Dr. Steven Usitalo in the classroom

Usitalo Attends Seminar at U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum

In the study of history’s most horrific events, some people’s stories have been left largely untold.

These are the people Northern State University’s Dr. Steven Usitalo is interested in learning more about – and it’s the focus of a seminar he attended on his third trip to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Usitalo, professor of history, traveled to Washington, D.C., in January to attend the Mandel Center’s Jack and Anita Hess Faculty Seminar. He received a grant from the Holocaust Memorial Museum to attend the seminar, which focused on the persecution of Roma and Sinti during the Holocaust.

Before attending, Usitalo said the seminar sparked his interest because it focused on groups he was interested in but didn’t feel he knew enough about.

“There’s not a lot written on it,” he said.

A Russian and Soviet historian, Usitalo has studied genocide off and on for about 10 years. He has primarily focused on the Armenian genocide, which occurred during World War I. More recently, he has become interested in other groups – people that have been historically marginalized in the study of genocide. That includes the genocide of Native peoples in North America. He now involves lectures on that topic in his genocide course at Northern.

In today’s climate, teaching about genocide is more important than ever, Usitalo said.

“I think it’s also become more relevant than ever,” he said. “Because it’s not just a dusty historical topic. In today’s world we’re talking about race all the time, and ethnicity and immigration.”

Visits Broadened Teaching Methods

Usitalo first traveled to the Holocaust Memorial Museum in 2014 to participate in the Silberman Seminar, which focused on the Holocaust in the Soviet Union. His second visit the next year was a follow-up to the first.

His time as a visiting scholar at the museum has widely broadened his teaching on genocide, helping provide different ways of drawing students into the subject and making it more relevant for them.

“It’s better informed my lectures,” he said. “It’s made me more up to date, more current.”

Along with what he learns there, he also gets to interact with other educators – for example, there were about 20 other faculty members participating in the Mandel Seminar.

His advice to others teaching the topic: “Reach out to other people in the field – other teachers, scholars. Look at how they prepare their courses, how they address these questions.”

Usitalo has worked at Northern for 12 years. He earned his bachelor’s degree in history from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor; his master’s certificate in political history at the University of Helsinki; his M.A. in Soviet and East European Studies from Carleton University in Ottawa; and his Ph.D. in history from McGill University in Quebec.

Fulbright A Great Opportunity

A Fulbright scholarship award winner, Usitalo spent the 2011-12 academic year teaching a graduate seminar at Yerevan State University in Armenia. He’s pleased that Northern students are beginning to apply for the Fulbright more often. NSU has had three students in recent years named Fulbright Scholars.

Students and faculty can apply, as well as community members who are artists – anyone who can design a research or teaching project that might be of interest to people can apply.

“It’s a really wonderful opportunity,” he said.

At NSU, Usitalo loves having the freedom to choose courses he’s interested in and feels are relevant.

“Most people in the world have never heard of Armenia,” he said. “So being able to teach a course on the Armenian genocide and get 20 students in the class – that’s great.”

Usitalo’s wife, Margarita, is Armenian, which furthered his interest in the topic.

“Being with her gave me an insight into who Armenians are,” he said.

The couple met in Canada when he was completing his Ph.D. They have a daughter, Izabella, 13.

Hopes to Expand Native Studies

Usitalo serves on NSU’s American Indian Studies Committee and said he wishes there was a greater focus on Native American studies at Northern. The committee has held events such as film screenings, and NSU offers a Native American Studies minor. No faculty member is currently devoted to the program, though Dr. Alan Neville teaches a Native American studies course for education majors.

“There are a lot of tribal resources we could use in this area,” he said. “That’s one area I would like to expand.”

Originally from Finland, Usitalo’s family moved to Michigan when he was a teenager. He enjoys living in Aberdeen, which he said is more diverse and less isolated than when he first moved here. He knows a Finnish woman who, when she first moved away decades ago, could never read newspapers from home.

“Now, the whole world is open to a degree,” he said. “So if you’re isolated, I think you make your own isolation.”

Identity Issue Prominent Everywhere

Lately, the issue of identify is prominent everywhere, he said. Finland has some of the same issues as the U.S. – and many parts of the world – with native Laplander populations facing discrimination, as well as immigration issues.

“It’s hard for people to accept change,” he said.

Usitalo said it’s hard to explain where some people’s hatred toward certain groups comes from – perhaps family, or fears. Wherever it originates, meeting people from different backgrounds is the best way to end it.

“It doesn’t help reading a book, or watching a film even,” Usitalo said. “You have to meet people to realize people aren’t that different from yourself.”



NSU to Participate in SEA-Phages Program

Northern State University has received the distinction of participating in the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Science Education Alliance’s Phage Hunters Advancing Genomics and Evolutionary Science (SEA-PHAGES) program beginning in the fall.

This amazing opportunity will allow NSU science students to get involved in real-world research during their early semesters and participate in the science field on a national scale.

