Frank Van Nuys is Professor of History and will be the interim Department Head for Humanities & Social Sciences in Spring 2022.
What’s your area of expertise? What do you primarily research and/or teach? And what drew you to this field?
I would say that I am a generalist in the history of the American West and not particularly comfortable claiming expertise in any area within that field. I am more confident saying that I am conversant in a variety of areas, including the West, of course, but also environmental history. The nature of my job here at Mines accommodates being both a generalist and having some latitude to develop and teach courses that interest me. Of late, in addition to the surveys in American history and Western Civilization, I have been teaching Westward Expansion of the U.S. and Environmental History of the U.S.
My focus earlier in my academic career was on race and immigration, so, for instance, I did my Master’s thesis on so-called alien land laws in California, which were designed to prevent Japanese immigrants from owning or leasing agricultural land in the early 20th century. My first book, Americanizing the West: Race, Immigrants, and Citizenship, 1890-1930, looked at the Western part of the nation as an important driver in immigration restriction and the Americanization programs of the 1910s and 1920s.
After that, my fascination with wildlife issues and the attraction of a deeper engagement with environmental history shifted my focus. Controversies over mountain lions re-populating the Black Hills about fifteen years ago provided the impetus for my second book, Varmints and Victims: Predator Control in the American West, which was published in 2015.
In 1976 my eighth-grade science teacher gave us an assignment that seems as if it possibly aligned with that year’s Earth Day activities. I recall this primarily because of its embarrassing results. We were told to dig up some soil from our family’s yard and bring it to school to develop our own little in-door plot for growing some plant or other. Being part of the only family in southwestern Ohio not possessed of an old coffee can or some other suitable container, I dutifully filled a black plastic lawn bag with what seemed like a lot of dirt and stuffed that in a gym bag. Managing to lug my Earth Day “earth” on to the school bus, I stuffed the gym bag in my locker. When the time came for science class, I opened the locker and discovered that the plastic bag had ruptured. I suppose I somehow wrestled my embarrassingly overflowing bag of dirt into class and eventually grew something, but that sickening demoralization of middle-school level humiliation was all that really stuck with me.
My hapless effort at dirt transplantation offers a metaphor of sorts for the Earth Day phenomenon. Well-intentioned individual efforts on behalf of noble aspirations to better the planet, even if more successful than mine, amount to relatively small achievements. The first Earth Day on April 22, 1970, was certainly a masterstroke in terms of generating citizen engagement and marketing an increasingly popular sentiment into a mass movement spectacle. It can even be argued that bipartisan passage of significant federal environmental legislation, such as the Clean Air Act of 1970, the Clean Water Act of 1972, and the Endangered Species Act of 1973, fed on momentum provided by Earth Day. Additional impacts included a surge in environmental organization memberships during the 1970s and growing influence of such organizations in legal actions against corporations and government agencies.
In this third entry in our women in science and technology series, we focus on women working right now and on the impacts women can continue to have into the future. Two of today’s entries deal with weather and climate, attesting to the importance of climate to our present and future; two emphasize the relationship between science and the arts; and one illustrates the potential our students here at South Dakota Mines have to build on the accomplishments of past women in STEM and to shape the future.
Katherine Hayhoe – selected by Frank Van Nuys
Canadian-born Katherine Hayhoe is a well-known figure in climate activism circles, in large part because of her down-to-earth and engaging skills as a science communicator. After completing a B.S. in physics and astronomy at the University of Toronto, she switched to atmospheric science for her M.S. and Ph.D. at the University of Illinois-Champaign. She is currently a professor of Political Science at Texas Tech University, where she also co-directs that institution’s Climate Center. In addition to more than 125 peer-reviewed publications, Hayhoe has contributed to climate change studies by the National Academy of Sciences and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. As an evangelical Christian, Dr. Hayhoe has tried to bridge the gap between science and religion, particularly on climate change. Between 2016 and 2019, she hosted and produced a PBS web series, Global Weirding: Climate, Politics, and Religion.
Nathalie Miebach – selected by Matt Whitehead
Nathalie Miebach is an artist who uses weather data to create sculptures and collaborative musical scores. In her sculptures she uses basket weaving techniques, assigning different reed thickness, colors, and other objects to specific types of weather data, often focusing on extreme weather events such as hurricanes. As she says in her TED talk, “Weather is an amalgam of systems that is inherently invisible to most of us. So I use sculpture and music to make it, not just visible, but also tactile and audible.” Science is important, but if it cannot be communicated to others and understood – both intellectually and emotionally – its importance is limited. Miebach’s work helps communicate science to a broader audience and also shows that art and science can be understood together. Learn more about her work at her site, and check out her TED talk about her art using weather data below.
Laurie Spiegel – selected by Matthew Bumbach
Laurie Spiegel (b.1945) is a computer graphics specialist who has worked at Bell Laboratories since 1973. She is also a classical composer, guitarist, and lutist. Spiegel has found a way to combine her passions through the medium of electronic music both as a composer and as a programmer. Though she is a well-known composer and performer, she is most celebrated as the creator of the program Music Mouse.
Music Mouse is an “intelligent” algorithmic music composition software. With a built-in knowledge of chords use, scale conventions, and stylistic practices, the software allows the user to create real-time compositions by simply moving the mouse. Spiegel has used the software for several compositions, including Cavis muris (1986) and Sound Zones (1990).
Laurie Spiegel’s revolutionary work in the field of technology has led to countless innovations. Her influence as a composer and performer, however, has propelled electronic music forward at warp speed. While science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) profoundly impact our world, Laurie Spiegel’s ground-breaking career illustrates the potential impact of arts integration (STEAM).
Kiley Westergaard – selected by Karen Westergaard
Without even knowing it, we rely on scientists for information in our everyday lives. We take products, and our scientists behind the scenes, for granted. Behind the scenes, a female scientist tests and labels our products, ensures they are safe, quality products for us to use. She’s behind that nutrition label on your food products. At her lab, she tests for the protein, the fat, the fiber, all the items on your nutrition label. She then generates the product nutritional label so that you know what you are consuming. For instance, those trending seltzers right now? She’s testing each seltzer and creating the nutritional label for each. Ever wonder how long a certain food lasts before it becomes rancid? She’d know. She tests products for that too. That’s why you have the convenience of product expiration labeling. Worried about consuming products with GMOs? She’s got that too. She tests products like corn and soybeans to determine if they are genetically modified. She’s the reason you can find products labeled non-GMO. Worried about your food containing traces of chicken, beef, pork, alligator, kangaroo, goat, or rabbit? With meat speciation, she tests to ensure the product that reaches your home is safe to consume and is labeled accurately. Ever think about who’s behind the scenes? Scientists like you. Scientists like Kiley Westergaard, Chem ’19, SD Mines.
If you missed them, check out our first and second entries in this series, too!