Free Concert Brings Devotional Indian Classical Music to K

The Virupannavar Family Merging Rivers Endowed Fund for Hindu Faith and Cultural Studies at Kalamazoo College is sponsoring and organizing a free concert of devotional Indian classical music on Tuesday, October 3, at 7 p.m. in Stetson Chapel.  

The concert’s title, Bhakti Rasamanjari, includes references to devotional worship emphasizing mutual attachment and love of a devotee and a personal god; essence, in particular the characteristic quality of music, literature and drama; and the blossom that flowers on a tree before the fruit, according to Chandrashekhar and Sushila Virupannavar. The couple established the fund to enhance experiences for current and future students while honoring the opportunities K offered two of their children who graduated from K. 

“Like all art forms in Indian culture, Indian classical music and dance art are believed to be a divine art form, originating from the Hindu gods and goddesses,” the Virupannavars said.  

Two Indian classical music performers with sitars
Utsad Rais Balekhan and Utsad Hafiz Balekhan will be among the musicians performing Indian classical music at 7 p.m. Tuesday, October 3, in Stetson Chapel.

The concert features world-famous, seventh-generation Hindustani vocalists and sitarists the Khan Brothers—Utsad Rais Balekhan and Utsad Hafiz Balekhan.  

Hindustani music is associated with north India and primarily uses Hindi, Punjabi, Rajasthani, Urdu and Braj Bhasha languages. The sitar is a plucked, stringed instrument used in Hindustani classical music. A sitar can have from 18 to 21 strings, with six or seven running over curved, raised frets and being played directly, while the remainder resonate with the played strings. 

The Khan Brothers will be accompanied by Atul Kamble on tabla and Shri Gangadhar Shinde on harmonium.  

A tabla is a pair of small hand drums of slightly different shapes and sizes, somewhat similar in shape to bongos. A tabla is the principal percussion instrument in Indian classical music and is essential in the bhakti devotional traditions of Hinduism and Sikhism. 

The harmonium is a stringed instrument that, in Indian music, is a portable, hand-pumped wooden box. 

The Khan Brothers are of the Kirana/Dharwad gharana, which means they are part of a school of music tied to Kirana, a town in Uttar Pradesh, in northern India. The Kirana style emphasizes perfect intonation of notes. The city of Dharwad, where the Khan Brothers have seven generations of family roots, lies in a region particularly associated with the Kirana gharana. 

The Virupannavars said the concert fits the focus of their family fund on Hindu faith and Indian cultural studies. 

“This will be a display of Hindu devotional music, expressing love and devotion to one divinity,” Chandrashekhar said. “Secondly, it will be a beautiful display of Indian musical cultural tradition by eminent performers and esteemed scholars who come from our region in India.” 

Merging Rivers in the fund’s name is borrowed from the 12th century Shiva saint Basava, who spread his messages in simple, short poems called vachanas, which ended with the Lord of the Merging Rivers, amplifying the concept of unity, union and oneness with the eternal. 

The Virupannavar family expressed appreciation for the College’s support of the fund, including support from Sohini Pillai, assistant professor of religion and director of film and media studies, in helping to shape the fund’s focus and bring the concert to campus. 

“Hopefully, this will be a long and beautiful journey,” Sushila said. “Two of our three children attended K, had a great education and became doctors. We are proud of their accomplishments and of our decision to send them here.” 

 The Virupannavars hope the concert inspires K students to learn about and try sitar and tabla. In service of that, the performers will also deliver a demonstration and talk to a music class the day of the concert. 

“Kalamazoo is a renowned location on the world’s music map,” Chandrashekhar said. “Our family is excited to celebrate that great and long Kalamazoo music tradition, by adding a small element of Indian classical music essence, with a very sincere hope that it will grow and blossom.” 

Medicines for All Founder to Deliver Dreyfus Lecture

The chair at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Department of Chemical and Life Science Engineering will deliver the Dreyfus Lecture, sponsored by Kalamazoo College’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, this Thursday. 

B. Frank Gupton—whose research group is focused on the development of continuous processing technology to facilitate the discovery, development and commercialization of drug products—will discuss public access to essential medicines in a post-pandemic environment. He is the founder of VCU’s Medicines for All institute, which focuses on improving global access to lifesaving medicines. 

