University of Rochester

Rochester Professors Cross Disciplines for Research

May 11, 2007

Two University of Rochester professors will adventure into new academic territories during the 2007-2008 year through the Bridging Fellowship program, a one-of-a-kind University plan to promote interdisciplinary study.

Robert Foster, professor of anthropology and Mercer Brugler Distinguished Teaching Professor, will study art and art history to enhance his research of a rare collection at the Buffalo Museum of Science, while Yongli Gao, professor of physics and astronomy, will explore biomedical engineering to chart a new course in his research on experimental surface physics. As Bridging Fellows, Foster and Gao are allowed to take academic leave from their home departments to engage in new research and collaborations without leaving the University.

Foster has studied the cultures and history of Papua New Guinea for more than 25 years. Now he plans to delve into one of the largest museum collections of artifacts from that country and other regions in the South Pacific: the P. G. T. Black Collection at the Buffalo Museum of Science.

But to get the most from his research there, Foster will first study with Janet Berlo, professor of art and art history, in spring 2008. "The Black Collection is a rich resource for teaching. It might be possible to design a jointly taught course with Professor Berlo around colonial collection practices in Melanesia and North America,'' he said. "The project will also provide opportunities to develop grant proposals that might fund dissertation research for a student in the Graduate Program in Visual and Cultural Studies."

The Black Collection contains many valuable artifacts, including about a dozen carvings by Mutuaga, a notable 19th century artist from southern New Guinea. Many of his works are featured in museums around the world, but the carvings in the Black Collection are packed away in a store room. Foster hopes his research will draw attention to the hidden treasures of the collection. He says there's a possibility of bringing them to other museums, both in Rochester and abroad.

In fall 2007, Gao will explore the science of biological membranes as a Bridging Fellow in the Department of Biomedical Engineering. Gao has published more than 200 papers in his area of expertise—condensed matter physics on the surfaces and interfaces of organic semiconductors—and has taught at the University since 1988. He wants to push his research and teaching in a new direction.

"I have been inspired and impressed by the new discoveries and techniques in life science in the past few decades, and I am motivated to see if I can contribute,'' Gao said.

Professor of Biomedical Engineering Richard Waugh, an expert in mechanical and thermodynamic properties of biological membranes, said now is a good time for Gao to blend his knowledge of physics with his curiosity about living membranes. "The nanoscale dimensions of these structures and their unique physical properties have made them targets for constructing biosensors and drug delivery systems," Waugh said.

Gao's choice to combine the two disciplines will prepare him to teach biological physics after the fellowship. The course was last taught at Rochester in 1986.

Bridging Fellowships have been awarded at the University of Rochester since 1980 to give faculty the opportunity to take time off from their school or department and try new academic ventures.