College of Arts & Science Welcomes New Faculty
Assistant Professor of Biological Sciences
Ruthie Angelovici introduces people to her research by narrating a PowerPoint presentation she has put together to explain her work. In the slide show, she uses the analogy of Kal El, later to become Superman, escaping from Krypton in a small, one-person spaceship that has food and other necessities to nourish the child as he speeds to Earth moments before the planet explodes. That spaceship, Angelovici says, is similar to the seeds she studies. Seeds are just embryonic plants with a protective outer layer.
“I think seeds are so special because they can wait a very long time to germinate,” she says. ”The embryo has a lot of sophisticated metabolic mechanisms that allow a seed to survive a long time and then still have the ability to germinate.” She notes the oldest Judean date palm in the world in Israel came from a seed that had been in the ground 2,000 years before scientists managed to revive it.
Angelovici joined the Division of Biological Sciences as an assistant professor this fall and says her research will investigate the genetic and metabolic basis of amino acid metabolism in seeds.
“I’m searching for the regulatory mechanism controlling amino acid in seeds, which are part of a more complex system,” she says. “Amino acids are the building blocks for proteins. Amino acids are important for plants but also for us in terms of consumption.”
The problem, she says, is that major staple food crops such as rice, maize, and wheat, which comprise 70 percent of human food consumption, are deficient in essential amino acids—those that are necessary for human and animal health.
“If we eat something that doesn’t have this healthy balance, basically we can eat all we want, but we will not be healthy,” she says. “It would be like eating chocolate all the time.”
Angelovici says her research will investigate methods to increase the amount of essential amino acids in food stocks such as corn and soybeans, either through classical breeding techniques or via a transgenic breeding system in which the plant genome is altered by the transfer of a gene or genes from another plant. She says scientists have encountered challenges in manipulating the metabolic pathways of amino acids without impacting the health of the plant or the seed yield. Angelovici also wants to make the plants more tolerant of stresses like heat and drought without compromising the amount of essential amino acids.
“What I am looking to do is to unravel the genetic and metabolic mechanisms that are behind amino acids’ natural variation in order to find genes that would allow us to improve—genetically—our crop seeds,” she says.
Angelovici says she originally wanted to be a veterinarian and worked as an assistant vet during her undergraduate years but says she could not stand to see animals suffer.
“Plants have fascinated me forever, and then I started getting involved in plant genetics, and it was amazing,” she says. “Plants are very good models to work with, and people, in general, don’t realize how important plants are to our everyday lives. Corn, for example, is in everything—even in your toothpaste. This work fills me with a purpose in that if we succeed, we might make an impact on some food product.”
Associate Professor of Chemistry
For Associate Professor Wesley Bernskoetter, moving to Columbia and accepting a position with the University of Missouri Department of Chemistry has been a homecoming. Bernskoetter and his wife, Stephanie, grew up in central Missouri near Jefferson City and both still have family in the area.
Bernskoetter served as the Manning Chaired Assistant Professor of Chemistry at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island before accepting the position at MU. He says his work at MU will be a continuation of his work at Brown, at least initially.
“What we try to do is to find ways to utilize abundant and cheap sustainable resources—mostly carbon resources—and find ways to use those in making commodity chemicals or products that we use now, such as plastics,” Bernskoetter says. What he and his team are trying to develop are catalysts that will turn carbon dioxide into chemical precursors of plastic. These precursor chemicals also are used to make fiber and fabrics, and diapers and other absorbent materials.
Bernskoetter’s work has both economic and environmental benefits. Finding a cheap, renewable, and abundant source of precursor chemicals for plastic, such as carbon dioxide, could replace the use of more expensive, non-renewable petroleum products used to make plastics now. And removing some of the overly abundant CO2 from the atmosphere could help improve the health of the planet. In fact, Bernskoetter is part of the Center for the Capture and Conversion of CO2, funded by the National Science Foundation and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.
Bernskoetter received his bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Benedictine College in Kansas and his doctorate from Cornell University. He was hired by Brown University after completing a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill. Although he enjoyed his time at Brown, Bernskoetter says it was always his desire to move back to Missouri. He and Stephanie have three children, ages 7, 5, and 3.
“I think this is a wonderful place to raise a family and live,” he says.
Assistant Professor of Roman Art and Archaeology
Marcello Mogetta moved to Columbia, Missouri, from Berlin, Germany, where he was serving a research appointment at the Freie Universitat Berlin. The project he proposed that led to his appointment was linked to the archaeological excavation he leads in collaboration with the University of Michigan at Gabii, an early urban center near Rome. His research focuses on the formation of city-states in central Italy.
“My personal interest is the development of the city as an institution—that’s the basic element in terms of community organization,” Mogetta says. “I am interested in political action in general, and the Roman case is a particularly well-documented ancient example of how communities should organize and interact.”
Mogetta, managing director of the Gabii Project, says the ancient city of Gabii emerged around the same time Rome was founded but was later abandoned because it was so close to Rome. He says the wealthy elites of that period preferred to live in Rome, which had become the center of politics and culture. Mogetta says it is difficult to conduct archaeological research in Rome because development has occurred on top of development, century after century, essentially creating layer upon layer of civilization. In order to reach the early levels where city formation began in Rome, he says archaeologists can only open an excavation the size of a phone booth. Since Gabii was eventually abandoned, however, Mogetta says it is much easier to excavate. He calls the Gabii Project a “big dig” that is already in its eighth year and could continue for years, providing a training ground for archaeologists specializing in Roman civilization.