Before joining VCU, Gupton’s 30-year industrial career centered on the development and commercialization of chemical processes for pharmaceutical applications. That time included years he served as the executive director of North American process development for Boehringer Ingelheim Pharmaceuticals, where he led the commercialization of the HIV drug nevirapine. 

Dreyfus Lecture speaker B. Frank Gupton
Medicines for All Institute Founder B. Frank Gupton will speak Thursday at Kalamazoo College’s Dreyfus Lecture.

In 2018, Gupton received the American Chemical Society Award for Affordable Green Chemistry and the Presidential Award for Green Chemistry. In 2019, he earned the Peter J. Dunn Award for Green Chemistry and Engineering Impact in the Pharmaceutical Industry from the ACS Green Chemistry Institute Pharmaceutical Round Table. Gupton holds a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the University of Richmond and graduate degrees in organic chemistry from Georgia Tech and VCU. 

The public is invited to the lecture, which will begin at 6:30 p.m. in the Dalton Theatre. For more information, contact the chemistry and biochemistry department at 269.337.7007. 

Students Stand up for the ‘Little Guys’ by Researching Land Snails

Student examines snails through a microscope
Emily Haigh ’24 examines land snails under a microscope at Dow Science Center.
Student goes through leaf litter samples to look for land snails
Georgios Gkolois ’24 said some people might think land snails are insignificant, which only inspires him to learn more about them.
Snails under a microscope
Haigh and Gkolois sifted through leaf litter samples to find snails like these.

The next time you visit Kalamazoo College’s Lillian Anderson Arboretum or the Armintrout-Milbocker Nature Preserve in Allegan, Michigan, think about what you might be stepping in—but not for the reasons you might think.

There are land snails in the area, as small as 2 mm in diameter, which are endangered thanks to deforestation and pollution. Fortunately, Georgios Gkolois ’24 and Emily Haigh ’24 teamed up this summer to collect and examine some of them as a part of their Senior Integrated Projects (SIPs) while researching what can be done to help the species in decline.

To the naked eye, the snails can appear to be the tiniest specs of dirt. Yet the snails are important to the ecosystem, aiding decomposition processes by eating fallen logs and leaves. They also glean calcium from their food, concentrate it in their shells, and pass it up the food chain as they are consumed by predators. Haigh warns that if the snails decline further, the impact eventually would affect humans, because as the environment suffers, so do we.

“I’m planning to go to med school one day, but I have always been passionate about the environment,” Haigh said. “I’ve always wanted to be outside, and I thought this would be a cool way to explore environmental biology before I put my life into medicine. I’ve learned a lot about the importance of even the smallest, tiniest, most microscopic creatures because the little guys can still have a big impact on everything.”

Leaf litter samples
Haigh and Gkolois examined leaf litter samples like this one to find land snails.
Magnified land snail in moss
Haigh and Gkolois said land snails could often be found in mossy areas.
Student collecting samples in forest area
Haigh collected leaf litter samples at the Lillian Anderson Arboretum and the Armintrout-Milbocker Nature Preserve to find land snails.

Gkolois was relegated to a lab role this summer after breaking his ankle a matter of days before their fieldwork was scheduled to start. However, the misfortune provided a clear method for the partners to share their workload with Haigh in the field and Gkolois in the lab. First, Haigh collected samples through leaf litter in the natural areas, especially near fallen trees, under living trees and near moss. Later, in the lab, the samples’ moisture was removed through heat before Gkolois sorted the snails by examining them through microscopes.

“It seems amazing that a piece of log could be such a diverse community where we could find microhabitats,” Gkolois said. “While we were sorting, we saw snails that were as small as a grain of sand. A lot of people would think they’re insignificant and ask why we care about them. That just got me thinking that I wanted to know more about them.”

Professor of Biology Binney Girdley, serving as their SIP adviser, and zoologist Ashley Cole-Wick, a Michigan Natural Features Inventory conservation associate, worked with the students to shape the project as Gkolois and Haigh developed their SIPs.

“I’m looking into relationships between the volume of decomposing wood and the state of decomposition to the amount of land snail abundance and diversity,” Gkolois said. “Basically, I’m looking at categories of freshly fallen wood and live trees, intermediately decomposed logs and completely decomposed mulch. I want to find out what the snails like most.”

Leaf litter samples in paper bags
Haigh and Gkolois cooked leaf litter samples before examining them under microscopes to look for land snails.
Hand holding vial containing a land snail
Haigh and Gkolois collected land snails including some that were no bigger than a grain of sand.
Haigh and Gkolois commonly found land snails in leaf litter samples taken from mossy areas.

