Occidental’s largest-ever cohort of new tenure-track faculty brings a world of ideas to the classroom
When Sohaib Khan was looking at tenure-track teaching opportunities, “Two things about Occidental stood out to me: its urban campus in the middle of a bustling metropolis and the Equity and Justice Agenda,” he says. “Los Angeles is a mini-mosaic of the Islamic world and home to a rich variety of Muslim communities. As a first-generation immigrant and a Muslim faculty of color, it was really important for me to live and work in a diverse environment.”
Khan—a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow and assistant professor of religious studies—is one of 14 tenure-track faculty to join the College for the 2023-24 academic year. He comes to Occidental from Pomona College, where he taught Islamic studies as a visiting assistant professor. He received a Ph.D. in Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African studies from Columbia University, an M.A. in religion from Duke University, and a B.Sc. in economics from the Lahore University of Management Sciences in Pakistan. Khan is a scholar of comparative Islamic studies with an interest in connections between religion, secularism, and economic life in Muslim societies. His research and teaching lie at the intersection of Islamic legal studies, anthropology, postcolonial studies, and histories of capitalism in South Asia and the Middle East.
“Occidental provided the perfect opportunity to tap into L.A. as an extended classroom and fieldwork site,” says Khan, an ethnographer trained in people-centered research. Of the courses he’ll be teaching, he is particularly excited about Islam and Capitalism, “an interdisciplinary exploration of historical, conceptual, and material connections between Islam and capitalism—two avowedly religious and secular entities seen at odds with each other.”
Growing up in Oman and Pakistan, Khan studied economics as an undergraduate but developed an appetite for history and philosophy through courses taken outside his major. “When my family immigrated to the United States in 2009, I wanted to make sense of the disjuncture between my rich religious and cultural heritage and the racialized identity that was thrust upon me as a brown Muslim male,” he says. “Religious studies provided an interdisciplinary space that could feed my intellectual curiosity.”
But as his graduate studies progressed, Khan became interested in understanding the fate of religion under capitalist modernity. “How were Muslim communities coming to grips with dramatic shifts in the legal and cultural landscapes of finance? My Ph.D. studies at Columbia allowed me to pursue these questions from an interdisciplinary lens of Islamic legal studies and anthropology.”
Khan is writing a book, Translating Capitalism: How Muslim Jurists and Bankers Invented Shari’a Compliance, that tells the story of Islam’s convergence with global finance through a history of Sharī’a Compliance—a legal code that prescribes best practices for today’s rapidly expanding $3 billion Islamic finance industry. “These best practices reconcile financial discipline with devotion to God by aligning Muslim ethics with the practical imperatives of finance,” Khan says.
“The most rewarding aspect of my research is that it allows me to indulge in my twin interests in religion and capitalism,” he adds. “I am fascinated by the many ways in which religion can serve as a means of resistance against capitalist exploitation but also become coopted and assimilated into capitalist projects. I am a firm believer in the notion that learning about non-Western societies and cultures happens best when we do the reflexive work of learning from them. To learn from Islamic history and culture is to listen to Muslims and take their knowledge traditions seriously as constructive sources of theoretical and ethical reflection.”
Season Blake (assistant professor, philosophy) comes to Occidental from Skidmore College, where they were a teaching professor of philosophy. Blake has a Ph.D. from Indiana University, a master’s from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and a B.A. from Bryn Mawr College—all in philosophy. Their teaching and research interests include theory of knowledge, early Chinese philosophy, philosophy of perception, philosophy of language, and philosophy of mind. Blake has been published in The Senses and the History of Philosophy (Routledge) and the Journal of Chinese Philosophy.
“Occidental takes seriously the need for ongoing conversations about social justice, both in classes and in the community at large,” Blake says. “I especially value the ways that the Philosophy Department lives these values through classes that focus on topics of social justice, and the ways the department asks students to act on the ideas we discuss in class.
Blake presented their ideas on “Knowledge and Power” in Morrison Lounge in October as part of an ongoing lecture series, Philosophy in 15 Minutes. “I have felt such a warm welcome from everyone I’ve met at Oxy,” Blake says. “I love all the classes I’ll be teaching, but there is something special about classes where many students are first discovering philosophy. I remember how exciting my first exposures to philosophy were—how they challenged my ways of thinking about the world and gave me the ability to think through new ideas on my own.”
