Features

Life Imitates Art

What's Happening at Vassar, Vol. 24, #1 • Fall 2007

Packed like sardines in the cab of a pick-up truck, and bouncing in and out of the giant ruts and holes of Haiti's roads, Andrew Meade, Dionne Jackson '95, and Mark Andrews were unsure of what to expect next. It had been four years since Meade's last visit to the country, when he'd met with Haitian artists and gallery owners, purchasing art to sell at the Vassar Haiti Project, a fundraiser to support a hot lunch program and to help fund a new school. In January, nearly six years after the program's inception, and $200,000 later, the trio finally had a chance to see the art come alive as they connected with the people and witnessed first-hand the effects of the program.

When the pick-up truck finally rocked to a halt, the group knew it was time to begin the final walk to the village. Picking their way through a rocky riverbed, they journeyed single-file through the sandy red soil and up the side of the mountain to Chermaître. "There was no one else around, and we just had this visually stunning landscape to ourselves," says Andrews, an associate professor of French. With the aid of a local priest who had coordinated their visit and help from locals, they climbed for an hour and a half, carrying toothbrushes donated by a Poughkeepsie dentist, construction paper, vitamins, pens, and bubble gum to give to the children. The village already had an abundance of brightly colored Vassar College T-shirts, part of the 30 boxes of clothing and materials sent at the end of the school year.

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Life Imitates Art

A Fish Tale

What's Happening at Vassar, Vol. 24, #1 • Fall 2007

Once inside, it's suddenly clear how the Abyss got its name. The dark, windowless room is long, containing a giant black tank, 10 feet in diameter and capable of holding several thousand gallons of water. A single light shines over the tank, illuminating what at first glance appears to be a Tupperware dish containing a circuit board and a tail. Meet Tadro, short for Tadpole Robot, created to mimic the evolution of vertebrates, and to explore the behavior of extinct marine fish. Designed by professor of biology John Long and his "Fish Fellows," this unusual approach to studying evolution has produced some intriguing and unexpected results, while gaining international attention along the way.

Equipped with a similar body and brain as the fossil fish, Tadro is autonomous, designed to swim through the water using a tail that pushes and steers, while seeking light, which represents food, along the way. Originally created by Adam Lammert for his 2004 senior thesis, Tadro continued to evolve. A year later, another student, Joe Schumacher, worked with Tadro for his senior thesis, and in 2005, the most recent group of six Fish Fellows took over for a continuous in-depth study on the evolution of the five hundred-million-year-old vertebrates. More specifically, they wanted to understand how the stiffness of the fish's tail affected its swimming ability. Using computer algorithms, the team genetically mated the robot for 10 generations, giving the strongest swimmers the most genes in the mating pool, and throwing in random mutations as well.

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A Fish Tale

The FLYRM People

What's Happening at Vassar, Vol. 25, #1 • Fall 2008

"People tend to think that scientists are antisocial or have lab tans from sitting in front of the white lights from microscopes all day," says associate professor of biology Nancy Pokrywka with a laugh. "It's wonderful, however, to build a lab community and to be able to share research and ideas in a group. College is a very social experience, and we want to simulate this in the lab." But how do you create this community when students tend to work on independent research projects, and faculty mentors work with just one or two students a semester?

This question has been on the minds of Pokrywka and biology professor Kate Susman for several years. "We wanted our students to experience the feel of a large lab, much like they would in a cellular biology lab in graduate school," says Susman, explaining how larger universities tend to have an "experiment factory" with teams of researchers all tackling one question and quickly churning out data. "Also, with our little nucleus of one or two students, we couldn't have a rich, intellectual environment of sharing at lab meetings and presentations," she says. "Our labs get together with other labs during URSI [Vassar's Undergraduate Research Summer Institute] in the summer and could share and swap stories, which was great. We were looking for ways to get that community feeling into our labs year-round."

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The FLYRM People

A Day in the Life

What's Happening at Vassar, Vol. 24, #3 • Spring 2008

What's it like to sit in the boardroom of a top financial company or to have dinner in Los Angeles with well-known writers, producers, and directors? Through two immersion programs organized by the Career Development Office — one based in New York's financial district, the other in LA — students learned first-hand what it's like to work in their chosen industry and to live and commute in two major cities.

"French majors go to France, and film majors go to LA," says Andrea Listenberger '09. "It was like study abroad for a week." Last October, Listenberger and seven other students traveled to LA for four days to explore careers in film and television. They toured studios and artists' agencies, and talked to writers, directors, editors, lawyers, and presidents, many of whom were Vassar alums.

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A Day in the Life

Mount Your Broomsticks

What's Happening at Vassar, Vol. 24, #3 • Spring 2008

Every Sunday and Wednesday, Vassar transforms into Hogwarts Academy when students, toting brooms and a volleyball quaffle, take to Joss Beach for a friendly game of quidditch. The sport, which was created by J.K. Rowling in the Harry Potter series, has taken off at college campuses nationwide. Vassar's team, the Butterbeer Brewers, already has close to 30 members.

