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Commons Room

A Slice of Campus Life

  (Mark Bender illustration)


Morning light filters through the soaring stained-glass windows of Heinz Memorial Chapel, illuminating a solitary figure perched at the console of a massive pipe organ. With his long, slender fingers, William B. Thomas gently pulls the organ’s stop-knobs to get the sound just right, to make the chapel vibrate in divine synchrony with his own soul.Then, Thomas leans into the instrument and his fingers begin a slow, flowing dance across its keys.

His feet, dressed for the occasion in black patent leather, slide almost imperceptibly along the pedals. As he plays, the music progresses, gaining momentum, until the organ’s triumphant cries reverberate throughout the empty sanctuary. “The purpose of the organ is to move you,” says Thomas, a professor of administrative and policy studies in Pitt’s School of Education. “It is possible, with the appropriate tones, to make a person cry, to give a person goose bumps.”

Thomas first got those goose bumps in 1953, when his family traveled from home in segregated Virginia to Riverside Church on Manhattan’s Upper West Side for Easter Sunday.

Inside the famous cathedral, the African American teenager sat among New York’s mostly white upper class and listened to renowned organist Virgil Fox perform. After the service, Thomas told his mother he was going to learn to play just like Fox. “Go to it,” she told him.

So for the past half-century, Thomas has worked to master the organ. He doesn’t like to perform for an audience, but rather plays largely for himself, in search of the same private feeling of transcendence he experienced at Riverside. During college, he practiced late into the night in the school music hall. When Fulbright grants took him to Denmark and Belgium, Thomas played vintage organs in local churches. On a trip to Paris, he arranged to play Boëllmann’s “Suite Gothique” in the awe inspiring Notre Dame Cathedral.

Thomas bought his first organ in 1970. Two years ago, unwilling to let arthritis slow him down, he upgraded to a top-of-the-line digital organ with three keyboards, which he uses to serenade his wife, Karen, in their living room. And every Monday, he plays alone for three hours in Heinz Memorial Chapel, where the 4,272 pipes of the Reuter organ have the power to make the stones of the building and his heart sing together in rapture.

“Here at Pitt, I am able to enjoy one of the prizes of the institution,” Thomas says. “It is truly a magnificent instrument.”

During this morning’s practice in the chapel, Thomas readies the organ’s commanding trumpets for “Amazing Grace.” He closes his eyes, letting his fingers and feet move by memory along the peaks and valleys of the classic hymn. I once was lost, but now am found. Was blind, but now I see. Hallelujah, the organ bellows. Hallelujah!
—Jennifer Bails

Adding It Up

(Mark Bender illustration)

Eighteen expectant faces want Bard Ermentrout to do one thing: make math cool. The teenagers are gathered in a Thackeray Hall classroom. The amiable Ermentrout, a longtime Pitt math professor and parent of two teens, is no stranger to the cool factor that often keeps groups of high schoolers like this one from engaging in math. But he has tools—a wall-size white board, colored markers, and a passion for biological mathematics.

He pushes up his glasses and breaks the ice with a few political jokes. Then he asks the students to tap their fingers in rhythm, first together, then out of synch, noting the shifting pattern of the raindrop symphony. Guess what? The patterns are, well, mathematical. The students, now awake and intrigued, are attending Math Days, a three-day summer camp hosted by the University of Pittsburgh.

Pitt math professors Anna Vainchtein and Beatrice Riviere started the camp last year, inspired by a revealing conversation with a freshman. The student asked: “Is there anything left in mathematics to study?” To expand students’ horizons beyond memorizing formulas and merely studying to pass standardized tests, Vainchtein and Riviere recruited professors and graduate students from Pitt’s math department to teach anything but Algebra 101.

At this year’s camp, the high schoolers are learning how to apply math to pigeon navigation and to the cryptography of ISBNs (the numbers above book barcodes). They’re taking a field trip to the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center—a collaboration between Pitt, Carnegie Mellon University, and the Westinghouse Electric Company—and mingling with Pitt’s math mavens at a pizza lunch mixer. Riviere says it’s especially important for the girls, who still tend to avoid careers in math and science. “We hope that seeing female mathematicians here encourages them to choose a mathematics major when they go to college.”

In Ermentrout’s session, after the finger-tapping exercise, he writes complex mathematical equations on the whiteboard and explains that the numbers predict biological changes in nerve cells. How? The equations reflect the fact that neurons send signals when they’ve been filled up with a certain number, or threshold, of chemicals. He even manages to compare mathematical similarities between the inner workings of neurons and...toilets. The students crack smiles. Who knew math had anything to do with toilets?

