Study Abroad Leader Visiting South Korea in June

Blair McElroy bestowed a Fulbright award

Blair McElroy

OXFORD, Miss. – The head of the study abroad program at the University of Mississippi has received a Fulbright award to South Korea to create a stronger connection between the university and the country.

Blair McElroy, director of the university’s study abroad program and UM interim senior international officer, was awarded a grant to attend a two-week International Education Administrators seminar in June in South Korea. The grant is made possible through funds appropriated annually by Congress.

“I am delighted and proud to be selected as one of the eight grantees,” McElroy said. “I am excited to experience the Korean culture firsthand as part of a group of passionate individuals in the field of international education.”

The purpose of the seminar is “to create and deepen institutional connections to Korea through visits to universities and meetings with faculty, administrators and government officials,” McElroy said.

“These visits and meetings will enhance UM’s current program offerings in Korea by structuring strategic partnerships in academic areas. The seminar will also increase my knowledge of Korean culture, which will assist in advising students for study in Korea, enhance connections to our current Korean students on campus and, personally, increase my intercultural competence – one can never have enough.”

Typically, the seminar includes a week around Seoul, South Korea, visiting universities and institutions. The second week is generally spent outside Seoul. The seminar also includes tours of historical and cultural sites.

“I am thrilled that Ms. McElroy has been given this opportunity to travel to South Korea and work to expand her expertise and our community’s connection to that country,” UM Provost Noel Wilkin said. “We have a goal to educate and engage global citizens, which entails increasing study abroad and expanding faculty engagement abroad.

“In addition to being an honor for Blair, this award will enable her to advance this goal and build connections to enable these activities.”

After returning, McElroy said she will pursue the goals outlined in her project statement, which includes workshops for faculty and staff on intercultural communication and partnerships in Korea, development of faculty-led programs to Korea and support of events where domestic and Korean students can connect.

“I hope that through these goals we will increase the number of students studying in Korea, especially students who are not currently studying Korean language at UM, and encourage cultural exchange through study, teaching and research,” McElroy said.

A native of Jackson, Tennessee, McElroy earned a bachelor’s degree in international studies, minoring in Chinese and French, from Ole Miss in 2002. She is a graduate of the Croft Institute for International Studies and the Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College. She earned her Juris Doctor from the UM School of Law in 2006.

During her academic career, she studied overseas in Beijing for a semester, and at Cambridge University in the United Kingdom. She joined the study abroad office in 2006.

According to Jeffrey L. Bleich, chair of the J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board, the Fulbright program “aims to increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries, (and) is the flagship international educational exchange program sponsored by the U.S. government.”

“As a Fulbright recipient and a representative of the United States, you will have the opportunity to work collaboratively with international partners in educational, political, cultural, economic and scientific fields,” Bleich said in a letter to McElroy announcing the award. “We hope that your Fulbright experience will be deeply rewarding professionally and personally, and that you will share the knowledge you gain with many others throughout your life.”

Students Study Physics During UM Spring Break Visit

Project prepares high school students for AP Physics

Marco Cavaglia, a UM professor of physics and astronomy, spends his spring break educating Mississippi high school students about physics as part of a Global Teaching Project program. Photo by Thomas Graning/Ole Miss Communications

OXFORD, Miss. – It was probably the first time Yung Bleu’s hip-hop had been used to teach physics.

Yet, in Marco Cavaglia’s University of Mississippi classroom during spring break, the artist’s music played, causing the electronic waves of an oscilloscope to bounce and jiggle with the vibrations of the music.

Huddled around the oscilloscope, learning about gravitational waves through the Alabama artist’s work, stood 28 Mississippi high school students from rural school districts, visiting the Ole Miss campus during spring break as part of a Global Teaching Project program.

The program is an initiative to provide potentially high-achieving secondary school students, regardless of their circumstances, access to the quality teaching they need to fulfill their potential, with an initial focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics courses, said Matt Dolan, founder and CEO of the Global Teaching Project.

For the 2017-18 school year, the project has worked with the Mississippi Public School Consortium for Educational Access to implement a three-year pilot program to teach Advanced Placement Physics 1 in rural, low-income areas with high schools that did not previously offer the course and where shortages of qualified teachers are most acute. The subject was chosen largely based on assessments by Mississippi educators of their most pressing curricular needs.

“Multiple studies show significant benefits from taking AP classes,” Dolan said. “Students who do well on the exams significantly boost their college admission prospects, and possibly save money through expanded college scholarship opportunities and the ability to earn college credit without taking college courses.

“Studies also show that all students, even those with modest test scores, tend to benefit from exposure to advanced material and by developing the study skills to handle rigorous material.”

According to the College Board, the nonprofit that oversees the AP Program, more than 2.6 million U.S. students took an AP exam in 2017, but in Mississippi, only 10,580 students took such an exam. Only 527 Mississippi students took the AP Physics 1 exam in 2017, with only 175 passing.

Students from consortium high schools in Aberdeen and Booneville, and Coahoma (Coahoma Early College High School), Holmes, Pontotoc, Quitman and Scott counties participated in the spring break program.

The AP Physics 1 course is provided at no cost to students, schools or school districts. Funding for the consortium comes entirely from the private sector.

The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, which is focused on promoting educational opportunities for promising students from underserved areas, provided significant support to the consortium, Dolan said, and the Global Teaching Project has borne much of the costs itself.

Although the AP class features numerous online components, it is not an online course. The lead instructor is Meg Urry, a professor of physics and astronomy at Yale University, who teaches primarily via asynchronous video but also has come to Mississippi to teach students in person.

Students also are instructed through textbooks, online resources, physics majors from Yale and the University of Virginia who tutor through video conferences and virtual whiteboards, and on-site teachers.

The Global Teaching Project plans to add more AP courses and school districts for 2018-19.

