Holiday gift ideas from Behrend faculty and staff members

By Steve Orbanek
Marketing Communications Specialist, Penn State Behrend

It’s crunch time. The holidays are nearly here and there’s only so much time left to grab the perfect gift.

Still need some help? No worries, Penn State Behrend’s faculty and staff members are here for you.

Here are some suggestions for gifts that are both fun and educational:

Idea provided by Tom Noyes, professor of English and Creative Writing

2018 Pushcart Prize XLII. The annual Pushcart Prize anthology gathers the best fiction, nonfiction and poetry published in America’s literary magazines and small presses over the course of the previous year, making it an ideal gift for any book lover on your list. The newest edition, 2018 Pushcart Prize XLII, contains a special treat. The poem “Praying Mantis in My Husband’s Salad” by Laura Kasischke was chosen from the pages of Lake Effect, Penn State Behrend’s award-winning literary journal. $13

Idea provided by Mary-Ellen Madigan, director of enrollment management

BRIXO. Enjoy LEGOs? Then you’ll love BRIXO, which is similar but with even more customization. Some of the things that young people can create include vehicles, wacky lamps, remote-controlled lighthouses and motorized quadcopters. If someone on your list has a big imagination, this gift is for them. Prices vary.

Ideas provided by Tracy Halmi, assistant teaching professor of chemistry

Bath Bombs. It’s a chance to bring chemistry to the tub. Bath bombs are hard-packed mixtures of dry ingredients and give off bubbles when wet. They can be purchased from the web, or young chemists can use this Bath Bombs guide to make their own. $19

Amigurumi Chemistry Set Pattern. This crochet chemistry set pattern is perfect for the person on your list who is crafty but loves science, too. $14

Organic Compounds Cutting Board. Know someone who likes to cook with spices? This cutting board displays all the molecules that add the fragrance to spices. $38.50

Reactions: An Illustrated Exploration of Elements, Molecules, and Change in the Universe. The third and final installment in the trilogy of visual books developed by Theodore Gray, this book details chemical reactions with a set of stunning pictures and stories. $30

Ideas provided by Richard Zhao, assistant professor of computer science and software engineering

Amazon Echo Dot or Google Home Mini. Who wouldn’t want a personal assistant that can tell the weather, order pizza, play music, control home appliances and more? These home automation gadgets from Amazon or Google are also on sale this holiday season. $30

Themed Night Lights. While this makes a nice holiday gift, the lights can actually be used as a home decoration all year round. Prices vary.

Catan. Able to be played by up to four players, this popular board game can be enjoyed by both family members and friends. It’s also easy to learn and fun to play. $49

Behrend Lecturer Travels to Nairobi to Present Research Work

By Heather Cass
Publications Manager, Penn State Behrend

Peter Olszewski

Peter Olszewski, lecturer in mathematics



The adage that two heads are better than one is certainly true at universities where faculty members often collaborate with colleagues on research projects. Sometimes, the partners sit a few offices away from each other. Other times, they are a several states away. Occasionally, they are on the other side of the globe.

Such is the case for Peter Olszewski, a lecturer in mathematics, whose research partner, Dickson Owiti, is 7,600 miles away in Kenya.

Olszewski and Owiti met at the Joint Math Meetings conference in San Diego in 2013 and realized they had similar research interests.

“We are both interested in how math education should be set up at the high school level to adequately prepare students for the transition to college,” Olszewski said.

Olszewski said he appreciated and recognized the assertive tone that Owiti took in his work.

“We are very similar in that way and I thought we’d work well together,” Olszewski said.

Owiti agreed and the two began a joint research project surveying their first-year students and teaching them effective study skills.

While you might think two countries would have different problems, Olszewski said math students in Kenya struggle in the same ways students in the United States do, namely transition problems from high school to college, and a lack of strong algebra and trigonometry skills, and too many modern distractions.

In June, Olszweski traveled to Nairobi, Kenya, to join Owiti and present their findings at the Strathmore International Mathematics Conference. They shared three papers and led a workshop on researchable problems in mathematics education for undergraduate mathematics education students.


Owiti and Olszewski

“Both Owiti and I gave the students some ideas of current topics they could use in their senior research projects,” Olszewski said. “Our suggestions were well received; they loved our ideas.”

Among their top findings: High school teachers are not using homework effectively and are giving students lots of the same work, rather than challenging them to problem-solve through critical thinking; students are not being taught how to study (something they will need to do in college); and they are often looking at improper sources for more information, i.e. YouTube, Wikipedia, etc.

