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Life-Changing Discoveries

Toby Baratta ’17 arrived at Grinnell intending to focus mainly on Gender, Women’s, and Sexuality Studies, and political science.

“Then I took computer science,” Baratta says. “It totally changed my life.”

Since her introductory class in functional problem-solving, Baratta has immersed herself in research projects. She has done a Mentored Independent Project (MIP) in computer science, and a Mentored Advanced Project (MAP) in the math and statistics department analyzing trends in data used for mapping student success.

Baratta’s second MAP, which builds on the MIP she did in the summer after her first year, has her working with Jerod Weinman, associate professor of computer science, on historical map processing.

Weinman and fellow researchers recently received a grant from the National Science Foundation to help fund the project, aimed at unlocking the stories of “politics, people, and progress” that reside in the historical and print map collections of libraries and museums.

Publishing readable, searchable, and properly linked digital content from hard documents is a matter for intrepid computer scientists. Baratta is pinning down data related to locations and names of rivers and lakes from 19th-century maps.

Boon to Researchers

“A computer can’t read a map itself; it just gets an image and doesn’t know what any of the data is,” Baratta says. “So first you have to get the computer to find and read the text.”

The next step, she says, is to “use it with historical information regarding geographical name changes to map it onto the actual geographical existence of today.”

Teaching the computer to see that chronological progression and to make the information searchable via the Web would open new vistas of research for scientists and policymakers. “A biological or environmental scientist could see how a lake or river has shifted or completely disappeared over time,” Baratta says.

“From an anthropological or sociological point of view,” she explains, “you could look at how people have moved, how a community has moved, and whether there are patterns of how society is moving away from rivers now that we have different technological advances.”

Skills in Demand

When not in classes and doing research, Baratta works for Information Technology Services as technology consultant administrator and is Web manager for the Data Analysis and Social Inquiry Lab (DASIL). She also mentors math and computer science classes.

Baratta spent last summer at Google, where she was invited to intern after presenting research at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing. She has already accepted an internship next summer at Microsoft.

Even if an attractive job offer in industry comes her way, she says she’ll opt for grad school. “I like research. I want to get a Ph.D. in machine learning, specifically,” Baratta says, adding, “I don’t know enough yet for what I really want to do.”

Finding Her Passion

Her goal is to work in an organization using data science research and computer science methods to stop human trafficking and other crimes. “There’s a lot of research in computer science that’s really exciting and could be applied to solving these things educationally or through tracking and response,” she says.

In addition to everything else she does, Baratta is a responder with Grinnell Advocates, and she manages the Stonewall Resource Center that supports LGBTQ communities. Her schedule demands good time management. “I go to bed at 10:30 every night and get up at 8:00,” Baratta says. “I know where I’m going to be and what the plan is.

“I wasn’t like this in high school,” she says, “but I mean, once you find something you’re passionate about, it’s kind of easy to have energy behind it.”

 

Toby Baratta ’17, from Boca Raton, Fla., is a double major in computer science and political science with a concentration in statistics.

 

Fighting Social Injustice

Paula Cousins ’17 and Anesu Gamanya ’17 led a renovation project funded by the Davis Projects for Peace program that dramatically transformed a small Jamaican primary school 2,000 miles from Grinnell.

 “This experience reinforced why I came to Grinnell — social justice,” Gamanya says. “Growing up in Zimbabwe, I witnessed social injustice everywhere and sometimes experienced it, and I thought I did not have the power to fight it. This project gave me an opportunity to help alleviate the social injustice in another community.”

The third-year economics majors share a strong desire to help others.

When Cousins heard about the dire conditions of the Bottom Halse Hall Basic School in Clarendon, Jamaica, it nagged at her. She wondered how the serious sanitation problems, cracked floors, broken toilets, and cramped classrooms affected the educational experiences of the school’s 60 children who range in ages from 2 to 5.

“I did not think it was a suitable learning environment,” says Cousins, who grew up in the nearby Hayes community. “It was not conducive to learning.”

