Celebrating Seniors: Research Excellence at Wes and Abroad — Fri., 10/19, 3:30 p.m.

Join us for the WESeminar:

Celebrating Seniors: Research Excellence at Wesleyan and Abroad

Friday, October 19 —  3:30 p.m., PAC004

Four members of the Class of 2013 share their spring and summer research that ranges from Martian meteorites to stem cells and from the streets of Buenos Aires and NYC to BMW factories in China. 

Presenters: Katya Botwinick ’13 (The Street Art Movement in Buenos Aires and NYC); James Dottin ’13 (Water on Mars?  Analyzing Martian Meteorites); Ethan Grund ’13 (Stem Cells and Epilepsy); and Bingxin Wu ‘13 (The Effects of Foreign Direct Investment in China:  When BMW Comes to Town).

Moderator: Louise S. Brown, Dean for the Class of 2013

Celebrating Students 2013: Zain Alam

“It was only after my family and I moved to India that we finally found a little bit of sakoon.

On a twelve-hour bus ride from New Delhi, India to Lahore, Pakistan, a man from Sialkot, Pakistan recounted to me his life story having left Pakistan to resettle in India. Amazed at what an American would be doing in the subcontinent in the middle of an intense July heat, he opened up to me after hearing my own funnily accented Hindi. His little statement on finally finding sakoon—a word encompassing feelings of relief, peace, and calm—was entirely unsolicited, yet stands as one of the most telling and poignant moments of my journey for my thesis.

 With the Davenport and Tololyan grants, I traveled to Dubai and South Asia this summer. My most vivid childhood memories are of my grandparents recounting the family history: a relatively peaceful and content existence in the city of Lucknow in India, the home beyond which they could not trace their ancestry, violently disturbed in 1947.  I realized the serious potential for this project when, knowing that I wanted to research Partition and the storied Indian Muslim experience, my professors told me to look no further than the uniqueness of my family story—transnational in scope, consisting of three divergent narratives of expatriate Pakistanis, current Pakistanis, and Muslims who remained in India—to use as a foundational basis to explore greater cultural, socioeconomic, and political questions that rile the region to this day.

I had been to Pakistan once before for a wedding about two years ago, but this was my first time traveling to India and Dubai. Dubai was important because this is where my uncle and grandmother from my mother’s side reside. In addition to obviously being trustworthy and easygoing family members to begin the project with, I learned quickly how to most productively conduct the interviews from the kind of answers I got and what directions the conversation would take. Dubai beyond that was of little interest—it felt entirely lacking in its own culture and history, instead absorbing my least favorite of Western values, aspiring to make all of its malls and hotels and cars the biggest and baddest.

Being able to go to India at this particular moment in time was an incredible opportunity. From the moment I set foot in Bangalore, I could tell the country is at a major crossroads in terms of the rapid development and global significance soon to come its way. Major subway systems are built within a matter of years; multinationals are establishing offices left and right to absorb a massively young and educated workforce; perhaps most important is that, even with serious problems of corruption and inequality, almost everyone’s face glows when they’re asked what they think of India’s future. They proudly assert that a new India has arrived to finally inherit the glorious legacy of ancient Indian civilizations. Even beyond seeing all of this though, however important it was for my research, some of the most significant moments of my trip were when a family member would see me for the first time at a train station and tear up, telling me how much I looked like my grandparents who they hadn’t seen in so many decades since the subcontinent split.

 My experience on the other side of the border was entirely different; there is little of the same national pride and hope for a shared prosperity, they say, for any number of reasons. Afghanistan, America, India, or the hotheaded tribals—there are too many hurdles to overcome and all are to blame. The question of Pakistan has come into increased focus among academics, policymakers, and the general public in light of the war in neighboring Afghanistan, the persistence of Islamic fundamentalist and terrorist networks, and a government unable to deal with any such serious dilemmasThe aim is to find a microcosm of Indian and Pakistani narratives in the memories of each branch of my family, to see how troubled beginnings came to such divergent conclusions and what history offers toward a productive future in the region. I wasn’t there for very long, but I can say with little hesitation that the formative experience of exploring my family history and homeland was not only instructive for my thesis, but perhaps the first step towards a future career in academia.


