Teaching. Reaching. Inspiring.

Seven professors with a faculty for igniting ideas.

By Romel Hernandez | December 1, 2016

For more than 100 years, Reed professors have set themselves apart by treating students as intellectual peers—Comrades of the Quest, To borrow President William T. Foster’s memorable phrase. In this piece we profile seven professors who have recently been appointed to endowed chairs—a mark of esteem from their colleagues and a recognition of their knack for inspiring students. 

Professor Ann Delehanty

[French 2000–] MacArthur Chair

In a Nutshell: Prof. Delehanty grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota, earned a BA in philosophy at Carleton College, and then switched to study comparative literature in graduate school at UC–Berkeley, where she specialized in 17th-century French literature. In 2000, Delehanty landed a position with Reed’s French department, where she teaches an array of courses in French language and literature. The deciding factor in her taking the job at Reed was the opportunity to teach humanities—a reflection of her diverse interests. “I came to Reed because teaching Hum 110 was the most exciting thing I could imagine,” she says, “the ability to spend a whole year in a conversation with students asking some very important and very difficult questions.”

It’s a Bird, it’s a Grad Student, it’s Wondergrrl!: When she “went broke” getting her PhD at Berkeley, Delehanty took a job patrolling video game chat rooms using the moniker Wondergrrl.

The Heart has its Reasons: As a young scholar considering what direction to take her career, she found herself drawn to the 17th-century French polymath Blaise Pascal, who made a mark as a philosopher, mathematician, and scientist. “Pascal is a fascinating nexus for a lot of different disciplines and ideas,” she says.  “I’ve always been obsessed with his thinking and amazed by how much he managed to do in such a short time.” (Pascal died at 39.) Unapologetically interdisciplinary, Delehanty’s scholarship stands at the intersection of philosophy, literature, and history, reflecting her own Pascalian sensibilities.

Book it, Anno: Her 2012 book, Literary Knowing in Neoclassical France: From Poetics to Aesthetics, explored the 17th century’s epistemological shift from reason to the notion of a “literary sublime.”  The book represented, in her words, an effort to trace “the history of an idea—that literature might offer us access to transcendental and ineffable truths.” She explored this transformation through the works of several 17th-century thinkers, including, of course, Pascal, who famously wrote, “The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.”

The Experiment: Delehanty’s teaching and scholarship have flourished at Reed. “I value teaching tremendously, but it was also very appealing that I could pace my research here,” she says. “Reed’s focus on teaching allows me the freedom to experiment with both my teaching and my research in ways that can be cutting edge, in ways you couldn’t do at a big university.”

Literary Knowing in Neoclassical France evolved out of working with a student awarded a Ruby Grant from the college to fund faculty-student collaboration in research.  The book she is currently writing, about the concept of disillusion in the early modern novel in France and Spain, also originated as a Ruby project with one of her students. Starting with Don Quixote, the book examines how interpolated stories-within-stories were used to critique social conventions.

Professor Jim Fix 

[computer science 1999–] Crandall Chair

Scratching an Itch: Prof. Fix was the first tenure-track computer scientist ever hired at Reed, which gave him the opportunity to build a program from scratch. It took some time, but in 2017 the college will launch a full-blown computer science program, thanks to donors who contributed $5 million to support it.

“Reed gave us a chance, and I feel really good about the courses, the curriculum, the people we’ve hired,” he says. “Computer science can be really rigorous, and it doesn’t need to be about training students to write software to get a job. This program is about algorithms and mathematical thinking about the limits of computing and computation.”

In a Nutshell: Fix grew up in Pittsburgh and attended Carnegie Mellon University, majoring in math and computer science. As an undergraduate he was interested in scientific computing. He sought internships at Westinghouse Electric, where he worked on code for full-scale nuclear reactor simulators, and at Lawrence Livermore (LLNL), where he worked on code for seismic tomography and signal recognition. He also taught for several years as part of CMU’s introductory programming group. LLNL’s supercomputers made him deeply curious about the theory of parallel algorithms, and he pursued that research for his PhD at the University of Washington. Ultimately, his love of teaching computer science led him into a career in academia. Since arriving at Reed in 1999, he has focused much of his energy on starting the computer science program. Currently the program has three professors, one housed in biology. A fourth is joining Reed next year. Before the expansion Fix shouldered the curriculum, teaching courses on subjects ranging from computer hardware to computational complexity. He has managed to keep pace with advances in his field, and now that the computer science program is established, he is looking forward to spending more time on his own research.

