Paying It Forward: Weissman Alum Nurtures Tomorrow’s Journalists

High school journalism plays a pivotal role in nurturing curious and creative young minds, those that will one day keep the world informed and engaged, and maybe have a crack at that notorious first draft of history.

Last month, Baruch College hosted The Newsies—a competition organized and run by Prof. Geanne Belton recognizing excellence in public high school journalism across New York City. It honored winners from 11 different high school newspapers across the five boroughs, selected by a panel of distinguished journalists and educators. One of those educators was Christian Lewis, Baruch ’21, who now serves as a teacher at Bay Ridge High School.

Before taking up teaching, Lewis was a journalism major who picked up the bug during his own stint at a high school newspaper. Now, three years on from his own graduation, he’s doing his part to inspire the writers of the future, restarting a newspaper in his own high school at Bay Ridge, Brooklyn — a passion project that is showing some serious promise.

“When I first started teaching, it was at the high school that I went to. When I was a student there, we had a newspaper. When I came back to teach, it was gone. So I started pushing to start one back up, and we eventually got it off the ground this year. This is a full circle moment for me – and I’m hoping it will do for my students, what it did for me.”

The second incarnation of the Bay Ridge High School newspaper will launch its first online publication in June. And, if things go to plan, a printed version will be published every six weeks or so. It’s a lot of pressure, on both the educators and the budding young journalists. But Lewis believes in the cause, and of the many transferable skills journalism provides.

“My pitch to everyone is: even if you don’t want to be a journalist, you can still learn something from journalism. Whether it’s how to approach and talk to people, how to take photos, how to edit or how to write. In journalism, there’s a useful tool for everybody.”

Echoes From the Deep: How a Baruch College Scientist Is Learning to Speak ‘Sperm Whale’

In the azure waters surrounding the Caribbean island of Dominica, scientists are making headway toward unraveling the language of the sperm whale, an endeavor that could pave the way for improved conservation strategies and may even transform long-held beliefs about human exceptionalism on our planet. In a paper published on May 7th, Baruch College’s Distinguished Professor of Biology and Environmental Sciences David Gruber, a leading figure in this research and president of the Cetacean Translation Initiative (CETI), says the findings are uncovering the “phonetic alphabet” used by sperm whales to construct complex vocal sequences, akin to human words and phrases.

Sperm whales communicate through a series of rapid clicks often classified into larger groupings called codas — sounding something like an underwater Morse code. Scientists believe these sounds serve dual purposes. On the one hand, they act as a form of echolocation for hunting, and on the other they seem to represent an intricate system of communication within their tightly-knit social groups.

To gather the necessary data on this language system, Gruber’s team set up a vast underwater recording studio. This setup included microphones arrayed at multiple depths and tags attached to the whales to record their position and behavior during vocalizations — to see whether they were diving, sleeping, or interacting with others of their species.

From this extensive dataset of recorded whale codas, Gruber and his team discovered that the vocalizations possess both “contextual” and “combinatorial” structures. This means that the whales adjust their codas based on the perceived social context and often use different combinations of vocal elements to create a wide variety of signals, much like words in a sentence.

One significant finding of this study was the identification of unique features within the codas, what have been termed “rubato” and “ornamentation.” Rubato in whale communication involves subtle timing variations within a coda; ornamentation refers to the addition of extra clicks at the end of codas, which appear to serve specific communicative functions not previously recognized. These discoveries suggest that sperm whale communication is not only about emitting basic cues but involves a sophisticated use of vocal patterns, tones, and contextual meaning that can convey detailed information and possibly emotional expression. 

Gruber’s enthusiasm is clear when he talks about the potential of this research not only to protect these animals but also to offer insights into the evolutionary aspects of communication systems across different species. “We’re now starting to find the first building blocks of a whale language,” he said. By shedding light on how sperm whales communicate, this research expands our knowledge of marine biology and provides insights into our own place in the unfolding chain of cognitive development. 

