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When Drexel Libraries & Faculty Collaborate: An Interview with Lloyd Ackert, PhD

September 14, 2020

This month, the Drexel Libraries’ Brad Eden, Director, Scholarly Connections, sat down (virtually) with Drexel Teaching Professor Lloyd Ackert to learn more about his research and teaching interests and how the Drexel Libraries supports his work. 

Q: Tell me about your background and experience as Teaching Professor of History at Drexel. 

During my undergraduate years at the University of Minnesota, I discovered the field of history of science, which gave me a way to pursue my interest in science, but through the humanities. I completed an interdisciplinary major that brought together history of science, evolutionary biology and population genetics, and Russian area studies and language. This coalesced in two moments: an academic year studying at the St. Petersburg University and Russian Academy of Sciences and my Senior Thesis on Theodosius Dobzhanksy’s Interim Period, 1931-32. These led me into a variety of research libraries and archives—an experience that started a life-long fascination with historical detective work.

For example, while at Yale University as a post-doc in the Department of History (and important for my connections to the Drexel Libraries) I broadened my interests to the history of the concept of the Cycle of Life. I worked closely with the special collections and installed exhibits in several Yale Libraries, ranging from the Sterling Memorial, to Divinity, and Forestry (check out the ancient website I created for it).

For the past 14 years at Drexel, my priority became teaching, but I have continued my research interests as much as possible. This has included conference papers on the history of science, and new courses that reflect these interests such as New Works in History of Ecology and Environmentalism, History of Modern Biology, Reading Darwin’s Origin of Species, and Search for Extraterrestrial Life.

Q: Describe your research interests, as well as any current research projects with which you’re involved.

The challenge of balancing my teaching responsibilities, administrative work, and research has made pursuing a Russian topic (and thus visits to my old archival haunts in St. Petersburg and Moscow) very difficult. Luckily, a new topic arose serendipitously in 2013 when Dr. Ruth Patrick—a freshwater ecologist whose pioneering research on water pollution set the stage for the modern environmental movement—passed away after 105 years of life, nearly 80 years of which she spent at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University. Her voluminous papers (600 linear feet of documents and a large collection of physical objects) are now the focus of my new biography project. In addition, the newly donated papers of the Schramm Inc. Engineering Company now held by the Drexel University Archives inspired me to begin a new project on Engineering in Philadelphia.

Q: How has partnering with the Drexel Libraries helped you with your research and/or coursework?

From the very beginning of my career at Drexel, I wanted to include research experiences in all my courses. These take the form of individual or group projects that include the investigation of primary source materials, whether published or archived. I have been fortunate to work with Larry Milliken, Manager for Scholarly Communications, and Jay Bhatt, Engineering Librarian, on a number of courses. For one, HIST 285 Technology in Historical Perspective, I designed a large-scale collaborative assignment for which the 100 to 200 students ‘publish’ a 285 Book/Magazine. Larry and Jay visited the classes and worked with the students to locate and use the resources for these projects, and we published a joint essay: Keeping the Conversation Alive: Maintaining Students' Research Skills Throughout their College Careers.

Central to my scholarly research is working with Matthew Lyons, Drexel University Archivist, and Jennifer Vess, The Brooke Dolan Archivist, Library and Archives ANS. They have been very active in helping me to mentor students in three categories of research: STAR program, Independent Projects, and Research Co-ops.

Over the spring and summer 2020 terms, I mentored eight students who worked with either the Ruth Patrick or Schramm collections. Faced with a lack of access to the physical archives due to COVID-19, Matthew (with Sabrina Bocanegra of the Legacy Center) and Jennifer devoted much time to addressing student questions and locating digitized sources for their individual projects. The students will be presenting their findings at the CoAS Research Day 2020 in early October.

This year, Dr. Scott Knowles partnered with Alumni Relations and Drexel Libraries, especially Dean Danuta A. Nitecki and Matthew Lyons, to develop a Student driven Dragons Remembers Podcast. I took an interest in this and am now the primary mentor for the students, who are interviewing Drexel Alumni about their experiences during the Covid-19 Pandemic. When completed, these podcasts will be housed in the University Archives.

Q: Do you have any advice for Drexel teaching faculty and researchers interested in partnering with the Libraries?

Simply put, I regard it essential that Drexel faculty engage with the Libraries for successful research and teaching, especially as we address the changes driven by the pandemic and budget challenges. The mutual understanding being pursued by Dean Nitecki and many faculty and administrators is central to this process.