Big data, the power of fabulousness and chemical explosions. Do we have your attention? Meet three of the College of Humanities and Sciences' rising stars: Jennifer Rhee, Ph.D., madison moore, Ph.D., and Katharine Moore Tibbetts, Ph.D.
Theory and Practice
madison moore, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor, Gender, Sexuality and Women's Studies
madison moore wrote the book on fabulousness. Literally. Published this past year, “Fabulous: The Rise of the Beautiful Eccentric” (Yale University Press) explores the power of style as both utopia and political intervention through the use of autobiography, interviews, observations and cultural theory. “[This book is about] marginalized people, queer people, people of color and others who have typically been told that they don’t have a seat at the table. I’m interested in how these people use fashion and style to expand, stretch out and take up space,” said madison. “I’m really interested in things that are overlooked, like ephemeral traces and things that disappear. For instance, you can’t go to a national archive of fabulousness, and so without that kind of institutionalized archive, how do we go about talking about these kinds of ephemeral traces?”
“I believe in theory and practice. As an artist scholar, I’m not interested in being removed from my object of study. You can’t believably write about nightlife and be completely removed from it. For me, the real juice is when you know not only the history, theory and legacy of your object of study, but when you can practice it, too.”
madison joined the Department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies in the fall of last year after earning a Ph.D. in American studies at Yale University and completing a four-year postdoc at King’s College London. It was the vibrancy and creativity of Richmond and VCU that inspired him to take the position. “VCU was a place I longed to work,” said madison. “I was very excited by all the momentum and mobilization around queer studies on campus, for instance the new Q Collective* and the new LGBT+/and Queer Studies minor, both of which are open for business. This is all so exciting. I don’t know many universities that are investing so much into this particular area of research.”
madison’s newest project is focused on club culture, a book tentatively titled “Dance Mania: A Manifesto for Queer Nightlife,” under contract at Yale University Press. Queer nightlife is a subject madison knows intimately. As an international DJ, madison has played some of the most exciting parties everywhere from New York to Berlin.
*The Q Collective, also known as the Queer Research and Advocacy Center, serves as a creative and intellectual hub in support of LGBTQIA+ artistic and scholarly activities among faculty, staff, students and the Greater Richmond community.
Racial Bias and Big Data
Jennifer Rhee, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, English
Media, Art and Text Program
Facial recognition programs, predictive policing models, judicial sentencing software – big data is everywhere these days. And that’s not always a good thing says Jennifer Rhee, associate professor in the Department of English. “Big data has embedded racial and racist biases within it,” said Jennifer. “These types of big data practices employed by the state disproportionality target already marginalized and disenfranchised groups, including people of color, trans people and disabled people.”
Jennifer, who specializes in the intersection of literature, science and technology, found the idea of racial bias and big data to be a natural offshoot of her first book about artificial intelligence and robots. “I concluded my last book with drones and drone surveillance. In drone warfare there is an underpinning racial logic governing who counts as human and who doesn’t,” said Jennifer. “Big data is all about counting, but what does this counting mean? What is the logic of the counting?"
"Counting is not a neutral act. Who counts? What counts?”
It’s this topic that is the heart of Jennifer’s next book project, “Counting: Cultures of Measurement, Quantification, and Surveillance.” Jennifer also wants to make clear that technology and big data doesn’t just impact marginalized communities once they are implemented, but that the entire process damages these communities and the environment as the machines supporting big data are created and discarded. “There is a racial hierarchy extended by big data, not just in its applications, but also in its human labor and environmental costs. The work of manufacturing and sustaining big data, and this goes for digital technology as a whole, is largely conducted by black, brown, and Asian people who live in poorer regions around the world. The life cycle of digital technologies encompasses toxic mining for minerals required by these technologies, the manufacturing of digital technologies and devices (often in factories with inhumane labor conditions), and housing e-waste dumpsites,” said Jennifer. “The people who are doing this dangerous work or living in proximity to these dumpsites are exposed to the toxic chemicals that sustain digital technologies. While big data, or any digital technology, is taken up eagerly by many different sectors and industries, there’s a more expansive set of concerns involved here, both environmentally and in terms of the humans who are part of the life cycle of digital technologies.”
This research is particularly pressing given the increasing prevalence of big data in today’s technology. The American Council of Learned Societies agreed, naming her a 2019 ACLS fellow. The one-year fellowship began in July and totaled $50,000. “I feel a sense of urgency to do this research,” said Jennifer. “Big data is heralded by tech as the next big thing, and whether they make good on that promise – or threat – it seems like a very urgent thing to address from a humanities perspective. Science and technology are incredibly important to society, but the humanities have important, vital things to offer those fields – including crucial philosophical and ethical questions about what we value and who we value.”
Katharine Moore Tibbetts, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor, Department of Chemistry
Katharine Moore Tibbetts likes to make things explode—well, mini-explode. In her lab in Oliver Hall, you’ll find pulsed lasers, a dizzying array of mirrors and other optics, and ultra-high vacuum chambers, all with the goal of capturing the very first step in an explosion, also known as energetic molecule decomposition. Her most recent work involves studying chemical compounds used in explosives and propellants that have large amounts of energy stored in their chemical bonds.
“Once you understand this first step in an explosion, you can begin to design explosives that only explode under certain conditions, for example, with a specific type or color of laser,” explained Katharine. “You can also develop better methods for explosive detection and inform the design of new, better energetic molecules for particular applications.” It’s no surprise that the Department of Defense took note of Katharine’s research. She was recently awarded two grants totaling $1.4 million to study molecule decomposition.
“I’m just really curious. I want to find out what molecules do when I blast them with a laser.”
And in July, Katharine traveled to Washington, D.C., to receive the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, the highest honor bestowed by the U.S. government to exceptional scientists and engineers who are beginning their independent research careers. “I’m incredibly honored [to be] in the company of so many outstanding scientists,” Katharine said. “One exciting development is that many of the recipients have decided to use our newly granted platform to educate the public on the impact of scientific developments on their daily lives and to advocate for continued federal investment in scientific research that benefits society. I look forward to working with my colleagues on these efforts.”
After her quick trip to D.C., Katharine was back in the lab and ready to get back to work. “My ultimate goal with any type of research is just to learn things. I’m just really curious. I want to find out what molecules do when I blast them with a laser,” said Katharine, “but I am also interested in how some of these molecules or materials can help develop a propellants, like rocket fuel that will get us to Mars. Now that would be really cool.”