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Perfect Vision

Standing up against racism. Saving the oysters. Allowing science to progress. Just a few monumental topics in USC Dornsife 2020’s range of view.

By Pamela J. Johnson
April 22, 2012

Perfect Vision

At the Cold War’s dusk, history graduate Wolf Gruner swung a hammer at the Berlin Wall. For years, the East Berliner had been involved in a cultural underground movement against the communist regime.

Now Gruner’s life goal is to obliterate genocide.

“When mass murder has already begun happening you can’t change the course,” said Gruner, Shapell-Guerin Chair in Jewish Studies and professor of history. “Then you can only save some people. But if you start earlier when genocide is evolving, you can stop it.”

Gruner is co-chairing a USC Dornsife 2020 research cluster, “Genocide Resistance,” which examines what makes people stand up against racist ideologies, discrimination practices and mass atrocities. He organized the cluster with Stephen Smith, executive director of the USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education, housed in USC Dornsife.

“People often say that the Holocaust was a huge moving force that was unstoppable, inevitable,” Smith said. “But on a daily basis individuals were pushing back in large and small acts of defiance. People assume Jews went like lambs to the slaughter. They certainly did not.”

Established by Dean Howard Gillman, USC Dornsife 2020 calls for professors to identify a theme of great societal importance for years to come and form research groups to investigate solutions. Each cluster includes faculty, undergraduate and graduate students, and postdoctoral researchers who work across departments, centers, institutes and schools at USC.

Launched Fall 2010, one cluster studies the impact of climate change on Southern California’s ocean and coastal ecosystems. Another looks at highly charged public debates at the intersection of science, technology and society, such as stem cell research and teaching creationism in public schools. The first of three new clusters were introduced in Fall 2011 (see page 28).

“Genocide Resistance” brings together scholars of history, psychology, political science, international relations, literature, anthropology, medicine and law to study individual, group and institutional behaviors in the pre-stages, murder phase and aftermath of genocides.

Like Smith, Gruner wants people to know that Jews were not passive Holocaust victims as many believe. At the start of their persecution, many Jewish people didn’t flee or react because the conditions from town-to-town were wildly inconsistent.

“In the beginning there were not many laws enacted, but it was an anti-Jewish movement,” said Gruner, who continued his education in West Berlin after the wall’s collapse. He arrived at USC Dornsife in 2008.

“Jews had a hard time figuring out what the Germans were actually doing,” he said. “Many people decided not to emigrate because they thought this was a temporary thing, that perhaps just their mayor was much more fanatical than the others.”

But later, protests and other acts of resistance took place. For example, Roza Robota, 24, a prisoner in Auschwitz-Birkenau led a small group of women in smuggling gunpowder to men counterparts who blew up a crematorium. Before being hanged, each woman yelled out “Nekamah!” which means “vengeance” or “be strong.”

USC Dornsife 2020 and the USC Shoah Foundation Institute have brought in international speakers such as Curt Lowens, a Holocaust survivor who, in an act of resistance, rescued Jewish children under a false identity. Smith noted that in June 2012 the institute and USC Dornsife 2020 will hold a conference in Israel with the University of Haifa to include scholars worldwide to discuss multiple genocides and prevention.

Resistance has been a woefully neglected part of genocide history, Gruner said.

“Holocaust history discusses uprisings in the ghettos, but there was so much more,” he said. “If you look at the Armenian Genocide there’s almost nothing known about resistance.”

Gruner’s student Roza Petrosyan knows this. The 21-year-old’s great-grandparents were persecuted during the systematic murder of 1.5 million Armenians by the Ottoman Empire beginning in 1915.

But it wasn’t what her relatives said about the Armenian Genocide that ignited her deep curiosity on the subject.

It’s what they didn’t say.

“This was always too painful a topic for my family to discuss,” she said.

Through USC Dornsife 2020, the double major in history and psychology is finally getting answers.

Petrosyan, who lost many relatives during the Armenian Genocide, set out to show that Armenians did not obediently walk to their deaths. In her research, she soon found that the little resistance literature that did exist focused on men.

 

Heroines of Genocide

“I started wondering about the women,” Petrosyan said, noting that after the men were killed, women and their children were forced to march hundreds of miles to the Syrian Desert with no food or water. Many died along the way or starved once there. “They couldn’t have all done nothing while watching their husbands being killed.”

