For Immediate Release—Monday, Nov. 6, 2006
Mary E. McCrank
Media Relations Officer
SUNY Geneseo Geography Professor Garners National Attention for Decades-old Research
GENESEO, N.Y.—When Ren Vasiliev, professor and chair of the geography department at the State University of New York at Geneseo, recently received a call from National Public Radio's Robert Krulwich, she assumed the science reporter wanted to talk with her about current research on placenames.
But decades-old research?
Vasiliev, an expert on placenames, was being sought after for her work as an expert on toponymy—the study of the derivation of place and geographic names. While placenames research focuses on the names of cities, towns and villages, toponymic research more broadly includes all geographic names, including places named after living people, mountains, rivers, streams and lakes.
Krulwich discovered Vasiliev through her toponymic research of "Moscow" across the United States. The reporter spotted Vasiliev's credited work in a book authored by Syracuse University's Mark Monmonier, who served as Vasiliev's faculty advisor when she was a doctoral student.
Vasiliev's interest in the name Moscow came about from the question of why old world names are common in the U.S. In the late 1980s, Moscow was especially interesting, as it outlasted the Cold War. The village of Leicester, four miles from the Geneseo campus, used to be named Moscow. But the villagers changed it in 1912 so as not to be associated with the Russian Revolution. (Today, there are 16 places in America named Moscow. Between 1800 and 2000, there were 50 different places in the U.S. that went by that name at various times.)
"I wanted to know why there were any populated places in the U.S. named Moscow," Vasiliev says. "It turns out they're not all named for the city in Russia. They were named for other reasons, like Napoleon being thrown out of the city of Moscow."
Other towns, such as Moscow, Kansas, accidentally received the name. That town was meant to be named after a member of Coronado's expedition troop named Moscoso. But when the townsfolk applied for a U.S. Post Office, the Post Office mistook the application to read Moscow, and the name stuck, she said.
When Krulwich expressed interest in Vasiliev's research, Monmonier passed along Vasiliev's contact information. Krulwich was so taken with Vasiliev's research on the Moscows, he interviewed her for two NPR segments. "Congratulations, Here's Your Mountain" aired on the Oct. 21 Weekend Edition, and "An American Story: Give Me Back My 'H'!" aired on the Oct. 23 Morning Edition. (The mountain and "H" stories can be found, respectively, at http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=6355678 and http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=6243297.)
The mountain story was about how the federal government provides some unusual benefits, including naming mountains after employees. For example, Roger Payne, who had just retired as executive secretary of the U.S. Board on Geographic Names after 33 years of service, had a mountain in Antarctica named after him. Mount Payne rises to just under 11,000 feet.
The segment focusing on the letter "H" was about how that letter began disappearing from the names of many cities, towns and villages back in 1890. In 1891, the story noted, Pittsburgh, Pa.; Newburgh, N.Y.; Williamsburgh in Brooklyn; Vicksburgh, Ten.; and burghs all over America had their final, silent "H" removed from all federal maps and agencies. For the past century, though, towns have been demanding their "H" back.
Vasiliev commented at length on both segments.
Vasiliev, of Bloomfield, N.Y., joined the Geneseo faculty in 1993. In 1999, she received a SUNY Chancellor's Award for Excellence in Teaching. She is author of "From Abbotts to Zurich: New York State Placenames," which was published in 2004 by Syracuse University Press.
Vasiliev received her bachelor's degree from SUNY Oswego, her master's degree from the University of Buffalo and her Ph.D. from Syracuse University. She is a member of the Council of Geographic Names Authorities (COGNA) and the New York State Committee of Geographic Names.
Although Vasiliev enjoyed researching mapping time as a doctoral student, she expanded her interests. Today, she teaches cartography, quantitative research methods and the geography of the United States.
Vasiliev's research has taken her along the entire stretch of U.S. Route 6—from Cape Cod, Mass., to Long Beach, Calif.—and to all 48 contiguous states in America. Vasiliev—who notes that she has slept in the 48 states, as opposed to just driving through them—teaches her students about how America is interconnected in more ways than one. From the Great Lakes and Great Plains, to rocks and plants, to corn and wheat being grown in Wisconsin and Nebraska, Vasiliev explains the interconnectedness.
"They don't know how things connect to each other, and that's what I do," she says, adding she always brings back postcards to share with her classes. (Her postcard collection numbers at 1,000 and is growing.)
No matter what new research catches Vasiliev's eye, the study of why places are named what they are has always remained of interest to her.
"The placenames thread has always been there," she says.
Vasiliev, who grew up in Nyack, N.Y., says the desire to be on the move runs in her family.
"It's this restlessness that we have," she says. "No matter what's going on in the world—war, depression, personal issues—whenever we hear that train whistle, we want to go places."
When classes are not in session, Vasiliev is hard-pressed to sit still. This summer, Vasiliev logged 4,000 miles as she spent two weeks traveling through Alabama, Georgia, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina and Virginia.
Her appearance on national radio brought calls from colleagues across the nation, and even an invitation to visit a university in North Carolina.
Who knows where the summer of 2007 and the open road will take her?