On Campus: Faculty News

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Hobgood-Oster Receives Biennial Finch Award

Laura Hobgood-Oster, professor of religion, received the William Carrington Finch Award at this year’s Commencement. The award, which carries a $5,000 prize, is presented every other year to a faculty member who demonstrates excellence in teaching, has made contributions to University leadership and has made contributions outside the classroom to the establishment and support of better community relationships.

Hobgood-Oster has been a member of the Southwestern faculty since 1998. She is chair of the Department of Religion and Philosophy and chair of the Environmental Studies Program. She also is co-chair of the committee charged with implementing the Talloires Declaration at Southwestern, which commits colleges and universities to environmental sustainability. Hobgood-Oster said she plans to use her award money to fund research for her new book, which will examine how contemporary Christians should respond to issues related to animals. Beyond her formal campus responsibilities, Hobgood-Oster devotes countless hours to fostering dogs and working with local animal shelters.

Andrew Loehman

ART OLYMPIAN: Visser has pioneered the use of rapid-prototyping in creating sculptural forms.

Professor’s Sculptures on Display at Beijing Olympics

Everyone knows the Olympics include numerous athletic competitions. Not as well known is the fact that the Olympics also include an artistic component and that many cultural events take place in conjunction with the games.

This year there will be two artistic exhibitions traveling around China in conjunction with the Olympic games in Beijing. The work of a Southwestern University faculty member will be featured in one of them.

Mary Visser, professor of art, was one of a group of artists worldwide selected to be included in an exhibition titled “e-form” that will be devoted to the relatively new art medium known as rapid prototyping. The exhibition will travel to the Beijing Today Art Museum in October, to the Shanghai Duolun Museum of Modern Art in November, and to a museum in the southern China city of Chongqing in December. Other artists featured in the exhibition are from England, New Zealand and France, as well as Arizona, California and New York.

Visser is one of a small group of sculptors who have pioneered the use of rapid prototyping in creating sculptural forms, in which three-dimensional models are constructed from computer-aided design (CAD) data. Her work has been included in more than 120 international, national and regional juried exhibitions, including the International Rapid Prototyping Sculpture Exhibition, which toured the United States and Europe from 2003 through 2006, and the annual INTERSCULPT competitive exhibitions held in Paris, France.

Visser will have two pieces included in the “e-form” exhibition. One, titled “The Jugglers,” is a group of figures 14 inches tall with a highly detailed colored surface pattern. This work will be constructed by Axiatec in Paris, France. Axiatec is one of only a few places in the world that have the capability to output rapid prototyped works with full detailed color patterns.

The second piece is a gold-plated piece called “Women in Movement” that Visser designed specifically to pay homage to women’s participation in the Olympics. It is 25 inches tall and features 20 figures of female athletes on five levels. The four figures on each level are joined by a ball.

“The work demonstrates the sense of strategy, support, physical endurance, strength, stamina, grace and agility women athletes have shown in their pursuit of excellence in sports,” Visser says.

Visser spent her spring break refining the piece on her computer. It will be built in Austin at a company called ATI Accelerated Technologies, and will be made of polycarbonate/ABS resin-based powder and glass before being metal plated.

Visser’s works have always focused on women’s contributions to society, so she said the opportunity to produce some pieces for the cultural activities surrounding the Olympic games was perfect for her.

Visser says rapid prototyping allows her to produce very intricate and finely detailed works that would not be possible to construct in any other medium. “I like the idea that this medium allows me unlimited possibilities for designing a work. This truly opens up the role of the artist. You can create interlocking figures with very delicate gestures that you cannot make in other mediums,” she says.

Visser says she is still undecided on whether she will go to China to see her work exhibited.

“Right now I’m just focusing on getting the pieces made,” she says.

Computer Cluster Will Let People Around the World Help with Research Projects at Southwestern

In the not-too-distant future, people around the world will be able to help with research projects at Southwestern University.

This summer, two Southwestern professors began setting up a computer “cluster” that will enable people to contribute unused computer time to university research projects. Steve Alexander, associate professor of physics, and Walt Potter, professor of math and computer science, received $22,000 from Southwestern’s Fleming Collaborative Research and Creative Activity Program to support the project.

Anyone interested in donating their unused computer time to Southwestern will just need to go to a Web site to download the necessary software. The software, known as BOINC, was developed by a team based at the Space Sciences Laboratory at the University of California at Berkeley to help researchers in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. Since then, other researchers have used computer clusters running on this software to study everything from climate change to cures for different diseases. Several Web sites, including the BOINC home page (boinc.berkeley.edu) post opportunities for the public to participate in these so-called distributed, or grid, computing projects.

“There are thousands of people out there who are interested in these type of projects,” Potter says.

This summer, Alexander and Potter started the computer cluster by connecting computers on campus. “Many of the computers on campus aren’t being used all the time,” Alexander says. “When these computers are idle, their cycles are essentially going to waste. We’re hoping to extract useful work out of these otherwise unused cycles.”

Computers in the cluster will connect to a server in Mood-Bridwell Hall that Alexander and Potter have named “sylow” in honor of a Norwegian mathematician who proved foundational results in group theory.

Once they have made sure the system works, they will open the project to alumni and anyone else who wants to participate. They hope to eventually get several thousand computers connected to the cluster.

“Anyone in the world will be able to help us with our research,” Alexander says.

Last summer, Alexander and Potter put together a test cluster that harnessed the power of 50 computers. Alexander used this computing power to help calculate the properties of several molecules.

“I would not have been able to do that research without the computer cluster,” he says. “It would have taken years on a single fast computer.”

Five Southwestern students assisted with the project over the summer: Amanda Jefferies, a sophomore who is interested in engineering; Sean Watson, a junior who is interested in business and physics; Tommy Rogers, a junior majoring in computer science and math; Matt Vaugh, a senior majoring in computer science; and Chris Elliott, a senior majoring in physics and computer science.

One of the first projects Alexander and Potter plan to use the computer cluster for is one in which they will try to find organic molecules that interact with light in a very precisely defined manner. These molecules could potentially be used in a variety of industrial applications such as telecommunications and high-speed computing. “Molecules with high non-linear optical properties act as amplifiers,” Alexander explains. When a small amount of light hits them, it produces a big change. This change could be used to store data or to process data, depending on the device.”

To find the molecules, Alexander will use artificial intelligence techniques that are based on algorithms he has written. “By using a process called evolutionary computing we can measure molecules to see how fit they are and if they are a good fit, they continue to the next generation,” he says. “This process will guide us to those molecules that have the properties we are interested in.”

Once the computer cluster at Southwestern is developed, it will be available to any faculty members on campus who need large amounts of computer time for their research. More than one person will be able to use the system at a time.

Martin Gonzalez, associate professor of biology, says he could use the computing power to help with his research, which involves trying to mimic how proteins fold and interact with each other.

“You can model this on a computer, but it has to be a very powerful computer,” he says.

While many large research universities have set up computer clusters, Alexander says there are no other schools of Southwestern’s size that have them.

“Basically what we are doing is setting up a supercomputer on campus, except it won’t cost us anything once it is up and running,” Potter says. He notes that the students involved with the project will be learning a very practical skill.

“Grid computing is very popular in the real world,” he says. “This is definitely a growing field.”

Lucas Adams

Hilliard Retiring After 34 Years

Dan Hilliard, professor of sociology, retired this year after being a member of the Southwestern faculty since 1974. He was recognized at the 2008 Commencement ceremony with a standing ovation.