USC News

Menu Search

Students for All Seasons

Illustration by Matthew Martin

USC’s newly created Renaissance Scholars program rewards undergraduates who pursue their eclectic academic interest.

“DO YOU UNDERSTAND string theory in both physics and cello?” the brochure asks. “Do you hear Whitman in your head while watching the birth of stars?” Students who answer “yes” could be $10,000 richer come graduation day.

Starting May 2000, exceptional USC undergraduates can sample the tangible rewards of becoming a Renaissance man or woman. At next year’s commencement exercises, the university will award as many as 20 USC Renaissance Scholar Prizes to graduating seniors who have distinguished themselves in two or more “widely separated” fields of study.

Believed to be the first award of its kind in American higher education, these $10,000 prizes will be conferred every year by a special USC faculty panel.

The Renaissance Scholars program is the latest example of ways the administration is encouraging undergraduates to take advantage of educational opportunities unique to USC. Thanks to the diversity and strength of its professional schools and the scope of the College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, USC boasts the broadest range of undergraduate minors at any university in the country, according to President Steven B. Sample.

“A student can major in French literature and take a minor in business or cinema-television or architecture or engineering,” Sample says. “That kind of high-quality ‘breadth with depth’ simply will never be available at Harvard or Stanford or most of our peer universities.”

LEONARDO DA VINCI – considered the archetypical Renaissance man – was a painter, architect, engineer, physiologist and musician. That’s a tough act to follow, but current USC undergraduates have come up with imaginative combinations of their own, double-majoring in biomedical engineering and political science, economics and philosophy, and psychobiology and philosophy. One particularly energetic undergraduate has two majors – classics and philosophy – and two minors – piano performance and German.

“It takes extra effort for students to stretch themselves to study two different areas in depth,” says Joseph Hellige, vice provost for academic programs. “So we want to acknowledge the students who do so with great distinction.”

Renaissance Scholar candidates will have to meet rigorous requirements. A special faculty panel will evaluate their course work for breadth and depth in two or more divergent fields. Majoring in business and minoring in accounting probably wouldn’t make the cut, says Hellige, because the two disciplines are so closely related.

“The objective is not just breadth in the conventional sense – not just well-roundedness,” Sample explains. “Rather, the object is breadth with depth, and the extraordinary release of intellectual energy that comes when two widely separate fields of thought are brought together in the same mind.”

Once certified, candidates will need to graduate in no more than five years with a minimum 3.5 GPA. If they achieve all this, the Renaissance Scholar designation will be reflected on their transcripts.

“Like summa cum laude or magna cum laude [status], the honor will be a signal to graduate and professional schools and future employers that they are looking at a uniquely accomplished person,” says Katharine Harrington, USC director of undergraduate programs.

To be considered for the $10,000 prizes, Renaissance Scholars will have to leap an additional hurdle. In their senior year, they’ll need to obtain faculty recommendations and compose an essay discussing how their studies in widely separated fields have affected their intellectual, social and professional development. A faculty panel will choose $10,000 prize winners from among this pool.

“Anyone who receives this prize is going to be a very accomplished student in the broadest sense – a true Renaissance person,” says Harrington.

– Meg Sullivan

The Renaissance’s Fairest

“A Man Can do all things if he will,” wrote 15th-century Renaissance man Leon Battista Alberti, describing the ideal he himself best emobided. An accomplished architect, painter, classicist, scientiest, poet, mathematician as well as a fine horseman and athlete, Alberti was truly
l’uomo universale.

The concept flowed from the basic tenets of Renaissance humanism, which considered humans as the center of the universe, limitless in their capacity for development. It followed, therefore, that individuals should embrace all knowledge and develop their powers as fully as possible. Flowers of the age include sculptor-painter-architect-poet Michelangelo, composer-physician-poet Thomas Campion, astronomer-classicist-physician Nicolaus Copernicus and explorer-historian-poet Sir Walter Raleigh. The 19th-century writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was perhaps the last European to attempt the many-sideness of the great Renaissance personlities. A critic, journalist, painter, theater manager, statesman, educationalist and natural philosopher, he achieved in his 82 years a wisdom often termed Olympian, even inhuman.