The students who visited the Ole Miss campus during spring break came for a number of reasons, Dolan said. There was the objective of providing additional academic support and reviewing the AP Physics 1 material as the May exam date nears. The visit also provided younger, prospective students an understanding of what the course entails, and what students must do to prepare for that level of academic rigor.

And, in some small respect, the three-day visit was designed to give high school students the college experience.

Undergraduate physics major Renee Sullivan-Gonzalez demonstrates the big bang to Mississippi high school students involved with the Global Teaching Project program. Photo by Thomas Graning/Ole Miss Communications

“It was exciting to partner with the Global Teaching Project to improve access to higher education for some of Mississippi’s most underserved high school students,” said Robert Cummings, UM coordinator for the visit and executive director of academic innovation. “While it is painful to think that world-renowned researchers like Dr. Cavaglia are located just a few miles from high school students who might have no high school physics courses, texts or teachers, it is also equally rewarding to see the two come together.

“It is moments like these that remind me that the University of Mississippi is a special place, endowed with a powerful capability to render real change in our world.”

The visit included staying at The Inn at Ole Miss, a tour of campus, information from the Foundations for Academic Success Track and the Grove Scholars Program, a presentation from the Office of Admissions and lots of physics reviewing.

While spring break on the UM campus is typically a quieter time, a pause to recharge, reevaluate and even relax before the sprint to the spring Commencement finish line, students spent part of their visit learning about physics from Cavaglia, a professor of physics and astronomy and principal investigator of the UM Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory Group. The LIGO Group – as it is known – is an active member of the LIGO Scientific Collaboration.

Late last year, the LIGO Group, along with the Europe-based Virgo detector and some 70 ground- and space-based observatoriesdirectly detected gravitational waves – ripples in space and time – in addition to light from the merging of two neutron stars. It was the first time that a cosmic event has been viewed in both gravitational waves and light.

To demonstrate how gravitational waves are detected, Cavaglia asked for some music from the students, and Bleu was cued up. With Bleu’s music playing, rain beat down outside Brevard Hall, reminding everyone that spring break arrives at the tail-end of winter, but the students did not notice – their minds were focused on Cavaglia and the oscilloscope.

“I wanted to convey to them the beauty of astrophysics, but also how the scientific process works and modern science operates,” Cavaglia said. “As an example, LIGO’s discoveries were only possible thanks to the work of over 1,000 people from many countries all working together to achieve this goal for many decades.”

The morning’s lesson did not end with gravitational waves.

Cavaglia, with assistance from physics graduate student Lorena Magana Zertuche and undergraduate physics major Renee Sullivan-Gonzalez, also demonstrated what a black hole is, worked in references to “Star Trek” and “Star Wars” when discussing warping space, and offered students career advice. They even discussed how a physics education could lead to working for Pixar Animation Studios, creator of such films as “Ratatouille,” “Up” and the “Toy Story” franchise.

Sure, Cavaglia could have been busy during spring break furthering his groundbreaking research, but as a scientist, he said it was very important to talk to students and let them know what he does.

“I always felt outreach is an essential part of the education process,” Cavaglia said. “Moreover, explaining current astrophysics research to students may help with recruiting in the sciences.

“Across the U.S., but especially in Mississippi, there is a shortage of scientists and I, as a physicist, should use my resources and time to try to remedy this.”

Whether it was hearing the “chirp” that a gravitational wave creates or answering questions about dark matter and the big bang, Cavaglia kept the students enthralled, including Diem Mi Pham, an 11th-grader at Scott Central High School.

“Oh, it was really interesting,” she said. “I’m very interested in space, and he discussed a lot of things I really care about.”

UM Students Present Their Research at the Capitol

Posters in the Rotunda showcases undergraduate projects at state universities

University of Mississippi students (left to right) Madison Savoy, Abigail Garrett, Cellas Hayes, Lindsey Miller and Brittany Brown present their undergraduate research during Posters in the Rotunda March 20 at the state Capitol. Photo by Shea Stewart/University Communications

JACKSON, Miss. – Five University of Mississippi students displayed their undergraduate research on topics ranging from the Latino South to therapeutic treatments for cognitive disorders during Posters in the Rotunda Tuesday (March 20) at the Mississippi State Capitol.

They were among 33 students from Mississippi’s eight public universities at the event, which showcased to state legislators and leaders some of the undergraduate research and scholarly activity being conducted at public universities.

“Research experiences at the undergraduate level can be extremely impactful for our students, giving them the first thrill of defining and answering a question no one else ever has,” said Josh Gladden, UM interim vice chancellor of research and sponsored programs. “We have been expanding these experiential opportunities at UM and are excited for this opportunity for our leaders to learn more about the impressive work being produced by our students throughout the state.”

The event provided opportunities for state leaders to visit with students from their districts, allowed students to network with one other and showcased cutting-edge research conducted by undergraduates that benefits Mississippians.

“The work being done by undergraduates with their mentors at the eight state universities is quite impressive,” said Marie Danforth, chair of the steering committee for the Drapeau Center for Undergraduate Research at the University of Southern Mississippi and coordinator of the event, in a news release. “This event (helps) legislators appreciate the contributions that the students are making to the state in so many areas, including economics, health care and education.”

Ole Miss students presenting at the Posters in the Rotunda event were:

– Brittany Brown, a journalism major from Quitman. “The Latino South: Migration, Identity and Foodways” was the title of Brown’s poster abstract. According to Brown, her research “examines the demographic changes that result from the migration of Latinos to nontraditional settings in the American South.”

“It is important to understand how this increasing population will affect the idea of race and how Southern society views people of Hispanic descent in order to move forward as a region,” she wrote in her poster abstract.

– Abigail Garrett, a mathematics and computer science major from Mountain Brook, Alabama. Garrett’s research involves analyzing and sorting data with the mission of giving others “the ability to easily view and understand vast amounts of data provided about breast cancer patients and their treatments,” she wrote in her poster abstract.

