Jul 13, 2023

Faculty Scholarship and Research at Dordt University

Research and scholarship at Dordt University involves collaboration, innovation, and plenty of “aha” moments. Here’s a look at some of the Dordt faculty who are doing research and scholarship in their own unique ways and in an effort to live out Dordt’s mission to “work effectively toward Christ-centered renewal in all aspects of contemporary life.”

Dr. Melanie Wynja, Professor of Nursing

Dr. Melanie Wynja has a passion for simulation in nursing. “It’s such a great learning experience and truly helps students to be better prepared to go out and serve as nurses in God’s kingdom,” she says. “It helps students provide safer care as well as look more holistically at processes within the healthcare team and environment.”

In nursing, simulation often involves the use of a manikin, a full-body patient simulator that possesses human anatomy and physiology. Nursing students use manikins to safely learn clinical skills.

“Manikin-based training may be viewed as exciting and fun by some, and it can be, but doing so with best-practice pedagogy ensures a quality learning experience,” says Wynja.

Wynja has been involved in simulation scholarship through multiple collaborations, some of which are in the process of becoming formal research. She has made both state and national simulation presentations.

Her research focuses primarily on faculty development related to the pre-briefing (preparation) phase of a simulation-based experience. The goal is to promote student psychological safety, which would hopefully increase the amount of information that a student’s memory can hold. This is an area of growth that’s needed in the simulation field, she says.
Wynja is currently working within a nursing sector of an international simulation organization to develop tools that can be used in the pre-briefing phase of the simulation-based experience. She is working closely with simulationists from Fresno State University, New York University, and Durham College in Toronto.

“The project is in the literature review phase and could go in a variety of directions,” says Wynja.

As a faculty member, Wynja is grateful to be able to engage in scholarship that can have an impact on nursing education and healthcare more broadly as she tries to improve student outcomes at Dordt.

“The simulation modality we are blessed to have integrated into our nursing curriculum as part of clinical learning here at Dordt allows a safe environment for students to practice their clinical judgment and critical thinking skills,” adds Wynja. “This better prepares them for life after graduation.”

Lee Pitts, Instructor of Journalism and Communication

Lee Pitts’ first real job out of college was teaching middle school language arts and social studies. He left that career path to pursue journalism. He even worked as an embedded reporter in Iraq covering a 4,000-member Regimental Combat team. But he never forgot his love of teaching.

As a Washington, D.C.-based reporter for WORLD Magazine Pitts signed up to participate in the WORLD Journalism Institute (WJI), a training intensive that provides would-be Christian journalists with a chance to learn the art of backpack journalism from practicing professional journalists.

“Interacting with college students and teaching them skills like interviewing reignited my teaching heart,” he says.
Fast-forward 15 years, and now Pitts serves as director of WJI, which offers five different program options including WJI Collegiate, WJI Europe, and WJI High School. Several courses take place on Dordt’s campus in Sioux Center, Iowa, but others—such as WJI Mid-Career, a weeklong experience that Pitts just wrapped up in Asheville, North Carolina—happen elsewhere.

“It’s a great blessing to be WJI director because it combines my two professional passions: teaching and journalism,” says Pitts. “I came to Dordt in part because I was having so much fun teaching journalism at WJI for two weeks a year, that I wanted to find somewhere where I could teach journalism all the time. Dordt provided that for me.”

As director of WJI, Pitts plans programs that will reach the needs of Christian journalists or those who are interested in becoming Christian journalists. He helps to recruit “practicing professional journalists who are people of faith that are in the frontline reporting trenches” to help students learn practical information about how to survive and thrive as journalists as well as how their faith and vocation intersect.

“Most importantly, we want to make sure the programs are educational and fun—that there is a good mix of learning, bonding, growing, pushing, and challenging,” he says.

Pitts enjoys meeting and getting to know people from around the world who share a passion for storytelling and for the Lord.

“Being a person of faith working in the media is a challenge. But it’s not so much of a challenge that we as Christians should shun the media. Rather, we should be in the public square as storytellers who chronicle communities and through stories that reflect God's world and his work in it,” he says. “And it’s important to have peer connections with other Christians, where we can lift each other up in prayer and stay connected.”

