Take a Chair: A new $30 million investment to support faculty could lead to innovations that will save your life and shape the world’s future

By Michael Blanding and Ryan Underwood, BA’96
WAYNE BREZINKA

WAYNE BREZINKA

 

To the average person, an endowed chair may seem like some academic oddity that has little relevance to everyday life. In some ways it is. It denotes the highest rank a professor can achieve and is reserved only for faculty members who have reached the pinnacle of their disciplines. Underneath that academic lexicon, though, are many of the world’s top researchers who have devoted their careers to answering some of life’s biggest questions.

Endowed chairs also pay tribute to those for whom they are named. As Chancellor Nicholas S. Zeppos puts it, “Endowed faculty chairs are a personal and permanent bond between the university and those who love it.” Endowed chairs symbolize an unwavering institutional and philanthropic commitment to enhancing society through discovery and scholarship.

Whether it’s a breakthrough in the basic sciences or reshaping some fundamental cultural understanding, those who hold endowed chairs are the ones developing the very kernels of knowledge that will shape the future of our world.

In August, Zeppos issued a call for alumni and Vanderbilt supporters to help the university create 30 new endowed chairs across the university’s 10 schools. The Chancellor’s Chair Challenge pledges a million-dollar match from the university’s endowment for each chair gift of $1 million or more made by June 30, 2018.

“Our faculty, through their research and discovery, are the engine that drives innovation. They are truly the lifeblood of Vanderbilt,” Zeppos said during the announcement. “Investing in our faculty will continue to provide rich, lasting dividends. These new endowed chairs will enhance our ability to recruit and retain faculty members with remarkable scholarship—those who lead us to transformational discoveries, those who teach our students to lead.”

In 2010, Zeppos announced an initiative to expand the number of endowed chairs as a way to attract and retain the very best scholars. Since then the number of endowed chairs at Vanderbilt has grown to 420. The Chancellor’s Chair Challenge will further that initiative.

Already, alumni have begun to respond to the challenge. A gift from Theresa L. Reder and Robert S. Reder, JD’78—who retired from a 33-year career in corporate law in 2011 but continues to serve as professor of the practice of law at Vanderbilt Law School—has established the Enterprise Chair at the school. And a gift from Jennifer Hoine and Andrew Hoine, BA’96, a co-portfolio manager and director of research at investment firm Paulson & Co., has named a chair in economics at the College of Arts and Science.

In this feature, Vanderbilt Magazine highlights just a few of the wide-ranging research endeavors being undertaken by the university’s current chair holders—from the creation of low-cost, potentially lifesaving materials that can warn of structural failures to discoveries explaining the mechanisms of addiction.


Jonathan M. Metzl | Frederick B. Rentschler II Chair in Sociology

A Saner Path to Gun Policy

Jonathan-Metzl

PHOTO BY JOHN RUSSELL

When the news broke in October that a gunman in Las Vegas had killed 58 people and wounded nearly 500 more at an outdoor concert—the worst mass shooting in American history—Jonathan Metzl braced himself for the inevitable question: Was the shooter insane?

As one of the nation’s foremost experts on gun violence, Metzl has been fielding versions of this question for much of the past decade whenever a mass-murder incident involves firearms. “As a psychiatrist I very often get asked: Is this person mentally ill? Are they insane? Are they schizophrenic, or severely depressed?” he says.

“It’s beyond comprehension that someone would commit mass murder on such a scale. But the relationship between that horrific act and mental illness is far more complicated than it might seem.”

Metzl often is called upon by the media to debunk commonly held misbeliefs about violence and mental illness that have more to do with cultural stereotypes and preconceptions than they do with reality. As both a Vanderbilt professor and research director for the nonpartisan Safe Tennessee Project, he has a unique platform through which to put his findings into action.

A mass shooting like the one in Vegas, Metzl says, opens the possibility of many causes. “Certainly, we want to know what would lead someone to kill in cold blood,” he says. “But while questions of individual psychology often are the first ones we ask, we need at some point to step back and address larger social issues such as gun policy, access to firearms, politics, and even larger cultural scripts about race.”

After all, when an incident of mass violence involves a person of color, politicians and media commentators are quick to blame radical Islamic terrorism or other violent ideologies. When the shooter is white, they are much more likely to blame mental illness, as President Trump did when he called the shooter, Stephen Paddock, “a very sick man” and a “very demented person” before the facts had come in.

“When perpetrators of violence are people of color, journalists, politicians and many citizens treat their violence as natural, expected. But when shooters are white men who kill white victims, politicians like Trump, and indeed many other facets of white America, reach for the notion of an unstable, angry, isolated person driven to mass murder,” Metzl wrote in a recent Washington Post editorial.

Metzl has spent his career investigating the structural inequities that lead to different health outcomes in the United States. He investigated similar claims of mental health issues involving African American protesters in the 1960s and 1970s, culminating in his pathbreaking 2010 book, The Protest Psychosis: How Schizophrenia Became a Black Disease (Beacon).

Several years ago Metzl collaborated with Vanderbilt colleague Kenneth MacLeish, assistant professor of medicine, health and society, in analyzing decades of research on gun violence and mental illness, and found surprisingly little correlation—with only 3 to 5 percent of American gun crimes involving “mentally ill shooters,” a percentage far lower than for people deemed sane.