The Power of Portraiture: Prof. Lizbeth De La Cruz and Baruch College Students Humanize Deportation Through Art

The bustling heart of New York City may seem a far cry from the remote deserts and rivers that mark the boundaries between nations, but Dr. Lizbeth De La Cruz, a newly appointed Assistant Professor in Baruch College’s Black and Latino Studies Department, has spent years working on a project that bridges communities and distance through the power of art and storytelling. Her latest endeavor, The El Paso del Norte mural project, captures transnational migration narratives, freshly illuminating the intricacies of U.S.-Mexico migration policies and their impacts on individuals’ lives.

Soon to span a vast canvas of concrete along the Rio Grande, also known as Río Bravo in Mexico, the mural vividly portrays the diverse experiences of Latinx and Black migrants—each with a unique story of migration, incarceration, or deportation. This project, according to Professor De La Cruz, is “not just about creating art; it’s about telling stories that need to be heard, about humanizing the dehumanized.”

The mural features thirteen large portraits, each ten feet by ten feet, bringing to life the faces and voices of deported veterans, asylum seekers, and undocumented youth drawn from the archives of Humanizing Deportation, a community based digital audio storytelling platform. By depicting the Rio Grande/Río Bravo not just as a geographical marker but as a symbol of ongoing socio-political strife, this project endeavors to capture the pathos of the often-faceless statistics of migration.

Equally poignant is the project’s harnessing of the collective efforts of Baruch students, almost 90% of whom are either the children of immigrants, or immigrants themselves. De La Cruz emphasizes the importance of this collaboration: “It’s about layering the skills these students are going to be able to use later on in life—to say, ‘I understand this on a different level than just indifferently studying it. I understand it emotionally.” Students from her classes on the “U.S.- Mexican Border” and “Latinx Communities in the U.S” have been directly involved in painting the portraits, making steady progress each week, turning theoretical knowledge into practical, empathetic application.

A unique aspect of the mural is its interactive component. QR codes accompany each portrait and link to detailed stories of the individuals depicted, allowing passersby to hear directly from the migrants in their own voices. “This digital narrative is crucial,” De La Cruz notes, “because it turns passive observers into active listeners, bridging the distance between the subject of the mural and the viewer.”

By focusing on deported U.S. military veterans and families affected by migration policies, the mural also ventures into the darker sides of the United States’ policies on citizenship, challenging viewers to reconsider the human cost of stringent immigration laws and the realities of deportation. The inclusion of diverse narratives, from young activists to veterans, invites a broader discourse on citizenship, community, and belonging, especially poignant in an election year in which immigration is a hot issue.

With the mural’s installation set for May 2nd, Professor De La Cruz’s vision is nearing its most critical phase—bringing the collaborative creation to fruition at the border itself. In this endeavor, Professor Lizbeth De La Cruz Santana extends an open invitation for all to experience the mural and to engage with the stories it tells.

“Yes, these are stories of extreme hardship,” she said, “but I think they also say something about the enduring spirit of these storytellers to overcome barriers, both physical and metaphorical.” Her project too underscores the indispensable role of art in education as well as advocacy. Once installed, they will provide a site where the personal impacts of migration policies are drawn up in sharp relief against the impersonal landscapes that bear witness to them.

The Road Less Traveled: How a Weissman Philosophy Major Became a Tech Executive

When Kimberly Bloomston chose to major in philosophy at Baruch College’s Weissman School of Arts and Sciences, she was planting the seeds for a future in an unlikely field—technology. Today, as the Chief Product Officer at LiveRamp, a growing San Francisco-based data and marketing company, Bloomston’s path exemplifies how a degree traditionally seen as abstract and frivolous can profoundly impact the disposition of future leaders and the fast-paced industries they join.

Graduating from Baruch in 2005, Bloomston’s plunge into syllogisms and metaphysical systems was sparked by an intrinsic curiosity about human behavior and the nature of thought that she started exploring in high school. “I was young and full of teenage angst, so what can I say? I just found it fascinating.” This intrigue only grew as she took more courses in college—first at Nassau Community and then at Baruch. It was her terminal degree.