College Gets Communal

Photo by Irene Fertik

Clustered in “Learning Communities,” like-minded USC freshmen can find themselves and the right major.

IT’S LONELY BEING an undecided major at a school with 14,000 undergraduates. So lonely that the College of Letters, Arts and Sciences has decided to do something about it. Last fall, it unveiled USC Learning Communities, a program aimed at engaging entering freshmen.

The idea is elegantly simple. Each Learning Community is composed of 20 freshmen, who take two courses together: one introducing a possible minor or major, another satisfying a General Education requirement.

Every group has its own faculty mentor and staff adviser. The students also get together for monthly dinners in the residential colleges, hear guest speakers and go on field trips. The program receives financial support from the Provost’s Office.

Approximately 300 students are expected to sign up this fall for Learning Communities, says director of undergraduate programs Katharine Harrington. Groups will be arranged around six themes: word, image and culture; media and public life; law and social theory; human behavior and culture; and medicine, technology and natural sciences.

RESEARCH SHOWS that undeclared majors are at greatest risk of failing to graduate. USC officials hope the Learning Communities will help undecided students transition smoothly into a major, Harrington says. The program is modeled after a similar one at University of Oregon, which has proved successful in helping students form social networks, increase their campus involvement and improve their aca-demic performance.

“Our expectations are the students will connect more strongly to the university,” Harrington says. “We hope they will be able to explore university resources more thoroughly, identify a major more quickly and successfully complete their undergraduate education.”
– Melissa Payton

Exploring Mars

Illustration courtesy of NASA

For Three Graduate Credits Architecture and aerospace students blend their distinctive visions to come up with some colorful blueprints for conquering the Red Planet.

THE TEMPERATURE ranges from a balmy 80 to an icy -200 degrees Fahrenheit. The atmosphere is mostly carbon dioxide and too thin to breathe. So thin, in fact, that it barely slows down the barrages of micro-meteorites. There’s no ozone layer to block the sun’s intense ultraviolet radiation. And, where there aren’t sheer cliffs, deep chasms or bomb-like craters, the landscape is littered with rocks and boulders.

Exploring Mars presents a monumental challenge for humanity. But for the students in “Aerospace Engineering 599,” exploring Mars was a far more pressing problem. Three graduate-level credits were riding on it.

For their midterm project, each student in instructor Madhu Thangavelu’s “Space Exploration/Architecture Concepts Synthesis Studio” had presented an idea for some phase of exploration. For the final, the class forged a single coherent vision of a Mars mission.

Both times, the students had to present their plans before a distinguished panel of aerospace experts – including the entire Caltech Mars mission design team, Mars scientists from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and senior USC engineering faculty. In May, Thangavelu accompanied six students to the Johnson Space Center in Houston, where they laid out their vision before the space agency’s Mars mission planners.

“NASA was impressed with the boldness of our mission,” says Thangavelu, an adjunct professor in the USC School of Engineering who is himself a 1985 graduate of the USC School of Architecture.

The plan calls for growing plans in Martian and Terran soil, in natural and artificial light. The honey-comb frame is made of plexiglass and lined with solar panels.
Illustration courtesy of Anita Sengupta

THE PLAN READS like something out of Robert Heinlein’s fantasies: a 950-day mission, including the half-year rocket trip each way. Six astronauts scouring the Red Planet’s surface for 600 days. A nifty habitat with an inflatable membrane interior covered by an adobe exterior of heat- and cold-insulating Martian dirt bricks (great protection from radiation, dust storms and micrometeorite showers). A three-man, live-in rover that can tow trailers loaded with equipment and supplies for several-month jaunts. A smaller emergency rover for use in rescues.

And there’s more: a partially transparent life-science module, where crewmembers can experiment with growing plants in natural and artificial light, in both Martian and Earth soils, and at different temperatures and atmospheric pressures. Facilities to recycle carbon dioxide, oxygen, water and biomass. Plus a three-year supply of food, water and air.

Come down to Earth!

“All of this,” Thangavelu insists, “is existing technology or technology that we will have in place by 2012 or 2015. And I think we could put all of it up in orbit with about a dozen space shuttle loads.”