Haigh’s project differs slightly. During her field work, she wasn’t looking for levels of decomposition as much as she was for similar plots of land on a slope within about 25 meters of the Kalamazoo River to compare natural communities and find the areas where snails are most likely to be.

“I’ve learned a lot about conservation as a whole, especially animal conservation,” Haigh said. “I’ve learned about the importance of even the tiniest, most-microscopic creatures because these tiny guys can still have a big impact on everything. It taught me a lot about the environment and the impact we have on it.”

Because of their research, Gkolois and Haigh have calls to action for people who want to learn more.

“A lot of times people will remove pieces of logs from land without realizing they’re habitats for a lot of organisms, and not just land snails, but other micro-invertebrates.” Gkolois said. “My advice, as a result, would be to maintain awareness of such situations when managing land.”

“On the topic of conservation, we’ve been writing literature reviews for our SIPs,” Haigh said. “In that, I’ve found a lot of information on the habitats and variables that impact the snails. I think understanding what goes into the land snail communities and their ability to survive is an important factor in better conserving them. We want to make sure these little guys are here to stay.”

Student Openly Shares Her Research to Tackle Chagas Disease

When scientists perform research, what they discover is often proprietary and kept in close confidence until results are published or patented. Erin Somsel ’24, however, would rather share her research with the world.

Somsel, a biochemistry major at Kalamazoo College, is working on her Senior Integrated Project with Associate Professor of Chemistry Dwight Williams and the Drugs for Neglected Diseases initiative, which engages top students from about 25 global institutions in research through the Open Synthesis Network. Their combined efforts provide shared, open-source information, allowing entire teams to look into the molecules and compounds that present the most promise for developing medicines that fight neglected tropical diseases (NTDs).

NTDs are a diverse group of 20 conditions that disproportionately infect women and children in impoverished communities with devastating health, social and economic consequences. Many are vector-borne with animal reservoirs and complex life cycles that complicate their public-health control. Plus, drug companies often don’t see the benefits of helping impoverished communities that are less profitable.

The open-source initiative, though, is more interested in cooperative work and says its participating researchers have developed 12 treatments for six deadly diseases, potentially saving millions of lives.

“That’s appealing to me because there are scientists from everywhere that work on this project,” Somsel said. “I think that’s a cool way of getting everyone involved in the scientific community to come up with a solution to a big problem.”

In the meantime, Somsel hopes her work will contribute to a treatment for a seventh affliction, Chagas disease. The inflammatory condition is most common in South America, Central America and Mexico with rare cases in the southern United States. It spreads through the feces of a parasite often called the kissing bug, as it damages the heart and other vital organs when the bug bites humans.

Open Source Research Targets Chagas Disease
Erin Somsel ’24, pictured with her host family in Costa Rica, first learned about neglected tropical diseases while she was on study abroad. Today, she’s researching molecules and compounds that could help discover medicines that fight Chagas disease.

“A lot of the work on the drugs for Chagas disease was done in the 1960s, so there’s an urgent need for new ones,” Somsel said. “Chagas has two phases, acute and chronic. The acute phase has common symptoms such as fever, headache and fatigue, but if it turns chronic, it can cause cardiomyopathy and serious gastrointestinal problems. The drugs only work in the acute phase, so if it’s not caught, it’s life-threatening. There’s also no vaccine against Chagas disease.”

In the lab, IC50 values represent the concentrations at which substances inhibit parasites through biological and biochemical processes. The hope is to find IC50 values through molecules and compounds that warrant further research.

“I’ve been working on optimizing our processes and I got the procedure down so that we could start generating some of the compounds that we wanted to,” Somsel said. “The next step is to continue building the library of the chemicals we want to make and send them into the Open Synthesis Network, where it will test them for the activity against the parasites.”

Somsel first was introduced to NTD research when she was on study abroad in Costa Rica. While there she studied Latin American health care systems, including Costa Rica’s, in an environment that challenged her to grow.

“I think K has a unique culture of pushing students beyond their comfort zone,” she said. “I don’t think that I would have had that experience at any other place.”

Now, with that experience—plus a K-Plan that involves student organizations such as the Health Professions Society and the Sisters in Science, athletics through the women’s soccer team, and academics as a teaching assistant for introductory chemistry—Somsel feels like she’s prepared to one day succeed in medical school, where she will continue pursuing lab research. Hopefully, that will involve further research involving NTDs.