Celebrating Students 2013: Taran Catania

On a College of the Environment Fellowship, I returned to Tanzania (after having spent the fall semester there) to do research for my thesis. I wanted to look into small-scale collaborative conservation projects, particularly ones managed by local communities: “true” community-based conservation. As someone very interested in bird conservation, if these projects included birds, I knew that would just be an ultimate bonus. By some stroke of luck, I was made aware of a village conservation project for a critically endangered bird in the small Maasai village of Engikaret, near the Kenyan border. And so I went to go study the Beesley’s Lark and conduct interviews about this conservation project.

In those weeks of my field research and village interviews, I fell in love with this bird and the people of Engikaret, but found out there was actually no conservation project in place, and that they in fact wanted one. Their argument: if we have an endangered bird that is only found here, and tourists will pay to come see it, we will happily help preserve this bird’s habitat so we can use the income from ecotourism to benefit our community. And they were just waiting for an opportunity to put the pieces together.  

In short, I ended up actually doing the thing I had intended to do research on. Together with some Maasai leaders I had become good friends with, I helped found the Beesley’s Lark Conservation Program of Engikaret (BLCPE). After weeks of “business” meetings (conducted in both Maasai and Swahili) and a variety of other tasks – such as drawing up bylaws, getting government accreditation, and creating info sheets, a website, and ID cards – we really had something started. I had a big signboard made for the road to help attract more visitors, and I took 3 young Engikaret villagers out into the field and taught them how to identify all the fauna of the area, with special attention to how to find and identify the Beesley’s Lark. (Although my Swahili is pretty good, my Maasai is sorely lacking; this training involved many a moment in which I physically reenacted the posture or behavior of each bird species, for lack of appropriate Maasai terminology with which to describe it – and, as expected, everyone found this quite hilarious.)

BLCPE has only just gotten started. My plan now is to generate some funding to go back after graduation and spend several months helping to build a small visitor’s center, get some baseline publicity for the program, train a few more guides, and generate some conclusive survey data on this highly endangered bird. This kind of work, although unconventional in nature, sends an important message: no matter who or where, people can and should benefit from their own environmental stewardship. In a nation where communities have been forced off of their land and receive no benefits from the preservationist model of conservation by closed-access national parks, small-scale community-based conservation like BLCPE might just be the way to both environmental conservation and environmental justice.

Celebrating Students 2013: Brewster Lee

This summer I had an internship in the music department of a talent agency in Los Angeles. I started out in the electronic department but later joined the music for visual media (MVM) department. The MVM department focuses mainly on finding films/projects for its clients, who are primarily film and television composers and “crossover artists” – touring musicians experimenting in the visual art world. Some of these clients were musicians whose work I greatly admire, making it a very enjoyable experience.

 My day-to-day tasks varied, which kept me happily engaged throughout the 8-week program. The other interns and I were trained on the processes behind booking live shows, documenting ticket sales, and searching/signing new artists, and we sat in on talks about the present & future states of the music industry. (And, of course, there was some of the standard work that goes along with being an intern anywhere.) The people I worked closely with were extremely friendly, intelligent, and creative, and the work environment was always busy but never overly stressful.

My work during the internship frequently prompted me to consider the ever-changing ways in which music is distributed and consumed. How people listen to music, even how they conceptualize the “ownership” of music — i.e., iTunes versus cloud-based programs like Spotify — have been in flux for some time now. The music program at Wesleyan doesn’t focus much on the industry/business side of music, so this internship put a new and different light on what I’ve been studying here. At this point, I don’t yet know what I’ll be doing after graduation, but my experience this summer was nonetheless enlightening and gratifying!

Celebrating Students 2013: Evan Carmi

 In February of my sophomore year (2011) I received an email from a web developer at The New York Times. He had found me from his twitter followers and was wondering if I’d be interested in a summer internship within their Interactive News Technology group.  After a few interviews I ended up with the internship that year. This summer I returned, but no longer as an intern. I was hired as an Interactive News Developer to finish and run the project that we had started during my internship: The Times’ London 2012 Olympics website: http://london2012.nytimes.com/.