“The research seeks to benefit Mississippi by helping its residents who are affected by breast cancer, and also benefit the University of Mississippi Medical Center’s research in regard to this terrible disease.”

– Cellas Hayes, a classics and biology major from Lena. As life expectancy has increased, so has diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias, Hayes wrote in his poster abstract. The purpose of his research is to “identify therapeutic treatments for these diseases.”

“Within the last 50 years, life expectancy in Mississippi has increased to almost 80 years of age,” he wrote in his poster abstract. “This increased life expectancy has come with more age-related problems such as increased rates of dementia. Our goal is to understand how cognitive disorders come about in order to find potential therapeutic treatments.”

– Lindsey Miller, a pre-pharmacy major from Corinth. Miller’s poster abstract was titled “Finding the Dimerization Interface of Skp1 from Dictyostelium.” The research is focused “on understanding the function of F-box proteins, which are key proteins in regulating a wide variety of cellular activities in organisms including humans, plants and fungi.”

“Dictyostelium is an amoeba that lives in soil and is a good model system for studying how cells react to their environment,” she wrote in her poster abstract. “We are studying the Skp1 protein from this amoeba to understand how it works with other proteins. This information may help advance medicine and agriculture in Mississippi.”

– Madison Savoy, a communication sciences and disorders major from Southaven. Savoy’s research involves examining “how verb transitivity impacts pronoun interpretation for adults with intellectual disabilities versus typically developing adults,” she wrote in her poster abstract.

“Approximately 14 percent of Mississippians have intellectual or developmental disabilities. Understanding strengths and weaknesses in their language can help identify areas for targeted intervention. These targeted interventions could ultimately save the state of Mississippi a significant amount of funds to help these individuals go on to live independent lives.”

Started in 2016 and modeled after the Posters on the Hill event at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., which includes students from around the country, Posters in the Rotunda is held in some format in 17 states.

Both chambers of the Mississippi Legislature proclaimed March 20 as Undergraduate Research Day.

“Outstanding students from across the state have dedicated their time and have worked tremendously hard on their research projects for Posters in the Rotunda, and these students demonstrate the positive impact that higher education appropriation brings to our state, and supporting students who participate in Posters in the Rotunda is an excellent way for Mississippi to invest in its future,” House Resolution No. 54 stated.

“Undergraduate research is critical in developing solutions to the needs of Mississippi’s future workforce because it cultivates the students’ goals and aspirations and it encourages students to specialize in the biomedical and (science, technology, engineering and mathematical) fields after graduation.”

Spark Series Covers Starting an Online Business

Free event is Tuesday at Jackson Avenue Center

OXFORD, Miss. – The process seems simple: Launch a business online; make money.

Except the process is not that straightforward, and the next Spark Series at the University of Mississippi covers what business owners need to consider before starting their online ventures, including avoiding pitfalls, digitally marketing their businesses smarter and more.

“Questions You Should Ask Before Launching Your Business Online” is set for 5-6:30 p.m. Tuesday (March 20) at the Jackson Avenue Center, Auditorium A.

The free panel discussion is open to the public with no registration necessary. The panel includes Allyson Best, director of the UM Division of Technology Management; Stacey Lantagne, assistant professor of law at the UM School of Law; Neil Olson, former general counsel with mortgage technology company FNC Inc., and startup and tech business consultant; and Jennifer Sadler, UM instructional assistant professor of integrated marketing communications.

The event is intended for any new or existing business, any nonprofit or other organization, or any individual who is interested in a website, app or other digital effort.

“Life online is continuously evolving,” Lantagne said. “It’s important to think about how the law affects the ways you want to use the internet to grow your business. We want to make sure you make the law work for you.”

After the presentation, experts from around campus and the community will be available for individual conversations during an ask-the-expert reception.

The first Spark Series event in late February discussed questions potential business owners need to investigate before forming a limited liability company. The event was well-attended by new businesses and existing ones, and by members of the UM campus and the local community, Best said.

“Now we are going to spark a discussion on another critical point: doing business online,” Best said.

A number of issues should be considered when doing business online, such as contractual and intellectual property considerations, work-for-hire issues when designing a website or app, and security requirements for protecting a business.

“Copyright is as old as our Constitution, yet it still seems to have surprises in store for new entrepreneurs,” Olson said. “Let us show you how you can avoid some of the more unpleasant surprises so you can get on with making your new online presence a success.”

Tuesday’s discussion also includes Sadler, an expert in digital marketing and entrepreneurship.

Digital marketing starts and ends with the consumer, and in an era of big data, business owners can target their exact audience and reach them as they browse online, Sadler said. Some keys to doing this are researching the consumer, understanding their online behavior and providing an easy way to solve any problems they may have.

User-friendly websites and audience-tailored advertisements also help business owners when it comes to digital marketing, but making money online is still hard work.

“Many entrepreneurs believe that once the website or app is up that orders will immediately start coming in – instant success,” Sadler said. “The truth is that it rarely happens that way. It can take a new business roughly six to nine months to reach the top of Google search pages, and that’s only if you have the right website to reach your audience.

“We want to give attendees the tools they need to start strong and grow fast. From forming the business/website name to getting it online, we are aiming to equip entrepreneurs with information they can use today.”

The Spark Series – intended to inspire, discover and transform – will continue in the fall.

Sponsors of this Spark Series event include the Division of Technology Management, School of Law, Insight Park, Meek School of Journalism and New Media, Mississippi Law Research Institute, Oxford-Lafayette County Economic Development Foundation, McLean Institute for Public Service and Community Engagement, Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, and the Mid-South Intellectual Property Institute.