“Success for me used to be going to class, getting A’s and stuff like that,” Somsel said. “Then, I started working in the lab. I found that there are many little things that build up to success. When I had a reaction that wasn’t successful, it was easy for me to say, ‘I was unsuccessful today.’ But Dr. Williams helped me put it in a different perspective. He could say, ‘No, you were unsuccessful in generating this compound, but you were successful in realizing this solvent didn’t work, so we can try something else and move forward.’ I think that has really shaped me as a student. It helped me understand that if at first something doesn’t work for me, I’m going to keep trying and persisting to find something that does.”

Biology Department Incorporates New Microscope into Research, Teaching

A microscope acquired in spring 2023 using grant funds is opening new opportunities for research and teaching in the Kalamazoo College biology department. 

The fluorescence dissecting microscope boasts several advantages over other microscopes in the department, said Michael Wollenberg, associate professor of biology and department chair, and Amanda Wollenberg, associate professor of biology. Its features include optics that allow clear views of individual cells, fluorescence to help differentiate between types of cells, space to manipulate a sample while viewing it, and a dedicated camera and software program. 

“We want to be able to look at single bacterial cells, and they’re one-millionth of a meter large, so they’re not visible to the naked eye,” Michael said. “What’s really important is that we have a microscope that has extremely good optics, and those optics resolve the sample very well—they magnify it to the point where we can see individual bacterial cells. Bacterial cells are clear and transparent, and having a set of fluorescent molecules inside the cell allows us to tag them with a glowing marker so we can say, ‘OK, that transparent cell that’s really tiny—that’s actually the bacterial cell we’re interested in, as opposed to schmutz or a eukaryotic cell or some other bacterial cell, and it’s located in X, Y or Z place, which gives us a three-dimensional resolution of the relationship that we’re looking at.’” 

While many microscopes use white light to illuminate samples, a fluorescence microscope can do more. 

“Bacteria might be too small to actually see just using white light,” Amanda said. “If you genetically manipulate those bacteria so that they glow fluorescent—and that’s a very common technique; people do it all the time, Michael can do it in his lab—if you have a microscope that can detect fluorescence, you can track those bacteria. You can see where they are because they’re glowing green.” 

The microscope also has a camera and software program that allows the user to take and analyze photos through the microscope as well as project to a computer screen—two key advantages in research and in teaching that are new to the biology department in terms of dissecting microscopes. 

“The camera and software are really important when it comes to trying to share the results of what we see with other scientists by publishing,” Amanda said. “You can’t just say, ‘Oh, trust us, we saw it.’ You must have a picture, and it’s got to be a high-quality picture. Ideally, you also try to quantify some of the information in that picture. That means you don’t just show a picture. You say, ‘We took 100 pictures, and we did this analysis of the intensity of the color, using the software program, and in 70 percent of the pictures, the intensity was higher than a certain threshold.’” 

The computer projection makes the microscope an excellent teaching tool. 

“A microscope has two eyepieces,” Michael said. “You look in the eyepieces, and you’re the only person who can see what you’re seeing. This camera is a great way to project what the microscope sees to a larger group of people, be it a small research laboratory, like our summer research with undergraduates, or a small class.” 

Biology major Allison Sokacz ’24 has worked in Michael Wollenberg’s lab for three summers. She recently started using the microscope in the summer research that will form the basis for her Senior Integrated Project. 

“The intensity that lets you see the entire fluorescence from this microscope, versus some of the other scopes we have, is really helpful,” Sokacz said. “It’s a lot easier to see what you have.” 

The camera is essential to her project, as she is working with two different forms of a bacteria and will be able to compare their locations using saved images. She also appreciates the benefits of the screen projection. 

“Microscopy is hard, because only one person can see,” Sokacz said. “I just took microbiology with Dr. [Michael] Wollenberg this spring, and I really struggled with microscopy, because it’s different for everyone. My lab partner might say, put the zoom to this, but then I might not be able to see it. With this microscope, I can say what I see, and they can also see it, instead of, ‘Well, I saw this but then it moved off the screen,’ or, ‘I can’t get it in focus.’ Being able to show a whole room what you’re seeing is definitely helpful.” 

In addition, the microscope has a wheel that allows for different filters that can detect different colors of fluorescence, which expands the future possibilities for use. 

