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Funding Innovation in Lit, Law, and Lasers

Peter Paul (GSM’71) boosts research by young BU faculty with a $1.5 million gift. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

Everything about being a college professor is harder when you’re new on the job. Just ask Carrie Preston.

Now in her second year as a College of Arts and Sciences assistant professor of English, Preston was shocked last year by the time demands of her job: teaching, holding office hours, conducting research, writing, and doing committee and department work. “When I was a graduate student, I thought being a professor was just about your teaching and writing,” she says. “This fall, I’m much more equipped to deal with the juggling act.”

Indeed, for Preston and two other new faculty members — Kristin Collins, a School of Law associate professor of law, and Hatice Altug, a College of Engineering assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering — that juggling act just became a lot easier. Last week, they were named Peter Paul Career Development Professors, an honor accompanied by $50,000 annually for the next three years to support each professor’s research.

The awards are named for Peter Paul (GSM’71), president of the mortgage banking company Paul Financial, LLC, who last year gave the University $1.5 million to fund 10 such professorships over five years. Paul established the awards for promising young faculty who have been at BU no more than two years and have held no prior professorships. Nominations are submitted by deans and department heads, and the awardees are selected by University Provost David Campbell and President Robert A. Brown.

“One of the greatest challenges for a young faculty member is establishing a research career,” says Campbell. “It requires time and also resources, and the Peter Paul Professorships free these professors up to focus on their research.”

Last year the first Peter Paul awards went to Brooke Blower, a CAS assistant professor of history, Sucharita Chandran, a School of Management assistant professor of marketing, John Connor, a School of Medicine assistant professor of microbiology, and Marah Curtis, a School of Social Work assistant professor of social welfare policy. This year’s awardees were chosen from a field of 11 nominees, Campbell says, “all of whom were excellent and deserving.”
Carrie Preston

Before Preston was a literary scholar, she was a dancer, taking her first classes at age four and learning ballet, jazz, and tap. As a double major in English and dance at Michigan State University, she “fell in love” with modern dance.

“When I decided to go to grad school in English, I thought it was a decision to leave dance behind,” she says. “But then I found that it was helping me in my study of literature, and that the influence of dance on literature hadn’t really been looked at.”

As a result, she says, “I found an opening that fulfilled my two passions.” Her first book, Solo Performance: A New Genealogy of Women’s Modernism, looked at how women at the turn of the 20th century explored new ideas about their identity through dance and at the language of dance and bodily movement in literature. Elin Diamond, an English professor at Rutgers, where Preston earned a Ph.D., called Solo Performance a “brilliant and ambitious” work. 

Preston is already well into the research for her next book, about the use of dance in Irish modernist literature, including the influence of Japanese Noh performance plays, which combine music, dance, and acting, on the writings of William Butler Yeats.

“My argument will be that Yeats explored poetic rhythms through the rhythms of the dancers’ bodies,” she says. She has already done considerable archival research at the National Library of Ireland, in Dublin, and plans on looking into the life of the Noh choreographer Michio Ito, who collaborated with Yeats and then moved to the United States, where he was interned during World War II. This research will take her to Japan and Los Angeles. “I need to jump across several continents for this book,” Preston says.

Kristin Collins

Family law traditionally encompasses issues such as divorce, child abuse, and custody, but Kristin Collins takes a broader approach, looking into how other areas of both state and federal law impact and shape family life. 

This more inclusive approach has led Collins to argue against the conventional wisdom that the federal government’s involvement in family matters has no precedence. The idea of federal jurisdiction over family life, Collins says, “has cut both ways in recent history.” She points to jurisdiction-based legal arguments against both the U.S. Violence Against Women Act of 1994 and federal involvement in the same-sex marriage debate.

In the 2005 Cardozo Law Review, Collins published “Federalism’s Fallacy: The Early Tradition of Federal Family Law and the Invention of States’ Rights,” in which she tapped 19th-century sources of federal involvement in family law matters to contradict the modern legal deference to state jurisdiction in many of these areas.

“After this article, it is far more difficult for the courts to interpret statutes and constitutions, as they often have, to restrict federal intervention into areas falling under the label ‘family law,’” LAW Dean Maureen O’Rourke writes in her letter nominating Collins for the Peter Paul Professorship.

Before joining LAW, Collins clerked for two federal judges and litigated civil rights cases for New York law firm Emery Celli Brinckerhoff & Abady, LLP. She earned a law degree in 2000 from Yale, where she was editor of the Yale Law Journal.

“[Collins] approached every task with unrelenting intellectual rigor and analytical seriousness, insisting on challenging assumptions,” writes one of the firm’s partners, Andrew Celli, Jr., in another letter of support.

The Peter Paul award will help fund Collins’ ongoing archival research into the scope of lawmaking by federal courts in early American history, including her examination of 19th-century federal military pension programs.

Hatice Altug

In Hatice Altug’s specialty, nanophotonics, small devices can have a big impact on our lives — from how we communicate to how we diagnose disease. She uses tiny crystals of semiconducting materials, such as silicon, to manipulate light on the scale of one billionth of a meter. And, she explains, these nanoscale devices can vastly increase the speed and efficiency of lasers used in communications networks, simplifying the networks, reducing the power needed to make them work, and potentially making them small enough to be placed onto computer chips.

Another application of these crystals is in microfluidic devices, where individual molecules of disease could be identified by looking at their interaction with light. Altug’s group is testing such devices on cancer cells.

Altug is “an excellent young scientist,” Campbell says, who will help BU build on its growing strength in nanotechnology. Bahaa Saleh, an ENG professor and former chair of the electrical and computer engineering department, writes in a nominating letter that Altug, who already jointly holds a patent on nanoscale photonic devices, “has made several significant breakthroughs in nanophotonics.”

Altug says the Peter Paul money could help defray the cost of a new biology lab she hopes to build to pursue her work in microfluidic devices. In addition, when you’re working at the scale of a billionth of a meter, precision counts, and off-the-shelf microscopes won’t do. “I will be building my own microscopes,” she explains.

Chris Berdik can be reached at cberdik@bu.edu.