“The School of Professional Studies was exactly what I needed..."
Janine Kirstein-Miles, PhD, is fast emerging as an authority of aging. The globetrotting molecular biologist has presented her research in Austria, Croatia, Germany and Japan.
A recent coup: An invitation to discuss her work at an international symposium this spring at the University of Cambridge in England.
Science, notes Kirstein-Miles, 33, who also teaches biology and biochemistry in Northwestern's Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, is an international endeavor. Researchers “have in common a natural curiosity and share a passion to make sense of puzzling observations.”
The German-born scientist, a postdoctoral fellow at the Morimoto Laboratory on the Evanston campus, has spent the last four years here investigating the links between aging and neurodegenerative decline — “Why we age, what happens when we age, what we can do about it.”
No prima donnas, her research models are casual about their cradle-to-grave documentation. Kirstein-Miles scrutinizes microscopic roundworms over the course of their three-week lifespan. She observed that damaged and malfunctional proteins build up over time, ultimately harming other proteins and enfeebling “elderly” worms. She uses biomarkers to monitor the correct fold and function of proteins.
Basically, toxic proteins trap other proteins, depleting cells of their functions, Kirstein-Miles said. On a cellular level, “worm cells and human cells are almost the same,” she said. “We utilize the same genetic pathways for our metabolism or the way our cells communicate with each other to respond to internal or external stress conditions.” Her research could reshape the treatment of geriatric patients battling neurodegenerative disorders like Parkinson’s disease and Huntington’s disease.
Kirstein-Miles has been an instructor at SPS for three years. When she started, she just wanted teaching experience, “but this quickly changed to really enjoying the classroom,” she said. “SPS students are highly motivated and I'm glad that I can contribute to their new careers. I often hear back from former students who are now in med school or have started graduate school.”
Upon her return Stateside, Kirstein-Miles was soon packing her bags again, this time to present her findings during a six-day conference at the prestigious Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York, a cornerstone of biological research. Her theories are worming their way into acceptance.
Teaching philosophy to day-school undergraduates and medical students, plus tending to his duties as an assistant dean of Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, are more than enough to keep Mark Sheldon busy. But Sheldon chooses to teach at SPS, too. “I enjoy a mix of ages,” he says. “Older students bring a variety of experiences to class, making for interesting discussions.” Sheldon, who consistently appears on the University’s teaching honor roll, brings his talents to bear in encouraging those who have been away from school for years “to see themselves as fully capable of dealing with the rigors of the SPS program.” A distinguished senior lecturer in Weinberg’s philosophy department and in the Feinberg School of Medicine’s Medical Ethics and Humanities Program, Sheldon teaches a number of SPS ethics courses.
“I have relatively eclectic training as a psychologist,” says Sara Broaders, who earned a PhD in developmental psychology and mental health research from the University of Chicago. “That enables me to teach a wide variety of courses.” At the School of Professional Studies, Broaders teaches not only staples like Introduction to Psychology, Developmental Psychology, and Psychopathology but also topics like Psychology and Law as well as Psychology and “Weird” Beliefs. The weird beliefs class examines the social and cognitive factors that contribute to beliefs like superstition, alien abduction, witchcraft, and spirit possession. “One person’s ‘weird’ belief may be another person’s firmly held conviction,” says Broaders.
In her teaching Broaders uses examples from her research — among other topics, she has studied how gestures can affect memory and problem solving — but teaching remains her top priority. “School of Professional Studies students are really motivated and engaged,” says Broaders, who also teaches students at the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences during the day. “SPS students are balancing a lot of things in their lives, and they see how what we discuss in class relates to them personally.” She says that small class sizes at SPS allow her to get to know her students, especially when they enroll in her classes over several quarters. Broaders won an award for excellence in teaching from the Undergraduate Psychology Association at Northwestern University and was elected to the Associated Student Government Faculty Honor Roll.
Broaders is eclectic not only in her professional interests but also in her personal life. She’s an accomplished quilter — and she recently obtained a motorcycle license. Still, says Broaders, there’s nothing she enjoys more than teaching.
