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Professors Tiffany Barber and Curtis Johnson have been selected
to receive the University's Gerard J. Mangone Young Scholars Award, which recognizes
promising and accomplished young faculty members.
Like young stars in
the galaxy, University of Delaware Professors Tiffany E. Barber and
Curtis Johnson are so luminous and bursting with energy you want to be
in their orbit.
In the few short years since they joined the UD faculty, Barber and
Johnson have been making a major mark in their respective fields. So
much so that the University of Delaware’s Francis Alison Society has
selected Barber, assistant professor in the College of Arts and
Sciences, and Johnson, assistant professor in the College of
Engineering, to receive the 2021 Gerard J. Mangone Young Scholars Award.
Recipients are chosen by fellow faculty members who have received the
Francis Alison Award, the University’s highest competitive faculty
Barber is driving research at the intersection of art history and the
study of Black life that is yielding fresh, new perspectives for
interpreting Black representation in visual art, performance and film,
and Johnson is pioneering a new technique to examine brain stiffness and
how it relates to cognitive loss and diseases like Alzheimer’s.
To say the academic world has been paying attention to the achievements of these two scholars would be an understatement.
Move this whole section up, swapping places with the section above it.
Professor Tiffany Barber is driving research at the intersection
of art history and the study of Black life that is yielding fresh, new
perspectives for interpreting Black representation in visual art,
performance and film.
“In the field of art history and African American art history in the
U.S., it is generally known that Dr. Barber is one of the brightest and
most distinguished young stars,” said Wunyabari Maloba, chair of the
Department of Africana Studies, who nominated her for the award. “She
commands tremendous respect, attention and admiration across the
Since joining the UD faculty in 2018, Barber has been working to
expand the world view of 20th- and 21st-century American art, African
American art and their histories. She has special interests in the arts
and cultures of the Black diaspora, women in art, aesthetic criticism
and theory, the erotics of race, and theories of publics and public
“I want to inspire new ways of seeing the value of Black study and
art history,” Barber said. “I also encourage my students to challenge
their own preconceived notions about representation by assessing how
they, as consumers and makers of art and culture, fit into an
increasingly uncertain, image-saturated world.”
A major focus of her work has been to present and implement new modes
of criticism and theory for interpreting artists of the Black
“There are reductive ideas about race and representation that
constrain Black artists,” Barber said. “A lot of times critics expect
Black artists to restrict themselves to racial empowerment and healing.”
Barber knew in middle school that she wanted to be a professor.
Growing up, she was surrounded by the arts and creativity, thanks to her
mom, who is an artist.
From this creative base, Barber pursued her first academic love —
dance performance — which she earned a bachelor’s degree in. She said it
helped her to think more about how she relates to the world, as well as
to hone her visual analysis skills. That foundation, as well as
experiences in arts administration and exhibition curation, served her
well when she entered a doctoral program in art history in 2011 and soon
began soaring as a scholar in the field.
Today, Barber is a highly sought lecturer, having given more than 50
invited presentations in the past few years on topics ranging from Black
portraiture to Afrofuturism. She’s also spoken frequently about
lesser-known Black artists, including painter and master printmaker
Eldzier Cortor, who celebrated African American women through his art,
including paintings of the Gullah community of the islands off the
Georgia and South Carolina coasts, and Alma Thomas, a noted member of
the Washington Color Field School, who took up painting seriously after a
38-year career as an art teacher in public schools in Washington, D.C.
Barber has presented on her scholarship locally at Winterthur Museum,
Delaware Art Museum, The Delaware Contemporary and Biggs Museum of Art,
and at locations across the U.S. in person or virtually, from the
Metropolitan Museum of Art to Stanford, and dozens of other
universities, museums, arts and cultural organizations, and media.
Recently, Barber was selected to receive the prestigious Scholar in
Residence award from the Getty Research Institute to work on her
upcoming book, “Undesirability and Her Sisters: Black Women’s Visual
Work in the New Millennium,” which examines the art and activism of Kara
Walker, Wangechi Mutu, Xaviera Simmons and Narcissister at the turn of
the 21st century.
She began her residency at The Getty, in Los Angeles, California,
this past September and will return to UD next summer, where her
students will continue to gain new understandings of struggle and
progress, to “break down and potentially fashion new terms for
themselves,” through her teaching.