Professor Karen Raber Named Director of Shakespeare Organization

Headquarters of Shakespeare Association of America to be housed at university

UM English professor Karen Raber has been named as the new executive director of the Shakespeare Association of America. Photo by Kevin Bain/Ole Miss Communications

OXFORD, Miss. – A University of Mississippi English professor has been named executive director of a national organization dedicated to the work of William Shakespeare.

Karen Raber, an English professor who specializes in Renaissance literature with an emphasis on ecostudies, animal studies and posthumanist theory, has been officially announced as executive director of the Shakespeare Association of America.

The nonprofit, professional organization advances the academic study of Shakespeare’s plays and poems along with his cultural and theatrical contexts and their roles in world culture. The association, founded in 1972, is housed at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

The headquarters of the organization will move to the Ole Miss campus, and the executive director is the main point of contact for all members.

“I was delighted and a tiny bit terrified,” said Raber of hearing the news. “This is a huge job, with a lot of moving parts, and so the challenge of taking it on is going to be enormous.

“Plus, the previous executive director, Lena Orlin, has been a brilliant administrator for the organization, so I have a high standard to live up to.”

Raber replaces Orlin, an English professor at Georgetown University, and assumes the new position June 1, though she will be involved in planning for next year’s conference and board meetings during this year’s meeting in March. The role is a part-time appointment, meaning Raber will continue to work and teach at Ole Miss.

Raber’s new role will require a commitment from the university, in both funding and space, but Raber said UM Department of English Chair Ivo Kamps and liberal arts Dean Lee Cohen worked to put the necessary resources into Raber’s position.

“I was elated when Karen got the news,” Kamps said. “This is an impressive achievement for her and for the English department. … Karen has been an incredibly productive and well-respected scholar over the last two decades, and she has reached that point in her career where she’s nationally and internationally recognized.

“After doing important work in the fields of gender studies and early modern British literature, Karen has in recent years expanded her scope to include, first, early modern environmental literature and culture and then the burgeoning field of animal studies, in which she is a true pioneer. Her work has always been historically informed, theoretically and sophisticated, and cutting edge, and her work in animal studies has created a new scholarly paradigm in which other scholars can work and flourish.”

Raber’s appointment as executive director of the Shakespeare Association of America is not only a clear recognition of her qualities but also of the rising esteem of UM, Kamps said. The position has typically been held by a professor from an elite Northeastern university, with Orlin holding the post since 1996.

“Karen’s appointment suggests the premier Shakespeare literary association in the world is pleased to be associated with the University of Mississippi,” Kamps said.

Orlin said the association has long been known for the uniquely democratic nature of its core activity: research seminars, in which scholars of different backgrounds, ranks and approaches come together to advance the state of knowledge about plays and poems that find new fans with every generation.

“‘Shakespeare’ is a language that crosses all borders,” she said. “I know that Karen Raber shares the values that have always guided the officers of the SAA, and I am glad that the organization will be in her good hands going forward.”

Raber joined the UM faculty in 1995, after earning her bachelor’s degree from Yale University and her master’s and doctoratal degrees from the University of California at San Diego. She is the author of three monographs, including “Shakespeare and Posthumanist Theory,” which is being released April 5 by The Arden Shakespeare.

Raber also is the author of 2013’s “Animal Bodies, Renaissance Culture,” a finalist for the 2015 Association for the Study of Literature and Environment Book Award, and “Dramatic Difference: Gender, Class and Genre in the Early Modern Closet Drama,” published in 2001.

She is the co-editor of several other works, including “Early Modern Ecostudies: From the Florentine Codex to Shakespeare” with Kamps and Tom Hallock, associate publisher of Beacon Press in Boston.

In 2014, Raber was honored with the UM Faculty Achievement Award.

The Shakespeare Association of America holds an annual conference each spring for association members to exchange ideas and strategies on Shakespeare, including a program of working research seminars. The association’s 46th annual meeting is March 28-31 in Los Angeles. The association also sponsors a number of seminars and workshops each year.

More than 400 years after his death, the study of Shakespeare is as relevant as ever, said Raber, who started working on Shakespeare with Louis Montrose, a well-known Shakespeare and Renaissance literature scholar, when she worked on her Ph.D. at the University of California at San Diego.

“As my work progressed and changed, shifting toward early modern ecostudies, animal studies and posthumanist theory, Shakespeare’s plays and poems became an even more important touchstone for these developing and important approaches,” she said. “Plus, my teaching has always included a healthy dose of Shakespeare here, where the Shakespeare lecture and other courses on his plays are very popular, and once were required for all majors.”

UM Graduate Student Explores the Secrets of Sloths

Curious creatures may offer better understanding of microbes' health roles

Maya Kaup’s research on sloths focuses on two species: Hoffmann’s two-toed sloth and the brown-throated three-toed sloth. All sloths actually have three toes. Submitted photo by Maya Kaup

OXFORD, Miss. – The sluggish sloth is hitting a cultural apex, with recent star roles in an insurance commercial, the animated film “Zootopia” and even as a special “referee” during this year’s Puppy Bowl XIV.

Maya Kaup, a University of Mississippi graduate student in biology, welcomes the rise of the sloth, slow-moving mammals noted for spending their unhurried lives hanging from trees in the rainforests of Central and South America. The California native studies these creatures in the laboratory of Erik Hom, UM assistant professor of biology.

Kaup is studying why sloths and their symbionts – fungi, algae and insects that live in sloth fur – have apparently formed mutually beneficial relationships.

“I’ve always loved sloths,” she said. “They’re one of my favorite animals and they have been for many years, and it’s all because I like the strange and the weird and the intriguing in nature.”

Kaup said there are many unanswered questions surrounding sloths and especially their algae, which have been thought to provide camouflage against predators, although there is little data to support this idea. While these algae have been found in sloth stomach contents and may offer sloths a nutritional boost, it is not clear how sloths are ingesting the algae since they don’t lick themselves like cats.

