Cornell is known as a leading center of research and knowledge. Breakthrough discoveries, cutting-edge research, and forward-thinking pedagogy attract students and academics from around the world to the university’s campus. This environment of intellectual and scientific excellence is nurtured by a wide range of academic experts, including lecturers and researchers who work closely with faculty and students, often winning awards and publishing in their own right.
Choral Music Rehearsal, an Amazing Laboratory for the Liberal Arts
Stephen Spinelli, lecturer and assistant director of Choral Programs, Music, is one of these academicians, adding his expertise to the Cornell mix. He conducts the Cornell Chorale and the Cornell Chamber Singers and is the assistant director of the Cornell Glee Club and Chorus, which he calls, “incredible models of student leadership and alumni support.”
Helping students broaden their understanding through the choral experience is central to Spinelli’s teaching goals. “Choral music rehearsal is an amazing laboratory for a liberal arts education,” he says. “In a very hands-on way, we study fundamental topics like history, foreign language and linguistics, cultural context, poetry, and the physics of musical sound. In a more nuanced manner, I try to cultivate valuable human attributes like empathy, discipline, and teamwork.”
The Cornell Chorale has grown steadily since Spinelli came to the university three years ago. “This year there are 120 students in the chorale,” he says. “We had to cap the members at the number of people allowed in the room by the fire code. When I started, there were only 32 students in the group.” He attributes the upsurge in choral participants to an engaging repertoire presented to students in a professional, age-appropriate way. “I believe in the material,” he says. “I know what it did for me. I’m hooking some of them, and that’s a great feeling.”
Last year Spinelli scored a huge success with students by having the chorale perform Carmina Burana, a mid-twentieth-century work by Carl Orff, based on 24 poems on secular subjects from a Medieval manuscript written by monks and nuns. “The subject matter was unexpected,” Spinelli says. “There were drinking songs and songs about relationships. There’s something about that text and the reckless abandon of percussion and two pianos and a lot of sound that spoke to Cornell students.”
Spinelli also works with the much smaller Cornell Chamber Singers, which typically consists of 24 students. They are more advanced in their musical training and include graduate students in the Music Department who want extra experience and more accountability, according to Spinelli. “This is where my own research is coming to fruition this term,” he says.
Spinelli’s research centers on the Baroque era as filtered through the advent of the Reformation. “I’m investigating what that era did for music—choral music specifically,” he says. He brought Variant 6—a group of six singers from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, specializing in very early and very contemporary music—to Cornell to work with the chamber choir. Variant 6 and the choir performed music by Johann Schelle, a little-known, mid-Baroque composer of special interest to Spinelli.
“We took some of this 300-year-old forgotten music, and we gave premiers of it and did some recordings,” he says. “We looked at the implications of what you discover when you reawaken pieces of art that have fallen out of the cannon. We also examined the Reformation and looked forward with contemporary music that relates to the earlier works and speaks to the need for social change through the arts.”
In the music field, performance is a form of research as well, and Spinelli will be performing as a tenor with the Grammy Award–winning vocal octet Roomful of Teeth in January 2018. He also sang with the Philadelphia-based chamber choir The Crossing on Gavin Bryars’ album The Fifth Century, which was just nominated for a 2018 Grammy Award.
A Biomedical Nanotechnology Lab for NextGen Research Techniques
The world has seen great leaps forward in biomedical understanding in recent years as scientists tackle humanity’s greatest health issues, looking for both the causes and the cures within biological processes. For Shivaun D. Archer, John and Janet Swanson Senior Lecturer, Biomedical Engineering, bioengineering research paved the way to her current work, designing and running the labs for the core courses in Cornell’s biomedical engineering major. After receiving her PhD in Chemical Engineering, Archer worked for a small technology company and then Cornell as a research assistant for Michael L. Shuler, Biomedical Engineering. When the biomedical engineering program started at Cornell, she was asked to develop the first labs. “I come from a research background,” she says. “That’s why I want to bring it into teaching. There are definitely ways to adapt cutting-edge technology and research into the undergraduate lab experience.”
These days Archer is responsible for designing and maintaining 23 labs that provide a quantitative approach to study issues related to human health. Working with the professors teaching the lecture courses, Archer originates the ideas for the labs and then implements them. “It’s important that the ideas are current and tend to be research-based,” she says. “But the lab does have to be doable in three hours. That puts some constraints on the equipment we have and the amount of knowledge we can impart to get the students ready to carry out a fairly sophisticated, high-level experimental lab.” The labs Archer has created span the gamut of biomedical and engineering techniques and methodology with a particular emphasis on biomedical nanotechnology.
Each year Archer works with a new group of teaching assistants (TAs) who help run the lab. The TAs also contribute to the lab while learning from Archer. Often they suggest different techniques and protocols that they’ve learned in the department’s research groups where they are currently doing research themselves. “They might suggest we use a different antibody that’s cheaper or faster or a free software they know about,” Archer says. “I’m very happy to have their expertise go into the lab. It gives validation that we are teaching skills that will be useful to our students in the future.”
