15 Research Highlights from the Liberal Arts

Discovery thrives across the 31 academic departments and 13 research centers that make up the University of Minnesota Twin Cities' College of Liberal Arts (CLA).

As the college continues to celebrate its 150th anniversary, Inquiry delves into a small sample of the many people, centers, and projects that built CLA’s past and are driving its future. While there is no way to capture the sheer scope of the research conducted across the college’s many disciplines, the 15 highlights below illustrate the academic rigor, creativity, and diversity of thought intrinsic to CLA.

1. The Economics of Global Challenges

How can we solve political and economic dilemmas on a large scale?

Leonid Hurwicz, Ph.D., who came to Minnesota in 1951, developed the foundation of an economics theory that could help solve global challenges ranging from slowing climate change to matching organ donors with recipients. Hurwicz’s theory, called “mechanism design,” is based on the idea that institutions and laws can align individual incentives with overall social goals—in short, that we can design the “rules” of the game so that pursuing self-interest also results in a productive societal outcome.

In 2007, Hurwicz won the Nobel Prize in economics for his discovery. His work in economics theory, combined with fellow economics professor Walter Heller’s expertise in policymaking, played a central role in building the U’s Department of Economics to be historically among the top in the world.

2. Bringing Clarity to Sensory Deficiencies

How do we help those whose senses are impaired?

Peggy Nelson, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Speech-Language-Hearing Sciences and director of the Center for Applied and Translational Sensory Science, has concentrated her research on speech perception to figure out how to best help people with hearing loss navigate a world full of noise and connect effectively with their environments.

Her center brings together world-leading experts in the sensory sciences to tackle the problems that millions of people with sensory deficits face every day. Through collaboration with industry leaders, the center translates cutting-edge research into devices and therapies that can improve quality of life for those affected.

3. Studying How People Approach Healthy Behaviors

How do people control their behaviors when trying to be healthy?

Traci Mann, Ph.D., professor of social and health psychology, researches how people engage in health-focused behaviors, especially dieting. Mann’s lab aims to understand the factors that make it difficult for dieters to control how they eat. Mann’s research, which has helped organizations such as the US Department of Agriculture and NASA promote healthy eating in children and astronauts respectively, will continue to update current knowledge about weight loss and look for solutions that encourage healthy eating rather than excessive dieting.

Examples of the lab’s research projects include studying how to increase vegetable consumption in children, how to prevent weight loss in astronauts, and how food labels influence people’s food choices.

4. Tracking Twins to Understand Development

How do genetic and environmental factors change us as we age?

The Minnesota Center for Twin and Family Research, part of the Department of Psychology and one of the largest research centers of its kind in the US, tracks these influences on how people develop and the psychological traits they harbor.

The center is home to many projects that study research participants over time, including the well-known Minnesota Twin Family Study, which began in 1989 with 1,400 pairs of identical and same-sex fraternal twins and their families from throughout the upper Midwest, and later added another 500 pairs of twins in 2000. Researchers in the center are following the twins as they pass from childhood to adolescence and adulthood, measuring their mental, physical, and social changes to better understand the development process and the challenges they face during this period.


5. Understanding the Roots of Genocide

How could an event as tragic and immense as the Holocaust happen?

The Center for Holocaust & Genocide Studies provides the critical foundation and analytical tools to understand and address the causes, impacts, and legacies of the Holocaust, as well as other genocides and incidents of mass violence. Through research and engagement, the center creates awareness of past genocides and instances of mass violence—and their devastating consequences—to prevent future atrocities. The center collaborates and shares expertise and resources across the U of M and the United States, as well as with international academic institutions.

Among the center’s research subjects are post-mass violence scenarios and transitional justice; remembrance, representations, and memory politics; Holocaust art, literature, and film; anti-Semitism studies; and genocide and the media.

6. Studying Controversial Felon Voting Laws

How do strict voting laws disenfranchise convicted felons?

Christopher Uggen, Ph.D., Regents Professor and Distinguished McKnight Professor of Sociology and Law, studies crime, law, and justice, to understand how to help build a more just and peaceful world. His work includes an in-depth look at state laws that restrict voting rights for those convicted of serious crimes and gauges public opinion around these laws. Nearly 6 million people in the US are affected by felon voting laws, with a disproportionately high level of lower-income African Americans and Latinos.

Uggen’s writing on felon voting, work and crime, and harassment and discrimination is frequently cited in media outlets such as the New York Times, The Economist, and NPR.

7. Seeing Finance through the Lens of Anthropology

How does financial culture influence the health of our economy?

Karen Ho, Ph.D., associate professor of anthropology, explores the world of finance through the eyes of an ethnographer—one who studies and records human cultures. Ho’s research led to the 2009 publication of Liquidated: An Ethnography of Wall Street, a book that explores how Wall Street’s culture of favoring high share prices over all other corporate values and bankers’ “live-for-today” risk-taking pushed the economy into its 2008 crisis.

Ho got a job with a Wall Street bank while working on the project to better understand its culture. During her time there, she saw firsthand the practices, beliefs, and structures at play, as well as the hierarchies that discriminate against women, people of color, and non-Ivy League graduates.

8. An Integrated Approach to Researching the Past

How do we more holistically understand the world as it was before?

