UM Center Hosts Symposium on Southern Music

Panelists to explore themes of culture, religion and regional identity in musical works

Wu Fei

OXFORD, Miss. – Music from the American South has made an indisputable impact on culture and politics in the U.S. and around the world, and an upcoming symposium at the University of Mississippi will examine the South’s most prominent and influential musical voices.

The Southern Music Symposium will address questions such as how musicians are creating “Southern” in their sounds and speaking to broader matters of national and international importance, and in what ways they build on the sounds of the past or provide the soundtrack for our common and divided present.

The Feb. 26 event in the Overby Center Auditorium is free and open to the public. Hosted by the university’s Center for the Study of Southern Culture, the symposium highlights musicians and feature presentations by prominent and emerging scholars of Southern music.

Randall J. Stephens, reader and associate professor of history and American studies at Northumbria University, will give a keynote address on religion and rock ‘n’ roll at 5:30 p.m. A Kansas native, Stephens writes and teaches about the American South, religion in the U.S., religion and politics, conservatism and popular music.

His lecture focuses on the interesting and surprising connections between rock ‘n’ roll music and Christianity.

“Many of the first-generation performers had roots in tongues-speaking churches or attended these regularly,” Stephens said. “Some of those are well-known performers like Elvis, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and many more.

“I also will talk about how evangelicals, Catholics and others took aim at the new, wild genre and demonized its ‘savage jungle rhythms.'”

From Stephens’ perspective, this makes the advent of Christian rock in the mid- and late-1960s all the more peculiar. 

Brian Foster, assistant professor of sociology and Southern studies, discusses his research at the recent TEDxUniversityofMississippi event at the Ford Center. Photo by Kevin Bain/University Communications

“I ask: How did believers go from railing against the devil’s music to sanctifying it for youth outreach and holy entertainment?” he said. “How did hippie Christians infuse loud, plugged-in music with the message of redemption, the apocalypse and final judgment?”

Stephens is the author of “The Fire Spreads: Holiness and Pentecostalism in the American South” (Harvard University Press, 2010); “The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age,” co-authored with Karl Giberson (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2011); and editor of “Recent Themes in American Religious History” (University of South Carolina Press, 2009).

He is completing his third book on religion and rock music for Harvard University Press. Stephens earned his doctorate in American history from the University of Florida, and master’s degrees in history from Emporia State University and theological studies from Nazarene Theological Seminary.

Brian Foster, UM assistant professor of sociology and Southern studies, will welcome attendees at 1 p.m., followed by a panel with student researchers. He then moderates the 2:30 p.m. scholars roundtable with Zandria Robinson and Charles Hughes.

Robinson, assistant professor of sociology at Rhodes College, is the author of “This Ain’t Chicago: Race, Class, and Regional Identity in the Post-Soul South” (University of North Carolina Press, 2014) who also wrote a 2016 Rolling Stone magazine article about how Beyonce’s “Lemonade” exposes inner lives of black women, as well as a New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture entry on “Southern Crunk and Hip-Hop Culture.”

Marco Pave

Hughes is director of the Memphis Center at Rhodes College, and his acclaimed book, “Country Soul: Making Music and Making Race in the American South” (University of North Carolina Press, 2015), was named one of the Best Music Books of 2015 by Rolling Stone and No Depression magazines.

The Southern Music Symposium gives people a chance to both celebrate and turn a critical eye toward Southern music cultures, Foster said.

“I am especially interested in hearing how Drs. Robinson and Hughes are thinking about the contemporary landscape of Southern music, both in terms of new and emergent sounds and in the evolution of Southern visual arts,” Foster said.

Darren Grem, UM assistant professor of history and Southern studies, moderates a 4 p.m. panel with musicians from several genres, including rocker Lee Bains III, rapper Marco Pave and composer and instrumentalist Wu Fei.

“Like the broader symposium, we see this as a rare opportunity to bring together working musicians, scholars and the broader public to have a conversation about the past, present and future of popular and underground music,” Grem said. “We also see it as a chance to investigate notions of the ‘Southern’ and how musicians have constructed and challenged that regional identity while claiming it for themselves – as well as the social and political impact of doing so.” 

Bains, Pave and Fei will conclude the symposium with a free 8 p.m. concert at Proud Larry’s, at 211 S. Lamar Blvd. in Oxford.

