Can people of faith also believe in evolution?
How is human behavior influenced by social expectations?
What are those moths all over our campus, and why are they here?
These are among the diverse questions answered through the rigorous academic exploration that takes place across Stonehill every day. To many Stonehill faculty members, the opportunity to take this scholarship to the broadest possible audience — by working with the media to educate the public — is an equally important responsibility of academic life.
Whether clarifying a scientific fact, providing context for new political realities or elucidating trends in popular culture, Stonehill’s professors frequently serve as opinion leaders and respected authorities sought by news organizations to shed light on key issues in the public interest. As it informs broader audiences, the commentary they provide also reinforces the College’s scholarly mission by critically analyzing the local, regional and national issues of our time. “Our faculty’s ability to translate their teaching and research for the media to illumine a particular problem or issue not only advances the academic reputation of Stonehill but also helps all of us be more informed consumers of information,” says Joseph Favazza, provost and vice president for academic affairs.
At a time when the objectivity of the media itself is under intense scrutiny, the role of Stonehill faculty members as trusted subject-matter experts able to separate myth from fact is perhaps more vital than ever. “We need such public intellectuals at Stonehill — and elsewhere — if we are serious about maintaining free speech and a healthy, pluralistic democracy,” continues Favazza.
Ultimately, Stonehill’s students benefit when professors bring this passion for shaping contemporary issues and broader dialogue back into the classroom. Karl Giberson, professor of science and religion, says his students even benefit from the somewhat controversial nature of the dialogues inspired by his work at the intersection of science and religion. “About a month into new courses, my students begin to realize that I’ve been ‘out there’ in the media,” he says. “They see that we’re discussing contemporary issues in the classroom that are alive and well in the world — and they learn that discussion of these issues can be contentious but also cooperative.”
Here, we profile five Stonehill faculty members who, through the media, have applied their knowledge to enhancing understanding in the public sphere.
Highlighting Human Behavior, on Halloween
Ever feel like you’re being watched on Halloween night? If you find yourself part of one of Professor Bonnie Klentz’s Halloween research studies, chances are good that you are indeed being watched. A member of Stonehill’s psychology faculty and a social psychologist by specialty, Klentz — like other social scientists at institutions around the country — has used Halloween night research to examine decision-making or psychological principles such as self-awareness. “It’s a simple but effective way to test theories with children in the field versus adults in the lab,” Klentz explains. “Kids who come to a house as trick-or-treaters become anonymous research participants.”
In one such study, Klentz and collaborators, with the help of student research assistants, set up mirrors behind the requisite Halloween candy bowls at 30 houses, advising trick-or-treating children they could help themselves to one treat. The researchers were positioned incognito behind sheets decorated with Halloween-appropriate drawings with viewing holes so they could observe the children’s actions.
What they found was consistent with self-awareness theory: When the mirror was present, allowing the children to see themselves as others might see them, they more frequently adhered to the one-piece rule, especially those children age 9 and older. The Halloween set-up allowed the researchers to collect data on 300 children over a three-hour period. A few years later, the study caught the attention of Los Angeles Times and Time magazine reporters writing stories highlighting such Halloween studies. Following interviews, Klentz and her research were featured in both articles.
The publicity, Klentz says, supports Stonehill’s position as a formidable research center — the Time article also quotes faculty from Duke and Yale universities — while educating the public on insightful human behavior. “Psychologists do a tremendous amount of research and publish it in psychology journals, where average people would never see the findings,” she notes. “There’s been a push in our profession to communicate our findings more broadly to help positively influence healthier behaviors and lifestyles.”
Though Klentz has also participated in radio interviews, some covering her research on shoplifting reporting, she receives more media calls than she responds to. She says she has learned to shy away from those queries in which journalists seek general psychology commentary, which is outside her particular expertise. “I need to be comfortable using specific evidence or research in order to back up my comments,” Klentz explains. Her forthcoming research highlighting the “CSI effect” — concerns that jurors expect to see forensics to prove a defendant guilty, based on the popular television show — may prove to be another area of broader interest for journalists.
