The latest faculty to join USC Dornsife represent a diversity of experiences across a spectrum of scholarly fields. (Photos: Courtesy of Tito Borner, Lu Chen, Noelle Held, Carolyn Seyler, Jill Hicks-Keeton and Mlondolozi Zondi.)

Meet spring’s new USC Dornsife faculty members

Six new tenure-track faculty members bring expertise in subjects ranging from philosophy to biology and from comparative literature to religion.
ByMargaret Crable

Tito Borner | Assistant Professor of Biological Sciences

Borner is Swiss-Italian, born and raised in Southern Switzerland. After completing his PhD in integrative molecular medicine at the University of Zurich, he moved to the United States to pursue postdoctoral training at the University of Pennsylvania.

The whole of his research career focuses on deepening our understanding of how nerve cells control food intake under both normal physiological conditions and when conditions go awry, such as when disease sets in.

His overarching research goal is to investigate and identify the components and pathways within the central nervous system that mediate anorexia (loss of appetite), nausea, vomiting (emesis), and weight loss in pre-clinical models. This exploration focuses on understanding how these symptoms manifests after various diseases and, importantly, how they can be prevented, which special emphasis on chronic conditions such as cancer and diabetes.

Lu Chen | Assistant Professor of Philosophy

Chen researches the metaphysics of physical geometry and of mathematical physics in general, with a special interest in building new foundations. For example, the spacetime manifold (a mathematical representation of the three spatial dimensions plus the fourth dimension of time) plays an essential role in physics but also comes with substantivalists’ costs. (Substantivalists believe that spacetime and its parts are fundamental components of reality, as opposed to relationalists, who claim spacetime’s existence is defined by the relationship between components.) Chen asks, “Can we do without the manifold?” and explores the approach that appeals to algebraic relations between physical fields.

Also, models for scientific theories often have representational redundancies such as the use of coordinate systems, which obscure what is real. So Chen explores the possibility of a logico-mathematical framework at the foundation of science that dispenses with such redundancies. She also explores the mathematical concept of univalent foundations.

She is currently working on a critique of “induced gravity,” an idea in quantum physics that seeks to explain the properties of space-time curvature that give rise to gravity.

Chen received her PhD in philosophy from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

Noelle Held | Assistant Professor of Biological Sciences

Held studies “the connectivity between life and the Earth” by identifying how marine microbes interact with ocean biogeochemistry. Her group takes a holistic approach to studying the biological, chemical, physical and geological processes that influence life in the oceans. They use a tool called proteomics, the study of proteins and their functions and interactions, to study how marine microbes influence, and are influenced by, their surroundings. This enables them to understand the connections between the very small, like the life of an individual bacterium, and the very large, like global cycling of chemical elements, such as carbon and nitrogen, between land, sea and air.

Held received her PhD in chemical oceanography and microbial biogeochemistry from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

Caroline Seyler | Assistant Professor of Earth Sciences

Seyler received her PhD in Earth sciences from McGill University in 2021 and has since been a postdoc at the University of Texas and a National Science Foundation postdoctoral fellow at the University of Minnesota.

Her research focuses on how rocks and minerals that make up tectonic plate boundaries undergo deformation during plate motions ranging from fast earthquakes to slow creep. She makes observations of rocks in the field and under the microscope, and then tries to recreate their microstructural features by simulating rock deformation in lab experiments. She is interested in how processes at the atomic scale can influence plate tectonics and seismic hazard.

Jill Hicks-Keeton | Associate Professor of Religion

Hicks-Keeton joins USC after serving at the University of Oklahoma for eight years. She is a specialist in ancient Judaism and Christianity and has also published on how the Bible is mobilized in contemporary U.S. politics. She is the author of three books, an award-winning teacher, and a frequent commentator in national venues on the Bible in the public sphere.

Hicks-Keeton received her PhD from Duke University.

Mlondolozi “Mlondi” Zondi | Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature

Zondi is a PhD graduate in Performance Studies from Northwestern University. Zondi also held a Mellon Postdoctoral position at Wesleyan University (2020–2022) and a Provost Postdoctoral Fellowship at USC (2022–2023).

Zondi studies Black performance and visual cultures to consider the relationship between figuration, death and political action. Some of this work is forthcoming or has been published in TDR: The Drama ReviewASAP JournalMortalityPerformance Philosophy, and Liquid Blackness.