For more information, go to

Music Professor Returns from Columbia University Fellowship

Thomas Peattie spent fall semester at the Italian Academy for Advanced Studies in America

UM music professor Thomas Peattie attends an event at the Italian Academy for Advanced Studies in America during his fellowship there last fall. Submitted photo

OXFORD, Miss. – Thomas Peattie, an assistant professor of music at the University of Mississippi, has returned to campus after completing a prestigious fellowship at Columbia University during the fall semester.

Peattie spent the semester at the Italian Academy for Advanced Studies in America, part of the university in New York City, which takes scholars from around the world in a variety of fields. The academy’s goal is to “support advanced research in areas relating to Italian culture, science and society,” according to its website.

Peattie, a music historian, was specifically interested in the work of 20th-century Italian composer Luciano Berio, about whom he is writing a book.

“I have always been fascinated by Berio’s practice of taking an existing music work and using it as a point of departure for the creation of an entirely new composition,” Peattie said. “What I continue to find so compelling about this practice is the extent to which these newly fashioned pieces offer a kind of musical commentary on the unrealized potential of the original material.”

During his research, Peattie paid particular attention to Berio’s practice of transcribing the works of other composers, including Johannes Brahms and Gustav Mahler, which has been largely neglected by scholars, he said. The way in which Berio listened to the music of his predecessors may illuminate more about Berio’s own works, Peattie said.

“This ultimately led me to the conclusion that although these transcriptions rely on an intimate knowledge of an original ‘text,’ Berio’s relationship to these texts is also shaped by an entirely different kind of knowledge, one shaped by the lingering sonic traces of the performed work as remembered and misremembered over the course of a lifetime of listening,” he said.

Peattie described Berio’s impact on modern music as enormous.

“The rich body of vocal, orchestral and chamber music that he created between the mid-1950s and his death in 2003 has played a crucial role in securing his reputation as the most important Italian composer of his generation,” he said. “His works continue to receive frequent performances and have also attracted considerable attention from scholars of 20th-century music.”

Berio’s music has often been described as complex, but this has not prevented it from being accepted or understood even among the most contemporary-averse audiences. This is because Berio’s works “are always informed by conventional categories of harmony and gesture even if they also draw extensively on the advanced musical techniques associated with the postwar avant-garde,” Peattie said.

Outside the academy, Peattie was involved with Columbia’s Department of Music by serving as a guest lecturer at a seminar and giving a talk at the department’s musicology colloquium series. He also was a co-curator of an exhibition at the Italian Academy covering Berio’s relationship with 17th-century Italian composer Claudio Monteverdi; Peattie helped organize a two-day symposium and a concert.

“This experience has already made me a better scholar,” Peattie said after returning to his Ole Miss classroom. “It has given me new ways of thinking about the way in which research is conducted.”

Robert Riggs, chair of the Department of Music, expressed the value of an opportunity to be a guest at another university in addition to being able to spend time free from teaching and service obligations.

“This highly competitive fellowship enabled Dr. Peattie to make significant progress on his new book, and his selection for this honor certainly reflects well on the high quality of research being conducted in our music department,” Riggs said. “Moreover, I anticipate that his future teaching and research will be invigorated by his having been immersed in the vibrant musical culture of New York City.”

Inaugural Living Music Institute Deemed an ‘Incredible Success’

UM music department's Living Music Resource expands to include an intensive opera workshop

Music professor Nancy Maria Balach instructs students at the UM Living Music Resource’s inaugural Living Music Institute, an intensive opera aria workshop. Photo by Kevin Bain/University Communications

OXFORD, Miss. – The inaugural session of the Living Music Institute, which ran Jan. 18-21 at the University of Mississippi, got high marks from students and music professionals alike.

The Living Music Institute, a production of the Living Music Resource in the UM Department of Music, is an intensive workshop for opera aria singers. During the workshop, students received personal attention from faculty members and special guest and opera star Kallen Esperian.

Student participants also attended master classes, coaching sessions, yoga classes aimed at performers, acting classes and aria performance classes.

“Listening to these young singers gave me great hope for the future of opera,” Esperian said. “I thought that the weekend was an incredible success – a brilliant idea to have young singers from all over the country come together with their peers.”

