11 months ago

American Magazine: November 2013

Most of us can

(often with great fondness) a seemingly ordinary object that occupied our imagination for a long time. These gadgets, knickknacks, and treasures become objects of inspiration, totems of our travels, Here, nine faculty members share the items that guide their research, arouse their curiosity, and shape their worldview.

Todd Prono Finance and Real Estate, Kogod Jessica Waters Justice, Law and Society, SPA WOOD ENGRAVINGS BY CHRIS WORMELL As a youngster in Saskatchewan, Naden Krogan spent summers on the family farm studying crops. It was there, in Canada’s prairie province, that the seeds of intellectual curiosity were planted. “And I haven’t left the lab since,” he says. Most developmental biologists study animals, but Krogan’s research on the formation of patterns in multicellular organisms centers on plants. He uses “model organisms” like Physcomitrella patens—moss, which shares genetic and physiological processes with vascular plants—to understand more complicated models of life. “One of the most fascinating questions in biology is how a complex organism, with all its intricate patterns, develops from a single cell,” says Krogan, who began working with Physcomitrella patens as a biology major at the University of Regina–Saskatchewan. Lessons learned from the moss, a tuft of which is the size of a nickel, can help scientists tackle everything from global hunger to cancer. “What we learn from this very simple plant is fundamental to all organisms,” says Krogan, who keeps petri dishes of the small but mighty moss in his AU lab. “I continue to be amazed by its power.” His current research focuses on another model organism: Arabidopsis, a small, flowering plant closely related to broccoli and mustard—and the first plant to have its entire genome sequenced. “If we can manipulate the genes, we can produce more and bigger fruit that are more easily harvested. “We can’t bring crops into the lab, but what we learn in the lab can be applied to crops.” Long before he made his first pilgrimage to Arturo Di Modica’s Charging Bull in his early 20s, Todd Prono was inspired by what the iconic bronze sculpture symbolizes: aggressive financial optimism. The 7,100-pound bull, which stands proud in Bowling Green Park, just off Wall Street in lower Manhattan, represents “a raging market, which has the implication of a future price path and, by extension, the variability of prices.” “That intrigues me,” says the quant wonk, who came to AU this semester from the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission. Prono’s fascination with finance began when he picked up the Wall Street Journal as a teenager, dabbling in the markets before heading off to Cornell to study economics. Today, he’s analyzing something more complex than the Journal’s stock charts. The regulator-turned-academic’s research centers on asset pricing models that are used by banks, brokerages, and insurance firms to infer the price of a stock, bond, or derivative. Prono also works to decipher volatility—the amount of uncertainty or risk in an asset’s value—and is developing new models to estimate volatility, testing their accuracy through simulated experiments and with real financial data. His research informs risk-management practices at financial firms, which seek to protect their balance sheets against severe losses that occur in times of financial distress. “The simple tradeoff between risk and return—and how we think about managing it— is compelling,” he says. For years, Jessica Waters, SPA/BA ’98, WCL/ JD ’03, was an attorney moonlighting as an adjunct professor. She logged 80 hours a week at WilmerHale law firm, where she specialized in criminal defense and reproductive rights litigation, and taught one class a week at the Washington College of Law. “I loved those three hours,” she says. “I knew it was time for a change.” Waters joined SPA in 2008, bringing the courtroom gusto to her classroom. Law, she tells her students, is more than process and theory: “We talk about law in the abstract, but it’s all about people.” “When someone comes to a lawyer, they’re in the worst place of their life. That’s a huge responsibility.” A reminder of that awesome responsibility hangs over her desk: a baby quilt for her now six-year-old son, Finn, made by the mother of an Iraq War veteran, whom Waters defended in a federal murder case. The case dragged on for years, and Waters became close with the family. “I was touched that she thought enough of me to do that.” As director of SPA’s new Politics, Policy, and Law Scholars Program—a rigorous three-year bachelor’s degree, which welcomed its first cohort of 20 students in August—she reminds students, many of whom have their sights set on law school, that even the most monumental cases started small. “Look at Tinker v. Des Moines: three kids just wanted to protest the Vietnam War, and that became one of the seminal cases for student rights in schools.” LET’S TALK #AMERICANMAG 23

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American Magazine, Nov. 2013