When the first ten Weiss Graduate Scholars introduced themselves to each other last September, they went around the room answering the question, "What is your research about?" They were a well-mixed group, the point of the Weiss fellowship being to connect students in the Liberal Arts and Engineering. One did computer modeling of smog. Another modeled probabilistic systems. There was a political scientist and an ancient archeologist. One was studying heat flow, while the next investigated motor skills and movement. Holly Henry, who told me this story, was using her fellowship money to study the junction of literature and popular science. (Some results of her work appear in the following pages.)
The last student was a philosopher. "What is, he said.
"Yes," repeated the moderator, "what is your research about?"
"I understand," said the philosopher. "That is what I'm studying: What is."
"It really opened my eyes," Henry told me, "to how differently each discipline asks questions. It really energized my own ability to think."
The annual Graduate Research Exhibition, and this issue of Research/Penn State, which features projects from the latest Exhibition, aspire to the same descriptions: Eye-opening. Energizing. Answers to the what is question last March included a violin-playing robot. A refrigerator that runs off sound. A protein-rich tuber from Peru. Desire in the Middle Ages. Germs in milk. Tube worms from the hydrothermal vents of the Juan de Fuca Ridge, far undersea. Does Practice Make Perfect? Can the moons around extrasolar planets — those newly noticed bodies orbiting other stars — support Earth-like life? Scriabin's 24 Piano Preludes, Op. 11. The mathematics of an oil drop. The signs left by ancient Pennsylvanians in the patterns of their arrowheads. The genetic information in the eye of a fly. The ideological, economic, and social functions of rodeo.
I've always wanted to go to a rodeo.
At the Exhibition's Poster Session, I sought out Gene Theodori, the guy in the black cowboy hat.
He was tall and lean, a little aloof, as I'd expected; he sat on the sharp edge of his exhibit table, one long leg crooked back, the other out, as if lounging against a fence. Never seen a rodeo? He breathed out slow, as if to say, you'll never get it, then did his best to walk me through his thesis. There are gay rodeos, all-girl rodeos, rodeos for kids. Black rodeos, Indian rodeos, ranch rodeos, prison rodeos, professional rodeos, collegiate rodeos, and rodeos for seniors. It's one of America's fastest growing sports. Theodori, studying to become a rural sociologist, was looking at "the contributions rodeos make to the communities in which they are staged." The popularity of rodeo he attributed in part to successful promoters cashing in on "the rural mystique." But rodeo's about more than money. It brings folk together.
It gives them a shared base of experiences, hopes, and fears. It lets them identify with a group. "I remember the first time I rode a bull," Theodori mused. He'd softened up now. His love of his subject was apparent. He pointed to a picture on his snapshot-covered exhibit board: that one, there, smack in the center. It's him on the bull. "Yeah, I fell off. But—"
What Henry thought about the Weiss Graduate Scholars program, when I asked her to describe its more-than-monetary advantages, matches my own experience of the Graduate Research Exhibition, that metaphorical rodeo. Said Henry, "It places us in conversation with each other. It sparks my own creativity and my own imagination. It makes my own research infinitely more interesting.
"It's a delightful opportunity to not work in isolation."
The 1998 Graduate Research Exhibition will be held March 27 and 28 in the Recital Hall of the Music Building (The Performance Option) and the Ballroom of the Hetzel Union Building (The Poster Session). For more information see www.gradsch.psu.edu under "Research." The Weiss Graduate Scholars Program was established in 1997 through a gift from alumni William L. and Josephine Berry Weiss.