Bloomston still credits her philosophical training with laying the foundation for her critical thinking and problem-solving skills. “I began to see philosophy as so foundational to how we change as humans and grow as humans and work as humans,” she noted, emphasizing the discipline’s comprehensive scope. These skills, too often classified as over-specialized and impractical, translated seamlessly into her career, especially in roles that required understanding the inner workings of complex systems and improving the web of human interactions that make them up. 

Her first significant role after college involved training programs in retail operations, where she quickly advanced to VP of Operations. Bloomston’s ability to connect with staff and enhance operational efficiency was surprisingly influenced more by her background in the humanities than anything else. “There was so much of what I learned at Baruch that helped me think carefully about how to connect with people, and how you teach them to think differently without losing what’s special about what they already have. It’s a whole way of communicating, a way of thinking about thinking. That’s the best way I can describe it.”

At LiveRamp, Kimberly has likewise leveraged the essence of critique to bring innovations to yet unarticulated industry-wide dilemmas. “I’ve made my career by being a divergent thinker, by questioning why things are happening the way that they are at any given moment and how to improve them. For me, it’s all about having a unique perspective, having a critical eye for things so that I can form that perspective, and drawing on information, whether it’s the text that’s in front of me, knowing how to use that text to do research, or to think about what’s surrounding that text, or what exactly has informed that text.” 

Bloomston credits her initial ignorance about a philosophy degree’s real-world applications. “Honestly, just not knowing about job prospects was helpful for me. I was able to be like, ‘Yeah, I can focus on this and I’ll be fine.’ It never even occurred to me that it would be a problem” she laughed, acknowledging how her background allowed her to take risks and explore opportunities she might have otherwise avoided based only on the taken for granted truisms of career advice.

Even now, after nearly 20 years of experience in the tech industry, Bloomston insists that the skills she developed through studying philosophy—critical thinking, ethical reasoning, and effective written and verbal communication—are more vital than ever for our evolving relationship to the digital world. “When you see something like generative AI pop up everywhere, you have to be able to understand the context of how that can actually change thinking and transform human behavior. The framing of ideas in this way is so central to being able to work in software.” Her distinct trajectory speaks to the enduring relevance of the humanities in understanding and shaping even the technological landscape. Proof: a degree in philosophy can be as practical as it is enlightening.

Celebrating the Winners of the 2023 WSAS Faculty Excellence Awards

In preparation for Weissman’s upcoming annual Faculty Excellence Awards, we’d like to celebrate our extraordinary 2023 winners.

Min Xiang (Toby) Gao, Technology Assistant

Winner of The Gary Hentzi Award for Excellence in Staff Contribution and Leadership

Gao is recognized throughout Weissman for his extraordinary patience and calm demeanor, especially during the challenging times of the pandemic. As many faculty members struggled with extreme tech anxiety, Toby was a pillar of support, helping them navigate new technologies without ever losing his cool. His ability to answer all questions, regardless of how basic or ontological – even explaining what a desktop is – exemplifies his dedication to his work at Baruch. Toby’s gift for this kind of patience has been a boon to faculty all across the spectrum of tech-savviness.

Amanda Becker, Administrative Coordinator

Winner of The Gary Hentzi Award for Excellence in Staff Contribution and Leadership

Becker, herself a Baruch alum, is the other recipient of this award. Her intimate knowledge of the institution, stemming from her personal journey first as student, then as staff member, has made her an asset of incalculable worth in the Dean’s office. Amanda is universally praised for her kindness, generosity, and patience, qualities that ceaselessly enhance the working environment and community at Weissman. Her willingness to assist and work with everyone on tasks far beyond her basic job description speaks volumes of her sincere commitment and leadership qualities.

Elizabeth Edenberg, Assistant Professor of Philosophy

Winner of The Award for Excellence in Teaching for Full-Time Faculty

Faced with a sudden vacancy in the fall semester, the Philosophy Department was in urgent need of a capable faculty member to teach an upper-level course on ethics, economics, and the business system. Professor Edenberg stepped up to the challenge without hesitation, demonstrating her commitment to the department and its students.

Professor Edenberg’s teaching style is dynamic and engaging. Her ability to teach large roomfuls of students with the kind of attentiveness usually associated with smaller sessions is particularly noteworthy. She incorporates various interactive methods, such as paired activities and group work, making the learning process both effective and surprising for students.

