The common thread between each of Gerasimchuk’s research projects is a subclass of organic compounds that he discovered called cyanoximes. These compounds bind metal ions strongly and have many characteristics depending on what they’re bound to.

“The more I was doing this work, the more I realized how beautiful this group of molecules is,” he said. “I saw an opportunity to build a tinker toy, a Lego type approach, so we can keep one part of the molecule consistent and then add a huge variety of other parts to it to change the compounds’ properties such as solubility, bulkiness, color, etc.”

That’s exactly what he’s doing with his two other research projects, both of which also have medical applications.

Up-close of organic compound

Fighting cancer with palladium compounds

Many of the primary anticancer drugs are platinum based, Gerasimchuk explained, which poison every cell they encounter. These drugs work because cancer cells divide much faster than non-cancerous cells, and blocking that division cycle is one of the main tactics in the fight. But tumors build resistance to this type of drug. To improve the effectiveness of these drugs and alleviate side effects in cancer patients, Gerasimchuk is designing compounds structurally similar to these anticancer compounds and making them more water soluble by binding these substances to specifically designed cyanoximes.

He is also working to develop anticancer active compounds using cyanoximes with palladium, platinum’s neighbor on the periodic table.

“Palladium is much less toxic and much less expensive, so we are testing whether we will persistently see slightly better activity of our new palladium compounds compared to those with platinum. If so, then we can push for a new type of drug.”

Platinum compound used to find, fight cancer

Compound heated to emit yellow flameApproximately 15 years ago, a new scientific field was created called theranostics — a combination of therapy and diagnostics. It’s still being explored, and Gerasimchuk is contributing by designing and making platinum cyanoximes complexes to find tumors and ultimately act as anticancer agents.

Visualize a stack of poker chips with platinum centers. The stacks are flexible and loosely connected by a thin thread down the center of the stack. Electrons move along the thread, and as they move, they can absorb light in visible region of spectrum and re-emit it in the near-infrared region.

“What we would like to do is to put these compounds inside of cells or tissue. Since they emit light at this very specific range of wavelengths (near-infrared), it comes through tissue without being absorbed,” he explained.

For this project, Gerasimchuk partnered with Dr. Mikhail Berezin from Washington Medical School’s department of radiology, who built a $1 million piece of equipment that allows scientists to view in the near-infrared range. Their work on this theranostics project was published in the January 2015 issue of the American Chemical Society’s journal, Inorganic Chemistry.

With Berezin’s equipment and the patent-pending new infrared emitters, doctors could diagnose and target cancer cells.

“Once the compound disassembles due to metabolic processes, it acts as an anticancer agent and kill cancer cells. That is a very cool application!”

Learning laws and loopholes in the information age

If a significant life event was posted on Twitter but no one saw it, did it really happen? Regardless of how you fall on the issue, Wayne Anderson thinks people need to consider the risks of social media before sharing.

“My training has got me scared to do any of that,” chuckled Anderson, professor in the department of finance and general business.

Anderson, who jokes that he’s been on campus forever, was practicing law in the state of California when he became interested in the issues of software development and started writing articles on the topic from the legal perspective. After teaching business law at Missouri State for more than 20 years, the computer information systems graduate program coordinator recruited Anderson to teach a course on legal issues in the information technology arena – a course that changes each semester due to new issues and nuances that appear.

“Anything that’s older than three years, four years, is ancient history in this area of law.”

“I am not in it to create junior attorneys. Instead, it’s my job to put an alarm system in you so that maybe you don’t remember what the law is from what we talked about, but you smell a rat in this,” he said.

Wayne Anderson teaching classThe students in his courses are often IT professionals, working toward an advanced degree, so they bring forward research topics for articles and discussions that are applicable to their daily lives. Anderson works closely with those students to produce articles for publication on a variety of topics affecting the IT industry, ultimately co-authoring 19 articles in the last seven years.

“It’s phenomenal how many I’ve been able to get published for them. That’s nice for everybody.”

Can you keep a secret?

“I wish there was a silver bullet for spoofing. Backtrack to see if it’s really coming from who you think it’s coming from. Always use throw away e-mail addresses when corresponding with an unfamiliar source. Have a separate banking account for questionable transactions. Just use a little precaution.”

Much of the course work focuses on intellectual property issues, including patents, copyright, trademarks and trade secrets. Anderson also addresses contracts, criminal law, hacking and spoofing.

“It’s getting to be very difficult to keep anything secure,” said Anderson. “Of course, you clicked on the ‘I Agree’ button or you wouldn’t even gain access to many of these sites from day one. Before you clicked, you failed to look at the 32 page document that covered that.”

Wayne Anderson teaching classWith intellectual property, Anderson stressed how time-consuming and monetarily expensive it can be to protect a product or service. The owner must also be willing to bring the action to court.