Klentz adds that those articles and textbooks in which she and her research have been featured have also proven to be useful teaching tools that help catalyze student interest in social psychology.
“I talk about my research in class — and I mention there are details about it in articles and textbooks — because we want our students to be aware of their own opportunities to work with faculty on studies,” she says. “It’s one way to recruit students into my lab and give them research experience they can then take ‘out there’ through articles and conferences.”
Making Sense of Moth Invasions
In November 2015, the Stonehill community noticed uninvited guests blanketing the campus’ buildings: moths, everywhere, as far as the eye could see. An unusual sight at the tail end of fall, it prompted many questions—from Stonehill to the Greater Boston community, where the moths were also becoming ubiquitous. Among them: Where did they come from? And why were they here?
These were questions Nicholas Block, assistant professor of biology, was well poised to answer. With background in evolutionary biology and birds, Block had recently become more interested in moths and butterflies
It was serendipitous, then, that Martin McGovern, Stonehill’s director of communications and media relations, became aware of both Block’s moth expertise and potential interest in the topic from the media, and pitched an interview with Block to WGBH, a Boston NPR radio affiliate. And a radio segment was born.
The resulting piece, which aired as part of WGBH reporter Edgar Herwick’s “Curiosity Desk” segment, was accompanied by an online article on the topic. In them, Block explains where the moths—winter moths, it turns out—came from (Europe, about 15 years ago), how they became so plentiful in the region (they have no native parasites), whether they do damage (the adults don’t, but in their caterpillar stage they derive defoliate trees) and what can be done about them (bring in a parasitic fly that eliminates the caterpillars). Block, referenced in the piece as “something of a winter moth geek”— considered a compliment in his circle—also connected Herwick with a University of Massachusetts professor who is the only local expert working on that parasitic-fly solution.
If the media spotlight did not win Block instant notoriety among students, his comments were definitely noticed by members of some local internet groups where he shares information, who asked him if he was the “same” Nick Block they’d heard. He has also been asked to lead nature walks, during which he points out species of interest, at local conservation properties. All of these opportunities, he says, help to bolster Stonehill’s standing in the scientific community. “Our Biology Department is strong and rigorous, and anything that makes people more aware of that is helpful,” Block points out.
Block adds that he is open to similar opportunities to use the media as a conduit to educate the public on the science we live with in our daily lives. This is particularly important, he adds, at a time when the value our society places on scientific inquiry and data—and the funding that typically supports science—is called into question. “Science communication has always been important to me—and a key element of that knowledge-sharing is helping people to see the role of science in understanding the world around us,” he says. “Public perception of science seems to be on a downhill slope, but it’s important that we continue to support the role of evidence-based learning and decision-making.”
Lending Reason to the Science-Religion Debate
In 2008, Karl Giberson, professor of science and religion, published a book called Saving Darwin that lays out the history behind an age-old question: Is it possible to believe in God and evolution at the same time? This very question underpins Giberson’s scholarly career in the relatively nascent interdisciplinary field intersecting science and religion. Saving Darwin was acclaimed and named a “Best Book of 2008” by The Washington Post, and it helped shape Giberson’s views of his career as a writer. “That was the moment when I realized I had gone from a scholar who writes scholarly books to a writer who is recognized by broader audiences,” he notes.
As media attention often does, the recognition snowballed. The book was reviewed by The New Republic, Giberson began to publish articles and columns in the mainstream press, and he then became a frequent source for local and national journalists seeking (mostly) healthy debate.
To be sure, Giberson’s research and writing — he makes the case for the overwhelming scientific data behind evolution and argues that there is room for modern theology to coexist with that evidence — ignites strong views. He points to one conservative talk show experience where the host canceled his second guest so he could continue to argue with Giberson. “Most people fall into extreme camps on the topic,” he explains. “But some of us in the middle say that you can be a religious believer and still accept science — and here is how you do that.”