Her contributions have significantly elevated the standards of teaching within the department, pushing her colleagues to strive for more thoughtful and interactive pedagogy.

Rebecca Salois, Adjunct Assistant Professor

Winner of The Award for Excellence in Teaching for Part-Time Faculty

Dr. Salois, a longtime Adjunct Assistant Professor, and now full-time Assistant Professor, has been a distinguished member of the Weissman faculty for years, sharing her expertise across multiple disciplines including Black and Latino Studies, English, Modern Languages and Comparative Literature, and Sociology and Anthropology.

Dr. Salois’s introduction of podcasts as a pedagogical tool exemplifies her forward-thinking approach, allowing students to engage in community based research projects. Her dedication extends beyond the classroom, encapsulated by her role in launching the “Latinx Visions Podcast,” which has gained significant attention for its storytelling, substantial listener numbers, and expanding her scholarship beyond traditional boundaries.

Furthermore, her contributions to the Black and Latino Studies (BLS) department have been invaluable. She played a pivotal role in building the major, designing new courses, and actively participating in the transformative learning in the humanities initiatives spearheaded by the Center for Teaching and Learning. Her efforts far exceeded what is expected from a part-time faculty member, reflecting her extraordinary dedication to the institution and her students.

The excitement surrounding Dr. Salois’s award is amplified by the fact that she has now finally transitioned to a full-time position which started this Fall 2023, a move that has already benefited the BLS program and the broader Baruch community.

Jonathan Gilmore, Professor of Philosophy

Winner of The Award for Excellence in Scholarship or Creative Activity for Full-Time Faculty

Professor Gilmore’s academic pursuit addresses the complex relationship we have with art—how we emotionally engage with the fictional characters and worlds we encounter in movies and novels. His exploration of whether our emotional responses to fiction should be judged by the same standards as those in the real world has led to surprising insights, culminating in his celebrated monograph, Act Imaginings: Feelings for Fictions and Other Creatures of the Mind.

Published by Oxford University Press, this work has been recognized with the American Society of Aesthetics Prize for outstanding monographs for 2020-21. In his book, Professor Gilmore challenges the widely held “continuity thesis” and presents his theory of “normative discontinuity,” proposing that our emotional reactions to fictional narratives deserve their own set of evaluative norms.

With a prior publication by Cornell University Press, over two dozen articles in some of the field’s most selective journals, and his recent appointment as Co-editor of the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism—one of the most prestigious journals in aesthetics—he has undeniably left his mark on academic discourse.

David Jones, Professor of Political Science

Winner of The Award for Excellence in Institutional Leadership or Service for Full-Time Faculty

Professor Jones, who served as chair of the Political Science Department for two terms set the bar high with his organization and leadership. His tenure was marked by his tireless advocacy for faculty members and the department as a whole, demonstrating an exceptional command over the department’s workings, as well as its place in the broader dynamics of the school and college.

Known among his peers as a champion for the Weissman School, Professor Jones’s commitment extended to the student body, especially during the challenging times of the pandemic. In his last semester before a scheduled fellowship leave, he went above and beyond to maintain a sense of connection within the department. His leadership was instrumental during this period, as he led a faculty and student Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) focused research project that critically analyzed course syllabi to better understand the messages being communicated to students.

This project was not only crucial for department morale but also became a cornerstone for its sense of purpose during a tumultuous time, predating the critical events of May 2020, and showcasing his longstanding commitment to inclusivity and understanding.

Harold Ramdass, Lecturer of English

Winner of The Award for Excellence in Student or Peer Mentorship for Full-Time Faculty

Joining the full-time faculty during the pandemic, Harold Ramdass has been an integral part of the Baruch community for many years as a part-time faculty member. His most notable accomplishment, the creation of an extensive mentoring program for adjunct faculty within the department, has made a significant impact on its feeling of community.

