Assistant Professor, Department of Psychology
A journey of the mind
As he walked along the Cambridge street, Woo-Young Ahn had a thought he couldn't get out of his mind. No matter how hard he tried to push it away or concentrate on something else, it kept coming back.
He had already distinguished himself as an academic with a bright future. In 2002, he had graduated from the prestigious Seoul National University with a degree in materials science and engineering. And now he was at Harvard, a doctoral candidate in applied physics. In fact, he was second-generation.
"My father studied at Harvard. Now I was going to Harvard. All was good...except I realized that when I'd take a walk, I didn't think about engineering or physics. I thought about the human mind—why people behave the way they do, why people are so different."
That walk led to a very hard question. Ahn would be able to earn a PhD in applied physics, but was it the right choice? "Once I realized that wasn't really thinking about my major, I had to find out what I really wanted to do for the rest of my life."
That street in Cambridge had turned out to be a crossroads. Ahn began discussing the field of psychology with as many colleagues as he could. And the more he talked, the more he realized what he needed to do. He spent one more year at Harvard to earn an SM in applied physics.
Those nagging questions about how the mind works led him from Cambridge back to Seoul National University, where he received an M.A. in clinical psychology. From there, he earned his doctorate in clinical psychology at Indiana University.
In August 2015, he joined the faculty in the Department of Psychology at The Ohio State University as an assistant professor, where one of his main interests has been to further our understanding of addictive disorders.
In a sense, Ahn hadn't really started over. It was simply another turn in his journey, a realization that we never really know where our experiences and questions will lead us. While a university with the depth and breadth of Ohio State can provide the experiences, we each create our own path. Ahn's prior education had provided a unique conceptual framework for his current approach to clinical psychology, an affinity for understanding human behavior through mathematical modeling and statistical algorithms.
That's right. Ahn can use math to understand why we behave the way we do.
Ahn today examines the mind from multiple perspectives: traditional therapies (such as cognitive behavioral therapy), mathematical modeling, genomic sequencing, and neuro-imaging. Combined, they may help him discover "markers," biological clues that can help physicians identify a patients' potential for psychiatric disorders such as addiction. And his engineering background makes him wonder if he can use those markers to develop cost-effective diagnostic tools for physicians.
"MRI and DNA sequencing are very expensive for many practitioners, so we need to come up with some markers that reflect biological processes but at the same time are very cheap. For example, some survey candidates consider eye movement, the size of the pupils—and they are actually very predictive."
Today, at Ohio State's Computational Clinical Science Laboratory, Ahn leads a team in search of those markers—both cost-effective ones as well as those found through extraordinarily sophisticated technology.
Ahn's journey of the mind has not been one of unexpected turns so much as new perspectives, connected layer by layer. Lately, those connected insights have taken him beyond exploring why we do what we do to what we are—in other words, what are humans really supposed to do?
Surprisingly, he says, "I have to point out that if I were to go back [to my Harvard days] with all the knowledge I have now, I might have stayed in applied physics." But then he explains his point. "At that time, I thought the meaning of life has to come out from what we do, but my thoughts have changed. Today, I do what I want to do and make a living at it. I’m addressing my curiosity—that’s awesome. At the same time, I wish I could spend more time with my family, watch my kids grow."
"Let’s say I publish ten papers in science and nature. How much does it really matter for humans, for the world, for the Earth? Maybe a little bit but...what really is the true meaning of life? I’m still trying to answer that question. Family is a big part of me."
"There are so many different angles in our lives."
For Dr. Ahn, the journey continues.
On his research goals: "I want to have two factories. One makes a space shuttle. The second makes Honda Civics. For making a space shuttle, we don’t care about money, as long as we can send it to Mars. We can use diamonds, we can use gold—cost is a secondary issue. I think there are some applications like that in clinical research. As long as we can predict certain outcomes then we can use MRI, we can use genetics…even though they are really expensive we can still use them. I think there are some applications like that. Our DNA and genes contain a lot of information, although we don’t know yet how to make use of all the data. It's expensive so to really translate it into real clinical settings we have to make them cheap.
"It’s still very expensive so many practitioners cannot afford the cost. To come up with something affordable, we also need to make a Honda Civic. We cannot use gold or diamonds. We have to make it seemingly affordable but at the same time very sturdy, right?"
On the power of the mind: "There’s a study that scanned smokers with an MRI machine. Researchers had all of the subjects smoke nicotine before being scanned. One group was told that the cigarette you are smoking doesn’t have any nicotine. The other group was told that you are actually smoking nicotine. When read their scans later on, the groups had different responses in their brain activation.
"I think it’s a very interesting topic and that demonstrates the effects of human beliefs, which is actually one of the topics I’m really interested in. How we form our beliefs and how we can manipulate them, which is why one of the most effective psychotherapies is the cognitive behavior therapy, trying to understand how our beliefs are formed and how can we change them."
