As Good As Gold

Dr. Charles Chusuei’s technology could transform patient care in emergency rooms and health centers worldwide.

by Michael Burgin

Photos by J. Intintoli

MTSU Chemistry faculty Dr. Charles Chusuei (center) and his grad students L-R Mulugeta Wayu, Anita Saha, Shawtik Chandra Das, and Anup Kumar Deb studying the use of zinc in nanotechnology as an alternative to precious metals in a lab in Wiser-Patton.

 On the bottom floor of Wiser-Patten Science Hall, past a lecture hall and a few smaller classrooms and teachers’ offices,  one can find the home base of Dr. Charles C. Chusuei and his team of student researchers. At first glance, the lab is pretty much what one would expect. A number of small work stations, some whiteboards, and a desk or two populate the periphery of the room. (Stacked in one corner, there are a number of large, unopened boxes.) A bulky piece of equipment dominates the center. Most scientists (and many students in the field) would recognize the instrument as an X-ray photoelectron spectrometer, a machine that allows for nondestructive elemental analysis. It’s a vital tool in the associate professor of chemistry’s current line of research. Of course, give a layperson, someone who doesn’t know a spectrometer from a chromatograph, a few moments to look around, and you’ll probably hear the following question: “Is that a hand drill?”

 

It is (a Black and Decker, in fact). It’s also a makeshift stepper motor for a homemade ultra-high vacuum sample transfer system. With the assistance of Rick Taylor, lab director in the Department of Engineering Technology, and the machine shop in the Voorhees Engineering Technology Building, Chusuei used the drill, a gearbox, a threaded rod, and machined pieces of aluminum to build a device the components of which would normally cost about $1,000 to buy new.

 

There are plenty of other examples of Chusuei’s combination of thrift and inventiveness—a fish tank pump substitutes for the Wiser-Patten building’s lack of dedicated pipes for chilled water. It’s one of many drawbacks to the 46-year-old building—those boxes in the corner are actually equipment with technical and safety specs that bar them from being installed in Wiser-Patten. In a field where research ambitions often far outstrip existing facility technology and available funding, it’s not uncommon to find professors who are equal part bargain hunters and MacGyver. Chusuei, who arrived at MTSU in 2010, can count on one of those variables changing soon—a $147 million, state-of-the-art science building is scheduled to open for instruction in 2015—but that doesn’t mean he’s just waiting around. Quite the opposite, Chusuei and his student researchers have been busy developing a technology that could transform patient care in emergency rooms and health centers throughout the world.

As a result, this cluttered room, with its combination of brand-new, unpacked equipment in waiting and cobbled-together scientific apparatuses in use—not to mention the man standing in the middle of it all—represents the exciting present and potential-filled future of science research at MTSU as surely as the new building being built a few hundred yards away.

 

 

Not So Common Sense 

As with most scientific research, discoveries with big applications often boil down to thinking small. Really small. Yet it also involves the detection of something one can find a bottle of in almost every home—hydrogen peroxide. It turns out that bubbling stalwart of home-based health care is also a natural byproduct of the biochemistry of all living organisms. The ability to monitor hydrogen peroxide on a molecular level has a host of practical applications in fields as diverse as health care (early cancer detection) and food service (spoilage detection). As a result, researchers have developed a variety of nanotech-based sensors. For the most part, those technologies have used sensors dependent on carbon nanotubes (CNT) coated with oxides derived from precious metals—gold, palladium, ruthenium, etc. As the word “precious” suggests, it’s not cheap to use such metals. But just as with his lab’s ultra-high vacuum sample transfer system, Dr. Chusuei found that the expensive way to do things was hardly the only way. In an effort to establish a cheaper biosensing material, Chusuei turned to zinc.

“A common theme of nanotechnology is determining how material size and shape affects chemical reactivity,” Chusuei explains. “Our research team has shown that zinc oxide (ZnO) shape selection in the nanocomposite formulation (involving carbon nanotubes) dramatically improves its biosensing properties.”

 

The Goldilocks Standard 

An earth-rich element, zinc is much more abundant and, therefore, cheaper, than the precious set. But in order to establish it as a viable substitute, Chusuei and his team first needed to control the shape of the ZnO compound itself. (The more complete the coverage by the ZnO of the CNT, the better the sensor.) “It was a lot like the fairy tale Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” Chusuei says. In the end, working the ZnO into its ideal shape required many things being “just right.” It required, among other things, finding just the right temperature (90 degrees Celsius) of the solution in which the suspended ZnO nanoparticles were formed and the pH (7.365) for maximum reactivity, as well as establishing just the right amount of time for sonication (the application of  sound energy to agitate the solution).

With the bulk of the research completed—and with the right balance struck—it’s actually a rather simple procedure to replicate, but as Chusuei’s patent application shows, it wasn’t an obvious one. The real-world potential of the research has Chusuei and his students excited. The cheaper the materials, the more widespread the possible application of the technology.

“If we can attach this biosensor in a portable electrochemical cell, then people can easily detect the presence of [certain compounds] in their body whenever and wherever they want,” says grad student Anup Deb, who learned of Dr. Chusuei’s research while an undergraduate at the University of Dhaka, in Bangladesh.

“What I’m doing now contributes to the effort to create a cancer-free community,” says Mulugeta Wayu, a Ph.D. candidate in the University’s Molecular Biosciences program who came to the United States after spending years as a research scientist in Ethiopia.

Cancer is not the only affliction potentially addressed by the research of Chusuei and his students nor is hydrogen peroxide the only substance detectable. Another vein of inquiry includes the detection of lactic acid, a marker for anaerobic respiration (the presence of which can indicate that a patient is not breathing well or getting enough oxygen). Such sensors could detect signs of physical distress that show up well “before changes in heart rate or blood pressure would be registered,” Chusuei points out.

Even with so much established, there remain plenty of practical questions and intriguing pathways for follow-up research. “Now it becomes a question of how low you can go,” Chusuei says. As with most things nanotech, the smaller one gets, the wider the applications. (There’s also the question of testing and gauging the toxicity of the resulting sensors.) The lab’s success with ZnO has also led to research with other non-precious-metal-based compounds. Anita Saha, a senior biochemistry major, is working with cerium oxide to detect acetaminophen.

In less than a year, Dr. Chusuei’s modest little laboratory will be housed in a shiny new science building. The low-energy electron diffractometer, liquid nitrogen generator, and quadrupole mass analyzer—to name a few of those brand-new pieces of equipment still in boxes—will have been unpacked and put to long-awaited use. It’s exciting to consider, and no doubt the state-of-the-art facility will make a host of scientific processes easier and new discoveries possible. Nonetheless, the most crucial ingredients to the University’s future success as a research institution are already in place in the form of Dr. Chusuei, his colleagues, and all the student researchers under their direction. Oh, and that hand drill masquerading as a stepper motor.