While mental illness sometimes can be a factor, especially in mass killings, rarely is it the whole story. When translated into public policy, laws that focus on stopping mentally ill shooters could be at best a waste of energy, or at worst counterproductive, if not linked to other common-sense interventions, Metzl says. In most of the 32,000 annual gun deaths in the U.S., substance abuse, interpersonal conflicts, and past history of violence are much greater risk factors.

“It’s not like it’s a big mystery,” Metzl says. “Mass shootings are very difficult to foretell, but everyday shootings often follow more predictable social patterns linked to access, policy and context, as well as to the past histories of high-risk individuals.”

Through his work with Safe Tennessee, Metzl has tried to find a middle ground in the gun-control debate, supporting gun rights while at the same time advocating for the closing of gun-show loopholes, requiring of background checks on gun sales, and the banning of tools that allow semiautomatic weapons to be converted into automatic weapons, as in the Vegas attack.

“Do we really want to make it as easy as it is for individual citizens to amass arsenals or inflict mass casualties?” he asks. “Every country has people who are imbalanced, but no country has the level of gun violence and death that we do. It’s beyond time that we come together to find centrist solutions rather than continually talking past each other.”

The Frederick B. Rentschler II Chair was created in 2010 from the growth in funds supporting the Nelson O. Tyrone Jr. Chair in American History, established in 1995 by Frederick B. Rentschler II, BA’61. A longtime Vanderbilt supporter and volunteer, Rentschler was elected to the Vanderbilt University Board of Trust in 2003 and served until his death in 2010.


Anita Mahadevan-Jansen | Orrin H. Ingram Chair in Biomedical Engineering

Anita Mahadevan-Jansen, who has a joint appointment as a professor of neurological surgery, is at the forefront of biomedical photonics—the application of light in medicine and biology. She is founding director of the university’s Biophotonics Center, a state-of-the-art laser laboratory that serves as a hub of cross-disciplinary study at Vanderbilt. Ongoing research there covers three main areas: cancer treatment and detection, neurosurgery and nanotechnology.

Mahadevan-Jansen’s recent research includes development of the first sensor capable of objectively identifying inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and distinguishing between its two subtypes. The sensor is designed as a minimally invasive probe that easily can be integrated into a routine colonoscopy exam. The research represents a substantial achievement toward a more personalized approach to diagnosing and treating IBD, a chronic inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract affecting more than 1 million Americans.

Mahadevan-Jansen also is leading one of the university’s Trans-Institutional Programs to develop next-generation microscopes that exceed the limits of what is available commercially. The project, which includes faculty from the School of Medicine and the College of Arts and Science, aims to identify tools that allow scientists to diagnose serious health conditions more quickly.

The Orrin H. Ingram Chair in Engineering was created in 2011 from the growth in funds that support the original Orrin H. Ingram Chair in Engineering. That chair was established in 1964 by the Ingram family to honor the memory of businessman, civic leader and philanthropist Orrin Henry “Hank” Ingram. His son, E. Bronson Ingram, served the Vanderbilt University Board of Trust for nearly three decades and led the board from 1991 to 1995.


Velma McBride Murry | Lois Autrey Betts Chair in Education and Human Development

Technology for a Better Home Life

PHOTO BY SUSAN URMY

PHOTO BY SUSAN URMY

In the half-century since Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, African Americans have made great strides in achieving equality, with the number of black elected officials growing from 100 to 10,000 and the number of black households earning $100,000 a year or more increasing fivefold. The average black family, however, continues to lag behind their white counterparts, with median household wealth for whites 10 times that of blacks, and African American children suffering from poorer-quality schools, malnutrition, and chronic illnesses like asthma.

“Despite the progress made in many arenas of life, African Americans are still burdened by the legacy of slavery, segregation and discrimination,” Velma McBride Murry concludes, based on data she compiled for a report for the Council on Contemporary Families. Rather than dwell on those burdens, however, Murry has focused her research for the past 20 years on what some black families are doing right—and how those lessons can be used to overcome the challenges they face.

“I look at ways in which, though raising families in dire circumstances, parents are able to navigate those difficult circumstances despite the odds,” she says.

Since 1995, Murry has followed the lives of more than 900 African American families in rural Georgia who deal with extreme poverty and physical isolation to examine what makes them resilient. She has found that those children who do well have advantages in common, including a wider support network of adults through a community focal point, such as a church, and parents who talk frankly about risky behaviors like drinking, smoking and sex.

In addition, she’s discovered the importance of parents’ talking to their children about the racial biases they are likely to confront, while at the same time fostering a sense of racial pride. “It’s a balance of talking about the problems you will face based on what you look like, and feeling proud of the fact you are from this strong heritage,” she says.

Murry has taken those lessons to heart in designing interventions to help African American youth develop better abilities to cope, a project she calls Strong African American Families (SAAF, pronounced “safe”). In one program in rural Georgia, for example, 11-year-old boys attended with their families seven sessions designed to deter alcohol use. Five years later they reported drinking half as much as their peers.

Other programs have focused on improvement of parenting techniques for families. After parents took a class on better parenting, the amount of interpersonal conflict at home and depressive symptoms in children decreased, according to one study. Other research shows that more supportive parenting has been linked with greater confidence and decreased smoking.