Jamie Amemiya (assistant professor, psychology) comes to Occidental from the University of Chicago, where she was a National Science Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow. She has an M.S. and a Ph.D. in developmental psychology from the University of Pittsburgh and a B.S. in biological science with a minor in psychology from UC Irvine. Amemiya is a developmental psychologist interested in the development of social cognition as it relates to how children and adults think about and respond to societal problems. Her current research interests include how children and adults reason about the causes of social inequality, how they represent social categories and societal hierarchies, and their reasoning about why people disagree.
“I have always enjoyed working with children,” says Amemiya, who initially thought about becoming a pediatrician or child therapist. “Once I got research experience, I found that I loved the idea of asking questions that hadn’t been addressed before and realized that developmental psychology was a great fit.”
This fall, Amemiya is teaching classes on two topics that she is especially passionate about—developmental psychology and adolescence. “I love to show students how we can study topics such as the development of stereotyping in childhood using the scientific method. It has been fun to see what new ideas they come up with as they learn the creative ways that we can gain insight into children’s developing minds.
“Occidental provides a unique opportunity for both teaching and conducting research,” she adds. “One of my favorite things so far is hearing students’ responses to research that I am very familiar with. They give me a fresh perspective and raise questions that challenge my own thinking.”
Zachary Silver (assistant professor, psychology) comes to Occidental from Yale University, where he recently completed his Ph.D. in psychology. He has a B.A. in psychology and music from Illinois Wesleyan and a pair of master’s degrees and a Ph.D. in psychology from Yale. As a researcher at the Canine Cognition Center at Yale, he studied how animals learn from and about humans. His research has been featured in both academic and mainstream media, including Smithsonian.
“One of my primary goals is to bridge my teaching and research such that my students have the opportunity to experience every step of the scientific process—from the conceptualization of ideas to the gradual theoretical advancements that occur over time,” Silver says. “I value the opportunity to build impactful relationships with my students, and Occidental’s academic environment and culture is the perfect setting to do so.”
Since arriving on campus, he adds, “I’ve found myself continually impressed with Oxy students’ motivation to understand complex psychological phenomena and their enthusiasm for the scientific process. From my first- year seminar, Animal Intelligence, to my course on evolutionary psychology, my students’ deep engagement with the course content and their passion for learning have made my first semester at Oxy quite inspiring.”
Similarly, Silver is “overjoyed” by his students’ interest in getting involved in his canine cognition research. “I’ve always been fascinated by the bond between humans and dogs,” he says. “The way that dogs represent a key component of human life and the mutual benefit humans and dogs receive from their interactions was one of my earliest scientific curiosities. Having lived with some exceptionally intelligent dogs in my life, I then became interested in how dogs could have become so smart. After studying psychology as a college student, I became committed to understanding the nuances of dogs’ intelligence.”
What can we learn from studying dogs, you might ask? “Because dogs have lived alongside humans for over 40,000 years, the study of canine cognition helps us understand the role of domestication and social environment on the evolution of key cognitive abilities,” Silver says. “Essentially, humans shaped dogs to understand us and cooperate with us effectively. As such, modern dogs reflect millennia of selection pressures for human-like intelligence.
“The more we understand about dogs, the better equipped we are to provide a good life for the dogs that we live alongside and interact with daily,” adds Silver—whose black lab mix, Maritza, “loves the Occidental campus. You’re sure to see us running up the hills and strolling down the Quad every day.”
Claire Cahen (assistant professor, urban and environmental policy) comes to Oxy from Virginia Tech, where she was an assistant professor of urban affairs and planning. Cahen has an M.Phil. and a Ph.D. in environmental psychology from the City University of New York and a B.A. in English from Pomona. An urbanist, researcher, and educator, Cahen studies municipal austerity and public sector union renewal—how workers are responding to decades of cuts to public services, how they are forming new labor-community alliances in the process, and the relationship between inequality and the privatization of public goods, especially public education. Her work has been published in Environment and Planning D, the Journal of Race, Ethnicity and the City, and Antipode.