Other problems dogged the school, which is in an economically disadvantaged area. It had limited storage, outdated technology and equipment, and other issues.

So Cousins and Gamanya, who spent winter break 2014–15 together in Jamaica, developed a proposal to help the school and received a $10,000 award from the Davis Projects for Peace. The program invites undergraduates at American colleges and universities in the Davis United World College Scholars Program to develop grass-roots projects students implement during the summer.

Cousins’ parents and others in the small community rallied around the summer renovation plans.

“I don’t think you can quantify how much it helped the children to have a better learning environment,” says Cousins, who also has a concentration in global development studies.

Children in a classroom at Bottom Halse Hall Basic School in Clarendon, JamaicaRenovating a school is hard work, the duo found. The crews—some paid workers, others volunteers—worked on weekends and after school. Despite some minor building setbacks, they saw the 10-week project through, installing new  

  • floors
  • a water tank
  • toilets
  • community resource room with computers and the Internet
  • shelves and desks
  • a sick bay
  • blackboards

 “The floors were really impressive,” Cousins says. “I’m really, really, proud. I’ve very grateful to the people in the community.”

The project earned praise from school employees and the community. Cousins says the renovation work could eventually make the school eligible for government aid.

She hopes more Grinnell students apply for the Davis program and really think about how their projects could benefit others.

“Find a project you’re invested in,” Cousins says. “Try to do something that will affect the most people in the most meaningful way.”

Working on the project changed Gamanya.

"I also learned that not only can I learn to identify social injustice, I can find ways to address it,” she says.

 

Paula Cousins ’17 is from Hayes, Clarendon, Jamaica. She is an economics major, with a concentration in global development studies. Anesu Gamanya ’17 is from Harare, Zimbabwe. She is an economics major.



 

Freedom to Explore

Josie Bircher ’16 came to Grinnell undecided about what field she was going to pursue. That has turned to inspired certainty, and she credits Grinnell’s individually advised curriculum with helping her chart her course.

A First-Year Tutorial is the only required class at Grinnell. With no general education requirements, students and their advisers have greater flexibility in building majors that serve students’ career and life goals. 

“Initially I just continued math because I was pretty good at it in high school and I found it challenging, so I wanted to keep that going,” Bircher says. “The open curriculum gave me the opportunity to explore different fields and individualize my coursework to make me more prepared for the field I want to go into.”

Confirmed Direction

Bircher’s first Mentored Advanced Project (MAP) in computational chemistry “confirmed that I like theoretical, quantitative sort of approaches,” she says. “Chemistry was on a little too small of a scale for me, so it helped to determine where I went next, which was more biochem — lots of chemical interactions combining into one. “

Her current MAP — using mathematical modeling to predict receptor activity in the brain — has further inspired her to look toward graduate school and a career in research.

Integration and Flexibility

“I’m drawing from my work in biochem, as well as the skills I learned in one of my applied math courses and in my probability and statistics course, too,” Bircher says. “That’s been sort of a theme in my coursework, to integrate all of the different things I take into one type of work.”

Bircher also appreciates flexibility in scheduling other activities. She is on Grinnell’s swim team and plays violin in the Grinnell Symphony Orchestra.

“In my first meeting with the swim coach I asked her if it was feasible to do both orchestra and swimming,” Bircher recalls. “She made it clear that she would be able to be in communication with the orchestra director, and that it would be easy for me to do everything I wanted to do in terms of my extracurricular activities.  

“Grinnell really seemed like the place where I could do everything I wanted to do,” Bircher says.

Grinnell Clicked

In deciding where to attend college, Queenster Nartey ’16 applied and was admitted to several major research universities in the Midwest.

“After visiting all those schools, Grinnell is the only one that clicked,” Nartey says.

The individually advised curriculum was a major incentive for Nartey. “Knowing that there is only one required class, the tutorial, I could basically shape my education however I wanted to,” she says.