More recently, Murry has pioneered a new study called the Path- ways to African American Success, which adapts some of the findings from her research into an interactive digital platform to help increase the number of families who can benefit from these techniques. Murry came up with the idea while visiting her sister and observing how engaged her brother-in-law and his adolescent son were with each other when playing a video game together. “They barely grunted at each other otherwise,” she says.

In a recent head-to-head study involving 400 families, she found that the digital platform was actually more successful than the classroom-based interventions, leading to more direct behavioral change among youth. “In a group setting, you never know when someone is daydreaming or distracted,” she says. “The technology requires the user to be attentive, so adherence is much greater.”

Murry is currently working to expand the program to more families across rural Tennessee, and at the same time she is exploring new ways of measuring its impact. Along with former Vanderbilt psychiatry professor Uma Rao—now at the University of California, Irvine—Murry just received a $3.8 million grant to measure the neurological impact of her interventions by exposing Los Angeles–based youth to an fMRI exam before and after a six-week program to see how the reactivity of their brains has changed. Based on those results she anticipates being able to better custom-design interventions for young people according to their brain profiles.

“Just as doctors are now practicing precision medicine, we can start doing precision preventative interventions,” she says. Through such techniques she hopes to have even more impact on closing the gap for African Americans, bringing the dream of civil rights closer within reach. “Beyond the research and publications,” she says, “we are doing things to really change the everyday life experience of families.”

The Lois Autrey Betts Chair in Education and Human Development was created in 1998 through a bequest from Robert Edward Betts, BLS’43, to provide faculty support at Peabody College. This fund was established in honor of the donor’s mother, Lois Autrey Betts.


Sheila Ridner | Martha Rivers Ingram Chair in Nursing

Sheila Ridner, MSN’00, PhD’03, was inducted into the International Nurse Researcher Hall of Fame in July for her pioneering work on lymphedema—a painful and sometimes dangerous swelling caused by retained fluid in the lymphatic system after cancer treatment. Her research, which focuses on early detection and self-care, has led to worldwide standards of care for the more than 140 million lymphedema patients across the globe.

The principal investigator on several active studies, Ridner has received more than $14 million in research grants from the National Institutes of Health, American Cancer Society, Vanderbilt, and medical-device manufacturers Tactile Medical and ImpediMed.

Ridner serves as director of the School of Nursing’s Ph.D. in Nursing Science program and is known for her mentorship of other nurse-researchers, several of whom also have pursued groundbreaking work in lymphedema management. She is a member of the Vanderbilt–Ingram Cancer Center’s Scientific Review Committee.

The Martha Rivers Ingram Chair in Nursing was created in 2005 to support a faculty member in the School of Nursing. A nationally prominent philanthropist and supporter of education, Ingram served as chairman of Vanderbilt’s Board of Trust from 1999 to 2011 and is now chairman emerita.


Sandra Rosenthal | Jack and Pamela Egan Chair in Chemistry

Shedding New Light on Nanotech

PHOTO BY DANIEL DUBOIS

PHOTO BY DANIEL DUBOIS

Sandra Rosenthal studies some of the smallest materials known to exist anywhere. Yet the implications of her work are massive.

Working with nanocrystals—crystalline structures that are 10,000 times smaller than a single strand of human hair—Rosenthal’s lab has found ways to improve light absorption in solar panels, create fluorescent biological markers for drug discovery, and improve efficiency in LED lighting.

“The fundamental thing that makes nanoscience interesting is that when you fabricate a material on the nanoscale, new properties are discovered all the time,” she explains. “These new properties open up myriad possibilities for potential applications.”

The optical properties and electronic structure of nanocrystals can be precisely tuned by controlling their size. Rosenthal’s work explores two distinct uses of these novel materials: harvesting light in photovoltaic devices such as solar cells, and drawing on their capability to emit fluorescent light without degrading.

Compared to silicon-based solar panels—which are manufactured in the same, costly way as computer semiconductors—ultrathin nanomaterials offer a way to boost energy absorption dramatically while lowering production expenses and environmental impact. “The photovoltaic devices we make in our laboratory eventually could be fabricated inexpensively at low temperatures and could cover large areas,” Rosenthal says.

Another key area of Rosenthal’s research is in the biological sciences. She has pioneered a method using tiny fluorescent markers to track an individual protein that regulates the neurotransmitter serotonin. The result of nearly a decade of work, the achievement allows scientists to investigate the mechanisms involved in mood, appetite and sleep.

“If you are interested in mental health, then serotonin transporters are an ideal subject,” Rosenthal says. In addition to opening up new avenues for the treatment of depression, research into serotonin transporters could lead to better treatment solutions for patients with autism as well.

The same light-emitting nanocrystals at play in Rosenthal’s biological research also may help significantly reduce energy consumption in solid-state lighting applications—a shift that could cut global energy use in half. Her research has shown that white-light quantum dots, ultrasmall fluorescent beads of cadmium selenide, can convert the blue light produced by an LED into a warm white light with a spectrum similar to that of incandescent light, sidestepping many of the limitations of current LEDs.