I worked with the team to create an interactive website that aggregated real-time results, pictures, videos and news from the Olympic Games on an utterly inflexible schedule – the Olympics was starting July 27 whether we were done or not. Along the way I got a real taste for what working in the newsroom is like; I learned how to build and run a website that’s visited by millions of users in multiple languages; and I experienced the difficulty of the work-life balance.

Wesleyan can be stressful, but when my phone buzzes at 3am I am no longer nervous that a New York Times website is broken, and they’re waiting for me to fix it.

The internship that I did is still open to applications until October 27: http://www.nytimes-internship.com/internships/interactive-news,

Celebrating Students 2013: Vivianne Swerdlow

For the past two summers, I’ve been working with Equality Maine, an anti-LGBT discrimination nonprofit, to bring marriage for same sex couples to Maine in a proactive ballot measure. Our work involved targeting people we predicted would be against us, and trying to connect with them on a personal level and ultimately use that to persuade them to support us.  I got to talk to Mainers who started out all over the spectrum, including strongly opposed.  I found that when I stopped thinking them as potential voters and talked to them just as people, we had much more in common than not.  It will never cease to amaze me how much a perfect stranger will open up and tell you in a 15 minute conversation if you prove that you’re really listening and also willing to share.  At the end of last summer we went into a signature drive, and collected over 105,000 signatures to put “An Act To Allow Marriage Licenses for Same-Sex Couples and Protect Religious Freedom” (a law we drew up) on the ballot for 2012.  It was amazing how people rushed to sign it.  My favorite memory is standing outside our local baseball stadium and having people who were late for the game actually stop and crowd around me to sign.  In an era when people are sick of politics, the support I saw for marriage equality, and for family and friends and neighbors was amazing. 

This summer we moved into campaign mode (Mainers United for Marriage), knowing that it was going to be on the ballot but going about our conversations in the same way, still trying to connect on a personal level and move people’s hearts as well as their minds.  The terrain certainly became more difficult as we came across fewer and fewer people who hadn’t thought about it and just needed to take some time to think about the people they knew, but I got to develop and facilitate some great trainings for our expanding team on how to address concerns while still going for the heart.  The community of canvassers, administrators, and volunteers inspired me every day to keep thinking of the people we talked to not as our opponents, but as people who just needed a little push to think of the right reasons to support us and do so. 

The campaign is now in full swing, and we expect our opponents to come out with some very aggressive advertising that we will need to combat.  It was hard to leave the group behind and come back to school, but in a way I have the best of both worlds, since I will be continuing my work remotely and staying connected.  So this is the part where I ask for your help:  I’m starting a paid satellite phone canvass team here on campus to call Mainers and inoculate them against opponents’ messaging.  I know you’re all busy with being seniors, but this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience to win marriage equality at the ballot!  So please, tell your friends and get involved!  The best way to reach me is by email at VSwerdlow@YesOn1Maine.org. Trust me when I tell you that this is an exciting time to be part of a wonderful organization working to foster equality.  I couldn’t have been happier working with them this summer, and can’t wait until I graduate and can jump on another exciting campaign!

Celebrating Students 2013: Stephanie Huezo

“El pueblo unido jamás será vencido.” This is one of the many mottos Salvadoran people had during their 12-year civil war. More than 75,000 people were murdered, or disappeared and thousands more were exiled, separated from their loved ones, their mother country. I went this summer to “el pulgarcito de america” – El Salvador. With the support of the Davenport Grant, I was able to research how monuments, museums, and memorials represent the victims of the civil war. It was a challenging but wonderful experience.

I arrive at Potonico, a very small and poor town in the department of Chalatenango. There I learned about how this small town was affected by the war while enjoying some tortillas, black beans, hard cheese, Salvadoran cheesecake, and coffee. San Salvador, the capital was my next destination. I went to the Museum of Word and Image where the director of the program was the voice of Radio Venceremos, a famous guerrilla radio station. Then I visited the University of Central America “José Simeón Cañas” where there is a museum dedicated to the six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter who were brutally murdered by the Salvadoran Army. After that I visited Monsignor Romero’s crypt, a catholic priest who spoke against the war and was shot by a member of the death squad while he was blessing the Eucharist. All these places hold a terrible story of what Salvadoran people went through during the war. This information made me upset, confused, terrified, and thankful. I felt terrible hearing these events, looking at pictures of atrocious events. I am astounded by the amount of money the U.S. government gave the Salvadoran Army to violate their own people’s rights, however, I am also amazed at the amount of solidarity that the U.S. and other countries gave El Salvador during this very difficult time.