Personalized Interests

“Yes, there are requirements for the major, but not every biochemistry major takes the exact same classes,” Nartey explains. “It’s very personalized. It’s appealing to me to basically wrap my major around things that I’m interested in.”

Nartey had intended to double in Spanish with a concentration in neuroscience, but dropped the idea. “I was pre-med, I wanted to study abroad, and as time went on I realized I didn’t want to spread myself too thin,” she says. “I wanted to focus on one thing and do it really well.”

Ultimately, she was able to take a Spanish class, and she combined her study abroad and neuroscience through the Danish Institute for Study Abroad program. Clinical experience in Copenhagen, along with research opportunities she capitalized on during her first two years, expanded both her medical and research horizons. “I didn’t have to give anything up at all,” she says.

Set Her Apart

Queenster Nartey ’16 testing copper surfaces for bacterial growth at a local hospitalNartey’s current MAP is focused on testing copper surfaces for bacterial growth in hospital environments. Her poster presentation on that study earned her accolades at the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students in Seattle last November.

“From the copper study, we wrote a paper that’s going to be published very soon, Nartey says. “As an undergraduate, having a published paper sets you apart from the crowd. It’s very exciting, and something I can highlight as a result of doing a MAP.”

Nartey says the experience will help her in applying for a National Institutes of Health postbaccalaureate fellowship and eventually for an M.D./Ph.D. program.

“Grinnell opened all these doors,” Nartey says. “Having the freedom to design my major and go abroad, having the encouragement from professors and other students and staff in a collaborative environment, is wonderful.

“I feel very good and very confident as a scientist, and it’s because of this individualized curriculum. It all comes down to that.”

 

Josie Bircher ’16 is a biological chemistry and mathematics double major from Omaha, Neb. Queenster Nartey ’16, a biological chemistry major, is from Chicago.

 

Multidimensional

“I never had just one thing that I was pursuing. I wanted to keep exploring and keep doing what I was naturally interested in doing. Every opportunity I’ve had just combined all those passions.”

These words of wisdom reveal the key to Adam Kempenaar ’97’s success. In a world where many limit themselves to the pursuit of just one interest, Kempenaar has proved that it is truly possible to have it all.

As one of the founders and hosts of the popular movie review podcast Filmspotting, Kempenaar understands what it’s like to revive a dream dusty from lack of use. Although he was busy with a family and a full-time career, Kempenaar and his friend, Sam Hallgren, decided to resuscitate their old love of discussing movies by starting a podcast in which they would review and critique films in 30-minute segments.

Within just months of launching the show in 2005, Filmspotting’s audience had climbed from 1,000 listeners to over 10,000. Now, 10 years and 550 episodes later, Filmspotting has continued to thrill and excite both its viewers and its hosts.

Spawning a Radio Show

The success of Filmspotting led to a monthly radio show on WBEZ Chicago Public Radio, echoing Kempenaar’s fascination with radio during his time at Grinnell, where he ran two radio shows on KDIC campus radio.

Filmspotting attracted the attention of the head of the film program at a continuing education school. Before Kempenaar knew it, yet another dream was coming to fruition — a chance to teach film classes at the University of Chicago’s Graham School.

“At Grinnell, I was an English major and I always wanted to teach. I realized that I wasn’t cut out to be an English professor, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t teach in some capacity. This was something I really wanted to do and it seemed like a dream opportunity.”

The Regular Job

Added to the lengthy list of Kempenaar’s occupations is his full-time career as senior director of new media and creative services for the Chicago Blackhawks. “I had a friend at Grinnell who would always come to our dorm room and play hockey video games. All the time it was hockey, hockey, hockey,” says Kempenaar. “And now he sees pictures of me on Facebook holding the Stanley Cup! It’s crazy that, 20 years later, here I am doing that for a living.”

Kempenaar has achieved what many college graduates have come to view as a foolish ideal — the aspiration to live all your passions, and make a living while doing it. By choosing to follow all the threads that tugged at his curiosity, Kempenaar has woven a web of interconnected triumphs, fueled by his persistent desire to always keep learning. By not fixating on a single goal, he has been able to expand his ability to wear many hats.