 

To see interviews with Dr. Chusuei and his research team:

 

 

Putting Gas in the Past

MTSU’s “Davy Crockett of science” travels from ocean to ocean on only sun and water

by Mike Browning

The result was a level of exposure for Ricketts’s research—and for MTSU—that the University couldn’t have achieved through traditional marketing methods.

Though the sun is 93 million miles away, its light—solar energy—travels to earth in a mere eight minutes. Most of the earth’s surface is another continuously renewed cycle of energy—H2O.

Sun and water. Both are essential to life. And both are relatively free and abundant.

Dr. Cliff Ricketts, a longtime School of Agribusiness and Agriscience faculty member and an alternative fuels researcher, has a dream that one day people will drive their vehicles using only the natural energies of sun and water. He’s worked for 25 years to figure out how to make that dream a reality.

“My whole passion is sun and water,” says Ricketts, a farmer who fashions himself a modern-day Davy Crockett of science, or “frontiersman with energy.”

In March 2013, Ricketts and a team of current and former students made news nationwide when they successfully drove a modified Toyota Prius from the Atlantic at Tybee Island, Georgia, to a Pacific beach near Los Angeles—a five-day, 2,600-mile driving expedition—powered exclusively by hydrogen made from sun and water.

Members of MTSU’s News and Media Relations team, traveling with Ricketts, worked tirelessly to generate media attention for the professor and for MTSU. Months before the trip even began, the team studied Ricketts’s route from Georgia to California, targeting larger cities and their media outlets with story pitches. Interviews were then arranged with journalists nationwide as the trip unfolded. Among the media outlets that covered the trip were USA Today /Gannett, The Tennessean , the Associated Press, Discovery Channel Canada, and RFD-TV. The result was a level of exposure for Ricketts’s research—and for MTSU—that the University couldn’t have achieved through traditional marketing methods.

It was a cumbersome but necessary task if Ricketts was to make his point—that natural and renewable resources provide a viable energy option. And make his point he did. Over and over along the 2,600-mile journey, Ricketts stopped for media interviews, telling reporter after reporter about his work at MTSU—about his expedition and about the technology—utilizing hydrogen separated from water through solar energy. Told at a time when gas prices nationally ranged between $3.20 and $5.19, Ricketts’s story was equal parts the culmination of his life’s research and a chance to talk about alternative fuels. Ricketts wants Americans to understand that there is a clear alternative to high-dollar gas and dependency on foreign oil. “I think it has a lot of implications,” Ricketts says. “Time will tell.”

One Small Step

The 64-year-old Ricketts traveled the length of Tennessee using only hydrogen in 2010. Then, in 2012, he and his team made it from the Georgia coast to Conway, Ark., a 700-mile trip, on hydrogen alone. Only the lack of a hydrogen fueling system infrastructure kept him from going coast-to-coast that year.

In the Prius used this spring, two hydrogen storage tanks built and attached underneath the car (alongside tanks added to the backseat and also hauled by a separate trailer) equipped Ricketts and team with the fuel necessary to complete the coast-to-coast trip. Ricketts compared his trip with no fueling stations to the plight of two brothers who revolutionized human travel more than a century ago.

Ricketts wants Americans to understand that there is a clear alternative to high-dollar gas and dependency on foreign oil.

“There were no airports when the Wright brothers flew the first airplane,” Ricketts says. “And, of course, there weren’t any hydrogen fueling stations along the way, so we brought our fueling station with us.”

“I believe the government somehow will have to get involved,” Ricketts adds. “We’re kind of in a chicken-or-egg situation right now. We don’t have hydrogen fueling stations because we don’t have [hydrogen] cars, and we don’t have cars because we don’t have hydrogen fueling stations.”

Home at Last

The end of the expedition at Long Beach, Calif., was captured on film by MTSU’s media team and produced as a documentary. The professor’s joy in successfully completing the trip makes for can’t-miss television. The documentary can be viewed at www.MTSUNews.com, or by searching the MTSU YouTube channel.

“I feel like I’ve climbed Mt. Everest,” Ricketts says in the film. “Putting a man on the moon has more ‘wow’ factor . . . but as far as helping people for hundreds or maybe thousands of years to come, I think this is planting seeds that will help [hu]mankind.”

Not Horsing Around

Collecting manure doesn’t deter horse enthusiast Goertzen’s desire to help area equines

by Patsy Wieler

Animal science major and Buchanan Fellow Ellen Goertzen knows her research isn’t something most people would discuss during dinner. After all, collecting and freezing manure samples and then studying them for equine intestinal parasites is a project few might want to touch. However, Goertzen, who owns, trains, and rides horses for fun and competition, felt right at home in the various barns where she collected her specimens.

“My research focused on horse parasites, the eggs of which can be seen in the manure when examined under a microscope with a special technique called the McMaster technique,” Goertzen says. “This technique uses specially marked slides with a slot in which I injected the feces after some processing.”

The Slidell, La., native says her main motivation for pursuing this area of research is a desire to contribute to the overall well-being of horses.

“As a horse owner and enthusiast, I have a strong personal interest in any research that leads to improving the health of our horses,” she says. “A parasite study was relatively straightforward and required some equipment but nothing too complex or expensive. I could do most of the research on my own, and because I could freeze my samples for later use, I could do it in my own time.”

Goertzen gathered at least two samples from 60 horses boarded at six different barns. When frozen, the airtight bags of manure were kept in various Davis Science Building freezers and defrosted under hot water before being tested.

“The project was a survey of horse deworming programs that are currently being used in this area, and then I compared these practices with the actual need [amount and type of parasite eggs found in the feces of the horses],” Goertzen says. “I then designed a program for each barn based on actual results.”

Her findings showed it is more effective to use a rotation of treatments rather than just one product, and that a fairly aggressive deworming program is needed to maintain low to zero levels of parasites.

“Horse owners can use the data and information in my project to make better decisions for the health of their animals,” Goertzen says. “Even if individual fecal testing might be impractical, I have at least shown that rotation of products is much more effective than non-rotation, and that a relatively frequent deworming program is necessary for this region.”

She says the horse owners, MTSU equine veterinary medicine specialist Johnny Haffner, Rebekah Norman of the UT Extension, and her advisor, biology professor Anthony Newsome, provided a great deal of time and expertise for her project.