THE INDIAN-BORN aerospace consultant’s philosophy is simple: “If you can dream it, you can build it. But you surely can’t build it without the dream.”

Thangavelu sees tremendous untapped potential in his Mars seminar students, who tend to be a balanced mix of aerospace industry professionals and full-time architecture and engineering graduate students. Blending the structured, scientific, meticulous thinking of young engineers with the contemplative, synthetic mind-set of young architects fosters great creativity, he says. If the students’ soaring concepts prove flawed, that’s no different from what goes on everyday at NASA and corporate aerospace companies.

“Most ideas are inadequate during the initial iterations. But a good idea opens up new channels, and keeps getting better. This is how resilient, strong-boned ideas are born in the real world,” says Thangavelu, who has taught the interdisciplinary class at USC four times since 1994.

Manasi Khopkar’s midterm proposal for a six-wheel, battery-powered Mars rover with swivel captain’s chairs.
Illustration courtesy of Manasi Khopkar

FOR HIS MIDTERM project, aerospace engineering student Mike Myers proposed an airborne solution to getting around the inhospitable Martian terrain: a blimp. Propelled by two small fans, Myers’ 20-meter-long dirigible could carry a 28-pound payload (sufficient to haul light instruments). Architecture student Manasi Khopkar wowed classmates and colleagues with her stylish renderings of a six-wheeled, pressurized, battery-powered Mars rover with swivel captain’s chairs.

Madhu Gupta, another architecture student, knocked a few socks off with her plans for a Mars habitat. Picture a 3,000-square-foot lightweight dome, covered with pressurized plastic membranes, including a mesh layer to stop micro-meteorites. A single habitat, constructed from materials weighing 70 pounds, would house a six-person crew for 28 to 80 days in (judging by Gupta’s impressive drawings) Martha Stewart Living comfort.

Aerospace engineering student Aaron Kiely, who already has a Ph.D. in electrical engineering and has applied to NASA’s astronaut candidate program, came closest to hitting the perfect creative groove with his midterm project: a workspace-laboratory with an outer shell of hollow plastic bricks. Made from stackable, identical halves, the bricks are easily snapped together and filled with Martian dirt.

The students’ ultimate plan for the Mars habitat.
Illustration courtesy of Madhu Gupta

THE FINAL JOINT class project incorporated many other ideas, including communications satellites, a drilling array to search for water and a Mars-based nuclear power plant. Ironically, this last idea was without doubt the seminar’s most controversial one. Reactor, fuel and a second complete backup unit would all need to be launched from Earth, posing some risk of a terrestrial nuclear accident. But, Thangavelu insists, “nuclear-powered rockets were tested and proved feasible long ago. We’ve been sending nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and submarines around the world for decades.”

Whether or not Mars exploration is fueled by fission, Thangavelu believes his students’ ideas will pave the way.

“We will go back to the moon, send expeditions to Mars, and someday go to all the other wonderful places in our solar system and beyond,” he says. “And it will be people like these students who will plan it. I believe that some of these dreams will eventually come true.”

– Bob Calverley

Want a Time-Out, Hal?

Computers are turning out to be more like toddlers than even Arthur C. Clarke predicted. In an ABC “World News Tonight” report on “emergent behavior” – the phenomenon of computers doing unexpected things – USC robotics researcher Maja Mataric described how some of her foraging robots have become aggressive. “This is not something we programmed in,” she said. “In fact, we cannot predict which one is going to be shy and which one is going to be aggressive.”

Meating of Minds

A USC anthropologist reveals how meting out meat sharpened the faculties of early hunters, both human and primate.

FEMINISTS MAY BALK, but a big reason we’ve managed to cure polio and launch rockets may hark back to the old cliché about men (or apes) bringing home the bacon, contends anthropologist Craig Stanford.

Specifically, he credits male-dominated hunting and meat-sharing patterns for developing much of humans’ sophistication – from our intellect to our economic and political systems.

“I know these ideas are politically incorrect,” says Stanford, “but you can’t get around the fact that the status given to meat is – and has been – really central in most human and primate societies. No other food commands such devotion.”