WJI is having a real-world impact in that it’s helping to shape future Christian journalists. Since WJI launched about 25 years ago, there have been more than 800 participants—many of whom have gone on to work for places like the Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, New York Times, CBS News, WORLD Magazine, Christianity Today, and the Des Moines Register.

Pitts says his work with WJI helps him to be a better Dordt professor, too. “Journalism is one of those professions where you learn by doing,” he says. “Journalism is a dynamic profession that’s always changing, so I think it’s important to stay on top of the latest by interacting with veteran reporters. By serving as WJI director and a Dordt professor, I get the chance to engage in my own style of research and scholarship, even if it looks a little different from what other faculty might be doing. I love it.”

Dr. Paul Fessler, Professor of History, and Donald Roth, Professor of Criminal Justice and Business

Dr. Paul Fessler and Donald Roth ('07) serve on the U.S. Commission for Civil Rights’ Iowa State Advisory Committee. According to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights website, the committees are comprised of “citizen volunteers familiar with local and state civil rights issues” who are willing to “assist the Commission with its fact-finding, investigative, and information dissemination functions.”

Fessler and Roth were both asked to be on the committee to help balance the group ideologically. It’s unusual that two professors from the same university would be asked to participate on the committee, as most members are lawyers and civil rights advocates. Roth also has a law degree.

Every year, the committee chooses a topic to research. In 2022, the committee examined employment discrimination and administrative closures. Every state has a federal employment practices agency responsible for investigating alleged civil rights violations. Iowa has its own committee, the Iowa Civil Rights Commissions (ICRC), which investigates discrimination cases related to employment, housing, public accommodation, education, and credit. Nearly 75 percent of the violations are employment related. When a complaint is filed, the ICRC uses a screening process in which the respondent and the complainant answer a series of questions and submit supporting documents. The person submitting the complaint isn’t interviewed, and there are several points along the way where the complaint can be screened out—that is, closed. In fact, the ICRC administrative closure rate is about 60 percent.

“This procedure is unique to Iowa and has a much higher closure rate than any other states,” says Roth.

That high closure rate led Roth, Fessler, and the other Iowa Advisory Committee members to focus on employment discrimination and administrative closures: might there be justice and civil rights concerns, especially regarding due process procedures?

“An administrative closure doesn’t necessarily tell you if you have a good or bad claim; it just tells you they’re not going to deal with it. Some cases have later been pursued, and the people involved went on to win a lawsuit,” says Roth. “That raises questions about whether the process itself is good.”

Fessler and Roth both conducted interviews to help better understand what some of those directly impacted by the administrative closures went through. The committee met once a month via Zoom to discuss what they had found and to determine the best way forward.

“We also did interviews with states that are considered our peers by size, like Nebraska,” says Fessler. “We wanted to learn what their processes looked like and how much state funding they received.”

Overall, Roth felt that despite ideological differences between committee members, “this type of work is the kind where you can work across the aisle.”

The committee submitted their research in a 37-page report to the federal government for review in January. “It is shared with other states and is currently available online,” says Roth.

Roth and Fessler have two remaining years in their four-year term and will work with the committee again this year to come up with a research topic. Looking back at what they accomplished last year, they are proud to have researched employment discrimination and administration closures.

“It seemed like a topic where we could actually make a difference,” says Fessler. “I hope we can find another issue that’s appropriate for what we have the opportunity to do.”

Dr. Manuela Ayee-Leong, Associate Professor of Chemical Engineering

Dr. Manuela Ayee-Leong ('06) has several research projects going—all of them at different stages.

One project involves a collaboration with researchers at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine, where they are studying Charcot-Marie-Tooth (CMT) disease, one of the most common inherited neurological disorders, caused by mutations in genes that produce proteins found in peripheral nerves.

“It’s a progressive disease, and there is no cure,” explains Ayee-Leong. “It affects the extremities—hands and feet—and causes deformities, muscle weakness, and other symptoms. We don’t know how protein mutations cause it. My role in the project is to look at the molecular interactions between proteins that are found in the myelin sheaths of peripheral nerve fibers to see how mutations affect the way they interact.”

