by Tom Parisi
One is finding clues to climate change beneath the ocean depths, another spearheading a movement that applies evolution to human politics and a third probing the atomic structure of materials for potential technological breakthroughs.
Meet the 2009 winners of NIU’s Presidential Research Professorships: Reed Scherer in the Department of Geology and Environmental Geosciences; Larry Arnhart in the Department of Political Science; and Michel van Veenendaal in the Department of Physics.
“This year’s award winners are internationally known for truly pushing the envelope in their research and scholarship,” says James Erman, interim vice president for research and graduate studies at NIU. “They’re shedding new light on the challenges of our day, providing insights into human behavior and stretching our knowledge of new scientific frontiers. They inspire our students and their colleagues alike.”
The Presidential Research Professorships are NIU’s top awards for faculty research. They have been awarded annually since 1982 in recognition and support of the university’s research and artistic mission. Award winners receive special financial support of their research for four years, after which they carry the title of Distinguished Research Professor.
Here’s a look at this year’s award winners.
As a youngster in Brooklyn, N.Y., Reed Scherer loved the ocean and the diversity of its creatures. By age 7, he had started collecting fossils, and by fifth grade, classmates had affectionately dubbed him “the mad scientist.”
From those childhood interests blossomed a research specialty that is helping scientists better understand one of the most pressing problems of our day – global warming.
“I have been fortunate enough, and stubborn enough, to have built a career that fulfilled my childhood dream,” Scherer says.
The NIU paleontologist’s research has taken him to the planet’s Polar Regions and fundamentally influenced two seemingly distant scientific fields: micropaleontology and glaciology. Both are central to understanding and documenting climate change.
In a sense, Scherer is still collecting fossils. He’s a world expert in the study of fossil diatoms – microscopic single-celled algae that live in shallow seawater, evolve rapidly and are deposited on the ocean floor, leaving behind glass-like shells.
Because diatom varieties are linked to water temperature, their presence in sediment cores extracted from the seabed provides a record of ancient ocean temperatures and climates. At Earth’s poles, this record is helping unravel what happened when ice sheets melted in the past – and what could happen in the future.
Not long ago, most scientists believed it would take tens of thousands of years to melt polar ice sheets. This view changed in the 1990s, partly due to research by Scherer, who was a key member of a research team that confirmed the West Antarctic Ice Sheet has been unstable in the past and even collapsed, raising sea levels by 18 feet.
“No other researcher has broken so much ground in characterizing how the large ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica have responded to past changes in climate,” says Douglas MacAyeal, a University of Chicago geophysical sciences professor. “Reed’s work is the gold standard.”
Scherer earned his Ph.D. in paleontology at Ohio State University and worked at a Swedish university before coming to NIU in 2000. He teaches a wide range of courses and has attracted and inspired successful Ph.D. students who have themselves made impressive discoveries, including well-publicized dinosaur fossil finds.
Scherer has generated several million dollars in research grants, won a Fulbright Senior Research Award, presented more than 100 professional papers and published descriptions of 24 new taxa of diatoms and single-celled animals. He helped establish NIU’s Analytical Center for Climate and Environmental Change and sits on the Board of Directors of Burpee Museum in Rockford.
Along with NIU’s Ross Powell, Scherer has played a leadership role in the $30 million Antarctic Geological Drilling program, among the largest scientific projects ever conducted in the Antarctic. He has published numerous studies in top-tier journals, such as Nature and Science, and his work has drawn media attention from the likes of the New York Times, Chicago Tribune and Discover magazine.
“His work has become policy relevant in recent years as we turn more often to the paleo record of climate change to understand the possible outcomes of our greenhouse future,” says Robert Dunbar, director of the Earth Systems Program at Stanford University. “I expect great things from him in the future.”
Larry Arnhart is an expert in the history of political philosophy and a leading thinker in the field of American political thought, but he might best be described simply as a “political animal.”
In fact, we’re all political animals, according to Arnhart. And, as the term implies, we can’t truly understand human politics without considering the intrinsic roles of biology and evolution.
In his 2005 book, “Darwinian Conservatism,” and a lively blog by the same name, Arnhart spearheads a new movement among conservatives who believe the scientific theories of Charles Darwin can be applied to human behavior and political thought. He argues that natural selection supports many conservative ideas.
The book has drawn international attention. None other than the New York Times, in a front-page story in 2007, identified Arnhart’s lead role in this emerging conservative philosophy.