The relationship between research and teaching: "Being a good researcher is important in being a good teacher. I teach a graduate seminar on cognitive psychology. And if I'm not doing cutting-edge research, I'd be teaching maybe 20-year-old knowledge to my students and that's not ideal. I know recent literature so I can teach them what the field is like today."
His relationship with his students: "So for my incoming graduate students I feel like I’m going to be a father, an academic father. I had really excellent advisors during my PhD. They helped me a lot in getting started and very wisely too. That’s just like a father. I feel like I owe a lot to their advice so now I have to do the same thing for my students."
On the "real" purpose of math: "The thing is, studying mathematics and statistics is not just for solving differential equations. I forget how to do differential equations! I think it’s really teaching us how to think. It’s another language. Solving equations can really help us shape our thoughts in how to think scientifically. I think there has to be really advertised. You take calculus—those courses—not because you need to solve differential equations in your life but to learn how to think scientifically."
On the collaborative Ohio State faculty: "One of the collaborations I’m doing is about the diagnostic battery we're developing. The battery has to be short and cheap, in short. We don’t want a patient to be in a clinical trial for two hours. I want to have a battery that can be very short and still be diagnostic. Some of the people here are all donating expertise and adaptive designs to my battery. We're developing an adaptive diagnostic where the computer is selecting the best stimulus for a patient, with early research demonstrating we can shorten the number of trial errors by 50% of time or we can get twice more information than more traditional methods. These are actually the only people in psychology who are doing this kind of research in the United States I think. This is a very unique department."
How his engineering background impacted his goals in psychology: "If my throat is sore, I can go to a doctor, get a test, and we have pretty good evidence whether I have strep or not, right? But we don’t have anything like that for psychiatric disorders. Maybe I have some engineering genes, but I want to make products—I want to make a battery of tests that can be translated into a real clinical setting."
Assistant Professor - Clinical, Equine Medicine and Surgery
When teaching takes the lead
People passing by the Galbreath Equine Center may admire its beautiful architecture without realizing it's one of world's premier hospitals for very special patients—ones who can tip the scale at over 1,000 pounds.
And each Ohio State veterinary student will spend some of his or her time caring for them.
Every year, about 160 students arrive from all over the world to study here and most of them anticipate a career caring for smaller animals. But to get their degree, they'll all spend some time in the equine center. Some of them find the idea of caring for horses terrifying. Some are seeing horses up close for the first time.
Those are the students Teresa Burns lives for. "I look for the hook," she says. "Everybody has a hook—something that can make what you're talking about relevant to their lives. Finding the hook, the 'Oh, cool!' moment for that student, is what makes this job exciting for me."
Teresa Burns, DVM, MS, PhD, DACVIM is an assistant professor in the Department of Veterinary Clinical Sciences. Her love of horses drew her to Ohio State. But at Ohio State, she discovered something she loved even more. Teaching students to care for them.
"This college attracts really good students," she says. "Maybe that brought all the proper elements together for me, personally, to want to teach. They're engaged, they want to know things, they're interested, they're enthusiastic—it's really hard not to enjoy interacting with people like that."
Burns believes that Ohio State gives her the freedom to perfect her skills. "We have a lot of creative license to experiment. Most professors here are formally trained in science; the trick is realizing that scientific thinking can be applied to teaching. You can do little experiments every day—'I tried this yesterday and it fell flat, so I'll try this today.' It's a little cauldron of learning experimentation that's really, really fun, especially if you're passionate about what you do. Students get into that—they feed off that." Burns believes there is another benefit to the Ohio State environment—access to the finest minds in the field. "Every faculty member in our department has a mentoring committee of more senior faculty members and peer evaluation. I have colleagues who are giants in the field, who you can see in the hallway and say, 'Hey, I've got a patient with a case of x. Have you seen this before? What do you think?' The people and the brains that are contained in this building—not to mention the university—is such a gem."
"That's one of the biggest changes I've seen at Ohio State in recent years, an emphasis on teaching," says Burns, "It's something President Drake has continued to focus on. Ohio State's research output is impressive and always gets a lot of press but the really good teachers at Ohio State are now being recognized as well. We've realized it needs to be a pillar of excellence."
Perhaps that's one of the reasons the Ohio State College of Veterinary Medicine consistently ranks in the top 5 schools in North America.
You see Burn's love for teaching each time she finds her student's "hook," because her next step is helping them develop a true connection with these special patients. "It happens when they learn how to read them—when you stand with students in front of the stall as the horse is responding to something and say 'See how it's ears are neutral and its lower lip is drooping; he's very calm and relaxed.' You explain it to them. Then they get familiarity. And then appreciation."
"I love that moment."
In 2015, Teresa Burns was a recipient of Ohio State's Alumni Award for Distinguished Teaching.
On her choice to come to Ohio State: "Looking back, if I had known then what I know now, I would have made the exact same choice but I would have had 1,000 other reasons why."
