collage of ships, virus, human anatomy, Latin American art

Hall of Fame

For the first time, Research, Scholarship and Artistic Achievement Awards were bestowed on Tulane’s stellar researchers and scholars.  We devote several stories to them in this issue of the Tulanian

(Portraits by Paula Burch-Celentano; Robert Force portrait by Tracie Morris Schaefer)

What drives a career in research: Is it the thrill of discovery, the endless questions why, the sharing of newfound knowledge with students?

Established scholars might say all of those factors contribute to a successful research career. And Tulane is an exceptional place to embark on such an adventure of discovery — the university has long sought new ways of analyzing the world, what makes it run and what keeps it from running well. 

The four professors — Elizabeth Boone, Robert Force, Dr. Jiang He and Gabriel Navar — who received Tulane’s Research Hall of Fame Award were recognized for their national and international renown and substantial contributions to advancing knowledge over their academic careers. Having lived lives in the spirit of knowledge and discovery, they embody the principles on which Tulane was founded.

Elizabeth Boone stands with colorful masks on wall in background

Elizabeth Boone 

Elizabeth Boone, professor emerita of art history at the School of Liberal Arts, originally came to Tulane seeking a professional challenge. After 15 years as the director of the Pre-Columbian Program at the Dumbarton Oaks Museum in Washington, D.C., Boone said she wanted to pursue work related to 16th-century Mexico and thought that an academic position would facilitate that mission.

“I wanted to advance my own personal intellectual interests, which included the interaction between the Americas and Europe following the Spanish conquest, and larger issues related to graphic communication,” Boone said. “A university is a vast collection of professors, researchers, staff and students from many disciplines and with very different perspectives and interests. The very diversity of a university cultivates cross-disciplinary work and innovative thinking.”

Since then, she has become one of the foremost scholars of painted books in Aztec Mexico, which include not only historical and scientific manuscripts but civil documents like court and census records.

“At Tulane I have been able to develop a series of books that together provide a comprehensive, in-depth analysis of the Mexican tradition of pictographic writing and painted books, books of native paper or hide that were created and used before and after the conquest. These include books of history, philosophy, science and divination. Too, I have been able to show how, for indigenous Americans, art largely serves to communicate knowledge the way we think writing does, and that for indigenous Americans, the reverse is also true: Writing is art.”

When she arrived at Tulane in 1995, Pre-Columbian art was still developing as a disciplinary focus.

“Pre-Columbian art history challenged traditional art historical approaches by asking us to think about an art that functioned as both art and writing, was largely anonymous, and was a significant actor in the fabric of society,” Boone said. “This caused the discipline of art history to rethink its definition of art and to consider visual culture more broadly as means to communicate ideas.”

In her years at Tulane, Boone served as the Martha and Donald Robertson Chair in Latin American Art. Now, as art historians begin to examine cross-cultural influences in all periods of the art world, Boone’s work is evolving accordingly.

The intersection of writing and art “leads to larger questions about how humans throughout time and in different places recorded knowledge without ‘alphabetic writing.’”

“I like to think that [my work] agitates and irritates that space between the domains commonly known as art and writing and challenges our conception of both.”

Elizabeth Boone

Boone has just published Descendants of Aztec Pictography: The Cultural Encyclopedias of Sixteenth-Century Mexico, a book that sheds light on the time frame that she originally came to Tulane to study: after the Spanish conquest of Mexico in 1519. After the Spanish arrived, religious leaders, colonial officials and indigenous rulers came together to create pictorial books that were guides to New World evangelization and governance.

“I like to think that [my work] agitates and irritates that space between the domains commonly known as art and writing and challenges our conception of both.”

Robert Force stands in courtroom environment

Robert Force 

Robert Force holds the Niels F. Johnsen Chair of Maritime Law and is director emeritus of the Maritime Law Center at Tulane Law School. His legacy at Tulane includes a career of maritime study and the establishment of the Maritime Law Center. 

Maritime trade is thousands of years old but is still the cheapest method of transporting goods between countries. Technology advances last century have improved the field in terms of speed, cost and volume, such as the containerization of cargo, and, in this century, through the development of autonomous vessels. The Maritime Law Center keeps pace with the evolution of the industry, bringing in international scholars for lectures and research.

“I’ve traveled all over the world,” Force said. “I’ve spoken to maritime law professors, I’ve spoken to maritime practitioners, judges who tried maritime cases. We can talk the same language, we understand each other. Basically, the problems are the same; the solutions are relatively limited. Consequently, there is a certain universality to maritime law.”

“Basically, the problems are the same; the solutions are relatively limited. Consequently, there is a certain universality to maritime law.”

Robert Force

When he arrived at Tulane in 1969, Force already had some admiralty (or maritime) experience, but quickly made his mark because of his expertise in criminal law: He was named a special master in a class-action lawsuit against Orleans Parish Prison. In fact, most of his work in the maritime field came about after Force joined the law school faculty.

Force recognized that the university had very little by way of an admiralty curriculum. Some law schools at the time didn’t cover maritime law at all or had no full-time maritime law faculty — so Force seized the opportunity to build a program in New Orleans.

He started by increasing the curriculum in maritime law, developing advanced courses on topics like personal injury and carriage of goods. Later, when he served as acting dean of the law school, he considered expanding the maritime offerings into a full program. Today the school offers a Master of Laws in admiralty and maritime law, as well as a Certificate of Maritime Law.

“I thought we could … exploit our strength in maritime law because not only do we have all these courses, some taught by full-time faculty, we also had a maritime journal, which was a student-run journal,” Force said. Tulane had also hosted the biennial Admiralty Law Institute.

The idea was met favorably but never blossomed until the arrival of the new dean, who assigned a fundraising committee to the effort. In 1982, the Maritime Law Center opened, with Force as its first director. 