These nanoparticles may even help create more effective lasers. In March researchers announced the development of a new kind of “flying saucer” quantum dot that could help improve laser technology, in turn leading to innovations in biology, medical diagnosis and video displays. A Vanderbilt research team led by Rosenthal worked with a group from the University of Toronto to design and test the new quantum dots. “This is very exciting research,” Rosenthal says.

By carefully controlling the size of the quantum dots, researchers found they can fine-tune the frequency of the emitted light to any desired value. By contrast, most commercial lasers are limited to one specific frequency, or a very small range, defined by the materials from which they are made.

The ability to produce a laser of any desired frequency from a single material would give a boost to scientists looking to study diseases at the level of tissues or individual cells by providing new tools to probe specific biochemical reactions. They also could enable laser-display projectors that would be brighter and more energy-efficient than current LCD technology.

As she continues her work with nanocrystals, Rosenthal also serves as director of the Vanderbilt Institute of Nanoscale Science and Engineering (VINSE), which was created in 2001 and today includes 45 faculty members across 13 departments from the College of Arts and Science, the School of Engineering, and the School of Medicine.

In addition to Rosenthal’s work itself, several major research initiatives have been supported within VINSE. These include the harnessing of human proteins to target more precise delivery of cancer drugs, development of an artificial capillaries system using a store-bought cotton-candy machine that can support artificial organs, and the engineering of a usable battery from junkyard parts. The institute also supports graduate and undergraduate research programs, as well as K–12 education outreach throughout Tennessee.

In October, VINSE commemorated the grand opening of a new facility in the recently built Engineering and Science Building. The space features a state-of-the-art cleanroom and an advanced imaging suite.

The Jack and Pamela Egan Chair was established in 2010 by Dr. Pamela J. Egan and John R. “Jack” Egan to support a faculty member in the College of Arts and Science. The Egans established this chair as an investment in educating the next generation of American leaders.


Lynn Enterline | Nancy Perot Chair in English

It may seem that few things are left to say about classical and early modern literature in the Western canon. In fact, there are far more unsettled questions than most people realize. Lynn Enterline, BA’78, who graduated from Vanderbilt as a Founder’s Medalist, applies modern theories like psychoanalysis and gender studies to works by authors ranging from Ovid to Shakespeare in pursuit of augmenting scholars’ understanding of the context and culture in which these masterpieces were produced.

When asked to describe her work, Enterline—who earned a degree in classics at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar—says she sometimes likes to call it “not your father’s Shakespeare.”

Her latest book, Shakespeare’s Schoolroom: Rhetoric, Discipline, Emotion, traces the emotional portraits depicted in Shakespeare’s poetry to the educational and discipline methods used in Latin gram­mar schools of the day. An earlier text, The Rhetoric of the Body, examines how Ovid’s “subversive representations of gender, sexuality and the body” influenced formations of the self in later Renaissance literature.

In a review of her book The Tears of Narcissus, which explores conceptions of masculinity in classical and early modern literature, the author writes that Enterline “makes an important contribution to the study of modern subjectivity’s development since the Renaissance.”

In addition to her teaching and research, Enterline served for the past two years on a chancellor’s committee charged with developing recommendations that can make its humanities programs “truly exceptional” while building connections with other disciplines across the university.

The Nancy Perot Chair was established in 2006 by Nancy Perot, BA’82, to support the work of a faculty member in the Department of English of the College of Arts and Science. In establishing this gift, Perot seeks to enhance Vanderbilt’s ability to recruit and retain outstanding faculty in the English department.


Moses Ochonu | Cornelius Vanderbilt Chair in History

Learning from History

PHOTO BY JOE HOWELL

PHOTO BY JOE HOWELL

To most outsiders, the emergence of the Nigerian Islamist militant group Boko Haram in 2010 seemed to come from nowhere. Suddenly, armed young men burst out of the West African savannah, spouting a confused amalgam of radical Islamist, ascetic and hedonist philosophy as they murdered thousands of fellow Muslims and Christians—and notoriously kidnapped hundreds of schoolgirls.

For Moses Ochonu, however, Boko Haram, whose name means “Western education is sacrilege,” represents a tragic but recognizable phenomenon whose origins go back 100 years.

During Nigeria’s colonial period, the British stitched together the impoverished Muslim-majority north and the resource-rich, predominantly Christian south into a single country, pitting one group against the other. But they also set up a dual system of education in the north, in which a few lucky elites benefited from modern Western education while the masses were shut out.

Fast forward to today, and the legacy of that system still controls fortunes in northern Nigeria, where Boko Haram’s “foot soldiers are largely young men without Western education, who were driven to the insurgency by economic disenfranchisement in a society where credentialed Western education and secular knowledge are requirements for upward socioeconomic mobility,” as Ochonu writes. Adding to the pressure they feel, these same men are also shut out of marriage and economic independence, and have turned instead to groups like Boko Haram for escape and masculine honor.

Despite the animosity between Boko Haram and Western institutions, in the long term, Ochonu writes, combating the group may be better accomplished through expansion of Western educational opportunities rather than with troops: “A legitimate question to pose, then, is whether extremist ideologies like Boko Haram would find positive reception and recruits if Western education had been more democratized, and access to it subsidized, for Northern Nigeria’s poor Muslims.”