“We are seeing two major trends,” Olszewski said. “Students are not using equal signs correctly and they are not making connections between concepts; they are cramming for assessments and not looking at the big picture.”

While in Kenya, Olszewski also got an education of a different sort.

“My mother traveled with me as she had always wanted to visit Africa, and we went on a safari in the Nairobi National Park,” he said. “It was really wonderful, but it turned a little gruesome when we witnessed a lion killing a water buffalo calf.”

They also toured an elephant orphanage and a giraffe sanctuary, where things were a little more upbeat.

Olszewski and Owiti are polishing up their research paper now and are looking forward to their next project, which they have already been invited to speak about at the next conference in Nairobi in 2019.

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Secret Lives of Staff – Jerry Magraw, Hot Rod Restoration

By Heather Cass

Publications manager, Penn State Behrend

There’s much more to Penn State Behrend’s faculty and staff members than what you see on campus. In this occasional series, we’ll take a look at some of the interesting, unconventional, and inspiring things that members of our Behrend community do in their free time.


Back in the era of Atari, stonewashed jeans, and Members Only jackets, Jerry Magraw ’87, a Physical Science major, commuted to his classes at Penn State Behrend in a 1964 Chevy Impala he had bought when he was 18.

Today, Magraw is a few years older, but he still occasionally rolls up in that Impala to the School of Science building where he has been a senior laboratory technician for twenty-plus years.

“I hung around a lot of old car guys when I was a kid, and every one of them said they wished they’d kept their first car,” he said, “So I decided to keep mine. It’s moved around with me from garage to garage to garage.”

A born mechanic

The Impala runs like a champ because Magraw is a born mechanic. He was the kid tearing apart toasters, fixing his buddy’s bikes, and taking a blowtorch to his mom’s car.

“When I was 15, my mom bought her first new car, a Dodge Aries, and I talked her into letting me put a sunroof in it,” he said. “It was pretty awesome. Can you imagine trusting your kid do that?”

Magraw can. He and his 15-year-old son, Mitchell, are currently rebuilding Magraw’s late father’s ’79 Chevy pickup truck, resurrecting the boxy two-tone with a small-block Chevy engine that he pulled out of a 1988 Camaro a few decades ago.

“It was the last vehicle my father ever owned, and it will be Mitchell’s when we’re done,” he said.


Mitchell, 15, in his grandfather’s ’79 Chevy pickup.


The same truck today!

Magraw enjoys working on engines, transmissions, suspensions, and electrical systems. He prefers GM products, but he has worked on Fords and Chryslers, too. He likes old cars.

“Everything today is function over form,” he said. “In the ‘50s and ‘60s a lot of cars were built for style. They weren’t always practical, but they were cool. And loud. They were made to draw attention.”

Magraw said the only part of auto restoration he doesn’t like is body work.

“I’d much rather weld a new frame or rebuild an entire engine than do body work,” he said. “I just prefer the mechanical side of things.”

Applied science

Magraw’s mechanical aptitude comes in handy in his role as a senior laboratory technician in the School of Science. He has responsibility for the physics and chemistry departments, ordering lab supplies, stocking the labs, preparing solutions, serving as a laboratory safety adviser, assisting in designing experiments, and maintaining scientific instruments. He also sets up—and occasionally builds—necessary apparatus.

As you might imagine, Magraw loves nothing more than when a faculty member or student asks him to put his mechanical mind, creativity, and ingenuity to work designing a piece of equipment to assist them in their research work.

“Many times, professors or students will thank me up and down, and I’ll just say, ‘This is my job. I get paid to help you,’’’ Magraw said. “It is pretty cool, though. I’m treated as a colleague, and I get to have wonderful conversations about interesting topics.”

That willingness to help and share his knowledge with others extends to his garage where he often helps friends—and sometimes complete strangers—solve their most puzzling mechanical problems.

“There aren’t that many people who do this kind of work anymore,” he said, “so people come to me when they need help making their old car run.” (See some of the cars he’s worked on in the photo slideshow at the end of this post.)


Roses, shmoses… How about a car?

Magraw’s wife, Candace, has a 1977 Camaro that he restored (above). Their daughters, Marie, 20, a Software Engineering student at Behrend, and Julie, 18, both have cars carefully chosen and inspected by their father.

“I express my love for people in cars,” Magraw said.

Fortunately, he has a wife who understands and supports his hobby.

“It helps that she can see how vehicles appreciate over time,” he said. “My Impala that I bought for $3,500 in the 1980s is now valued at $35,000.”