“It just about killed me,” says SPS undergraduate literature instructor Ray Gleason about writing his latest book, The Violent Season. The book is a collection of interconnected stories about a young man’s experience before, during and after serving in Vietnam. For Gleason, a Vietnam veteran, the writing process was painful but it brought closure to a long process of recovering from the war’s toll. Gleason’s military service and his former days as an SPS graduate student are part of the richness of experience he brings to the classroom and to his writing.
They were just kids
Living in his native New York and barely out of high school, Gleason and a best friend joined the army in 1966 just as the offensive against North Vietnam was escalating. “We were just kids, wondering what we would do with our lives, who we would fall in love with and what we would become,” says Gleason. “I had an acceptance letter from Hunter College in New York, and I intended to come back and pick up where I left off.” But after four brutal years with the 4th Infantry Division in Vietnam’s central highlands and the K/75 Rangers in Cambodia, Gleason came home a different man.
He struggled with the mental trauma of war but was also determined to get an education; he walked into Hunter College with his old welcome letter in hand and earned a BA in English while remaining in the army reserve. He intended to study business, but discovered that literature helped him cope with his complex post-war emotions and escape from his life as “the object of frustration and discontent” for the many who had opposed the war. He also began noticing that despite our culture’s fascination with the 1960s in books and film, he wasn’t seeing himself in those representations.
“My generation is defined by this war, more so than Woodstock or changing sexual mores or anti-establishment behavior,” says Gleason. “All of those were connected to or a result of the war. But the Vietnam stereotypes — the disturbed, anti-social veteran, the macho Rambo type — those weren’t a part of my experience. And there was a kind of heroism unique to Vietnam that’s difficult to convey: soldiers putting their lives on the line, although we knew it was entirely futile. It was a story that needed to be told.”
A new beginning
While stationed at the U.S. Army’s Fort Sheridan in 1986, Gleason began writing and his colleagues encouraged him to continue his education. He earned his master’s in English literature through SPS and then went on to complete a PhD in English at Northwestern University. He specialized in medieval literature and studied under Barbara Newman, one of the foremost scholars in medieval literature and religion. The period’s cultural character has special affinity for Gleason, who spent his formative high school years in a Roman Catholic seminary, which exposed him to medieval literature and history. Later, his immersion in literature helped keep him going during those years, as he continued to grapple with his war experiences, fulfill his reserve duties and raise four children.
“I grabbed those moments when my kids watched cartoons to work on my dissertation,” he recalls. “The flexibility of SPS class schedules also helped a lot. After going through the war and attending a city college, I really enjoyed the classic ivy-covered campus experience — I thought I had missed out on that, and it was a sort of rebirth. I think my graduate school days made me a more supportive and inspiring instructor; I know what it’s like to juggle other responsibilities and to question whether it’s worth doing.”
Teaching, storytelling and healing
Gleason completed his PhD in 1997 at Northwestern and began teaching at Culver Military Academy in Indiana in 2002. He also teaches undergraduate courses in medieval literature at SPS. He published his first book, A Grunt Speaks: A Devil’s Dictionary of Vietnam Infantry Tales and Terms in 2009. The Violent Season will be published in 2013. Gleason’s contemporary fiction and subject matter may seem at odds with his academic specialty, but for Gleason, there’s a clear connection:
“I wanted to teach because I wanted to help students access the emotional and intellectual history of mankind,” he says. “My own experiences as a writer help me to convey to my students the process of turning raw emotion into images, into a story the reader can feel and understand. And you need good literary models to do that well. For example, I loosely base a scene in one of my stories on the ending of Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde. Allusions from literature can be used to express something altogether different. I want students to understand the richness and timelessness of these texts, but to enjoy them as well.”
Gleason describes The Violent Season as a book “40 years in the making,” and one he believes has brought him a sense of closure with his Vietnam experiences. Gleason plans to continue writing and teaching. He currently lives in Indiana with his wife Jan Peyser, an award-winning silversmith jeweler and former English teacher.