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April 17, 2003


John Turner, Cotner Professor of Religious Studies, is a 2003 recipient of the University of Nebraska Outstanding Research and Creative Activity award.

Sharing a passion for the classics

Turner is a renowned translator of ancient religious books

Note: This is the first in a three-part series about the UNL winners of the 2003 University of Nebraska Outstanding Research and Creative Activity and Outstanding Teaching and Instructional Creativity awards.

By Kelly Bartling, University Communications

Two years after he left the Army, John Turner wanted to be a minister. But his eventual realization of the demands of the ministry and an emerging passion for ancient languages, texts and philosophies led him on a different path.

Today, Turner is a world-renowned translator and interpreter of an esoteric group of ancient books discovered in 1945 at Nag Hammadi, Egypt, and a scholar of Graeco-Roman philosophy and a sect of second-temple Judaism that became affiliated with early Christianity called Gnostic-Sethians.

As UNL's Cotner Professor of Religious Studies, Turner has an office at Andrews Hall that overflows with books on religions, philosophers, ancient and historic peoples and languages. A wealth of knowledge and interest emerges from a soft-spoken and highly intellectual professor of religion, classics and ancient history as he explains his passions and the work from the 1960s and beyond that prompted his selection as a 2003 winner of the University of Nebraska Outstanding Research and Creative Activity award.

Turner's discovery of a hot research topic and his association with the top people in the field became the turning point while completing his doctoral studies at Duke in1968. After growing up in New Jersey and earning a bachelor's degree in mathematics and philosophy at Dartmouth, he entered the Army, where he often counseled young soldiers searching for the meaning of life. He landed at Union Theological seminary in Richmond, Va., after the Army but discovered he "probably was not really material for ordination," he said, half-smiling.

"But since I'd spent a good deal of time already studying biblical material and theology," he said, "it sort of continued."

After a brief stint as an actuary he entered Duke for graduate studies and rekindled his interest in the comparative study of texts and keyed on his talent for languages: Greek, Latin, Hebrew, various Aramaic dialects such as Syrian and Mandaic, and middle Egyptian and Coptic.

At his first meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature in 1967, he discovered the growing excitement over the discovery of the so-called "secret books of Egyptian Gnostics" that had been unearthed about 1945 but were published piecemeal by only European scholars until the mid 1950s. He joined leading scholars attempting to piece together the fragile documents and translate them. He earned an invitation from Jim Robinson at the Claremont Graduate School's Institute of Antiquity and Christianity in California to join a team organizing a full-fledged English translation of the entire library.

"I was fortunate to get a full-ride Rockefeller scholarship to do my dissertation and so I left North Carolina and went to California," he said. "I was there for two full years working on these materials, with the goal of publishing the Nag Hammadi library in English. I first made a critical edition of one for my dissertation, eventually published with some revisions, in the Society of Biblical Literatures' dissertation series. That got me started."

The Nag Hammadi Library and his association with Robinson and other top scholars in the field propelled him quickly to expert status, and he continues to work on the texts. He looks back on his early research with the texts as an exciting time that shaped his career.

"This work was a long process of trying to reassemble this material in the order in which it originally appeared, and essentially began without benefit of access to the originals, making paper tracings and cutouts and putting them in stacks to see where the contours lay, working only on the basis of black and white photographs, to see things like the fiber direction, the fiber colors and textures to reconstruct the original sequence and placement of the papyrus leaves.

"By about 1974 we had everything pretty well placed. This was a project of real significance and it was fundamentally collaborative scholarship in the humanities, which is not usual. Humanists tend to work pretty much by themselves. This was a team effort from the beginning. We also wanted to break the European monopoly on the study of these codices. So as soon as we were able, we mimeographed our translation of these materials and sent them all over the world to scholars unable to access the originals."

Although the notoriety of the texts has not equaled that of, for example, the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were discovered two years after Nag Hammadi, Turner said the importance of the ancient Gnostic books, and bringing them to public light, should not be understated.

"Much of the material in the Nag Hammadi library is Christian," he said. "And I think it's enabled a lot of insight into what was actually going on in the development of the early church. It often allows you to read behind the lines of what's going on in the New Testament itself. I think it's given a lot of insight, for example, into the figure of Paul, and of course it's given an additional impetus to research on the historical figure of Jesus. And I think it's in some way enlightened people about the nature of Gnosticism, which until the discovery of the library had been characterized by church fathers as mere heresy."

After finishing his dissertation at Claremont, Turner earned a faculty position at the University of Montana in 1970 and arrived at UNL in 1976 for a position funded by the Cotner College endowment from the sale of the Nebraska School of Religion. He admitted it was strange being in an environment where he felt alone in his interest in the library and the associated research in classical and late antique philosophy and religion.