Another major field of Mogetta’s research is the emergence of a distinctive Roman material culture in the period of Rome’s early imperial expansion. His dissertation examined the origins of concrete architecture in Rome and Pompeii, and he is writing a book challenging the accepted dating and social context of early concrete building. He says the Romans invented concrete, but the technology was lost until the early 1800s when Portland Cement developed a similar process. “The Coliseum has been standing for 2,000 years and the foundation and structural skeleton are built with concrete, which is why the building is still standing,” he says.
Mogetta is the co-editor of the final reports from Gabii, and the first report is due in 2018. This report will be a peer-reviewed online publication that will use 3-D models and reconstructions with links to the digital database, allowing researchers to explore the excavation from the beginning and view it from all angles.
Mogetta says he already is impressed by the Midwestern hospitality he has experienced since moving to Missouri from Germany, and he and his wife look forward to becoming part of the community.
Assistant Professor of Statistics
Erin Schliep says she has always loved mathematics. The Rochester, Minnesota, native earned her bachelors’ degrees in math and accounting at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota, before enrolling at Colorado State University, where she received a master’s and a doctorate in statistics. While completing her graduate studies, Schliep worked as an accountant for the state of Minnesota but says she realized accounting was “a little bit too dry for me.”
“I knew I wanted to be on the math side, but I want to do applied mathematics and I saw statistics as an avenue to do that,” Schliep says. “I just fell in love with it as I went through school. I did a lot of collaborative and interdisciplinary research with ecologists, biologists, foresters, and others and enjoy the dynamic relationship with people across the university or with other agencies.”
Schliep joined the MU Department of Statistics this fall. She says she was drawn to MU because the statistics department is very strong in spatial and spatial–temporal modeling. Her doctoral dissertation at Colorado State University was titled, “Spatial Probit Models for Multivariate Ordinal Data.”
“There’s a signature program in spatial statistics here within the department, and there are a lot of people working on similar projects, so I’ll have some great collaborators, especially as someone entering the tenure-track faculty position,” Schliep says. “There are strong ties between the department and other programs on campus, such as agriculture, animal sciences, and biology for potential collaborations, which are similar to those I’ve been fostering at Duke and at Colorado State. It seemed like a good fit.”
Schliep says her interests are in Bayesian statistics with applications to environmental and ecological sciences. She says Bayesian statistics is another framework or another way of thinking about statistical modeling where processes are expressed probabilistically.
“One of the features of Bayesian modeling is that you can incorporate prior knowledge into your modeling analysis, so if you can incorporate something you know about biology, for instance, you might enhance your prediction,” she says.
When she’s not developing statistical models or collaborating with colleagues, Schliep can usually be found riding the trails around Columbia or running. “It’s kind of my thing,” she says.
Professor of Physics
David Singh is considered a world-class leader in the understanding of the electronic structure of new materials. Since 2004, Singh has worked at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where he was a Corporate Fellow and Group Leader. Prior to his work at Oak Ridge, Singh was a research physicist and section head at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C., for more than a decade. Although he has had access to the most sophisticated technology and the finest research facilities available, Singh says the thing he enjoys the most is collaborating with other scientists and researchers.
“For a scientist, it’s always about colleagues, people that you can talk with about science,” Singh says. “At Oak Ridge, like any national lab, there is a large collection of scientists who are relatively close in specialty, so there’s a community of people that you can go to if you hear some interesting results. I feel that science is about ideas–getting new ideas, discussing them with colleagues, and then doing some work to follow through on your ideas. Having no ideas is a really bad place to be.”
Singh joined the MU Department of Physics and Astronomy this fall and looks forward to collaborating with scientists and researchers in an academic setting.
“If I just look at my own specialty, there are fewer people, but if I look at it more broadly, there’s more diversity and more opportunities to try some things out of the box,” Singh says. “I’ve got a lot of stuff that I’m in the middle of doing, but I want to start some things and go in some different directions than I’ve been going in, and I think MU will be a good place to do that. I am very excited about the possibilities at MU.”
Singh says he is interested in the thermal properties of materials, an area of research where the theory is not as well developed as other properties, such as the strength of a material or whether it conducts electricity.
“I want to do some work pushing what we can do on coupling of heat to charge and just heat transport in general in materials,” Singh says. “It’s a good problem that has a lot of fundamental physics in it and also has a lot of applications. Another thing I’ve taken an interest in is hydrogen, especially the behavior of hydrogen in materials under very high pressure—not so much for applications—but the highest pressure people can achieve in the lab, and I think there’s some very interesting chemistry that people still have to sort out.”
Singh says he was given the option of not teaching for his first two semesters but says he is looking forward to teaching a couple of courses. In fact, his interest in teaching is evident from the number of postdoctoral fellows he has directed—17 so far.
Singh earned his bachelor’s degree and doctorate in physics from the University of Ottawa and was a postdoctoral fellow at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. He is a fellow of the American Physical Society with more than 480 scientific publications and more than 30,000 citations.
On his curriculum vitae, Singh lists his objective as “Pushing out at the forefront of science and enabling others to do the same.”
“I’ve kept that on my CV for 25 years because every time I look at it, I’m like, ‘Yeah, that’s what I want to do.’”