“The book comes out of my many years of debating those American conservatives who reject Darwinian science as morally and politically corrupting, and who propose creationism or intelligent design theory as alternatives to Darwinism,” he says. “I argue that Darwin is not the enemy of American conservatives, because Darwinian science can actually support traditional morality, religious belief and political principles of limited government.”
Arnhart also has authored numerous articles, book chapters and conference papers, and his willingness to engage supporters and critics alike has resulted in countless invited speaking engagements nationwide.
His work has caught the attention of the leading evolutionists of our day, including two-time Pulitzer-Prize winner E. O. Wilson, and has been cited in hundreds of articles and books. He also has received more than $300,000 in grants to direct seven colloquia on such topics as “Darwinism and Political Liberty.”
Darwin’s theories “have transformed the understanding of our species and its social nature,” says Roger Masters, a research professor of government at Dartmouth College. “As a result, what thinkers like Hobbes, Locke or Rousseau called ‘natural right’ must now be reconsidered in light of human evolution. Larry is one of the world’s leading thinkers on this important subject.”
“In my judgment (Arnhart) is one of the 10 most important political philosophers writing in the United States today,” adds Carl Mitcham, director of the Henneback Program in the Humanities at the Colorado School of Mines.
Arnhart received his master’s degree and Ph.D. in political science from the University of Chicago.
He joined the faculty in the NIU Department of Political Science in 1983 and is one of three professors who train graduate students in the specialized field of biopolitics, or politics and the life sciences. NIU’s program is believed to be the only one of its kind nationwide, and Arnhart’s work has attracted numerous students. Four of the dissertations that he directed were later published as books.
In addition to “Darwinian Conservatism,” Arnhart has penned three other books, including a broad survey of the history of political philosophy that has been adopted as a textbook at more than 200 colleges.
An expanded version “Darwinian Conservatism” is being published this spring. Arnhart also is working on a fifth book “that will develop a theoretical framework for political science as a biological science of political animals.”
In a sense, Michel van Veenendaal has X-ray vision.
Van Veenendaal is an expert in the field of X-ray science, which uses powerful X-rays produced by giant research machines known as synchrotrons to probe the atomic structure of materials, particularly those that hold promise for technological breakthroughs.
The NIU physics professor develops the theories and complex mathematics that help scientists predict and interpret the results of these experiments.
“The common thread in my work is the study of materials and nanostructures that have properties that might lead to the invention of devices that could improve our quality of life,” van Veenendaal says.
In 2007, for example, he was a member of a team of scientists that examined the orbitals of electrons and uncovered a potential path for manipulating superconductivity at the atomic scale. Cited by the journal Science as one of the top 10 scientific breakthroughs of the year, the research opens up a new area of investigation into ways of designing nanoscale superconductors.
“Michel is nationally and internationally recognized as a leader in theoretical X-ray science,” says Clyde Kimball, Distinguished Research Professor of Physics at NIU. “His theoretical work has enabled experimental scientists to push the envelope of the development of new X-ray probes and has clarified their results to explain the links between atomic and molecular interactions and the visible behavior of matter.”
Van Veenendaal grew up in the Netherlands, earning his doctorate at the University of Groningen. He joined the NIU faculty in 2001 and teaches a variety of courses, from intermediate physics to graduate-level courses in quantum mechanics.
He serves as deputy director of the NIU Institute for Nanoscience, Engineering and Technology and played an essential role in its design and organization. Additionally, he co-founded the NIU startup company, Northern Illinois Nanotech.
Outside of NIU, van Veenendaal has worked closely with scientists at two of the world’s premier research institutions: the European Synchrotron Research Facility in France and Argonne National Laboratory in suburban Chicago. He is widely published in premier physics journals, his works having attracted more than 1,300 citations.
At Argonne, van Veenendaal works with scientists conducting experiments at the Advanced Photon Source, a synchrotron that produces the Western Hemisphere’s most brilliant X-ray beams. His collaborations there led to the establishment of a joint NIU-Argonne theory group, which supports post-doctoral students. He is responsible for the search and selection of joint Argonne/NIU faculty positions.
Van Veenendaal’s work attracts substantial external funding as well.
He has secured about $1.4 million in grants through NIU and Argonne. Additionally, he is a co-leader of a new network of 25 scientists from across the world who are working to lay the theoretical foundation for understanding “resonant X-ray scattering” – a developing and important tool for materials science researchers. The U.S. Department of Energy provided $840,000 in support of the effort.
“Dr. van Veenendaal is a recognized authority in the world in matters involving X-ray scattering from complex materials,” says Arun Bansil, professor of physics at Northeastern University in Boston. “There is little question that he will continue to remain at the forefront of this active research area long into the future.”