This kind of analysis has made Ochonu one of the most trenchant thinkers about sub-Saharan Africa today, deploying a unique ability to use the continent’s colonial past to interpret its modern-day reality. Born and educated in Nigeria, Ochonu came to the U.S. to earn his Ph.D. at the University of Michigan before joining Vanderbilt’s faculty in 2004. Since then he has written several books that have recast historians’ understanding of Nigeria’s colonial past.

Colonial Meltdown (2009, Ohio University) tells the virtually unknown history of Northern Nigerian resistance to British rule during the Great Depression, while Colonialism by Proxy: Hausa Imperial Agents and Middle Belt Consciousness in Nigeria (2014, Indiana University) transformed historians’ understanding of “indirect rule” in Northern Nigeria, where “subcolonial” rule by favored Nigerian elites set the stage for present-day conflicts. His latest book, Africa in Fragments (2014, Diasporic Africa Press), collects essays on a wide selection of topics, including African migration to the West, antiblack racism in North Africa and the Arab world, and the question of how to restructure Nigeria’s economy to overcome the legacies of colonial rule.

Ochonu is now editing a volume about African entrepreneurship, due out in 2018, and is writing a book titled Emirs in London, which examines how Nigerian Muslim elites capitalized on sightseeing trips to Britain to refashion themselves as modern Muslim aristocrats.

Recently, Ochonu has embraced the concept of “Afri-Capitalism,” a term coined by Nigerian billionaire Tony Elumelu that calls upon Africans to develop entrepreneurial ventures in technology and socially responsible enterprises that can turn one of Africa’s liabilities—its bursting numbers of underemployed youth—into an asset for growth. Ochonu is among a handful of African intellectuals examining the idea, which he sees as a middle ground between profit-seeking and a uniquely African focus on community.

“Mr. Elumelu is pushing an idea that is counterintuitive to most people in his world of business and investing—namely, that business stands to benefit when it subscribes to and abides by certain principles of social responsibility and the ethos of inclusive, sustainable development,” Ochonu writes. Only by understanding and honoring the legacy and traditions of Africa’s past, he says, can the continent pave its way to a brighter future.

The Cornelius Vanderbilt Chairs are named in honor of Vanderbilt’s founder and were established by the university in 2010 to support the recruitment and retention of faculty members in all schools who are doing groundbreaking research.


James R. Booth | Patricia and Rodes Hart Chair in Educational Neuroscience

One of James R. Booth’s biggest research challenges is keeping his young subjects from getting wiggly while measuring their brain activity during an MRI scan. As a neurocognitive researcher he uses functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to tease out how children’s brains develop academic skills.

“We spend a lot of time trying to get kids to stay still in the scanner while they complete the reading and math games we use to study their brain function,” says Booth, who came to Peabody College this summer after three years at the University of Texas–Austin, where he served as chair of the Moody College of Communication’s Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders.

Booth has used neuroimaging to diagnose children accurately with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and to predict which children will show larger gains in reading and math. Most recently he studied preschoolers to determine what aspects of language are predictors of academic gains.

“As we better understand the mechanisms underlying academic skills, we can more accurately identify and treat children who have disabilities,” he says. “If we know which children are likely to show little gains, then we can intervene early.”

The Patricia and Rodes Hart Chair was created in 2007 by Patricia Ingram Hart, BA’57, and H. Rodes Hart, BA’54, to support an outstanding faculty member of Peabody College. Mr. Hart joined the Vanderbilt University Board of Trust in 1979 and was named an emeritus member in 2007. The Harts have been longtime philanthropists to Vanderbilt, establishing 10 chairs across campus.


Cornelia Heard | Valere Blair Potter Chair in Violin

Cornelia Heard has been a faculty member at the Blair School of Music since 1982. She also was one of the first students to enroll at the school in 1964 when it was known as the Blair Academy of Music.

Heard is a much-sought-after teacher in both the university and precollege programs at Blair, and many students have seen success under her tutelage. Last spring her student Mary Grace Johnson, BMus’17, and the four members of the Claudius Quartet, whom she coaches, took first and third place in their respective categories at the 2016–17 Music Teachers National Association competition.

Heard also is a violinist for the Blair String Quartet, the school’s most celebrated performing ensemble. As a member of the quartet, she has toured extensively throughout the U.S. and recorded for the Warner Bros., New World and Pantheon labels. She has performed as a chamber musician in concert series at the Library of Congress and New York’s 92nd Street Y, as well as at Lincoln Center, the Kennedy Center, Merkin Hall and Carnegie Recital Hall, and has performed extensively on public radio and television.

The Valere Blair Potter Chair was established in 2008 through a gift to the university by the grandchildren of Valere Blair Potter, BA 1919. Potter, a beloved Nashville community philanthropist and volunteer—along with her daughter Anne and son-in-law David K. Wilson, BA’41—founded the Peabody Preparatory School of Musical Arts in 1964 under the auspices of the Potter Foundation. The well-known music academy later became the Blair School of Music, which joined Vanderbilt University in 1981.


