Fellow Travelers

David Pacchioli
September 01, 1998
woman reading book in library

Turning 30, Rochelle Brock wasn't happy. She was ten years into a career in retail clothing sales, working as a manager at posh Neiman-Marcus, but it just wasn't enough. "On the TV news," she remembers, "I was seeing all this stuff about our educational system, the inner cities, minority and poor citizens . . . I decided that I could help."

Brock enrolled part-time at her local community college in Chula Vista, California. "I didn't know what I wanted to do," she says. "I just knew I needed an education."

One morning in class her English instructor unwittingly triggered an epiphany. "I was dressed professionally, because I had to go to work that afternoon," Brock says. "This was San Diego, you understand; the teacher was in jeans and a t-shirt. And she looked at me and said, ëRochelle, you're the one who should be up here teaching.'"

It sounds silly, but it kind of hit me. I started thinking about it, the difference I could make."

Quitting her job, Brock moved north and enrolled full-time at the University of California at Berkeley. "I'm the type of person who likes to jump in with both feet," she says. Three years later, she emerged with an undergraduate degree in social science and education, and a Phi Beta Kappa key. After graduation, Brock headed cross-country, to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where a sister and niece are located. She took a job teaching at an alternative high school, in a drop-out prevention program, and, "I loved it. I had some very bright students, and every one of them had a story. Many had suffered physical or sexual abuse. I remember one girl was nursing her mother, who had cancer."

After three years, however, she began to find the classroom too confining. "I wanted power," she says plainly. "There were changes I felt needed to be made in the curriculum, rules that didn't make sense, but I didn't have power to do anything about it. I also felt I didn't know as much as I needed to know in order to help."

Brock had been a McNair scholar as an undergraduate. (The McNair program, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education, is intended to steer talented low-income, first-generation, and minority students toward graduate school.) She had anticipated returning to Berkeley when the time was right; her landing at Penn State instead she chalks up to fate. A friend on the Fort Lauderdale school board had met Rodney Reed, then dean of Penn State's College of Education, and learned that Reed had been a professor at Berkeley for 14 years. When Brock missed the deadline for applying to Berkeley, she says, "I was going to wait a year, but I knew I didn't want to. I was ready to make the move." She contacted Reed and, with his encouragement, applied for the University's Ph.D. program in curriculum and instruction. She enrolled in the fall of 1996.

That first year Brock had an assistantship, as do almost half of Penn State graduate students at University Park every year. These students typically work 20 hours a week in a laboratory or classroom, in exchange for their tuition and a stipend. Brock was responsible for four sections of Education Theory and Policy 115. "It was 120 students, with grading and office hours," she remembers. "It was a lot of work." For her second year, she won two fellowships, one from the College of Education and one from the Graduate School. Being released from her teaching duties, however, has not left her any less busy. "It's my own fault," she says. "What the fellowships have done is given me freedom to get involved in other things." For two semesters, Brock has taught courses in the department of African-American studies, including Sexism and Racism, Blacks in the 20th Century, and the African-American Woman. "It allows me to practice what I read about in my curriculum classes," she says, "to see if this stuff really works."Brock has also found time to be "something of a graduate-student activist,"serving as president of both the University's Black Graduate Student Association and the College of Education's graduate student organization. "What's important in both groups," she says, "is helping people develop a voice. That's something so important in life—developing a voice and knowing how and when to use it."

Some of her students, Brock hopes, will eventually provide subject matter for her Ph.D. dissertation on resilience and academic achievement among African-American women. "So often when people write about minorities, especially African Americans," she says, "we read about at-risk students. I want to look at those students who are making it. What are the influences on these women? Are there role models who have helped them? Are there particular programs? What is it that allows these women to surpass the obstacles they are faced with?"

three pictures of man making different faces

Joe Gaugler sits forward in his chair, hands low and one cradling the other, as though he is ready to jump up and run onto a football field. He speaks in torrents, in a clipped, penetrating voice. He apologizes. "It's really easy for me to get going on this stuff."

