From the field: Step into the Shoes of Academy Researchers

Faculty research is bringing new insight and practical solutions to everything from the impact of the coronavirus to bad actors on social media. Here’s how they do it—and why it matters. 

By Kim Catley and Elisa Drake 

Every day at the Naval Academy, faculty members are pondering big questions: What causes shoreline erosion? Can beautiful architecture also have a humanitarian function? How did U.S. law set the stage for harmful behavior on the internet?

Searching for answers doesn’t just sate their personal curiosities; faculty research is intrinsic to the Naval Academy experience. It leads to developments in many different fields, with funding from the Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation, the Office of Naval Research—and many more—to pursue novel ideas. It also ensures midshipmen understand the practical applications of their classroom knowledge.

“Absent research, faculty are studying and teaching what people have known to be true in the past,” said Commandant Captain T.R. Buchanan ’92, USN. “Research helps expand the envelope of what we know. Without it, we’re not getting the data that we require to prove a thesis, or that what we’re doing is a good allocation of resources that we have.”

Several Naval Academy professors shared their key moments and critical discoveries—and what their research means for the rest of us. 

Shelter from the Storm

For three days in the summer of 2017, Samar Malek and a group of midshipmen wandered the Massachusetts wilderness alongside non-governmental organization workers and military service people. As the others searched for land mines, requested medical assistance and responded to midnight raids, Malek and her team quickly assembled a stack of tightly packed beams into a gridded structure.

While Malek’s project was a trial run—part of a two-week intensive course hosted by the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative— she hopes it proves the potential for gridshell structures in humanitarian and disaster relief (HADR) environments. Gridshell structures are typically made of timber or steel beams that are formed into a lattice and bent into a curved surface. They’re often architectural centerpieces: the Great Court at the British Museum in London, the Mannheim Multihalle in Germany and Washington, DC’s National Portrait Gallery.

But, Malek argues, some of the features that make gridshells beautiful also make them worth considering for HADR use. The lightweight linear members are easy to store and transport. A small team can assemble the structure without heavy machinery. The gridshell is covered by a membrane that protects against rain and sun, but still allows for natural ventilation. And their beauty can be uplifting to people in crisis.

Malek, an associate professor in the mechanical engineering department, is exploring how to maximize those features. For example, can a grid of five have the same structural capacity as a grid of 10? How might different bracing techniques or lighter weight materials affect stability?

“I want to see how much less material I can get away with,” she said, “but still have the safety and stability that you need.”

Much of Malek’s work uses computer models to evaluate the performance of different variables. But prototypes and simulations like the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative offer insights that computer models can’t provide—whether it’s a firsthand understanding of challenges in the construction process, or feedback from disaster response experts who know the landscape.

“I’m trying to make a prototype and actually employ it, as opposed to remaining in the theoretical,” Malek said. “I don’t want to propose solutions that don’t make sense or aren’t even needed.” 

The Center of an Internet Debate

In October 2017, Jeff Kosseff stood before the U.S. House of Representatives’ Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security and Investigations to deliver a message about Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act. The law provides web hosts, websites and social media companies with immunity from civil cases involving content published by users. If someone posts defamatory content about you on Twitter, Kosseff explains, you can sue the creator, but you can’t sue Twitter.

Kosseff’s congressional testimony was part of a debate about whether to amend the law to address online sex trafficking, “No other section of the United States Code has had a greater impact on the development of the internet,” he told the subcommittee. “Because of Section 230, the internet in the United States is the epitome of everything that we love and hate about unconstrained free speech.”

In his book, The Twenty-Six Words That Created the Internet, Kosseff, an assistant professor in the Center for Cyber Security Studies, argued Section 230 was developed before we could fathom companies like Facebook and Twitter. Yet, the focus on deregulation and free speech resulted in a statute that is responsible for the internet as we know it.

When Kosseff started writing the book in early 2016, he thought he was simply documenting the history of a law he thought was important. By the time it was published in 2019, the landscape had shifted.

“All of a sudden,” he said, “I realized it was at the center of this very large national policy debate.”

In the last year, there have been calls to repeal or significantly amend the law. In February 2020, Kosseff spoke on a panel with former Attorney General William Barr during a workshop with the Justice Department. Speakers presented a range of viewpoints on whether to retain, repeal or amend the law.

“I think we can’t get rid of it all together, because we really have this entire industry that people rely on to communicate that’s built on the foundation of this law,” Kosseff said. “But there are ways to modestly amend the statute to go after the really bad actors, because there are some sites that traffic in harmful content. You can go after them without shutting down social media.”

While Congress debates whether or how to change the law, Kosseff’s attention is shifting to a related issue: anonymity. Section 230 may allow citizens to sue creators of harmful content, but strong First Amendment rights can make it challenging to identify the poster.

“This goes back way before the internet,” Kosseff said. “I’m telling the story about how we got this right to anonymity and how courts have applied it both offline and on the internet. And what’s the future—can we still remain anonymous when we have tracking technologies and companies that sell all of our data?” 