As a union organizer in Los Angeles for four years, “Many of my co-workers came from Occidental,” Cahen says. “The Urban and Environmental Policy Department was known for nurturing community and labor leaders, for introducing students to organizing and fostering critical analysis on pressing issues. It is a dream to be back in L.A.”
It’s been a busy year for organized labor, with high-profile strikes across multiple industries—from actors and screenwriters to auto workers and the healthcare industry. “We are at an inflection point: If workers do not stand up collectively, inequality and class polarization will continue to accelerate,” she says. “At the same time, workers know that jobs and wages used to be better not so very long ago. They believe that conditions can—must—be improved again. This is a very positive sign for the future of organized labor.”
This semester, Cahen is teaching Community Organizing, which “involves a good mix of history, theory, contemporary case studies, and practice,” she says. “We do periodic role-plays of community meetings and labor negotiations. In their first role-play, students may be shy or uncertain. By mid-semester, they are not just more confident; they demonstrate real organizing skills and savvy. They are honing their craft. It is moving and powerful to see their growth.”
Karla Peña (assistant professor, urban and environmental policy) comes to Oxy from the University of Texas at Austin, where she was a Provost Early Career Fellow and Lecturer in American studies for the last two years. She has an M.S. and a Ph.D. in developmental sociology from Cornell University, a master’s in natural resources and environment from the University of Michigan, and a B.A. in liberal studies from Cal State Northridge.
Having grown up in Eagle Rock, Peña says, “I am wholeheartedly thrilled to return to the neighborhood—and to work in a department with community ties around issues of labor rights, and food, environmental, and climate justice, which are central tenets to my own research, teaching, and activism.”
Peña’s parents are from Ecuador, and she grew up visiting family in Guayaquil and the Galapagos Islands. “As an undergraduate, I studied abroad in Latin America and lived in Ecuador, too, ultimately shaping my career trajectory,” she says.
“I am writing a book about bananas from Ecuador to California—tracing how the trade between both places got started, the annual Banana Festival at the Port of Hueneme, and the pathway of bananas to supermarkets and schools,” she says. “Ecuador is the world’s largest exporter of bananas, and California is a major consumer. How can we produce bananas equitably and sustainably in the age of climate change? The book combines my collaboration with social movement organizations and research with banana producers and plantation workers in Ecuador with new research here in Los Angeles.”
Peña is “excited” to design a new research methods course centered on parks and public spaces for the 2024-25 academic year. On October 29, she and her UEP 101 students biked to Arroyo Fest, which closed the 110 Freeway to vehicle traffic for four hours to allow the public to experience the national historic byway up close.
Thanks to organizer Izzy Wang ’25 and Oxy’s Bike Share Program, Peña says, “Students were able to observe firsthand the interplay of the natural environment, urban planning, and community that I hope encouraged them to reimagine mobility and the use of public space in Los Angeles.”
Min Joo Lee (assistant professor, Asian studies) comes to Oxy from Indiana University Bloomington, where she was a postdoctoral fellow in the Center for Research on Race & Ethnicity in Society and a visiting assistant professor of gender studies. She has a master’s and a Ph.D. in gender studies from UCLA and a B.A. in comparative literature and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies from Williams College. Lee’s research focuses on the transnational popularity of Korean popular culture (also known as the Korean Wave or Hallyu), gender and race politics in Korea, and feminist media theory.
Lee is excited by the prospect of introducing students to the long history of Korean presence in Los Angeles and incorporating Koreatown’s rich Korean diasporic culture into her teaching and research. “I’ve always been a fan of Korean popular culture,” she says. As an elementary school student in Michigan, she would drive with her parents to a Korean grocery more than an hour away from home to rent videotapes of Korean TV dramas. “It was only natural that my research focused on something I had an interest in for most of my life,” she says.
Her first book project, tentatively titled Finding Mr. Perfect: Korean Television Dramas, Romance, and Race, focuses on some Korean popular culture fans who, after watching transnationally popular Korean TV dramas, travel to Korea to find Korean boyfriends in real life. “I examine their desires from a racial, gendered, and geopolitical lens.”
A second book project examines another, darker form of transnational media: illicit sex videos produced in Korea and disseminated worldwide. “I hope to critically engage in conversation about how we need to rethink sexual consent, censorship, and racism in the face of rising cases of digital sex crimes.”
