Faculty Focus: Spring 2016
Newly-tenured professors broaden scope of academic research
By Alexandra Erath, A16
Every day, an astounding variety of research is conducted across more than forty departments and programs at Tufts, where faculty members are continually expanding the frontiers of intellectual exploration. Three newly-tenured professors, Peter Love of the Department of Physics and Astronomy; Moon Duchin of the Department of Mathematics and director of the Science, Technology, and Society program; and Amahl Bishara of the Department of Anthropology are pushing the definition of research even further and making strides in their respective fields.
Associate Professor Peter Love
Associate Professor of Physics Peter Love recently joined the Tufts faculty, although this is not his first stint on the Medford/Somerville campus. Love held a postdoctoral position at Tufts in the early 2000s, and returned as a professor this year from a faculty position at Haverford College. His primary research interest is quantum information, a relatively young branch of physics that unites quantum physics, information theory, and computer science.
Yet Love shies away from the label "computational scientist." "What gets called 'computational physics' is changing drastically," he explains. "At every level, people are able to use more powerful computational tools, so in that way many physicists do work closely with computers." However, Love primarily practices theoretical physics, a field that he is certain will never turn entirely computational.
According to Love, there has never been a more exciting time to be researching quantum physics. "We've now moved into technology, into trying to apply quantum mechanics to computation," he says. "For example, if you were able to build a computer that used laws of atomic physics, rather than Newtonian laws, it would be able to solve certain computational problems much faster."
Similarly, theoretical research is being conducted just a few buildings away by Associate Professor of Mathematics Moon Duchin, who is investigating geometric group theory, a subfield of pure mathematics. While her field is likely to have many applications, Duchin's work is on a completely abstract level.
Associate Professor Moon Duchin
Duchin breaks down her research for the uninitiated: she describes a "group" as a structure in which there is a rule telling you how to combine two things, such as addition of numbers or multiplication of matrices. "You then can graph the network of combinations and use that graph to keep track of the overall structure," she explains. "Geometric group theory allows you to turn algebraic structures into something you can see. Eventually, you end up with a way of managing geometry at such a large scale that it is equipped to handle even infinite groups, and you can ask questions about the curvature of a group."
Although pure mathematical research does not always lend itself to equal collaboration with undergraduates, Duchin enjoys both teaching and mentoring. A few summers ago, she received a significant research grant from the National Science Foundation which allowed her to bring a dozen mathematicians from all over the world—undergraduates, graduate students, and professors—to Tufts to collaborate during the summer.
Additionally, she is the director of the new Science, Technology, and Society program (STS), which began offering a major and a minor this spring, focused on the human dimensions of science. For her part, Duchin is excited about the incredibly high level of interdisciplinary collaboration on which the STS program depends. The STS-affiliated faculty is drawn from a wide variety of departments and programs, ranging from physics and community health to classics, anthropology, and music.
"We've got all of these brilliant people here at Tufts, and we're looking to create spaces for them to talk to each other, to work with each other," she says of the STS program. "We're building the sort of community where cross-cutting faculty research and teaching will create amazing intellectual opportunities for students."
Associate Professor Amahl Bishara
(photo by Kathleen Dooher)
Associate Professor of Anthropology Amahl Bishara, another newly-tenured faculty member expanding and broadening the definition of research at Tufts, teaches Media, the State and the Senses, a seminar in the new STS program that examines social practices of media production, circulation, and reception. Bishara is particularly interested in media and journalism, especially as they relate to the Middle East, and distills her research into two topics: study of media and democracy in the Middle East, and the production of United States news in the Palestinian West Bank.
Examining barriers to interaction between Palestinian citizens of Israel and Palestinians in the West Bank "allows me to explore the foundations of political expression in these two communities and raises fundamental questions about the public sphere," explains Bishara. Her research has also focused on popular politics in a refugee camp in the West Bank. "These refugees live under Israeli occupation, under Palestinian Authority administration, and also receive some services and governance from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, so they struggle to create a political space that is somewhat independent from all of these spheres."
Bishara is currently writing two books on these topics, but has also worked with other forms of expression. In 2010, she and her husband produced a documentary, Degrees of Incarceration, which explores how a Palestinian community responds to the crisis of political incarceration. "The film allowed me to learn so much about the effect of political imprisonment on the lives of people in a particular Palestinian community," she says. "Documentaries can also illuminate vitality, humor, and play. People are surprised to find resilience and laughter."
While her documentary may not appear to fit the mold of traditional research, Bishara notes that the Tufts community is open to all sorts of intellectual exploration. "I am grateful to have colleagues who value creativity and who recognize the contribution that documentaries and other forms of nontraditional academic production can make," she says. "I believe in public anthropology as a way to both strengthen the public profile of anthropology and also bring a greater variety of ideas and perspectives into our public sphere."