Gaugler did indeed play football as an undergraduate at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota, and before his senior year was chosen as an Academic All-American. He also won the school's Craig T. Olson Memorial award for "the fulfilling of God-given talent through courage, inspiration, and determination." "

Football really helped me learn how to establish balance in my life," Gaugler says. "Plus, it was a lotta, lotta fun."

At a small school like Gustavus, being an athlete was no cause for special treatment. "We got no slack," he says, "which was good. I didn't want any." Nor did football take up more than a fraction of his energy. Gaugler graduated with honors in psychology and history, and was a Minnesota state finalist for a Rhodes Scholarship. He served as a peer counselor in his dorm, and his devotion to community service, mostly among senior citizens, culminated in his writing a proposal for neighborhood programs that won a $25,000 grant for a local nursing home.

It was Gaugler's volunteer experience that convinced him he wanted to become a gerontologist. "It started with a program at Gustavus where you would go and play cards with older adults in St. Paul," he remembers. "I really enjoyed it—I even went back after the program was over." During his sophomore year, Gaugler had an internship that involved in-home visits to seniors afflicted with physical or psychological problems. "I started to see some of the issues that affected these people and the family members who cared for them," he says. "Some were living in bad neighborhoods. They had been there all their lives, and they had no money to move out. Others were suffering from Alzheimer's, and I saw how family members had to struggle when they would wander off, or have emotional outbursts. I visited nursing homes, and saw some of the good and troublesome aspects of long-term care.

"It made me think about whether there are enough services available to help us as a society deal with these problems, from both a personal and a financial standpoint."

Gaugler had read the work of Penn State gerontologist Steven Zarit, an expert on the stresses of caregiving. He applied to Penn State, and was offered a University Graduate Fellowship. A campus visit convinced him. "I knew right away that Steve would be a good person to work with," he says. "For someone so well known in his field, he was not at all set in his ways. That really impressed me."

Having fellowship support, Gaugler says,"gave me the freedom to follow my interests." He arrived early, the summer before enrolling, and began work with Zarit on a project evaluating a state-supported adult daycare program in New Jersey. For his master's thesis, he looked into the emotional impact on families of institutionalizing an ailing spouse or looked at husbands, wives, and daughters—the three most common caregivers—before and after institutionalization of a family member, to see who had the hardest time with the transition." Husbands and wives, he found, struggled over disagreements with other family members involving care decisions. Daughters, on the other hand, tended to have more internalized stress related to the burden of care. The difference, Gaugler says, has implications for the kinds of support services that should be provided. In 1996, Gaugler was awarded a National Science Foundation fellowship to continue his work. "The Penn State fellowship was a big factor in my getting it," he says. "It allowed me to focus my ideas early on, and I'm sure that came through in the NSF proposal."

For his doctoral research, he will try to determine whether state-funded adult daycare is a cost-effective option—for families and also for society. "The work by Steve and others shows that daycare is helpful, in terms of improving patient outcomes and relieving the burden on caregivers," Gaugler explains. "The next question is whether it costs too much." A truly useful study, he emphasizes, will have to recognize and include the real costs of not providing such services.

Gaugler plans to work either for a private healthcare corporation or for one of the national agencies on aging. His first step in that direction came this summer, when he held an internship at the Alzheimer's Association in Washington, D.C.

"In this field," he says, "there are opportunities to make a difference all over the place. With the growing recognition of the problems of aging, there's going to have to be a growing recognition of needs."

woman poses in laboratory

Nina Berry suggests a Monday morning at 7 a.m. Pacific as a good time for a phone interview. She promptly picks up the receiver at her office at Sandia National Laboratory in Livermore, California. There's good news: Her job at Sandia has just been made permanent—after a five-month trial period, compared to the standard one to two years. "I work hard," Berry says simply.

And has fun, she might add. Berry wrote her doctoral dissertation at Penn State on the control of robots. "I'm interested in robots because they're toys," she says brightly. "It's great to get paid for working with toys."

Growing up, she built a boxed robot for a high-school science fair in Stafford County, Virginia. Since then, Berry has leaned more to the software side. For an undergraduate computer science project, at Mary Washington College in Fredericksburg, Virginia, she developed a machine language for robotic manipulation. For her Ph.D. in industrial engineering, she created a system for directing a whole fleet of robots in a virtual factory. Simply put, Berry teaches robots to think.