Understanding the importance of supporting the substantial contingent of adjunct faculty, Ramdass saw the need to help these underpaid and overworked educators secure full-time and more stable positions. He initiated this mentoring program in Spring 2022, which has since become a resounding success, contributing to the professional growth and development of his colleagues.

Together with his peers, Ramdass assembled a comprehensive database and guide for applying to academic positions, which includes examples of documents and detailed guidelines about the job application process. His innovative pod-based mentoring structure divides adjunct faculty into smaller groups for bi-weekly and monthly job market training sessions. This initiative has already borne fruit, with two of the twelve members securing full-time positions and at least one becoming a finalist for multiple job openings, attesting to the program’s effectiveness.

Ramdass’s dedication to mentoring his colleagues goes far beyond traditional expectations, embodying the spirit of collaboration and support that is central to the mission of the College itself.

Gary Hentzi Takes On the Mysteries of the Beat Generation in Literature and Film

Postwar America is often remembered as a time of domestic peace, prosperity, and repopulation following the horrors of the Second World War, a period of conformity and social conservatism. But the late 1940s and ‘50s also saw the beginnings of the counterculture – the Beat Generation and its contemporaries who in different ways pushed back against the mainstream with an eruption of art, music, and poetry, eventually spreading their style and message around the world. Although their work varied greatly, they had in common a determination to shun social conformity in favor of the power and significance of individual thought and feeling, often expressed through a stream of unedited lived experience without academic or societal constraints.

“American culture really does have many of the characteristics attributed to it by its critics. It’s about ideological manipulation. It’s about selling things. It’s about distraction – giving people conventional genre narratives that don’t take them out of their habitual realms of thought and feeling. But it’s not quite the closed enterprise that it’s sometimes made out to be. The counterculture demonstrated that culture is more of a battleground.”

The 1950s first brought this battleground into sharp focus, and many of its conflicts resonate today. Professor of English Gary Hentzi explores this resonance in his latest book, On the Avenue of the Mystery: The Postwar Counterculture in Novels and Film (Routledge, 2023).

“There’s a general acknowledgement that we’re living in the wake of the global counterculture, but it’s hardly something that’s been laid to rest and is more than just an academic concern. That’s one big issue. Another is how new narrative forms have been made possible by technology. Film and television have eclipsed literature as the dominant forms of storytelling in modern culture. This is such a big development that it’s often compartmentalized or just ignored.”

The co-editor of The Columbia Dictionary of Modern Literary and Cultural Criticism, Hentzi brings his expertise to bear on 20th century literature, social criticism, and film, offering a fresh perspective on the period. His book is a study of eight major novels of the postwar era (1945-65) and the films they inspired in the following five decades. It’s a vibrant mix of cultural history and critique, that explores how the interpretation of the counterculture when the novels were written has transformed over the intervening years.

Hentzi’s readings are informed by his keen explorations of the movement’s major intellectual and aesthetic influences, which are viewed through the prism of mystery: “a sense of the unknown, an intimation of something hidden and as-yet unnoticed, a feeling that there may be more to the world than meets the eye.” It’s a theme that slowly, surprisingly – and fittingly – revealed itself to him as he worked.

“I didn’t really know what book I was going to write. But as I thought about it, I realized how pervasive the idea of mystery is. Suddenly it began turning up everywhere. It’s a feature of the period that is easily caricatured nowadays – people sitting around getting stoned and having visions – something that’s been outgrown and looks a little silly. But that’s a caricature of the idea that obscures the real thing. It has to do with the complexities of human relationships, with the way we experience our own lives and each other. And with technology too.”

This isn’t just a history. Hentzi highlights a specific period of cultural transformation that is, in many respects, still with us. The ways that mainstream culture can be countered have indeed changed, but the countercultural impulse isn’t something that simply disappears.

“There’s a whole set of themes dating from the period of the counterculture that are still with us, that are still ripe for use. Many areas were violently opened up and have since been assimilated. But my feeling is there’s always room for a capable artist to do something special.”

This is a book for cultural historians, literary critics, and artists alike, and perhaps a source of inspiration to those who – like the Beat generation and their fellow travelers – have grown weary of the artistic and social status quo. Content-creators, activists, and intellectuals take heed: if Hentzi’s research is to be believed, there’s still plenty of mystery and plenty more to be done.