Besides studies in the field, Kaup also hopes to grow sloth algae in the lab setting to see if they might be of any medicinal benefit to humans. Species of fungi in sloth’s fur are known to produce potent anti-parasitic, anti-cancer and anti-bacterial compounds that may be relevant for drug development.

“Sloths are a challenging species,” Kaup said. “A lot of this is experimental, as no one has tried to grow the algae in a lab before.”

Hom said his lab’s research is generally focused on understanding the “rules” for how microbes interact persistently to form stable communities that perform specified functions. The research includes projects from field sampling and studying fungi, and algae and cyanobacteria that have been isolated from around the world to studying the microbial communities in fermented beverages such as kefir.

“My friends generally know me to be someone who is open and willing to pursue wacky ideas and projects if I feel there’s compelling science to be worked out,” Hom said. “I also believe in investing in people over projects.

Maya Kaup is a University of Mississippi biological science graduate student whose research is focused on sloths and their mutualism with symbionts such as algae. Submitted photo

“Both of these convictions came into play when Maya joined our lab to pursue her research on sloths. I believe in what Maya can discover and believe there are some really cool discoveries to be made about the algae and microbes associated with sloths, as well as the sloths themselves.

“I’m a firm believer of focusing on ‘substance over optics’ – focusing on deeply interesting questions and doing our best to do excellent science. If Maya’s research is done well, it will get the attention of the scientific community, and the University of Mississippi will be acknowledged de facto.

“Maya happens to work on a very charismatic and timely creature that captures the hearts and imagination of many people, so ‘the sloth’ intrinsically brings attention to our work.”

Kaup’s research into sloths recently included three weeks during winter break at The Sloth Institute in Costa Rica. The institute, tucked along the Pacific Coast of the Central American country, has the mission of enhancing the welfare and conservation of sloths through research and education.

The institute also collaborates to rescue, rehab and release Costa Rican sloths, which include the Hoffmann’s two-toed sloth and the brown-throated three-toed sloth.

Institute co-founder and director Sam Trull said she was excited for two reasons when Kaup inquired about collaborating on a study to learn more about the algae that live in sloth fur.

“First, she aimed to answer questions that we have had for a long time, so it was very exciting to connect with someone who had the drive, expertise and willingness to help us get these answers,” Trull said. “Second, I was very impressed by her desire to put the welfare of the sloths as top priority. … Maya made it clear early on that she cared about sloths and wanted to work with them to help them.”

Kaup plans to return to the institute this summer for more research.

“With sloths, you need a lot of time doing field work because a lot of my time was spent sitting, waiting and watching,” she said. “Since they are so slow, it is actually very hard to catch them. You’d think it would be easy because they are slow, but they are way up in the top of trees, in the canopies, on tiny, tiny branches.”

The Arcata, California, native grew up along the Pacific Coast about five hours north of San Francisco, playing and exploring in the outdoors, and discovering “a ton of interesting organisms that kids can play with.”

Sloths live in the tops of trees, making Maya Kaup’s experience as a trained tree climber handy in her research. Submitted photo by Sam Trull

Both her parents have a background in teaching, and her sister is a teacher as well. Kaup also volunteered at places such as the Sequoia Park Zoo in nearby Eureka, California, and the Humboldt Wildlife Care Center outside Arcata.

“I always knew growing up that I wanted to work with animals,” Kaup said. “In high school, I started thinking about what I wanted to do past college, and I knew I wanted to either work in wildlife rehabilitation or in zoos or in research.”

Kaup graduated from Willamette University in Salem, Oregon, in 2017 with a bachelor’s degree in biology. She also studied in Costa Rica at Universidad Nacional de Costa Rica during the spring of 2016.

Before graduation, she searched for a university where she could focus her research on sloths, animals that have seemingly defied evolution, because in nature, if speed equals survival, sloths have simply faced that fact and shaken their furry heads – lazily.

“They’ve evolved to be incredibly slow,” Kaup said. “They have the slowest metabolism of all mammals, and they have extremely unusual behavior and they obviously have these extremely unusual symbionts in their fur – the algae, the fungi, the insects.

“Some of those things interact with their behavior. All those intriguing aspects of sloths drew me to them.”

Kaup moved to Mississippi, visiting the state and the South for the first time in her life on a recruitment visit to Hom’s lab in the spring of 2017. While the natural environment of Mississippi is not one of tide pools and redwood forests – and certainly no sloths – she’s found a different nature to embrace, and a university setting that is welcoming and supportive.

“Ultimately, my dream career would involve aspects of education where you educate kids and adults as well about the natural world and about wildlife and how to protect them, and would incorporate some aspect of research because I still have that drive to answer the questions that I have,” Kaup said.

“There are so many mysteries in nature, and I want to be able to answer all the questions I have. The only way to do that is through research.”

Individuals and organizations can make gifts to The Hom Lab by sending a check with the lab’s name in the memo line to the University of Mississippi Foundation, 406 University Ave., Oxford, MS 38655; or online at For more information, contact Hom at

UM to Host Discussion Aimed at Business Beginners

Spark Series is intended to inspire, discover and transform

OXFORD, Miss. – Business experts from the University of Mississippi and the local community will lead a Wednesday (Feb. 28) discussion about questions potential business owners need to investigate before forming a limited liability company.

Part of the Spark Series, the panel discussion is titled “Questions You Should Ask Before You Begin Your Business.” The event, set for 4 p.m. in the Jackson Avenue Center, Auditorium A, is free and open to the public with no registration necessary.

The panel includes Marie Saliba Cope, UM assistant dean for student affairs, assistant clinical professor at the UM School of Law and director of the Transactional Clinic; Neil Olson, former general counsel with mortgage technology company FNC Inc., and startup and tech business consultant; Will Wilkins, director of the Mississippi Law Research Institute; and Allyson Best, director of the UM Division of Technology Management.