CMT patients experience a range of symptoms. More than 200 different mutations of the myelin protein have been identified, but no one knows how these mutations would cause such a large-scale neurological disorder.

Ayee-Leong is also collaborating with a researcher at the University of Illinois at Chicago's Department of Medicine. Their work focuses on hypercholesterolemia, or high levels of cholesterol in the blood, and its effects on atherosclerosis, the hardening of the arteries.

“Specifically, how does atherosclerosis begin? Currently, we’re dealing with high levels of bad cholesterol (also known as low-density lipoprotein or LDL) and the specific molecules that make up LDL particles. Some of these molecules can be oxidized and then interact with the membranes of cells lining the large artery (endothelial cells). That can lead down the line to the hardening of the arteries. So, how do these oxidized LDL molecules affect or change the properties of the cell membranes in the large artery that makes it ripe for future hardening the arteries?”

Ayee-Leong also recently participated in the Scholarship and Christianity in Oxford (SCIO)’s Supporting Structures: Innovative Collaborations to Enhance STEM Research at Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU) Member Institutions program. This incorporates training, support, and events for faculty members and others to deepen their understanding of and engagement with issues pertaining to science, religion, and society.

As part of the program, Ayee-Leong worked half-time over the course of two semesters on research related to CMT disease. She also participated in a monthly seminar series with faculty from other institutions.

“It was a nice opportunity to meet researchers and scholars from different institutions, as well as people who have written very interesting work on Christian scholarship,” she says. “We also have the opportunity to go to a 10-day workshop at Oxford University this summer, where there will be different speakers and activities.”

Most of Ayee-Leong’s research is done on a computer. “I create computer models of cell membranes, proteins, and other small molecules,” she explains. “We have access to a high-performance computing cluster here at Dordt and that allows me to run models. Then we do some post-processing: where did the molecules move? How do they interact? What is each part interacting with? From there, we can make predictions and support experimental efforts.”

“This type of work combines my interest in chemical engineering with biomedical applications and problems that biomedical scientists have been studying for years,” adds Ayee-Leong. “I’m able to apply my problem-solving and other chemical engineering skills to that area. Being able to do that is such a joy and a pleasure.”

Dr. Kari Sandouka, Professor of Computer Science

Dr. Kari Sandouka works with Institutional Research at Dordt, where she and Registrar Jim Bos track data to help faculty and administrators make informed decisions that will help further Dordt’s mission. Sandouka’s primary focus relates to program reviews: every five years, an academic department does a deep dive into their respective programs, and she provides them with the data they need to do so. She pulls data from admissions, examining how many high school students came for a campus visit, how many applied to Dordt, and how many ended up enrolling. She compares a program’s data to the overall Dordt data.

“We look at the number of majors and break that down by gender or class rank. We look at faculty members—who has been teaching classes, are they full-time or adjunct, and what is the student-to-faculty ratio,” she explains. “Another important aspect is student responses. At the end of the semester, students fill out an evaluation. I take that data and create an aggregate data view, where we can get a five-year summary of scores.”

All this information goes to a department conducting a five-year program review. The goal is to help each department make sure that their program is providing good outcomes and that students in the program are succeeding.

“By conducting institutional research, we want to help departments make good decisions—not ones based on gut instinct but through data-driven decision-making,” says Sandouka. “Maybe it helps to provide a justification for why a department should add another faculty member, or maybe it helps a department chair recognize patterns.”

To Sandouka, her work in Institutional Research is about numerical and visual storytelling. “I don’t provide the words, but I see the numbers and patterns that help to frame the stories that departments want to tell,” she says.

Her Ph.D. research involved visualizations and how to tell a story correctly. That experience shines through in the work she is doing with Bos. “There are theories of how color and symbols affect how you interpret the data,” she says. “With program reviews or board reports, I’ll spend weeks trying to find the right chart to make the data interesting.”

