2020 has been — well, take your pick of adjective: Difficult. Uncertain. Unpredictable. Unprecedented. Challenging. By now, we’ve all heard and used these words so many times that they hardly do justice to the collective whiplash and mind-boggling paradigm shifts we’ve adjusted to during the past months.
But even in a year as unusual and downright disruptive as the one we’ve just experienced, there have been countless moments of resilience, celebration, and triumph that have been welcome bright spots, representing the Heart of KU at its very finest. This year has shown us yet again that even in the face of extraordinary adversity, Jayhawks continue to do what they do best — rise to big challenges, seek bold solutions, and inspire their communities, no matter what curveballs are pitched their way.
So as we bid farewell to 2020 and look ahead to a year full of new possibilities, new opportunities, and — no doubt — new challenges, we’re recapping 2020 with 15 defining stories that intrigued, dazzled, and inspired us. And that proved yet again what our communities are capable of accomplishing, against all odds and under the strangest of circumstances.
So long, 2020. And here’s to the start of a new chapter.
As the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic was felt across the globe, students, alumni, faculty, and staff from the College brought their expertise to the frontlines, applying their diverse talents in labs, hospitals, non-profits, kitchens, essential businesses, and home work stations. There’s strength in numbers, and if this year showed us anything, it’s that incredible things happen when Jayhawks come together with a common goal.
Researchers in the College are searching for answers to big questions — how to make cities more compassionate, human trafficking prevention, global health. In the Unwinding podcast, we talk with them about their latest discoveries, why they matter, and what makes them tick as humans.
This year, our conversations spanned topics ranging from efforts to close the gender gap in politics and what we can learn from zombies in popular TV shows and movies to who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls and why Zora Neale Hurston’s work resonates in the era of Black Lives Matter. Stream new episodes on Spotify.
Faculty contributions in research, teaching and mentoring were recognized this spring with a series of awards from the College. The prizes acknowledge outstanding professors for commitment to advising and teaching undergraduate and graduate students, as well as community-engaged research.
This year’s honorees:
Community Engaged Scholarship Award
- Gregory Rudnick, professor of physics & astronomy
Steeples Service to Kansans Award
- Claudia Dozier, associate professor of applied behavioral science
- Scott Harris, senior specialist and KU Debate coach, Department of Communication Studies
- Ken Fischer, professor of mechanical engineering
Gene A. Budig Teaching Professorship Award
- Alison Gabriele, professor of linguistics
Byron A. Alexander Graduate Mentor Award
- James Bever, Distinguished Foundation Professor of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology
John C. Wright Graduate Mentor Award
- Jarron Saint Onge, associate professor of sociology
Grant Goodman Undergraduate Mentor Award
- Bruce Hayes, professor of French literature & culture
J. Michael Young Academic Advisor Award
- Kevin McCannon, lecturer and academic program associate, Department of Sociology
- Laura Mielke, Dean’s Professor of English
- Maya Stiller, associate professor of the history of art
Two months before the pandemic became the center of collective national attention in the U.S., political rivals across the ideological spectrum journeyed to Iowa with their teams for a marathon of non-stop campaigning, hand-shaking, and rallies in an all-hands-on-deck final push to amplify their messages and ultimately find a path to victory.
As the events unfolded in the Hawkeye State, back when the democratic race seemed to be anyone’s game, three research teams of undergraduate and graduate students, along with their faculty advisors, from the University of Kansas, South Florida State University, and the University of Alabama went out in the field to see how candidates’ messages were playing with caucus goers. They explained how their findings could reveal insights about American voters’ preferences, biases, and hopes for the country’s future.
First, the Project on the History of Black Writing worked to preserve physical copies of novels by Black writers, often rescuing works from dusty attics and estate sales. In the 21st century, HBW began digitizing its library. And now, with the help of a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, it is moving to make the collection even more accessible to future scholars worldwide.
For Maryemma Graham, the HBW project — growing out of her grad school discoveries in 1983 — came with her to the University of Kansas in 1999. Now the Distinguished Professor of English is one of three principal investigators for a $500,000, two-year grant that will bring the collection out of the digital shadows.
Having recently graduated, our Hawks to Watch are just starting to leave their mark in their industries and communities. They’re poised for greatness, inspiring their colleagues and excelling in their professions. Basically, they’re killing it.
We caught up with some of our recent alums about their work, plans for the future, and how they’re navigating this year’s many challenges and plot twists. Meet our newest Hawks, whose career paths and individual stories – a former NFL athlete, an energy justice advocate, a professional dancer inspiring change outside of the studio, a molecular virologist working to develop faster testing for COVID-19, and so many others – showcase the endless possibilities of a KU degree in the liberal arts and sciences.
It would be striking for a seasoned entomologist with decades of fieldwork to discover such a large number of species unknown to science. But for Rachel Smith, an undergraduate majoring in ecology & evolutionary biology, the find is extraordinary: Smith recently published a description of 18 new species of aquatic water beetle from the genus Chasmogenus in the peer-reviewed journal ZooKeys.