“You could label one type of bacteria with green and one with red, and now you can look at the dynamics,” Amanda said. “Are the green ones in one place, are the red ones in another place? Another thing researchers will do sometimes is to stain the host with one color and the bacteria with a different color, and that can help resolve some of the questions of what you are seeing.”

Student looks through microscope that projects image on to a computer screen
Garrick Hohm ’25 looks into the fluorescence dissecting microscope purchased for the biology department in spring 2023 using National Science Foundation grant funds.
Student points to an image projected onto a computer screen
Biology major Allison Sokacz ’24 demonstrates how the biology department’s new, grant-purchased microscope can be connected to a computer monitor for research and teaching. 
New Biology Microscope 5
Garrick Hohm ’25 looks into the fluorescence dissecting microscope
Student looking into a microscope
Allison Sokacz ’24 checks for the presence and location of bacteria in nematodes using a grant-purchased microscope that is opening up new research and teaching opportunities in the biology department.

The microscope was purchased using funds from a $400,000 National Science Foundation grant, awarded to the Wollenbergs in June 2018 to study mechanisms of specificity and tolerance in a nematode-bacterial symbiosis. About 9 percent of that budget was for the microscope, which cost about $35,000. The rest of the total includes about 12.5 percent for other materials and small equipment, 5 percent for travel, 26 percent for indirect costs like building infrastructure, and slightly less than half for student pay, summer salary and benefits. 

“Science uses very condensed writing, where each word means so much,” Amanda said. “In the title of our research, ‘mechanisms’ tell you that we’re looking at the molecular side of things: not just that this happens, but how does it happen? ‘Specificity’ is getting at this idea that when two organisms are trying to have a relationship with each other, it’s not like just any bacteria can come in and live with any animal. ‘Tolerance’ is, even once they’ve found each other and formed that partnership, they have to keep getting along with each other. From the animal perspective, it can’t start killing off that bacteria like it does to other, more pathogenic bacteria. The specific relationship we’re looking at is a nematode-bacterial symbiosis. This is telling us that the animal is the nematode–that’s a roundworm that lives in the soil–and the partner it has is bacteria. Symbiosis is saying they’re in partnership, they both benefit each other. We’re trying to understand how they find each other and get along with each other within that system.” 

The duo is well-suited to the research, with Michael bringing a microbiology perspective while Amanda has an immunology focus.  

“The big picture is that we live in a microbial world where there’s lots and lots of microorganisms that are in and on our bodies and all animal bodies,” Michael said. “Basically, they facilitate everything that animals do; we can’t survive without them. Understanding how animals tolerate beneficial microorganisms is a big open scientific question. How do we train our immune systems, or how are our immune systems calibrated, so that the friendly bacteria get into association with organisms and maintain those associations that are beneficial?” 

That’s not very well understood, Michael notes, “especially not in really complicated organisms like humans, where there are myriad different species of microorganisms that are associated with us. If you think about our gut, it’s like its own ecosystem. We do research with simple models to try to understand detailed answers to bigger biology questions, in the hopes that other scientists can apply that research to things that are more relevant for human health or other animals that have more complicated associations in their health.” 

The new microscope is an invaluable tool in the Wollenbergs’ research, and they also look forward to the whole biology department finding ways to use it in the classroom. 

“That was part of the reason we wanted to get this piece of equipment as well, is to integrate it with teaching and use it as a teaching tool,” Michael said. “As we’re coming online with the things we’ve wanted to do with the grant, it’s giving us ideas of how we can translate this into the classroom.” 

Heyl Scholarship, K Empower Student’s Mix of Science, Art

As an aficionado of science, biochemistry major Jordyn Wilson ’24 is drawn to Kalamazoo College and its student research.

“I’ve always been a ‘Why is this? Why is that?’ kind of person,” she said. “My mom has said that about me, too. I just want to know more about how things work. Science gives me an avenue to do that.”

That means the Parchment (Michigan) High School graduate was thrilled three years ago when she received word that she had earned a Heyl scholarship to attend K.

“It was right before COVID happened,” Wilson said. “I remember we all had our interviews and I was waiting and hoping. Then one day I was walking downstairs to my room when I got a call from an unknown number. I wasn’t sure I should answer it, but I did. They said, ‘Congrats! You’ve received the Heyl scholarship.’ I was very excited, feeling very grateful and very blessed.”