It’s not that meat, as some have argued, was nutritionally necessary for the explosion in brain size that occurred about a million years ago, Stanford argues in his new book, The Hunting Apes: Meat Eating and the Origins of Human Behavior. Nor is it that meat was such an important source of protein. (Tubers, legumes and insects collected by females actually provide more protein in primate and hunter-gatherer diets than meat captured by males.)

Rather, it was the strategic sharing of meat with fellow group members – rewarding allies and snubbing enemies – that paved the way for human intelligence.

To be a strategic meat-consumer and -sharer requires substantial cognitive abilities. “You have to begin remembering all the debts and credits of life,” Stanford says. That requires the ability to recognize others as individuals and to keep a running scorecard of relationships over months or years.

BUT WAIT, it gets juicier. If early humans behaved as their closest living relatives – chimpanzees – do today, male domination of women may actually go back more than 15 million years. (Most feminists trace male domination no farther than “historic” times.)

“That would imply an evolved Darwinian basis of patriarchal systems,” Stanford says. With this claim, he wandered into an academic jungle considerably wilder than those inhabited by chimps.

But the primatologist doesn’t come to his conclusion lightly. A protégé of chimpanzee expert and USC adjunct professor Jane Goodall, Stanford spent six years in Tanzania’s Gombe National Park tracking the hunting patterns of these apes. He found that males did more than 90 percent of hunting. Females often accompanied hunting parties but very rarely took part, perhaps for fear of putting their infant or unborn offspring at risk. When fertile females were present at a hunt, however, Stanford observed that males invariably grew bolder, charging prey they otherwise would have shunned. Afterwards, successful hunters divided the spoils to cement alliances with other males, snub rivals and control females. Sometimes, male chimps used the fresh meat to persuade females to mate with them. (If not, female and immature chimps ended up with only scraps.)

“What I saw was a shock to my values regarding a gender-balanced ethics of behavior,” Stanford writes. It isn’t pretty, but such primate behavior opens a window onto the day-to-day behavior of early man, the USC researcher believes. Indeed, modern-day human hunting and gathering societies – such as the Sharanahua of Peru’s Amazon basin – display meat consumption patterns not unlike those of the chimps.

Stanford’s approach isn’t entirely new. It flows from a school of thought dubbed the “Man the Hunter” theory, dating back to the 1960s. Giving such prominence in human evolution to a male-dominated activity, however, was reviled for years as both sexist and ignorant of the facts.

“But the central importance of meat is undeniable,” Stanford says.

– Meg Sullivan

Fat Smarts?

Meat’s chief attraction to our ancestors, researcher Craig Stanford thinks, was its high content of saturated fat – a nutrient for which there was no other substitute in the forests and savannahs inhabited by early man.

Gombe chimps face the same dearth today. For three or four months of each year, Stanford says, they slowly starve. “There’s no other source of saturated fat except what they can get from meat.” Which explains the curious fact that after a kill the chimps don’t feast on the tenderest, most nutritious flesh. Instead, they go straight for the fattiest portions of their prey: the brains and bone marrow.

Meat contains no magic ingredient for cognitive development. Any fat-packed food – say, coconuts or avocados – could have done the same evolutionary trick.

The Midas Chunk

Photo by Rick Toomin. Courtesy of Baywather

USC earth scientists analyze one of the world’s largest gold nuggets, disproving the adage that all that glitters is not gold.

GOLD FEVER was briefly back in California last April, when USC scientists confirmed that a 56-pound nugget belonging to an Australian prospector was 80 to 90 percent high-purity gold.

“This is among the largest naturally occurring pieces of gold ever found,” says earth scientist Jean Morrison, who was asked to assay the nugget. The largest gold nugget believed to exist today is the Hand of Faith, a 61-pound specimen on display at the Golden Nugget casino in Las Vegas.

The newfound nugget, which the owner has dubbed the “King of the West,” comes from a dry stream bed in the eastern gold fields of Western Australia.

The miner, who understandably wishes to remain anonymous, has since found other nuggets associated with the King of the West; he plans to bring these also to USC for analysis.