Giberson’s background supports his position at the center of the debate. Raised as an evangelical and trained as a scientist — he holds a Ph.D. in
physics — Giberson is comfortable and credible with both audiences, although he no longer identifies as an evangelical. He has used his writing and national media platform to spur important conversations and attempt to encourage cooperation. The author of 11 books, he is also a frequent speaker at symposia and conferences across the globe — from the Vatican to a seminary in the Canary Islands — when these questions are considered. His media exposure includes a published op-ed for The New York Times and similar pieces for USA Today that examined the so-called evangelical “war on science.” Other pieces, such as a radio stint on NPR, consider whether Adam and Eve were historical characters. Still others, such as a Newsweek article on evolution that quotes Giberson extensively, seek simply to shed light on the issues underlying the debate.
All, says Giberson, are critical issues we must continue to examine. “We seem to be going in reverse on this question in America,” he says. “There’s a growing need for voices of reason who can help people make peace with science and religion.” Giberson credits Stonehill’s intellectual rigor— and openness to at-times uncomfortable questions— with its decision to appoint him as one of only 20 or so faculty in the country focused on this scholarly area. He is Stonehill’s first faculty member with his particular mix of expertise.
“At Stonehill, the community— from students to the College president— is open to and welcomes the discussion of how science and religion can be cooperative rather than antagonistic,” he says. “And that is rare.”
Putting Politics in Context
Peter Ubertaccio, associate professor of political science, isn’t sure how the media first found him. He’d begun pitching nonacademic writing about political parties and data to local newspaper outlets when he received a call from a local reporter asking for his views on a pressing political issue. “I pay attention to practical political issues, which is not always the case with political scientists,” he says. “So it helped this reporter that I had an eye on what was going on.”
Things took off from there. Ubertaccio is now regularly asked to weigh in on political matters from local elections— including the Massachusetts gubernatorial races— to national issues that impact the state and its lawmakers. Routinely quoted and featured by The Boston Globe, NBC Boston, New England Cable News and WGBH, he has also been featured in national news publications, including The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.
Ubertaccio credits his frequent calls — he fields as many as 10 in the weeks before a major election — to his nonbiased views based on sound research rather than partisan opinions. “I try to base my assessments on what recent history tells us about the potential success of a policy or politician, not a judgment made by one party or the other,” he says.
In addition to winning media attention, Ubertaccio’s fact-based discourse has helped make Stonehill’s Martin Institute for Law & Society — which he directs — a dynamic center where practical politics and political history are valued and discussed. The institute regularly hosts events with public figures — Senators Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey as well as Congressman Joe Kennedy were recent guests — along with candidates for office, who come to share their views on key issues and meet members of the Stonehill community. “It’s a place where students can get an up-close view of the electoral process and meet policymakers and candidates for office,” he says. “It brings a lot of energy to campus.”
Although Ubertaccio says his role as a news source hasn’t changed his approach in the classroom, the articles do provide fodder to enhance his students’ understanding of the context in which political issues play out. Noting that a long interview with a journalist can, at times, be reduced to a single sentence that may not fully capture an idea, he makes clear to students that the opinions he expresses in the press are just that. “I want them to recognize that there are multiple ways to process or understand a political phenomenon,” he says.
Ubertaccio also asks students to take a closer look at the facts and historical context behind an issue, such as the recent presidential executive order banning entry to refugees from seven countries, to help them forge their own opinions. “Rather than discussing why I disagree with the president — which they may know from an article — I ask them to look at what executive orders are and where we find sources of presidential power,” he explains. “I’m teaching them how social scientists look at the critical questions we’re living through right now.”