What she wishes someone had told her as a freshman: "You don't always have to be right. Ask more questions. Tinker a little bit more. Experiment a little bit more. Try some things and don't be afraid to fall on your face. That's honestly what I wish that someone had told me. It's OK to be wrong."
On the best way to prepare for success: Our profession, and a lot of professions, depend on collaboration, interpersonal communication and teamwork among colleagues. Sometimes that totally gets overlooked. Teamwork is a skill like anything else. How can you learn that if you're focused only on getting the best grades?
On Ohio State's academic reputation: "Just this morning, I was listening to Fresh Air on NPR and they were talking to a physics professor from Stanford about teaching methods. He said ' everyone is simply saying what does Stanford do, what does Harvard do, what does Ohio State do?' I thought, you just named three leading schools and Ohio State was one of them. That's where we are."
On creative approaches to academic collaboration: We're just gearing up for a project starting next month using equine-assisted therapy for elders with dementia. That's a collaboration between our college and the College of Social Work. People use horses for therapy quite a bit because horses are honest. They're not manipulative. They're very open in their responses. My therapist colleagues tell me that's very important for people who are working through a lot of emotional issues—'If I do this, then this honest being will give me this back. What I do matters.'"
On broadening your education: Most of our vet school students have degrees in animal science, zoology, biology, etc., but we also get people who are dance majors, music majors, English majors, etc. Those are fun people to talk to. It's fun to see people with diverse experience. With everyone talking about the same stuff, you can become myopic. It's a breath of fresh air to talk to someone who can teach me something
On teaching style: It's hard to just sit there and listen to someone drone on about something, even if you're really interested in the topic. You have to find that hook—some way to make it interesting. Just because you're doing something entertaining doesn't mean it's not educational. I just talk to people the way I want to be talked to. So I use a lot personal vignettes; I talk about what's going on in the clinic that day. The students are dying to get into the clinic and practice what they're learning. I say 'hey, this is what we're dealing with today; if you're free on your lunch hour, come over and see it."
Professor, Department of English
Where the wild stories are
Angus Fletcher speaks in a river of ideas. You barely have time to consider the implications of one before he cascades to the next. And yet, when he’s finished, you realize that he has been painting a big picture all along. It's all connected.
As Angus offers his point of view on neuroscience, engineering, Shakespeare, Hollywood, and the history of storytelling, he is actually explaining the elements of Project Narrative, a group of narrative scholars who are discovering where the wild stories are. The narratives beyond the tame, recycled and retread Hollywood plots. The powerful, motivating, unique stories in each of us.
The scholars of Project Narrative are changing our notions of what stories are and how they impact us.
That’s the essence of story science. Angus and his colleagues in Ohio State’s Project Narrative are working to discover how and why stories motivate our behavior. “Project Narrative is the number one institute in the world for the study of story science,” Angus says. “We recruit all the best story scientists in the world to come here and work.”
But aren’t new stories being written all the time? What is Project Narrative doing that’s different?
“Actually, for a long time people thought the science of story was that there was one great story, and there was one way the human mind worked,” Angus says. “If you could just find that one story, you could control everyone's minds. What's special about Project Narrative is we believe that there's hundreds of thousands of kinds of stories and there's hundreds of thousands of minds, and they're all very, very different.
“I got my start in the film industry when I was at Stanford and I began working with a team at Pixar. My background was Shakespeare and I was most interested in Shakespeare’s ability to invent whole new genres every couple of years. History plays, romantic comedy, tragedies─he was inventing these totally new styles, which is unheard of in history. No one had ever done that before.
“So I started talking with the guys at Pixar, because I thought they were basically doing the same thing. They had this whole kind of technological approach to creating new stories and communicating them. And I realized that this might be a way to “hack” Hollywood. Hollywood keeps telling the same stories over and over again. How do we get new stories into the system?”
Angus actually began his academic career studying neuroscience. And while one might assume that his interest in narrative and literary forms was a detour, the reality is that his path ultimately led him to the leading edge of our current understanding of the brain and how it works.
“One of the things we now know about the human brain is it's almost entirely narrative,” he says. “Your brain is just a giant story machine. For a very long time we thought that the human brain was special because it was more rational than the brains of other living things. But we're starting to realize that isn’t the case─ humans really aren't that rational at all.
“In fact, our specialness is the fact that we have this ability to assemble what you might think of as logics of cause and effect. We create stories, narratives─‘If this happens, then this happens, then this happens, then this happens.’ And those logics are bound up in our personal identity, the stories we tell ourselves about who we are.”
So what is the secret about stories? Why do the impact us the way they do? More important, how do storytellers use that to influence our behavior?
“The more we understand about the human brain, we realize the brain isn't particularly motivated by ideas,” Angus explains. “That's why you can take a philosophy class and think a lot, but not necessarily change your behaviors.”
“The human brain is motivated by actions. Stories are actions, which is why they can change people's behavior and encourage them to act in new ways. If you want to change the behavior of people around you, you have this amazing technology. Stories.”
