Alumni Highlight: Dr. Angela M. Person

Angela Person

For our final alumni highlight of the semester, we are talking to Environmental Design alumni and the current Director of Research Initiatives and Strategic Planning for the Gibbs College of Architecture, Dr. Angela M. Person! Dr. Person received her undergraduate degree in Environmental Design from OU in 2006, then received a Masters in Museum Studies and a PhD in Cultural Geography. Dr. Person has gone on to publish her book The Care and Keeping of Cultural Facilities (2014), in addition to receiving numerous grants to work on a variety of research projects. As Director of Research Initiatives and Strategic Planning she supports the development of thoughtful, sustainable, and experimental solutions to the design problems of the future. This week, we talked to her about her studies, her research, and more about what it’s like to work for the Christopher C. Gibbs College of Architecture.

Professional Accomplishments:

I was a Smithsonian Doctoral Fellow, 2011-2013. I worked at the Smithsonian Institution (SI) for two years on a research project and collaborated on their facilities management and reliability strategic plan, for an office of more than 800 people and an annual budget exceeding $60M. It was an amazing, early career opportunity, and I’m grateful to SI for trusting me!

I am also co-author of The Care and Keeping of Cultural Facilities (2014), which was awarded the 2015 Distinguished Author Award by the International Facilities Management Association.

And my dissertation research, “Locating the Agency of Architecture” (2016) was recognized with a Dissertation Award Honorable Mention by the Architectural Research Centers Consortium (ARCC).

Describe your role at GCA:

In my current role, I support GCA’s strategic initiatives and major research projects. Examples of recent strategic initiatives include supporting diversity and inclusion efforts, reworking our website to better reflect our brand and the great work we do, hiring a team of (amazing!) communications interns to help get the message out, hosting a monthly series of brown bag seminars, and supporting the publication of Telesis, our new student journal. 

As far as major research projects go, I have been focused on The American School project, alongside Stephanie Pilat and Luca Guido. Over the past two years, this celebration of the legacy of Bruce Goff, Herb Greene, and their proteges has grown into a mammoth (and exciting!) effort that includes over 40 team members, several exhibitions (including one in Venice!), a major archive as part of the Western History Collection, the forthcoming Renegades book, and lots of great press for the college.

From left: Dr. Luca Guido, Dr. Stephanie Pilat, Dr. Angela Person and development director Erik Baker accept a gift to the American School Archive from architect Harvey Ferrero.

In addition to supporting strategic initiatives and research, I’m also fortunate to teach several classes here at OU. I co-teach “Methods I” with GCA dean Hans E. Butzer. During this class, we ask freshman architecture students to situate their own goals with respect to OU’s American School legacy, while also defining for themselves what it means to “be a great architect.” It’s incredibly energizing. I also teach “Research and Critical Writing: Architectural Theory and Criticism,” an upper-division undergraduate class that is open to grad students as well. This class is focused on students learning how to express complex ideas about design through discussions and in writing. We host an annual poster exhibition, and the grad students publish an edited newsletter several times a year.

What is your favorite thing about your job?

My favorite thing about my job is that I get to work together with students, faculty and staff as we dream big about what we want our college—and our world— to look like in the future! It’s incredibly invigorating to be a part of conversations with Dean Butzer and the rest of the leadership team about the future of resilience, neuroscience and entrepreneurship in planning, design and construction, and the role our college can play in creating more equitable, sustainable environments through evidence-based design. At the same time, I cherish my time in the classroom where, just today, I got to debate with students whether architecture is better served through autonomous or contingent practice (for more, see Godlewski’s essay, “The Absurd Alabi,” here). My true passion is mentoring students as they develop into critical practitioners who will help shape better places for people! 

Dr. Person (center) with undergraduate researcher Allyson Wiley (left) and Dr. Randy Peppler (right) at the 2018 American Association of Geographers’ Annual Meeting.