Following the presentation, the panel will be available for individual conversations during an ask-the-expert reception.

“The local community is fortunate to have so many resources for entrepreneurs and technology commercialization efforts, but if you’re new to this world, it can be a little daunting,” Best said. “We have noticed there are critical points in the process where it’s valuable to stop and consider your options. This series is intended to spark those conversations.”

The event will attempt to answer a number of questions and cover scenarios aspiring owners should investigate before proceeding. Topics for the Wednesday panel include ownership rights and control, independent contractors vs. employees, intellectual property ownership, investor funding and tax issues.

Allyson Best

“(This event) has been created to educate entrepreneurs about legal issues,” Cope said. “For our first event, our hope is that attendees will begin to address the issues that arise when one begins a business.

“We have found that people begin working and jump into business relationships without defining the ownership interest or roles that the members or partners will hold. Our goal is to assist people in planning before they start so that they can avoid conflicts that may arise from misunderstandings.”

Another Spark Series event is scheduled for March, time and place to be announced. The event will focus on e-commerce, with topics including legal considerations, digital marketing and more.

The Spark Series – intended to inspire, discover and transform – is not intended to be a typical training session, Best said. And Wednesday’s event is important for anyone interested in forming a business entity, even if they have already filed with the Mississippi Secretary of State.

Sponsors of the Spark Series include the Division of Technology Management, School of Law, the Mississippi Law Research Institute, Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, Insight Park, the Oxford-Lafayette County Economic Development Foundation and the Mid-South Intellectual Property Institute.

Office of the Provost Creates Initiative to Improve Work-Life Balance

Career-Life Connector offers navigators for faculty and staff

In an effort to improve career-life balance for University of Mississippi employees, the Office of the Provost has created the Career-Life Connector Initiative to help faculty and staff balance professional and personal responsibilities.

The initiative includes four career-life navigators who share their experiences of integrating work and personal life with the understanding that individuals have different priorities in their own lives. Navigators guide and direct faculty and staff to multiple resources so they can make informed decisions based on individual situations, from starting and raising a family to caring for a sick partner or aging loved one to managing difficult situations while balancing work.

Faculty and staff members may email or a navigator directly to schedule a meeting.

“We are committed to helping faculty and staff balance the responsibilities in both their professional and personal lives,” Associate Provost Donna Strum said. “Navigators will provide information that employees need to achieve a healthy work-life balance. We are pleased to foster an environment that supports work-life integration.”

The navigators are John Adrian, business manager for the Office of the Provost; Katherine Centellas, an associate professor of anthropology in the Croft Institute for International Studies; Kelly Brown Houston, an administrative coordinator in the Department of History; and Melinda Valliant, an associate professor of nutrition and hospitality management.

“The navigator may serve as a ‘first stop’ for employees in need of direction,” Strum said.

Faculty and staff may not want to go directly to their supervisors to share personal information or ask questions about family caregiving needs or work-life balance, so the navigators allow faculty and staff members to speak with peers and inquire about various work-life situations confidentially.

The navigators attended several training sessions and engaged with leaders across campus to learn about available resources. They also met with people in various units, including Human Resources, the offices of Equal Opportunity and Regulatory Compliance, Vice Chancellor for Diversity and Community Engagement, and the University Ombuds, and the Sarah Isom Center for Women and Gender Studies.

Employers that offer work-life balance are likely to have the competitive edge. The most successful businesses realize that effectively addressing work-life balance issues with their workforce can increase morale and foster commitment, improve employee recruitment and retention, and raise productivity.

“Having a work-life balance leads to lower stress levels, better overall health, and better job satisfaction and performance,” Centellas said. “It also can help address issues proactively. A satisfactory work-life balance – however that is defined by the employee – also can contribute to a more inclusive, respectful and equal campus. This is because how people define and achieve work-live balance will be diverse, but we want to support the paths that are meaningful to each employee.”

The Career-Life Connector Initiative also provides career-life consultants to facilitate recruitment and provide information about work-life integration during the search process, as requested by job candidates. Consultants include Derek Cowherd, senior associate athletics director for academic support; Melissa Dennis, head of research and instruction services at the J.D. Williams Library; Kathy Knight, associate professor of nutrition and hospitality management; and Shawnboda Mead, director of the Center for Inclusion and Cross Cultural Engagement.

Search committee chairs can email to request assistance with the interview process.

For more information about navigators, consultants and the UM Career-Life Connector Initiative, visit

Chemistry Professor Receives Prestigious Honor

Davita L. Watkins named 2018 Young Investigator by division of the American Chemical Society

UM assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry Davita L. Watkins has been named a 2018 Young Investigator by the Polymeric Materials: Science and Engineering Division, a branch of the American Chemical Society. Photo by Thomas Graning/Ole Miss Communications

OXFORD, Miss. – A University of Mississippi chemistry professor has been awarded a prestigious national honor for her work in the fields of organic chemistry and materials science.

Davita L. Watkins, assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry, has been named a 2018 Young Investigator by the Polymeric Materials: Science and Engineering Division, a branch of the American Chemical Society.

PMSE Young Investigators are researchers in the first seven years of their independent career in academia, industry or national laboratories who have made significant contributions to their fields within polymer science and engineering. These scientists and engineers are emerging as leaders in the fields of materials and polymer chemistry through the synthesis, processing, characterization and physics of soft materials and their applications.

“It’s very much of a surprise,” said Watkins of the honor. “As a young scientist, I am often narrowly focused on the task that is at hand – be it research, grants, manuscripts, outreach, etc.

“The experience tends to be a very personal one that I genuinely love. In turn, having others in your field acknowledge your hard work, ambition and drive is both humbling and satisfying.”

Watkins and the quality of her science are well deserving of the highly selective recognition, said Greg S. Tschumper, professor and chair of chemistry and biochemistry.