The scholarship’s fund was established in 1971 through the will of Dr. Frederick Heyl and Mrs. Elsie Heyl. Frederick Heyl was the first chemist at The Upjohn Company, later becoming a vice president and the company’s first director of research. Since then, Heyl scholarships have enabled hundreds of high school graduates from Kalamazoo County, including Wilson, to attend Kalamazoo College for STEM-focused majors or Western Michigan University for nursing, with renewable benefits for up to four years that cover tuition, fees, housing and a book allowance.

If there was a downside to her honor, it was the timing. She started college during the pandemic and most of her classes were virtual at the time. One exception, though, was her spring Chemistry 120 lab led by Laboratory Instructor Yit-Yian Lua.

“I remember talking to Dr. Y-Y about how much I missed research,” Wilson said. “I missed being in the lab, which was always a lot of fun for me.”

Portrait of Heyl Scholarship Recipient Jordyn Wilson
Jordyn Wilson ’24 was thrilled three years ago when she received word that she had earned a Heyl scholarship to attend Kalamazoo College.

The very next day, Wilson received an email from Dorothy Heyl Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry Regina Stevens-Truss, asking Wilson if she wanted join her lab’s research. Three years later, Wilson and Stevens-Truss are still working together, examining antibiotics.

“She’s very supportive of me and the ideas I have,” Wilson said of Stevens-Truss. “If there’s something I want to learn or something I think we can do, she says ‘Yes, we totally could do that.’ She’s letting me explore which is one thing I love about her.”

Today, Wilson is studying molecular hybrids, which are made by hybridizing two different molecules with some antimicrobial activity to create a molecule with elevated activity. She also studies antimicrobial peptides, which are short chains of amino acids found in the immune systems of many living organisms.

Her student activities draw her to intramural volleyball; a TA position in organic chemistry; a leadership role in Sukuma, which provides a fellowship for students of color; and membership in Kalama-Africa, a community to celebrate and engage with African cultures and experiences on campus. She’s also a member of the Kalamazoo College Dance Team and pursues art and the game of billiards in her free time. She has even created a student organization called Art and Soul, which centers on using art to promote self-care and self-expression. The club explores a new art form each week, allowing members to discover art they enjoy while building community.

“I’ve always leaned on art as a way to destress and just express myself as an act of self-care,” Wilson said. “It’s never just one thing that I’m doing. I’m always doing multiple projects. I’ve grown up with art and it’s a big thing for me and my family. I definitely think it balances the science part of me if I need to back off from STEM or I need a break from school.”

One day, she hopes to attend grad school and seek a Ph.D. in biochemistry as research is so much a part of her life. In the meantime, she’ll just celebrate her life at K.

“One of the main reasons I picked K is its size,” she said. “I liked how small it was and that it could help me connect with my professors and other students. I think I get more opportunities here than I would at a big school. It feels like we’re a close-knit community.”

K Announces Lucasse, Ambrose Recipients

Kalamazoo College announced today that one faculty member and one staff member have earned two of the highest awards the College bestows on its employees. Rosemary K. Brown Professor of Computer Science Alyce Brady received the 2023–24 Florence J. Lucasse Lectureship for Excellence in Teaching, and Custodian Laura Weber was named the recipient of the W. Haydn Ambrose Prize for Extraordinary Service to Kalamazoo College.

Brady, a co-chair of the computer science department, has served K for nearly 30 years. She teaches a variety of courses from introductory classes to advanced classes on programming languages, data structure, dynamic Internet apps and software development in a global context. Her research interests have included the application of computer science to social justice while serving as the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership Faculty Fellow from 2013–2015.

Over the past decade, Brady has supervised 72 Senior Integrated Projects and is currently guiding five more. She is also credited with championing student reflection through growth journals, applying a flipped-classroom format that started even before the pandemic, and receiving previous recognition through the Outstanding First-Year Advocate award.

A ceremony to confer the Lucasse Fellowship traditionally occurs in the spring term, where the honored faculty member speaks regarding their work.

Nominators credited Weber, a 10-year staff member in Facilities Management, for volunteering at student events such as Monte Carlo and Cafsgiving. She also hosts international students and refers to her former visitors as her “children,” while former students refer to her as their “mum.” One nominator wrote, “Her love language is inclusion.” Another said, “she treats everyone like family.”