SPECIFIC GRAVITY measurements done at USC indicate that 10 to 20 percent of this nugget is composed of hematite breccia, an iron-rich sedimentary rock. The rest is almost entirely gold. “It’s so bright that you think it can’t be real,” Morrison says. “But then, 56 pounds of real gold looks fake.”

If melted down, Morrison estimates the gold in the King of the West would be worth roughly $300,000. Intact, the rare nugget could fetch several times that amount at Sotheby’s, where it’s slated to go on the block.

How do you keep a 56-pound glob of gold safe? At various times the prospector reports stashing it “under my bed and under the kitchen floor.” While at USC, he kept a vigilant eye on his prize as a stream of research faculty, students and staff dropped by to take a look. When one of them knocked the precious rock over in an attempt to pick it up, the startled prospector yelped “crikey!” (that’s Australian for “keep your hands off of my gold!”)

– Bob Calverley

Winnebago Vagrants

A band of recreational vehicle owners who live near Palm Springs in parked buses and vans reresent a new kind of homelessness, according to social work professor Madeleine Stoner. The urban squatters may be well-adjusted, communal-minded free-spirits, but their children aren’t so carefree. “These kids experience a certain sense of shame and stigma when they go to school,” Stoner said in

Los Angeles Magazine’s
April issue. “They know they’re considered marginal and deviant by the community.”

Lessons at the Not-So-OK-Corral

Violent Entertainment may be unavoidable, but the resourceful parent can turn explosive live-acts, such as those found in theme parks, into a lesson in pacifism. “If your child watches a shootout,” educational psychologist Myron Dembo told the Los Angeles Times, “you need to ask questions like, ‘Do you think the person would get up if it was a real gun?'”

Doctoring the Dying

Photography by Debra Dipaolo

USC medical students work toward a better bedside manner in the treatement of terminally ill patients.

David Solomon is dying. He has advanced lymphoma and will live for only a few more weeks. Exhausted and wracked with pain, he lies on a hospital bed, a yarmulke on his head. His bony fingers are wrapped around a styrofoam cup filled with ice chips, which he sucks continually. His voice a raspy whisper, the 70-year-old man is talking to a young physician sitting at his bedside. The two are discussing Solomon’s worries, family situation, even his spiritual beliefs.

“When God decides it’s time, it’s time,” the dying man says. “I’ve had a good life … a good life.”

After a long pause, the physician places her hand on Solomon’s arm. “I think it’s wonderful that you have such a strong religious faith,” she says.

THIS MIGHT SEEM like an unusually tender and personal doctor-patient relationship, but the USC School of Medicine aims to make it commonplace, at least among physicians trained here.

Solomon, you see, isn’t what he seems. He’s actually Larry Lederman, a professional actor playing a dying patient. And his compassionate companion isn’t really a licensed M.D. She’s Kate Kaufman, a first-year medical student.

Kaufman was among the first to take a workshop called “The Dying Patient,” developed by Pamela Schaff, director of the school’s innovative Introduction to Clinical Medicine program. The workshop is now mandatory for all first-year medical students.

“Most physicians are still really bad at talking with patients about how they want to die,” says Schaff. “It’s just not something people feel comfortable with. We want to make sure the students have a forum where they can explore their own feelings and hear from patients.”

Schaff’s staff carefully trains actors like Lederman to play near-death lymphoma patients so convincingly that the first-year students easily fall into the fiction. The mock-docs then interview the pretend patients, asking about their concerns and emotions, how they want to die and who they want to make decisions for them should they become incapacitated. The students even take the patients’ “spiritual histories,” asking about religious convictions and other beliefs.

After the interviews, Schaff critiques the students. Then the patient rises from his sick-bed and also comments on the experience.

“The Dying Patient” workshop is just one example of the ICM program’s emphasis on patient-centered learning. To gain an understanding of the complex issues facing gravely and terminally ill people, USC medical students are also required to take an ethics course; tour an oncology or AIDS ward; visit a hospice, retirement home or grief counseling center; and observe a medical team specializing in symptom management.