The workshop concluded Jan. 21 with a student competition in David H. Nutt Auditorium. Rebecka McAlister, a graduate student in music from Jonesboro, Arkansas, won the event, which included a monetary prize.

She also will perform with the LOU Symphony Orchestra at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 19 in the Gertrude C. Ford Center for the Performing Arts. Tickets are $10, available through the Ole Miss Box Office at the Ford Center, phone 662-915-7411.

Led by Nancy Maria Balach, an associate professor of music, the Living Music Resource started as an online library of videos produced in-house from interviews with musicians and vocalists.

Balach said she wanted to establish Living Music Institute to bring national attention to the program, help recruit quality graduate students and create a new opportunity for vocal performance students to “hone their craft in an intensive young artist and professional environment.”

“The Living Music Institute is an excellent chance for budding performers to experiment and grow in their artistry,” Balach said. “We want to continue LMR’s mission to bring acclaimed artists to the great state of Mississippi and offer both our amazing community and online followers unique artistic events.”

Students from 12 states applied to be the inaugural Living Music Institute participants. Sixteen singers, representing nine states, were picked for the cohort.

The participants all were talented and unique, Esperian said.

UM theatre arts professor Matthew Wilson, left, instructs Blue Mountain College student William Thompson at the Living Music Resource’s inaugural Living Music Institute, an intensive opera aria workshop. Photo by Kevin Bain/University Communications

The opera star also said she found the students very open to the feedback and advice given to them, and said she hopes they capitalized on the opportunity to learn from professional artists.

The Living Music Resource’s expansion to offer the Living Music Institute is a natural result of the program’s growth and the educational and artistic collaboration between Balach and Amanda Johnston, Living Music Institute co-director and associate professor of music.

The idea for the institute first occurred when Balach and Johnston established the Living Music Resource’s “Next Step Audition” day, which occurred in 2016 and 2017. They recognized that this opportunity “filled a void” in the region for emerging artists, but wanted to expand it.

They began creating the framework for Living Music Institute in spring 2017 and launched it last month.

“The interest in LMI has far exceeded our expectations,” Balach said. “All of the singers thoroughly enjoyed being on our campus, working with our faculty and experiencing the opportunities LMI created.”

The interest in attending Ole Miss for graduate education dramatically increased by the end of the weekend for many participants, she said.

“The UM music department is now offering a program unique to our region that has national reach,” Balach said.

Usefulness of Math Topic of February Science Cafe

UM professor Sandra Spiroff to discuss applications of mathematics

UM mathematics professor Sandra Spiroff explains complex mathematical equations in the classroom. Photo by Robert Jordan/Ole Miss Communications

OXFORD, Miss. – Practical uses for mathematical concepts is the topic for a monthly public science forum organized by the University of Mississippi Department of Physics and Astronomy.

The spring semester’s second meeting of the Oxford Science Cafe is set for 6 p.m. Tuesday (Feb. 20) at Lusa Pastry Cafe, 2305 W. Jackson Ave. Sandra Spiroff, UM associate professor of mathematics, will discuss “When are we ever going to use this?: Some Applications of Mathematics.” Admission is free.

“In 1623, Galileo Galilei wrote, ‘Philosophy is written in this grand book (meaning the universe), which stands continually open to our gaze, but cannot be understood unless one first learns to comprehend the language and interpret the characters in which it is written,'” Spiroff said. “‘It is written in the language of mathematics, without which it is humanly impossible to understand a single word of it.'”

Spiroff’s 40-minute presentation will explore the mathematics behind some of our everyday experiences.

“In addition, we will use technology to model the behavior we wish to understand,” she said.

Spiroff earned her doctorate at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her research area is commutative algebra, which includes the study of rings, modules, fields, groups, and the maps and invariants associated to these constructions.

She holds a five-year grant from the Simons Foundation and is an advocate for underrepresented groups in the study of mathematics, including women and minorities. Spiroff is organizing a research conference at the Banff International Research Station in Canada for the former and participating in national and regional conferences in support of the latter.

Active in the university’s globalization efforts, Spiroff will be traveling to China with a UM delegation to pursue partnerships with universities in Beijing and beyond. She is vice president of the UM Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa and faculty adviser of the American Mathematical Society Graduate Student Chapter.

For more information about Oxford Science Cafe programs, go to For more information about the Department of Physics and Astronomy, visit or call 662-915-5311.

