World-renowned linguist joins NTUBy Neo Ping May
Most NTU linguistics students would probably be familiar with Prof Randy LaPolla’s book Syntax: Structure, Meaning and Function. The textbook, which he co-authored, has been a prescribed reading not only for linguistics courses in NTU, but also in many universities worldwide.
Recently, students here have been able to get up close and personal with the world-renowned scholar. In August this year, Prof LaPolla joined the Division of Linguistics and Multilingual Studies at HSS. This is great news for the university. Scholars like himself with expertise in both Sinitic and Tibeto-Burman linguistics are rare. Not to mention his scholarly works have profound influence. To date, he has 126 publications, which have attracted over 2400 citations, with an H-index of 18. The H-index measures the productivity and impact of a scholar’s published work.
Prof LaPolla is happy about coming to NTU as he is now in Asia and closer to the languages that he works with. He is interested in preserving disappearing languages by documenting them.
He said: “Of the 6000 languages spoken in the world, more than half will die out before the end of the century. “Each language is valuable as it represents a unique worldview and body of knowledge.” He is currently documenting the Rawang language – the language of a minority group in the Kachin state of Northern Burma. He hopes to preserve it, and by doing so, sustain the group’s culture and way of life.
As a linguist, Prof LaPolla has an amazing command of a range of Asian languages. For students who struggle with learning a language, he suggests having conversations with friends and watching television or films. He said: “I learnt Mandarin by watching hundreds of Chinese movies and drama serials. “Living the language is the easiest way to learn it; it’s not painful at all.”
Visit his website at: http://tibeto-burman.net/rjlapolla/
The scientific way to making historyBy Debby Ling
NTU historian Asst Prof Lisa Onaga is bringing the definition of interdisciplinary research to the next level. She explores in tandem the histories of biology and of modern Japan – through silkworms.
To her, the caterpillars tell the story of how genetic studies developed in the country. She is currently working on a book which examines how and why research in genetics grew alongside the booming silk trade of early 20th century Japan.
“People have been using cocoons spun by silk moth larvae to make textiles since ancient times,” she said. “I’m trying to show how scientific knowledge, especially in biology, was created as part of this process, too.”
How, then, was biological knowledge created in this process?
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the worldwide demand for Japan’s silk soared, prompting stakeholders in Japan’s raw silk industry to invent new ways to produce greater quantities of silk that met consumer standards overseas.
Silk cultivators attempted to create new types of silk cocoons by cross breeding silk moths. This in turn sparked an interest in the biological study of heredity. In particular, Japanese scientists used the silkworm to demonstrate and test basic principles of Mendelian genetics.
By studying how scientists used Mendelian principles to create “hybrid” cocoons – valued by the silk industry for their high silk content and quality compared to either parent – she investigates how knowledge is produced and moved across international borders.
Asst Prof Onaga has an interdisciplinary background. She holds a PhD in Science and Technology Studies from Cornell University, and a Bachelor of Science degree in biology from Brown University.
Come next semester, she will teach Biopolitics and East Asian History, a seminar developed in response to research questions about the formation and use of biological knowledge in different societies.
She said: “Interdisciplinary learning is a challenge that I hope more students can step up to because the world we live in needs people who are unafraid to think differently, creatively, and go beyond their comfort zones.”
Unraveling societyBy Neo Ping May
Sociologist Asst Prof Sam Han calls himself an interdisciplinary social scientist. He investigates social reality through different lenses: social and cultural theory, new media, religion, globalisation, and race/ethnicity.
For instance, in his current research on death and mourning in the digital age, he studies how death is conceived in networked societies. He asks intriguing questions such as: What will happen to your Facebook after you die? Why do people make online suicide pact? How do people mourn online?
“I consider myself a social theorist who expends energy on a variety of substantive areas, including religion, technology and globalisation,” said the faculty member who joined the Division of Sociology this July. He is always looking for “loose threads in the social fabric and tugging at it, thus unraveling it”.
Other projects he is working on include parochialism in popular representations of “genius” in media depictions of US ethnic minorities. He also examines, in another project, the unlikely interrelation of contemporary American Christianity and new media, with an aim to contribute to the discussions on modernity and secularism.
During his undergraduate days, Asst Prof Han majored in literature and sociology. His early exposure to two distinct disciplines has clearly influenced his crossdisciplinary research orientation.
Prior to joining NTU, he taught at the City University of New York. Currently teaching a course on contemporary social theory, he hopes his students will also embrace interdisciplinary learning.
He said: “If you look at my undergraduate transcript, you would never believe that I finished a PhD. This is because, I guess, in some ways I wasn’t afraid to do poorly in class. I took music classes! “It makes you a more well-rounded person, being able to talk even a little bit about a variety of things, I think it is a very helpful thing in the world when you meet different people.”
Asst Prof Han is the author of Web 2.0; Navigating Technomedia: Caught in the Web, and co-editor of The Race of Time: A Charles Lemert Reader.
Visit his website at http://sam-han.org
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