Indiana University Research & Creative Activity

25th Anniversary

Volume XXV Number 1
Fall 2002

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fossil leaf
 

Gary Dolph
Gary Dolph
Photo by Mary Ellen Stephenson, IU Kokomo

Virgil and Elizabeth Hunt Hall
Virgil and Elizabeth Hunt Hall, dedicated at Indiana University Kokomo in 2001, contains teaching laboratories for the natural, information, and mathematical sciences. The hall is named after IUK's first director and his wife. Virgil Hunt helped establish IUK's first science "building" in a garage.
Photo by Kendall Reeves

Working on Fertile Ground

by Elizabeth E. Hunt

It's not unusual for a young professor, just starting out, to build a research career from the ground up. But Indiana University Kokomo biology professor Gary Dolph started off well below ground level.

"My first lab was a spare room in the basement [of IUK's main building]," Dolph recalls with a chuckle. "There were no ceiling tiles and no light fixtures. I had some plant stands that I had salvaged when a local grocery store threw them out."

What a long way Dolph has come in 30 years--and IU Kokomo, too. Dolph is a paleobotanist, meaning he studies fossil plant life and ecosystems. With the opening of IUK's newest building in fall 2001, he has moved into a laboratory that would be the envy of scientists anywhere.

"It's wonderful," Dolph says of the award-winning Virgil and Elizabeth Hunt Hall. "For the first time I have room to unpack all my specimens and work with them. The new facilities have everything you'd want them to, and more."

As nice as the new science and math building is, though, it would be wrong to assume that Dolph had postponed active research while waiting for the perfect environment. The move to Hunt Hall comes late in a very fruitful career for Dolph, the seeds of which were sown in that makeshift basement lab 30 years ago. A prolific researcher, Dolph has made noteworthy findings such as his 1986 discovery of the world's oldest intact seed of the black gum tree (roughly 55 million years old). He produces an average of four scholarly publications a year and has edited three scientific journals from his office at IUK.

Nor is Dolph's success simply a matter of blooming where he was planted, of overcoming obstacles in order to succeed. Like the species he studies, Dolph has been shaped by his environment. Even that first modest laboratory was instrumental in determining the direction his investigations would take.

"I knew I wasn't going to have a super well-equipped lab right away," he says. "So I started doing fieldwork related to Indiana--vegetational studies that my students have been able to be involved in as well."

IUK also offered something that Dolph says he wouldn't have found at just any school in the early 1970s: computer time.

"I chose IUK because I would be able to work on IU's mainframe, and I knew that I could do some interesting computer modeling," Dolph says. "The simulations I was doing would literally take all the memory the computer had, so I was given time between one and four in the morning, when no one else was on."

Now, says Dolph with a laugh, "I have more memory in the computer sitting on my desk. But at the time, having access to that mainframe computer was a big draw for me."

Dolph isn't the only biologist whose research has thrived at IUK. His colleague Christian Chauret, an expert on water quality and purification, has been deeply involved in research long before the move to Hunt Hall (see sidebar). A third member of the biology faculty, physiologist Michael Finkler, is currently at work on a compendious volume on turtles.

Indeed, the work of these biologists--and of other faculty in related programs at IUK--has been so strong that last year the National Wildlife Federation named the campus as one of the top in the nation for supporting faculty environmental research.

On a small campus like IUK, you might expect that an award-winning environment for environmental research would mean research in other areas wouldn't be as strong. But you'd be wrong. IUK is home to, among others:

  • A criminal justice faculty member who is an expert on HIV in China;
  • An English professor who has written widely on Zen and 19th-century literature and another who is a well-known Shakespeare bibliographer;
  • A psychology professor who explores issues of self-improvement and self-esteem; and
  • A history faculty member with expertise on the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

What is it that makes research thrive at IUK, a regional campus, after all, dedicated first and foremost to meeting the needs of diverse learners and communities?

Maybe it's just that.

"There's a certain focus here because we are a regional campus," says Chauret. "You're not distracted in a thousand different directions. It's a bit easier to find a niche, particularly when your work is very applied, as mine is."

Robert Roales, chairman of IUK's Department of Natural, Information, and Mathematical Sciences, agrees. "I think faculty members become more self-reliant on a campus such as ours. They have to be more proactive. They have to go out and network, find equipment, get what they need to do their research."

The experience of being a researcher on a smaller, teaching-oriented campus can also influence how faculty members approach their work, Roales believes. "Often, a faculty member's name will be the only one to appear on a publication," he says. "They tend to be very careful in their research, and what they produce tends to be very well done."

When it comes to creating a research environment, the strengths of a regional campus--a setting that may spark faculty members to be more focused, more meticulous, even more driven--apply beyond IUK. When IU Northwest, for example, held its annual recognition ceremony for faculty members engaged in exceptional scholarship or creative endeavors, it honored a geologist whose specialty is vulcanology, an expert in the 20th-century Spanish novel, and a painter who has had solo exhibitions in New York, San Francisco, and London.

"What I found most 'awesome,' in the traditional sense of that word," says IUN Executive Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs Virginia Helm, "was [honoree] David Klamen's inclusion in the Chicago International Art Exposition. He was one of 16 modern artists, including Andy Warhol, Picasso, Leger, Matisse, DeKooning, and Giacometti. That's impressive company."

"Impressive company" aptly describes the community of researchers around IU's regional campuses. From successful historians such as IU East author Joanne Passet, to well-known musicians such as IU South Bend pianist Alexander Toradze, to nationally recognized social scientists such as IU Southeast shyness expert Bernardo Carducci, the faculty at regional campuses make their marks in a variety of disciplines and pursuits.

Like faculty members anywhere, they must balance their research interests with commitments to teaching and to service, a task that can be more complicated on a regional campus.

"The emphasis here has traditionally been on teaching and service," observes John Rudy, an English professor at IUK. "The system tends to reward accomplishments in these areas. Research isn't always applauded."

But Rudy, who has written two books and has two more forthcoming, readily concedes that research can and does thrive on IU's regional campuses. "You find individuals who are quite devoted to scholarship," he says, "and who are doing very interesting and original things."

Gary Dolph agrees. "The attitude of the faculty member determines a lot," he says. "If you come to a place like IU Kokomo expecting that you're going to run a big lab with lots of graduate students or that you're going to work on the Human Genome Project, it's not going to happen.

"But if you come here intent on doing good-quality research, maybe in areas that fit between the cracks a little bit, you're going to find there's a lot you can do."

Elizabeth Hunt is a freelance writer in South Bend, Ind.

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