Apples and Algorithms: When he was a kid back in the 1980s, Jim wrote a program in BASIC on a cousin’s Apple II and was thrilled when, at the age of 12, he received a Commodore 64 home computer as a present. Computer technology has evolved more than a byte since those days. Today Fix explores the vast possibilities of parallel computing, which involves the coordinated use of supercomputers to solve massive computational problems.  He explores the theoretical side of computation, designing and analyzing algorithms that support parallelization.

Doing the Math: Some people questioned whether computer science was a good fit at Reed, but Fix answered skeptics by developing a rigorous, math-focused program with a strong emphasis on theory whose courses have proven popular. He notes that the number of students taking the introductory computer science class has grown to about 120.

“Really, computer science and the liberal arts  are a perfect combination,” Fix says. “We’ve reinvented the way computer science is taught.”

Professor Julie Fry 

[chemistry and environmental studies 2008–] Scott Chair

In a Nutshell: Prof. Fry comes from Michigan, where her hometown’s proximity to Dow Chemical’s headquarters meant the schools provided excellent science education and labs. She wanted to be a scientist and majored in chemistry at the University of Rochester. A Fulbright grant took her to Germany to study solid-state surface chemistry, before she shifted to atmospheric chemistry at Caltech. After graduate school, she worked as a climate policy fellow with the Environmental and Energy Study Institute in Washington, DC. She realized early on that she enjoyed teaching science as much as she enjoyed doing research, and in 2008 jumped at the chance to teach at Reed. She was a visiting professor for a year, then stayed. “I wanted to be somewhere where teaching well is an equal focus alongside doing research,” she says.

Smog Buster: Trained as a research chemist, Fry spent most of her career studying the science of smog before deciding she wanted to do more than just study air pollution—she wanted to do something about solving the problem. A decade after earning her PhD in atmospheric chemistry at the California Institute of Technology and having established herself at Reed, she went back to school. She took a sabbatical over the 2015–16 school year to earn a master’s degree in environmental law at Lewis & Clark Law School.

“I loved being a student again,” she said of her time in law school. “I loved the intellectual challenge of learning a new perspective on environmental problems.”

Climate for Change: Fry’s scientific work has focused mainly on the chemical processes that result in air pollution, specifically the ways nitrogen oxides emitted from car exhaust and factory smokestacks produce particulate haze in the earth’s atmosphere. Because this haze cools the planet, her science and policy interest intersect in what is arguably the biggest policy issue facing the planet—climate change.

“My research is more about how particulates cause climate change than how to combat it,” she says. “But it’s a very important problem, and I feel a responsibility to work on the relevant science.”

And although she jokes that students sometimes refer to her and a colleague she coteaches with as “Professors Doom and Gloom,” she is “cautiously optimistic” that attitudes and policies are moving in the right direction.

“Yes, things are changing quickly,” she says. “But we’re not moving fast enough; we need greater urgency.”

Taking the Air: Fry’s scholarship may be broadening, but she continues to enjoy being out in the field or in the lab, working with students on research. She makes a point of taking her classes out on field trips to take air measurements in the Columbia Gorge and the Brooklyn railyard not far from campus.

“I’m a huge proponent of getting students out there doing independent research,” she said. “I’ve always liked the idea that the world is there to be discovered if you have the right ideas and right tools and ask the right questions.”

Fry also played a pivotal role in developing Reed’s environmental studies program, an interdisciplinary major that draws on biology, chemistry, economics, history, and political science.

“It was something students had wanted a long time, and it very quickly became a strong program,” she says, noting that 8–12 seniors a year now graduate in environmental studies.

Professor David Garrett

[history 1998–] Scholz Chair

In a Nutshell: Prof. Garrett grew up in Pittsburgh and earned a BA in political philosophy from Yale. He was entranced by the Andes on a backpacking trip after graduating. “I was fascinated by the complexity and history of the society, and awed by the beauty. And I met such great people.” 

He later switched from European history to Latin American history, earning an MA from Harvard University before moving to Columbia University for his MPhil and PhD. Garrett joined the Reed faculty in 1998, several years before finishing his dissertation. He was attracted to the college by the intellectual climate on campus. Reed offered freedom to pursue teaching and scholarship in pretty much any direction, and Garrett has taken full advantage of the opportunity.

“The amount of faculty autonomy is fantastic,” he said. “Reed is a small village, but it’s a great village.”

A Trip to Cusco: Garrett spends most summers going back to Cusco, Peru, visiting friends and hunting through historical archives in pursuit of centuries-old records documenting life under Spanish rule. His research provides surprising insights into viceregal history in the Andes. “I think people have overly simplistic views about the period and society,” Garrett says, “when it was really enormously complicated.”