“In my field, we talk about how if you put context around raw data, you get information. The more information you learn, you become knowledgeable. And the more knowledgeable you are, you get wisdom,” she explains. “But even when you become wiser, there’s so much data coming in that it becomes a cycle.”

Take, for example, the increase in female students in the computer science program. When Sandouka started teaching at Dordt 12 years ago, she was the only female in the program. Now, the program has seen a 40 percent increase in female students.

“The numbers can tell me that female enrollment jumped, but it can’t tell me why,” explains Sandouka. “We can look at the context and see that barriers within the technology field are lowering, girls are more interested in computer science, and more.”

Sandouka’s work with Institutional Research doesn’t end with creating and sending reports. She continually returns to the data to consider what else can be learned.

“It’s a different way to conduct research, but it’s still about having a good question and trying to find ways to answer it,” she says.

Rev. Dr. Jeremy Perigo, Associate Professor of Worship Arts, and Dr. John MacInnis, Professor of Music

For the past two years, Dr. John MacInnis and Rev. Dr. Jeremy Perigo have spent countless hours co-editing Language Translation in Localizing Religious Musical Practice, a book that “develops the concept of musical localization in one specific area: language translation.”

Musical localization describes taking musical practices—some traditional, some innovative, some from other cultures—and using them in constructing Christian beliefs, practice, theology, and identity. For their book, MacInnis and Perigo collected articles that explore how musical localization is involved in the translation of language.

Perigo is thankful for the authors who participated in the volume. “These scholars together reflect a rich diversity, in terms of localities, languages, academic fields of study, and Christian traditions.”

MacInnis also appreciates the fact that the book features a diverse list of authors. "As followers of Jesus, our family truly spans this globe, and it is a blessing to learn more about our brothers and sisters, how they live and worship,” says MacInnis.

Church music has been shared globally for centuries. Perigo says that localization looks at how different communities integrate music and lyrics from other parts of the world into their own unique context. “Imported worship songs aren’t necessarily ‘bad’ or ‘good,’ so studying the impact of these songs help us see where there is brokenness and redemption.”

When it comes to research, MacInnis is inspired by the challenge presented to Dordt professors in the university’s Educational Task to “develop and share insight.”

“Developing a robust Christian perspective, effective teaching strategies, meaningful research and scholarship, and generous service are how each of us carries out the central educational task of our university,” he says. “Ideally, all four of these activities reinforce each other so that students are served well, Dordt’s ever-growing community is edified, and God’s kingdom is seen more fully. This project was a fun and meaningful undertaking; it is a labor that I hope contributes something good to God’s world.”

Dr. Channon Visscher, Associate Professor of Chemistry and Planetary Science

Dr. Channon Visscher ('00) is interested in the atmospheric chemistry of giant planets like Jupiter and Saturn as well as exoplanets and brown dwarfs.

Exoplanets are planets that orbit stars other than the Sun, and brown dwarfs are objects that are heavier than planets but fall short of being stars. Visscher models the physical and chemical processes in planetary and astrophysical environments to better understand the chemistry behind the observed properties of planetary atmospheres and to gain clues about the formation of planetary systems.

“Brown dwarfs are more massive than planets, but they’re not massive enough to sustain nuclear reactions in their core. They’re in-between objects that glow a little brighter than planets do—an interesting middle population,” he explains.

Along with teaching at Dordt, Visscher holds a joint appointment as a research scientist with the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colorado, which supports much of his astrophysical research.

Lately, he’s been looking into cloud formation in exoplanets. “When we look at the findings from different space-based telescopes, we can see how clouds shape observational properties, like color and brightness,” he says. “What I’m looking at is the chemistry of clouds: what clouds are expected to form, and at what temperatures and pressures?”

Interestingly, exoplanet clouds can form from elements like magnesium, silicon, and iron. “We normally associate these with rock and minerals, but because these are such high temperature atmospheres, they can actually form these clouds,” says Visscher. “There is now observational evidence that matches what had been largely theoretical chemical models of the clouds. That tells us we’re on the right track with understanding what’s going on in the chemistry.”