The Ambrose Prize is named after W. Haydn Ambrose, who served K for more than 20 years in a variety of roles, including assistant to the president for church relations, dean of admission and financial aid, and vice president for development. Ambrose was known for being thoughtful in the projects he addressed and treating people with respect. In addition to a financial award, Weber has earned a crystal award to commemorate the achievement and an invitation to sit on the Prize’s selection committee for two years.

Congratulations to both of the honorees.

Lucasse Award - Alyce Brady 1
Rosemary K. Brown Professor of Computer Science Alyce Brady was awarded the 2023–24 Florence J. Lucasse Lectureship for Excellence in Teaching.
Ambrose Prize Recipient Laura Weber
Laura Weber, a 10-year staff member in Facilities Management, received the Ambrose Prize, named after W. Haydn Ambrose.

K Faculty Present at Global Pragmatics Seminar

Linguistics professors and graduate students from about 70 countries heard presentations from Kalamazoo College Associate Professor of Japanese Noriko Sugimori and Assistant Professor of Spanish Tris Faulkner at a pragmatics seminar in July.

The International Pragmatics Conference, themed “The shape of interaction: the pragmatics of (a)typicality,” was conducted at the Université Libre de Bruxelles, Solbosch Campus, in Brussels, Belgium.

Sugimori’s presentation, titled “Exploring What Are Atypical and Typical in Modern Japanese: Newspaper Imperial Honorifics and Language Policies,” built on her past studies examining the changes in and the use of Japanese imperial honorifics, representing a variety of political slants in modern Japan during and after World War II. Honorifics are titles or words that imply or express high status, politeness or respect.

Faulkner’s presentation, titled “The Relationship Between Mood and Modal Concord in Spanish Directive Complements,” centered on past experimental studies that demonstrated that traditionally-described, “subjunctive-requiring” clauses are not as stringently subjunctive as previously put forth. In this presentation, she discussed “weak” directive predicates (such as recomendar que ‘to recommend that’ and aconsejar que ‘to advise that’) and their use of the indicative (instead of the customary use of the subjunctive) in contexts designated to putting forth a singular order or command as opposed to dual or bilateral instructions.

The semiannual conference is presented by the International Pragmatics Association (IPrA), a global scientific organization devoted to the study of language. Established in 1986, it currently has about 1,500 members and targets successful communication across languages and borders.

Pragmatics Conference Faculty
Kalamazoo College Associate Professor of Japanese Noriko Sugimori (left) and Assistant Professor of Spanish Tris Faulkner were presenters at the International Pragmatics Conference at the Université Libre de Bruxelles, Solbosch Campus, in Brussels, Belgium.

New Star Wars Religion Class Fills with Hyperspace-Like Speed

Sohini Pillai standing in her office with some Star Wars merchandise
Kalamazoo College Assistant Professor of Religion Sohini Pillai displays some of the personal Star Wars merchandise she has in her office including a painting of Grogu gifted to her by a student.
Star Wars-related pictures in Sohini Pillai's office
Pillai’s office leaves no doubt of her status as a Star Wars fan. The picture at left shows her likeness as a Jedi with her dog, Leia, dressed as Chewbacca. The picture at right is the dog’s face imposed on an image of Princess Leia’s clothing in the franchise’s first movie, “A New Hope.”
Student wearing Jedi robes and carries a lightsaber
The Force is strong with the Star Wars community at K. Paige Anderson ’25, for example, wore Jedi robes and wielded a lightsaber for an Epic Epics presentation on the Star Wars film “Revenge of the Sith.”

Some Kalamazoo College students will learn the ways of the Force this fall in a new Star Wars-themed class that examines religion’s role in the franchise.

Students in Jedi, Sith, and Mandalorians: Religion and Star Wars, taught by Assistant Professor of Religion Sohini Pillai, will watch seven of the films along with The Mandalorian Disney+ series, and read from books such as The Tao of Yoda, The Gospel According to Star Wars: Faith, Hope and the Force, and The Myth Awakens before writing a research paper in which they analyze a Star Wars film or show not discussed in class.

Their goals are to gain a better understanding of religious, cultural and historical contexts related to Star Wars while investigating key concepts in the study of religion such as canonization, myth, invented vs. traditional religions, cultural appropriation, colonization, indigenous cultures, orientalism and racism.