Dr. Hilary Tindle | William Anderson Spickard Jr., M.D., Chair in Medicine

Why the World Shouldn’t Quit Smoking-Cessation Efforts

PHOTO BY DANIEL DUBOIS

PHOTO BY DANIEL DUBOIS

Within 20 minutes of quitting smoking, blood pressure and heart rate go down, says Dr. Hilary Tindle. After a year, risk of heart attack drops by half. Stick with it long enough, and the benefits only increase.

Despite declines in smoking for decades, however, 15 percent of adults still smoke cigarettes, and smoking is still the leading cause of preventable death—claiming nearly 500,000 lives a year from heart disease, cancer, chronic lung disease and stroke.

So how can we get more people to quit? That’s the question Tindle has been exploring as founding director of the Vanderbilt Center for Tobacco, Addiction and Lifestyle (ViTAL). “About three-quarters of U.S. smokers say they want to quit, and about half make the attempt every year,” Tindle says, “but only about a third use any kind of support such as FDA-approved medications.” Even fewer use behavioral support like counseling.

Tindle has been working to change that, in part by designing treatments that interest and engage smokers. The latest example is using smokers’ genetic information to identify the medications that will provide the greatest biological effect. For example, knowing how rapidly a person metabolizes, or breaks down, nicotine can help match them with the best medicine to quit smoking. It turns out that about two-thirds of people are so-called “fast” metabolizers, while about one-third are “slow” metabolizers—information that can be determined from a simple blood test.

A recent study found that varenicline, a medicine that blocks nicotine receptors, is twice as effective as nicotine replacement therapies like the “patch” for fast metabolizers of nicotine, but not for slow metabolizers. Tindle and a team of VUMC investigators found that by providing this information to patients, they would be more likely to choose varenicline. The investigators are now planning a larger study to see if the biologically tailored treatment helps smokers stick to their quit plan when they know the science is behind them.   
“These biologically tailored therapies may work in part by giving smokers the confidence and the optimism to succeed,” Tindle says.

She has long been interested in how attitudes and beliefs can affect health outcomes. In one long-term study of 100,000 women over a 15-year period, she found that optimists not only were less likely to smoke and more likely to lead healthier lives, but they also had lower risk of heart attack and death compared to people with a more pessimistic outlook. Those findings inspired Tindle’s book, Up: How Positive Outlook Can Transform Our Health and Aging (2013, Avery), which explores in a layperson’s perspective how optimism can improve health.

“That is what optimism is all about: being able to picture that bright future in detail, and working hard to make it a reality—now,” she says.

In addition to the genetic work, Tindle has been exploring other innovative ways to help motivate smokers to quit and improve their health. In one study among smokers with HIV in Russia, she is exploring the use of varenicline—which some studies have shown also to be effective for curtailing alcohol abuse—to treat both conditions. Other studies have shown that hospitalization can lead to quitting by giving smokers a greater awareness of health hazards: A simple bedside counseling session can increase likelihood of quitting by 40 percent.

Without follow-up after discharge, however, many relapse. “The follow-up is a critical part,” says Tindle. “The question is how we can find these people and continue to talk to them.”

Tindle is currently researching two strategies that could be implemented across a medical system—referring patients to the state quitline (1-800-QUIT NOW), and having a dedicated counselor available for check-in—to see whether one or both approaches are effective. By providing supports like these, she is optimistic smokers can get the extra boost they need to give up cigarettes.

“There are now more former smokers than there are smokers,” she says. “We can do it. We can’t afford to be pessimistic about changing smoking habits.”

The William Anderson Spickard Jr., M.D., Chair in Medicine was established in 2000 by Madeline R. Adams, ’56, and Howell E. Adams, Jr., BE’53, to support a faculty member in the Division of General Internal Medicine and to advance the training and education of physicians in health and wellness. This fund was named in honor of Dr. Spickard, BA’53, MD’57, for his many contributions to addiction medicine.


Ingrid Wuerth | Helen Strong Curry Chair in International Law

Ingrid Wuerth, a leading scholar of foreign affairs and public international law, contends that we have moved into a “post-human rights” era. “After World War II, and especially since the 1980s, human rights expanded to almost every corner of international law,” Wuerth explains in a recent Texas Law Review article. “In doing so, they changed core features of international law itself, including the definition of sovereignty and the sources of international legal rules. This ‘golden age’ of international law is over, at least for now.”

As evidence, she cites the increasing number of authoritarian governments worldwide, the decline in international human rights-enforcement mechanisms such as the Alien Tort Statute, and the growing power and influence of two states where human rights are not a priority: Russia and China.

Wuerth sits on the board of editors of the American Journal of International Law and is a member of the American Law Institute and the U.S. State Department’s Advisory Committee on Public International Law. She also directs the International Legal Studies program at Vanderbilt Law School and co-chairs a working group at the university, comprising faculty from a wide range of disciplines, charged with developing a strategy that both supports the international research of faculty and raises the global profile of Vanderbilt as a research institution.

The Helen Strong Curry Chair in International Law was established in 2015 through the estate of Jean Curry Allen, BA’44, in memory of her mother, to provide faculty support for the International Law program at Vanderbilt Law School.


Stacey Floyd-Thomas | E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Chair in Ethics and Society

Moral Fortitude to Survive a ‘Surreal World’

PHOTO BY JOHN RUSSELL

PHOTO BY JOHN RUSSELL

Stacey Floyd-Thomas didn’t mince words when she took the podium this spring for Vanderbilt Divinity School’s annual Mafoi Carlisle Bogitsh Lecture.