Goertzen (who cooks and plays the violin and is an MTSU equestrian team member), says her work “is a good starting place for further study in parasite management research. A good project is a small part of the definite answer, which takes many more repetitions and follow-up studies.”

Imitations in Life

Dr. Andy Brower uses mimicry patterns to decode the evolutionary history of butterflies

by Allison Gorman

Dr. Andy Brower uses mimicry patterns to decode the evolutionary history of butterflies

At an age when most kids were sitting on the family room floor watching Captain Kangaroo, Andy Brower was running across the green hills of Trinidad, watching his parents collect butterflies. Both were renowned entomologists: his mother, Jane, conducted groundbreaking research on butterfly mimicry, the protective adaptation by which one species develops the markings of another; his father, Lincoln, built on her research and also received acclaim for his study of the unique migratory pattern of the monarch butterfly. The scientific term “Browerian mimicry” was named for them. (“My parents were high school sweethearts,” Brower says. “Nerdy, bug-collecting sweethearts.”)

By age seven, Andy had tagged along on several research trips to Trinidad and, shepherded by graduate assistants, amassed his own “little-kid butterfly collection” of brightly colored tropical species.

Now, Dr. Brower is a renowned entomologist in his own right. A graduate of Yale and Cornell, he conducted postdoctoral research at the Museum of Natural History and the Smithsonian Institution, and he has published more than 60 peer-reviewed articles and become an internationally recognized expert on butterfly evolution.

In 2006, he left Oregon State University to join the biology faculty at MTSU, where he recently earned the University’s Distinguished Research Award.

One of Brower’s advantages over his parents is technology they didn’t have that allows him to study butterflies at the chromosomal level. Over the past 20 years, he has been piecing together an evolutionary history of a group of South American butterflies, studying their DNA to figure out how certain mimetic patterns developed over time in that continent’s diverse geography. Did those patterns stay essentially the same, he wondered, or did they change—and what role did genetics play in the process? He hypothesized that the butterflies evolved their wing patterns independently and “mimicked” one another many times in different areas. When he began the research, he says, “The access we had to the genome was pretty limited. It’s much broader nowadays, but subsequent research has largely borne out what I said.”

Brower has secured more than $1 million in external funding for his research, and he just received funding from the National Science Foundation to begin new fieldwork in South America. He and several Brazilian scientists will collaborate with the American Museum of Natural History, the New York Botanical Garden, the Field Museum in Chicago, and the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County to construct a Pleistocene history of the Amazon Basin. “We’ll be looking at genetic patterns of variation in a variety of model organisms including birds, monkeys, trees, and then butterflies,” he says. “We’re going to try to do some next-generation sequencing, which is something I haven’t done before.” He hopes to begin in the spring.

Researchers like Brower are playing beat the clock, because thousands of species of plants and animals are threatened with extinction each year. “There are too many people, the climate is changing, and it’s an ecological catastrophe for most other living things in the world right now,” he says. “And as countries like China and Brazil become more economically advanced, it speeds up the destruction of natural resources—they get whittled down to little national parks and places like that.” The next few decades will be the most critical in history for understanding and preserving biodiversity, Brower says—and that requires coordinated, systematic research.

To promote that collaborative mission, Brower has added his expertise to the Tree of Life Project, a web-based “family tree” charting genetic interconnections among all living things. Scientists and nature enthusiasts around the world have contributed to 10,000 web pages, each devoted to a different group of plant or animal, from tyrannosaurs to fungi. (Thanks to Brower, it includes more than 40 varieties of Heliconius butterfly alone.) It is an ambitious undertaking, a blueprint of the evolution of life on earth.

Because Darwinian theory underpins Brower’s research—mimicry is evolution by natural selection—he’s well aware of the attendant political and religious baggage. While his own fieldwork never crosses the perilous intersection of human and ape, he does teach an evolution course required for biology majors. Brower begins by acknowledging to his students that a majority of Americans reportedly don’t believe in evolution—and then he reminds them that for scientific purposes, absolute truths are less important than hypotheses and data, the framework for understanding biology. “You don’t have to believe it,” he tells them, “but you’ve got to understand it.”

To understand. If work like Andy Brower’s could be distilled to a single concept, that would be it. Unlike applied science, whose goal is problem solving (often through the development of marketable technology), basic science has no agenda beyond furthering understanding of the natural world.

Certainly applied science is built upon that understanding: as Nobel prize–winning astrophysicist George Smoot once noted, “If we only did applied research, we would still be making better spears.”

But as academia pushes the more lucrative applied side, Brower says he feels fortunate to do what he does for a living. “My work is like art, in a sense, and my artistic medium is that I generate stories about the evolutionary history of butterflies.” When he tells those stories well, he doesn’t just help people understand biodiversity—he gets them excited about it. Then, perhaps, they’ll be motivated to preserve it.

No Vanishing Act

Claudia Barnett’s stature as a writer and playwright continues to grow

by Drew Ruble and Connie Huddleston

Claudia Barnett says her playwriting career started when she submitted a one-act play to a little theater in Michigan “and then forgot about it.” A few months later, the theater tracked her down, seeking permission to produce the play. She drove to Kalamazoo, saw the production (which she described as “wonderful”), and was especially struck when one female audience member told her after the play that all young girls should see it. Inspired, Barnett sent the play to Dramatics, a magazine for younger audiences, which published it.

Barnett’s ascent in playwriting has continued from that point on. An MTSU English professor, she writes about missing women, women who kill, and women who are silenced. In September 2011, based on only the first two scenes of her play Witches Vanish, she was chosen for the Downstage Left Playwright Residency at Chicago’s Stage Left Theatre.

At the time, she’d written only 20 pages. She traveled to Chicago six times during the year to complete the first draft, working with her director and five actresses. The characters are Macbeth’s witches, who explore the stories of women who disappear. The witches travel from the Spanish Inquisition to the Soviet gulag to Juarez, Mexico. The play had a workshop production as part of Stage Left’s LeapFest in May and June.

As playwright-in-residence at Tennessee Repertory Theatre in 2009– 2010, she experimented with poetry, madness, and time in her fulllength play No. 731 Degraw-street, Brooklyn; or, Emily Dickinson’s Sister.

In 2012, she attended a conference in Spain to present a staged reading of He Killed My Bird; or, Now that We’re in Heaven, a one-act play inspired by her Honors sophomore literature course, Women Who Kill, which covers Medea and Macbeth; 20th-century examples, Machinal and The Little Foxes; and all the way to contemporary plays by Carson Kreitzer, Rebecca Gilman, and Suzan-Lori Parks. “You’d be amazed at how many plays by contemporary American women are about women who kill,” she says. Her latest published work is I Love You Terribly, a book of six short plays.

