Tag Archives: Indiana University

Sexual Justice Warrior

December 21, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Sex videos are popular on the internet. Even academic ones. Just ask Dr. Sofia Jawed-Wessel, an associate professor at the University of Nebraska-Omaha’s School of Health & Kinesiology.

Her 2016 TEDx talk has been viewed more than 2.5 million times online. In the lecture, Jawed-Wessel discusses society’s objectification of women as tools of men’s sexual pleasure (with little value placed on their own satisfaction), and how this view dramatically changes during pregnancy to one of non-sexual beings whose sole purpose is reproduction.

She has become an internationally recognized expert in her field of research. In November 2018, Jawed-Wessel traveled to Islamabad, Pakistan, to present the keynote address at the country’s National Institute of Psychology annual conference.

“My niche area of research focuses on understanding the sexual health of women and couples as they transition into parenthood by documenting sexual behaviors, sexual function, relationship adjustment, and sexual changes during pregnancy and after childbirth,” she explains.

On top of her professorship, Jawed-Wessel is the associate director of the Midlands Sexual Health Research Collaborative. She also holds a joint appointment with the Women and Gender Studies program at UNO and a courtesy appointment in the College of Public Health at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. Her teachings utilize a sex-positive and pleasure-inclusive approach to providing medically accurate, comprehensive sexuality education to her undergraduate students.

Jawed-Wessel, 35, didn’t initially set her sights on becoming a sex researcher. The daughter of Pakistani immigrants, she was born in the U.S. and raised with three siblings in a traditional family in Indiana.

“My mom stayed at home and my father worked multiple jobs,” she says. “We were a working-class family.”

Seeing her parents struggle likely prompted the inquisitive youngster to make education a priority. She went on to earn three bachelor’s degrees—in biology, psychology, and English—from Indiana University.

She volunteered as an assistant in a few labs and says she “fell in love” with sex science. “The specific focus on sex during and after pregnancy came to me as my relationship with feminism grew,” she adds. “I did not like how we divorce sexuality and motherhood, and the more I worked with pregnant women, I saw how their psyche was impacted by this forced de-sexualization.”

She went on to earn a Master of Public Health and a Ph.D. in health behavior, also from Indiana University, home to the Kinsey Institute (named after its founder, the famous American biologist and sex researcher Alfred Kinsey). She joined the UNO faculty in 2012.

Jawed-Wessel says her long-term research goal is to understand how women’s intimate relationships are impacted by sexual and maternal objectification. She also believes in “conducting research that will help promote women’s and LGBTQ rights and reproductive justice values, and, therefore, science that will support or push back against policy and systems-level change,” she says. With this public engagement in mind, she has provided expert testimony for the Nebraska Unicameral, the Nebraska Board of Education, and the Omaha Public School Board of Education.

For her work, Jawed-Wessel was a 2017 recipient of the Women’s Center for Advancement’s Tribute to Women Award (and was the luncheon’s keynote speaker in 2018). She was also named among the 2017 Ten Outstanding Young Omahans by the Omaha Jaycees.

In 2018, her Midlands Sexual Health Research Collaborative received one of the first Equality Fund grants ($40,000) from the Omaha Community Foundation to conduct work that will increase LGBTQ equality in Omaha. “Community engagement and my research go hand in hand; one without the other means lesser impact,” she says. “I want to see my science put into action.”

When not teaching, conducting research, or traveling for speaking engagements, Jawed-Wessel says she enjoys hosting dinner parties for close friends. “If I cook you an elaborate Pakistani meal, that means I really love you,” she confides. She’s also the proud mom of two young boys, 9 and 3.


Find more information about the Midlands Sexual Health Research Collaborative on Facebook at @unomshrc and Twitter at @1mshrc.

This article was printed in the January/February 2019 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Correction: Dr. Sofia Jawed-Wessel is an “associate professor,” not “assistant professor,” as noted in the print edition. 

Dr. A. Barron Breland

July 8, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Creighton University’s choral conductor, spontaneously volunteers the answer before even hearing the question.

“The ‘A’ stands for Ashley,” says Dr. A. Barron Breland with a dimpled grin.

As in Ashley Wilkes?

“Yup, absolutely. My parents were all about Gone with the Wind.”

This son of the South, born in Alabama but raised outside Atlanta, quickly brings the name game full circle.

“All the men in my family have traditionally gone by their middle name,” he explains. “It’s just one of those random Southern quirks.”

There’s nothing quirky about the success and esteem Breland has enjoyed since moving to Omaha eight years ago, although he sheepishly admits thinking Omaha was the state capital. “What did I know?” He says with a laugh.

A former singer with the prestigious Atlanta Boy Choir, Breland worked hard, earning a master’s degree and a doctorate in choral conducting from Indiana University. Choral jobs are hard to obtain, but Creighton showed an interest in him.

Within a year of his arrival, the Creighton Chamber Choir, which requires auditions, and the University Chorus, which does not, each doubled their number of concerts to two per semester. The repertoire became ambitious. The expectations grew, even though Breland knew the parameters before he accepted the job.

ABarronBreland1“I don’t have the singers here that I might have in Lincoln,” he says. “No one is coming to Creighton to make chamber music. They’re coming to be doctors and lawyers and business executives and wonderful liberal arts thinkers, which is beautiful.”

And yet Breland manages to get the most out of his choral ensembles, which caught the attention of Omaha’s tight-knit music community early on.