– Ian Gregor

In Print

Why Worry?
The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things by Barry Glassner Basic Books,1999, $25

Book photograph by Rick Szczechowski

SCHOOLYARD SHOOTOUTS. Pedophiles in cyberspace. Road rage. Workplace violence. Flesh-eating bacteria.

Such trendy threats do pose a grave danger to American society, but not the kind you might suppose.

“We waste tens of billions of dollars and person-hours every year on largely mythical dangers,” writes sociologist Barry Glassner in The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things. “We’d better learn to doubt our inflated fears before they destroy us.”

Marshaling police reports, scientific studies and skeptical media accounts, Glassner debunks dozens of false fears in his new book.

Did you know that there’s never been a single confirmed death or injury from a stranger poisoning Halloween candy since the scare first surfaced in 1958? Or that no matter how catchy the phrase “going postal” may be, postal workers actually are two-and-a-half times less likely to be killed on their jobs than the average worker?

THE PROBLEM with aggrandizing questionable concerns, Glassner says, is that legitimate concerns get swept under the rug. He points to the unreported dangers of a population that’s undereducated, ill-housed, over-armed and inadequately doctored.

Isn’t it odd, asks the sociologist, how exposés about cybercreeps omit the fact that it’s poor children – few of whom can afford America Online connections – who are disproportionately abused? And that it’s in their own homes and those of close relatives where children are most often sexually molested?

Or how seldom we hear about work-related dangers (7 million injuries and 50,000 fatalities in the mid-1990s), while the media obsesses over airline accidents resulting in at worst a few hundred deaths a year?

Glassner became interested in fear during the 1992 presidential campaign, when controversy over the out-of-wedlock pregnancy of television character Murphy Brown escalated into a full-scale attack on all unwed mothers. It turned out that at the height of the scare over “babies raising babies,” fewer than 22,000 teen moms lived alone. Between 1992 and 1996, teen motherhood actually declined by nearly 12 percent.

School violence is another unwarranted fear: “More than three times as many people are killed by lightning as by violence at schools,” Glassner says. The same goes for flesh-eating bacteria: “An American is 55 times as likely to be struck by lightning as to die of this microbe,” he says.

The author spent five years poring over more than 10,000 newspaper, radio and television accounts of social issues, and he discovered a distinct pattern. “Scratch the surface of any pseudo-fear and you’ll find a wide array of groups that stand to benefit from promoting the scares,” he says.

Despite his own best efforts – and brisk sales of his new book – Glassner predicts that no amount of debunking will wipe out a fear as long as someone can find a way to profit from it.

– Meg Sullivan

Veronica Franco: Poems and Selected Letters
edited and translated by Ann Rosalind Jones and Margaret F. Rosenthal University of Chicago Press, $17

Italian Renaissance scholar Margaret F. Rosenthal first brought the spotlight on 16th-century Venetian courtesan Veronica Franco with her 1995 book, The Honest Courtesan (adapted into the 1998 film, Dangerous Beauty). Now Rosenthal and her co-author have edited and translated a selection of Franco’s writings. Presented in both Italian and English, the stylish poems of this erudite prostitute contrast with her matter-of-fact letters, which include a warning to a woman considering apprenticing her daughter to a courtesan.

Urban Design Downtown: Poetics and Politics of Form
by Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris and Tridib Banerjee University of California Press, $40

Focusing on Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco, this well-illustrated volume explores the corporate downtown, with its multitude of social dilemmas and contradictions. Policy and planning professor Tridib Banerjee and his co-author offer a critical appraisal of the poetics and politics of emerging urban forms. Through three contemporary case studies, they reveal patterns that are happening or may happen in other downtown developments.

Luis Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie
edited by Marsha Kinder Cambridge University Press, $14.95

In this collection of critical essays, film theorist Marsha Kinder gathers fresh perspectives on Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel’s 1972 Academy Award-winning masterpiece, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie – a surreal film about a dinner party. Essays explore the director’s relationship to surrealism, the transnational (Spanish, French, Mexican and American) nature of his work, and his dramatic and provocative rethinking of sex, narrative and gender.

More stories about:

Students for All Seasons

Top stories on USC News