Northern Illinois University

Northern Today

Jeff Kowalski, Amy Newman and Zhili Xiao
named 2010 Presidential Research Professors

April 5, 2010

by Tom Parisi
and Mark McGowan

Art historian Jeff Karl Kowalski, poet Amy Newman and physicist Zhili Xiao have been named recipients of the 2010 Presidential Research Professorships, the university’s top recognition for outstanding research or artistry.

“This is an exceptional crop of award winners, all internationally recognized for their work,” says James Erman, interim vice president for research and graduate studies at NIU.

“While their fields of study are very different, professors Kowalski, Newman and Xiao all share the traits of uncommon creativity and unquenchable curiosity. Those qualities have made them leaders in their respective fields and at NIU, where our students have become the primary beneficiaries of their talents.”

The Presidential Research Professorships have been awarded annually since 1982 in recognition and support of NIU’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.

Investigating history’s mysteries

Jeff Karl Kowalski

Jeff Karl Kowalski first glimpsed the historical and beautiful man-made wonders of Uxmal in 1974.

Kowalski, a young graduate student, had just begun work on his Ph.D. at Yale. The ancient art and architecture of the Mayan civilization had fascinated Kowalski since his childhood, when a friend of his mother’s returned to Tulsa, Okla., with films of him visiting those sites.

And now Kowalski had set his own eyes on these almost-mythical structures, discovering his fiery curiosity was not quenched – but stoked.

“I was amazed by the scale, the monumental presence and by the aesthetic quality of the buildings and the sculptures at these sites,” he says.

“But by the same token, what really made me interested in this was not simply looking at these purely as aesthetic arrangements of form but trying to figure out what they meant. They had spent so much time and labor on them. I wanted to know what message were they trying to convey to themselves but, beyond that, I wanted to find it myself.”

Guided by the teaching of two art historian mentors, Esther Pasztory and George Kubler, he set out on a path of discovery.

Studies under Floyd Lounsbury, a noted linguist, anthropologist and Mayan scholar and epigrapher, helped Kowalski to decipher hieroglyphic inscriptions at Uxmal and to identify the name of an influential and powerful divine king who ruled from a major palace, today known as the “House of the Governor,” around 900 A.D.

His theories on what those pieces mean, contained in his doctoral dissertation and later published as “The House of the Governor, A Maya Palace at Uxmal, Yucatan, Mexico,” has shaped much of modern thought on pre-Columbian art and archeology.

“These were important breakthroughs because, up until that time, Uxmal’s rulers were essentially anonymous and its history was largely a blank,” says Virginia Miller, professor and director of undergraduate studies in the Department of Art History at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “Even now, 20 years later, more experienced epigraphers have not added much to our knowledge of Uxmal’s dates and dynasty, so Jeff’s decipherments still retain their original value.”

Kowalski joined the NIU School of Art in 1982 and led the art history division from 1996 to 2004.

Colleagues here and elsewhere consider him ambitious, generous, modest, reliable and “one of the most important scholars of his generation of art historians.”

In 1988 and ’89, Kowalski was awarded a J. Paul Getty Foundation grant to conduct research at Uxmal. He researched and interpreted architectural sculptures at the Nunnery Quadrangle there.

In 1992, the National Geographic Society funded Kowalski’s collaboration with Alfredo Barrera Rubio, director of the Centro Regional de Yucatan, to excavate a round temple structure at Uxmal.

Kowalski edited and collaboratively contributed chapters on Teotijuacan, Xochicalco and Uxmal to the 1999 book, “Mesoamerica Architecture as a Cultural Symbol.”

In 2007, he co-edited “Twin Tollans: Chichén Itzá, Tula, and the Epiclassic to Early Postclassic Mesoamerican World,” a book of new insights into the special relationship between these two major pre-Columbian capitals.

Last fall, he was co-curator of “Crafting Maya Identity: Contemporary Wood Sculptures from the Puuc Region of Yucatán, Mexico.”

“There is not the slightest doubt that Jeff is the world’s leading authority on the imagery, writing and architecture of the zone,” said Stephen Houston, Dupee Family Professor of Social Sciences in the Department of Anthropology at Brown University and MacArthur Foundation fellow, “and the person that the rest of us turn to for guidance and insight.”

The power of poetry

Amy Newman

In the mid-1980s, Amy Newman, not far removed from college, worked as a well-paid fashion stylist in New York, purchasing clothes for TV-commercial actors. During a break at a job one day, she flipped through a literary magazine and came upon a work by contemporary poet Stanley Plumly.

She read the poem, titled “In Passing,” and her life’s direction took an abrupt turn.

“I felt everything inessential in my life at that time fade away and something else beckon,” she says, adding that she began investigating graduate school that very day. “Something happened that made me realize how significant it was to write.”

As a result, the world of contemporary poetry is a more brilliant, intriguing place.

“Professor Newman is, I believe, one of the most gifted and original poets writing in America today,” says poet Martha Collins, distinguished visiting writer at Cornell University. “She seems to have an endless capacity for discovering new avenues for exploration.”

