8/13/2015 Peter Durantine

Passion for Ancient Coins Launches First-Year Student Into Research

A heads-up from a professor about an opportunity to study rare, ancient coins led to a rare honor for a first-year Franklin & Marshall College student.

Jacob Lichtblau, now a rising sophomore, accomplished the work in a little more than two months last winter. In the spring, he presented his findings to a group of scholars from across the country.

"It sounded like a marvelous thing to research," he said, recalling when Associate Professor of Classics Alexis Castor first brought the idea to him.

  • "Re-examining the Goddess 'Roma' on Republican Denarii" essentially required Lichtblau to critically analyze the Roman republic through its coins. The rising sophomore accomplished the work in a little more than two months last winter. "Re-examining the Goddess 'Roma' on Republican Denarii" essentially required Lichtblau to critically analyze the Roman republic through its coins. The rising sophomore accomplished the work in a little more than two months last winter. Image Credit: Melissa Hess

Castor said Lichtblau's background—he is a numismatist, or coin specialist—and evident academic skill convinced her he was the right fit for the work.

"He had written a very interesting primary source-based analytical essay for me in Roman history," Castor said. "He didn't talk a lot in class, but I could tell he was engaged, and he was doing very well."

"Re-examining the Goddess 'Roma' on Republican Denarii" essentially required Lichtblau to critically analyze the Roman republic through its coins. The project came across Castor's desk from Visiting Assistant Professor of Classics Ryan Fowler, a fellow at Sunoikisis, a national consortium of programs to advance teaching, course development and scholarship in classical studies.

Sunoikisis, Greek for "coming together," is sponsored by Harvard University's Center for Hellenic Studies, where Lichtblau presented in March.

For the Weis College House resident, the project was rife with hurdles. He had a tight deadline to complete his abstract and little time to do the research and write the paper, which was due early in the spring semester. Moreover, he had no research experience.

That initially concerned Castor, but Lichtblau demonstrated an ability to learn quickly and showed strong organizational skills, two keys to effective research. To convince her he was up to the challenge, Lichtblau sent the professor an 18-slide Power Point presentation of the coins he would research and the questions he would seek to answer. 

"I recognized that we had a winner here," Castor said. "He knew the material that I was talking about, the dates; he knew how the coins progressed. And he knew the primary evidence—the coins—very well, which is the hardest part to master."

Lichtblau worked through the winter break, assembling his abstract and soliciting direction and feedback from Castor.

"We had a Skype conversation, we had some email discussions, but most of the work came through the beginning of the semester, which is tough because this is not part of the class, so he doesn't get credit for it," Castor said.

Lichtblau included in his research a New York City coin show that he had planned to attend. There, he talked to the leading numismatists in America and Europe about the project. They encouraged him, and urged him stay in touch, if he had additional questions.

Castor and Fowler said the workload was intense, but Lichtblau persevered.

"I didn’t think I would have the opportunity, so early in my academic career, to take on something like this," he said. "It has been a really great experience for me."

Lichtblau presented his paper March 7 before a group of classics scholars, including Gregory Nagy, the Francis Jones Professor of Classical Greek Literature at Harvard University and director of the university's Center for Hellenic Studies, based in Washington, D. C.

"They were shocked that he was a first-year," Fowler said. "He was the youngest presenter there, one of five student presenters. The other four already were classics majors with years of Latin and Greek under their belts."

Lichtblau has another semester to decide whether he wants to major in classics. No matter what field he decides to pursue, this experience will prepare him well for the hands-on work that comes his way, Castor said.

"He's had a glimpse into that world, and to have a glimpse this early is amazing, but it's a glimpse he got on his own initiative," she said.

SURS 2015 Jacob Lichtblau

The presentation of  “Reexamining the Goddess ‘Roma’ on Republican Denarii.” 

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