Barnett lives in a log cabin outside Murfreesboro, surrounded by a few acres of trees—a place that she says feeds her creativity. Originally from a bustling city in New York, she says she loves silence, fresh air, and the deer in her yard. She gets her best writing ideas while yanking out weeds.

Barnett first joined the MTSU faculty in 1994 after completing her Ph.D. at Ohio State University. She has been instrumental in developing the Visiting Artist Seminar on campus, and she has brought many excellent guests to MTSU, including actress/playwright Heather Raffo, filmmaker Jesse Epstein, and songwriter Nathan Bell. As a teacher, she is especially proud of one of her former students, Margaret Hoffman.

Both Barnett and Hoffman had plays produced by Independent Actors Theatre in Columbia, Missouri, in March. Engaging with her craft, Barnett can’t help but pass her enthusiasm and love of writing to her students.

Blowing Our Horn

MTSU’s School of Music distinguishes itself by offering a truly retro musical education

by Drew Ruble

Music historians would agree that the creation of the electric guitar and amplifier changed modern music. Out of the centuries-long shadow of the plucky, acoustic sounds of a wooden guitar emerged a cacophony of sounds ranging from crunchy to throbbing to shredding. Plugged in, musicians could now play loud enough to reach the ears of listeners far across a field or sitting in an arena’s upper deck. But for all that electric guitar innovator Les Paul contributed to music (and culture) through his creation, the electric guitar was by no means the first evolution of an instrument that ushered in seismic change to the world musical landscape. As George Riordan, director of the MTSU School of Music can attest, the evolution of instruments including the violin, the oboe, and the piano three centuries earlier had just as seismic an impact on the music and culture of earlier generations as plugging in did on this one. And at MTSU, the study of that evolution has become a thread running through the education of music majors.

A Change of Tune

In the 18th century, or the late Baroque and Classical periods, orchestral music was the privilege of, well, the privileged. Composers like Haydn earned their living writing and performing music for dukes and duchesses and their private audiences. But as the middle class began to rise and the aristocracy exerted less economic dominance, the patronage system began to wither. Composers were pushed out of the palaces and down more entrepreneurial musical paths.

Artists such as Mozart and Beethoven not only wrote symphonies and concertos but also booked theaters and even sold the tickets to their performances. And since playing to bigger and bigger audiences meant making a better living, such performances moved into bigger and bigger concert halls, which required revolutionary changes in the instruments—and a change in the roles of some instruments—to adapt to increasingly larger performing spaces, which simply demanded louder playing.

Consider the oboe, which in Baroque times was used mostly to double the string section. With the new demand for volume, the oboe’s function (and thereby its design) changed in order for it to function as a prominent solo instrument above the orchestra for brief intervals, then to duck back into an accompanying role. Similarly, the violin emerged from its role as a quiet instrument used primarily for dance and was refashioned to produce a brighter sound with a raised pitch, making it more dominant. Alterations in bows, in particular, produced more volume and sustained phrasing. Significant change also came to the harpsichord, a keyboard instrument, which plucks strings to make a beautiful but modest sound. The early pianoforte, which we know today as the piano, used small hammers instead of a plucking mechanism.

Musicians then could play soft (“piano”) or loud (“forte”), and composers had many new ways to incorporate nuance into keyboard phrasings. These changes (and others) led to the modern orchestra.

Riordan, an oboist equally deft with Baroque, Classical, and modern models, emphasizes that such change—while needed—did not necessarily mean improvement of the instruments.

“All this change was great in terms of reaching larger audiences, but it also required tradeoffs,”

Riordan says. “You’re solving one problem but maybe creating another one. For instance, you add volume but lose something of the expressive nature of the instrument when you change it to fit different circumstances.”

Riordan says altering the basic sound and response of instruments also changed the musician’s approach to the music.

“This meant performers altered the way that they played the older music to better fit their modernized instruments. In the process, many stylistic elements from the 17th and 18th centuries were lost, and performance of older works became profoundly different from the original conceptions of the composers.”

Broadening Minds

How does all this history apply at MTSU’s School of Music? Due to the wealth of period instruments—and faculty specialists—at MTSU, the University has an unusual advantage over many institutions with similar music schools in that its students get more exposure to the “root” instruments that apply to their chosen concentrations.

For instance, trombonists at MTSU can experiment with the sackbut, a Renaissance instrument, and might even get a chance to perform with it.

Others might perform on Baroque trumpet or horn.

“In doing so, they begin to understand what it felt like to play these instruments 300 years ago—and there are profound differences,” Riordan explains.

“Old brass instruments didn’t have valves. Everything you did, you had to do in the mouthpiece—for example, blow harder to play an octave. When our students get a chance to pick up and play around with these period instruments, it gives them fresh ideas to apply to the modern instrument. That’s why we’re interested in it here.”

Similarly, MTSU students working on a Haydn or Mozart sonata can experience the very light touch that was needed on a 1780s fortepiano (the term used today to refer to an early piano), or how brass performers used an entirely different range of harmonics.

“Once you play a period instrument a little while, it teaches you to phrase in a certain way,” Riordan says. “The instrument teaches you what is possible. Then you can take that knowledge and experience and apply it on the modern instrument.”

The use of historical instruments by faculty members is a research tool and pedagogical enhancement to the study of modern instruments—it’s not really an end in itself at MTSU.

“Our main mission in terms of our students’ applied music performance is to help them become the best performers on their “native” instruments that is, the modern versions, but older instruments can help inform performers about the stylistic intent behind older music,” Riordan explains.

Is such an infusion of period instrument knowledge common at other music schools? While programs like the Juilliard School in New York and Indiana University have whole divisions devoted to period instruments, most universities boast at best a faculty member or two who might be interested in period performance (usually a pianist who might also play harpsichord).

“To have all these Baroque instruments in our instrumentarium at MTSU, the faculty members who play them, and students who can use them and to have it all integrated into the curriculum is unusual,” Riordan says. “We have several faculty members who regularly perform with period instruments. Here at MTSU, it is seen as something that goes along with the modern instruction—that is parallel and enriching.”

What is most unusual for music schools the size of MTSU’s (perhaps even unique) is that there is a significant number of individual faculty members (ten) who have experience performing on old instruments, although this is still very much a minority of the faculty. Some students do get a chance to play and even perform on old instruments while at MTSU, but all music majors (and many nonmajors and community members) have a chance to experience period-instrument performances.

