Meet Rutgers' Newest Faculty, 2018-2019

Meet Rutgers' Newest Faculty, 2018-2019

Rutgers faculty are accomplished teachers, researchers and scholars who think beyond disciplinary boundaries and care deeply about the students they teach, mentor and advise.

Meet some of the new members who joined the Rutgers community across Camden, Newark, New Brunswick and Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences bringing diversity, vision, extensive scholarship and wide-ranging real-world experience to the classroom in our series. 


Telling the Story of Marginalized Communities


Jack Tchen

Inaugural Clement A. Price Chair in Public History and the Humanities and Director, Price Institute, Rutgers-Newark

Jack Tchen, Rutgers-Newark

If there’s one thing Jack Tchen wants his students to take away from this article it’s this:

“I’m an anchor baby.”

“Please, make sure you put that in there,” said Tchen, a world-class scholar, curator, organization-builder and long-time NYU history and urban studies professor who joined Rutgers University-Newark this fall to lead the Clement A. Price Institute on Ethnicity, Culture and the Modern Experience and serve as the Inaugural Clement A. Price Chair in Public History and the Humanities.

His parents arrived as refugees from China in the early 1950s after the “repeal” of the Chinese Exclusion Law. Still, the United States capped entry of those of Chinese heritage at 105 people per year.

“That law was a part of the longstanding Anglo-American fear of ‘yellow peril,’” he said. “My parents learned of a landmark 1898 Supreme Court ruling in United States vs. Wong Kim Ark that ruled any baby born on U.S. soil was a citizen. So that was me.”

He makes a point of sharing this personal information to show the connection between anti-immigrant and racist sentiments then and now have shaped who are welcomed and who are not welcomed to enter and stay in the United States.

“Birthright citizenship is exactly what Trump is trying to repeal now,” he said. “That attack against the promise of ‘equal justice for all persons’ under the Fourteenth Amendment is a critical though often forgotten part of our nation’s civil rights history. I’m part of that history – we all are.”

Tchen’s academic and curatorial pursuits stem, in part, from his experiences growing up a racialized minority in the Midwest – where he was the only non-English speaker in kindergarten – and seeing that pattern of white Protestant’s others in the New York metro region. He’s spent the better part of four decades studying how intersected racial categories morph over time, unearthing and archiving the experiences of various marginalized communities – Asian, black, Italian, Irish, Jewish and indigenous among them – which he says have been glossed over by American history.

At the Price Institute, he established the New York Newark Public History Project to challenge those accounts of history. Among the stories being examined is “The Indian and The Puritan,” a statue created by Mount Rushmore sculptor and known KKK sympathizer Gutzon Borglum in 1916.

"It is so easy to supersede the history of the Lenape people from this region with that of the colonists. With this project, we will replace the myths of our past with the truths of European diseases, violence and claims of colonial property rights – all of this should be basic public knowledge,” he said. “And we’re supporting the newlyformed United Lenape Nations Project to archive and tell their own history and make their own culture.”

At Rutgers-Newark, the chance to work at the most diverse university in the country committed to social justice is what draws him to the Brick City each day.

“That’s why I feel close to the students I work with here at Rutgers-Newark,” he said. “I really identify with them and love researching the past, present and future collaboratively.”

Fun Fact:
“I would love to be a blues harmonica player, but I have no musical talent whatsoever,” Tchen said. “I sing flat, and my ear doesn’t exist for that.”

– Lisa Intrabartola

In 1997, the Clement A. Price Institute on Ethnicity, Culture, and the Modern Experience at Rutgers-Newark was founded to foster research and programming in the arts and humanities that emphasizes intercultural understanding. The institute hosts annual programs, such as the Marion Thompson Wright Lecture Series, a conference established in 1981 that explores themes related to increasing historical awareness in Greater Newark. The institute is named for the late Clement A. Price, a Rutgers-Newark distinguished professor and Newark city historian committed to social justice and civic engagement in the communities in which he lived and whose teaching and research focused on African-American history and culture, urban and social history, and American race relations.




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Helping Nurses Harness Their Political Power


Donna Nickitas

Dean and Professor, School of Nursing-Camden

The career of the new dean at the School of Nursing-Camden was shaped by military service and her desire to work toward social justice and equity.

In high school, Donna Nickitas participated in a program assisting nurses in a busy New York hospital. She shadowed members of the profession who cared for the most at-risk and vulnerable patients in the community.

“Those nurses sincerely treated these individuals with dignity and with respect – that always stayed with me,” Nickitas said.

The experience inspired her to become the first in her family to go to college and enter the health care field.

After receiving her bachelor’s degree, Nickitas wanted to see the world outside of New York, so she joined the U.S. Air Force Nurse Corps. But, instead of traveling the globe, she was assigned to Rapid City, South Dakota.

However, her time in the military provided an opportunity to fine-tune her advocacy and leadership skills. She eventually climbed the ranks from second lieutenant to major.

“Somehow I survived the brutal winters and learned about becoming a servant leader, an astute team member and a fierce advocate for my patients who were often miles from home, family and friends,” she said. “My service with the U.S. Air Force Nurse Corps taught me that I was never alone and all I had to do is ask when I needed help. Now, that is a lesson worth remembering.”

At Rutgers, she wants to help nursing students in Camden understand the intersection of policy, economics, legislation and health care and how they can use their voice as professional nurses to help influence regulations and standards that shape their practice.

