Focus on Faculty: The Heart of the Pomona College Experience
June 19, 2012
At the heart of the Pomona College experience is its faculty. Here, we profile three professors—Donna Di Grazia, Ami Radunskaya and Fernando Lozano—who embody the remarkable education provided by the dedicated men and women who teach, mentor and do research here.
Donna Di Grazia: Making Music at Pomona for 14 Years
On a recent evening in Lyman Hall, the Pomona College Choir works its way through two difficult pieces: Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances and Mozart’s Vespers K.339. It’s the night before spring break starts, which could be a major distraction for this 70-plus-member ensemble—if Donna Di Grazia weren’t leading the way. Pomona’s choral conductor and David J. Baldwin Professor in Music, Di Grazia brings a brisk energy and deft touch to the proceedings, keeping the chorus on task.
She prods and praises the singers (“That E-flat sounds wonderful”), stomping her feet in rhythm to the music. A longtime choral singer herself, Di Grazia stops often to demonstrate breathing technique and precise punctuation. “The words have to come out of your mouth as naturally as if you were saying your own name,” she tells the group as the 90-minute rehearsal comes to a close.
Katie Bent, a Pomona junior, has sung in the choir, as well as the school’s Glee Club, since her freshman year. She admires Di Grazia’s dedication, work ethic and responsiveness.
"I think that if Donna ever failed to respond to an e-mail within 24 hours, the glee kids would probably call search and rescue,” says Bent.
Di Grazia has headed up Pomona’s choral program since 1998. The Choir, which draws its membership from across The Claremont Colleges and the community, generally presents two concerts of major choral works a year. The Glee Club, a chamber choir of 25 to 30 singers, performs music from many periods and styles. Meeting in the spring semester only, it ends the term with a 7-to-10-day tour (on the schedule this year: England, Poland and Germany).
Most Pomona students in the choral program don’t pursue careers in music. But as Di Grazia notes, the life skills you learn in a musical ensemble benefit you in any profession: working with other people to achieve a common goal, developing self-discipline, gaining the ability to focus, overcoming challenges and using your creativity to produce something worthwhile.
So don’t tell Di Grazia that music is just an “extracurricular activity.” It is vital. “If you strip out liberal arts from the schools,” she says, “our society is in trouble.”
When it comes to performing music, she adds, a college conductor and his or her students are in it together—literally. They are all on the stage, dependent on one another to each do their part. That builds a great sense of trust, says the professor.
“You form a very close bond with your students, one that often lasts three or four years,” says Di Grazia, who teaches music history courses and independent studies with choral conducting students.
“It’s a very close relationship and a very special one.” It’s that caring attitude toward her students that Katie Bent says she appreciates most about her musical mentor. “Donna always seems to have time to get lunch or coffee with us and catch up on life in general,” says Bent, co-president of the Glee Club. “Even when I don’t take her up on the open-door offer, just knowing that I could talk to her if I need to is very reassuring.” --Paul Sterman '84
Ami Radunskaya: Fusing Two Lifelong Passions
Before joining Pomona College as a mathematics professor in 1994, Ami Radunskaya spent years as a professional cellist. But the shift to academia didn’t close her cello case. Instead, it gave her a new venue to further explore the fusion of two lifelong passions: math and music.
“Both have always been a part of me,” she says. “As a child, during rehearsal, I’d keep a math book under my chair in case I got bored, so my intellectual development in both areas went hand-in-hand. In my head, they are very much the same thing.”
In her classroom, Radunskaya creatively entwines the two, helping students understand mathematical concepts via musical structures, and vice versa. She might play a cello piece to “portray mathematics through music,” or challenge students to represent a mathematical formula through a musical composition—something she has delighted in doing her entire life.
For Radunskaya, however, mathematics goes far beyond enjoyment—it means saving lives. In 1998, she began creating and analyzing complex mathematical models of tumor growth and immunotherapy to help oncologists determine how much treatment to administer, how often and how the malignant cells may react.