Today, Angus is continuing his mission to “hack” Hollywood, push the boundaries of screenwriting with his Ohio State students, understand how narrative is being used to shape our behavior, and collaborate with the neuroscience studies at Ohio State’s Motivation and Cognitive Science Laboratory
The power of Ohio State to keep Angus inspired and motivated in all these pursuits is why he also recommends it as a first choice for new students. “The really wonderful thing about college is it's just like a million open doors. Each of them opens up a whole other world. You can walk down the hallway and in every one of these rooms there’s another experience, another adventure, another way of seeing the world."
So why not go to a place that has the most open doors? Why wouldn’t you come to Ohio State?
On the transformative impact of Ohio State: "It’s the vastness of opportunity. You can come here and transform yourself; you could be anything, because there's just so many possibilities here. And I've only been here a few years, but almost every day I encounter something that I did not have the slightest idea. It's like being in an exotic zoo where around every corner there's like this different species.”
On taking the time to explore: "If you only think about professionalization, you're really limiting your ceiling. When you go into that environment, it's all about staying afloat, keeping your head above water, this, that... And you don't really have the time and the luxury to think in big terms like, ‘What do I want to do? Is there a better way to do it? Can we back the truck up?’
The ideal relationship is the relationship between having this career perspective, having internships, but then using this environment to think more broadly. Innovation comes from being able to step back.”
His most unexpected benefit of going to college: "I can tell you exactly. So, again, I don't know if this is familiar or not, but basically I was trying to decide between the University of Michigan and Stanford, and Princeton, and Harvard, and Yale, and all these different places to go. And in the end I went to Michigan because of the money, because of the scholarship. But what I didn't expect was the experience of going to a public university, a public Big Ten university, would allow me to grow by meeting so many different kinds of people. And my classmates were all so different from me, and they were all so diverse. And if I'd gone to another kind of school, I would have met more people who are like me, in a certain way, and I wouldn't have grown as much, and wouldn't have learned as much, and I wouldn't have had the courage to do so many things. I wouldn't have been exposed to so many kinds of experiences.”
On the purpose of college: "There's all sorts of different theories about what college is for. On one extreme there's the, "Oh, it's to get a job." And on the other extreme there's this kind of, "Find yourself." And I believe that stories are a way to do both of those at once. Because I think if you can find the story you want to tell, that connects you with the community that can tell that story, and that it is telling that story, that's your career.”
Why he loves teaching: "First of all, I learn every day in the classroom. I learn a ton in the classroom. And I learn because there are so many questions... Also, my students watch much more TV than I do. They watch much more film than I do. They listen to much more interesting music than I listen to. If I didn't hang out with my students, I wouldn't know half the cool things that I listen to, or know half the novels that I've read. And they're just an endless source of great stories, both in terms of their own lives and in terms of the greater world. So I get all that from my students. And the other thing is, at the end of the day, the reason that I'm doing this is because I'm interested in changing the narrative. More than anything else, I think that there are more stories to be told, more stories that need to be told. And I think we need to work together to tell those stories.”
On the ideal teaching environment: “Well, I think the ideal teaching environment is reactive. What I mean by that is we're able to engage with the student and react to the students. So I prefer small one-on-one interactions with students, I like to break my classes up into small, intensive problem solving groups, where each student works on their problem and I work with them closely on that problem. I've taught huge lectures before. I used to teach 500 person lectures in Stanford. And those can be very, very effective in a certain way. But even in those contexts, you always want to be able to engage individually with students, and work with their set of problems, their set of curiosities.”
On finding your career: “A lot of people say, ‘Think about what you want to be, think about what you want to do with your life." Instead, I encourage students to think about what you want to know, to think about questions, to think about the big problems out there. They can be questions about yourself, about the world, about politics, about society, about animals─ anything.
Because if you follow a question deeply, that will lead you to all these different areas in answering it that you never anticipated or expected. I started out wanting to know how the brain worked. I was like, ‘Brains are so weird…Why do I remember some things and not others? Why do I fall in love with these people, but not these people? Why do I have these enthusiasms, and these passions, but not these?’ And I just wanted to understand how it worked. And so I worked in this lab. And then the more I worked in the lab, the more I started to understand, well, so much of it was about stories and narrative, and all these kinds of things that I couldn't learn about in science.
So when I graduated, I then applied to a PhD program in English. I went there. Everyone at the PhD program thought I was insane. 'Cause this was Yale, and they were like, "What are you talking about? Brains? What?" [laughs]
But I followed my questions. They took me to Stanford, at a humanities institute where I was allowed to do a lot of cool work. And then I got hired in a theater department at USC, where I had no knowledge of theater. I didn't start out with any knowledge of film, but just my questions about how the brain works.
So maybe that's the number one thing. Just find something that you're really curious about. Find something that you can be curious about your whole life. You get up every day, you grow, you learn. That's the most important thing.