“There are so many themes in the Star Wars universe that are applicable to the study of religion,” Pillai said. “Just in the first week, for example, we’re going to be talking about orientalism and the exoticization of the Eastern world. The world of Tatooine was filmed in Tunisia and the whole planet is essentially based on the Middle East, the Ewoks speak in highspeed Tibetan, and many of the characters have names based on Sanskrit words. I’m really looking forward to it.”

The idea for the course developed not so long ago, in a classroom not so far away, when—in 2021—Pillai began teaching a First-Year Seminar, Epic Epics. The class used The Odyssey of Star Wars: An Epic Poem, along with nine other narratives about a variety of heroic warriors and colossal battles, to examine how such stories have changed over time and influenced cultures.

Revenge of the Sith, a Star Wars prequel released in 2005, took center stage in final presentations that term with two students reflecting on the film through themes found in the epics. One of the students, Paige Anderson ’25, even offered her presentation while wearing Jedi robes and wielding a lightsaber. The conversations from those presentations and throughout the term pleased Pillai, who also is K’s director of film and media studies.

“Those students are hardcore Star Wars fans,” she said. “I was especially surprised by how much they loved the prequel trilogy. The story, if you haven’t seen the original Star Wars movies, is compelling and exciting. It’s a story about Anakin Skywalker turning to the Dark Side to become Darth Vader. But my students would have been in high school and middle school when the sequel trilogy came out. I thought they would’ve liked those more.”

Regardless of their favorite movies in the franchise, it was evident that student interest, not to mention her own fandom, could help Pillai develop Jedi, Sith, and Mandalorians: Religion and Star Wars. Pillai said she remembers first being interested in the Star Wars universe when she was in kindergarten and her parents introduced her to the first three films after she heard about the films from a classmate. When she was 9, The Phantom Menace, the original prequel, was the first Star Wars movie she saw in theaters. Today, her fandom continues with a variety of merchandise in her office, the Disney+ streaming shows, and an Instagram-famous Yorkshire terrier, Leia, named after the princess who is Pillai’s favorite character in the franchise.

“I distinctly remember growing up and seeing movies like The Little Mermaid, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty where these princesses are basically sitting there and doing nothing,” she said. “And then in kindergarten, seeing Princess Leia with a blaster and defending herself while also being a diplomat and speaking so eloquently, I was impressed by her. I think she’s one of the most incredible female characters in cinema. I liked the idea of Padmé being a queen at the age of 14, and I enjoyed Rey’s character in the new trilogy as well. And speaking of the new Ahsoka show, I love that three women including two Women of Color are leading it.”

If you were concerned that some in and around K would question the value of a Star Wars class in the curriculum, Darth Vader—and Pillai, for that matter—might say, “I find your lack of faith disturbing.”

“I remember in the faculty meeting when we were voting on new classes that about 10 people all at once seconded the motion to adopt the course,” Pillai said. “I’ve had a lot of people—like Director of Athletics Becky Hall—say, ‘Send me the syllabus! I want to sit in on the class.’ I think there’s a lot of excitement for this. K has a solid Star Wars community.”

Pillai dresses her dog, Leia, as a Jedi while she dresses as R2-D2.
Sohini Pillai wears a sweatshirt that says Yoda Akbar
Pillai wears one of her favorite sweatshirts, which combines Star Wars with the film “Jodhaa Akbar,” which she covers in her Religion, Bollywood, and Beyond class.

The broader K community, from staff to alumni and beyond, has been equally supportive. One recent Twitter/X post said, “As a @kcollege alum, I am stone cold jealous of the students taking this class.” Another said, “The fact that I graduated from @kcollege 30 years too late to take this class is a big disappointment to me as a #StarWars fanatic!”

Then there are the junior and senior K students who didn’t exactly have to be scruffy-looking nerf-herders to realize that the course would be fun, entertaining, and educational as they filled the last seats in it during the second day of fall registration.

Pillai can’t be certain that Jedi, Sith, and Mandalorians: Religion and Star Wars will be offered again. As Yoda would state, it’s “difficult to say; always in motion is the future.” She hopes, however, that first-year students, sophomores, and students on study abroad this term will have opportunities to register for it, too.

“Even if I got horrible course ratings, I’ll probably want to teach it again because I imagine it’s going to be super fun for me,” Pillai said. “In the future, I think I’m going to have to reserve spots for underclassmen because I feel bad that they weren’t able to take it this time around. But it’s great we have so much interest in it. I think that Star Wars can be used as an important teaching tool, especially in the world that we live in.”