Ole Miss Theatre Production of ‘Zombie Prom’ Opens Friday

Zany musical features contributions by army of students, faculty and staff

UM students (front, from left) Abby Wilson and Josh McLemore, and (back, from left) Ginnie Brown and Riley McManus rehearse for the Ole Miss Theatre production of ‘Zombie Prom,’ which opens Friday (Feb. 16) at Meek Hall Auditorium. Photo by Kevin Bain/Ole Miss Communications

OXFORD, Miss. – Zombies are roaming about campus at the University of Mississippi, but rather than seeking out human prey, these ghouls are singing and dancing.

The Ole Miss Theatre production of “Zombie Prom,” the third production of the year, opens at 7:30 p.m. Friday (Feb. 16) in Meek Hall Auditorium. The show runs through Feb. 25. Tickets, priced at $20 apiece, are available through the Ole Miss Box Office in the Gertrude C. Ford Center for the Performing Arts or online at

“Zombie Prom” is set during the atomic bomb scare of the 1950s. Senior Josh McLemore, a musical theatre major who has appeared in 10 plays since his freshman year, stars as Jonny Warner, the show’s lead character.

‘”Zombie Prom,’ a musical about teen love in the 1950s and what it takes to accept someone for who they are, sounds more poetic than it actually is,” McLemore said. “My character, Jonny Warner, is a bad-boy, greaser type, who has fallen in love with Toffee.

“Jonny grew up an orphan, and to him, Toffee is the only person in his life who has ever loved him, so things get interesting when her parents force her to break up with him.”

Sophomore business and theater major Ginnie Brown plays the role of Candy. Brown has appeared in one other Ole Miss Theatre production and knows what goes into pulling off a production of this size.

“It definitely takes a village to put up a show!” Brown said. “For example, in ‘Zombie Prom,’ we have 10 cast members, nine understudies, a director, three assistant directors, a stage manager and four assistant stage managers.

“That’s 28 people, and there is probably the same amount, if not more, (of) designers and crew members.”

To prepare for the opening, the cast began rehearsing two weeks before the start of spring semester. The cast rehearses six days a week for three hours, with rehearsals overseen by director Rene Pulliam.

The Department of Theatre Arts has 13 full-time faculty members. Although the success of a production depends mostly on the cast and crew, productions would not run as smoothly without the department’s faculty.

“I think casting is definitely a huge part of the production and probably sways how some things are going to be put into motion,” McLemore said. “However, the faculty works really hard and schedules design, concept and production meetings before and throughout the rehearsal process.

“They determine how everything will be built, paid for, designed, and discuss the themes of the show. Those meetings are really what make the production come to life, not the casting, in my opinion.”

Ole Miss Theatre opens auditions to the entire student body as well as the Oxford community. However, theater majors always participate in a production in some manner.

Brandon Skaggs, project coordinator for the production department, shared what goes on behind the scenes.

“A lot of the students in our department help out with the productions, whether with props, costumes, scenes or ushering at the different performances,” Skaggs said. “Students within the department create a lot of the costumes and sets that are used in the show.

“We actually have a scene shop in the back of Fulton Chapel where students can get hands-on experience building sets.”

Each season, the Department of Theatre Arts puts on four productions, two per semester. Courses in the department touch on areas of musical theater, acting, costume and set design, lighting, sound design, dancing, and cinema production and acting.

“Ole Miss’ theater department is very professional,” Brown said. “We follow the same structures and guidelines as set by Actors’ Equity, which hundreds of actors and stage managers are part of on Broadway and throughout professional performance groups.

“It definitely is preparing all of us within the department for the real world of working in theatre after we graduate.”

For more information about dates and times for “Zombie Prom” or future productions, visit

University Accepts Challenge of Alabama Restaurateur

Major gift supports future of Southern Foodways Alliance, honors longtime director

John T. Edge (center) spends time with (from left) UM development officer Nikki Neely, Sharon Vitter, Nick Pihakis and UM Chancellor Jeff Vitter. The university has matched a $1 million pledge by Pihakis to support the work of the Southern Foodways Alliance and honor Edge’s leadership. Submitted photo

OXFORD, Miss. – The University of Mississippi has matched a recent $1 million pledge from Alabama restaurateur Nick Pihakis to the Southern Foodways Alliance as a way to demonstrate mutual appreciation of the alliance’s work and the leadership of longtime director John T. Edge.