“It is not enough to know what nurses do, but also to know what nurses know," she said. "In other words, nurses must see and care for the whole person. The sum of nursing knowledge involves more than the parts of providing direct physical, emotional and spiritual care. It means seeing the whole person and making sure all individuals have access to quality care – caring that is governed by the New Jersey State Nurse Practice act as well as other state and federal standards, laws and regulations."

Under her leadership, partnerships with other Rutgers units are thriving, including a study abroad program that gives students the opportunity to experience new perspectives in the field.

Nickitas recently joined Rutgers students, faculty and administrators on a trip to Varadero, Cuba, as part of a collaboration between the two countries. The purpose of the trip was to sustain international relationships and advance interdisciplinary programs as a way of highlighting global concepts with local applications.

While there, Nickitas says that she saw many parallels to her own research. She witnessed how Cuban citizens worked around embargoes to introduce measures for community development and economic sustainability. 

“I learned quickly that world policies and politics are not always what you see and hear from news and social media outlets,” Nickitas said. “It was clear to many of us how local politics guide and direct everyday life.”

She examines similar themes in her book, Policy and Politics for Nurses and Other Health Professionals: Advocacy and Action, which was recently released in its third edition. The work highlights what nursing professionals need to know to make a difference for their patients outside the exam room.

“It discusses a variety of topics, including an update on the Affordable Care Act and enhanced primary roles for nurses, and how nurses can harness their political power so that they can influence health policy,” Nickitas said.

On becoming an urbanite:
Growing up in an Italian-American family, Nickitas counts food and family among her core values. Now, as a recent transplant to urban Philadelphia from suburban Connecticut, she can share the region’s rich cuisine and culture with her adult children. She counts water ice among her favorite treats, further cementing her status as a Philadelphian.

– Carissa Sestito 

Understanding What Causes Violence


Daniel Semenza

Assistant Professor, Department of Sociology, Anthropology, and Criminal Justice at Rutgers University-Camden

John Steinbeck's East of Eden, the classic American novel that examines the struggle between good and evil, has influenced Daniel Semenza's career working to understand the causes and consequences of violence.

Semenza, a sociologist who teaches courses on juvenile delinquency, cybercrime (including online teen dating aggression and cyberbullying) and violence in society, says he first read the book at 15 and keeps returning to it because he finds a different message every time.

"As I get older, I find new wisdom within the book," he said. "The questions that Steinbeck was asking continue to be important for the study of violence today. In the same way that issues of free will and love among families are very complicated in the book, understanding why we as humans hurt one another is an ongoing project for societies around the world that needs to be kept up."

Semenza is currently conducting research related to cyber aggression, intimate partner violence and reactions to mass shootings. He is also identifying links between health and crime.

One of the goals of this research, he says, is to encourage decision-makers and stakeholders to make investments in community programs that can improve health and prevent crime at the same time.

"If we can better understand how poor health and related behaviors can lead to crime and delinquency, then increasing efforts to improve health may also decrease violence and crime," he said.

And he's working with colleagues in other Rutgers-Camden departments in the process.

"Rutgers-Camden is a great place to do interdisciplinary work."

During his short time at Rutgers, Semenza is already making strides in educating the general public about violence. He recently appeared in a video on how to explain violent events to children as well as a video to help parents identify signs of cyberbullying.

Fun fact: When he is not researching or teaching at Rutgers-Camden, you might spot Semenza and his wife, Isabel, eating dim sum or ramen noodles in Philadelphia. Both Japanese food enthusiasts, they recently honeymooned in the country to "eat their way" through Tokyo, Kyoto and other cities.

– Carissa Sestito 


Bringing Star Trek Technology to Real Life


Umer Hassan

Assistant professor, School of Engineering, Rutgers University-New Brunswick, and faculty at Rutgers Global Health Institute

Umer Hassan remembers being fascinated by the handheld tricorder used to diagnose medical conditions on Star Trek.

Hassan aims to recreate some of that technology in real life. As an engineer and a global health researcher, Hassan is developing biosensors that can quickly and inexpensively detect infections in people living with HIV/AIDS in underdeveloped countries.

In these countries, he said, one in five people living with HIV/AIDS could be infected with other diseases, and the biosensors’ swift measurements could be lifesaving.

“I am a bit critical of the tricorder—one device won’t be able to solve all the problems,” he said. “But it can diagnose, and some of the idea came from Star Trek. I develop point of care biosensors that are low-cost, completely automated and can quantify or diagnose disease rather than relying on expensive equipment.”

Even as a child he has looked for ways to apply technology to solve everyday problems, and when he was an eighth-grade student, he developed a computer program to do his math homework for him just because he loved creating automated systems.

Now, as a professor, he’s looking to teach the next generation of engineers how to create automated systems that could save lives in his new spring 2019 course, "Biosensors for Global Health." 

The biosensors may have a global impact, but Hassan says that they can be used close to home, too. Recently, Hassan spent time in a local hospital for the birth of his daughter, and he soon realized that the biosensors could assist physicians and save lives.

“Collecting blood samples from newborns and infants is really painful for the babies and, of course, for the parents, too,” he said. “For pediatric populations collecting large volumes of blood samples for diagnostics is not easy. Our biosensors require only a drop of blood to get the required diagnostic test done. This will not only reduce the amount of blood sample collected, but also the reduce the cost and time it takes to receive the results.”

Did you know?
Even professors have bucket lists. Hassan wants to see the world, especially the countries that are home to the people his device could serve. But his preferred mode of transport is not limited to the ground – he wants to learn how to fly a plane and deep sea dive, too.

– Carissa Sestito