Darcy Haag Granello, Ph.D., LPCC-S
Professor, Counselor Education
The gatekeepers’ question
They’re called gatekeepers. They’ve learned how to ask a question that saves lives─at this point, it’s hard to count exactly how many.
And to think it all started when Darcy Haag Granello was meeting with Columbian drug lords.
“I was a Politics and Economics major in college,” she begins. “I actually have a master's degree in Latin American Economics, which is not a normal path for Mental Health Counseling! I interned at the UN, and did a thesis on the drug wars. I lived in Columbia and met drug lords there.”
Exciting times for a young student. But Granello began to notice something about her interests.
“I realized that I was actually intrigued by how the people managed conflict and how they worked things out,” she says. “And the more I got involved with the UN, the more I really realized that that's what I was interested in.
“My husband at the time was studying counseling, and I just started reading his text books. I'm like, ‘Oh no, no, no. That's what interests me!’ So, I went back to school and got a master’s in Mental Health Counseling, then earned a PhD in Counselor Education from Ohio University. My husband and I both ended up taking jobs at Ohio State. Today, the program I teach admits the best students in the country. We work with them intensely for a couple years and then graduate the best therapists in the country. I can't fathom being anywhere else.”
Granello learned, just as so many professors and students at Ohio State have, that it’s not always easy to predict where your education path will lead. The important thing is to be in an environment where the influences surround you.
Sadly, another unexpected and tragic turn led Granello into a mission that has affected untold lives. In 1999, a family member committed suicide.
“My husband and I are suicide survivors─the people who are left behind,” she says. “And we did what a lot of survivors do, which is to try to make some meaning or purpose or something come out of this just horrible event. We wrote three books on training counselors. My husband had a federal grant to screen 35,000 middle and high-school kids in Ohio for depression. And then some grants became available in 2005 to start college campus suicide prevention programs. So, I thought, well I can do that one! We wrote a grant that got six years of funding. In the past three years the University has taken over funding of that project. Today, we have the largest suicide prevention program of any campus in the country.”
Students who learn Granello’s basics of suicide prevention are called gatekeepers, and her team has already trained over 9,000 of them. They learn to recognize the signs of emotional distress and have the confidence to approach a stranger to ask a single, important question: “Are you OK?” More important, they know where to send the student who says, “no, I’m not.”
“If you think about it, it's like CPR. We call it psychological first aid,” she says. “For all the people we teach in CPR, the chances of encountering a person who is suicidal is far greater than encountering a person who's stopped breathing. But we don’t teach that.
“I remember campus suicides when I was a student. And it was always, ‘Oh, he was so quiet,’ and no one knew anything was wrong. Except people did know, because 90% of people demonstrate warning signs and 80% of people tell someone they plan to kill themselves in the week before they die. The problem is the people that they tell don't know what to do.”
Granello spearheaded “RUOK?” day at campus, teaching students to text their friends and family when they’re concerned and knowing how to respond to those in trouble. “This autumn,” Granello says, “there was a young man walking across campus. He encountered another student who had been to RUOK? Day and was wearing our t-shirt that says RUOK? on the back. The young man tapped him on the shoulder and says, "No, I'm not, and you're the only person who's asked me." The student knew what to do. He knew how to get that person over to services. He saved that young man's life just because he was wearing a t-shirt.
“We have hundreds of stories like that of people saving lives with the smallest gesture, the smallest outreach. A police officer saved his brother's life because he turned the car around after spending the weekend with him. The officer told me, "You trained me five years ago, but I could still hear your voice in my head saying, if it doesn't feel right, do something." When he got to his brother's house, his brother was at the kitchen table writing a suicide note. There's a gun on the table. He saved his brother’s life.
“A horrible tragedy changed my entire path. But today people are telling us Ohio State has the best program in the country, which really means we’re helping people finding meaning and hope out of something that's so hopeless, like suicide.
“To turn that tragedy around into this experience has been the most amazing part of my professional life─it’s a gift. I have the best life,” she chuckles. “I just do.”
Granello isn’t the only one. Because of her and the dedicated gatekeepers at Ohio State, people she’ll never even know are able to say, “Yes, I’m OK, Darcy. Thank you.”
On exploring options at Ohio State: "I think we put so much pressure on young people to have decisions made when they're 18 about what they're going to do for the rest of their lives and you don't even know what's out there. How could you possibly know? And thank God I'm not doing now what I thought I was going to do at 18. Thank God none of us are. So I think finding a balance, and I know education is expensive and I know there's pressure, but finding a balance between that and letting you explore the great big old world out there is important.”
On outside perception of Ohio State: “We always say go 30 miles from home and you're an expert! [laughter] Perception of Ohio State around the world isn't lagging, but here in Ohio, it's quite possible that it is. My husband and I get called to go everywhere. We do a lot of work together and nobody questions that. Instead, it’s like, "Oh, you're the expert─you're from Ohio State. Got it."