His 2005 book, Shadows of Empire: The Indian Nobility of Cusco, 1750–1825, examined the complex and often contradictory social, economic, cultural, and political structures of colonial society. He has written extensively in both English and Spanish, and his book was published in Spanish as Sombras del imperio.

Garrett’s work explored the role of Peru’s indigenous nobility, the descendants of Incan rulers who continued to enjoy a privileged status in society two centuries after the conquest. These native elites were central to the colonial order, even defending it during the 18th–century Tupac Amaru rebellion. Currently, he studies how multiple space-times—indigenous, colonial, and imperial—intersected and diverged in the Andes.

A Versatile Iberianist: As the only Latin Americanist and Iberianist in Reed’s history department, Garrett’s classes have covered a wide range of topics, spanning ancient to modern history, from the Incas and the  Spanish Golden Age to the Mexican Revolution. That versatility comes in handy at a small college.

Garrett’s boundless energy and enthusiasm have made him a student favorite on the faculty. He also has lent his teaching talents to the college’s Master of Arts in Liberal Studies and Humanities in Perspective programs, both aimed at nontraditional students.

Garrett takes special pleasure in teaching Humanities along with Latin American history. Where else would he get to teach Bolívar and deliver a lecture on the Code of Hammurabi?

“The mix is fascinating,” he said. “After the students, it’s the best part of teaching at Reed.”

Professor Keith Karoly

[biology 1994–] Ruben Chair 

In a Nutshell: Prof. Karoly spent his youth hiking and camping in the California redwoods, developing a keen appreciation and awareness of the natural world. He attended Whitman College to pursue environmental studies, starting out focused on environmental policy before finding himself drawn toward science and biology. A sophomore-year botany course piqued his interest in plants, and a summer spent as a research assistant in a genetics lab sent him on the path to studying evolutionary biology at the University of Chicago. After earning his PhD, he did postdoctoral work studying the reproductive biology of wildflowers at the State University of New York–Stony Brook and the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory. But he could not resist the lure of the natural splendor of the Northwest, landing a position at Reed in 1994.

“I also knew Reed had a strong reputation as a place where it was possible to stay active in research and interact with quality students,” he says.  “It’s a very intellectually satisfying place to be.”

He teaches a wide range of plant biology courses, from Bio 101 to advanced seminars in “Ecology and Evolution of Plant-Human Interactions.”

Colonel Mustard in the Library: An ordinary yellow wildflower reveals an extraordinary story of evolution to Karoly. By studying something as specific and minute as the presentation of stamens (the male reproductive organs) in a mustard blossom, he gains insights into why plants change—or don’t change—over time.

Most biologists tend to focus on change, but they aren’t exactly sure why some organism traits evolve while others stay the same. When studying evolution and natural selection, however, it can be as important to understand stasis as change. The 3,000 species and varieties of mustard plants vary in many ways, but Karoly is studying why they maintain identical stamen structures—four tall and two short.

“The fundamental question we’re asking about evolution is how some organisms stay relatively constant in particular features, such as stamens, but have diversified in many other ways,” he says. “You could do the same thing with mammals, and why you only have species with either two or four legs.”

Planting Ideas: Karoly involves his Reed students in primary research, taking them into the field to study natural selection of plant morphology and working with them in the lab to take measurements and conduct experiments.

One of the most rewarding parts of teaching at Reed, he said, is the opportunity to engage students in research, taking them on daylong field trips to misty old-growth forests on the edge of the Cascade Mountains or into the Reed canyon to collect plant specimens.

“Many students haven’t given much consideration to the plants growing right around them,” he says. “Getting to introduce them to plant diversity in our own backyard is fun.”

Karoly finds that teaching has made him a better researcher. “The work involved in preparing courses and working with thesis students is always giving me new insights,” he says.

Professor David Perkinson 

[mathematics 1990–] Griffin Chair

In a nutshell: Growing up in suburban St. Louis, the future professor was rooting through some boxes in his family’s basement one day when he stumbled across an old textbook on calculus  his father had kept from his college days. “I didn’t understand it, but I felt like I had found something magical,” he says. Perkinson fell in love with mathematics. He earned a BA in math from Grinnell and went on to study algebraic geometry at the University of Chicago, where he earned his PhD. “Being a math professor,” he says, “seemed like the ultimate thing you could do.” He joined Reed’s faculty in 1990 because it was the kind of college he would have loved to attend. “Reed would be my dream school,” he said. “I love teaching, and this is a perfect place to teach.” Music is also an important part of his life: he plays guitar and violin, and for several years was a member of the Zimbabwean marimba band Thunkadelic with family and friends.