Buy On the Avenue of the Mystery: The Postwar Counterculture in Novels and Film here.

MA Corporate Communication Student is one of PR Daily’s Top Women In Marketing

Alana D. Visconti, a current student in the Baruch College Weissman MA in Corporate Communication program, has been recognized as one of Ragan Communications and PR Daily’s Top Women In Marketing for the Class of 2023. This honor underscores the strategic acumen and innovative spirit that Visconti embodies, traits that have always distinguished her among her peers in a competitive industry.

Attributing her success to the robust foundation laid by the Corp Comm program, she is especially thankful to Professor and Program Director Caryn Medved for the nomination that has led to this recognition.

Read more here.

A Message from Dean Jessica Lang

Dear All,

I write to welcome back returning faculty and to welcome, for the first time, 40 new full-time faculty—the largest cohort of new faculty ever to join the Weissman School of Arts and Sciences at one time. Their expertise in a wide array of research disciplines and teaching will deepen and broaden our ability to advance our mission.

On Friday we also welcomed approximately 2600 first-year students and 1500 transfer students. Many Weissman faculty attended orientation meetings with these students and their peer mentors—their excitement in starting their Baruch careers is palpable!

I want to share with you some exciting updates involving Weissman: the Mathematics Department has won a National Science Foundation S-Stem grant of nearly $1 million. This grant will offer meaningful financial and academic support to a cohort of new majors each year for its duration and further solidify Weissman’s reputation as a math destination.

Congratulations to Professors Pablo Sobreron-Bravo, Guy Moshkovitz, and Tim Ridenour for this fabulous win!

I also want to congratulate Professor Lisa Blankenship (English) on her new role as Interim Director of the Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL). A growing area of interest for the CTL is the use of AI and its potential role in the classroom. Keep an eye out for its upcoming series of workshops about incorporating and responding to AI in the classroom.

In the coming weeks and months, the College will be sharing our new Strategic Plan. In Weissman, we will use the launch of the College’s Strategic Plan to kick off our own WSAS Strategic Planning process. I look forward to collaborating with faculty, staff, and students as we gather input on our collective priorities for the next five years.

This is truly a time of change and transformation in the Weissman School of Arts and Sciences and in higher education. I feel so fortunate to be part of a community known for its productivity, generosity, and dedication. I look forward to the year ahead.

With my very best wishes for every success,

Jessica 

Jessica Lang, Dean
Weissman School of Arts and Sciences 
Baruch College, CUNY

Prof. Katrin Hansing Wins NEH Grant to Document Untold Stories of Cuba’s Involvement in Angola Civil War

The echoes of war reverberate long after the final shots are fired, and for the more than 450,000 Cubans who participated in the generation-long Angolan Civil War from 1975 to 1991, some are just now being heard. Recognizing the significance of the many untold personal narratives from this conflict, Katrin Hansing, Associate Professor of Anthropology at Baruch College, and her colleague Maria de los Angeles Torres of the University of Illinois, have embarked on an unprecedented undertaking: the process of collecting and disseminating them. With the generous support of a prestigious and highly competitive grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, they will be able conclude their research project and manuscript, “Democratizing the Past: Cubans Remember the Angolan Civil War.”

“Our project delves into memory at the individual level, countering the state’s dominant racialized and heroic war narratives with grassroots testimonies gathered both in Cuba and its diaspora. These accounts will offer a more intricate and contradictory understanding of the war and its remembrances,” Hansing said.

The Cuban state’s official narrative proudly recounts a tale of heroism and sacrifice to settle the debt of slavery and assist in ending apartheid in South Africa. But Hansing, a South African who has extensively researched Cuba over the past 25 years, often encountered anecdotal fragments from Cubans during her visits to the island that challenged this tidy historical saga. And it astonished her that despite the involvement of nearly half a million Cubans – an impact on almost every other Cuban family – an eerie silence still broods over the topic on the island and abroad. 