Pihakis, cofounder of Jim ‘n Nick’s Bar-B-Q and principal in the Pihakis Investment Group, has been a staunch and generous supporter of the SFA for the past 13 years, believing – like the SFA – that community is built as people cook and share meals together.

The SFA has mentored and educated countless students, staged dozens of symposia, published award-winning podcast episodes and journal issues, collected more than 900 oral histories, and produced more than 100 documentary films.

“I wanted the University of Mississippi to recognize John T.’s significant work throughout his tenure at the SFA, but I also hope my gift will provide income for the recruitment and retention of outstanding leadership going forward and ensure that quality teaching, research and service will be available for future generations of Southern studies students,” Pihakis said.

The Birmingham, Alabama, native said his gift honors Edge’s upcoming 20-year anniversary as director. It also establishes the John T. Edge Director of the Southern Foodways Alliance Endowment, which, when vested, will stand at $2.5 million. The equivalent of $2 million is already in hand; $500,000 remains to be raised.

“We happily accept this funding opportunity and greatly appreciate Nick’s generous gift, his commitment to the SFA and his continued support,” Chancellor Jeffrey Vitter said. “John T. and the SFA have worked tirelessly through the years, building a program through the study of food that has made a deeply transformative impact within the UM academic community and within the lives of our students, alumni and friends.”

The SFA operates on a $1.4 million annual budget that will likely reach $1.8 million in three years, and the major part of the budget is contributed by private donors such as Pihakis, a two-time James Beard Award semifinalist and an entrepreneur who has helped grow the careers of chefs and restaurateurs from Birmingham to New Orleans to Charleston, South Carolina, and throughout the South.

To date, the SFA has endowed two positions that contribute directly to Ole Miss students. The SFA raised the majority of endowment funds for the academic position held by Catarina Passidomo, assistant professor of Southern studies and anthropology. Additionally, the SFA raised all the outside funds – $1 million from Pihakis – for the filmmaker and documentary instructor position held by Ava Lowrey.

Edge earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Southern studies from Ole Miss in 1996 and 2002, respectively.

During his tenure as SFA director, Edge also has served as a contributing editor at Garden & Gun and a columnist for the Oxford American. For three years, he wrote the monthly “United Tastes” column for The New York Times. In 2017, Penguin published his latest book, “The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South.”

Edge said he is deeply honored by his friend’s gift and believes it will help support the future of the organization.

“Until now, the SFA has not raised money to endow a position that directly funds our work and positively impacts our budgets,” said Edge, who had made a career documenting, studying and exploring the diverse food cultures of the American South. “That was purposeful. We believed it was important that we contribute, first, to the study of food culture on the University of Mississippi campus.

“Now that the SFA has made those investments in the academic community, and in University of Mississippi students, we turn our attention to SFA leadership.”

The endowment ensures that, in the future, when Edge retires or takes a teaching role, the SFA’s fully-funded leadership position will be called the John T. Edge Director of the Southern Foodways Alliance. When the endowment vests, it will support the salary of the SFA director position occupied by Edge.

“The impact of this generous gift is significant and important,” said Lee Cohen, dean of the College of Liberal Arts. “Endowed positions such as this one are critical as we advance as an R1 institution.

“Specifically, these positions help us attract the strongest possible people to our university and directly contribute to or support the scholarship and teaching of our faculty.”

The John T. Edge Director of the Southern Foodways Alliance Endowment is open to gifts from individuals and organizations who want to contribute to the remaining goal of $500,000.

Checks supporting the SFA may be mailed with the endowment noted to the University of Mississippi Foundation, 406 University Ave., Oxford, MS 38655. Gifts can also be made online by visiting or by contacting Nikki Neely, development officer for the SFA at 662-915-6678 or

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.”

Conservator Completes Work on Three Marble Busts at UM Museum

Amy Jones Abbe's weeklong residency also included lectures and public presentations

Conservator Amy Jones Abbe gives the Bust of an Unknown Roman a careful cleaning as part of her residency at University Museum. Photo by Kevin Bain/Ole Miss Communications

OXFORD, Miss. – Amy Jones Abbe, one of the country’s most respected conservators of Greek and Roman sculpture, enjoyed a brief residency at the University of Mississippi Museum last week.