During his nearly 30 years at the university, he has continued researching and writing on the texts. His interest has grown in ancient philosophy, Gnosticism and later-Platonic philosophy, and he has created two international seminars on the interaction between Gnostic thought and Platonic philosophies of the imperial period. He is fiercely passionate about the role of the classics, religious studies and humanities in today's world and is frustrated that others don't share his concern about a waning interest in the ancient world.

"Most people think (research like this) is a waste of time, talent and money," he said. "Generally, they think that about lots of things, maybe because of our failure to really articulate the importance of what we're doing. The thing that really worries me is the future of research in the ancient world. The organized study of ancient languages and text corpora has almost completely disappeared in this country except for a few centers."

His dream, he said, would be to support a center of research that would support study of ancient texts and ancient materials like the Nag Hammadi.

"The problem is there's an immense amount of literature, manuscripts and such that need to be edited and published. Why do they need to? Simply because those ancient people were people just like us and they have a right to be heard," he said.


Bonnstetter wins national honor

By Tom Simons, University Communications

To step into Ron Bonnstetter's secondary science education classroom, even an hour before class starts, is to step into a high-energy situation.

Students - and Bonnstetter, more than likely - are already there discussing teaching methods, research and outreach projects, and working on assignments and projects. And students who haven't arrived or other curious individuals might be checking out the action by scanning the room with the webcam on the class's website, <>.

The class is an ongoing project for Bonnstetter, a professor of curriculum and instruction in Teachers College who has sought unique and innovative ways to prepare Nebraska's teachers of science since joining the UNL faculty in 1983. The search for the new, the unique and the effective has been a hallmark of his career. It has also earned him the Outstanding Science Teacher Educator of the Year award from the Association for the Education of Teachers of Science. This is the first time this award has been given, and it is for those with at least 10 years of experience.

"We've laid a track record for doing things that are unique, and our website points out some of our program firsts," Bonnstetter said. "I believe that this is a different kind of class than what most people have experienced in their careers."

Dawn Metschke is one of 14 post-baccalaureate students among the 22 students in the three-credit-hour class this spring.

"We think about things outside the box, we don't just regurgitate information. We are allowed to have our own ideas and we don't have to conform to any certain book or ideal," she said.

"We've been given the opportunity to create a rationale of how we propose our classroom when we get out of this program, what our classroom will look like, how it will work, how it will feel. We're allowed to use our own creativity and not just follow someone else's plan. And we're actually not even given a framework for our rationale when we start. We're supposed to create our own for that, too."

One of the main ways that students figure all that out is by getting scientific research experience with UNL scientists (a class requirement) and getting out of the classroom for service experiences frequently.

Those experiences include judging school science fairs, helping with the physics and astronomy department's "Saturday Science" programs and preparing presentations for different venues in Lincoln and beyond. An innovation in this semester's class is NERDS (Nebraska Educators Really Doing Science) Video Productions in which a team of students will interview scientists on campus and put together educational footage for cable television.

"We believe that you learn by doing, not just by sitting in a classroom," Bonnstetter said. "Every time these people go out, they learn something about how kids learn, how they teach, how they would like to teach, and we build from experiences. I know of no other way than to gather as many experiences as we can. I'd hate to think the number of hours a week the average student puts in in here."

Bonnstetter's efforts were recognized early in his UNL career when the late Carl Sagan presented him with a plaque in 1987 for having the nation's outstanding teacher preparation program in science. This latest award, Outstanding Science Teacher Educator of the Year, honors more than just him, Bonnstetter said.

"I think this award is simply an extension of the earlier award, and I'm not too sure it's about me," Bonnstetter said. "It's about the program and the students we have, and the things we've accomplished here. It's only a reflection of what we do - and we do a lot. I think that's true of teacher preparation across the board at UNL."

Events to focus on research

All UNL faculty are invited to help celebrate research-related activities at an April 23 lecture by a White House science adviser and a daylong research fair April 24. All activities are free and open to the public, and all occur in the Nebraska Union.

Kathie Olsen, associate director for science in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, will speak at 3:30 p.m. April 23 in the Nebraska Union Auditorium. Olsen's topic will be "Federal Science Policy and the Role of Universities." A public reception will follow her talk.

The following day, the Office of Research and Graduate Studies has arranged a series of workshops featuring program officers from several federal agencies, who will talk about agency priorities and programs.

All the April 24 workshops will be in the Regency A, Regency B and Heritage rooms of the Nebraska Union. In addition, a poster fair featuring about 50 displays on research conducted by UNL graduate and undergraduate students will be presented from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. on the second floor of the Nebraska Union.

The schedule of events:

Session I, 9:15-10:30 a.m.