Newman’s poetry has won critical praise, national prizes and international attention. Her publishing efforts have been prolific, with three books of poetry, an additional 200 poems, numerous scholarly essays and several chapbooks.

Her works appear in prestigious anthologies, have been translated into foreign languages and are finding large audiences. In 2006, she served as the Virtual Poet-in-Residence for the London Guardian, an international newspaper. More recently she founded an international online journal of artists’ work, “Ancora Imparo.”

The 15-year veteran NIU English professor thinks of herself first as a teacher. Indeed, she was honored with the university’s Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching Award, and her presence within the English department has revitalized students’ interest in the poetic form.

But she was first a poet. Even as a child, Newman was captivated by language. At age 6, she wrote her first poem (which her father framed) about an electric light bulb. That work now seems prophetic; a common theme in her writing today is the parallel investigations of art and science into the nature of reality.

“I am attracted to the private discipline of studying the world with language,” Newman says. “I love its expression of the human experience, what A. R. Ammons calls its ‘verbal means to a nonverbal source.’ The scientists and artists that I write about are interested in the nature of reality, always trying to understand the world as it flexes around them, and that fascinates me.”

Her first book, “Order, or Disorder” (1995), addressed the difficulties of using language to apprehend existence. Her second book, “Camera Lyrica” (1999), examined the paradox of representation in terms of painting and the natural sciences. Her third book, “fall” (2004), explored the 72 definitions of the title word, with each definition engendering its own poem. The poems span a narrative drama – from the creation of the world and the subsequent exile of its first inhabitants, through the downward movement of the human body in its surrender to illness, to the beauty in the descent of spent foliage in autumn.

“Newman writes with the deepest passion and intellectual bearing,” says poet and poetry critic David Baker, chair of creative writing at Denison University in Ohio. “It’s as though her poems are capable of carrying on many forms of discourse at once – from the lyric to the confession, from the cultural critique to the postmodern deconstruction.

“She is crafting a spacious, probing and brilliant textual poetry unlike anyone else.” 

Amy Newman on the Web:

The small frontier

Zhili Xiao

Like early American pioneers or modern-day astronauts, physicist Zhili Xiao is an explorer of a new frontier.

But instead of traveling to distant vistas, Xiao is surveying mysterious uncharted territory that is all around us, invisible to all but the scientists who use special high powered instruments to probe its landscape.

Xiao is making major strides in nanoscience, a field that many expect to spur the next technological revolution. Its researchers explore how the universe operates at its most fundamental levels and develop materials, electronics and machines so small they approach atomic scale. These tiny devices are made of components no bigger than 100 nanometers. By comparison, the diameter of a single strand of human hair is about 1,000 times bigger.

“Nanoscience is relatively new, which is why I chose to pursue this research area,” says Xiao, whose talents in physics blossomed during high school in his native China.

“I love the challenge of testing new ideas,” he adds. “The properties of materials change when reduced to the nanoscale, so we have much to learn and discover. These discoveries will lay the foundation for future inventions.”

Xiao holds a joint appointment between NIU and Argonne National Laboratory. He has developed ways to create specifically shaped nanoparticles, nanowires and nanoribbons, documenting their magnetic and superconducting properties and potential functions. In future nanodevices, for example, superconducting nanowires could be used as interconnects to circumvent damaging heat produced by energy dissipation.

Xiao’s research attracts top students and has led to frequently cited publications in prestigious journals, such as Nature and Physical Review Letters. He serves as an associate editor for the Journal of Nanomaterials, and his leadership in the field also is evident in the funding he receives.

From 2006 to 2009, he attracted more than $1 million in grants to NIU from the likes of the U.S. Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation and the Toyota InfoTechnology Center USA.

“Professor Xiao is really special,” says Clyde Kimball, Distinguished Research Professor of physics at NIU. “He was among the first scientists to synthesize nanoparticles at given sizes and shapes. That’s important because the shape determines the confinement on the moving electrons, which dictates chemical and mechanical behavior.

“Zhili has made major and unique contributions,” he adds. “His excellence in scholarship has not only been achieved in basic science but also in applied research.”

Xiao came to NIU in 2004. Less than two years later, R&D Magazine named an ultra-fast hydrogen sensor developed by his research team at Argonne as one of the world’s top 100 scientific and technological innovations of 2005.

Based on nanotechnology, the sensors could be made smaller than a grain of sand and will greatly increase safety for future hydrogen-powered vehicles. Highly flammable hydrogen gas cannot be odorized like natural gas and takes tens to hundreds of seconds to detect by other more expensive methods. The new sensor detects hydrogen in less than one-tenth of a second and at low-enough levels to allow closing of safety valves before dangerous concentrations are reached.

Xiao intends soon to expand his horizons, pursuing solar-energy conversion and ways to convert greenhouse gases to useful materials, such as carbon nanotubes. His versatility and creativity are among the reasons that Michael Pellin, director of Argonne’s Materials Science Division, calls Xiao a “world-class researcher.”

“Zhili is and will continue to be a powerful researcher,” Pellin says. “He is an enormously talented individual whose work has impacted a remarkably wide range of scientific endeavors.”