“This is a surreal world in which we live,” she said. “We have, on the one hand, demagogues who pitch their dog-whistling politics by appealing to the poisonous popular prejudices of the day in an effort to maintain status quo,” while on the other are “liberals, supposed allies, who share a superficial sympathy with subjected others, yet too often lack the moral fortitude to step into the gap and challenge the underpinnings of their privilege and implicit bias because they are confounded by their comfort and their cowardice.”

Since then, a cascade of newsworthy events arguably has proven Floyd-Thomas’ critical assessment correct.

In decrying the controversies of our current political moment, she spared no one from her razor-sharp analysis. “Those of us who hold fast in making America’s rhetoric real cannot be scared into silence by the scare tactics of the former Bush administration, the sweet talk of the messianic Obama administration, the apathy of our liberal allies, or the malevolent mendacity of a Trumped White House. Put another way,” she continued, “how can we see everything going on and not be deeply, spiritually, morally, ethically outraged?”

For nearly 20 years Floyd-Thomas has per­fected her ethical analysis and moral reflection as a Christian social ethicist by writing and speaking at the intersection of race, gender and class politics—boldly denouncing various forms of oppression in American society by wielding Plato, Foucault, Hooks, King or Walker as scholarly weapons of choice. But she has been equally passionate in sharing a more constructive ethical vision that takes its lead from moral philosophy and liberation theology in order to speak not only for, but from, the perspective of the oppressed.

In her earlier influential books, Mining the Motherlode: Methods in Womanist Ethics (2006, Pilgrim) and Deeper Shades of Purple: Womanism in Religion and Society (2006, NYU Press), she expands upon Alice Walker’s notion of a womanist who would be allied with feminism, but puts at the foreground the intersectional perspectives of race, class and gender through the voices of African American women and other women of color.

The womanist ethical framework she pro­poses is supported by four tenets: challeng­ing marginalized women to seek their own agency, encouraging them to be conveyors of the diversity and inclusivity of their cultural traditions, embracing their worthiness regard­less of the harmful messages of society, and challenging them to confront strategically all levels of oppression in society.

Floyd-Thomas has since amplified these ideas through many books and articles she has written or edited, or through lectures she has presented, on topics of religious ethics, critical race theory, liberation theology and womanist thought. She also has helped disseminate them more widely as executive director of both the Society of Christian Ethics and the Black Religious Scholars Group, and as president of the Society of Race, Ethnicity and Religion.

Most recently, along with her husband, religious historian Juan Floyd-Thomas, she wrote the book The Altars Where We Worship: The Religious Significance of Popular Culture (2016, Westminster John Knox), which decon­structs the ways in which our society has applied the passionate commitment of religious belief to business, sports, entertainment, politics, embodiment, technology and sex. Rather than moral judgment, however, the book explores how these activities can inspire people and bring community together while at the same time confronting the inherent dangers of sub­stituting materialism for spirituality.

Ultimately, Floyd-Thomas’ message is one of pragmatic hope and a fearless courage to confront injustice. As she said at the close of her Bogitsh Lecture, “It is my hope, my prayer and concern that our children’s children will have futures free from this surreal world, futures that will allow them agency not only to cross the color line and survive the cultural wars, but thrive in America on their own terms.”

The E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Chair was established in 1988 by the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation to provide support for a faculty member of Vanderbilt Divinity School. The Carpenter Foundation was founded in 1975 and is a longtime supporter of the Divinity School.


Ray Friedman | Brownlee O. Currey Chair in Management

Ray Friedman brings a variety of business-relevant insights to his fields of study and the classroom. His research focuses on negotiation, dispute resolution, Chinese culture and management, diversity in organizations, and labor relations.

His recent study of employees at 94 hotels in the United States and Canada found that, if middle managers are dissatisfied with their bosses, those middle managers are likely to treat their own subordinates badly, increasing costly turnover.

He also has studied the role that shame plays among employees when their company is caught doing something bad. Workers who feel more shame are more likely to withdraw, rather than solve the problem. But shame is more likely among employees who identify personally with the company—a finding contrary to previous thinking that strong identification with a company is always beneficial.

In 2009, Friedman co-authored a study showing that the prominence of President Barack Obama in the news—by providing a counter-stereotypical role model for blacks—eliminated the performance gap for a sample of African American and white adults taking a standardized test under stereotype-threat conditions during the height of the election.

Friedman is senior editor of Management Organization and Review and president-elect of the International Association for Chinese Management Research. He also currently serves on the editorial board of Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes. Past appointments include service as chair of the Conflict Management Division of the Academy of Management, president of the International Association for Conflict Management, and associate dean for faculty and research at Vanderbilt Owen Graduate School of Management.

The Brownlee O. Currey Chair was created in 1978 by members of the Currey family to honor Brownlee O. Currey, BA’23, who served on the Vanderbilt Board of Trust from 1947 until his death in 1952. In addition to his many leadership positions at Vanderbilt, Currey also was the founder and president of Equitable Securities Corp.