The Athens, Georgia, resident divided her time between restoring three busts in the museum’s David M. Robinson Greek and Roman Antiquities Collection and speaking about her work to inquisitive Ole Miss and local elementary school students.

“This has been a real pleasure for me,” Abbe said, taking a brief break from cleaning the Bust of an Unknown Roman, a marble head dating to 90-120 A.D. in Tivoli, Italy. “I love working on ancient antiquities, and was thrilled when I was extended the invitation to come here.

“The Robinson Collection has a lot of great pieces. I don’t find many such collections in the South, so this makes me very happy.”

With a lighted magnifying glass mounted to her own head and small vials containing various cleaning solutions nearby, Abbe gave painstakingly slow and meticulous care to the bust as it laid on a gurney in the museum’s Mary Buie Gallery. She explained the conservation treatment process.

“I begin with a surface cleaning, followed by testing a range of cleaning options, choosing the mildest and most effective one,” Abbe said. “I vacuum, dust and use a water-based solution that is slightly alkaline. If the conservation merits something stronger, I use an ammonium nitrate solution.”

Depending on a variety of factors, such as the quality of the stone, contaminants and their combinations, she may use soft vinyl erasers at some point in the process.

“It’s rare for anything to be uniformly soiled,” she said. “Environmental pollution is often acidic and can etch the marble over time. These pieces are not too dirty at all.”

Once the sculpture was clean, Abbe addressed areas that needed retouching.

“The trick is to maintain the piece after it has been treated,” she said. “The more regularly conservation is done, the less likely there will be preservation issues.”

Besides working on the busts, Abbe made several presentations to Ole Miss faculty and students, as well as Oxford elementary school students. She spoke to UM Roman archaeology and art history classes and the Vasari Society, a campus art history club, and ended her time in Oxford with a public talk about her work Friday afternoon at the museum.

UM faculty members who attended Abbe’s presentations gave rave reviews for them and her work.

Several marble busts are among the more than 2,000 items in the Robinson Greek and Roman Antiquities Collection in the University Museum. Submitted photo

“I’m thrilled that my students got a chance to see this work in action because conservators are always behind what people see when they go to museums,” said Jacqueline Dibiase, assistant professor of classics. “Hopefully, this experience has given them a deeper appreciation for the antiquities collection here at the University Museum. Perhaps some of them might even consider becoming conservators themselves one day.”

Aileen Ajootian, professor of classics and art, said Abbe’s work has been “remarkable and inspiring.”

“The role of a conservator is critical to any museum,” she said. “The university has a lot of wonderful antiquities that have not seen attention for a long time.

“What Ms. Abbe has done already has been remarkable. And for the students to see a conservator in action has been really inspiring.”

Students seemed likewise impressed with Abbe and her work.

“I thought she was really great,” said Hunter Myers, a senior classics major from Mountain Home, Arkansas. “Until today, I wasn’t aware of how many important pieces, particularly the Head of Aeschines, the museum had.

“Being a classics major, seeing these sculptures and hearing about how they are preserved has definitely made me think differently about a lot of things.”

Oxford resident Virginia Parson said Abbe’s talk was “really cool.”

“What she discussed matched perfectly with what I’ve been studying,” said the junior anthropology and biology major, who also is pursuing a minor in classics. “Seeing the intersection of art history, fine art and chemistry involved in being a conservator has made me consider it as a career possibility after I finish graduate school.”

Abbe was particularly enthusiastic about speaking to students, both young and older.

“I want the children to discover that conservation exists and how important it is to keeping the statues they see in good condition,” she said. “I’m glad to be a part of broadening their perspectives and letting them see the enormous varieties of experiences the world has to offer.”

As for the university students, Abbe remembered her own undergraduate exposure, which eventually led to her present occupation.

“I really discovered my love of sculpture in college while taking a classics course as an elective,” Abbe said. “I was a pre-med major at the time, but after taking that course, I switched to classics. I participated in an actual excavation and really loved it.”

By the time she finished her degree at New York University, Abbe knew she wanted a career in classical antiquities, but not as an academic.

“I moved to Washington, D.C., and began working in museums,” she recalled. “That led to me earning my graduate degree at the University of North Carolina (at) Chapel Hill and becoming a conservator.”

This is the first conservation work performed on the museum’s collection in more than 20 years, said Melanie Munns, antiquities collections manager. Hopefully, it will not be the last.