“If you have functions and formulas that describe how things happen, you have a formula for the most effective treatment strategy,” she says. Pomona students, and even a high school sophomore, have assisted Radunskaya with this research, attracted to the real-world application of mathematics. The high school student, a leukemia patient, began volunteering in Radunskaya’s lab after participating in the Pomona College Academy for Youth Success (PAYS), a summer academic program for underrepresented and low-income youth. Among other activities, Radunskaya helped PAYS participants use mathematical formulas to solve a murder mystery.
“It was fun,” she recalls.
Since 1998, Radunskaya has also worked with Enhancing Diversity in Graduate Education (EDGE), a mentoring program that helps female mathematicians successfully complete their master’s or Ph.D. Currently co-director, Radunskaya will welcome 22 EDGE participants to campus this summer. She ran a similar program for minority undergraduates while completing her doctorate at Stanford University. Radunskaya credits growing up in Berkeley in the “vortex of the Civil Rights Movement” for driving her desire to equalize opportunities for all. “Individual by individual, you help people get where they want to go,” she says.
This outlook encapsulates Radunskaya’s philosophy for working with students. She strives to know them well and appreciates the campus culture that makes it easy to do so. “The more you can get to know each student and what’s bugging them and what motivates them and how they feel about themselves, the better you can teach them. I’ve come to believe it’s the best way.” --Brenda Bolinger
Fernando Lozano: Game Theory and Soccer Goals
Staying after class is one thing–associate professor of economics Fernando Lozano takes student engagement to another level. Ask around, and you’ll find that he is universally described as a generous and gregarious presence on campus, the sort of guy who regularly grabs lunch with advisees and invites students over for dinner at his Clark I residence with his wife and two kids. He chaperones international-student trips to Joshua Tree, serves as a mentor in the Questbridge Scholars program and can occasionally be seen playing games of pick-up soccer on the quad.
Josh Rodriguez ’13, who does independent research with Lozano and is one of his 24 advisees, meets with the professor at least three times a week, often just to catch up on life outside his coursework “He’s not simply trying to get through the academic stuff he needs to cover,” Rodriguez says. “He truly cares about me as a person.”
For Lozano, student advising is a pleasure and a privilege, and something that he humbly attributes to an actual selfishness on his part. “I don’t think that I am doing anything extraordinary,” he says. “I view it as an act of consumption—something that makes me a better scholar.”
In the classroom, he strives to make microeconomics accessible for majors and curious souls alike. His 8 a.m. section often meets over breakfast in Frank Dining Hall to foster a more conversational atmosphere.
He has explained game theory by splitting classes into “soccer goalies” and “kickers” to discuss penalty shot probabilities. “He tries to make economics more than just supply and demand,” says Rodriguez. “He challenges us to think about how it applies to everyday life.”
Lozano’s career in academia almost didn't happen. He showed up in Claremont in 2004 to teach one course, for one year, while he finished his dissertation at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He had never considered teaching and didn’t expect to stay on, but at the end of his final spring-semester class, as he was placing the cap back on the whiteboard marker, he experienced an unmistakable moment of clarity. I realized that I really enjoyed doing this, and wanted to stay at a place like this for the rest of my life,” he recalls.
His research focuses on issues of labor, immigration and education, particularly as it applies to Hispanics in the U.S. In 2008, he earned a one-year Steele Fellowship that sent him to work at the University of Michigan’s National Poverty Center. “It was a great opportunity to collaborate with senior faculty at other institutions,” he says. “But most importantly, having a research job made me realize how much I missed my students.”
In 2009, Sagehens presented Lozano with the prestigious Wig Award for Excellence in Teaching. “I consider that to be the highlight of my career,” he says.
“My role is to create an atmosphere where the student can comfortably explore the different transformative opportunities that a liberal arts education provides,” he says. “Some students will achieve it within economics, but most won’t. And that’s fine—I recognize that the value added in one is as important as the other.” --Adam Conner-Simons ‘08