If there’s one thing she wished everyone knew about suicide: “Suicide is preventable and suicide prevention is a shared campus responsibility. We all have to take it on. It's not something that we can just say, ‘well, the counseling center does it.’ They do a great job but if people aren't there, how can they help?”
On the support she gets from Ohio State: “The University has been wonderful about it. The Vice President for Student Affairs, Dr J. [Javaune AdamsGaston], is the one who agreed to pick up the funding. The graduate school pays for part of the funding. The College of Education and Human Ecology pays for a part of the funding. So does CETE, Center for Employment and Education Training. Everybody has picked up part of the effort. It’s great.”
On integrating suicide awareness into mainstream student life: “We have training modules that First Year Experience students can go through. We do the same with STEP. We offer training to all of our STEP faculty. I'm a STEP faculty member and have been since the beginning, which is great, super fun. One of the opportunities that the STEP students can take advantage of is working with us. That can be their internship or it can be their community service project, if they want to do that.
We recently had Semicolon Day. You know, when an author is writing and they come to the end of a thought, they can either put a period but or put a semicolon and choose to go on. So, the author is you and the semicolon is your life.
We had 5000 temporary semicolon tattoos. Again, it just starts a conversation. A lot of our undergraduate students get involved in these student groups. And then some of them chose to go on into graduate school and fields in mental health because they see the impact that these kinds of things can have. It's super wonderful.”
On the college transformational experience: "The magic happens in between when you start and when you leave. It’s the same thing that happens in counseling─ you come in, all the stuff happens, and you come out this different person. But it’s the you that you intentionally create, not the you that you've just become by osmosis. And that's exciting to me, its the intentionality behind you as the designer of your own life. You as the designer of your life get to choose and try and do things and trying different behaviors and personas and figure that out, so that you didn't just get there at the end by accident, you got there in an intentional process, an intentional way. Wow, that's super exciting.”
What she wishes someone had told her as a freshman: I wish someone had told me to relax and to just be. To worry less about controlling everything or managing everything, and trust the process. 'I had a student say ‘it feels like I'm trusting a journey I don't understand.’ But I believe that you will end up where you need to be if you are intentional about taking advantage of opportunities that come your way and working toward the kind of person you want to become, then the other stuff will take care of itself.
Maybe that's unfair when you're 18. Maybe that’s an insight that only works when you're older. But trust yourself, trust the process, relax, know you're good enough, know that whatever you bring is enough. It's gonna be fine. Be gentle with yourself, be kind to yourself and just know that it'll be fine, it will be okay. Sorry, I’m being kind of counselory! [laughs]”
Professor, Department of Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering
Ohio State Engineering—The Oval and the Loop
Engineers call it a feedback loop. It happens when the output of a process is used to modify the input—sometimes to create a state of continual improvement.
Engineering students have walked the Oval at Ohio State for decades, often focused on their individual paths and careers. Many don't yet realize they're also part of a loop connecting them in ways that will influence them for a lifetime.
Part of the reason for that connection is Krishnaswamy Srinivasan, a professor in the Department of Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering. For nearly 40 years, a man affectionately known to his students and colleagues as Cheena has been a force in the continual improvement of the department. And yes, he knows a thing or two about feedback loops.
When he was Associate Chair of the department in 1999, Cheena wanted to understand how students experienced the college. "We spoke with every graduating senior—hour-long debriefing sessions with groups of 15 or 20. We wanted to know what they felt about Ohio State. We learned, we took notes, and we've continued to do that every year since 1999."
"I personally talked to thousands of students."
That's the first loop—one that has created an environment of continual reassessment and development of the college. But there was more to come.
"One of the things mechanical engineering graduates told us was they wanted much more of a hands-on experience. They didn't want to feel disadvantaged when they go out for a job—over-prepared in using computers and modeling, but less prepared in dealing with the physical artifacts, the machine parts, the things they were developing."
Which kicked off another feedback loop.
"In 2009, we then invited alumni to come for a working session, both recent alumni as well as alumni from the last two decades. They shared with us what is good about their training and what could be improved."
The session inspired an innovative wrinkle in the mechanical engineering curriculum that made waves throughout the industry. "We developed a sophomore-level course that gives our students a solid hands-on experience. They build and program a fully functional, six-cylinder radial compressed air motor controlled by an microprocessor. So, they get to learn about programming the microprocessor as each student personally machines the cylinders."
We often hear the term precision engineering, but by their sophomore years, Ohio State students personally experience the challenge of fabricating a cylinder block within .001” of specifications.
"They get to know what that means. And then they have the tremendous satisfaction of seeing these air motors work from compressed air at 2,000 RPM. I mean, it's extraordinary!"
As these students delight at seeing their projects burst into life, other people are noticing—particularly industry professionals who rave about Ohio State's innovative approach to engineering education, a delicate balance between hands-on experience and understanding the big picture. Srinivasan firmly believes that engineering is far more than the details of the immediate problem but also understanding its value relative to other components, the overall context, and even the societal setting.