Digging further, she could find no accounts of women resistors.

“At some point, a few people discouraged me from choosing this topic because they said I would find no information,” Petrosyan said. “The fact that I was being challenged and that stories of women were missing in history books made me more determined.”

Petrosyan has become among the first researchers to focus on women resistors during the Armenian Genocide, which occurred after nationalism isolated ethnic groups. Before the forces of nationalism, Armenians had been second-class citizens in the Ottoman Empire, but had lived in relative harmony with Turks for centuries.

Although most of Petrosyan’s family members perished during the genocide, some escaped to Syria and Russia. Years later, Petrosyan’s grandparents moved to Yerevan, Armenia, where Petrosyan was born and raised. Each April 24, she placed a bouquet at the memorial on a hill overlooking Yerevan dedicated to the genocide victims.

Moving to the United States at age 11, she became interested in learning about the first genocide of the 20th century. At USC Dornsife, Petrosyan took Gruner’s “Resistance to Genocide” seminar.

“Dr. Gruner inspired me to continue my research,” Petrosyan said. “He encouraged all of us to be creative about finding sources. That pushed me to start looking for video testimonies.”

The USC Shoah Foundation Institute is in the process of adding 400 Armenian video testimonies to its archive. In the meantime, Petrosyan used funds from USC Dornsife 2020 and traveled to the Zoryan Institute in Toronto, Canada, where she watched 50 interviews of survivors who spoke mostly in Armenian, her first language.

“I found that women were much more involved in fighting or providing weapons and bullets to the fighters than I had understood from written sources,” she said. “I also found that women were involved in other methods of struggle, sacrificing themselves for their families, committing suicide to show defiance or fleeing from deportations.”

Through video testimonies, Petrosyan learned of a woman in the Syrian Desert who sold her clothes to buy food to feed her three children. When her famished young son begged for an egg, the mother traded the shirt on her back. While the boy was handed the egg, a gendarme smacked the egg out of the boy’s hand then aimed a rifle at him. An aunt covered the boy’s body and was killed instead.

Petrosyan learned of Armenian girls who threw themselves into the Euphrates rather than fall into the hands of the Ottoman military. She learned of women fighting rapists with fists, rocks and sticks.

“It’s also important to look at how women resurrected the culture after the genocide,” said Petrosyan, who will continue her research in Armenia in Summer 2012. “The Armenian people survived because of the efforts of their women.”

Other research in this cluster also took students to various parts of the world. Jasneet Aulakh, a senior majoring in history, English and philosophy, traveled throughout northern India researching the Sikh and Hindu resistance in the 1984 Anti-Sikh pogrom. During the four days of violence, armed mobs killed Sikhs, looted, and set fires in response to the assassination of then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

Jeremy Schwartz, an international relations senior, produced a short documentary, Resilience, exploring organizations that help rehabilitate survivors of mass violence and torture. Schwartz interviewed survivors of torture from Ethiopia and Colombia and a survivor of the 1991 Somalia conflict. Heather Ashby, who is earning her Ph.D. in history, traveled to Washington, D.C., and London for her research on black radicalism during World War I and II.

In addition to travel grants, Ph.D. fellowships and undergraduate stipends, the cluster provides annual international workshops and thematic seminars. Gruner and Smith are developing curricula that will guide the creation of a graduate certificate program, freshman
seminars and an interdisciplinary minor. They also plan to establish a genocide resistance research center.

Gruner noted that in the past two decades, the bulk of genocide research has focused on why people commit such crimes.

“But in the end there is no common feature of perpetrators,” Gruner said. “They are men and women; they come from all educational backgrounds and are all ages. We are still questioning why people do this. I thought perhaps we should instead ask why are some people not participating and instead standing against the mainstream?”

Closed societies are more susceptible to mass violence, but the danger is present for genocide anywhere in the world, Gruner said.

“Remember what happened here in the United States after 9/11,” he said. “How quickly paranoia against the Muslims took place. People immediately started to denounce anyone who looked foreign and spoke foreign languages. It was only because there was public discussion about this that the paranoia fortunately eroded. But if there had been no public discussion the dangers could have escalated.”