"It's hilarious and so much fun to be running around on brooms as Muggles," says Conrad Schott '11, who has become the unofficial team captain. "It's really fun translating the game from the books and seeing it work so well as a sport." Woodrow Travers '09 introduced the Vassar Muggles to the sport earlier in the year after visiting his friend Xander Manshel at Middlebury College. Manshel, who wrote the original rules of quiddich, encouraged Travers to bring the sport back to Vassar. The game, which has spread to at least 15 other schools (there's even an Intercollegiate Quidditch Association), has already garnered the attention of the Wall Street Journal and ESPN The Magazine. The players were recently interviewed by USA Today following the November 11 World Cup at Middlebury.

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Mount Your Broomsticks

Something in the Air

On Campus • May, 2009

They've performed at two International Whistlers Conventions and were hired for a corporate meeting in Atlanta just to whistle "Eye of the Tiger." Now AirCappella, the Vassar co-ed whistling troupe that turns pop songs into high-pitched harmonies, has taken their act to a new level — prime-time TV. In March, the group competed on the national stage for an upcoming episode of NBC's America's Got Talent.

"Someone originally emailed me asking if we wanted to audition for the show," recalls Sadie Burzan '11, who has whistled with the group for two years. "It was exciting to think about being on TV." To prepare for the show, five of the group's 10 members and four Air-Cappella alums quickly assembled for impromptu rehearsals. "When it came time to audition we decided to perform 'Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da' by The Beatles and the judge liked it enough to send us up to the celebrity judges round to perform more songs," says Ben Creed '09, adding that there were also several long group interviews. "Being backstage there was like Halloween. You have Elvis impersonators, George Washington walking around, little five-year-old gymnasts in leotards — all sorts of crazy, wacky people," he says. "I don't know if that made it more intimidating or just surreal."

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Something in the Air

Lessons from the Border

On Campus • January, 2007

Despite weeks of reading, watching films, and engaging in intense discussions, the students were still not prepared for this. Standing in the intense heat of the desert on a dusty cattle ranch, they met with the Minutemen. The armed patrolmen, one of many groups the students met with as part of their trip to the U.S.-Mexico border, wanted to show students what they described as "one of the biggest environmental disasters in history," a migrant stopover. Standing in an area about the size of two basketball courts, some of the students began to cry. Scattered in the sand were migrants' water bottles, clothes, shoes, backpacks, letters, and bus tickets. Instead of seeing these items as litter, the students recognized them as pieces of the people they had met over the past few days. Each item was a visceral sign of the struggles people go through to cross the border.

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Lessons from the Border

Doubling the Fun

Hudson Valley Magazine • October, 2003

Driving up to the ticket booth at Canopus Lake in Clarence Fahnestock Memorial State Park, Tildy La Farge, communications director for the Open Space Institute, stops to identify herself. The teenager inside immediately perks up, dropping what he's reading to lean out the door.

"I love the OSI!" he exclaims.

So should everyone who uses the park. A series of acquisitions by the OSI has more than doubled the size of Fahnestock over the last dozen years. Starting out at 5,100 acres, it now encompasses 12,137 acres of lakes, streams, and wetlands, as well as meadows, rugged stone outcroppings, hills, and miles of secluded forest. What makes Fahnestock especially unusual is that so much wilderness is just 50 miles north of Manhattan.

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Doubling the Fun

Learning...With A Twist

What's Happening at Vassar, Vol. 26, #2 • Fall, 2009

When Charlie Dobb '12 signed up for a political theory class his first semester at Vassar, he went in expecting to sit in a crowded lecture hall while the professor lectured on about abstract theories. Boy, was he wrong.

Led by Sarita Gregory, assistant professor of political science, the class was structured around group discussions, and one of the first assignments was to visit local polls. "It was really impressive to have a small intro class and a professor talking about grassroots advocacy," says Dobb. "She also encouraged us to discover our individual roles in the community."

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Learning...With A Twist

You Are Where You Eat

What's Happening at Vassar, Vol. 24, #2 • Winter, 2007

Dining halls often conjure up images of steam tables stacked with gray meats, gooey side dishes, and salad bars spilling over with iceberg lettuce. At Vassar's All Campus Dining Center (ACDC), students nosh on pizza topped with homemade sauce from local tomatoes and basil, enjoy omelets made from cage-free eggs, and pour hormone-free milk on their cereal, knowing it came from cows that graze in the Hudson Valley.

"Whenever possible, we will purchase from local farms, markets, and dairies," says Ken Oldehoff, director of marketing and sustainability for Campus Dining. "We've come to see how buying food grown where you live preserves the rural nature of the area, keeps pesticide use to a minimum, and keeps money in the local economy." The initiative began with a 2002 farm-to-college pilot program through Cornell University, which served to strengthen ties between Vassar and local farmers, bringing fresh, locally grown ingredients to campus. With the help of Oldehoff (who, at the start of the program, often spent weekends loading up his car with pounds of produce from nearby farms), Vassar was able to serve everything from gazpacho made with local tomatoes and cilantro, to squash, lettuce, cantaloupe, apples, cider, salsa, and honey. "People think that eating local is limiting, but it's not," says Oldehoff who continues to expand Vassar's list of ingredients and suppliers each semester. The college's produce commitment also struck a chord with the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals who, in 2005, named Vassar one of the top 10 best vegetarian and vegan-friendly college and dining services.

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You Are Where You Eat