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Alumni and Donor News from the Arts and Sciences

January 2020


In this Issue

Dean Ritter encourages civic engagement through research and education

Each week, the podcast Voices of Excellence highlights the innovative research and creative inquiry of scholars in the College of Arts and Sciences. Recently, host David Staley, associate professor of history and director of the Humanities Institute, sat down with Gretchen Ritter, executive dean and vice provost, to dive into her vision for the college and her research as an academic. 

The conversation illuminated how Ritter, also a professor of political science, expresses her regard for civic engagement through two pathways. The first is by advocating for an arts and sciences education at a land-grant institution, and the second is through her scholarly work examining women’s citizenship and democracy throughout U.S. history.

“One of the powers of the arts and sciences model, whether it be through research or education, is the ability to see and imagine the world from different points of view,” Ritter said. “That's where you get critical thinking. That's where you get innovation. That's where you get the ability to imagine the world in new ways.”

An interdisciplinary arts and sciences education, she said, gives people the skills to be lifelong learners and establishes a foundation for professional success and civic engagement. It also provides people with the creativity and flexibility to tackle constantly evolving problems — the opioid crisis, terrorism, inequality, climate change — in an ever-changing world.

Journalism alum to release graphic novel as 50th anniversary of Kent State shooting nears

On May 4, 1970, four Kent State students were shot and killed by Ohio National Guard troops during on-campus protests opposing U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.Cover of "Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio"

Nearly 50 years later, award-winning author and illustrator and Ohio State alumnus John “Derf” Backderf (BA, journalism, 1983) is retelling that tragedy from the perspectives of those who perished. Backderf, best known for his graphic novel My Friend Dahmer, is set to publish Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio this April.

“This is a very complex story with a lot of moving parts,” Backderf said, adding that the novel takes place over four days as tensions rise. “By keeping the narrative on the four [who were killed], that makes the story personal. We get to know these kids, who were all remarkable — their hopes, dreams and fears, how they moved through life. When they’re cut down, it’s a real gut punch.”

"The reader will see what they saw and experience what they did right up until the moment the Guard opens fire."

Backderf burst onto the graphic novel scene in 2012 with his breakthrough work, My Friend Dahmer, which tells the story of his teenage acquaintanceship with serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. The work spurred a film adaptation in 2017, earned an Eisner Award nomination and was named one of TIME's top five non-fiction books of 2012.

But Backderf’s foray into exploring sensitive topics and telling heavy stories started long before his books about an infamous murderer and the vicious shooting deaths of four unarmed college students. It started during his days at Ohio State penning political cartoons in The Lantern newsroom.

Backderf hadn’t been published much before his time at the student newspaper, but before long, he was a well-established name on campus. Though he'd never drawn political cartoons before, he was unabashed and unapologetic in those he drew nearly every day for three years in The Lantern.

“I was this 20-year-old small-town schlub who worked as a garbageman before coming to Ohio State, and here I was, without a moment’s hesitation, splashing my views all over a paper read by 40,000 people,” he said. “I signed my name huge on those cartoons, too, just making a statement: ‘Yeah, this is me.’”

John "Derf" Backderf drawing Lantern cartoons in his dorm room in Siebert Hall in 1982.
Backderf drawing cartoons for The Lantern in his Siebert Hall dorm room in 1982.

Backderf pulled no punches as The Lantern’s political cartoonist, but he sure took them. His bold and satirical drawings — one of which skewered former Ohio State quarterback Art Schlichter’s notorious gambling issues —earned him glares in his dorm cafeteria, rebukes from professors during class and angry shouts from across the Oval. 

“I had to flee town for a couple days after one really controversial cartoon,” he said. “But it was an incredible learning experience, too. I had a tough hide after nearly three years as a Lantern cartoonist. I was well prepared for the real deal. I learned to say what I meant and say it clearly, and then stand behind it, even if you’re taking blows and kicks.”

After graduating, Backderf syndicated a strip called The City in alternative weeklies around the country before publishing his first book, Punk Rock & Trailer Parks, in 2010. He used his experience as a garbageman to inspire his third graphic novel, the Eisner Award-winning Trashed, in 2016, before diving into his book on Kent State.

Before writing and illustrating Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio, Backderf spent two years combing through archives and interviewing people who were on campus when the shootings occurred and who knew the victims. It took him an additional two years to complete.

An excerpt from John Backderf's "Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio."

An excerpt from John Backderf's "Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio."
Excerpt from Backderf's "Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio."

“I faced a unique challenge with this book in that there was almost too much material,” Backderf said. “It was a struggle to dig through it all to find what I needed. I had to keep my focus and stay true to my original vision.”

Backderf’s four years of work culminated in a poignant and unique retelling of a haunting moment in U.S. history — one that he says remains shrouded in lies and distraction. His ability to tell a story with such a complicated history, he says, stems from his experience at Ohio State.

