Faculty News | Fall 2013

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Chicano culture flows from border in NMSU professor’s new book

By Tonya Suther 

Religious pilgrimages and lowriders are two cultural aspects of the Mexican-American culture captured in a new book by New Mexico State University Spanish professor Spencer Herrera, New Mexico Centennial Poet Laureate Levi Romero and photojournalist Robert Kaiser. “Sagrado: A Photopoetics Across the Chicano Homeland,” is a collection of personal essays, poems and photographs, inspired by the building of the fence along the U.S-Mexico border. The book, which will be published in October, may be pre-ordered online.

“I wanted to show that despite fences and laws, the flow of culture could not be restricted,” Herrera said. “You can’t stop culture; it permeates borders.”

The book, published by University of New Mexico Press, gives an intimate look at Chicano cultural practices and beliefs using 117 color photographs, dozens of personal narratives and poems. The photographic journey across the Chicano Southwest features quinceaneras, charreadas (Mexican rodeos), cultural icons, migrant farm worker stories, portraits of everyday people and much more.  Read more

 Retiring military science professor, top ROTC mentor, looks back on service to NMSU

By Tonya Suther 

Lt Col. Andrew Taylor, NMSU Army ROTC professor of military science, announced his retirement and was recognized in a formal ceremony July 31, at White Sands Missile Range. (NMSU photo by Darren Phillips)

Watching students overcome personal fears was the most rewarding part of Lt. Col. Andrew Taylor’s job guiding the lives of New Mexico State University Army ROTC cadets. After 20 years in the U.S. Army, and four years as professor of military science at NMSU, the Army ROTC commander  announced his retirement. He was recognized in a formal ceremony July 31, at White Sands Missile Range.

“It’s been absolutely tremendous; it’s a blink of the eye,” Taylor said. “I truly enjoy what we do, raising the next generation to take over for our sons and daughters, and I’d stay here as long as the Army would let me.”

Taylor was selected by the Department of the Army to serve NMSU Army ROTC in 2009. While several memorable moments mark his tenure, among them, he pointed to the 2011 Look Who’s Dancing competition, where he competed against other prominent community members to benefit the NMSU DanceSport Company. “That was humorous in many regards, and a lot of fun,” Taylor said. “I always preach get out of your comfort zone, and since I practice what I preach, and because I have no coordination and can’t dance, that was huge.” Read more

 NMSU faculty, staff honored at 2013 fall convocation

By Darrell J. Pehr

The achievements of top faculty members and staff were celebrated at New Mexico State University’s fall convocation ceremony. Each fall and spring, convocation serves as an opportunity to begin the semester with a focus on excellence.

Left to right: NMSU Fall 2013 Convocation awardees Steven Stochaj, Wenxin Liu, Rani Alexander, John Wright, Debra Knapp, Executive Vice President and Provost Dan Howard (who announced the awards), Pierre Orelus, Bernd Leinauer, Kristin Stair, Tiziana Giorgi, Beth Armstead and Greg Armfield. (NMSU Photo)

“Convocation is an important time to pause and honor the tremendous achievements of our faculty and staff,” said Executive Vice President and Provost Daniel J. Howard. “In research, community outreach and student support, these awardees are leading some of the top work being done at NMSU. They bring outstanding creativity, dedication and hard work to our campus community.”

John B. Wright, professor of geography in the College of Arts and Sciences, was awarded the 2013 Westhafer Award for Excellence in Teaching and Research. Westhafer Awards are given in alternating years for excellence in teaching and excellence in research and creative activity. Read more

World traveler, professor known as one-of-a-kind teacher earns NMSU’s highest faculty award

By Tonya Suther 

John “Jack” Wright, geography professor at New Mexico State University, has won the faculty’s highest honor, the Westhafer Award for Excellence in Teaching. He was recognized during the university’s fall convocation. (NMSU photo by Ben La Marca)

Geography professor John “Jack” Wright has won New Mexico State University’s highest faculty honor, the Westhafer Award for Excellence in Teaching. He was recognized during the university’s fall convocation Tuesday, Aug. 20.

“I am just one of six excellent teachers in the geography department,” said Wright, full professor in the College of Arts and Sciences. “We pride ourselves on our genuine and deep commitment to teaching. It’s the prime directive of everything we do.”

The Westhafer Award was established in memory of Robert L. Westhafer, professor in the mathematics department from 1946 to 1957. The annual award, which includes $3,000, is given in alternating years and recognizes NMSU faculty for excellence in teaching, research and creative activity.