Bringing it back to Korean popular culture, Lee invites the Oxy community to share what they’ve been watching. “If there’s a Korean TV drama, film, or music video that you found particularly interesting, send me an email or find me in my office,” she says.
Syeda ShahBano Ijaz (assistant professor, diplomacy and world affairs) comes to Occidental from UC San Diego, where she completed her Ph.D. in political science in June. Prior to that, she earned an M.A. in politics from New York University and an MSc. in economics for development from the University of Oxford as a Commonwealth Scholar. At Oxy, she’ll be teaching courses on international development, globalization, foreign aid, and democratic processes in South Asia.
Ijaz is a scholar of the political economy of development, with a regional focus on South Asia and the domestic consequences of foreign aid. “As someone who grew up in a developing country, I was interested in the broad field of development studies, and then development economics, from the very beginning of my educational career,” she says.
While attending graduate school at Oxford, “I became fascinated by how much of the variation in the world—such as why some countries are poorer than others—could be explained by economic models and numbers,” she continues. “The journey from there to political economy came about through the realization that even when something improves welfare, or is profitable, the resulting profit or welfare may not be equitably distributed. And even when everyone benefits, it is important to ask who benefits disproportionately more and who benefits much less.”
As an immigrant attending grad school in the United States, “These questions became more than just academic concerns for me,” Ijaz says. “My Ph.D. became an endeavor to understand the political economy of foreign aid in South Asia from a more intimate lens: conducting fieldwork in Pakistan to find out who does aid really benefit, who it hurts, and along what dimensions.”
Two years of fieldwork in Pakistan provided the foundation for Ijaz’s book project, Aiding Accountability: The Politics of Last-Mile Service Delivery in Pakistan. “Aiding Accountability centers the agency of foreign aid recipients in determining whether aid benefits them and how,” she says.
Ijaz, a Muslim and immigrant woman of color, is aware of the differential challenges that minoritized and first-generation students face in U.S. institutions. “My aim is to challenge conventional knowledge in the classroom while offering support in navigating the hidden curriculum outside the classroom. I remain committed to encouraging respectful debate and making sure everyone’s voices and viewpoints are heard.”
Vivian Wenli Lin (assistant professor, media arts and culture) has a Ph.D. in media art from City University of Hong Kong, an MFA from Sandberg Instituut in the Netherlands, a master of professional studies from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, and a B.A. in psychology with an Asian American studies minor from UC Berkeley. Lin is a media artist and educator with a background in psychology, documentary film, video art, and interactive installation. Her research interests focus on issues of representation, gender, migration, and the Asian diaspora.
Lin’s work with participatory video began at NYU, working on video self-portraits with young women from New York City’s Chinatowns. “When I moved to the Netherlands, I was attracted to other migrant and diasporic communities and wanted to learn more about them,” she says. She started Voices of Women Media to enable members of those communities to create their own narratives.
Although a lot of Lin’s courses focus on the Asian diaspora, “They attempt to mix theory and practice,” she says. “This semester, she is teaching Women Make Waves: Women’s Media and Migration in collaboration with criminologist Julie Ham at Brock University. We are giving students a framework to think about women’s migration and to apply this to a video project on issues of gender, labor, and migration.”
Lin joined Occidental in 2020 as a visiting assistant professor of media for social change. She worked remotely from Tokyo during the pandemic, teaching classes at 2 a.m. local time—“crazy hours,” she recalls. “Looking back, I cannot believe I was coherent.”
Evan Dethier (assistant professor, geology) comes to Occidental from Bowdoin College, where he was a visiting assistant professor in the Department of Earth and Oceanographic Studies. He has a master’s and a Ph.D. in Earth science from Dartmouth College and a B.A. in geosciences and English from Williams College. Dethier’s teaching and research focuses on water—flooding, drought, and water quality—using data science to better understand Earth’s threatened water resources. As a Ph.D. student and postdoctoral researcher at Dartmouth, he built on his master’s work studying rivers in New England, tackling issues related to climate change, floods, and land use change, working on human-water-environment interactions.
“I was drawn to Occidental by the value placed on undergraduate education and faculty collaboration, especially in the Geology Department,” Dethier says. “I also study modern challenges with water resources, which could not be more pressing than here in Los Angeles and the Southwest.”