Hurricane Chasers

As Hurricane Dorian approached North Carolina’s Outer Banks in early September 2019, and many residents prepared to evacuate, a small group of midshipmen were instead en route to the 200-mile long stretch of barrier islands.

The fast-moving Category 1 storm brought winds nearing 100 miles per hour, and a 7-foot storm surge that flooded homes and parts of Highway 12 with water and sand. It was also the perfect opportunity for the team to collect data on currents and water levels, and measure how much erosion happened in the wake of a major storm.

“We’re learning a lot about that storm’s impact on vegetation,” said Tori Johnson, assistant professor in the Department of Naval Architecture and Ocean Engineering. “We’re starting to see the different contributions from day-to-day and more extreme conditions.”

The hurricane study was part of a joint project between Johnson, assistant professors Anna Wargula and Lily Velásquez Montoya, and North Carolina State University, planning, design and construction firm Dewberry and the North Carolina Department of Transportation. Their work also has ties to DUNEX, a three-year, multi-agency, academic and non-governmental organization experiment to study the impact of coastal storms.

The professors are trying to understand the drivers of erosion and develop simulations that show how sand and currents move through the islands’ sound-side marsh. They hope to develop a model that can predict shoreline failures and test nature-based solutions for preventing further erosion.

While the work is focused on a relatively small area around Oregon Inlet, Wargula said their work could have implications for other coastal and marsh areas.

“Our collaborators with DUNEX have never done these soil strength tests in North Carolina marshes before; they’ve mainly been testing Louisiana,” she said. “It’s allowing us to understand the complexity of these nature-based shorelines and how they vary in different latitudes. Then, we might be able to adapt our nature-based engineering practices based on where we are in the U.S.” 

Modeling the Global Economy

In the first week of January 2020, a small cluster of people in Wuhan, China, were diagnosed with a coronavirus. Just two months later, the virus had spread to more than 100,000 people around the world—crippling supply chains, halting travel and causing the U.S. stock market to tumble.

The novelty of the virus, however, made its full influence on the global economy difficult to predict. That’s why analysts turned to economists like associate professor Jacek Rothert.

Rothert’s research focuses on macroeconomics in developing countries. He studies the fluctuations of emerging economies by looking at trade flows, economic growth and global imbalances. He then creates models to predict how policy changes—such as borrowing constraints imposed on Chinese households—could affect businesses and individuals.

“I’m interested in problems that look at the economy as a whole system, rather than individual or specific markets,” he said.

More recently, Rothert has zeroed in on how China’s entry into the global economy has affected the economic growth of other developing countries. He also advised a Trident Scholar, Ensign Davis P. Katakura ’19, USN, in his analysis of the impact of China’s exports and imports on other countries’ trade.

“Our initial goal was to see the effect of China entering the global market 15 years ago,” he said. “Our model can actually now be used [to test what happens if] Chinese exports get reduced by 20 or 30 percent because of the coronavirus. We can use our model to see what that would do to the overall trade flows between countries.” 

Medieval Times

Since the 12th century, pilgrims have journeyed by foot from Rochester to Canterbury in England to honor the slain, then sainted, Archbishop Thomas Becket. Made famous by Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the ancient 50-mile route is known as Pilgrim’s Way. For three spring breaks, it served as the backdrop for an educational excursion led by assistant English professor Jill Fitzgerald. An award-winning author and expert in medieval history and literature, Fitzgerald takes a small group of students with her to explore the English countryside; visit medieval churches and castles; discuss ancient English culture; and visit the historied Canterbury Cathedral, whose origins date back 1,500 years. For the students, it’s a change of pace and scenery. For Fitzgerald, it’s a chance to step into the pages of Chaucer’s revered story, one she teaches regularly at the Naval Academy.

As a child, Fitzgerald wanted to be an astronaut, but a junior year study abroad trip to Florence, Italy, confirmed a growing fascination with the Middle Ages. She realized the medieval period was not vastly different from our own and, she said, “I guess I never looked back.” She found her groove in graduate school when she fell in love with medieval languages.

These languages now drive Fitzgerald’s research. A focus on English literature from roughly 500 to 1100 CE means translating them from Old English, Middle English, Latin, Old Norse and Old Irish.

“Sometimes,” she said, “just the discovery of a word can be exciting.”

Several years ago, while reviewing a medieval land charter in the British Library, she stumbled upon the word nanesmannesland, Old English for the phrase “no man’s land.”

“It turned out that this was the very oldest known use of this phrase—right before my very eyes,” she said.

Translations like these underlie Fitzgerald’s understanding of how medieval culture has influenced the modern world.

“It was a time of nation-building, territorial disputes, border conflicts and cultures often shaped by military and religious beliefs,”—not unlike today. It was also highly focused on military life, something her students can even more closely relate to.

“No other period in human history reflected upon and wrote of the intersection of daily life and military courtesies, duties and obligations more than the Middle Ages.”

Fitzgerald urges people away from the assumption that the Middle Ages is a time “we’ve grown away from” and instead to see it as a time in history that we have “emerged out of,” that it is our job “to consider how it was, so that we can envision what it could be.” Her travels to Canterbury keep both top of mind.