“Whether it’s podcasting or whether it’s the Blackhawks, I have always been prepared to do what I want to do simply because I’ve followed whatever I’ve been interested in,” Kempenaar says.

“I’m really lucky that I get to mix all my passions. I love sports, I love film, I love teaching, and I do all of them!”

 

Unexpected Opportunities

When Rebecca Dworkin ’06 graduated from Grinnell as a religious studies major, she didn’t know exactly what she wanted to do with her life. She was interested in women’s health and reproductive rights, but how did she want to approach the issue? Through law? Advocacy? Social work? With so many options, Dworkin wasn’t sure which path was right for her.

Exploring the Options

To gain some exposure to women’s health in practice, Dworkin took a position with AmeriCorps, where she worked in a busy clinic as a doula, a birth coach. Today, she believes this experience was the single most influential choice she made after graduating.

“It’s very clear looking back that that program was what really got me interested in working in health care,” Dworkin says. “But the program got canceled abruptly 8 months in. It was like getting the rug pulled out from under you!”

After being laid off, Dworkin still wasn’t sure what career path she wanted to take. She decided to hit the road and travel the country doing seasonal work and “visiting other people’s lives.” This experience allowed her to meet many different kinds of people and also gave her the time to clear her head and discover what she really wanted to do.

Choosing a Path

Before long, Dworkin was in an accelerated nursing program at Georgetown University, after which she received her master’s and became a certified nurse-midwife. She got the first job she applied to at the University of Iowa, where she currently works as a clinical assistant professor in obstetrics and gynecology. Dworkin was glad that she attended Grinnell before getting this career-driven education.

“I don’t think that I would have wanted to do that sort of education in my initial college years, because I wouldn’t want that career focus to come at the expense of the intellectual development I got at Grinnell,” she says. “It’s absolutely worthwhile to spend some time engaging in some sort of intellectual passion. It exercises your mind and can add a whole new layer of depth to whatever you decide to do.”

The Value of the Liberal Arts

For Dworkin, her interdisciplinary studies about women in subjects such as religious studies, gender studies, and sociology allow her to connect with her work on a deeper level than clinical practice alone.

“The most rewarding part of this job is that you are in a position to be with people during really critical moments of their lives,” says Dworkin. “I can really empower women through their reproductive choices and help them to take ownership of their bodies and their birth experiences.”

Reflecting on her experiences, Dworkin can see how her liberal arts education, along with her 6 months of “drifting” on the road, prepared her for the path she took.

“I really do feel like the liberal arts can prepare you to do basically whatever you want. If you can read critically, communicate well, and write well, that will serve you well no matter what field you go into,” Dworkin says. “I felt prepared to go down many paths, because the liberal arts opens doors rather than pigeonholing you into one way of thinking.”

Dworkin also stresses that students and recent graduates should be willing to have faith in themselves and not be afraid to do a little “drifting.” Her experience with AmeriCorps sparked her interest in health care, and she met many healthcare professionals during her time on the road who helped her determine the path that was right for her.

“Even if you don’t know what you want to do right away, just go somewhere you want to be! If you’re out in the world, you’re gonna meet people who may turn into an opportunity you never considered,” Dworkin says. “The opportunities will come to you, if you’re open to them. So don’t worry so much! If you graduate from Grinnell, you’re truly prepared for anything.”

 

Bakopoulos Receives 2016 Creative Writing Fellowship

Dean BakopoulosIn the first grant announcement of its 50th anniversary year, the National Endowment for the Arts has awarded individual creative writing fellowships of $25,000 each to 37 fiction and creative nonfiction writers including Dean Bakopoulos, writer-in-residence at Grinnell College.  

Since its establishment in 1965, the NEA has awarded more than $5 billion in grants in every state and U.S. jurisdiction, the only arts funder in the nation to do so.