Dethier’s class has taken several field trips this fall to significant geological locations in and near L.A. “My students have had a great time rediscovering the place they live and seeing it from a new perspective.”
This semester, Dethier is teaching a course where students learn field methods for geology, largely through hands-on experience outdoors and in the computer lab. “It’s helped me gain some familiarity with the region and has been a great introduction to Occidental students,” he says. “I’ve always enjoyed being outside and working through interesting problems to try to find a solution. Earth science combines these interests, and I get to address questions about how the world works and how our society should work to live sustainably in our natural setting.”
Nikki Seymour (assistant professor, geology) joined the Oxy faculty as a visiting assistant professor in 2022. Prior to that, she was an NSF Postdoctoral Fellow at Stanford and UC Santa Cruz. She has a Ph.D. from Colorado State University’s Warner College of Natural Resources, a master’s from the University of Texas at Austin’s Jackson School of Geosciences, and a BBA from UT-Austin’s McCombs School of Business. Seymour’s research primarily addresses how deformation related to plate tectonic motion is accommodated in the middle to upper crust, the interactions between magmatism and deformation, and effects of sediment subduction at convergent plate boundaries. She is particularly interested in the tectonic evolution of the Western United States and how deep rocks are exhumed to the surface.
“Geology is a field-based science, and there are few places in the world with better access to geologic field sites,” Seymour says. “It’s an incredible laboratory for teaching and research, and Oxy prioritizes this kind of immersive educational experience.”
Seymour is currently teaching Geologic Resources for the Green Economy, which focuses on how critical commodities like copper, lithium, rare-earth elements, and other important metals are concentrated and ultimately found. “These resources are central to the technologies we are developing to move away from a hydrocarbon-based economy, and studying them draws on a wide range of geologic disciplines. It’s exciting to see Oxy students draw from across their full range of classes to make connections in this applied setting!
“I was drawn to plate tectonics right from the beginning in my Physical Geology class,” she adds. “It’s incredible that there are places we can walk on the exhumed deep mantle or that one continent can be stitched to another, and more importantly, that we can explain how that’s possible. I am continually impressed by the ability of plate tectonic theory to simply explain the magnitude, rates, and other key aspects of how the Earth works.”
As “elegant” as many of the first-order explanations are, Seymour says, “We still have a lot to learn about plate tectonics. The advances we have made in geochronology—a set of techniques used to establish temporal records of Earth processes—are opening new doors to study when and how quickly rocks respond to plate tectonic stress.”
Teddy Max Pozo (assistant professor, computer science) is a multimedia writer and artist whose academic articles have been published in journals such as Game Studies, Camera Obscura: Feminism, Culture, and Media Studies, New Review of Film and Television Studies, Porn Studies, Mediascape, and Media Fields; anthologies including Digital Love and Rated M for Mature; the Routledge Encyclopedia of Film Theory; and the Encyclopedia of Video Games. Their peer-reviewed academic article, “Queer Games After Empathy: Feminism and Haptic Game Design Aesthetics From Consent to Cuteness to the Radically Soft,” available online, has been included in multiple game studies and game design syllabi.
Pozo has a B.A. in film and media studies and French literature from Swarthmore College and a master’s and a Ph.D. in film and media studies from UC Santa Barbara. They are currently working on a book, Touchy Feely Games, about the sense of touch, focusing on haptic technology and haptic aesthetics in queer and trans game design. Their art practice combines conductive materials with clay sculptures and original game designs to create unique game arcade machine and console installations. Pozo’s original course, designed while they were a Mellon Postdoctoral Media Arts and Culture Fellow at Occidental, invites students to create their own versions of such haptic media: physically and emotionally touching game design installations. Their games, documentation of works in progress, and games by their students can be found at drpozo.itch.io.
Pozo also is co-creating and expanding the new Comp 101 course Justice and Equity in Technology, now required for all majors to take before their junior seminar. Comp 101 challenges students to engage in discussions about race, gender, disability, social stratification, class/caste, design, workplace culture, AI, algorithmic bias, global infrastructures and economies of computing, and imagination to challenge existing forms of extraction and exploitation. “These experiences prepare students to work toward dismantling systems of oppression created or encoded by computing, whether on a personal, community, national, or global level,” Pozo says.