“A lot of people assume that if there’s infringement, someone else – like a governmental agency – will step in to enforce it.” That’s the exception rather than the rule, he pointed out.

So as a lawyer, mentor and researcher, Anderson feels compelled to stay abreast of the latest regulations in the technological industry, which helps to influence discussions with his students. He delves into the morality of the actions and whether a law exists to influence a decision.

“Sometimes, I want to tell my students how to protect themselves from the people that they work for, as well as protect the people that they work for,” he said. “Because, when things hit the fan, unfortunately, sometimes the company will be looking for someone to be held responsible.”

More about Wayne Anderson

Father of 3, one’s a doctor at Mayo Clinic; twins (25), male in law school at William and Mary, female at UC-Davis working on economics and textiles “undoing all the damage my son and I did from law school”


  • Member of the State Bar of California
  • Member of the American Bar Association
  • Member of the American Bar Association Business Law Section
  • Member of the Midwest Academy of Legal Studies
  • Member of Beta Gamma Sigma (Business Honor Society)
  • Member of Phi Delta Phi (legal)
  • Member of Phi Eta Sigma (National Honor Society)

Honors and awards

  • Most Knowledgeable, and Invigorating Award
  • Most Inspirational Award
  • COBA Excellence in Teaching Award
  • Professor of the Year
  • University Thoughtfulness and Professionalism Award
  • Most Effective Award at Annual Teachers Appreciation Day
  • Most Knowledgeable Award at First Annual Teachers Appreciation Day

Adding significance to the seemingly mundane

Police lights cut through the night sky, and Sarah Williams, assistant professor of art and design, knows she looks suspicious. She’s skulking through dark streets photographing buildings for inspiration for her oil paintings. These low-quality snapshots help her recreate a story of the rural America that she loves.

Sarah Williams

“If you’re an artist, you’re either a hedgehog or a fox. … I’m totally a hedgehog.” — Sarah Williams

Occasionally, she gets taken down to the police station on her quest to capture images of her subjects, but usually in her small hometown of Brookfield, Missouri, where she photographs most often, they recognize that she’s on a mission.

Photographic studies of subject matter“I’m working from these terrible little snapshots that I take, and I love for them to be bad because it makes me be inventive,” Williams said.

From these resource shots, she knows the shape of the building and location of the light source, but she adds in detail and color – color is her passion – to showcase these buildings’ unique structures.

“I’m just really fascinated with how you can indicate the way of life or someone’s existence or personality through the way they’ve built whatever it is they use,” she said.

Coping with homesickness through painting

Growing up in rural Missouri has influenced Williams’ art from her earliest memories.  In fact, the only art she remembers from childhood was that of the waiting room variety, and the pictures she drew of wildlife.

After moving to the Dallas metro area for her graduate work, she began taking photos on her home visits and putting this inspiration on canvas.

“I was having this crisis because I didn’t recognize anything, and I’ve always grown up in a small area where I could go by landmarks…I completely lost my sense of place.”

Paint palette and palette knife

Through her paintings, she started to share the uniqueness and slower pace of the rural way of life, sometimes through an abandoned highway or a dark night sky against an aging industrial building.

Recently she’s begun incorporating more residential settings into her work and experimenting with the feeling of voyeurism. For her, she’s trying to capture the feeling that the viewer is standing on the sidewalk staring at the houses to see what is visible inside.

“I’ve got this series of small houses with big picture windows, and you can see the giant TVs glowing through the windows, so there’s that acidic artificial light that’s happening.”

Open-air paintings are often created in a serene location to paint landscapes, but as a student, Sarah Williams did a series of open air paintings in the aisles of her hometown Wal-Mart.

“I was in the middle of Wal-Mart where everybody was doing their shopping, and I was painting from observation – the light on the linoleum, the displays, or the bananas were $1.60.” She remembers being met with questioning glances.

Exploring her subject like a hedgehog

Painting of a ticket boothFor a young artist, Williams has received a lot of recognition for her body of work. Her oil paintings were displayed at the Nicolaysen Art Museum in Casper, Wyoming, in spring 2014, and she showed at Northwest College in Powell, Wyoming, where she taught a course called Weekend in the Wild that took students to Yellowstone. In February 2015, she had her largest solo show to date in Houston, Texas, at the McMurtrey Gallery where she showed more than 30 pieces. She also was selected for a solo show at the George Billis Gallery in Los Angeles in September 2015 and at the Talley Dunn Gallery in Dallas in January 2016.

“If you’re an artist, you’re either a hedgehog or a fox,” said Williams. “If you’re a fox, you’re jumping all over the place with your concept and your materials…If you’re a hedgehog, you’re working through new ideas, but it looks very consistent, so to the outside eye, it’s a slow, slow progression. I’m totally a hedgehog.”

To view selected works, visit