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A Homecoming for Five Faculty Members

Accomplished alumni find new niche at Holy Cross — on other side of desk
November 13th, 2008 by 

Photo by: John Buckingham

Every year, Holy Cross welcomes newly minted Ph.Ds to teaching positions that may last a semester or a year. However, it is not every year that five of these visiting professors and lecturers happen to be young Holy Cross alums.

“These women and men intuitively understand Holy Cross undergraduates — their strengths, their expectations, the challenges they face,” says Timothy Austin, vice president for academic affairs and dean of the College. “They also inevitably serve not only as instructors but also as role models for the current generation of Crusaders, demonstrating simply by their presence the very real promise of academic success that a Holy Cross degree provides.”

Here are snapshots of the Holy Cross graduates who have returned to the classroom.

Daniel DiCenso ’98, visiting instructor in music
DiCenso, who majored in music with a concentration in medieval and Renaissance studies, went on to rack up several degrees after graduating from Holy Cross. In 2001, he earned a master of arts in musicology and a master of science in education from the University of Pennsylvania and in 2005 he earned a Ph.D. in education, also from UPenn, and a master of arts in classical studies from Villanova University.

DiCenso was the first Holy Cross alumnus to receive the highly competitive Gates Cambridge Scholarship, which allowed him to attend the University of Cambridge in England where he pursued his Ph.D. in medieval music, to be conferred in the summer of 2009.

Studying in Europe provided DiCenso a unique opportunity to delve into his primary area of research, 9th-century chant, which he describes as the “meeting point” between his background in classical studies and music. He holds the distinction of being the only person in North America to have handled all of the manuscript sources of chant for the mass dated before the year 1000 A.D.

On the Hill, DiCenso can be found teaching History of Western Music I and African-American Music: From Blues to Rap.

Nicholas Ganson ’98, visiting assistant professor in history
The history department has also received a decorated Holy Cross alum. During his senior year at Holy Cross, while completing his degree in biology, Ganson took two history courses with Professor James Flynn. He quickly found himself enthralled with the subject matter and decided to pursue a graduate degree in history. In 2000, he received a master’s degree from Boston College, specializing in Russian and Soviet history.

Ganson was then admitted to the Ph.D. program in history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In 2003-04, he received a Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad Fellowship and conducted eight months of research in Moscow archives on the Soviet famine of 1946-47. His dissertation, which was funded by a Social Science Research Council Dissertation Write-Up Fellowship, focused on the causes and broader historical implications of the famine. Ganson earned a Ph.D. in history from the University of North Carolina in 2006.

Now teaching courses in European and Russian history at Holy Cross for the year, Ganson feels compelled to bring his research to the next level.

“I want to make the jump to public policy and see how my findings might be useful in concrete situations,” he says. “The next step is getting my research to a larger audience, determining how my findings might be applied in a practical way to public policy.”

Ganson’s first book, The Soviet Famine of 1946-47 in Global and Historical Perspective (Palgrave Macmillan), is set to hit shelves in the spring.

Jennifer Hughes ’97, lecturer in biology
Hughes, who majored in biology at Holy Cross, received her Ph.D. in genetics from Tufts University in 2002.

Interested in molecular evolution, Hughes opted to do a postdoctoral fellowship at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in Cambridge, where she worked to sequence the Y chromosome of the chimpanzee in order to determine the chromosome’s effect on human disease.

Having completed the project earlier this year, Hughes now heads projects that will sequence the Y chromosome of two other primates, and is happy teaching genetics at a liberal arts college.

“I really enjoy teaching and working with undergrads, and I loved my experience in the biology department as a student at Holy Cross,” she says.

Iris Ponte ’00, lecturer in psychology
Ponte majored in psychology and a concentration in Asian studies at Holy Cross, and went on to Tufts University to study Applied Child Sciences, receiving her master of arts in 2003 and her Ph.D. in 2008.

In 2006 and 2007, Ponte studied in China as a Fulbright scholar to collect data for her dissertation on behavior management in preschools. In combination with that research she took on another project on the emotional effects of heritage tours on adopted Chinese children. Having walked hand in hand with some of these seven-to-11-year-olds as they observed the orphanages they might have inhabited forced Ponte to ask the question: Are these trips always a good idea?

In the spring, Ponte will return to her postdoctoral fellowship at the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Development at Tufts University to write and produce her findings.

“When it fits you, go for it,” she says. “Holy Cross always gave me that support, and that’s why I had to come and give it back.”

Amy Vashlishan ’02, visiting assistant professor in biology
Vashlishan, who majored in biology, received her Ph.D. in genetics from Harvard Medical School this past spring. Her research focuses on the genes involved in balancing the activity in circuits of neurons. Such balance is required for normal cognition and behavior and, when perturbed, can lead to diseases such as epilepsy.

She describes herself as “a neurobiologist using genetic approaches,” and has taken particular interest in energy metabolism and how genes that respond to energy sources (like food) affect how the brain works. She hopes that this research will result in increased knowledge of how diet affects brain function and is able to alleviate symptoms associated with disease, like epilepsy.

At the moment, however, Vashlishan is focused primarily on teaching.

“The students here are responsive and eager to learn, and I enjoy being able to connect with and challenge them from a foundation of common experience,” she says.

By Anthony Curotto ’09

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