At the end of every week, Emma Zitzow-Childs, a PhD candidate in Romance languages and literatures and the coordinating fellow at Dudley House, the GSAS student center based in Lehman Hall, sits down at her computer and puts together the “This Week at Dudley” newsletter that arrives in the inboxes of the graduate community at Harvard. “So, all those bad puns? I take res-pun-sibility for those,” she jokes with a hint of pride. As the coordinating fellow, Zitzow-Childs isn't just sending out the newsletter, she's also making sure the team of fellows at Dudley are supported as they organize and host events for the GSAS community. For her, it is incredibly rewarding to look at the calendar for the upcoming week and see the diversity and number of events that fellows have organized, from film screenings to cemetery tours. “There’s almost too much to do,” Zitzow-Childs confesses. “But giving people the burden of choice is the preferred alternative to them not having anything to do.” It’s the tireless work of the 26 fellows that makes sure that every week, there’s something for everyone.
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A Home on Campus
According to Zitzow-Childs, Dudley House is like the Room of Requirements at Hogwarts, the wizarding school from the Harry Potter series. “It’s always here to provide you with what you’re looking for in a pinch,” she laughs. When Zitzow-Childs moved to Cambridge, she was looking for an anchor: Her now-husband Stephen stayed in Minnesota to finish his master’s degree, and while she had her cat Olive to keep her company, Zitzow-Childs wished to find a wider sense of community on campus. “Dudley House very quickly became that place for me,” she says.
Located right in the middle of Harvard Square, in what Zitzow-Childs describes as the hustle-and-bustle of the Yard, Dudley House is a meeting ground of academic disciplines and ideas. “You get all these highly ambitious, intelligent, and receptive graduate students in the same space and all of a sudden conversations and new ideas start happening,” Zitzow-Childs explains. This was one of the motivations behind her decision to apply as a fellow, and the diversity of backgrounds and interests amongst the fellows is staggering. “We have fellows from 11 different program areas representing students from 14 different academic departments, so there is remarkable potential in terms of creativity and crosstalk,” she says.
Zitzow-Childs has always been drawn to this kind of crosstalk between disciplines, and her own research exemplifies this. She studies a cluster of French conservative writers from the 20th and 21st centuries who emphasize the notion of cultural loss through musical metaphor. “I’m curious about why, when lamenting how the beauty or the perceived ‘purity’ of francité [Frenchness] is disappearing, these writers so often make recourse to instrumental or ‘pure’ music,” she explains. Zitzow-Childs, who has completed a secondary field in historical musicology but specializes principally in French literature, hopes to put critical pressure on why conservative writers have increasingly used musical metaphor in novels and essays to further describe their concern over where their (literary) culture is heading. “One author in my corpus describes writing today, amidst what he sees as ‘cultural pauperization,’ as the act of singing alone in isolation,” Zitzow-Childs says. “I’m trying to understand why this type of comparison is so attractive, and whether we need to rethink our affective response to music in written texts if the latter is exerting a seductive rhetoric on the reader.”
While she melds music and literature in her research, Zitzow-Childs has and continues to foster equally interdisciplinary conversations at Dudley, first through her work as an intellectual and cultural fellow, and now as the coordinating fellow. “Fellows have a finger on the whole graduate student pulse of life and can tailor events in accordance to that,” she explains. “But they can also explore any type of programming they have in mind. If you have a crazy dream for a Fusion Chinese-Norwegian Taco Night, and there’s interest from the student body, Dudley is a great place to make it happen!”
For John Lee, a PhD candidate in the Speech and Hearing Bioscience and Technology program, that crazy dream was a K-pop dance group. “I’ve been dancing since college, and that’s something I wanted to introduce to Dudley House,” he says. For the last few weeks, Lee, who became a social fellow this year, has been teaching graduate students the moves to several K-pop songs like “Come Back Home” by 2NE1 and “Breathe” by Beast in Lehman Hall’s graduate student lounge. “The room has this weird L-shaped bar, but we’ve made the space work.”
K-pop dance classes have not only allowed Lee to introduce the genre to other students, they have also given a measure of balance to his life. “Having events like K-pop forces me to spend time with people, instead of staying in lab over at Longwood Medical Area,” he explains.
Lee conducts his research in the lab of Jeff Holt and Gwen Géléoc, a husband-and-wife team that investigates what proteins make up the mechanotransduction channel of auditory hair cells, which are the receptors in our ears that detect sound and send that information to our brain. Lee explains that this channel is essential because it transforms sound into an electrical signal that neurons can carry to the brain. These channels, however, don’t just help us interpret sound: They’re also present in the vestibular hair cells, where they contribute to our sense of balance. It’s this balancing aspect that Lee is particularly interested in.
“I’m exploring the consequences of absent or impaired mechanotransduction channels on the synapses of these vestibular hair cells,” he says. Lee reasons that, even if techniques like gene therapy manage to fix a faulty channel, the synapse, which is the meeting point between two neural cells, might be too impaired to transmit an electrical signal to the brain. “Which would mean the gene therapy was meaningless,” Lee explains. To explore this conundrum, Lee and the Holt-Géléoc lab have developed a number of mutant mice that lack either a part of or the whole channel, allowing Lee to measure the consequences of these mutations on the synapse.
In addition to teaching K-pop and investigating the vestibular system, Lee works to make the student center more accessible to students at Longwood. “There are graduate students at Longwood who might not even know they’re members of Dudley House,” he laments. To bring Longwood-based graduate students into the Dudley fold, Lee wants to host events across the river and is exploring what types of events the community is interested in. “We’re still in the preliminary stages, but I really want to open up the space for students, tell them ‘we’re around and we’re thinking about you,’” he says. Lee is starting small, but he says the Division of Medical Sciences (DMS) office has been extremely supportive of his plan, offering the use of the DMS Lounge on the 4th floor of the TMEC Building. “It’s a nice space, spacious,” Lee says. “If we clear away all the furniture, it could be a great area for K-pop.”