  • Margaret Cavanaugh, National Science Foundation, Office of the Director, NSF Advisory Committee on Environmental Research and Education, "Complex Environmental Systems: Synthesis for Earth, Life and Society in the 21st Century."
  • Frank Anger, NSF, deputy director, Division of Computer-Communications Research, "An Overview of the Information Technology Research Program and other C-CR programs."
  • Stephen Ross, National Endowment for the Humanities, director, Office of Challenge Grants; "The 'We the People Initiative' and Challenge Grant Opportunities."
  • "Curriculum Innovation Grant Opportunities in the Sciences," sponsored with UNL's Office of Undergraduate Studies and UNL's Academy of Distinguished Teachers.

Session II, 10:45-Noon

  • Carole Heilman, National Institutes of Health/ National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, director, Division of Microbiology and Infectious Diseases, "NIAID Response to Bioterrorism: Opportunities and Implications."
  • Rita Rodriguez, National Science Foundation, Division of Experimental and Integrative Activities, program director, Major Research Instrumentation, "Major Research Instrumentation Funding Opportunities."
  • Brad Fenwick, U.S. Department of Agriculture, chief science adviser, National Research Initiative Competitive Grants Program, Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service, "The 2003 National Research Initiative Competitive Grants Program."
  • Ross, "Curriculum Innovation Grant Opportunities in the Arts and Humanities," (workshop co-sponsored with the Office of Undergraduate Studies and the Academy of Distinguished Teachers.)

Session III, 1:30-3 p.m.

  • Randall Haley, director, EPSCoR Centers Development Initiative, "Developing and Managing Large Multi-disciplinary Centers." UNL panel members will include Ruma Banerjee, director, Redox Biology Center; Michael Fromm, director, Plant Genome Center; Roger Kirby, Materials Research Science and Engineering Center; Charles Wood, director, Nebraska Center for Virology.
  • Cavanaugh, "NSF CAREER Awards Program."

For more information, see: <>

Technology Fair features UNL ties

The 2003 Downtown Technology Fair will run from noon to 7 p.m. April 24 at several locations in Lincoln. The event is sponsored by the Downtown Lincoln Association.

The event will begin with a kick-off luncheon in the Centennial Ballroom of the Nebraska Union, co-sponsored by the Lincoln Chamber of Commerce. The luncheon keynote speaker is Angelos Angelou, founder and CEO of AngelouEconomics, an Austin, Texas, firm specializing in technology-based economic development. AngelouEconomics is assisting the Lincoln Partnership for Economic Development in the creation of an economic development strategic plan for Lincoln and Lancaster County. The topic for the keynote address is "Economic Development in our Changing Times."

After the kick-off luncheon, the Technology Fair will move downtown. Gold's Galleria will be the location for a variety of activities from 3-7 p.m., including a trade show featuring 35 vendors and showcasing technology, business, products and services; displays and demonstrations from more than 30 UNL senior engineering students; a networking party and the J.D. Edwards Internet café featuring products from The Coffee House.

The UNL PrairieFire Super Computer in the Lincoln Square Building at 13th and O streets will have an open house and demonstrations. Included are a PrairieFire chess game, robotics demonstrations, Intelligent Multiagent Infrastructure for Distributed Systems in Education demonstrations, Association of Women in Computing & Access Grid tours and information from faculty and students.

For more information on Downtown Technology Fair or to make reservations for the kick-off luncheon, call the Downtown Lincoln Association at 434-6900 or visit <>.

Budget reduction news postponed

This e-mail was sent to all faculty and staff from Chancellor Harvey Perlman on April 14:

Dear Colleagues:

I apologize for not writing sooner to keep you informed of where we are on the budget reduction process. There has certainly been a lot of news on the subject in the media. The Academic Planning Committee has been holding hearings on my earlier announcements, and the Legislature's Appropriations Committee has made tentative plans to place additional funds in our budget. Some of these additional funds are earmarked for specific purposes and do not necessarily apply toward the base budget reduction. I postponed making any further announcement of reductions until we have a better understanding of what the Appropriations Committee and the full Legislature are likely to recommend. I do not want to announce cuts that ultimately might not have to be made. However, you should understand that even with the tentative 3 percent reduction announced by the Appropriations Committee, we would still have to make some additional reductions.

We will have some difficult timing issues that I want to prepare you for now so that you can plan accordingly. The Appropriations Committee will report out its final recommendations on April 25. After that, the Legislature will work on the budget and adopt a final bill to be submitted to the governor. The governor may or may not exercise his veto power, and if he does, the Legislature has an opportunity to vote to override. June 2 is the scheduled last day of the legislative session, meaning that we may not have any idea what our budget actually is until that date. The Board of Regents is scheduled to meet on June 7 and will not approve a budget for the university until then.