Visscher’s detailed chemical models of the expected atmospheric chemistry are based on available observational clues. These models are then used to develop so-called forward models, which simulate what the spectra (variations in light over different wavelengths) would look like based on that chemistry. The models can then be compared to spectral data retrieved from astronomical observations to test how good the chemical models are at explaining what we see.

“There’s a model data comparison that’s at the center of this work,” says Visscher. “And that’s why it’s so collaborative, because you have three main pieces that need to work together so that we can gain a better understanding of what these atmospheres are like.”

Most of Visscher’s research is supported by grants from NASA. That research was recently selected for funding from the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). The JWST program supports the type of theoretical work that Visscher is doing so that scientists can gain a better understanding of what they are seeing out in space.

Visscher’s research endeavors have expanded in the past few years. Last year, he served as a co-author on six peer-reviewed journal publications and wrote an article on the chemistry of planetary atmospheres for the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Planetary Science. He is currently co-editing a book with a Bethel University history and theology professor that engages in a science and religion dialogue from interdisciplinary perspectives. He also has four other research projects currently sitting on his desk, not to mention the email requests he frequently receives from fellow scientists looking to collaborate on possible new projects.

Visscher’s research influences his teaching, but his teaching also influences his research.

“Science is active. We’re on the edge of discovery and learning new things every day,” he says. “With my students, I try to convey that sense of wonder. There’s an inherent curiosity we share about the structure and unfolding of creation: why does the universe look this way? How does it work? How did it get this way? I think teaching has helped me see the bigger picture in my research; it’s made me more patient, and it’s reminded me to be more thoughtful about putting together all these pieces as we learn more about these worlds without end.”

Dr. Josh Hollinger, Assistant Professor of Economics

Dr. Joshua Hollinger is an applied microeconomist interested in labor, education, and public economics—specifically, how educators affect student outcomes in the short and long run as well as the effects of policies aimed at incentives for educators.

In his job market paper—a paper featuring original research that demonstrated Hollinger’s aptitude as an economist—Hollinger examined school accountability, test scores and long-run outcomes. There is evidence to show that if a teacher helps students increase their test scores, then teachers might have a positive impact on future student income, potentially providing a way for students to experience upward mobility. But what if students don’t acquire the broader skills that could improve their outcomes?

“Then the question becomes, what are the net effects if you try to prioritize test score improvement?” explains Hollinger.

Hollinger examined data from No Child Left Behind, the nationwide school accountability policy from 2002, which gave schools a strong incentive to focus on improving students’ test scores as a measure of success. He combined data on policy standards and student outcomes over time to try to determine how pressuring a school to increase elementary students' test scores affects those students both immediately and through the end of their high school years.

“What I found is that you see the improvements you’d expect when focusing on improving test scores, but you don’t see much improvement in things like an increase in college attendance, and there is no effect on high school graduation rates,” he says.

Hollinger also found that putting pressure to improve test scores beginning in elementary school led to persistently higher math and reading test scores, all the way through to higher SAT and ACT scores in high schools.

As he writes in his paper summary, “these results lend support to a mixed story for No Child Left Behind: while accountability pressure led to a long-run increase in skills captured by tests, these learning gains were not strong or broad enough to yield meaningful improvement in other long-run outcomes like educational attainment.”
With the Every Student Succeeds Act, which was signed into law in 2015, momentum shifted away from accountability through test scores.

“There’s an understanding now that pressuring students, teachers, and schools to focus on testable learning isn’t always beneficial. But on the other hand, how do we gather and then use data in a way that can help improve our school systems? It’s a tough balance of providing enough accountability and incentives, but also giving enough freedom and not narrowly focusing on measurement too much.”

Hollinger completed his Ph.D. in economics from the University of Rochester in 2022 and began teaching at Dordt this past fall. He enjoys teaching and getting to know students, but he’s also looking forward to making more connections with schools and policymakers about his research.

“One of the ways I want to grow as a new professor is to make connections and learn what’s going on on the ground,” he says. “I’d love for my research to have a tangible impact with schools and teachers. These are practical, important issues that affect schools and teachers, and what they implement will impact students.”

Sarah Moss ('10)

A picture of campus behind yellow prairie flowers