Prizes fund research for junior professors

Seven junior professors were honored last week for their research across different fields.

The awards honored faculty across three fields: the natural and social sciences, the humanities, and interdisciplinary studies, granting the seven professors funds for further research. Winners were nominated by their respective department heads in recognition of particularly outstanding research and teaching. The professors met the families who sponsored the awards at a banquet Thursday night. The recipients said they will use their prize money to fund projects ranging from writing a new book on comparative religion to researching quantum systems to studying Jamaican history.

Yale College Dean Mary Miller, who is the chair of the committee involved in selecting the winners, said the prizes were unique because so few opportunities exist for recognizing junior faculty.

“These markers of teaching excellence can also be important and support you throughout your career,” she said in the e-mail.

Physics professor Jack Harris, who teaches the advanced introductory course “Fundamentals of Physics,” received the Arthur Greer Memorial Prize for Outstanding Scholarly Publication or Research. Harris said the research money will further his work on quantum mechanics, particularly because many experiments in the physical sciences carry a hefty price tag due to expensive equipment and technology.

“The bigger thing is the recognition from the University,” he said. “As junior faculty we work hard to get recognized by our peers. It’s an incredibly nice way of giving us a little bit of support, even beyond the money.”

Harris’ work focuses on translating the laws of quantum mechanics on a larger scale, with potential applications in fields such as telecommunications. If Harris’ research continues to be successful, he said, it will help streamline phone communication across the world.

There were four recipients of the Samuel and Ronnie Heyman Prize for Outstanding Scholarly Publication or Research: Edward Rugemer, a professor in the History Department and the African American Studies Department; English professor Caleb Smith; History of Art professor Milette Gaifman; and Aaron Gerow, professor of Film Studies and East Asian Languages and Literatures.

Smith received the award based on his book, “The Prison and the American Imagination,” which explores popular culture’s understanding of prison culture and was published by the Yale University Press in September. Smith said he traveled to various prisons and researched legal records, newspapers and literature for the book. With the Heyman funding, Smith said, he will pursue a similar project about the culture of justice.

Gaifman was also honored for a book, which has yet to be published. It investigates the idea of the divine in Greek culture, she said, adding in an e-mail that she will use the grant money to research art and ritual in ancient Greek culture.

Gerow, who is currently in Japan working on a book on the history of Japanese film, said the award came as a surprise but that he may use the prize money to bolster the Japanese film budget, which he said was cut this year.

Rugemer, who said he is interested in the history of Caribbean countries, will use the funding to pursue research on slavery in Caribbean history in order to write a second book, following his 2005 dissertation on the impact of the abolition of slavery in the Caribbean.

He said he will use the money to hire research assistants to help him track down primary documents about slavery in Jamaica and to make research trips to Jamaica, Great Britain and South Carolina in order to access primary sources that are only available in local archives.

The awards honored not only research but unique teaching styles. The Poorvu Family Award for Interdisciplinary Teaching was presented to two faculty members for combining disparate academic fields in their undergraduate teaching.

Thierry Emonet, professor of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology, teaches “Systems Modeling in Biology,” which requires students to apply knowledge of math, physics and engineering to biological modeling, while Professor Ludger Viefhues-Bailey co-teaches the seminar “Religion and the Big Bang.”

Emonet could not be reached for comment Sunday.

Viefhues-Bailey, a professor of Religious Studies said he and Charles Bailyn, in the Astronomy Department, created the seminar in an effort to create a space for humanities and science majors to discuss challenges facing both fields. Viefhues-Bailey said that though the seminar started out with most students in “let’s just get along mode,” students ended up tackling fundamental philosophical questions such as “What is the nature of causality?”

Viefhues-Bailey said he will use the research funding to continue work on his new book, which is about how secular states construct religion. The book, he said, focuses on France, Germany, the United States and India — so he will travel to India to study Indian secularism.

“Even within our home disciplines we are braiding together different interdisciplinary approaches,” Viefhues-Bailey said. “Yale has these enormous resources of people who are thinking outside of the box — and students who are thinking outside of the box.”

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