Such period-specific instruction is a trend in higher education, and it’s also shifting the classical music landscape. According to Riordan, performers today are certainly capable of creating compelling performances of Baroque and Classical music on modern instruments, but many now choose to perform on instruments typically in use at the time the music was composed.

“The thinking of these period-instrument performers is that the old versions of instruments more readily allow for the re-creation of the music in the ways that the composer intended, resulting in a more historically informed performance,” he explains.

Partially due to the period-instrument movement, instrumentalists are increasingly taking a more sophisticated approach and attempting to perform the music from various periods in historically appropriate ways on modern instruments. Given their significant exposure to period instrumentation, MTSU School of Music students can be considered to be on the leading edge of that movement.

 A Band for All Time

Some 10 full-time MTSU School of Music faculty members play on 17th- and 18th-century period  instruments and are able to re-create the style the composers would have expected, so that their music may be heard with all its original color and passion.

The horns do not have valves of any kind but do have interesting extra tubing called crooks. Angela DeBoer, horn, uses a (valveless) Classical period natural horn to introduce the harmonic series to all first-year music theory students, so all undergraduate music majors are being taught a theoretical concept using a historical instrument.

Trumpet professor Michael Arndt (also incoming president of the Faculty Senate) has all his students play the “Ode to Joy” from Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 on natural trumpet and then on their modern instruments, to inform their playing.

A few students study Baroque flute with adjunct professor Jessica Dunnavant, and trombone professor David Loucky has had interested students perform on sackbut and ophicleide.

Of interest to Andrea Dawson, violin, and Christine Kim, cello, are the tip and frog (the lower end) of the modern and Baroque bows; the strings, which are gut; the bridge, tailpiece, neck, and fingerboard; and the lack of a chin rest on the violin and the lack of an end pin on the cello.

Apple for teacher

Achievement among MTSU’s faculty
 A Literary First

Collage literary magazine received its first Gold Crown Award—the highest given to a student print or online publication—from the Columbia Scholastic Press Association, an international student press association founded in 1925. Collage was one of only seven magazines in the nation to receive the award. Marsha Powers serves as coordinator of special projects and publications for the Honors College at MTSU, which produces Collage.

Atta Boy, Roy

MTSU’s Dr. Don Roy was recognized by MBAPrograms.org as one of the top 50 business school professors to follow on Twitter. The list includes business professors from all over the world who use the social media site to network with others in the field and muse about developments in the business world. Roy was also listed number 65 on Social Media Marketing magazine’s list of top marketing professors.

Coast to Coast

Professor Cliff Ricketts achieved a career goal of driving coast-to-coast on 10 gallons or less of gasoline purchased at the pump. Ricketts and his eight-member support team drove three Toyota hybrid alternative-fuel vehicles approximately 2,582 miles across the country, using only about 2.15 gallons of fuel purchased at the gas pump. Upon achieving his goal, Ricketts, who has spent 36 years as an MTSU faculty member and invested 34 years into research of alternative fuels, took off his shoes and socks, waded into the nearby Pacific Ocean and let out a large whoop. He is already planning a similar coast-to-coast trip in 2013—that one using sun and water alone. At the time of Ricketts’ journey in March, national average gas prices were $3.76 for regular, $3.90 for mid-grade and $4.04 for premium. The amazing journey was covered by media stalwarts including USA Today and ABC News.

Fine Art

Dr. Bonnie B. Rushlow, associate professor of art education, was selected by the National Art Education Association—the professional association for art educators—to receive the 2012 National Art Educator of the Year Award. The award was presented at the NAEA national convention in New York in March.

Battlefield Promotion

The Library of Congress released the first issue of Teaching with Primary Sources Journal, and it was all about the MTSU Center for Historic Preservation’s work in Tennessee teaching the Civil War era in a multidisciplinary context. Thousands of teachers across the nation will read the edition, and many will, in turn, use the materials in their classrooms. “Teaching about the Civil War with primary sources— original documents and objects which were created at the time under study—provides opportunities for expanding this familiar topic in history into subject areas as varied as geography, language arts, and science,” the Journal said, “giving students unique opportunities to discover how this epic struggle bled into nearly every aspect of American life.” Carroll Van West directs the Teaching with Primary Sources program at MTSU and is the director of the Center for Historic Preservation.

From Combat to the Classroom

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and MTSU entered into a partnership called VetSuccess on Campus to ease the transition of veterans from combat to campus. MTSU is the first university in Tennessee and one of only 16 nationwide to be a part of VetSuccess. MTSU is the number-one choice of Tennessee veterans and, for two years running, G.I. Jobs Magazine has named the university a “Military-Friendly Campus.”

Media Savvy

The Tennessean announced a partnership with MTSU to launch Brainstorm Nashville, a digital hub for civic engagement designed to foster community problem solving. The joint initiative launched with childhood obesity as its marquee topic. (Tennessee’s childhood obesity rate teeters close to 21 percent, the sixth highest in the country.) Successes achieved through Brainstorm Nashville are being celebrated online, in print, through social media, and in real life. Maria De Varenne, executive editor and vice president of The Tennessean, describes Brainstorm Nashville as the “editorial page of the future,” and a “catalyst for community action.” MTSU and The Tennessean combined forces for a “Tweetup,” a gathering of people who use Twitter, on the topic of childhood obesity in March. Gov. Bill Haslam participated. For more, visit www.brainstormnashville.com.

Midpoints – Summer 2012

A look at recent awards, events, and accomplishments involving the MTSU community

compiled by Kayla Bates, Gina E. Fann, Gina K. Logue, Paula Morton, Drew Ruble, Tom Tozer, Randy Weiler and Doug Williams

A Happy Work Place

MTSU’s Industrial/Organizational Psychology master’s student Jaye Murray won the prestigious national outstanding graduate student of the year award from the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). MTSU’s I/O Psychology program has an unprecedented distinction: two MTSU students have earned this national award in the past four years. The MTSU SHRM chapter was also named by national SHRM in 2010 as one of the top ten university chapters in the country.

You’re Going to Hollywood!

Erica Doyle won second place for “Video Magazine” at the 33rd annual College Television Awards, presented by the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Foundation. Doyle produced and directed her project, “Koure TV—Pushing Boundaries,” for the University’s television channel, MT10. Doyle accepted the award at a black-tie gala in Hollywood on March 31. See the project at www.kouretv.com.

From the Ground Up

For the second time in six years, MTSU’s Land Development/Residential Building Construction Management team won the National Association of Homebuilders Student Chapters Residential Construction Management Competition. Students were given a 22-acre plot in a flood plain area to develop a subdivision in Huntsville, Ala. MTSU also won the competition in 2007 and has placed in the top five in seven of the past eight years.