Sandman: Prof. Perkinson sees beauty in a pile of sand—an Abelian sandpile, to be more precise. Which isn’t an actual pile of sand, but a mathematical model for the dispersion of energy. Abelian sandpiles exhibit what is known as “self-organized criticality,” using accumulating sand to represent how these dynamical systems are structured. To get an idea of the subject, imagine bits of energy or information cascading in avalanches throughout a network. The sandpiles are dazzling to the eye, hinting at the sophisticated mathematics lying underneath. 

The Abelian sandpile model is connected to other branches of mathematics, particularly algebraic geometry, his specialty. Sandpile theory can also be applied to understanding complex systems in the natural world. He is currently finishing a book, Divisors and Sandpiles, with his former thesis student, Scott Corry ’01, who is now a math professor at Lawrence University.

Out of Africa: Perkinson’s dedication to teaching and sense of adventure have taken him to Africa as a visiting lecturer for the African Institute for Mathematical Science (AIMS). The organization promotes math education and research in Africa, recruiting top professors for a Masters program designed to prepare talented students for further graduate studies. He has taught in Ghana, Cameroon, and South Africa.

“You meet these young, super-motivated people with the same love of mathematics,” he says. “AIMS is helping to open doors for them.”

Perkinson enjoys conveying a sense of beauty and wonder to his students, be they at Reed or in Africa. “Teaching is the same process,” he says. “I get to explain something I love, something beautiful.”

Making Connections: Each year, a new group of students with diverse mathematical interests passes through Perkinson’s courses. A major focus for him is to help them find engaging problems from the world of modern mathematics.

“I’ve had brilliant students who are better mathematicians than me,” he notes. “I’ve also had students for whom mathematics was difficult, and I’ve enjoyed working with those students as well. But most of all, I’m proud of connecting my students with current research in mathematics.”

Professor Janis Shampay 

[biology 1990–] Vollum Chair

In a Nutshell: As a young woman in 1960s Ohio, Prof. Shampay was “a total geek” who dreamed of someday working for NASA. But, like many young girls at that time, people kept steering her toward a career in nursing. Nevertheless, she chose her own path, attending Northwestern University, where she eventually traded astrophysics for biology. After earning a BA in biochemistry and molecular biology, she went on to earn a PhD in molecular biology at UC Berkeley. She learned about chromosomes from the very best, working as a grad student in the laboratory of pioneering researcher Elizabeth Blackburn, who won a Nobel Prize in 2009. Shampay was a key contributor to this groundbreaking research leading to the discovery of an enzyme in chromosomes called telomerase—a research area she continues at Reed.

“It was completely new and exciting,” Shampay recalls of her time with Blackburn, her doctorate advisor and mentor. “We found a new model for how chromosome ends are different, what makes them distinguishable.” (Blackburn mentioned Shampay’s contribution in her Nobel speech in Stockholm.) After a short stretch as a postdoc researcher at UC–San Francisco, Shampay wanted to teach, knowing that college was a place she could continue her research while involving undergraduates in the lab. She arrived at Reed in 1990, when there were relatively few women teaching in the “hard” sciences. Over the years, Shampay has received grants from the National Science Foundation and the Murdock Charitable Trust. She has been a role model for students since joining the Reed faculty.

Clawed Frogs and Telomeres: At Reed, Shampay has built on her work on telomeres, the structures that protect the ends of individual chromosomes, by studying the chromosomes of the African clawed frog. She analyzes how proteins inhibit telomerase and growth of telomeres. Though applications are far down the line, research into telomeres leads to a greater understanding of cancer growth (and the flipside, cellular aging). If scientists can figure out how to inhibit telomerase in humans, that work might point to possible antitumor treatments.

The Grand Scheme: Capping her 26th year at Reed, Shampay prides herself on a no-nonsense approach to teaching, and understands the value of encouraging students to take risks in their own lab research. “We have a saying in the department that research is teaching is research,” she says. “They inform each other . . . . Being forced to think about something other than telomeres gives me a perspective on where my work fits in the grand scheme of biology in a way that might not happen at a huge research university.” 

“My favorite part of the job is seeing things start to click for students at all levels,” she says. “I enjoy having both majors and non-majors in Bio 101 and I think it’s important to reach both.”

Tags: Awards & Achievements, Research, Professors