“The University Museum is only able to conserve objects as funding permits,” Munns said. “We started a conservation fund dedicated to the Robinson Collection five years ago with an initial donation gifted by the Daughters of Penelope, Memphis chapter.

“It is with their accrued donations, funds from the Robinson Reinstallation Project and the Friends of the Museum that we are able to conduct this conservation work.”

The Friends of the Museum has pledged further funding for conservation that should allow work to be performed on another piece, possibly more, in coming months, Munns said.

“We hope to perform annual conservation work,” she said. “With over 2,000 objects in the Robinson Collection, we foresee this type of programming could continue for many years to come.”

Abbe is also cleaning two Greek vases from the UM collection at her Georgia studio. If the conservation efforts continue, she would gladly return to campus.

“Oxford is a lovely place,” she said. “Coming back here to do more of what I love doing would be a dream come true.”

For more information, call University Museum at 662-915-7028.

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.”

Alumnus Ryan Upshaw Reflects on BSU’s Legacy of Service

Time in organization helped him develop leadership skills

Ryan Upshaw, pictured here receiving the Lift Every Voice Award in 2016, remains an active alumnus of the UM Black Student Union. Photo by Robert Jordan/Ole Miss Communications

OXFORD, Miss. – When he was a freshman at the University of Mississippi in 2002, Ryan Upshaw saw a flyer about the Black Student Union and decided to join with some other classmates. Little did he know, this decision would greatly shape his life. 

Upshaw, a Moss Point native who earned his undergraduate degree in psychology in 2006 and a master’s higher education in 2008, is assistant dean of student services for the UM School of Engineering. He was named the BSU’s Outstanding Faculty/Staff Award winner in 2015 and has remained an involved BSU alumnus. 

He said he found a strong network within BSU during his undergraduate years, made lifelong friendships and developed his leadership skills. He also became more service-minded. 

“Having a student organization that the university looked to regarding the issues black students faced was key for me and many other students and likely why we got involved,” Upshaw said. “There was just a support system within BSU that one couldn’t really find anywhere else.

“Being in BSU, I felt empowered to become a part of other organizations, like the Associated Student Body, Ole Miss Ambassadors and orientation leaders.”

The university’s BSU, founded in 1968, celebrates its 50th anniversary with events throughout the 2017-18 academic year. The group’s golden birthday will culminate with a gala in February. 

Throughout the period of celebration, past presidents, former members and current students will be profiled on the BSU website and on the UM website. Special anniversary content on social media can also be found using the hashtag #UMBSU50.

While Upshaw was a student, LaToya Coleman, Brianna O’Neal and Brian Haynes were all BSU presidents whom he admired for being strong advocates for minority students. Their dedication made them role models to Upshaw and many other students. 

Haynes, who was BSU president during the 2002-03 academic year, remembers the freshman Upshaw as being committed to the group’s mission, but also very personable. 

“Ryan’s outgoing personality and desire to promote diversity and inclusion across the Ole Miss campus was very beneficial in assisting the Black Student Union fulfill its mission – a mission that is attentive to a sense of community and inclusion among all students at the university,” Haynes said. “The Black Student Union nurtured Ryan’s growth sociably and assisted in the development of skills that crafted his path toward his collegiate and career goals.”

The BSU’s “Turn Your Back on Hate” campaign during Upshaw’s undergraduate years inspired him. At the time, it was a new approach to confronting controversial speakers on campus. Students lined up in large numbers to protest, but instead of yelling or holding signs, they peacefully turned their backs to the speaker.

“It was sort of my first introduction to activism on a college campus,” Upshaw said. “It also helped to show me that I could have a voice. I am certain that it has definitely been an influence given the climate of our campus today.”

Upshaw credits administrators Val Ross, Donald Cole and Thomas Wallace as being great advocates for students of color during his time as a student. BSU also played a major role in serving those students.

He credits BSU for driving recent moves such as the university’s creation the Center for Inclusion and Cross Cultural Engagement and its hiring of Katrina Caldwell as the first-ever vice chancellor for diversity and community engagement. 

Looking back on his time with the BSU, Upshaw is proud of the group’s longstanding legacy of service. 

“We weren’t just thinking of ourselves,” he said. “We wanted to give back to the campus and the larger community.”