It’s worth noting that Magraw arrived to pick up his wife for their first date in that Impala.

“In fact, if you look in the glovebox, there’s still a map she drew me to find her house for our first date,” he said.

And with that, Magraw reveals that for all his manly mechanical aptitude and macho hotrods, he is at heart a sentimental guy.

To that end, he does not part with the cars he has rebuilt. There are currently five in his 2,400-square-foot, heated-and air-conditioned garage. One more car will fill the spots available. Magraw is saving that space for his dream car—a 1957 Corvette.

“Completely junked and stripped, a ’57 Corvette is still $25,000, but once I restore it, it will be worth as much at $125,000,” he said.

What happens when he fills the garage?

“I’ll have to build another garage,” he said, completely seriously.

You won’t find him in the garage much this time of year, though.

“We work on the cars in the winter,” he said. “Summer is driving time!”

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Class of 2017: Meet Jake Marfin (Environmental Science)

By Heather Cass
Publications Manager, Office of Strategic Communications,  Penn State Behrend

Penn State Behrend’s class of 2017 is ready to make its mark on the world!  We’re proud of our students and the things they’ve accomplished and learned while here at Behrend. Over the next couple months, we’ll be introducing you to a few of our remarkable seniors who have overcome challenges, pioneered new technology, participated in important research projects, and left an impression at Penn State Behrend.

Today, we’d like you to meet Jake Marfin:

Jacob Marfin

Major: Environmental Science

Minor: Biology

Hometown: Penn Hills, Pa.

On choosing Penn State Behrend: I love the smaller size of the campus and the natural beauty of it; it reminds me of camp. Behrend feels like home to me.

On choosing to major in Environmental Science: I’m constantly in awe of the world around us. The earth is so beautiful and the environment is so full of diversity. I cannot think of one day that I didn’t appreciate how amazing our planet is.

Proudest accomplishment at Behrend: I’m most proud of being able to conduct my own research experiment under the guidance of Dr. Pam Silver, distinguished professor of biology. Doing my own research has strengthened my love for environmental science and learning.

Salty project: My research project was “The Effects of Biochar and Salt on Festuca arundinacea (Tall Fescue).” In laymen’s terms, I was conducting research to find out if biochar, which is a specific kind of charcoal, lessens the negative effects that road salt has on grass. I studied it during three different life stages of the grass.

On narrowing down a big field: My main interest is with plants, though ecology as a subject has been my favorite thing to study. Ecology and aquatic ecology have been the most engaging classes, and they have shaped my perspective about the environment today.

On politics and science: When it comes to politics, things are constantly changing. The good thing is that at least people are talking about certain issues right now. Dr. Silver taught us this: As scientists, we have to think about issues using valid, factual information. We have to think clearly, without bias. Opinions can be misleading and sources can be unreliable, so it is important to only form an opinion when you are as scientifically informed as you can be.

Campus involvement: I was one of two lead stewards for Penn State Behrend’s Weed Warriors program. We worked to remove invasive species from Wintergreen Gorge and other areas on campus. I’ve also been in the volleyball club since my first year.

Outside the lab: In my free time, I like to play volleyball, compose and produce music, and play video games. I’ve been skiing since I was a toddler.

Where you’ll find him on a nice day: My favorite place to enjoy nature on campus is definitely Wintergreen Gorge. It is immersive.

Who inspires him: I’m inspired by Lady Gaga. She’s intelligent, talented and full of love. She motivates me to be compassionate and embrace everyone’s differences. The world needs that kind of unconditional, accepting love today.

Advice for first-year students: If you feel confused or lost, you’re not alone. Nobody knows what they are doing in their first year. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and reach out for help.

After his graduation in May, Jake hopes to find a job in wildlife conservation, restoration, or research.

Class of 2017: Meet Emily Brown (Biology)

By Heather Cass
Publications Manager, Office of Strategic Communications,  Penn State Behrend

Penn State Behrend’s class of 2017 is ready to make its mark on the world!  We’re proud of our students and the things they’ve accomplished and learned while here at Behrend. Over the next couple months, we’ll be introducing you to a few of our remarkable seniors who have overcome challenges, pioneered new technology, participated in important research projects, and left an impression at Penn State Behrend.

Today, we’d like you to meet Emily M. Brown:

Emily Brown - first choice

Major: Biology

Hometown: Bellefonte, Pa.

On choosing to attend Penn State Behrend: The campus is extraordinarily beautiful and there is a friendly, down-to-earth atmosphere at Behrend that you don’t get at most larger colleges.