The Future’s So Bright

Anna Yacovone, currently employed as a post-graduate adviser in the MTSU Office of Education Abroad, was named the recipient of a Fulbright U.S. Student Program Scholarship to Laos. Yacovone, who graduated from MTSU in December 2011 with degrees in global studies and organizational communication, is now teaching English in the capital city of Vientiane, working mostly at the National University of Laos. The U.S. Department of State’s Fulbright Program is one of the world’s most prestigious international educational exchange programs. This is the third successive year in which two MTSU students have received Fulbright scholarships. The other 2012 recipient is Whiteside, Tenn., native Daniel Gouger, who will be conducting research in Spain.

Having a Ball

MTSU captured a fourth consecutive Vic Bubas Cup, given annually to the Sun Belt Conference all-sports champion. It marks MTSU’s eighth win in 12 years and the first time a school has won four straight Bubas Cups since South Alabama did so from 1991-94. Leading the way were the Middle Tennessee men’s and women’s basketball teams, which put together a year to remember for Blue Raider supporters in 2011–12. The MTSU basketball programs finished in the top 10 nationally in combined wins with its 53 victories and a 79.1% winning percentage. Both the men’s and women’s teams won the Sun Belt regular season title. The women posted a perfect 16-0 record against the league.

The Big Reveal

A record 331 students presented posters during Scholars Week, a University-wide celebration of research and creative expression. Dr. Eugenie C. Scott, executive director of the National Science Education Center in Oakland, Calif., kicked off the weeklong celebration with a press conference emphatically calling on the Tennessee General Assembly to drop bills allowing religious and politically motivated statements in public middle- and high-school classrooms. Lawmakers passed a bill that same day that would encourage classroom debate over evolution.

Going for the Gold

MTSU sophomore Jordan Dodson was named a recipient of the prestigious Goldwater Scholar Awards. Only 282 sophomores and juniors at colleges and universities nationwide are 2012 recipients. Dodson, 20, who has a 3.97 GPA as a double major in professional chemistry and professional mathematics and a minor in biology, received a two-year, $15,000 Goldwater Scholarship. Dodson, an Oakland High School graduate who shoots golf in the 70s, joins a growing list of Goldwater Scholars at MTSU, including (currently) Evan Matthew Craig, who received a Goldwater in 2011, and alumnus Taylor Barnes, MTSU’s first Goldwater recipient in 2007. The Goldwater Foundation is a federally endowed agency established by public law in 1986 and designed to foster and encourage outstanding students to pursue careers in mathematics, the natural sciences, and engineering.

Good Partners

The best video projects from students in Metro Nashville Public Schools were celebrated at the MTSU-sponsored Academies of Nashville Video Awards show in April. MTSU College of Mass Communication students (alongside Metro students) directed, produced and performed in the inaugural awards show using MTSU’s $1.4 million Mobile Production Lab, which has been used for events ranging from Music Row’s “Capitol Street Party” to ESPN coverage of Blue Raider athletic contests. The hourlong MNPS video awards production was aired on Nashville’s NECAT, Channel 10. “We are pleased to partner with Metro Schools because we see the great things happening in their schools and the caliber of students they are sending to college,” said Dr. Sidney A. McPhee, MTSU president.

Mutual Benefits

MTSU and Nashville State Community College (NSCC) signed an agreement in March to make it easier for students to earn degrees from both institutions. The Concurrent Enrollment provision allows students to enroll at both institutions simultaneously and get financial aid for the total number of credits, if needed. The Reverse Transfer provision gives former NSCC students, who enrolled at MTSU without receiving an NSCC associate’s degree, the opportunity to transfer MTSU credits back to NSCC and receive a two-year diploma.

The Right Note

Marlee Matlin, winner of the 1986 Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance in Children of a Lesser God, delivered the keynote address for MTSU’s National Women’s History Month celebration. Deaf since the age of 18 months, Matlin is a member of the National Association for the Deaf, communicates in sign language in her acting and public appearances, and travels with an interpreter.

A Pulitzer Perspective

Leonard Pitts Jr., 2004 Pulitzer Prize winner for commentary, presented “Owning What You Know” at MTSU. Pitts, a syndicated columnist for the Miami Herald and author of three books, became a published writer at 14 when the Los Angeles Sentinel published one of his poems.

Supreme Authority

Retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor became the first woman to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court when President Ronald Reagan named her as an associate justice in 1981. During her almost 25 years on the high court, she cast tie-breaking votes in more than three-fourths of the panel’s 5–4 decisions. “It took 191 years to get the first woman on the Supreme Court,” she told an MTSU audience. “That was quite a wait. And frankly, I’m still astonished that I was that woman.” Topics ranged from the pros and cons of an elected judiciary to her status as a member of the Cowgirl Hall of Fame (thanks to her Arizona cattle-ranch upbringing).

Spring Speakers

Mark Emmert, NCAA president, served as the morning commencement speaker at the spring 2012 ceremony. Ribo Huang of the National Engineering Research Center for Bioenergy at Guangxi Academy of Sciences in China was the speaker for the afternoon ceremony. At the morning ceremony, MTSU awarded its 100,000th undergraduate degree.

Field Lab

The Harpeth Wetland Bank recently donated about 220 acres of rural property in the Rockvale area of Rutherford County to MTSU. The land, previously known as the Puckett Farm, was donated with the support and encouragement of the property’s previous owners, former MTSU employee Betty Rowland and her sisters, Mary Taylor and Ann Hartmann, in honor of their father, Clarence William Puckett (’41). It will be used as an environmental field laboratory for programs in biology, environmental science, botany, conservation, and other sciences.

Good Company

Three accomplished alumni were added to the growing roster of the College of Mass Communication’s Wall of Fame at MTSU. Alumni Carrie Dierks (’99), the vice president for B2B operations for True North Custom Media, Luke Laird (’01), Billboard magazine’s No. 3 “Hot Country Songwriter of 2011,” and Mikki Rose (’05), Hollywood animator turned Sony Pictures Imageworks’ cloth and hair technical director, were honored with plaques and photos installed on the northwest interior wall of the Bragg Mass Communication Building. Also recognized were Friends of the College Dale and Lucinda Cockrell of the University’s Center for Popular Music.

Young at Heart

RCA recording artist, Murfreesboro native, and former MTSU student Chris Young produced a public service announcement for MTSU lauding the University for its academic programs. With the sounds of one of his No. 1 hits playing in the background, Young states that his time spent at MTSU as a student helped make him the “Man I Want to Be.” Young also recently donated a selection of his touring audio equipment and accessories to MTSU Production Services, a unit within the Division of Business and Finance that provides event services. In the past year, Young was nominated for a Grammy and had five consecutive number-one singles.