“The average size of these beetles, I would say, is about the size of a capital ‘O’ in a 12-point font,” said Smith of the collection of new species. “They spend a lot of their life in forest streams and pools. They’re aquatic, so they’re all great swimmers — and they can fly.”
Daniel Tapia Takaki, associate professor of physics & astronomy at the University of Kansas, has created a new research team at KU to exploit the unique opportunities to research physics at high energies available at the ALICE experiment at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the largest and most complex particle accelerator in the world.
For his new research program at ALICE, Tapia Takaki recently earned a $447,000, two-year award from the Nuclear Physics program in the Office of Science at the Department of Energy. The award is titled “Research in Heavy-Ion Nuclear Physics: Studying the Initial State of QCD Matter.” He has also received funding to serve as a visiting professor at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and University of California-Berkeley during the 2020-2021 academic year.
College alum and Kansas Secretary of Commerce David Toland has been appointed by Governor Laura Kelly to serve as the state’s next Lieutenant Governor. Toland, who earned a B.A. in political science in 1999 and an M.P.A. in city management & urban policy in 2001, will begin serving in his new role in January.
“Jobs and economic growth have never been more important than now, and building on the tremendous gains of the economic development team at the Department of Commerce will continue to be my focus going forward,” he said in a press release from the Governor’s Office.
Oscar-winning College professor releases two new films
Filmmaker and professor of film & media studies Kevin Willmott followed an extremely busy awards season with two new releases this year. Willmott and writing partner Spike Lee, who directed 2019’s “BlacKkKlansman,” teamed up again for “Da Five Bloods,” an action drama that chronicles five Black veterans’ journey back to Vietnam. “There’s been a few small films that dealt with the black Vietnam experience, but nothing like this,” Willmott said of the film, which premiered on Netflix on June 12. And with “The 24th,” co-written, co-produced and directed by Willmott and released via independent distributor Vertical Entertainment on Aug. 21, the KU professor provides a timely look at police violence during the Houston Riot of 1917.
Faculty, staff, students, and alumni in the College bring life to the Heart of KU through their hard work and amazing support. And in a year full of so many anxiety-inducing headlines and news alerts, we’ll take all of the good news we can get! From election wins and film festival selections to teaching awards, student scholarships, and White House Fellowships, see the latest achievements from the College in one place here.
Ever wonder what’s in the stone house nestled on the northwest corner of campus? In this episode of Habitat, watch as we explore the interior of the Max Kade Center for German-American Studies. As part of the German Studies Department, the Center provides a link to German immigration to America and Kansas. See why it’s one of KU’s best hidden gems.
With the phrase “Russian hacker” on everyone’s lips, a federal grant will give KU more tools to study the area of the world from which the threat is deemed to emanate.
Increasing expertise and course offerings in the areas of cybersecurity and intelligence is just one purpose to which KU’s Center for Russian, East European & Eurasian Studies (CREES) will put a newly announced two-year, $426,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Education. The money will also strengthen the university’s language and other course offerings and support outreach to the surrounding community.
But foremost, as stated in its grant application, compiled by Vitaly Chernetsky, former CREES director and associate professor of Slavic and Eurasian languages & literatures, the new CREES programs are designed to “respond to critical national needs,” including the intelligence capabilities that foreign language speakers can provide.
A big year of recognition for College scholars
Representing the very best of KU, numerous scholars from the College were recognized this year for excellence in teaching, dedication to research, and outstanding contributions to their respective fields. Here are just a few of this year’s honors and honorees:
- Maryemma Graham, a University Distinguished Professor in the Department of English and the founder and director of the Project on the History of Black Writing, was named as the 2020 Chancellors Club Teaching Award recipient.
- Sarah Deer, who has a joint appointment in the School of Public Affairs & Administration and Department of Women, Gender & Sexuality Studies, was named a University Distinguished Professor. She was also selected as one of 27 researchers in the 2020 class of Andrew Carnegie Fellows.
- Donna Ginther, professor in the Department of Economics, was awarded a Roy A. Roberts Distinguished Professorship.
- Joan Sereno, professor of linguistics, and Joane Nagel, University Distinguished Professor of Sociology, were named as fellows of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).
- Bozenna Pasik-Duncan, professor of mathematics, was named to the 2021 Class of Fellows for the Association for Women in Mathematics (AWM) for her support and encouragement of women and girls in mathematics and engineering.
They say a picture’s worth a thousand words. But considering the stunning images we saw over the past twelve months, that figure seems far too low. This year, members of the KU College community shared with us their photos capturing the beauty of Mount Oread and its iconic landmarks, moments of discovery, celebration and creation, and the extraordinary perseverance of our Jayhawks, who pushed ahead to pursue their dreams and make new connections in spite of physical distance.