 

Aw, Shucks

So you like a little horseradish with your oyster shooter? Better enjoy it now. In a few decades, those juicy half shells may be only a delicious memory.

The human-induced carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere is being absorbed into the ocean at an alarming rate, causing seawater to become acidic. These changes in ocean chemistry are dissolving the calcium-based shells of marine life.

“Oysters are in trouble,” said David Hutchins, professor of biological sciences. “Clams are in trouble; lobsters and crabs are in trouble. Corals are in trouble, sea urchins. This is happening right along our coastline.”

Hutchins and Doug Capone, William and Julie Wrigley Chair in Environmental Studies and professor of biological studies, oversee the “Climate Change in the Southern California Bight” research cluster. Their team is looking at the implications of climate change in a marine setting bordering the densely populated urban area of the greater Los Angeles basin.

While many scientists study the effects of climate change on land life, this cluster examines its impact on the ocean.

“Many people don’t understand that the changes going on in the coastal ocean have a bearing on their lives and our society,” Hutchins said. “Problems like ocean acidification, sea level rise, changes in fisheries, harmful algal blooms — these are climate change issues that maybe fly a little bit lower under the radar than climate change in general.”

A main goal of the project is to increase communication and promote collaboration among Southern California researchers and officials who deal with all aspects of oceanic climate change issues. Cluster members are working with researchers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology; county and city sanitation officials in Los Angeles and Orange counties; National Marine Fisheries Services; the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Commission; several universities; and other entities.

In a series of workshops, ocean biologists, chemists, physicists, earth and social scientists, international relations experts as well as water quality representatives are sharing their research. In an outreach component, oceanic climate change symposiums are being held for the local community and USC students and faculty. The symposiums include discussions with USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism professors about how scientists can better communicate climate change to citizens and policymakers.

“Climate change is a major societal issue and people need to be better educated,” Capone said. “One of the main thrusts of our efforts is to get the word out about coastal climate change because there are so many diffuse facts or downright misinformation put out that confuses the public.”

A big issue is understanding human-induced climate change compared to natural climate change. Natural cycles exist such as El Niño and the longer-lived Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO) of the Pacific Ocean that waxes and wanes between cold and warm phases every five to 20 years.

In the cool phase of the PDO, higher than normal sea-surface heights are caused by warm water from a horseshoe pattern that connects the north, west and southern Pacific, with cool water in the middle. During most of the ’80s and ’90s, the Pacific Ocean was locked in the oscillation’s warm phase, during which these warm and cool regions were reversed, according to the Open Source Systems, Science and Solutions Foundation.

“What we’re doing as humans is adding on top of the natural warm and cool cycles,” said Capone, referring to the burning of oil, coal and gas, and deforestation, which greatly increases the release of CO2 into the atmosphere. The world’s oceans absorb much of the atmosphere’s CO2. Carbon dioxide and water together create carbonic acid and lead to a drop in ocean pH.

Further, it takes decades to centuries for the Earth to fully react to increases in greenhouse gases. Carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere long after emissions are reduced, contributing to continued warming. As the Earth warms, the upper layers of the ocean are heated. And like a hot water bottle on a cold night, the heated ocean will continue warming the lower atmosphere well after greenhouse gases have stopped increasing, according to NASA Earth Observatory.

PDO has gained traction in the past years as many political and business communities deny that humans are causing climate change, pointing to PDO as the natural cause. Opponents believe that taking action against human-induced climate change would cause enormous expense with no obvious short-term benefits.

“So what we are doing here is dissecting away the natural variabilities of oceanic climate change,” Capone said.

About one-third of all CO2 that humans have put into the atmosphere from cars, power plants and factories is now in the ocean, Hutchins said.

“It’s a good thing for the atmosphere because the ocean is taking CO2 out of the atmosphere that would otherwise warm up the planet,” Hutchins said. “However, it’s not such a good thing for the ocean because the CO2 is causing the ocean to become more acidic. The more acidic, the more the ocean becomes like orange or tomato juice. Marine organisms that calcify and make shells are not adapted to cope.”

Shellfish industries are very worried, Hutchins said, adding that already they are experiencing failures in raising young oysters from Washington state to California.

“It’s hitting them in the pocketbook,” he said. “They’re afraid that they’re not going to be able to grow oysters
anywhere on the West Coast in the next few years and the industry is going to disappear.”