Alexandria Pivovaroff (assistant professor, biology) comes to Occidental from Glendale Community College, where she was a tenure-track biology instructor. Pivovaroff is a global change biologist who specializes in plant water relations, hydraulics, and functional traits to understand how forests are responding to changes in the environment. During her postdoc with the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, she examined how tropical forests respond to increasing soil drought and atmospheric dryness and employed models to understand and forecast future responses.
As a postdoc at UCLA’s La Kretz Center for California Conservation Science and in collaboration with the National Park Service, Pivovaroff studied how chaparral and coastal sage scrub shrublands respond to heat waves, drought, and fire. She completed her Ph.D. in plant biology from UC Riverside, where as a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow she studied chaparral, coastal sage scrub, and desert responses to environmental change. She also has a B.A. in biology from Whittier College.
“Doing undergraduate research was such a pivotal experience for me,” says Pivovaroff, whose research adviser was Biology Professor Emeritus Cheryl (Colee) Swift ’78 M’83. “No one in my family had ever gone to college, so to be doing research in college was never something I expected to do, but I loved it!” When she started looking for faculty positions, “I wanted to be at a place where I could mentor students on their own science, education, and research journeys. Oxy turned out to be the perfect fit for that.”
This semester, Pivovaroff is co-teaching Biostats with Associate Professor Amanda Zellmer, and she’s developing her own course, Global Change Biology, which she’ll be teaching next semester. She’s come a long way from even her first two years of college, when “I actually hated biology,” she admits. “I was originally a chemistry major. But in Ecology and Evolution of Organisms, there was a lecture on plant water transport—and I was riveted. I walked out of that lecture and down the hall to knock on the door of the professor who happened to be doing research on that. She immediately let me join her lab, and I’ll never forget my first fieldwork experience. We did some work in the wetlands along the Gulf Coast, and one morning we were up before dawn, waist-deep in swamp water, and someone ended up with a leech on their back. I loved it, and here I am today.”
Natasha Sekhon (assistant professor, geology) will join the Oxy faculty in January from Brown University, where she is studying the history of droughts and floods in the Philippines alongside Assistant Professor Daniel Ibarra. A low-temperature geochemist and paleoclimatologist, her research combines concepts from karst and speleothem sciences to investigate the hydroclimate of terrestrial environments varying on seasonal to millennial time scales. Her Ph.D. work explored the utility of stalagmites from near-entrance cave settings in New Mexico as potential recorders of recharge episodes. Sekhon earned her bachelor’s degree with honors in Earth system sciences with a minor in comparative literature at UC Irvine. She earned her master’s and Ph.D. in geological sciences at the Institute for Geophysics and Department of Geological Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, respectively.
“I am excited to be a part of a community where deep disciplinary understanding, embracing student research, with interdisciplinary practice is encouraged,” Sekhon says. “I look forward to establishing an invigorating classroom and becoming a better teacher.”
Next semester, Sekhon will be teaching GEO210, Water in a Changing World, and GEO105, Earth: Our Environment. “The former will explore the physical principles, processes, and dynamics of the water cycle, including how and where water is transformed and transported around the planet, and the latter will emphasize the physical processes that shape the environment on the Earth’s surface.” In fall 2024, “I’ll be teaching a lab-based course on geochemistry and paleoclimatology with hands-on experience at the 300 level. Down the line, I am also interested in co-developing courses around environmental history and time series analysis with faculty across different disciplines.
“I remember being curious about the climate and how it shapes cultures around the world since I was a kid,” Sekhon says. “During my undergraduate years, I really enjoyed classes in my major, Earth system sciences, but still felt a pull toward the humanities and ended up a few classes short of a double major in comparative literature. After working in multiple labs at UC Irvine and University of Edinburgh, I found my niche in geochemistry and paleoclimatology, which merges my interests in the sciences and humanities, and I’ve not looked back since.
“If I’m not teaching in the classroom, mentoring students with research projects, or in the lab, you’ll find me exploring a cave system,” she adds. “I look forward to getting some cave monitoring sites up and running in Southern California.”
Top photo: From left, Assistant professors Sohaib Khan (religious studies), Season Blake (philosophy), Jamie Amemiya (psychology), and Zachary Silver (psychology).