"My field, machine learning, looks at fundamental reasoning techniques in human beings and tries to replicate them with computer programs," she explains. "There are a variety of algorithms you can use. My master's project was to survey the current approaches to what's known as task planning, and to propose a new one."

When a machine is charged with solving a simple problem like going into a room and picking up a ball, Berry explains, it has to plan the steps needed to reach that goal. Asked to repeat such tasks again and again, it should be able to store this information, retrieving it each time it faces a similar situation. To learn from experience, in other words. It's a process based on pattern recognition: providing the machine with a memory full of patterns and the smarts to compare them to its current reality. "You're trying to replicate the reasoning phase in human thought."

Pretty heady stuff. Berry's aim, though, is to connect the airy theory with the gritty world of the shop floor. "Computer science made promises early on to manufacturers about what would happen if they would put computers in their plants," she says. "Thirty years later, manufacturers are still waiting for delivery. That's because there's a gap between the reality of manufacturing and the way computer scientists perceive it. If you look at an automated factory today, it is set up to operate throughout a typical day, with steps planned in advance. As soon as something goes wrong, though, that plan becomes incorrect. A box falls, and a robot will stop in its tracks, waiting for a human to come and intervene. Then you have to reset everything and re-program it, which is certainly not going to be time-efficient.

"The reality is that the manufacturing world is very dynamic. Things break down. You need programs that will adapt to changing conditions, recognizing that the world is not static."

Berry and her colleagues in the field, including her former adviser at Penn State, industrial engineering professor Soundar Kumara, are working on just the thing: self-evolving, self-modifying software—a system that learns as it goes along. "You could say we're teaching these programs to become the ultimate in user friendly," Berry says.

The key to this approach is the deployment of intelligent "agents." An agent, Berry explains, is "a software embodiment of some type of knowledge." In her factory scenario, "there's an agent for every piece of machinery on the shop floor." Each agent, in addition to controlling its own machine, can communicate with other agents, and each has both an awareness of the larger whole and a memory of past experience. Agents can "interoperate,"changing their "behavior" singly or collectively, based on perceived conditions. A current push in artificial intelligence is to develop more and more complex agents: software "knowbots" that can carry out personalized tasks for their human owners, such as purchasing airline tickets or scheduling appointments. But complexity, Berry argues, is not practical in the world of the factory. "Manufacturers want things simple, to fit in with what they already have," she says. Her dissertation successfully demonstrated that a collection of relatively simple agents, placed "on top of"a conventional automated system, could coax the components of that system to work together adaptively.

Berry won a number of fellowships during her career at Penn State. A University Graduate Fellowship and GTE fellowship in computer science paid for her master's degree. For her Ph.D., she had support from the National Science Foundation and from Penn State's Center for Academic Computing. These awards, in addition to speeding her progress and keeping her free of debt, allowed Berry a special opportunity to make the contacts that have benefitted her as a professional. "I was able to go to conferences and meetings that I would not have been able to attend otherwise," she says. "That kind of exposure and networking is more important than most graduate students realize. I have the job I have today because I met someone at a conference."

At Sandia, she is embarked with fellow knowledge engineer Carmen Pancerella on the massive multi-year task of coordinating all of the Laboratory's computer systems, from the ones that are decades old and running "legacy code" to the spiffiest and most up-to-date. Enterprise integration, they call it. "It's getting all this stuff—different processes, different operations, different languages—to function together today, from one machine. "It's not exactly hands-on manufacturing," Berry acknowledges, "but it's the same idea. The enterprise is always changing, and we're trying to develop a system that will change along with it."

woman fishes in river

Back home in Aubrey, Texas, Kerri Dane says, "We have one road with stripes in it. The rest are gravel." Dane grew up outside of town, on a 10-acre section of her grandfather's farm. A whole bunch of extended family lived close by, as well as an assortment of hedgehogs, emus, and kangaroos. "My mama has a license to take in exotic animals," she says. "She's got a zoo in the backyard." Judy Dane is also licensed as an emergency medical technician, riding with the Aubrey ambulance. Kerri's father, Carl, works as a fireman over in Plano.