There were many things that I learned during my stay in El Salvador. One was to back up all your information more than once (my photos erased twice).  I learned that the people of El Salvador are resilient. They may have passed through a brutal 12-year civil war and are still living the consequences now (some places extreme poverty and many other departments are plagued by the MS-13 gang). Yet, it is the Salvadoran society that has taken the initiative to create monuments, memorials, and museums to commemorate their victims and through that deliver a message of “NUNCA MAS” – never again will this happen in El Salvador. I look forward to writing my thesis about mis compatriots, mis hermanos.  

Celebrating Students 2013: Kaya Ceci


Kaya wrote the following toward the end of her stay with the SKIP Program, Trujillo, Peru.

Although I was warned at the outset by veteran SKIP volunteers of how quickly my time here would come to its inevitable end, here I sit; utterly incredulous that, by this time next week, I will be running through a customary human-tunnel of volunteers until I am out the door for good. But considering the impact these last two months have made on my young adult life, something tells me that isn’t quite true. Whether it is through this specific organization or perhaps another with a similar philosophy and objectives, my work in trying to ensure that marginalized children have access to an education and are supported by economically and emotionally stable families will not end here or now.  Working in the Psychology department here at SKIP (Supporting Kids in Peru) has allowed me the opportunity to explore and understand to the best of my abilities a reality unjustly faced by so many children and their families, a reality that is inherent to the endemic poverty–both economic and academic–that plagues cities like and far worse off than Trujillo, Peru. 

While not entirely in tune with my initial goal to see the practical application of psychology from an authentic Peruvian perspective  (which I have been led to believe does not actually exist), my experience has been invaluable in that it has forced me to critically reevaluate such preconceived notions and expectations. The table here in Trujillo, Peru seemed to be set for a smorgasbord of self-exploration and opportunity for growth, that is to say, worthy substitutes for my previous ideal objectives. My role as the sole Psychologist’s Assistant consisted of co-leading and observing various adolescent and parent therapy groups, generally made up of 3-4 clients. I worked with children ranging from ages 5-12 who were mandated to receive group therapy sessions due to behavioral management issues in the classroom, as well as with their parents, who lacked the assertive parenting techniques that could help prevent these interventions from happening in the first place. The focus of the adolescent groups was essentially social skills training–interactive play therapy that fostered interpersonal communication, behavior and emotion management techniques, and just an attempt to instill  basic values they should have learned years ago en casa but unfortunately did not have due to the lack of support at home.

With so much against them, I found it of the upmost importance to begin expanding the horizons of these families to accommodate different visions of reality. Through the opportunity to co-lead each group and have input into the workshops, each was carefully designed to provide the participants the tools they needed to escape the vicious cycle of poverty through valuing their education and the hard work and determination necessary to build better lives. This support and mediation through solution-focused therapy sessions was my first real opportunity to not only see the practical application of psychology, but be a part of it as well. This experience was rife with ups and downs but ultimately granted me the invaluable opportunity to make a small, yet lasting, impact on their process of building a more stable and healthy familial situation and strengthening the drive to never give up on their dreams. I now return to complete my degree with a newfound confidence in my abilities to adapt and contribute meaningfully to the field I wish to go into and bring with me a new perspective on the reality of struggles unjustly faced by the most loving children I have ever known.

Celebrating Students ’13: Jefferson Ajayi

This past summer, instead of going back to my peaceful little town of Richmond Heights Ohio, I decided to go to the city of Chicago for an internship at the Diamond Headache Clinic. This clinic specializes in headache, migraine, and other pain disorders associated with the head and neck. I worked there the previous summer as well, specializing in a procedure known as biofeedback. Although the name might sound very complicated and expensive, the procedure is very simple and anyone can do it whenever they want to.