Archer’s enthusiasm for imparting research skills to her students has resulted in her winning two teaching awards: the James and Mary Tien Excellence in Teaching Award and the Sonny Yau Excellence in Teaching Award as well as the Academic Achievement Award. In addition, she’s been very involved in the College of Engineering diversity community, encouraging diversity in students and mentoring under-represented students. For that work, she was awarded the Zellman Warhaft Commitment to Diversity Award.
Chinese, a Complex Language System with Multiple Writing Forms
Over the past decade, the world has been changing rapidly. China has now emerged as a dominant world power in business and economics, and with that has come increased interest in the Chinese language and culture. Frances Yufen Lee Mehta, senior lecturer, Asian Studies, has seen that surge in popularity firsthand. She teaches advanced Mandarin students and Chinese reading and writing for Chinese heritage students.
The heritage students either came to the United States at a very young age or were born here, Mehta explains. Usually they can speak some Mandarin, but much of their vocabulary is at a low level, reflecting a very elementary understanding of the language, and they are largely unable to read or write Chinese characters. The advanced Mandarin students, on the other hand, are non-heritage students who are tackling an extremely complex language system that includes learning multiple forms of writing. For both groups, the work can seem daunting, and Mehta’s goal is to elevate their language skills as well as build their confidence.
“I follow a teaching philosophy called Universal Design for Learning,” Mehta says. “It means every student is unique and has something to contribute. At the same time everyone has some obstacle, some handicap—it could be physical, mental, or emotional—that can get in the way of learning. I design my classes so that everyone has a chance to contribute.”
In her classes, Mehta encourages students to share their knowledge and experience with her and with each other. “I impress on my students that language is a communication tool,” she says. “I teach and guide them in syntactic and lexical contexts. They then internalize the new grammar and vocabulary which I have introduced and use them to communicate by relating to their own interests and experiences. The class is full of exchanges and interaction, of which I am the facilitator, and we will talk about all kinds of things, such as current events and cultural traditions. So when my students go to China, Taiwan, or other Chinese communities, they can have the mindset that allows them to be self-sufficient and lifelong autonomous learners.”
Along with her work as a teacher, Mehta is also in demand as a speaker and participant at language conferences where she contributes her research on pedagogy, methodology, and material development, as well as the latest thinking on heritage education. “I do my best to share my experiences and promote my ideas of teaching,” she says “I am always willing to learn and try new theories and methods for more effective teaching.”
Mehta was on the Chinese Language task force to create the guidelines and benchmarks for the Advanced Placement Exam in Chinese, and she has written multiple books for teaching Chinese, including co-authoring Chaoyue, Advancing in Chinese, a Textbook for Intermediate and Pre-Advanced Students (Columbia University Press: 2010). She has also received numerous awards, including the Clark Award for Distinguished Teaching, the Kendall S. Carpenter Memorial Advising Award, and the Andrew Dickson Award for Advising from the Greek system for her decades-long commitment to advising the Cornell chapter of the Pi Delta Psi fraternity.
Black Holes and Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity
Black holes have been in the news lately with the detection of gravitational waves generated by the collision of two of these massive objects in outer space. Lawrence E. Kidder, senior research associate, Astronomy/Cornell Center for Astrophysics and Planetary Science, contributed to the groundbreaking work, which puts Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity to the test. His research pushes the fundamental theory of gravity forward, furthering our understanding of the nature of the universe.
“We use these simulations to predict what the gravitational waves produced by the collisions look like.”
Kidder works with Saul A. Teukolsky, Astronomy, on computer simulations of collisions between massive objects in outer space, such as black holes and neutron stars. “We use these simulations to predict what the gravitational waves produced by the collisions look like,” Kidder says. “Then our simulations can be compared with actual observations by gravitational wave detectors at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) to help analyze the data they observe.”
Kidder and Teukolsky are members of the Simulating eXtreme Spacetimes (SXS) collaboration, a group of nine institutions working together to perfect the computer code used for the simulations. “Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity includes equations that say how gravity and matter are related,” Kidder explains, “so our code uses those equations to describe what happens when two black holes or neutron stars get very close to each other and merge.”
The computer program that runs the simulations has been in development since 2000, and Kidder has been working on it from the beginning. “It is the most accurate code of its type in the world,” he says. “We can do many more simulations for the same computational power of other groups, and the higher accuracy allows us to better tune the analytical models used to generate the templates for the analyses of the data obtained by LIGO.”
In 2016 LIGO made history by announcing the first detection of gravitational waves from the collision of two black holes, and SXS’s computational model was instrumental in the success of LIGO’s experiment. Kidder and Teukolsky were co-recipients of the 2016 Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics, along with the three principle founders of LIGO and the thousand-member collaboration that runs the detector. Kidder and Teukolsky were among seven scientists outside the LIGO Scientific Collaboration singled out by the prize committee for making important contributions to the success of LIGO.
The prize hasn’t changed things for Kidder. He continues to help write the SXS computer simulation code, which is perpetually in production as SXS group members tweak and overhaul it to increase its accuracy and efficiency. He also runs the simulations, analyzes the results, and trains graduate students on the SXS method. Cornell is a great place to do this work, Kidder says. “I love being at Cornell,” he adds. “The students here are very good, very fun to work with.”