The younger Dane commuted to the nearby University of North Texas for her undergraduate degree in economics. As the first one in her family to attend college, she was a McNair scholar, one of a class of 32 at North Texas, and so was pointed early toward graduate school. ("It must've worked," she says, "because I'm here.")

That senior year was hectic, with visits to Harvard, M.I.T., Boston College, and Notre Dame, as well as to Penn State. "I thought I wanted to go to Harvard," Dane says, "but when I visited there I knew it wasn't for me." Unlike any of her McNair classmates, she also attended Fire Academy, evenings from September to March. "Mama didn't want to go by herself," Dane says; so five nights a week, the two drove to Denton, with Kerri doing her homework in the car. "I got to use those paddles, and the jaws of life," she remembers. "I'm certified to ride out on emergencies now, but I'm so tiny it's hard for me to hold onto the fire hose."

Penn State, she acknowledges, is a long way from home—that first semester she went back every month. "I had a hard time adjusting, but everyone back home is real happy I'm here," she says. "They're all wearing Penn State clothes now, 'cause that's what I bought everybody for Christmas."

Winning a University Graduate Fellowship helped Dane get over the culture shock. "It gave me a little extra time to adjust," she says. "Since I didn't have to teach or do research, I could spend extra time studying and finding my way around."

The first thing she had to find, as it turned out, was the right academic department. Through the McNair program, Dane had participated in several research projects as an undergraduate, on topics ranging from cheating among NCAA athletes to the effects of competition on the U.S. Postal Service. She wasn't sure what she wanted to do when she got to University Park. "I didn't want to limit myself too soon," she says. "I know how I am. I have to find my little niche."

She thought she might like to work in monetary theory. One day in class, however, four weeks into her graduate career as an economics major, she chanced to meet a fellow student who told her his major was agricultural economics, and a light went on. "I didn't even know they had agricultural economics here, or I would have applied there," Dane admits. After her transfer, which was smoothed by the fact that her fellowship was funded through the Graduate School (and not one department), she now feels she's in the right place.

"I've always been interested in environmental resource economics," she explains. "Coming from Texas, well, we're runnin' out of water. I'm concerned about that. We've got a lot of environmental problems—they seem to be more pronounced down there. Everyone at home has skin cancer, and we have ozone days, when you're not supposed to go outside. It's scary to me."

For her master's, Dane is working with Ann Fisher, Penn State senior scientist in agricultural economics, on a project analyzing the economic effects of anticipated global warming on recreational fishing in the Susquehanna River basin. The study fits into a much larger interdisciplinary effort to understand climate change on a regional scale, funded by the Environmental Protection Agency and involving dozens of researchers at Penn State and many other institutions.

Dane's studies keep her busy, but six hours a week she relaxes by shooting bow and arrow. Actually, that's a bit of an understatement. Coaxed into the sport at age 13 by her parents, she won a national championship in her first year of shooting. At 14, she won the world competition in Seattle. At 16, she traveled to Australia and bagged Worlds again, also becoming the first non-Australian to win that country's national championship.

In October, when Dane found out that Penn State had an archery team, she went home to Aubrey to fetch her bow, then was delighted to learn that, because North Texas is not a Division-I school, she still had four years of NCAA eligibility remaining. On weekends now, she travels with the team to shoots up and down the East Coast. She is out of practice, she reports, and the competition is strictly low key, but, "I'm starting to get it back. If I can keep improving, I'd love to be in Athens for the Olympics in 2004."

Nina Berry, Ph.D., received her doctorate in industrial engineering from Penn State in May 1997. She is currently employed as a software researcher/developer at Sandia National Laboratories in Livermore, California. Rochelle Brock, B.S., is a graduate student in curriculum and instruction in the College of Education. Joseph Gaugler, M.S., is a graduate student in human development and family studies in the College of Health and Human Development. Kerri Dane, B.S., is a graduate student in agricultural economics in the College of Agricultural Sciences.

Joan Schumacher, D.Ed., is director of the Office of Fellowships and Awards in the Graduate School, 317 Kern Graduate Bldg., University Park, PA 16802; 814-865-2514; mjs2@psu.edu.

Last Updated September 01, 1998