Force developed one of the first courses nationwide to address the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989. He still enjoys teaching as a complement to his research, noting that every semester a student asks a question he’s never considered.

“I like the stimulation of academic thought, and putting theory into practice,” he said, “and the impact that technology has on my areas of interest. And the great thing about teaching is that, although hopefully the students in my class have a good learning experience, I learn from them.”

Dr. Jiang He stands behind lab equipment

Dr. Jiang He

Dr. Jiang He holds the Joseph S. Copes Chair and is professor of epidemiology at the School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine and is director of the Tulane University Translational Science Institute. 

A chance to build his own research program brought Jiang He to Tulane in 1997. Since then, he has established himself as a nationally and internationally renowned expert in the clinical, translational and epidemiological research of cardiovascular and kidney diseases. 

During his career at Tulane, he has participated in more than 40 research projects with total costs of $185 million from the National Institutes of Health and served as principal or multi-principal investigator of 20 grants. He has authored more than 600 research papers in scientific journals, including more than 40 publications in the top five journals: New England Journal of Medicine, Lancet, JAMA, Nature and Science

His research has high impacts in scientific communities, clinical practice and public health policy. In addition, He’s research topics have informed national and international guidelines on hypertension prevention and treatment; provided the first estimate of the global burden of hypertension; and helped the World Health Organization make hypertension a global public health priority; and his work was cited in the U.S. Surgeon General’s Report on Smoking Cessation to support national smoke-free policies.

As the founding director of Tulane’s Translational Science Institute, he will help develop clinical research at the university. Among his studies is a recent $8.7 million grant from NIH. The team will work with local churches to improve cardiovascular health in African American communities in New Orleans.

The region’s high rates of “lifestyle diseases” lend an air of immediacy to He’s studies.

“Clearly cardiometabolic diseases, including obesity, hypertension, diabetes, heart attack, stroke and high cholesterol are major public health problems in our region. The epidemic of these conditions in New Orleans and in the Deep South provides the unique opportunity to conduct research with real impacts on the population’s health locally,” He said.

He added that he is grateful to university leadership for support through the years, as well as to his mentors, colleagues and other Tulanians who make his success possible. “I hope all faculty members agree with our leadership that researching is as important as educating and training tomorrow’s visionary leaders and innovators at a prestigious AAU member university, like Tulane.”

“I’m very passionate about the research … writing papers or thinking about the research ideas, I feel very peaceful inside. I enjoy all the new discovery.”

Dr. Jiang He

Despite these many ongoing studies, He still finds time to teach two courses and to mentor students and junior faculty. In 2017, Tulane bestowed on him the Oliver Fund Award for Excellence in Faculty Mentoring.

He said that the key for a successful and impactful research program is to train and support the next generation of scientists. Many of his Tulane trainees have gone on to independent and successful research careers.

He had recently finished his PhD when a Tulane dean invited him to consider a position here. Eager to build his own research program, he joined the Tulane faculty — a decision he has never regretted. The research continues to intrigue him, even on a personal level. 

“I’m very passionate about the research … writing papers or thinking about the research ideas, I feel very peaceful inside. I enjoy all the new discovery. It makes my life meaningful.”

L. Gabriel Navar sits with a microscope in a lab

L. Gabriel Navar 

L. Gabriel Navar is professor and chair of the Department of Physiology and co-founder of the Hypertension and Renal Center of Excellence at the School of Medicine. 

Navar almost pursued a career in veterinary medicine — but a course in physiology set him on a new path. 

Navar arrived at the university in 1988 and has since focused on his research of kidney function, especially in cases of hypertension and diabetes.

The son of a Texas Mexican farmer, Navar completed two years of veterinary school and thought his training would eventually bring him back to his father’s ranch and dairy farm. But his father encouraged him to get as much education as possible, and the younger Navar eventually got hooked on physiology. After earning his PhD from the University of Mississippi, Navar stayed on to work in the laboratory of his mentor, Arthur Guyton, and later at Duke University and the University of Alabama–Birmingham. Tulane recruited him to chair its physiology department in 1988.

“I started out by experimenting and modeling how the kidney worked,” Navar said, handling a resin model of the glomerulus. “This is a 3D-printed reconstruction of one glomerulus; you have about 2 million glomeruli in your two kidneys. Each one of these filters the blood [that pumps through] and starts the process of urine formation. And that fascinated me, as you can imagine, how interesting it is that you have such an intricate structure,” which requires precise control of its blood flow and pressure.

“I look back and I think, 33 years! Life goes by very fast when you’re continuously chasing another deadline and answering another exciting important question.”

L. Gabriel Navar

Today Navar continues to study the role of the hormone angiotensin in hypertension and diabetes and has more than 400 peer-reviewed articles, lectures around the world, and numerous grants funded by national entities. His longevity in the department is rivaled only by the demand for his work.

“Every time you answer some questions, more come up,” Navar said. “As the questions … evolve, you’re requiring new techniques to answer those questions. And then it becomes more and more apparent that cellular and molecular techniques are needed to answer integrative questions. We have to recruit people that are trained to do it.”

Navar is always eager for his students and staff to share in any recognition and has mentored dozens of young trainees through the years, often with the assistance of his late wife, Randa. He is often remembered for his famous catch phrase: “Show me the data!” 

In the physiology department and in the hypertension and renal center, Navar balances his investigative work with administrative duties, answering plentiful emails but also answering the call of investigative work.

“There isn’t enough time. I want to say, ‘OK, the last three or four years here, I’m going to write papers all day’ — but I’m still running experiments.”

Of his time at Tulane, he added, “I look back and I think, 33 years! Life goes by very fast when you’re continuously chasing another deadline and answering another exciting important question.”

(Some images courtesy of The Latin American Library at Tulane University)