Building a premier engineering institution means helping students develop minds that embrace the big picture, exactly the kind of minds employers count on to anticipate how their solutions will fit into a rapidly evolving world.
And so begins the third loop. Students are connected to that world and those employers by the alumni who preceded them, the ones who have created an indelible impression of Ohio State engineers who can understand problems conceptually and have experience in solving them personally. And that's created a demand for them.
"Say you have a company, for example General Motors," says Srinivasan, "they've hired Ohio State grads before and have had good experiences with them, so they return to Ohio state and the liaisons they use for hiring are usually alumni." In response, the college of Engineering has built an infrastructure to support that loop through its career services office.
But the loop goes deeper and is more important than that. Srinivasan tries to ensure the college maintains a lifelong relationship with alumni regardless of hiring opportunities. "Graduates often recognize that they have benefitted from being alumni of Ohio State in many ways," he says. "We've invested many years connecting with them even without relying on career services opportunities or a company that's hiring. They're a continual source of strength for our institution."
"Even when those alumni have retired, the links survive."
And even as new freshman enroll at Ohio State, the loop continues.
Professor Srinivasan has been awarded the President and Provost's Award for Distinguished Faculty Service.
On his choice to come to Ohio State: "I had always been attracted to the notion of being a teacher. I love scholarship, the ability to delve into questions that you find interesting or challenging. And I've always enjoyed opportunities to work with people who are at the stage where I could offer them knowledge and guidance."
Where he finds his balance at Ohio State: "Scholarship and classroom teaching. I've always wanted to be a person who does both aspects well. What I do in scholarship assists me in my teaching and what I learn as a teacher impacts my scholarship."
The importance of outlook: "In 1992, I had the opportunity to go to the National Science Foundation as Program Director. My stay there broadened my outlook in several ways. I became much more aware of what was going on in other countries, much more than sitting in my office as a faculty member. All of that benefitted me here."
On personal impact on an organization: "I became Department Chair for the mechanical engineering department in 2000 and served for 12 years. We often don't anticipate how significant those responsibilities are because as faculty members we tend to focus on our individual activities, our scholarship and our teaching, and we think that's all there is. But an organization is an organization and the advancement of that organization depends upon people who advance its goals, not necessarily their own.
On the alumni connection: "Connecting with alumni became a big part of what I do. They are our lifeline in more ways that financial support. As an institution, this is our product—the people we graduate."
How alumni influence the department's direction: "Alumni are a huge resource in terms of guidance. They carry our name wherever they go. A big part of my broader experience is learning about the value they got from their education and how it impacted their life choices—I carry that with me."
His current focus at Ohio State: "I stepped down as Department Chair in 2012 to get back to activities I had let go of—particularly teaching. I have been teaching more as well as re-engaging in research. In a sense, I'm back where I started and I'm really enjoying this phase of my life."
What he's learned as a teacher: "To be a very effective teacher is a challenge because you're communicating with a variety of people from different backgrounds. When I stated, my way of communicating was more geared to analytical learners. I learned there is a breadth of learning styles and you have to make a conscious effort to connect with them. For example, giving the big picture first is important to some people, it's part of their motivation. They need to see that before the details are of any value or interest to them."
On other ways of connecting with students: "I've learned the importance of connecting with students at a level that goes beyond simply communicating the information. If they recognize the humanity in you they share that and it adds value to the lecture. There are many ways of doing that, it can be a joke or referring to something happening in the current political or social scene. It's an important special connection."
How Ohio State has changed over the years: "I think our graduate student populations are much more aware of connections across disciplines. That is, mechanical engineers are not just dealing with planes and automobiles, they will be dealing with the mechanical behavior of parts of our body, right down to the cells. So, that kind of awareness—it's now more in the disciplines themselves."
On the relationship he tries to build with students: "I would value it most if they see me as approachable in a variety of contexts. They should feel comfortable raising their hand in the classroom or come to my office if they have doubts about what's going on. That's the classroom environment—with the one-on-one relationship you have with graduate students it's a matter of establishing a mode of interaction that suits that person. That's my role as a mentor."
Professor, Orchestral Instruments
When comparing the viola to other string instruments, Juliet White-Smith puts it this way: "it's a harder instrument, because we have to coax the sound out of it."
Perhaps without realizing it, she has also just described why she is a cherished teacher. We'll come back to that.
Sometimes the viola is overlooked, nestled in orchestras and string chambers between the better-known violins and cellos. Yet its unique tone—higher pitched than cellos, darker and richer than violins—is unmistakable.
Given the choice, Beethoven, Bach, and Mozart all preferred playing the viola over the violin when playing in ensembles. They found its exquisite, mellow sound irresistible. Yet it's also the instrument of choice for movie composers during melancholy or sad scenes. As the Los Angeles Times once wryly noted, "It's been said that if a baby dies, that's a viola solo."