“We musicians like to keep our ear to the ground, and there was a buzz that something special was happening at Creighton,” says Ernest Richardson, resident conductor and principal pops conductor of the Omaha Symphony. Richardson went on a reconnaissance mission and came away impressed. “The choir was very well prepared and sang as a unit, pronouncing their consonants at the same time. Barron also achieved great balance in the sound of the voices.”

Maestro Richardson’s spy mission eventually resulted in a collaboration between the symphony and Breland, who has served as chorus master for large projects like Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. His deep knowledge of several genres of music, from classical to contemporary, has also given him more opportunities in the community. Breland serves as artistic director of the River City Mixed Chorus, where membership has increased from 40 to 102 people. More recently, he became the music director of Résonance, comprised of trained singers.

“They’re the best vocal group in town, no matter what kind of music you want,” says Breland. “They’ll go from the annual Christmas show with the symphony to Stravinsky’s Mass, to a cabaret night with show tunes. Résonance keeps me on my toes and excited.”

Becoming the chair of the Fine and Performing Arts Department at Creighton in August will also keep the boyish-looking 36-year old busy, but his new duties won’t temper his ambitions for the school’s chamber choir. He is planning a national tour with the group in 2017.

“I keep getting more and more fulfilled in my musical life in Omaha,” Breland says. The city he knew little about has become his happy home.

Concertmaster Susanna Perry Gilmore


April 9, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Originally published in March/April 2015 Omaha Magazine.

When the house lights dim at the Holland Performing Arts Center, the formally dressed musicians on stage cease warming up and the rustle of the audience immediately dies down. The silence and stillness in the 2,000-seat, acoustically superior hall signal a very satisfying tradition at every classical music concert: the entrance of the concertmaster.

A woman with luxuriously thick, curly strawberry blonde hair and a sweet smile appears from stage left, violin in hand, igniting enthusiastic applause. After bowing to the audience, she turns and faces her 75 or so colleagues, making eye contact with each of them as if to say, “We’re in this together. Let’s do it!” She then nods to the principal oboe to play a concert “A” and that wondrous sound of an orchestra tuning fills the space.

Susanna Perry Gilmore is the symphony’s principal first violinist, a high profile “glamour” job and, after the conductor, an orchestra’s second-most pivotal position. The concertmaster must possess superior playing and leadership abilities, but what the audience sees leans toward the ceremonial.

“I symbolically represent the orchestra,” Gilmore explains in her low, assertive voice. “There’s the tradition of entering, my hand gets shaken all the time by the conductor and the guest soloist and I ‘tune’ the orchestra, which isn’t really true but it’s part of the little rituals.” In addition, Gilmore plays all the violin solos within an orchestral work and is often featured as a soloist standing up front on stage. Reviewers have praised her deep tone and impeccable technique.

Behind the scenes, the job of concertmaster requires an exhaustive list of qualifications and abilities. Gilmore works closely with music director and conductor Thomas Wilkins to make sure the violins are playing exactly what he wants musically or what the composer intended.

“Thomas calls me his field general,” she says with a gentle laugh, amused by the image. “In rehearsal, I’m constantly evaluating what [the violins] are doing. Are we achieving what he or a guest conductor wants? If not, would a different bowing or a different fingering help? It may be just asking the conductor, ‘May we please just do this passage slower?’”

With the negotiating skills of a diplomat, the patience and understanding of a Zen master, and the obsessive drive of a politician, Gilmore gets an entire section of violinists—each with their own personality and style—to play as one voice.

Gilmore had just turned 40 when she came to Omaha in 2011 and quickly won the admiration of her peers.

“She has been a really important figure in transforming the violin section,” praises principal horn Jason DeWater, currently on sabbatical. The bow strokes are identical, they play the same phrasing and they sound amazing. Plus, she’s humble and kind and very talented.” But a strain of steel magnolia runs through Gilmore. “There’s an intensity about her and she’s no pushover,” reveals DeWater. “She’ll go toe-to-toe with anybody, including a conductor, if she thinks something can be done better.”

That kind of self-assuredness grew gradually out of her musical training. Born in Buffalo, N.Y. to a pair of academics, Gilmore always had the music in her. “My mother says I sang before I could talk,” says Gilmore, who has two brothers who, like their parents, became professors.

When she was 8, the family moved to Bloomington and Indiana University where she added violin to her piano studies and took lessons at the university’s school of music. She was too young to appreciate I.U.’s string program as one of the most prestigious in the world. Gilmore only knew she loved the violin. “I was a really sensitive, shy, and introverted kid and the violin was, and still is, a tremendous emotional outlet for me.”

Her training eventually took her across the pond to London and Oxford University where she received a degree in musicology and theory. Did she want to teach music or play violin fulltime? Her decision led to Boston where she earned a Master’s degree in performance at the New England Conservatory. Two years later Gilmore won the position of concertmaster with the Memphis Symphony Orchestra, where she stayed for 15 years and raised a family. She has two daughters: Katy, 13, and Zoe, 10.

It was in Memphis as guest conductor that Thomas Wilkins met Gilmore and saw everything he wanted in a concertmaster. Their personalities clicked; their musical tastes meshed in what Gilmore calls “beautiful serendipity.” She was open to the possibility of change and spent a week “auditioning” with the symphony in Omaha. Serendipity struck again.

“I felt very embraced by the musicians here; very welcomed and supported,” she recalls of her tryout week. “That’s not always the case in a work environment. It makes making music easier.”

With positive vibes all around, Omaha’s concertmaster continues her course of excellence.

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