On choosing to major in Biology: I wanted a major that would challenge me. I decided on Biology after taking BIO 110 Biology: Basic Concepts and Biodiversity. That class opened my eyes to the variety of avenues to be taken in the field of biology. Plus, I loved learning about how organisms function and interact with one other and their environment.

Proudest accomplishment at Behrend: My proudest accomplishment is making Relay for Life an official club on campus and working to get other clubs and organizations involved with the event. It’s really rewarding to see it all come together each spring.

Campus involvement: I helped make Relay for Life an official club in 2015 and have served as the president and event chair for it since. I’m also a member of TriBeta, the Biology Honor Society, and Greener Behrend.

Scientists are creative by nature: I love to draw, paint, and embroider. In high school, I was really involved with the drama club and I plan to get involved in community theatre wherever I settle: acting, singing, and set design.

What you’d be surprised to know about her: I started out as a film major. After two semesters, I dropped out of school to work and figure out what I wanted to do with my life. It only took eight months working in retail to know I wanted to go back to school and earn a degree.

What she’s passionate about: I’m passionate about nature and appreciating the beauty and serenity that can be felt just by breathing in fresh air and feeling the sun on your face. I want to work to protect that. I’m also passionate about learning, creativity, and equality. We all have our differences and that’s what makes this world so interesting.

Advice for first-year students: Make to-do lists to keep track of assignments, and remember to look at the big picture. Don’t stress too much, get a proper night’s sleep, and never underestimate the power of a good cup of hot tea.

After her graduation in December, Emily hopes to work as a researcher in wildlife rehabilitation and conservation.

Building the STEM Workforce of the Future

By Heather Cass

Publications manager, Office of Strategic Communications, Penn State Behrend

As the number of jobs in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) fields continues to grow, industry leaders and educators are recognizing the need to start “recruiting” early. Very early, as in, elementary-school early.

In the early years, however, “recruiting” looks nothing like people in ties and suits sitting at desks. It looks more like an engineer in a sweatshirt and jeans overseeing a noisy and boisterous game of life-size Jenga, or a high-school robotics team member encouraging kids to pilot a LEGO robot through a maze, or a chemistry major helping kids concoct a bubble they can hold in their hands.

“It starts with getting young children interested in and excited about STEM concepts,” said Melanie Ford, director of Penn State Behrend’s Youth Education Outreach efforts and a lecturer in computer science and software engineering.

That’s why, for the last three years, GE Transportation and Penn State Behrend have teamed up to host a STEM Fair that is open to the public and geared toward students of all ages. This year’s fair is Monday, February 20, from 6:00-8:00 p.m. at Junker Center.

In addition to at least a half dozen GE divisions and nearly twenty Penn State Behrend clubs and organizations, a variety of other Erie STEM companies and organizations, including Erie Insurance, the Erie Maritime Museum, Acutec, and Cummins, will also join in the fun.

“Every table will have some sort of hands-on component or activity,” Ford said. “The funny thing is when younger kids are doing these activities, they don’t even realize that they are experimenting and exploring in chemistry, physics, math, and engineering. They’re just learning that STEM can be fun and challenging.”

They are not the only ones having fun. The business and industry professionals, faculty members, and Behrend students who volunteer at the event are having a blast, too.

“Our students really step-up for our outreach events, and they clearly enjoy sharing their knowledge with the younger generation,” Ford said. “They think what they do is cool and they pass that passion on. The added bonus is the college students end up with a better understanding of these concepts as well.”

Join in the STEM fun – Monday, February 20, 6:00-8:00 p.m. at Junker Center

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Secret Lives of Faculty: Inspired by patients, nursing instructor runs long-distance race in all 50 states

By Heather Cass

Publications & Design Coordinator, Penn State Behrend

There’s much more to Penn State Behrend’s faculty and staff members than what you see on campus. In this occasional series, we’ll take a look at some of the interesting, unconventional, and inspiring things that members of our Behrend community do in their free time.


Inspired to start running to help her patients suffering from cancer, Alison Walsh, 34, lecturer in nursing, recently finished a 50-state running challenge—completing a marathon (26.2 miles) or half marathon (13.1 miles) in each state from Alabama to Wyoming.

We recently got Walsh to stop moving for a few minutes (no easy task, we’ll have you know) and tell us about her all-American feat:

How long have you been at Penn State Behrend? I was an adjunct instructor in 2010 and became full-time instructor in 2011.

Do you still work as a nurse? I work per diem at Saint Vincent Hospital in the float pool, which means I work in whatever unit needs me that day.