Join the Club

MTSU became a member of Oak Ridge Associated Universities (ORAU), an Anderson County–based nonprofit that operates like a chamber of commerce for universities across the globe. Through ORAU, these institutions of higher learning work together to advance scientific research and education by getting their best and brightest students working on projects with the government, in private sector industries, and at other universities. Students from any of the member universities can apply for a seemingly endless list of programs, many of which could land them at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. At any given time, there are more than 1,000 students in Anderson County taking classes. The result is more top-level science professionals with the academic prowess to keep the United States competitive with other countries.

Grammy Time

Lady Antebellum’s second Best Country Album Grammy in as many years meant more accolades for MTSU after the 54th Grammy Awards ceremony in February. Own the Night, the trio’s third album, garnered the win for Hillary Scott, a 2004–06 MTSU recording industry major and member of the group, as well as for engineer Clarke Schleicher (’80). Both were Grammy winners in 2011 for “Need You Now.” Scott and Schleicher were two of nine MTSU alumni and/or former students nominated for their work on musical releases ranging from country to contemporary Christian to bluegrass. Music by 14 current and former MTSU School of Music professors was included in the catalog that earned a classical Producer of the Year nomination for Blanton Alspaugh. Blue Raiders nominated for Grammys this year included Brandon Epps (’01), Jason Hall (’00), Brandon Schexnayder (’05), Dave Barnes (’00), Brandon Heath (’03), and Brandon Bell (’04).

Bonding Them with Science

by Patsy B. Weller

The GRITS program, based at MTSU, promotes more female participation in science fields statewide.

MTSU’s Dr. Judith Iriarte-Gross serves as a one-woman STEM-ulus package

Growing up in the shadow of the White House in Washington, D.C., Dr. Judith Iriarte-Gross never imagined that one day as an adult she would be an invited guest there.

“No, not ever, not even in my wildest dreams,” says the Middle Tennessee State University chemistry professor. In December 2011, she represented Tennessee at a White House Champions of Change event saluting efforts of persons nationwide to recruit and retain girls and women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics).

Iriarte-Gross was summoned to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue for her role as director of the GRITS Collaborative Project. GRITS, or Girls Raised in Tennessee Science, is a statewide organization and part of the National Girls Collaborative Project.

“I grew up a part of a big family living in a small house in Capitol Heights, Maryland,” she says. “The Smithsonian was my back yard. I was an usher at Ford’s Theatre. It was such an honor to be invited to an event at the White House and get to share all the great things that are happening in Tennessee and the South for girls in STEM.”

Back home in the Volunteer State, the dynamic teacher serves as director of the MTSU WISTEM (Women in STEM) Center that opened in July 2009.

“It is a place where we pull together all of our resources between MTSU and the middle Tennessee community to provide opportunities for girls and women to pursue STEM education and career growth,” Iriarte-Gross says.

A 2010 report by the American Association of University Women found that the number of women in science and engineering is growing, yet men continue to outnumber women, especially at the upper levels of these professions. In elementary, middle, and high school, girls and boys take math and science courses in roughly equal numbers, and about as many girls as boys leave high school prepared to pursue science and engineering majors in college. Yet fewer women than men pursue these majors. Among first-year college students, women are much less likely than men to say that they intend to major in a STEM field. By graduation, men outnumber women in nearly every science and engineering field, and in some, such as physics, engineering, and computer science, the difference is dramatic, with women earning only 20 percent of bachelor’s degrees. Women’s representation in science and engineering declines further at the graduate level and yet again in the transition to the workplace.

The bottom line? Female representation in science and math fields remains low. It’s a fact that doesn’t bode well for research and discovery when half of the human race—for whatever reason—remains outside the arena of science. Nor does it help America fill the STEM jobs increasingly available in this country.

Based on the activity of girls at the WISTEM Center, that won’t be the case for long. The place explodes with activity like a baking soda and vinegar volcano at a school science fair. With the assistance of a talented group of educators, students, and professionals, Iriarte-Gross has mixed together a virtual alphabet soup of organizations that open the world of STEM for all who are interested.

“Our efforts at WISTEM are making ripples,” says Iriarte-Gross. “But those ripples need to turn into waves.”

“Our efforts at WISTEM are making ripples,” says Iriarte-Gross. “But those ripples need to turn into waves.”

One such effort is Expanding Your Horizons (EYH) in Science and Mathematics, a one-day conference for middle and high school girls that fosters awareness of STEM education and career opportunities. Like a tempting box of scientific chocolates, the attendees get a taste of topics such as “The Math of Project Runway,” “Moon Buggies,” and “Menacing Microbes.” Since starting at MTSU in 1997, the event has given more than 5,000 girls a glimpse of a future many had not envisioned.

“Tennessee schools, particularly those in economically depressed and rural areas, are having difficulty attracting and retaining quality math and science teachers. Consequently, students often have little knowledge of the opportunities that STEM majors can offer women upon graduation,” she says. “It is very important that we reach them at a young age.”

Iriarte-Gross strongly believes new approaches like collaborative work (“girls like to work in teams”), showing how STEM helps people (“engineers build safer bridges, chemists design better medicines to keep people healthy”) and building self-confidence (“research studies show that by simply telling girls that they can master the difficult subjects, a more positive change in the outcomes occurs”) are keys to change.

The proof that role models like Iriarte-Gross are crucial to increasing female representation in science fields can be found in graduates such as Freneka Minter, 31, a McNair Scholar at MTSU who graduated in 2002 with a chemistry degree and who is now a Ph.D. candidate. She is a health-education specialist at Oak Ridge Associated Universities (ORAU).

How did Minter end up on a path to a career in science? At 17, when she was a student at Riverdale High School in Murfreesboro, she first crossed paths with her future mentor when she became an American Chemical Society Project Seed Scholar.

“Dr. Iriarte-Gross inspired me to be the first in my mother’s family to pursue a college education,” Minter says. “She provided the guidance and encouragement to help me complete my degree. As a role model, she helped me discover I had the backbone needed to pursue my dream.”

Beyond her work at the center, Iriarte-Gross, who was a chemist for the Food and Drug Administration in Dallas before returning to teaching, has a deep passion for helping all her students discover how science is relative to them. This is especially true for non-STEM majors in her general education physical science classes.

Cheering her students on to never let go of their goals motivates Iriarte-Gross, who started college seven years after finishing high school.

