Sept. 4 was a day of academic achievement at the University, as three professors in different departments each received the Wesleyan Prize for Excellence in Research. The three honorable recipients were Professor of Biology Sonia Sultan, Professor of Economics and Environmental Studies Gary Yohe, and Professor of Art History Joseph Siry. While each of the recipients received an ornate plaque with their credentials, the awards were not all for show. The three professors also received research funding to compensate them for their strenuous efforts and encourage them to keep expanding on their work.
The Argus had the opportunity to talk with each of the professors and learn more about what they do and why their work is so important. Despite the different directions pursued by the professors, each of them has taken an innovative approach to scholarship by challenging existing methods of research in favor of alternative, creative approaches.
Sultan started doing exactly this while still in graduate school in the 1990s. She used a new approach to ask an unconventional question: how much flexibility can the same genetic individual express if it develops in different environments? Few of her colleagues at the time were doing this kind of research, but her research on individual flexibility had monumental implications for both ecology and evolution. Her findings have been extremely influential in showing that developmental response to the environment is a major feature in natural systems, and the source of a great deal of functional variation.
The Oxford University Press approached Sultan with an invitation to publish a book, and in many ways, doing this kind of more public work was helpful for her research. Working on a long-term project offered Sultan time to really parse through her ideas and read up on other related work. While writing, she was awarded a prestigious fellowship at the Institute for Advanced Study in Berlin, which gave her even more mental space and time to focus on her work. Her book, “Organism and the Environment,” became widely recognized and earned her quite a bit of fame, especially in Europe and the U.K.
Sultan appreciates that she now has the opportunity to travel for her work and to publicly present her findings. The most exciting thing for her, however, is the cross-disciplinary recognition that her work has received among younger generations of scientists, historians, and philosophers.
“If the young scientists are interested, I know I am doing exciting work,” she asserted.
Overlooking the University’s campus from his third-floor office, Yohe is busy at work. The wall behind him is slated with plaques of various shapes and sizes. Amongst the countless awards and recognitions is the not-so-humble Nobel Prize, of which Yohe was a co-recipient as a senior member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
Yohe’s work deals with the intersection of economics and environmental studies, focusing specifically on the mitigation and adaptation sides of the climate issue. His background in economics is instrumental in working with both sides of environmental policy: reducing emissions and adapting to risks that it poses for society. But Yohe does not merely study policy and propose solutions; he looks deeper into the frameworks being used to analyze and conceptualize climate change issues. Applying his economic expertise, Yohe proposed that environmental policy is not a cost-benefit equation, but rather a risk-management problem. This view was widely accepted and changed the entire outlook on policy, as 169 countries acknowledged and implemented this framework.
Despite this monumental accomplishment, Yohe laughs off his success and talks about his family. In his free time, when he is not engaged in writing academic articles or books, he visits his grandchildren in Maryland. Sometimes he stops by the Hill on his way home, where he still has many friends from his days as the Vice Chair for Climate Administration under President Obama. He talks occasionally with NGOs about pursuing policy and change, but the influence that he and his colleagues hold in Washington is dwindling.
“The Trump administration is ignoring our work,” he stated. “They just don’t care about climate change.”
Luckily enough, there are many legal entanglements and frameworks that prevent the administration from completely overturning the policies that he and his colleagues worked so hard to implement.
But that doesn’t preclude the need to continuously push for change, which often requires looking into the future instead of the present. How do we know what to research if we don’t know what will be important in the future? Yohe’s advice for researchers is to build trajectories and use them to examine the world in increments from today to 30, 50, 70 years from now. Collaborating with people is another important way for Yohe to get many new ideas and outlooks. It helps fill in the gaps in knowledge and where you need to look. Only by working together can we move toward a truly sustainable future.
Siry also notices the importance of a sustainable future and is reorienting his own research to focus on the future instead of the past. Siry is a talented and groundbreaking researcher. His past works use historical frameworks to look at specific emblematic structures in their larger social contexts. With expertise deeply rooted in the Chicago School of Architecture, he examines the work of pioneers such as Louis Sullivan, Dankmar Adler, and Frank Lloyd Wright. Their work, for Siry, is an exemplar of deep investigation and high degrees of creativity.
More recently, however, environmental and energy issues became more urgent, and Siry began to explore new territory in the intersection of architecture and sustainability. His latest book, “Air Conditioning and Modern American Architecture, 1890-1970,” investigates the use of energy for air conditioning with the aim of filling in the gap in historical scholarship as to how this is developed. In doing this, Siry hopes to make a contribution to the future of architecture by unearthing parts of its history related to energy use for heating, cooling, and ventilating modern buildings.
“It is a way I can see a link between historical scholarship and the future of the planet, since energy consumption for our built environment is almost half of all energy used,” he said. “In this way I want to make a link between the history of art and the history of technology in modern architecture.”
If you have ever tried to take a class with Siry, you would know that getting a seat in his classes is pretty competitive. When asked how he is able to manage his time as both a researcher and as a professor whose classes are some of the most coveted at the University, Siry admits that a lot of his time during the semester is dedicated almost solely to teaching, preparing classes and reading students’ work. Looking ahead to blocks of time between classes when he can travel to buildings and archives for research keeps him focused.
“The main thing is to work as astutely as you can, as intensively as you can, and as quickly as you can,” he said. “You have to be intellectually excited by the topic, since that gives you the motivation to develop it for readers.”
Steph Dukich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.