“The Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry is extremely proud of Dr. Watkins,” he said. “This type of accolade is a tremendous boon for the research mission of the department and the university. They provide a national stage that highlights some of the outstanding research and researchers at the University of Mississippi.”

Watkins’ research interests include organic and materials chemistry, supramolecular chemistry and other areas, such as exploring the operational efficiency of functional materials. A member of the Ole Miss faculty since 2014, she runs the Watkins Research Group based at UM that addresses challenging problems in materials science and engineering with innovative approaches to molecular design and fabrication.

The group focuses on improving the operational efficiency of functional materials by examining two factors: the nature of the constituting components, and the arrangement of those molecules to yield a useful overall composition, she said.

The goals of the group are to identify the unique building blocks of functional materials and examine how those building blocks behave on a molecular and macromolecular level.

“The new knowledge gained from our research leads to the development of more efficient organic-based materials and devices, thereby advancing the pursuit of technological applications” such as in electronic devices and biomedical implants, Watkins said.

Being named a 2018 Young Investigator is not the first time Watkins has earned acclaim for her research and work during her short tenure at the university.

In 2017, Watkins won a National Science Foundation CAREER Award for her research in advanced functional materials that she develops in her laboratory. Among the most prestigious awards made by the NSF, these honors are extremely competitive. The five-year award is for approximately $500,000.

In 2015, Watkins was awarded the Ralph E. Powe Junior Faculty Enhancement Award by Oak Ridge Associated Universities. The competitive research award recognizes science and technology faculty members. Watkins received the award to examine noncovalent interactions between organic semiconducting molecules to increase their efficiency in devices used as alternative forms of energy.

“UM is very proud to have Dr. Watkins as a member of our faculty,” said Josh Gladden, interim vice chancellor of the Office of Research and Sponsored Programs. “She has quickly proven herself to be a talented researcher and teacher, which has already resulted in a number of significant and competitive grant awards and recognitions. I’m excited to watch the evolution of her career.”

The 21 Young Investigator recipients will be honored during a symposium at the fall 2018 American Chemical Society National Meeting, set for Aug. 19-23 in Boston. Each honoree will give a 25-minute lecture on his or her recent research advances. The symposium includes special lectures from established leaders in the field of polymer materials science and engineering.

Watkins’ research – understanding how to build better devices from the molecular level – is an overarching theme in modern organic materials research, said Emily Pentzer, assistant professor of chemistry at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, and a co-organizer of the symposium.

Watkins was chosen as a Young Investigator both for her current research and her future work.

“The awardees have also established that they will continue to significantly contribute to the field over the rest of their career,” Pentzer said.

Watkins said her symposium lecture will discuss the development of noninvasive functional materials for rapid diagnosis and treatment of acute trauma. After almost four years in development, Watkins said she’s excited to share her research with the scientific community at the symposium.

“I aim to be a teacher-scholar – an exemplary researcher and role model,” she said. “In turn, I am always conscious of the fact that my accomplishments are not my own. Being at UM, I am surrounded by intelligent, supportive people, including mentors, colleagues and students.

“My colleagues and collaborators, as well as amazingly hard-working students, are the ones who make these achievements possible.”

UM Student Discovers Potentially New Tarantula Species

Andrew Snyder makes find during research trip to Guyana

It is believed that the blue tarantula, discovered by UM doctoral student Andrew Snyder in Guyana, is an undescribed species. Submitted photo by Andrew Snyder

OXFORD, Miss. – A shiny cobalt blue gleamed in the beam of a flashlight sweeping through the evening darkness of the tangled rainforest in Guyana.

Holding the flashlight, University of Mississippi doctoral student Andrew Snyder walked closer to this brilliant blue source, lured by the curiosity twinkling from a small hole in a rotting tree stump.

What the biology major discovered is perhaps a new species of tarantula, one whose hairy legs and body are speckled with streaks of metallic-looking blue.

“Many jungle organisms give off eye shine, caused by the reflection of your beam of light off of a membrane in the eye, and typically with a characteristic color depending on the organism,” Snyder said. “The blue that my light beam illuminated in fact was not the eye shine of a spider, but rather the forelimbs of a small tarantula.

“I have spent years conducting surveys in Guyana and have always paid close attention to the tarantula species. I immediately knew that this one was unlike any species I have encountered before.”

Snyder, who is finishing his doctorate at Ole Miss this spring, had been trudging through the rainforest of the Potaro Plateau that evening in the spring of 2014. He had been conducting a survey of nocturnal amphibians and reptiles as the herpetologist for a joint conservation research team through Global Wildlife Conservation and World Wildlife Fund-Guianas.

Then the tarantula captured his eye. And there were more. The tree stump was pockmarked with holes, and several, if not all, housed a tarantula, each seemingly tolerating a neighboring tarantula.

“When I sent the images of the tarantula to an expert who specializes in neotropical tarantulas, he ecstatically proclaimed that this was 99 percent likely to be an undescribed species,” Snyder said.

An individual tarantula was collected and sent to experts for verification. The creature is awaiting its formal description, and the process might require a follow-up trip to the region to try to collect a few more samples. The tarantula’s discovery could be publicized only recently.

UM doctoral student Andrew Snyder has made 10 trips to Guyana for various research and conservation efforts. Submitted photo by Liz Condo

“For a species description, it is crucial to have multiple individuals, ideally both males and females, and across different age classes to account for sexual dimorphism and phenotypic variability (normal variability in external appearance within the same species),” Snyder said.

A return trip to Guyana, which hugs the North Atlantic coast of South America and contains some of the continent’s largest unspoiled rainforests, would not be unusual for Snyder. He’s been there 10 times.

The Baltimore native first journeyed to Guyana during the summer of 2011, weeks before he started graduate school at Ole Miss. He received his bachelor’s degree in biology with a concentration in ecology and evolution from the University of Maryland.