Further, some of the sea life affected by ocean acidification is the major prey supporting salmon.

“So you can imagine how the salmon industry all the way up and down the West Coast feels about this,” Hutchins said.

Scientists consider climate change a bellwether.

“Harmful algal blooms have gotten bigger and more toxic and are causing a lot more environmental and economic damage,” Hutchins said. “Zones of depleted oxygen underlying the surface of the water are expanding, which is linked to climate. These are essentially dead zones.”

The negative consequences are happening here at home.

“When people think of climate change, they may think of Antarctic ice sheets melting, which is pretty remote to most people’s world views,” Hutchins said. “But if you start talking to them about what’s happening around Catalina Island and right in our neighborhood here in Los Angeles then they know we need to get a dialogue going right away.”

Some of the research in this cluster is taking place at the USC Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies on Catalina Island. In the laboratories, Hutchins is reconstructing phytoplankton communities and testing reactions when CO2 is introduced. Hypotheses are then tested in experiments with natural communities of plankton aboard research vessels at sea.

USC Dornsife 2020 also supports postdoctoral scholar Li Luo, who works with Dale Kiefer, professor of biological sciences, in collecting and interpreting climate-relevant marine data in the Southern California Bight, which includes coastal Southern California, the Channel Islands and part of the Pacific Ocean. Under Kiefer’s guidance, Luo — who acquired expertise in remote sensing and geographic information system data analysis and modeling during her Ph.D. work at SUNY Syracuse — is placing the ongoing environmental changes along the Southern California coast into a broader regional context. 

“We’re trying to make a distinction between the forest and the trees,” Kiefer said. “Scientists often get so involved in the trees that they miss the bigger picture. So we’re creating a tool for an overview and describing the forest so the guy working on the tree has context.”

Luo is looking at how temporal and spatial trends in climate change-related variables like sea surface temperature and ocean color (chlorophyll) in the Southern California Bight compare to the entire North Pacific Ocean. To accomplish this, she is integrating sources of long-term climate data including NASA satellite records.

With the data collected, Kiefer and Luo are developing a Web site that can be used by scientists worldwide researching climate change, particularly along the California coastline. Also available on the Web site will be their empirical orthogonal function (EOF) analysis, a decomposition of data including time series and spatial patterns of ocean temperatures across three spatial scales: the North Pacific basin, the West Coast and Southern
California Bight.

The pair is comparing changes in the Pacific at large to changes in the California Bight.

“We’re looking at the extent to which what’s happening here is driven by larger regional patterns,” Luo said. “At the same time, we’re creating cohesion within the scientific community.”

All information is being integrated into maps that will be electronically available to scientists creating mathematical models to predict temperature and other changes in the ocean. A workshop this Fall will focus on modeling climate change impacts in the Southern California Bight.

These cluster members strive to be as inclusive as possible. They also invite the recreation industry to be part of the discussion.

“If you’re running a resort hotel along the coast, it’s not a good thing if you have a giant algal bloom going on in the coastal waters, or a big fish kill,” Hutchins said. “We’re looking at changes in the global environment that translate into effects on the coastal ocean that we care about. The worse it gets the more obvious it’s going to become.

“Right now we’re seeing the early stages of bad things beginning to happen, but all of our work suggests that it’s not going to get better unless we address the underlying issue — which is, we’re making too much greenhouse gas.”

 

And That’s a Fact

What Galileo Galilei really needed was a public relations firm to market his theories. The law of gravity is now an agreed-upon fact, but Galileo met with fierce opposition from the Catholic Church and fellow scientists when he introduced the theory in the late 16th century.

Galileo endured a long struggle before his work became the catalyst for Isaac Newton’s theory of gravity. After he famously dropped balls from the Tower of Pisa and took measurements of balls rolling down inclines, Galileo showed that gravity accelerates all objects at the same rate. His discovery directly contradicted Aristotle’s belief that heavier objects accelerate faster.

When he additionally claimed that the Earth revolved around the sun and not the other way around, Galileo was ostracized and ordered to denounce his beliefs. When he refused, he was charged with heresy by the inquisition of Pope Urban VIII and imprisoned.

It took 300 years for the church to admit Galileo was right — an ordeal that illustrates the overwhelming social barriers in scientific fact creation.