White-Smith began her musical career as violinist, but when she began playing the viola, she realized she had found her voice. While she was studying for her Master's degree at Houston, she switched instruments. "I realized I'm not as high strung as a violin player," she jokes.
But she was able to master an instrument that has challenged other violin players. "It's acoustically imperfect," she says. "While the violin is the perfect size and shape for its pitch range, a viola should actually look like a mini cello—a lot bigger than it is now—which would be impossible to play."
White-Smith earned her Doctor of Musical Arts at the prestigious Eastman School of Music, soon establishing an international reputation. She's served as president of the American Viola Society, been a recording artist, written articles on music and pedagogy, and performed as a soloist and chamber musician in North America, Europe, Asia and Africa.
But long before that, as an undergraduate at LSU, she discovered a second talent—teaching.
"The summer after my sophomore year, my violin professor went off to South America," she says. "She needed to leave her pre-college studio in the hands of a couple of her students. I had the less-experienced kids. And that's where I discovered I really enjoyed teaching."
For the rest of her career, White-Smith has split her time between coaxing music out of the viola and coaxing music out of people. Today, her students at Ohio State range from undergraduates to PhD and DMA candidates. And while they are among the most gifted students in the country, they can still struggle with self-doubt. One of her first steps is helping them realize the music is already there, waiting to be released.
"I make it clear to my students—from a standpoint of how they play their instrument and how they think about music—by telling them 'I don't care about how you come in here. I care about how you leave here. In a way, I have a crystal ball. It's foggy, but I can see your potential within that. It's up to you and your work ethic whether or not that fog starts to dissipate and you also see it.'"
To White-Smith, the arts are an essential human endeavor. And she thinks that's why all Ohio State students—no matter what their course of study— are fortunate. "We're surrounded by so many concerts, dance recitals, theater, gallery showings—it's vibrant here. And all of our organizations are trying our best to connect with the communities' arts organizations. Sometimes arts are seen as an elective but it's the way people have always expressed themselves, either through writing, through visual arts, through music. It's the thing that lasts."
"When I think back to what exists from previous civilizations, it's their art."
White-Smith also believes that nourishing our creativity can impact each of us in ways we often don't recognize. Because of her aptitude for math, she had to make a choice very early in her life between a career in engineering or music. A friend of hers who works at a major technology company recently remarked to her, "Juliet, I wish more of these people coming out of engineering school had that creative discipline because they can't problem solve in the same way. They kind of get locked into the mechanics of an issue. But that level of creativity would have them look at it in a bigger way and come up with better solutions as a result."
That may provide a clue to what truly drives White-Smith as a teacher— something deeper than mastering the notes. It's helping her students find their way to the very best version of themselves.
"I tell students that I'm not really...teaching is just my job. My actual role is mentor. Coach. Even life coach. The viola is the venue though which I help you grow and become the best human being that you can be."
"'I'm here to raise humans, I think.' That's what I tell them. 'I'm raising humans and we just happen to have music, especially the viola, in common.'"
On the breadth and depth of Ohio State: "We're well known for our reputation as string and music educators and we really stand out because our school of music exists in an enormous university. As a result, we often attract people who want to double major because whatever else they want to major in, it exists here and at a very high level. We set ourselves apart as being able to accommodate that kind of student."
Unexpected benefits of an Ohio State music education: "We have a lot of students whose music degree or creative experiences here prepare them for law school, it prepares them for med school, because those schools are looking for people who have creative thought processing, can problem solve, and have discipline, which being in the practice room by yourself really prepares you for."
On her student, the doctor: "I have a student who chose Ohio State because he's planning to go to Med School when he leaves here. He's already got the best bedside manner of anybody and he's developing that through his connections and the creativity. He's a happier person because he can keep his music up and keep it at a very high level at Ohio State."
On Columbus: "The thing about Columbus is it seems like it's been a place where people kind of pass through or create a career and then move on to somewhere. But now it's starting to become a destination place. And it's kind of a neat thing to be on the front end of. There's so much potential for the Arts here. The new music director of the Columbus Symphony has brought just an incredible energy to the organization.
"[Orange Is the New Black author] Piper Kerman just moved here within the last year I believe. It's not like, 'Oh, you start here and then you go to New York' anymore. New Yorkers are now moving here. People are coming here as this Big City experience that has everything they want."
Columbus perception vs. reality: "I remember sitting at a meeting recently and someone said, 'people poopoo Columbus.' But this was an experience this person had 20 years ago. I don't see it that way. To me, this city has changed and is still evolving and whatever reputation it had, it's overcome. I'm not sure that everyone always sees that yet but I think it's in the process of evolving into something really quite incredible."
How Ohio State opens doors: "Some of the things that I was struggling with at other institutions just started to fix themselves automatically once I was associated with the name Ohio State. And then it's like wow, and the opportunities I'm getting. The first grant I got here was for International Travel Award through Arts and Sciences. In November, I went to Vietnam for the first time to do outreach and teach about western classical music. I'll be going back a couple times this year coming up."