“As digital natives, my students already have an understanding of our
image-saturated world, and they are making new media every day, whether
it’s a TikTok video or a Tweet,” Barber said. “I approach my teaching
in the same way that I learned — through making things collaboratively,
whether it’s an exhibition or a performance score or a music video – and
being in conversation with living artists. It’s really such a thrill.”
Barber’s work is already having an impact. What does she hope it will eventually lead to?
“I hope that my work will contribute to a more inclusive art history
that incorporates Black Studies,” she said, “to help realize a world
where artists of African descent can self-determine and fashion their
careers on their own terms.”
Professor Curtis Johnson (left) is pioneering a new technique to
examine brain stiffness and how it relates to cognitive loss and
diseases like Alzheimer’s. He is shown in this pre-pandemic photo in
UD’s Center for Biomedical and Brain Imaging with doctoral student Grace
McIlvaine (center) and then-undergraduate student Gabrielle Villermaux.
Becoming a professor was not really Curtis Johnson’s goal. He saw it
as a logical step. He followed what struck him as cool when he was a
student and excelled at research. Then as a postdoc, he found he enjoyed
working with students.
“If you like what you’re doing, it’s the path to do what you like
doing,” said Johnson, who joined the faculty of UD’s Department of
Biomedical Engineering in 2016. In addition to the appeal of being part
of a dynamic group of UD faculty who work well together, Johnson was
attracted to UD because of its MRI scanner, the only one in the state of
Delaware dedicated to research. And he’s certainly been putting the
scientific instrument through its paces — by pioneering a new technique
to assess brain health.
“In his short time at UD, Curtis Johnson has proven himself to be an
extremely talented and successful researcher, as well as a collaborative
and dedicated faculty member and mentor,” said Kristi Kiick, Blue and
Gold Distinguished Professor and chair of the Department of Biomedical
Engineering, who nominated him for the award. “Dr. Johnson is one of the
foremost leaders in brain magnetic resonance elastography and supplies
the technology to perform these experiments to other researchers around
What’s magnetic resonance elastography (MRE), you say? Invented by
researchers at the Mayo Clinic, it combines MRI imaging with
low-frequency vibrations to create a visual map showing the stiffness of
Originally used to detect stiffening of the liver caused by chronic
liver disease, the technique has been developed by Johnson and his team
to study the brain in a non-invasive way. They hold several patents for
this leading-edge work.
What they have found is that subtle differences in tissue stiffness
and viscosity predict cognitive function and are more sensitive than
other neuroimaging methods. They have built on these findings to examine
brain health in aging and mild cognitive impairment, development and
neurodevelopmental disorders, and modeling of traumatic brain injury.
“We have a very interesting tool for studying brain health sensitively, to understand the brain better,” Johnson said.
Based on Johnson’s research, the stiffer your brain, the better your memory.
“Mechanically, your brain is like reinforced concrete, with the axons
like bundles of fibers embedded inside to make it stiff. But then it
gets structurally weaker, and you can see this breaking down before
other things happen. It’s a lot like fruit,” Johnson said, “it’s firm at
first and then decays when ripe.”
Johnson already has received more than $7 million in competitive
research grants from the National Science Foundation, National
Institutes of Health and Office of Naval Research, and he has been an
author on 66 research papers — 49 of them written at UD and published in
top neuroimaging journals including Cerebral Cortex, NeuroImage, and Human Brain Mapping.
He is now exploring the impact of life-style interventions and
immunotherapies on brain stiffness. One large study is assessing how
exercise affects memory function, and several other studies led by his
students are underway.
Johnson also is graduate director for the growing biomedical
engineering department, which had 20 graduate students when he joined
the faculty five years ago and now has 70.
He and his colleagues place a premium on developing a variety of
mixers and other events to bring the department together and prevent the
tunnel vision that can often happen to graduate students.
The graduate students in his own group have thrived, publishing manuscripts and winning awards, and five of the undergraduate students he has mentored have completed honors theses and are continuing their education at other top graduate schools.
“I have an incredible group, and we have great collaborators — folks
at Dartmouth and Washington University at St. Louis. I think we’ve done
well with the opportunities that have come,” he said.
Worldwide, few groups are developing MRE technologies. Johnson said
he and his team are committed to sharing their work to propel the field
“The ultimate goal is to get this technology and our findings used in other people’s research,” he said.
Article by Tracey Bryant
Photos by Kathy F. Atkinson and Jawara King; photo illustration by Jeffrey C. Chase
Published Dec. 21, 2021