This means that we will have no certainty on our budget, on salary increases, if any, and on additional reductions, if any, until we are well into our summer recess. It also means that some of our normal processes associated with salary increases and notifications are delayed. I may also be forced to make decisions about reductions after many faculty and others have gone about their summer plans. This is very unfortunate and creates a challenge for getting campus input as well as notifying affected individuals. At the same time, these may be decisions that I cannot delay until we reconvene in August. We will try to use e-mail and our website as the primary means of communicating with you on these matters.

One of the significant "perks" of my job is to attend a cross section of events in April recognizing the considerable success that we have achieved during the past year. One can only be optimistic about our future after recognizing the accomplishments of our new Cather-Bessey Professors and new inductees into the Academy of Distinguished Teachers, considering the promotion and tenure files of our younger faculty who illustrate our extraordinary success in recruiting over the last few years, shaking the hands of our Chancellor's Scholars and other students of academic distinction at our Honors Convocations, and acknowledging staff who are recognized for outstanding contributions to the university. These events remind me of how important it is to find a way to weather these economic times while preserving a strong, vibrant university. I continue to seek your counsel and support in doing so.


Inspectors fight food terrorism, expert says

By Dan Moser, IANR News Service

Federal food inspectors continue to strengthen their inspection and prevention efforts in response to the twin threats of foodborne illness and the potential for terrorism aimed at the nation's food supply, a deputy undersecretary for the U.S. Department of Agriculture said April 7.

Merle Pierson, USDA's deputy undersecretary for food safety, was keynote speaker at the Second Governor's Conference on Ensuring Meat Safety, which was April 7-8 in Lincoln. The conference, organized by E. coli researchers at the University of Nebraska, drew about 250 university scientists, students and government and industry representatives.

Nebraska Gov. Mike Johanns, who welcomed conference participants, said ensuring a safe food supply is a nationwide concern, but is especially important to Nebraska, a leading beef producing and processing state.

Pierson agreed that food safety is "certainly a high priority for all stakeholders in the beef industry." USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service plays a key role, inspecting products that represent about one-third of all consumer spending on food, he said.

The agency has been restructured and refocused in the last couple of years. These changes were in response both to highly publicized outbreaks of foodborne illnesses and increased vigilance toward the potential deliberate contamination of the nation's food supply by terrorists.

Pierson said he meets regularly with representatives of the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security, the CIA, FBI and Federal Emergency Management Agency - "the types of meetings I didn't expect to be at when I came to FSIS."

No specific threat to the food supply has been identified, but FSIS has studied the likeliest terrorism targets within the farm-to-table food supply system, Pierson said. The agency is using that assessment to focus both its 7,600 inspectors and its labs to better handle the risk. The effort also includes 20 new import inspectors added earlier this year to increase surveillance and inspections of food entering the United States from abroad.

FSIS also has been on the front lines of preventing foodborne illnesses caused by organisms such as E. coli O157:H7 and Listeria and responding to outbreaks. Among the steps the agency has taken: increased coordination with other public health agencies; increased public outreach and education; and changes in the safety protocols required of food processors.

"We are not in Washington, D.C., trying to set a new record on the size and number of recalls," Pierson said. "What you're seeing is companies are being more vigilant; we are being more vigilant."

One of the most famous recalls - of E. coli-contaminated ground beef processed at Hudson Foods in Columbus - led the Nebraska Legislature in 1998 to appropriate $1.25 million over five years to support intensive NU research on the bacteria.

Johanns praised the partnership between the university, state government and the cattle industry to study E. coli and concentrate on finding ways to limit it on farms and feedlots to reduce the odds of it reaching consumers.

"Over the past five years, there have been many exciting findings" by scientists nationwide, he said.

Some of North America's leading experts on E. coli O157:H7 presented their research findings at the two-day scientific conference. The conference was designed to provide a venue for scientists to outline what they've learned about E. coli, discuss challenges and examine future needs.

On April 7, Mike Doyle, a food microbiologist who heads the University of Georgia's Center for Food Safety and an internationally recognized E. coli expert, provided an overview of O157:H7 ecology. Doyle summarized findings from numerous studies worldwide.

Scientists have extensively studied O157:H7 and identified several promising strategies to control the bacteria in cattle, and the USDA launched testing of ground beef for E. coli at processing plants and retail outlets, Doyle said, but "there's no silver bullet."

Controlling or eliminating O157:H7 contamination in cattle manure is likely to have a greater influence on reducing human infections than any other control strategies, he said. NU's research team is among several scientific teams focusing on finding ways to control E. coli in feedlot cattle to reduce the odds that they'll carry it into processing plants.

The conference was funded by a USDA food safety grant and the institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources and Department of Food Science and Technology at UNL.



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