“I owe everything to The Lantern,” Backderf said. “It’s where I found my voice. It’s where I grew, intellectually and creatively, at a greater rate than anywhere else in my career. It’s where I made lifelong friends. It’s where I met and fell in love with my wife. Everything good in my life I owe to The Lantern.”

Backderf will return to Ohio State for a reading in support of Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio at the Wexner Center for the Arts on April 15 at 7:30 p.m. The event is free with tickets and is preceeded by a reception at 6:30 p.m. Backderf's work will also be on display at the Society of Illustrators Museum of Illustration in New York City from March 17 to June 13.

Physics and astronomy professor receives National Postdoctoral Association 2020 Mentor Award

John Beacom, Arts and Sciences Distinguished Professor and Henry L. Cox Professor of Physics and Astronomy, has received the National Postdoctoral Association’s 2020 Garnett-Powers Association Inc. Mentor Award, which annually recognizes a single faculty member in the U.S. who has engaged in exceptional mentoring of postdoctoral scholars.

Beacom, also the director of Ohio State’s Center for Cosmology and AstroParticle Physics (CCAPP), will be presented with the award in March at the NPA’s annual conference in San Diego. He has served as a mentor for dozens of postdoctoral researchers as a direct research supervisor and through his role at CCAPP, which typically employs between 10-15 postdocs. His excellence in offering detailed career guidance, research insight and logistical support also earned him the 2019 Faculty Mentor of the Year Award from the Ohio State Office of Postdoctoral Affairs.

Beacom (left) and fellow astronomy professor Laura Lopez support former postdoc Katie Auchettl
Beacom (left) and fellow astronomy professor Laura Lopez support former postdoc Katie Auchettl, now a faculty member at the University of Melbourne, as she is recognized at Ohio State's International Scholar Research Exposition.

“[Beacom] is not satisfied with merely providing advice to young researchers. He wants to provide the best possible advice, and he takes time to examine every variable,” wrote current CCAPP postdoc Tim Linden, who nominated Beacom for the NPA Mentor Award. Linden was not alone, though. Fifteen additional current or former postdocs and graduate students, as well as four faculty colleagues, spoke to Beacom's tireless efforts to enrich the lives and work of his mentees.

Beacom joined Ohio State in 2004 after receiving his PhD from the University of Wisconsin–Madison and holding postdoctoral fellowships at Caltech and Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab). He is a senior scholar in astroparticle physics who has made significant contributions to scientists’ understanding of neutrinos, gamma rays and cosmic rays. He is also well known for his work on the properties of dark matter particles, the history of star formation and supernovae across cosmic time. His many awards include a National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Award, the Arts and Sciences Outstanding Teaching Award and Ohio State’s Alumni Award for Distinguished Teaching. He is a fellow of the American Physical Society (APS), past chair of the APS Division of Astrophysics and, in 2017, was named a Fermilab Distinguished Scholar.

John Beacom (center) stands with former postdoc Kohta Murase (right) and Murase's wife, Chisako Murase (left)
Beacom (center) with former postdoc Kohta Murase (right) and Murase's wife, Chisako Murase (left).

“Before meeting John, I unfortunately had never come across someone who so profoundly and unequivocally supported the careers, lives, successes and happiness of all the students, postdocs and faculty that came under their wing,” one of his former postdocs wrote.

“I often find myself trying to emulate John when I interact with students myself,” said another.

John Beacom with students at Fermilab
Beacom (right) poses with graduate students (from left) Chris Cappiello, Bei Zhou, and Guanying Zhu at Fermilab in Illinois.

Beacom is additionally an advocate for women and minorities in science, and he actively participates in outreach initiatives including running the college’s public lecture series, Science Sundays, and advising student outreach projects such as SciAccess, a conference created by recent graduate and President's Prize winner Anna Voelker that addressed barriers to science faced by individuals with disabilities.

Of the postdocs and students he has had an important role in mentoring, 22 are now in permanent or permanent-track research positions. 

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Students aren't always aware of the variety of exciting career paths and opportunities open to them upon completion of their degree. Life Beyond Degree is a program that connects current students with alumni who are using their degree in both unique and traditional ways. Help students discover career paths and see the many doors their Arts and Sciences degree will open for them. To learn more about how you can volunteer, visit the Career Success website.

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SCIENCE SUNDAYS: Food Insecurity and Mental Health: An Underexplored Global Health Concern
Feb. 2, 3 to 5 p.m.
Ohio Union, U.S. Bank Conference Theater, 1739 N. High Street

Inaugural Christian Zacher Lecture Series presents Billy Collins
Feb. 5, 4 p.m.
165 Thompson Library, 1858 Neil Avenue

Red Velvet 
Feb. 6–12
Roy Bowen Theatre, 1849 Cannon Drive

Celebrating 150 Years with Ohio State
Feb. 20, 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Fawcett Event Center, 2400 Olentangy River Road or Online

Webinar — Artificial Intelligence and the Future of the Workforce
Feb. 21, Noon to 1 p.m.