Douglas Adams | Daniel F. Flowers Chair in Civil and Environmental Engineering

Seeing the Unseen

PHOTO BY JOE HOWELL

PHOTO BY JOE HOWELL

American infrastructure is in a state of crisis, with one out of every five miles of highway in poor condition, nearly 10 percent of bridges structurally deficient, and more than 2,000 dams at risk of collapse, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). Bringing everything up to peak operating order, however, will take an estimated $3.6 trillion during the next three years. The nation’s military infrastructure also is facing unprecedented challenges, with the condition of aircraft like the F-22 and B-2 of serious concern. Only about half these planes are able to fly missions, according to U.S. Air Force estimates.

While Congress debates how the nation’s resources will be allocated to repair civil and military infrastructure, Douglas Adams is working on a new way to evaluate where repairs are most needed by using tiny nano-sized particles with unique sensing properties.

As co-director of the Laboratory for Systems Integrity and Reliability (LASIR), Adams’ job is to find new ways to assess the risk of failure of bridges, aircraft, and other crucial pieces of America’s infrastructure, to identify which ones are most at risk before they fail.

“Currently, there are two ways to keep everything from bridges to aircraft safe,” he says. “One is to send people out to look at them. The problem is that it’s labor-intensive, and people can’t see very small cracks when they form. The other is to install elaborate sensor networks that constantly look for small cracks and detect them before they grow too large. The problem is that these sensor networks are very expensive and, in the case of aircraft, add a lot of weight.”

Since his arrival at Vanderbilt from Purdue University in 2013, Adams has been exploring new low-cost and reliable ways to sense potential infrastructure breakdowns. The lab he has helped construct in order to achieve that goal is massive—with 20,000 square feet of space and $8 million in equipment, including a 545-foot-long wind turbine test chamber, a full-size military helicopter and a Hummer. Unlike many labs that rely on scale models to test infrastructure properties, Adams’ lab uses full-scale equipment in test experiments under conditions as close to real life as possible.

One of the most promising techniques, however, involves materials so tiny they can’t even be seen using the average microscope. Called white-light quantum dots and discovered in 2005 by faculty colleague Sandra Rosenthal (see page 40), these cadmium selenide crystals are less than 2 nanometers in diameter and may be able to act as an early warning for material failure. At such a tiny size, most of the atoms from these nanoparticles lie near the surface, making them extremely sensitive to changes in their surrounding environments. The result is that they tend to change color in response to subtle shifts that could indicate trouble.

“When we put these nanoparticles into a material, they observe and react to what is going on around them,” Adams says. He is working with a Vanderbilt team to exploit that property of white-light quantum dots to predict risks of material failure. For instance, the team has coated fiberglass and aluminum strips with a polymer that contains a glitter of millions of white-light quantum dots. Applying a load to those materials, they found that the intensity of the light emitted decreases as the pressure builds.

The researchers promptly nicknamed the polymers “mood ring materials,” after the children’s toy that changes color according to skin temperatures, ostensibly signaling shifts in the wearer’s mood. In the case of these white-light quantum dots, the color change detects when materials are getting close to their breaking point. While Adams and his team are still working out the kinks to discover exactly how and under what conditions the light emitted by the polymer changes, eventually these materials could be used in a wide range of equipment, slathered in sensitive spots on bridges, on the skins of aircraft, and on various parts of power plants to detect a weakening of the metal even before cracks in the material appear.

“We’d like the materials to know what has happened, and then when an inspector comes out, we’d like the material to tell the inspector about hidden degradation,” Adams says. By giving inanimate objects voice, the “mood ring materials” could be a valuable tool in saving time, labor, money—and lives—in the process.

The Daniel F. Flowers Chair was established in 2011 from growth of funds from the H. Fort Flowers Chair, created in 1980 by the five children of the late H. Fort Flowers, BE 1912, ME 1915. The chair provides support for faculty members who exemplify the teaching of mechanical engineering design.


Kamal Saggi | Frances and John Downing Family Chair in Economics

Kamal Saggi’s research focuses on the relationship between the protection of intellectual property rights in the global economy and the international diffusion of technology via international trade and foreign investment. He also studies the effects of international trade agreements and the economic underpinnings of the rules and regulations of the multilateral global trading system.

Saggi has published more than 65 papers in leading academic journals and dozens of articles in edited volumes and handbooks. The latest is a paper he co-authored for The Journal of International Economics examining the international effects of policies such as external reference pricing and price controls used by governments across the world to combat the market power of firms selling patented pharmaceuticals. He also has been an adviser and consultant to a variety of think tanks and policy institutions, such as the World Bank and the World Trade Organization, on a wide range of issues related to international trade and economic development.

In 2016, Saggi was appointed the inaugural dean of social sciences in the College of Arts and Science, a position that facilitates academic planning among the various departments and programs within the college. His previous appointments at Vanderbilt include service as director of the Graduate Program in Economic Development and as chair of the Department of Economics.

The Frances and John Downing Family Chair was established in 2008 by Frances von Stade Downing, BA’78, and John O. Downing, BA’78, to support a faculty member at Vanderbilt. The Downings made this gift in recognition of their own Vanderbilt experience, as well as that of two of their daughters, Sarah von Stade Downing, BS’10, and Lily Osborne Downing, BS’13, both of whom attended Peabody College.



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