After learning about this program at the 2017 South Dakota EPSCoR investigator’s meeting, Dr. Jon C. Mitchell, associate professor of biology, spearheaded the effort to bring this unique opportunity to NSU’s biology, chemistry, physics and mathematics departments, specifically the biotechnology program.

The Science Education Alliance (SEA) supports faculty in the implementation of course-based research experiences, advancing science education on a national scale, establishing cohorts of students, educators and institutions that will collaborate nationally. These experiences engage students in research-based curriculum early in their undergraduate academic career.

The SEA-PHAGES program is a national research-based lab course that NSU will implement. This course is aimed at undergraduate science students, specifically freshmen and sophomores.

“Participation in a program such as HHMI’s SEA-PHAGES allows students to actively participate in inquiry-based labs, engage in the real-world application of the skills and techniques they are learning in the classroom and begin building their resume in their freshman or sophomore year,” Mitchell said.

Students who participate in this program must enroll in both BIOL 240/240L, as well as BIOL 250/250L. Honors students participating in this program have the option of replacing BIOL 240/240L with Honors BIOL 151 lab. This program is currently limited to 16 freshman and sophomore science students.

Through the SEA-PHAGES program, NSU students will remain actively engaged in science by completing hands-on research, which begins by digging in the soil to discover and isolate bacteriophages (viruses that infect bacteria). The research then progresses through a variety of microbiology techniques and eventually to complex genome annotation and bioinformatics analyses. Students then submit their annotated sequences to the National Center for Biotechnology Information GenBank database. “This type of ownership of their research keeps students engaged, motivating them toward further pursuits in science and helping them decide if a career in this field is the right step for them," Mitchell said.

To help get this program started at NSU, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute will provide curriculum and lab materials for Mitchell and Dr. John Long, assistant professor of biology, who will oversee the implementation of this program. This will also allow them to attend week-long training workshops to further facilitate the implementation of the program at NSU.

At the end of the academic year, Mitchell and a selection of students participating in NSU’s SEA-PHAGES program will attend the National SEA-PHAGES Symposium, held at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Janelia Research Campus in Ashburn, Va. At the symposium, NSU’s SEA-PHAGES students will present their research and connect with students and faculty members from across the country to share their research through poster sessions and talks. At the 2016–17 symposium, over 4,100 students from 100 different colleges and universities took part. The SEA-PHAGES program has generated more than 20 peer-reviewed publications to date. This is an amazing opportunity for Northern State University science students to get involved in real-world research during their early semesters and participate in the science field on a national scale.


NSU introduces Primrose Arts and Lecture Series

 Northern State University is offering a new community arts and lecture series featuring an array of interdisciplinary topics and music performances.

NSU’s Primrose Arts and Lecture Series will take place Tuesdays from 2:30 to 3:30 p.m. at Aberdeen’s Primrose Retirement Community, 1701 Third Ave. S.E. Sessions were planned throughout the academic year.

“This dynamic partnership will benefit a valued and culturally engaged segment of our community, as well as showcase the fascinating research of NSU’s talented faculty,” said NSU School of Fine Arts Dean Dr. Kenneth Boulton.

Presenters and topics have included:

In October, Dr. Alyssa Anderson, assistant professor of biology, and Dr. Jodie Ramsay, professor of biology, presented “Planting for Pollinators.”

In November, Jon D. Schaff, professor of political science, presented “Why is American Politics So Screwed Up?” He discussed how the decline of political parties has contributed to our unhealthy political climate. This lecture spurred a conversation on the same subject on the Mt. Podmore podcast hosted by Seth Tupper of the Rapid City Journal in January. 


Team Teaching in Action

Part of quality education is that students are exposed to different methods and perspectives in the classroom. Team-teaching allows students to get these good things in one course.  It is also helpful for faculty because we can learn from our colleagues.  Team-teaching give us different perspective as well and keeps us fresh in all our courses. 


Science Fair Held

 Every spring, hundreds of the best and brightest middle or high school aged students from the region flock to Northern to present their research at the Northern South Dakota Science and Mathematics Fair. Northern faculty, science majors and professionals from the Aberdeen area act as judges, interviewing each student that attends. The top projects receive an all-expense paid trip to compete at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF ), where they will compete with other students from around the world; this year the Intel ISEF will be held in Los Angeles, Calif., in May.

Northern has hosted one of the state’s four regional science fairs for the past 34 years. The primary goal of the fair is to engage students in a hands-on inquiry based research experience that will help them to explore their potential and perhaps find a passion in the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) fields. This year, 190 projects from 16 area schools will be showcased at the fair. Projects span the range of STEM, including titles such as “CD Solar Panel: Energy for the Future” to “Determination of Mental Awareness Based on Amount of Sleep per Night.” Some students come back to the fair year after year, expanding on their work as they go (e.g., “Viability of Bovine Semen Phase IV”). For some of these students, participation in the fair is a truly formative experience, introducing them to the field of scientific research and forming the foundation for a life-long passion in the sciences.