Describe your day to day:

Like so many professionals, every day is different for me! It’s one of the things that I love about my job. Most days are spent brainstorming and planning new initiatives, meeting with stakeholders, and measuring progress. Here is an example of a recent work day:  welcoming students on behalf of Dean Butzer during the annual recruiting event “The Experience,” writing a letter of support for a faculty researcher applying for external funding, meeting with the student editor of Telesis to check on next steps in the publication process, meeting with a “Research and Critical Writing” student to refine his research topic, meeting with a director to draft a “regular faculty recruiting application” (RFRA), meeting with the American School team to review details for an upcoming event, and reviewing plans for a mini-exhibition opening in Gould Hall. Each day presents so much diversity among the tasks and personalities I encounter! 

What made you want to study Environmental Design?

When I came to OU, I had so many different interests—geology, journalism, engineering, meteorology, anthropology, philosophy! I spent a year taking classes that supported degree paths these different areas. At the end of the year, I realized that architecture and environmental design allowed me an avenue to explore and draw on expertise in all of these areas to make a positive impact in the world. Back then, the environmental design curriculum was a bit different – it was closer to architecture; I still took design studios, structures, and architectural history. It was intense, but I loved it! I went on to earn my master’s degree in museum studies and a Ph.D. in cultural geography, with an emphasis on understanding people’s relationships to built environments. All of my training and work up to this point has been driven by my curiosity about how people experience places and how these experiences shape environmental and social outcomes. 

What is something that inspired you as a student or early on in your career?

There have been so many strong women who have inspired me in my career; while I can’t name them all here, I want to specifically highlight Judie Cooper, my mentor at the Smithsonian Institution. Judie demonstrated to me that it’s 100% possible to have a HUGE idea and begin implementing it that same day. We shared an office, and Judie and I would constantly be brainstorming ways to improve our workflow or the state of cultural facilities management. Nearly the second after having an idea, Judie would be on the phone with someone to confirm next steps for implementation. This led Judie and I to write an award-winning book, present our work at national conferences, re-design spaces inside the National Museum of Natural History, develop new training for Smithsonian employees, and more. This ethic—dreaming big and taking action—has seeped into everything I do today. 

What is one of your favorite memories from being a student in the College of Architecture?  

My favorite memories revolve around how much we, as students, loved this place. In our design studios, my friend Rachel White and I were constantly talking about how we could retrofit the studios to live in – we never wanted to go home. We even invented side design projects for ourselves, in addition to our studio work. We published an underground journal that we left everywhere we went; one of the issues explored whether conjoined twins were understood by different parts of society (i.e., neurologists, airlines, and priests) as separate beings (answer: it’s complicated). We also published a booklet entitled “Gould Hall” that drew attention to its then-dilapidated facilities (prior to the updates completed in 2011); we circulated this booklet for student signatures and delivered it to President Boren. All of this was due to the incredible, creative energy that grew out of our studio time. Even today, when certain Jack Johnson songs come on, I get super nostalgic for our late-night studio sessions. The sense of community is incredible, and it’s something that’s hard to find at that same degree of intensity once you graduate. 

What is the biggest piece of advice you would give to ENVD students or recent grads?   

Take a page out of Judie’s (my mentor at the Smithsonian’s) book… dream big and take action. I think that so many of us get overwhelmed when we have big, important (scary!) dreams and goals in front of us. If we can just take apart our big goals and big projects and boil them down into bits of “micro-progress,” it’s so much easier to jump in and get ‘er done. This applies whether you’re working on something “big,” like searching for a new job, or small, like trying to set your course schedule for next semester. To get started, I highly recommend the New York Times article, “Micro-Progress and the Magic of Just Getting Started.” 

Dr. Person outside of Bruce Goff’s Bavinger House in Norman, Oklahoma, with her daughter Nora and Nickolas Harm in 2010. She describes the house as an “otherworldly, magical place.”

Editor’s Note
: We would like to give a big thank you to Angela for taking the time to answer our questions and give us a look into her life.