LAS Honors Fauci and Plante

November 19, 1999

Robyn L. Loda

Last spring, Lisa Fauci, professor of mathematics, and Michael Plante, associate professor of art, received the Liberal Arts and Sciences Faculty Research Award for their outstanding scholarly achievements in 1998-99.

A Tulane faculty member since 1986, Fauci is an applied mathematician who employs scientific computation and numerical methods to investigate problems critical to biology. The main thrust of her research has involved biological fluid dynamics, particularly the movement of microorganisms.

Art historian Michael Plante has been a faculty member at Tulane since 1993 and holds the Jessie J. Poesch Professorship in Art. He teaches all five centuries of American art, as well as the art of 20th-century Europe. His specialty: contemporary American art. The “applied” in “applied math” is a particularly important aspect of Fauci’s research because she likes the practical uses derived from her equations.

“Although I love number crunching, it feels more vital to me to work on real problems. And it makes it even more exciting when I’m solving equations if I know that somebody really needs the answer.”

She realizes that her work often sounds more like biology than math. “The physics of cells moving through a fluid is governed by equations just like equations of air flowing over an airplane wing,” explains Fauci.

She has utilized such equations to study spirochetes, harmful bacteria responsible for diseases such as Lyme Disease, and biofilms, colonies of bacteria that adhere to surfaces such as blood vessels and cause a range of problems, including resistance to antibiotics.

Fauci is now engaged in what she regards as her most important research: the interaction of biological structures like cells and the fluids in which they swim and how cells and fluids actually affect each other.
“The fact that each part interacts with the other makes it incredibly complicated,” says Fauci. “It presents a great challenge for bioengineers and biomathematicians.”

Fauci co-taught a class in biological fluid dynamics with Don Gaver, professor of biomedical engineering, for which they received a grant from the National Science Foundation.

“It’s really important in today’s technical arena to collaborate; I couldn’t do what I’m doing if it wasn’t for the collaboration. When you’re doing interdisciplinary work, you have to work with other people, each with a different expertise than you, and that makes it even more interesting because you each bring a different element of understanding to the solution of the puzzle.”

A major theme in Michael Plante’s historical research is understanding each piece of the puzzle in post-war American art. “I’m trying to find what’s been overlooked in art history, trying to broaden the whole picture,” he explains.

This means determining what is absent from the canon-and often what was strategically omitted. An example of this is evident in Plante’s research into the work of pop artist Robert Indiana, which last year resulted in a catalog and traveling exhibit entitled “Dictated by Life.”

Plante revealed that Indiana’s work is permeated with references to gay and lesbian writers. These references were purposely kept as a subtext, or as Plante says, the art was intentionally “coded,” a facet never before studied.

“I’ve also looked at how Indiana was very close to other important gay artists in New York at the time, such as Ellsworth Kelly, Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol. But when art historians talk about the late 1950s, no one addresses the fact that they were gay. They will talk about ‘Johns and Rauschenberg’ and ‘Rauschenberg and Johns’ in the same sentence fragment, but no one has ever stated that they were lovers-that they were partners who lived together and worked together.”

The past year has been significant for Plante. He earned tenure and was appointed interim director at the Newcomb Art Gallery for a year. In addition to “Dictated by Life,” Plante curated “Deborah Kass: The Warhol Project” at the Newcomb Art Gallery and wrote and edited its catalog.

Also, he was solicited by the American ambassador to France to select examples of 20th-century American art to hang in the ambassador’s residence at the American Embassy. Plante wrote a catalog titled “American Artists in the American Ambassador’s Residence in Paris” as part of this project.

The Judgment of Paris: American Art in France, 1946-1958, Plante’s book that explores American expatriate artists in postwar France and how American art was perceived there, is slated for publication this winter. He is currently organizing an exhibition of the works of local artist and Newcomb College alumna Ida Kohlmeyer for the Newcomb Art Gallery.

The executive committee of the Faculty of Liberal Arts and Sciences selects winners of the annual Liberal Arts and Sciences Faculty Research Award. All regular members of the liberal arts and sciences faculty are eligible for the honor, which includes a $500 cash honorarium.

Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000