“By the mid-1970s, I had been married and divorced, my ex-husband had been killed in a car wreck, and I was a single mom with a young son,” she says. “I knew that I was stuck in a dead-end job that couldn’t support us. I knew I had to get a college degree and started going to a community college.”

Although Iriarte-Gross’s upward journey has taken her to the White House, she left the experience with one small disappointment.

“I would have loved to have met President Obama’s wife, Michelle, and his two daughters, Sasha and Malia,” she says. “I wanted to tell them about the EYH program and invite them to participate!”

Not Fiddling Around

Dr. Dale Cockrell proves not all research and discoveries need occur in a laboratory setting

by Drew Ruble

Perfect Pitch: Music City All-Stars brought MTSU Scholar Dale Cockrell's innovative research about the music embedded in the Little House books to life at the Loveless Café Barn during a PBS taping.

Musicologist Dale Cockrell is a scholar. He’s not used to the bright lights of a major television production. Nor is he used to being surrounded by musical legends like Ronnie Milsap and Randy Travis thanking him for the academic work he did to shed light on the old-time fiddle music ingrained in the American frontier experience.

No, Dale Cockrell is more comfortable digging through volumes of great American music or presenting a paper at a conference. But he couldn’t escape the bright lights and celebrity attention he received on a January night this year at the Loveless Cafe and Loveless Barn in Nashville, site of a PBS concert taping, the roots of which were watered by Cockrell’s scholarly sweat.

Cockrell, director of MTSU’s world-renowned Center for Popular Music, is the man behind the Pa’s Fiddle Project, an effort to reconnect generations of readers with the rich musical legacy woven into the Little House books written by Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Cockrell says his idea had a quite innocent beginning—reading at bedtime to his then-eight-year-old son, Sam.

“We read along, and there were songs embedded in the books. We would sing the songs, and if we didn’t know one, we would make up a song. Sam and I enjoyed that,” Cockrell says.

“But after a while, the scholar in me started to crawl into bed with us, and I started thinking about how there was an amazing amount of music in these books.”

Inspired, Cockrell sat down one Christmas break and started going through all of the books and listing the songs. He then began looking for existing recordings. What he found was that little had been done to chronicle or showcase these song references. Thus was born Pa’s Fiddle Project, dedicated to resurrecting and voicing the 127 songs found in the Little House books and making some great American music commercially available once again.

Cockrell established a record label, Pa’s Fiddle Recordings, to record the music referenced in the books. The label recently issued its third CD (out of a projected 10-CD series). The first was picked up by the National Endowment for the Humanities and sent to libraries nationwide as a sample of music making in 19th century American style.

The collections at the Center for Popular Music formed the foundation of the research that led to the music’s production. In all, Cockrell has spent 12 years on the project.

“Sometimes, it’s felt like we’ve been pushing that boulder up that hill every day,” he reflects. “Now we’re finally at the top and get to share this music with everyone.”

But how could Cockrell share the music with a broader audience? In June 2010, he attended a conference in Minneapolis called “LauraPalooza,” which was dedicated to all things Laura Ingalls Wilder. There, as scholars do at conferences, he delivered a paper—this one on Pa’s Fiddle Project. Afterward, he was approached by actor Dean Butler, who played the role of Almanzo, Laura’s husband, in the Little House TV series. Butler told Cockrell he thought the project would make a great pledge drive special concert for the Public Broadcasting System. The owner of a California-based production company, Butler pitched the project to PBS in New York and was successful in selling the network on the idea.

It all culminated on the aforementioned winter night in Nashville, when a stellar cast of Music City’s musical all-stars brought Charles “Pa” Ingalls’s old-time fiddle music alive for a PBS taping. Pa’s Fiddle: America’s Music, which began airing last month on PBS stations nationwide, features artists including Travis, Milsap, Ashton Shepherd, The Roys, Natalie Grant, Randy Scruggs, Rodney Atkins, and NBC’s The Sing-Off champions, Committed.

Adding to the occasion, MTSU students were behind the scenes to film Inside Pa’s Fiddle, a look at the inspiration, creation, and execution of the PBS special. The resulting documentary, sponsored by MTSU, is the product of a student crew led by Professor Tom Neff from the Department of Electronic Media Communication in the College of Mass Communication. (Neff happens to be the founder and former CEO of the Documentary Channel and an award-winning producer and director.) Many students were on site for the special, and many others worked in postproduction on editing, graphics and sound with Professors Clare Bratten and Matt Foley.

That the national PBS network would show such interest in Cockrell’s project indicates the ongoing, high level of fascination with the Little House world.

Cockrell believes the stories retain their popularity because they are based on real-life experiences and events—not fiction— of a family that homesteaded on the American frontier in the 1860s, ’70s, and ’80s.

“None of the people in the Ingalls family were superheroes,” Cockrell adds. “It goes against the grain of much children’s literature today. In fact, the books are pretty dark. Babies die, grasshoppers come and eat the crops, people get kicked off their land, houses burn down—they’re not books that are unremittingly cheerful. They are books about real life.”

Cockrell argues that the popularity of the books (and the TV series) might never have happened if it hadn’t been for the music references.

“To be in a family where you heard live music every day, for probably a couple of hours every day, printed itself upon Laura Ingalls Wilders’s brain in way that’s difficult for us to understand today,” Cockrell says. “Based on research by neuroscience and cognitive psychologists, my theory is that by remembering the songs that her father played and that she sang along to, it enabled her to unpeel the memories in which those songs [were] embedded. In doing so, she could start to write the stories that are about the memories of her family. Without the music, there may have been no Little House books.”

Though he’s admittedly a little uneasy about all the public attention he’s getting for his project, Cockrell is thankful for what’s happened.

“It’s enormously gratifying but also daunting, frankly,” he says. “As a musicologist, I’m not trained to get up on a stage in front of a PBS audience and communicate what I do as a scholar.

I’m being stretched and challenged in ways that I never expected. But I find it terribly exciting.”

Where does his project go from here? Cockrell’s goal is to take Pa’s Fiddle to grade schools nationwide, where he hopes the impact on kids will serve his even loftier expectations.

“I like to say that my goal is to change the music consciousness of the nation,” he says. “It’s kind of grand, but if 3rd- and 4th-grade students who come up against these books also learn the music that’s embedded in the books—Wilder expected that you’d know the music—then, in fact, you’ve inculcated a regard for [an] American musical legacy that’s not currently present in the consciousness of the nation.”

Cockrell is already at work on lesson plans for 3rd- and 4th-grade teachers. It’s just the next ripple of the scholarship he hopes will be felt far beyond the comfortable confines of his academic roost.