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Winter 2022

Up-and-coming faculty 40 and under

5 top faculty 40 and under

By Philip Walzer

Meet five faculty members 40 or under who are making a mark in their teaching and research:

Anna Bulysheva has enjoyed the best of both worlds at Old Dominion University.

She began as a post-doc and then research assistant professor at the Frank Reidy Research Center for Bioelectrics, where she built strong research partnerships on and off campus. Now she's an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, which also allows her to "mentor and teach students and give back to the community."

What attracted her to biomedical engineering? "I always had an interest in therapeutic and medical devices created to regenerate tissue. I like the idea of being able to come up with solutions to disease and dysfunction."

Bulysheva, 37, has co-written about 20 refereed articles. The most recent, in the journal Bioelectrochemistry, looks at the successful regeneration of heart muscle tissue after myocardial infarction.

Using lightning-quick electric pulses, each lasting 20 to 100 milliseconds, Bulysheva's team injected vascular endothelial growth factor B into a heart. "We were able to show that you can have muscle cells return to the site where the damage occurred," she says. The application could end up speeding recovery times and reducing deaths.

Marvin Chiles found his calling early.

He started watching the History Channel when he was 4. A few years later, he got a History Channel book for Christmas. "I read that book all day."

Chiles joined ODU as an assistant professor of history in 2020. He expects his first book, "The Courage to Change: The Politics of Racial Reconciliation in Modern Richmond," to be published in 2023. "The book argues that what's going on in Richmond is proof that the modern South is getting less racist over time," Chiles, 29, says. "However, it has not gone far enough."

Chiles warns students of his Black history courses: "If you expect a chronicle of victimhood, drop my class now." He covers free Blacks who came to America, the 20,000 who fought on both sides during the Revolution and slaves who negotiated their freedom. "They did everything they could not to live in oppression."

He also believes in the importance of making research accessible to the public. In his Richmond book, he's experimenting with writing in first person. "History is, by its very nature, democratic."

The board at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill drew a hailstorm of protest after it initially rejected journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones for tenure, ignoring the recommendations of faculty and administrators. But some good may come of it, says Felecia Commodore, assistant professor of educational foundations and leadership.

"The curtain was pulled back, like in 'The Wizard of Oz,' " says Commodore, who wrote about the incident for The Conversation and analyzed it in a videocast for the Chronicle of Higher Education. "People found out the amount of power boards have. And now they're asking questions."

Commodore, 38, also asks questions - and suggests answers - in her research, which includes university governance, the role and composition of boards, Black women leaders and historically Black colleges and universities. She co-wrote "Black Women College Students," a 2018 book that offered a roadmap to promote their success and encouraged colleges to look at factors like mental health.

The UNC controversy, Commodore says, could prod boards toward greater accountability. That should include expectations for advancing diversity and equity, which she has outlined in a model she calls Culturally Sustaining Governance.

A main reason Christine Strong came to Old Dominion in 2019 as an assistant professor of economics was this: "It was the place I felt most comfortable," she says. "They didn't only talk about diversity; they tried to do something about it."

In the classroom, her philosophy is to "get to know the students. Lighten the room. Allow them to connect with you on a human level."

That doesn't mean Strong ignores serious subjects. "We should push the boundaries," she says. So in her Money and Banking course, she prompted an intense discussion on discrimination in the U.S. banking system and advocated an analytical approach: "Your job is to look at the data and come up with solutions."

Strong, 36, who was born in Cameroon, studies the CFA franc zone, which covers 14 sub-Saharan African countries. The system has brought relative stability, though Africans see vestiges of French colonialism.

She also incorporates it in her classes. Her message: "What works in the U.S. doesn't necessarily work in other parts of the world. I also want them to understand how lucky we are here, although things are not perfect."

"I'm interested in the engine that makes animals run," says John Whiteman, assistant professor of biological sciences, who came to ODU in 2018. Specifically, how they process nutrients.

His subjects include sun bears and emperor penguins. But his focus burrows down to the atomic level.

Whiteman, 40, is lead researcher in a multi-institutional project with a $900,000 National Science Foundation grant examining how animals process water with different oxygen isotopes.

The goal: to discover "a simple way to assess metabolic rate and water intake - two very important factors that are notoriously difficult to measure in the field."

Other work includes:

- Researching with Ian Bartol, professor of biological sciences, whether stingrays absorb nitrogen directly from seawater.

- Debunking the belief that polar bears engage in "walking hibernation" in the summer when food is hard to find. "Basically," says Whiteman, who was quoted on the subject in The New York Times, "they're doing what you or I would do if we lost access to food for a while - fasting, losing body mass, but not dramatically slowing their metabolism."