The liberal arts have never been more relevant or foundational than they are right now. The challenges we face—racial injustice, economic inequality, climate change, voter suppression, digital privacy, gun violence—don’t have simple fixes. The solutions will require rigorous research and innovation that understands the natural world and the human condition: our emotions, vulnerabilities, behavior, and beliefs. The education we need in this moment must pair rigor and empathy, inspire flexible and creative thought, and ask us to fully reimagine our world as it needs to be. This is the kind of education we provide at LSA, and one we’re constantly striving to make more equitable and focused on the needs and well-being of our students so they, in turn, can focus more on why they’re here: to learn and to create positive, purposeful change. The pandemic has made our need to be with others as legible as it made the inequities of our society.
The pandemic has called on us to see that vulnerable people are exponentially more susceptible to harm, that we need literature, art, music, history, and the study of culture to make sense of our lives, and that we can come together to improve our lives and the lives of others, whether in protest or to get vaccinated, when the urgency of the moment requires it. The urgency of this moment requires much from us, and LSA is rising to meet it. I am delighted to share some of the powerful, inspirational members of our community who are leading the way.
Anne Curzan, Dean
College of Literature, Science, and the Arts
After it was published in 2020, The Vanishing Half, written by Brit Bennett (M.F.A. ’14), drew the kind of praise and attention that landed her on the cover of Time. Her novel investigates the American history of racial passing through characters who are identical twins: Desiree, who raises a child in the segregated Southern town of their youth, and Stella, who lives as a white woman.
“Passing stories prove the flimsiness of social categories by their ability to move between them,” Bennett says. “What does it mean to be white, for example, if Stella becomes white just because someone assumes that she is? I found that tension interesting, and I also wanted to think about what passing looks like if we begin by assuming fluidity between social categories. What does it even mean to lie about your race if we acknowledge that race itself is a made-up thing?”
“It seems like economic time sped up during the pandemic,” says Gabriel Ehrlich (M.A. ’08, Ph.D. ’12), director of the Research Seminar in Quantitative Economics and assistant research scientist. “People are asking what the pandemic means for the economy, and they want to know what is happening right now. Because government statistics are released with a delay, we’ve had to look at a much wider range of new economic indicators that popped up during the pandemic. Trying to sort out which of these have signal and which are mostly noise has been an interesting challenge, but we’re beginning to transform the way we measure economic health.”
“I got my first taste of interdisciplinary environmental economic research during my Ph.D., and then again when I worked on a project that looked at the economic impacts of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative,” says Michael McWilliams (PhD. ’16), Michigan forecasting specialist, Research Seminar in Quantitative Economics. “It really opened my eyes to the importance of this kind of interdisciplinary research, especially when the topic has the scale and significance of the Great Lakes, which collectively contain 20 percent of the world's surface fresh water. Our work on that initiative helped to secure bipartisan support and funding to protect the Great Lakes.”
“I work on religious pluralism, immigration justice, and cultivating communities that welcome refugees,” says Melissa Borja, assistant professor in the Asian/Pacific Islander American Studies Program in the Department of American Culture.
“I have always worked on a lot of projects, but I did not expect to take on the Virulent Hate Project, which I began to lead in March 2020 when my friends were getting spit on at the grocery store and harassed on the street,” she says. “It takes a lot of spirit to do this type of work. In another life I think I would have chosen a type of labor or a research project that is less demanding on one’s emotional capacity. The burden is less about the number of things I am doing. It’s the toll it takes on the spirit to engage very directly in suffering.
“I would also say that I am an interdisciplinary scholar who is inspired by historical, religious, and interdisciplinary ethnic studies scholarship,” she continues. “I try to approach all of this work with a broad commitment to creating a world where our institutions and interactions honor the inherent dignity of every human being. That’s a very important vision and value for me as a human being.
“Maintaining an exclusive focus on racial discrimination fosters the belief that Black people wake up every day thinking, ‘I’m going to have to be Black today and it’s going to be awful.’ None of the people in my studies expressed this view,” says Karyn Lacy, associate professor in the Department of Sociology. “Black people face challenges in America, for sure, but at the same time, there is a lot of joy in being Black.
“We hear far less from the media about the pride Black people feel in being Black,” she continues. “We need to know about the impact of racism on people’s everyday lives. But my work shows discrimination is not the only thing Black people think about when they think about race. The people I talk to as part of my research do not want their children to feel bad or apathetic about being Black and participating in Black culture. Cultivating an affinity for other Black people is very important to them.”
“Earth system models are complex computer codes that simulate the atmosphere, ocean, land surface, and cryosphere, and the ways they respond to human-induced changes, including carbon emissions,” says Chris Poulsen, associate dean for natural sciences and Henry Pollack Collegiate Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences and Climate and Space Sciences. “We check the models’ accuracy against historic observations, like using data collected from land surface stations and ocean buoys that ‘sample’ a time when the climate had changed very little. In this way, modeling past climates and comparing them to the geologic record allow us to evaluate model performance under conditions much different than those today and closer to those that we might expect in the future.
“In our recent work, we have used models to simulate the climate of both a past warm period—the Eocene (56 million years ago)—and a past cold period—the Last Glacial Maximum (18 thousand years ago),” he continues. “In both cases, the model simulated global surface temperatures that were too extreme: too warm for the Eocene and too cold for the Last Glacial Maximum. This mismatch between the model and the geologic data indicated that the model was responding too sensitively. With this knowledge, we were able to identify the processes that caused the model to be too sensitive. Ultimately our work will lead to both improvements and greater confidence in the models that are used to project future climate and climate impacts.”
A former middle school teacher, psychology Ph.D. student Christina Costa (A.B. ’15, M.A. ’19) researches the conditions that help people thrive. She focuses on teachers’ positive experiences, she explains, “to understand why they burn out and what makes them stay.” She’d spent four years reading studies and stories about resilience, but until she was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 2020, she says, “It never occurred to me that I’d need it myself.”
She first saw cancer as something to fight, but quickly found that exhausting. Turning to her own research, she stopped focusing on what her body had done wrong and developed gratitude for it instead. Reading the operation notes of her successful surgery aloud, she recalls, “I sobbed happy, grateful tears for my neurosurgeon and his team.”
And then she raised $115,000 to support their research, enabling them to do four years of work in one.
“The universe might find it funny that a teacher and scientist who researches resilience ended up with a brain tumor,” she continues, “but I hope I can show how to be grateful for unexpected challenges. I don’t pretend it’s easy, but learning to practice gratitude can actually wire our brains and help us build resilience.”
As a junior pursuing a degree in sociology and a transfer student finishing her first year on campus, Catherine Hadley (A.B. ’22) became the twenty-eighth Wolverine to win the prestigious Truman Scholarship. “LSA has pushed me to think bigger,” Hadley says. “It’s given me a mirror that has shown me what I am capable of and deepened my sense of conviction for the advocacy work I do both on and off campus. It’s helped me develop skills, from communication to analysis, to apply real-world experiences to policies and legislation. It’s also given me access to a massive network of activists with whom I can work to shape policy ideas to meet this moment.
The liberal arts and sciences have always provided a foundation for a meaningful life and successful career, and for expanding our understanding of the human condition and the natural world. Today, LSA is meeting this moment of global change, crisis, and uncertainty by tackling the world’s wickedest problems, reinvigorating liberal arts education and research, making it more equitable and relevant than ever.