Spring Convocation will showcase research in public health, humanities

Contact: Erin Flynn

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Discovery comes in many forms, and several will be celebrated during Western Michigan University's Spring Convocation. Organized by the Office of Research and Innovation, the event—which begins at 9 a.m. on Tuesday, March 10, at the Fetzer Center—recognizes the excellent work of WMU faculty. Discovery Symposia, comprised of several short faculty and expert presentations, will focus this year on two themes: connections to public health and recent works in the humanities and arts.

"This year's topics really focus on the humans of Kalamazoo and bring together numerous aspects of human life," says Dr. Terri Goss Kinzy, vice president for research and innovation.

"Our humanities group was created by a well-established consortium across WMU, and our public health group is a new and exciting opportunity for collaboration. One goal of Spring Convocation is to help both of these faculty-led groups expand their participants."

In addition to symposia, there are also opportunities to learn about the transformation of Extended University Programs into WMUx, engage in Fulbright workshops and advising sessions, and see projects that won Faculty Research and Creative Activity Awards.

Public Health

The Discover Symposium "Connections to Public Health," chaired by Drs. Mark Kelley and Georgiana Fisher, will cover topics ranging from substance use screening and intervention to refugee health and climate change. During a session at 10:10 a.m., Dr. Robert Bensley will share how an application he and his team at WMU developed has helped improve nutrition for millions of children in low-income families across the country.

Photo of Dr. Robert Bensley

Dr. Robert Bensley

"It's educating the parent, which impacts the life of the child," says Bensley. "We're breaking the cycle."

Bensley's team developed smart software for government feeding programs like WIC and SNAP to spur technology-based behavior change in the area of nutrition education. The online platform, which was recently awarded a patent, uses algorithms to guide users through a number of nutrition lessons. Participants have to complete them in order to receive their food benefits.

"We have 50 different lessons that relate to all aspects of parent-child feeding," Bensley says. "A virtual educator avatar guides the client through a didactic communication process, which drives how the client interacts with the system."

The intelligence-based system means experiences and lessons are tailored to the user, giving them tools and information that they find valuable for their own family.

"We have impacted nearly 7 million clients since we started this," says Bensley, adding that the program impacts one out of every 20 children under the age of 5 in the U.S.—whether they're in a food assistance program or not. "We have a huge expanse and reach from this project. It's really nice doing something that's making a positive impact on people's lives."

On Being Human

The Discover Symposium "On Being Human: Recent Work in the Humanities and the Arts," chaired by Drs. Lofty Durham and Ann Miles, will include presentations on such topics  as compassion during war and meditative poetry. Representatives from the Michigan Humanities Council and Kalamazoo Institute of Arts also will lead sessions.

Photo of Dr. Ashley Atkins

Dr. Ashley Atkins

The topic of grief will be explored in Dr. Ashley Atkins' 9:45 a.m. presentation, "Love, Death, Democracy." During the session, she'll touch on some of the puzzling aspects of grief as well as some new ways it's being examined in political philosophy—a particularly timely topic this election year.

"Political theorists and philosophers have from time to time suggested that something like loss lies at the very heart of democracy," Atkins says. "These theorists have, therefore, been attracted to the idea that a capacity to grieve these endemic losses could be seen as an important aspect of what it is to exercise citizenship."

The idea of "democracy grief," she says, is a relatively new concept, heightened by political polarization and anxiety that threats to democracy such as voter suppression, international meddling, and climate change denial are looming.

Some political theorists posit that what we experience is accepting the defeat and the denial of our most passionately held convictions, says Atkins. "The idea is that democracy requires a kind of discipline for suffering this kind of loss, which—if not cultivated—results in efforts to impose that discipline on others."

More information about all of the presentations planned for Spring Convocation is available online.

For more WMU news, arts and events, visit WMU News online.