Snyder’s scientific work in Guyana is as a herpetologist, a biologist who studies amphibians and reptiles, and his work is related to his doctoral research through collecting specimens and DNA samples. He’s also visited the country, which is slightly smaller than Idaho, on personal research trips, training programs and conferences.

He was last in Guyana in November to participate in a press release for the results of the Potaro expedition.

Snyder, who describes himself as a Ph.D. candidate, photographer, conservationist and naturalist, also served as an expedition photographer on the Guyana trips.

“While the data collected on these expeditions were valuable to my Ph.D. research, these expeditions were conservation expeditions,” he said. “We were exploring and surveying areas in Guyana that were lacking biodiversity data and facing certain conservation threats: logging, mining, etc.

“(My photography) documents the biodiversity, habitats and conservation threats, and communicates the research that we are doing throughout the country.”

The Potaro River in Guyana flows 140 miles before flowing into the Essequibo River, Guyana’s largest river. The blue tarantula was discovered in the Potaro Plateau area. Submitted photo by Andrew Snyder

After earning his Ph.D., Snyder hopes to continue his conservation research and photography, perhaps with a group such as the World Wildlife Fund or Global Wildlife Conservation. He wants to continue to contribute to science and conservation, and further public awareness of biodiversity and conservation efforts with his images.

Snyder’s passion for herpetology extends back to his childhood in Maryland; his parents allowed him certain exotic pets such as amphibians and reptiles. After receiving his bachelor’s, he spent two-and-a-half summers conducting amphibian and reptile surveys in Cusuco National Park in Honduras with the conservation group Operation Wallacea.

He credits the University of Mississippi and his professors and labmates for making him “an all-around better scientist and biologist.”

“Perhaps most importantly, I began to see the forest for the trees, if you will (while at UM),” he said. “I really began to understand the bigger picture of the work that I was doing or could do. My time at the University of Mississippi also led to so many valuable opportunities and collaborations that otherwise would have never happened.

“My labmates, the other graduate students specifically in the Noonan Lab with me, have been very instrumental in my development.”

The Noonan Lab at UM is headed by Brice Noonan, associate professor of biology and Snyder’s Ph.D. supervisor. 

Snyder’s area of research is phylogeography, the study of the geographic distribution of lineages of species or closely related species and the processes responsible for shaping them. Snyder credits Noonan for his interest in phylogeography and his interest in performing research in Guyana.

After Snyder’s initial trip to Guyana, he and Noonan brainstormed projects while scanning through Google Earth to find areas for research, which is why Snyder has spent considerable time surveying the Kanuku Mountains in Guyana.

Guyana has one of the highest levels of biodiversity in the world, including several species of snake, such as the venomous Bushmaster. Submitted photo by Andrew Snyder

“Having focused much of my own graduate work in the Guianas I was elated to bring in a student with Andrew’s field experience and a genuine interest in exploring this poorly understood, yet remarkably intact region of the neotropics,” Noonan said. “Andrew has quickly become one of the foremost experts of the region’s reptiles and amphibians, and his extensive fieldwork in the region has greatly enhanced our understanding of all aspects of the area’s biodiversity, as evidenced by this tarantula discovery.”

The partnership between Noonan and Snyder at UM is not unique.

“Andrew Snyder is one of our talented Ph.D. students who work to discover new populations and new species,” said Gregg Roman, UM chair of and professor in biology. “The biology department at the University of Mississippi has many strengths in biodiversity and conservation research. Our graduate students work closely with their major professors and undertake expeditions around the world to learn the science and techniques of surveying and analyzing biodiversity.

“The identification of this new and blue tarantula within tree hollows will help conservationists draw attention to overlooked habitats within the forests.”

The Guiana Shield – a geological formation in northeast South America that underlies Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana, most of Venezuela, as well as parts of Colombia and Brazil – is a special place for its phylogeographic value, Snyder said. An upland region leading up to the Guyanese border with Venezuela and Brazil, the Potaro Plateau is between the lowlands of the eastern Guiana Shield and the famed Guiana Highlands.

“The region is incredibly old and unique in just how much area is still unexplored and not affected by human impacts,” Snyder said. “From a research perspective, this allows for inferences to be made that are not influenced by human interaction as they are in other tropical areas where the habitats have been affected by deforestation.”

A developing country, Guyana has an abundant biodiversity that is challenged by the country’s richness of natural resources. A delicate balance needs to be struck between conservation and access to and extraction of the country’s natural resources with minimal environmental impact, Snyder said.

Discoveries such as the blue tarantula reinforce the importance of creating and maintaining that balance, said Leeanne E. Alonso, associate conservation scientist with Global Wildlife Conservation.

During a spring 2014 expedition to Guyana, UM doctoral student Andrew Snyder happened upon a cobalt-blue tarantula, which is believed to be an undescribed species. Submitted photo by Andrew Snyder

“Guyana has an amazing range of habitats and high diversity of species, especially for such a small country,” said Alonso, who has worked with Snyder for five years. “Discoveries such as this tarantula help us highlight that there’s so much rich diversity in Guyana, much of it still undiscovered, and all of it contributing to keeping the planet healthy. This tarantula helps to remind us all of the beauty of nature, and that we share this planet with so many interesting creatures.

“It’s intriguing to think about why these tarantulas are blue. Perhaps the color helps them startle predators or blend into the leaf litter. Such large predators must have an important role in the food web of the tropical forest.”

The blue tarantula, with its stunning color, also causes people to take another look at invertebrates and realize the importance of conserving them, Snyder said.

“Since this discovery, the amount of people who have commented, ‘I hate spiders, but this one is beautiful!’ is really telling,” he said. “Conservation starts with awareness.

“The fact that this tarantula is making people aware of the stunning biodiversity of this area is key. Guyana was so proud of this discovery that they actually painted a large mural of it on one of their walls at the Georgetown Zoo.”