Uncovering Maritime Crime
Maritime piracy is not a pervasive threat or a frequent thought for most people living on the East Coast of the United States. For Assistant Professor of Criminology Anamika Twyman-Ghoshal, however, piracy on a different east coast — of Africa — forms the foundation of a wide body of research upon which her academic career in maritime crime is built.
A scholar of modern piracy, Twyman-Ghoshal is the author of the Contemporary Maritime Piracy Database, one of the most comprehensive international piracy databases ever created. By collecting international piracy data over 20 years, from 1991 to 2010, Twyman-Ghoshal identified both a shift in worldwide piracy — from the waters off Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore toward the oceans off Somalia — and an increase in a unique form of piracy crimes in that region. From there, she homed in on the new piracy hotspot of Somalia to better understand the forces behind the rise of piracy in that region; namely, a civil war and a decline in the fishing-dominated economy.
So when the international public-interest journalism site ProPublica was looking for a maritime crime expert for an in-depth report on cruise ship safety, Twyman-Ghoshal was a natural fit. “They were able to tap my knowledge to explain some of the strengths and weaknesses of cruise ship security,” she says. “Combining my criminological research in maritime crime and my background in international law, I could shed light on some of the issues that apply when a ship is in international waters.”
Twyman-Ghoshal, who is quoted in the resulting ProPublica article, sees the act of sharing her research through this and other public venues as a critical, yet often underserved, element of academic life. “Teaching is only one piece, but we also need to be speaking to the wider public to realize the impact we want,” she says. “Helping others understand issues and achieving evidence- based change with those issues — that’s part of our social justice mission.”
To extend her knowledge beyond the confines of academia, Twyman-Ghoshal doesn’t stop with the media — she also works with professional organizations and government agencies to educate those who can benefit from her research. In addition to sharing the Contemporary Maritime Piracy Database with the International Chamber of Commerce International Maritime Bureau and the U.S. Department of State, she recently authored a piece for piracy-studies.org, a research portal for maritime security.
That same desire to link academia with the wider world is also behind a Stonehill academic program created by Twyman-Ghoshal with Political Science & International Studies Department Chair Anna Ohanyan. Called the Learning Inside Out Network (LION), the program links students with professional organizations internationally, such as the Serbia War Crimes Prosecutor’s Office and the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights. Students in Twyman-Ghoshal’s Global Crime course recently traveled to Serbia as LION Scholars to intern at related organizations — including ASTRA Anti- Trafficking Action and the Victimology Society of Serbia — while conducting their own independent research.
“This program is giving students the same contextual knowledge and practical experience they will need to eventually take their own knowledge into the world and effect change,” Twyman-Ghoshal says.
Matching Media With Reliable Sources
As a trained journalist — he started his career at the copy desk of the Irish Press — Director of Communications & Media Relations Martin McGovern understands what reporters and editors want and need, even as those needs evolve in the modern media era. He also knows the great depth of knowledge Stonehill’s strong faculty have to offer to the broader world through the media. Matchmaking — providing the press with sources who bring their stories to life while enhancing the academic reputation of the College — is his among his top jobs.
To achieve this, McGovern and his colleague Associate Director Michael Shulansky make it their duty to stay in touch with journalists to know what they’re working on and to connect those angles to faculty research and expertise at the College. This dual knowledge was particularly useful in matching WGBH — a particularly attractive outlet for the academic world — with Nicholas Block for the piece on moth migration. “I knew people were wondering about the moths, and I learned Nick had this expertise,” McGovern explains. “It’s about keeping your eyes and ears open and looking for opportunity.”
McGovern adds that he makes himself available to faculty who might have interest in highlighting their work for the public through the press. Though he points out the media can be unpredictable and makes no promises about where an idea might land, he is always open to brainstorming ideas. He also helps faculty by sharing media best practices and facilitating mock interviews. “We bridge the gap between academic expertise and practical media needs,” he explains. “Our goal is to help our faculty contribute their valuable perspectives to the issues in the public sphere.”