The Consortium for the Study of the Premodern World is building a new vision of integrated, multidisciplinary research and teaching in global premodern studies at the University of Minnesota and across academia.

Each year, the consortium funds about 20 research workshops that involve scholars at the U of M and their collaborators at local, national, and international institutions. The workshops address intellectual questions in global premodern studies, ranging from small reading groups focused on diverse global literature to workshops linked to graduate seminars, conferences, and major research initiatives. Consortium research workshops model collaboration across disciplines, chronologies, and geographies.

9. A Dictionary for the Ojibwe People

How do you preserve the language and heritage of a people?

The Ojibwe People's Dictionary, created and maintained by the Department of American Indian Studies and the University Libraries, is a searchable Ojibwe-English dictionary that also features the voices of Ojibwe speakers, along with cultural items, photographs, and excerpts from relevant historical documents. This continually expanding resource, which already includes thousands of entries, will support language education and encourage new speakers among the present generation.

Speakers of Ojibwe consider their language to be precise, descriptive, and visual, and feel that it is among the greatest treasures of their cultural heritage. For many reasons, however, the language is endangered—among them, declines that followed European colonization in the Americas and, later, a historical repression by policymakers and educators in the US and Canada. Scholars and linguists say language diversity is as important to the world and our systems of knowledge as biological diversity is to nature.

Ojibwe basket

10. Security and Privacy in the 20th Century

How do we connect people’s private lives to the overall culture and politics of a century?

Elaine Tyler May, Ph.D., Regents Professor of American Studies and History and chair of the Department of History, explores the ways in which issues normally considered part of private life—such as consumerism, security, and leisure pursuits—reflect, express, and influence American political, cultural, and social values. Her focus is on the 20th century in the US at the intersections of gender, sexuality, race, domestic culture and politics.

May is currently studying the concepts of security and privacy, specifically in the legacy of the Cold War at home in the US. She explores the ongoing quest for national and personal security in terms of Americans’ sense of danger from within as well as outside of the country.

11. The Immigration Debate in Politics

How do views on controversial issues affect the turnout of a major election?

Howard Lavine, Ph.D., Arleen C. Carlson Professor of political science and psychology, and Wendy Rahn, Ph.D., professor of political science, examined how political discussions and voters’ views about immigration shaped the results of the 2016 general election. Their analysis suggested that politicizing xenophobia and racism in US elections around the subject of immigration may have instigated a liberal counter-reaction that made politicizing immigration an ineffective strategy for the Republican Party.

Going forward, Lavine and Rahn said President Trump’s explicit appeals to intolerance are likely to help Democrats more than Republicans, which could create less incentive for future Republican candidates to contest elections by instigating group division.

12. New Ways of Seeing Art

How can we see and connect to the world around us in new and creative ways?

Diane Willow, associate professor in the Department of Art, is discovering new ways of making and understanding art in the 21st century. Willow focuses her work at the place where traditional art meets technology, science, and architecture, using her creativity as a way to engage people and turn their attention to the common occurrences happening around them. She explores how people express empathy with one another, as well as with their environments, to create a sense of connection and community.

Willow’s art spans a variety of artistic media and academic disciplines, fueled in part by the wide variety of collaborators she works with, from architects and composers to biologists and engineers.

Art exhibit

13. Tracking the Roots of English Words

How do we piece together the origins of the words we say?

Etymologist Anatoly Liberman, Ph.D., professor in the Department of German, Scandinavian, and Dutch, has drawn upon 20 years of notes from his own research to put together new written works that trace words back to their origins. Liberman not only explains the various ways that words have formed in English over the language’s history, but also details how etymologists go about seeking out the origins of words.

Among these efforts is Liberman’s 2009 book Word Origins and How We Know Them: Etymology for Everyone which includes hundreds of word histories that demonstrate how the origins of words can be correctly—and incorrectly—traced back to their roots. His works draw on an exhaustive bibliography of books and articles from the many different languages that influenced English.

14. Assessing Mental Illness and Improving Treatment

How do you test for personality traits that may point to mental illness?

In 1943, clinical psychologist Starke Hathaway, Ph.D., and neuropsychiatrist J. Charnley McKinley, MD, created an early version of what would become a widely used tool to test for psychological traits of illness. The Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI) was designed for mental health professionals to use in assessing and diagnosing mental illness, as well as developing treatment plans.

The original test was translated into more than 50 other languages by the mid-1970s. An updated version of the test, called the MMPI-2, was introduced in 1989, with further updates and versions following in the 2000s that are still in use today.

15. Studying Trust Between Social Media Users

How does trust factor into the way information is shared on social media?

Jisu Huh, Ph.D., professor and Raymond O. Mithun Chair in Advertising in the Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communication, leads a research program that covers a wide range of topics related to advertising and its effects, especially in digital and social media contexts. Huh is currently researching the role trust plays in how information spreads in the ever-evolving environment of interactive communications.

The latest project examines how consumer-to-consumer trust in a social network affects the extent and speed that viral advertising, rumors, and other types of information spreads. The research explores social media data using a computational research approach, which includes an algorithm to measure trust in social media messages that Huh developed in collaboration with computer science scholars.

People using cell phones