“For sociologists who study science, one of the biggest problems they face is when they say, ‘Listen, there is a social process involved in making facts and we need to understand this process in order to understand science better,’” said Dan Lainer-Vos, Ruth Ziegler Early Career Chair in Jewish Studies and assistant professor of sociology. “People interpret such a statement as doubting the integrity of science. So if you study gravity and say gravity is a social construction, people will say you are completely wrong and you will be ridiculed.”

Lainer-Vos is working to enlighten the naysayers. He helped to formulate and is teaching courses in USC Dornsife’s new minor in science, technology and society. The minor was created as part of USC Dornsife 2020’s research cluster of the same name. The cluster and the new minor address the public controversies involving science, technology and society.

As science and technology deliver breakthroughs for better health, cleaner energy and deeper knowledge of human anatomy, the same developments have provoked widespread anxiety. Scientists advising policymakers are often met with skepticism or worse, whether about stem cell research or setting guidelines for breast cancer screening.

In many cases, economic interests, scientific initiatives and societal values clash. Understanding these encounters requires a historical and comparative perspective, said Andrew Lakoff, associate professor of anthropology, sociology and communication, who formed and is heading the Science, Technology and Society cluster.

Whether in Galileo’s long-ago battle with church authorities, or current debates over climate change among U.S. policymakers, specific cultural and political factors are at play in societal responses to scientific developments.

Stem cell research is a good example. Despite the promise of discovering treatments to fight diseases, political and religious groups launched an effective campaign against the research. The protest centered on the use of human embryos to conduct the studies.

“From engineering and biomedical viewpoints, what clearly looks like an exciting and interesting field to explore bumps up against religious and political positions,” Lakoff said. “That kind of opposition may not have been envisioned within the fields of medicine and engineering.”

In an era of rapid globalization, such tensions will likely intensify in the coming decade. Will synthetic genomics lead to the creation of deadly new pathogens? Do genetically modified organisms pose invisible threats to the environment or to human health? Are developments in neuroscience and psychopharmacology undermining traditional notions of human agency and reason? Does the use of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure activity in a prospective consumer’s brain open Pandora’s Box?

“What we wanted to do was create a setting for serious reflection on these kinds of questions,” Lakoff said, referring to his group of scholars in the social sciences, the natural sciences, history and other disciplines in the humanities.

These scholars are studying how new technologies and scientific innovations are produced, the processes of their dissemination and their societal impact. They are examining what enables and what blocks knowledge from circulating. They are also studying the human sciences from the early modern to the molecular age, and how politics have intervened in technology’s future.

Through working and reading groups, an annual research workshop, lectures, panel discussions and symposiums, humanists and scientists are debating the role of science and technology in public life. Participants are addressing key problems — whether end-of-life care, how parents of autistic children led an anti-vaccination campaign despite public health officials’ assurances of vaccine safety or the merits of teaching creationism in public schools.

Other highlights are graduate student training and the sponsorship of postdoctoral fellow Mihir Pandya, who earned his Ph.D. in cultural anthropology from the University of Chicago. Pandya’s dissertation, The Stealth Effect: Aerospace and Cold War Southern California, is an historical ethnography of Cold War era stealth airplane projects and the culture of aerospace in the L.A. basin from the ’70s through the early ’90s.

“There are significant studies about how the Cold War shaped commercial, familial and political life, and insights into how the nuclear imaginary found purchase in the American psyche,” Pandya said. “But the inheritance of the larger, sometimes seemingly more mundane, material architectures of national defense and their traces in American culture remain undervalued. I hope my work in some small way brings to light an increasingly forgotten history of Southern California — while also addressing what causes this kind of collective forgetting.”

Like the climate change cluster, this group is holding workshops with USC Annenberg addressing how to better communicate the sciences to the public.

“This provides seed funding for us,” Lakoff said. “We’re using this as a platform in which to create an ongoing space for conversation.”

Overall, the USC Dornsife 2020 philosophy echoes Malcolm X’s assertion that “The future belongs to those who prepare for it today.”

Illustrations by Emiliano Ponzi.

Read about USC Dornsife 2020's newest research clusters >

Read more articles from the Spring/Summer 2012 issue of USC Dornsife Magazine