When did you start running? I have been terribly un-athletic my whole life! I really did not run seriously until 2009.

Why did you start running? In 2008, I was working on an oncology unit and I was quite connected to my cancer patients. A fellow nurse on that unit asked if I wanted to run a half marathon with her to raise money for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, and I agreed. I severely underestimated how hard it would be to run 13.1 miles! That first race was rough. During the race, I remember thinking that I was quite sure I would never put myself through it again!

And, yet, you ended up deciding to do a distance race in all 50 states. How did that happen? There was just no feeling like crossing that finish line. Runner’s high is a real thing and I became an addict. I did my first full marathon in 2010.

How long did it take you to accomplish a race in all 50 states? It took about seven years. Last year, I ran the most races—thirteen half marathons.

What was your last state and when did you finish? I checked the last state off my list on October 9 in Wichita, Kansas. I know what you’re thinking: Why wasn’t it Hawaii or someplace more amazing? Poor planning on my part. But Kansas was actually a great race which is part of the fun of doing a 50-state challenge. You never know what nook-or-cranny in this country will surprise you with an awesome experience.


Which was your favorite race/state? Surprisingly, one of my favorite races was the Pittsburgh Marathon in 2010. It’s a hilly course and it poured rain the entire time, and I remember halfway through the 26.2 miles that maybe I needed to reevaluate my life choices. But the crowd support was phenomenal. Despite the rain, every inch of that course was covered with people cheering and screaming no matter how fast or slow anyone was running. Their energy, as well as a beautiful course, made that race unforgettable.

What was your most unique race? In July, I went on an Alaskan running cruise! Instead of excursions and the usual activities you do on a cruise, every place we docked, there was a race. The scenery was phenomenal, the locals at each port were very supportive of our races, and it was really cool to hang out with a couple hundred people that were just like me and would sign up for something like that!

Were there any races that you thought were overrated? I have to say the Disney World races. I’d suggest anyone try it once because there’s nothing quite running through the parks and having Disney characters cheer you on! But, when I ran it a second time, I was annoyed by the insanely steep registration price, the early start (you have to be at the start line at 3:30 a.m. because of road closures), and the large number of participants. This is definitely not a race you run to get a good finish time because there are just too many people.

Were there any you didn’t think you’d finish? Why? I injured my knee at Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth, Minn., around mile 15. The pain was terrible. I called my sister mid-race, bawling because it was going to be my first DNF (did not finish). I was inconsolable. I kept saying to myself: ‘OK, just get to the next medical tent and then you can stop.’ But when I got there, I realized I could go a little further, and that happened at each opportunity to stop. When I got to mile 21, I knew I was going to finish. It was my worst time ever, but I finished, despite running on a bad knee for 11.2 miles.

How do you get through a tough race? Are there any mantras you repeat or mind-games you play with yourself? During Grandma’s Marathon someone was holding a sign that said ‘Pain is Temporary, Pride is Forever.’ I think that random stranger holding that sign was the thing that inspired me to finish that race.

Why do you like distance racing? The coolest thing about a marathon is seeing so many different people of all ages, fitness levels, sizes, and ethnicities coming together and sharing an experience. In those few hours, we are all one big family, supporting each other.

Have you had to deal with any injuries? Thankfully, that knee injury resolved quickly and was never an issue again. My first major injury happened in March, when I got bursitis in my hip. It was terrible. I had to stop running for a few months to let it heal, and that was when I really saw how much running meant to me and how much I rely on it as a stress reliever.

What is your training schedule like? I run about four days a week, anywhere from four to eight miles, depending on what race I’m training for and when it is.

What do you enjoy most about running? Why do you do it? It took me years to actually enjoy running. For quite a while, I hated training and only did it for the medal at the finish line. It was only in the past few years, that I realized how much I enjoy running just for the sake of it. It’s a great stress reliever. It also helps me stay in shape and has given me a great excuse to travel to places I never would have otherwise.

What’s your next big goal? I’m not quite sure! I have not run a full marathon in a few years, so I would like to do that in 2017. In January, I’m running the Louisiana half marathon in Baton Rouge. Running and traveling have become a huge part of my life, and I’m not planning to stop anytime soon.


At the Las Vegas Rock ‘N Roll 1/2 marathon, Alison, left, stopped for a photo with “Elvis.”


Alison’s 50 States jacket. States are colored in as they are completed. Alison’s is fully colored now!


Another by-product of distance racing—lots of “bling,” I.e. finisher’s medals.