“Dr. John Wright is an extraordinary geographer and teacher,” said Christopher Brown, geography department head who nominated Wright for the award. “He is one of a kind – a world traveler, teacher, scholar and writer who cares genuinely and profoundly for his students. In his 23 years at NMSU, he has gained the coveted reputation among students as someone who teaches based on his own research and personal experience in the world.” Read more

 NMSU professor efforts prompt bill to establish national park on Moon

By Minerva Baumann 

NMSU anthropology professor Beth O’Leary is working with the deputy counsel from the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology to protect lunar landing sites through legislation to create a national park on the Moon. (NMSU photo by Darren Phillips)

A movement to protect lunar artifacts undertaken by a New Mexico State University professor and her students more than a decade ago has sparked the idea in Congress to protect lunar landing sites. A bill filed this summer would protect sites like Tranquility Base by creating the first national park on the Moon.

“Passing a bill to acknowledge the importance of these artifacts would be a significant step for space archaeology and heritage,” said Beth O’Leary, NMSU anthropology professor in the College of Arts and Sciences. “My colleagues and I have reached out to many different agencies and lawmakers at the state, national and international level over the years. It is gratifying to see Congress get involved.”

The “Apollo Lunar Legacy Act,” filed July 8 by Texas Rep. Donna Edwards and Maryland Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, tasks the Secretary of the Interior with establishing the new national park within 12 months and coming up with a management plan for it 18 months later. The bill would also require the Department of the Interior to ask UNESCO to designate the Apollo 11 landing site a World Heritage Site. Read more

NMSU computer science research may help understand, analyze biological problems

By Isabel A. Rodriguez 

Joe Song, left, NMSU computer science professor, and student Yang Zhang show off their Best Performance certificate from the HPN-DREAM8 challenge. The team scored first place in one of three challenges in the competition. (Photo by Isabel Rodriguez)

As a computer science professor at New Mexico State University’s College of Arts and Sciences, Joe Song is focused on computational biology research, creating innovative computational technology to advance quantitative understanding of life science problems.

“I see the opportunity for quantitative science to be applied to life sciences,” he said. “Traditionally, life science problems have been answered by qualitative tools. We have the opportunity to work with multiple biological systems. My research interest is concerned with the interface of computer science, statistics and applied mathematics.”

Most recently, Song and his doctoral student Yang Zhang participated in the Heritage Provider Network – Dialogue of Reverse Engineering Assessment of Methods Breast Cancer Network Inference, a challenge that encourages researchers to develop software systems to help understand how abnormal cell proliferation leads to breast cancer. In November Song and Zhang presented their research at the DREAM conference in Toronto.

Using real and computer-generated data, the pair created a software system to study biological systems. Their work earned them first place in the challenge, along with a $7,500 cash prize from HPN. Although this year’s competition focused on breast cancer, the system can be applied to multiple gene networks in many organisms.

“Overall, our goal was to understand, at a molecular level, gene interaction; how cells divide and how they can cause tumor tissues to grow uncontrollably,” Song said. “We want to know what genetic factors lead to this cell proliferation.”

Song’s interest in computational biology began when he was a graduate student at the University of Washington at Seattle. As an undergraduate, he’d studied telecommunications and image processing at the Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications.

“Somehow, the life science problems caught my eye; that’s how I first got into computational biology,” he said. “I’m always interested in developing new methodology to detect useful information from data. That’s the main theme of my work and that hasn’t changed, even though I work with different applications. The most rewarding aspect is when I see application of my work in my collaborators’ research projects that come up with potential explanations for how biological systems work.

“I really enjoyed the experiences of having been educated in both China and the United States,” he added. “I would not be where I am today if I’d only received one. With the Chinese training, I think I’m obtained very strong training in mathematical skills. In the U.S., I feel lucky to have met an adviser, who taught me to be intellectually creative in coming up with answers.”

Part of the challenge Song encounters in his research includes coming up with creative and innovative approaches to the problems he tries to solve. He attributed Zhang’s and his success at the DREAM8 challenge to creativity.

Like his mentor, Zhang is an alumnus of the Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications, where he studied industrial design as an undergraduate. He said he was drawn to biological applications of computer science because of the many opportunities for breakthroughs in the field.

“This system we developed can apply to a lot of different network scenarios,” Zhang said. “We’re not trained as biologists, but right now, we’re trying to figure out how genes interact with each other. There are many life science problems (such as treating HIV and breast cancer) that don’t have a satisfactory solution yet. With the power of computers, we are trying to approach those genetic markers that may reveal where a goldmine may be located.”

Song said he encourages students to consider careers in computational biology, a field that offers many opportunities for interdisciplinary collaborations.

“Computational biology may not seem obvious, because its presence is not yet in a typical daily life’s experience,” he explained.” Some students come to computer science with an interest in game design, because they have experienced playing games. Many do not realize the opportunities in computational biology. I personally believe there is huge potential for personal genomic information to be used in very creative ways. I predict that it is going to be significantly involved in our daily lives in the future.”

Zhang said he hopes to continue doing research even after he graduates.

In addition to their DREAM8 winnings, Song and Zhang have received funding for their research from the National Science Foundation and the National Cancer Institute.