“As someone from a country with a violent and complex history, I firmly believe that confronting and understanding our personal, familial, societal, and national memories is crucial to prevent history from repeating itself,” Hansing emphasized.

With the grant’s assistance, Hansing and Torres will travel on a final journey to Angola to complete additional interviews, followed by the development of an academic book, organizing exhibitions, and conducting workshops and talks. The project aims not just to shed light on a suppressed chapter of Cuban history but to initiate broader conversations about war, trauma, memory, and their impacts on society.

“Look at the war in Ukraine,” Hansing said considering the project’s timely resonances. “We have a war raging right now in the middle of Europe. In the end, Nations win or lose, but the people on the ground are the ones who experience a lifetime of collateral damage. And not just the generation that went through it. It’s still there for the second, the third, and beyond.”

For many Cuban war veterans, this project may provide a long-awaited platform to give voice to their experiences, replacing the authority of a singular war narrative with a rich tapestry of personal accounts. As Hansing says, “It’s about time these stories are heard. Especially now, before they disappear forever.”

Professor Zachary Calamari Shows Us Just How Much You Can Learn from a Skull

This award-winning scientist’s new exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History opens new horizons for understanding mammalian morphology.

Photo by Paige Ehrl

In an exciting development in the ever-changing field of evolutionary biology, Assistant Professor Zachary Calamari of Baruch College’s Department of Natural Sciences has unveiled a captivating exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Titled “Mammals with Headgear,” the exhibit explores the appearance of horns and antlers in hoofed mammals and delves into the mysterious evolutionary origins of these cranial ornaments. Professor Calamari’s cutting-edge research in this area has also been recognized with the prestigious Beckman Young Investigator award from the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation, providing $600,000 over four years to support his studies.

Horns and antlers, particularly in ruminant hoofed mammals, constitute the primary focus of Professor Calamari’s investigations, the appearance of which can be traced back 15 million years. One challenge in understanding their evolutionary origins is the lack of ancestral structures in the fossil record. “There’s no sort of nice, rudimentary, ancestral-looking thing that has a little bone bump,” Professor Calamari said. “There’s no halfway point between horns and no horns. Maybe it’s out there somewhere, but the fossil record doesn’t always give us what we want.” This absence has sparked a century-long debate in the scientific community about whether horns and antlers emerged independently on multiple occasions or whether they have a single origin.

To shed light on this evolutionary riddle, Professor Calamari’s research employs a combination of genomics, shape analysis, and modeling techniques. As fossil RNA is not viable for sequencing, he uses modern genomics to examine gene expression in living hoofed mammals and correlates it with the shapes and patterns of horns and antlers observed in extinct species. This research aims to uncover the genes that allow the development of these cranial ornaments and understand precisely how they influence the diverse forms now on display throughout the natural world.

The “Mammals with Headgear” exhibit, part of the Louis V. Gerstner, Jr. Collections Core, showcases this research and provides visitors with an interactive experience. The exhibit features information on the distinguishing characteristics of horns versus antlers and allows visitors to explore 3D models, view photos of RNA extraction from tissue samples, and gain insight into the pathbreaking techniques employed in Calamari’s research.

Beyond the exhibit, the Beckman Young Investigator award will allow Professor Calamari to expand his research further. His project involves three key components: single-cell sequencing, RNA sequencing coupled with epigenetic analysis, and the application of machine learning to map gene expression data onto 3D morphology. These techniques could potentially lead to advancements beyond the world of evolutionary morphology and aid in our understanding of diseases like bone cancer. Additionally, unraveling the genetic underpinnings of horn development in livestock may lead to improved breeding practices and animal welfare by minimizing the need for physical horn removal, a procedure that currently causes pain and stress to the animals.

Perhaps most exciting, the grant also supports paid summer research experiences for Baruch College students, offering valuable hands-on training in scientific inquiry, and equipping them with essential experience in science writing and data collection. Professor Calamari reflected on the transformative role that such paid research experiences have had on his own life. “I was a first-generation college student. I didn’t really know what I was doing getting into academia, and one of the things that really made pursuing lab research feasible is that I got paid to do it. This grant is going to make that possible for the next generation of Baruch students.”