Biofeedback is essentially a form of meditation. At the clinic I wired patients up to a machine that graphically displayed the patients’ body temperature and muscle tension in the hands, shoulders, neck, and head. The idea behind this procedure is to get the patients to put themselves in a very relaxed state in order to reduce blood flow in the blood vessels in the head (vasoconstriction) and increase blood flow in the hands (vasodilation). In patients who have tension type headache, vasoconstriction of the blood vessels in the head through biofeedback have been shown to significantly reduce the pain associated with the tension type headache. The procedure involves deep breathing exercises using diaphragmatic breathing. This deep breathing oxygenates the body and puts the body in a state of relaxation with allows the mind to have more control over the body.

When the patients saw the graphical results of their muscle tension and hand temperature, many of them realized that they could control their hand temperature and muscle tension just by focusing on it. Many of the patients, who practiced this exercise on their own, were able to dramatically reduce muscle tension and increase the temperature of their hands, almost on command. These findings were very significant to me because it reinforced the idea that people can literally do anything they really put their minds and spirits into. One just has to see what they really want and pursue it. 

In addition to the biofeedback procedure, I also did research for my thesis on the environmental correlations to headache and migraine. I designed a questionnaire that broke the environmental proponents of headache and migraine into macro and micro proponents. The macro proponents pertained to things like community setting, climate, weather, etc. The micro proponents pertained to things like diet, stress management skills, exercise, etc.  The questionnaire was about the impact of where one lives and the impact of what one does to him or herself on headaches and migraines. I learned that the leading causes of headache and migraine in these patients were poor stress management skills and the type of lifestyles they were living, as in diet, level of exercise, and personality type. My conclusions were validated by the information presented National Headache Society conference, which was an excellent learning opportunity and greatly helped me with my research. Overall the past two summers taught me that I can do anything that I envision and that one must maintain a balanced and positive relationship with their mind, body, spirit and others in order to live a happier life. It’s the little things that always add up in a person’s life that play a significant role in determining one’s overall quality of life.


Celebrating Students ’13: Daniel Nass

In the weeks leading up to my trip to India, I often tried to imagine what my experiences there would be like. Mostly, I pictured myself on a street corner amid a sea of traffic, trucks and bicycles and people a blur around me. Anonymous, alone, and adrift in an impossibly foreign land. With diarrhea trickling down my leg.

A large part of this uncertainty was due to the fact that I wasn’t actually studying abroad: I took a leave of absence from my beloved Wes and organized the trip on my own. My plan, which only started to come together a few days before my departure in early February, was to travel throughout the northern half of the country WWOOFing. Fortunately for me, I was primarily interested in using WWOOF (Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms) as a means of meeting locals and fellow travelers, rather than mastering sustainable agriculture—among the many tasks the farmers set me to work on were weeding, watering, digging holes, filling in holes, hauling rubble, sanding plaster, and painting a swimming pool in the middle of the desert.

My hosts came from many walks of life: a poor family who made a living growing wheat and rice, a successful entrepreneur who was in the process of building a luxury hotel on his property, an elderly couple with a vegetable garden and a modest collection of fruit trees, a businessman who spent his life traveling in the western world and decided to celebrate his retirement by planting an orchard. I began in the arid state of Rajasthan on a farm languishing in the desert heat, but my later travels took me into the foothills of the Himalayas where mountain snowmelt feeds lush forests. Between my stays on five different farms, I visited many cities and took in sights such as the Taj Mahal, the Golden Temple in Amritsar, and Mumbai’s skyscrapers and sprawling slums. 

I felt genuinely welcomed into many of my hosts’ homes and communities. I attended two wedding parties, joined in a town’s celebration of the Holi festival, and ate lunch in a remote village where I had the dubious honor of being the first white person most of the villagers had ever laid eyes on. I helped with cooking, cared for children, and talked to people from many walks of life, from rural farmers to middle-class suburbanites to a member of the Indian Parliament. Miraculously, I emerged from India in early May having never suffered the digestive ailments I anticipated, but my trip defied my expectations in other ways I never could have expected.