On the camp’s last day, a survey shows that Ermentrout’s lecture was especially popular. Maybe that’s because he gave the students an answer to that age-old math class question: How will we ever use this stuff?
—Paul Ruggiero

Grant It

Fifty miles into the trip, the travelers ease into conversation. It took awhile to get comfortable, but now all of them have stowed their carry-on bags, duly noted the turnpike scenery, and settled comfortably into the cushions of the coach bus. Chatter rises as those on board ask their seat-neighbors the standard introductory question on this annual trip for Pitt and other local university professors: What department are you in?

Up and down the aisle, academic passions are revealed—anthropology, history, public health, rehabilitation science. Steadily, as the miles roll by, a bus community forms. Noticing the rise of conversation, a psychologist sporting a trendy patch of beard removes his iPod earbuds, a sportswear-clad blond economist closes his cell phone, and an African studies expert with upswept braids puts her book down to join the discourse.

There’s a low murmur of voices as the bus rolls through tunnels, across the Mason-Dixon Line, ever closer to the Capitol Beltway. The psychology professor, Timothy Nokes, joins the buzz session, explaining his research about how people gain an understanding of complex concepts in realms like physics and mathematics. Others chime into conversations, asking questions, adding their own views.

The next morning, all of the professors gather for the trip’s official purpose—Pitt’s annual Federal Agency Briefing Session. It’s a chance for them to meet grant directors from government and nonprofit organizations to gain insights and practical tips about obtaining research funding, which can be a daunting task for faculty, especially junior members.

George Klinzing—Pitt’s vice provost for research and the W.K. Whiteford Professor of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering in Pitt’s School of Engineering—organized this session to provide face-to-face time with grant directors. A decade ago, he realized federal grant directors would be more willing to dispense personal advice if they only had to walk 10 minutes from their busy offices. So he chartered a bus to the Washington, D.C., area, the nation’s hub for grant-giving institutions. What started as a trip for professors in the so-called “hard sciences,” like chemistry and physics, has expanded to include researchers from across the University spectrum.

Standing in front of a slide show screen, Klinzing—who was recently named a Fellow in Engineering by the prestigious American Association for the Advancement of Science—introduces a representative from the Institute of Education. She launches into an overview of the research her institute funds, peppering the talk with a refrain echoed throughout the day: Call your grant advisor. We’re regular folks, not heckling gatekeepers.

After the presentation, Nokes meets her outside. It turns out they’ve already been working together on one of his grant proposals but have communicated only via e-mail and phone. They shake hands. Here she is, a friendly grant advisor, in the flesh. After a few minutes of networking, Nokes ducks back into the conference room for the next talk.

When the full-day session ends, the professors return to the bus. This time, no one needs to warm up for conversation. As the bus heads toward the Appalachians, they share ideas, get feedback, and are primed to tackle that next grant application.
—Cara J. Hayden

  (Mark Bender illustration)

Popular Culture

The slinky lion takes another pull from the liquor jar. Then he plucks a head of lettuce off the floor with his giant maw. A drumbeat builds as he chews…thwack! The lion spits the leaves at a table of elegantly dressed ladies who throw up their hands and giggle. The beast blinks and staggers, then rears up to the applause of onlookers decked out in tuxedos, saris, and kimonos.

Rachel Shepherd is pleased that the crowd is delighted, but she’s too busy to watch the Chinese Drunken Lion Dance herself. She has to wade through 500 partygoers to track down the belly dancer, the next performer at the spring gala for Pittsburgh’s Silk Screen Asian American Film Festival. Shepherd, a Pitt senior, is interning with the festival.

She’s spent months helping to plan this elaborate 10-day affair. When she interviewed for the position, enthusiastic festival director Harish Saluja, who has given lectures on film and world culture at Pitt, inspired her with his belief that cultural exchange will one day eliminate intercultural conflict. “I was touched by how much he cared,” she says. “After I got off the phone with him, I thought, ‘I want to help.’”

For one night, Shepherd and 50 other volunteers have transformed an unfinished room in downtown’s cultural district into what the festival program calls “the most exotic and colorful party in Pittsburgh.” Six buffet tables steam with Indian somosa potato pastries, Chinese shrimp lo mein, and Japanese sweet okowa rice; goldfish swim in glass cylinders next to the wine selection; pastel sari cloths drape from the ceiling; and bamboo poles and pink flowers relax in every window. Even the restrooms are strung with white paper lanterns.

Over the next week and a half, four local theaters will unspool stories of characters ranging from an Iranian war correspondent to Thai cowboys. Twenty Asian and Asian American films will be showcased. Shepherd, an English writing and film studies major, is looking forward to expanding the repertoire of films she has seen—and her knowledge of Asian culture and storytelling.

When the party is still going at 11 p.m., Shepherd’s feet are sore. As she clears tables, Indian club music throbs, and a colorful mob of guests from distant corners of the world come together to dance. It’s all in service to a bigger dream: a better world through cultural understanding.


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