The NEA selected Bakopoulos from among 1,763 eligible applicants evaluated by 23 readers and panelists. This is his second NEA fellowship, a rare accomplishment.

Through its creative writing fellowships program, the NEA gives writers the time and space to create, revise, conduct research, and connect with readers. Fellows must wait 10 years before applying for a second fellowship. Bakopoulos won an award for fiction in 2006; the 2016 award is for creative nonfiction.

"Since its inception, the creative writing fellowship program has awarded more than $45 million to a diverse group of more than 3,000 writers, many of them emerging writers at the start of their careers," said NEA Director of Literature Amy Stolls. "These 37 extraordinary new fellows, including Dean Bakopoulos, provide more evidence of the NEA’s track record of discovering and supporting excellent writers."

"I’m so grateful to the NEA for recognizing my work for a second time," Bakopoulos said. "This is an important boost for me on many levels, not just financially, but also emotionally. I’m finishing a difficult and somewhat perplexing book, and this fellowship has given me the courage to keep working, to finish the manuscript I was very close to throwing away.

"The nonfiction manuscript, titled 'Undoings,' is a book-length meditation on the way things fall apart, and how we, as individuals, as families, as artists, often become undone by our own obsessions and our own pasts. I wrestle with many demons and blessings in that book: marriage, divorce and parenthood; my own family's history as war refugees and the long shadows cast by war trauma; as well as everything from country music to fast food to the role of religion in clinical depression. Right now, it's a mess of a book, and this fellowship gives me the time to give it the focus it needs." 

Bakopoulos, who teaches fiction and creative nonfiction courses at Grinnell, is the author of three novels — Please Don’t Come Back from the Moon, My American Unhappiness, and Summerlong. The film version of his first novel, co-written by Bakopoulos, wraps shooting this month and stars James Franco, Rashida Jones, and Jeffrey Wahlberg. The film version of Summerlong, also adapted by Bakopoulos, is in the works. In addition to his two NEA awards, Bakopoulos is the recipient of a 2008 Guggenheim Fellowship.

The NEA’s creative writing fellowships program is arguably the most egalitarian grant program in its field. Applications are free and open to the public; fellows are selected through an anonymous review process in which the sole criterion is artistic excellence. The judging panel varies year to year and is always diverse with regard to geography, ethnicity, gender, age, and life experience.

Since 1990, 81 of the 138 American recipients of the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry and Fiction were previous NEA creative writing fellows.

To join the Twitter conversation about this announcement, please use #NEAFall15.

Rebecca Wong ’17 Earns Honorable Mention for Udall Scholarship

Rebecca Wong ’17 has earned honorable mention for the Udall Scholarship, which recognizes second- and third-year undergraduate students for their outstanding leadership, public service, and commitment to environmental issues, American Indian healthcare, or tribal policy.

Wong, who aspires to work in renewable energy engineering, is one of 49 students nationwide to receive this honor.

A leader in environmental justice groups on campus, Wong serves as vice president of the Food Recovery Network and chief leader of the IOWATER water-monitoring group. She also plays violin in the Grinnell Symphony Orchestra and is general manager for Grinnell Outdoor Recreation Program.

"This honor has shown me that I am on the right path," Wong said, "and I will continue to strive to create a world where humans can maintain and improve their standard of living without irreversible detrimental effects to the environment."

The Udall Scholarship honors the legacies of Morris Udall and Stewart Udall, whose careers had a significant impact on American Indian self-governance, health care, and the stewardship of public lands and natural resources.

Melissa Hardy ’16 Awarded Goldwater Scholarship

Melissa Hardy ’16 has received the prestigious Barry Goldwater Scholarship for up to $7,500 toward tuition and other expenses for the academic year. 

A senior chemistry and French double major from Billings, Montana, Hardy is using the scholarship to fund her senior year at Grinnell. After graduating from Grinnell in May 2016, she hopes to pursue a Ph.D. in organic chemistry and lead synthetic organic chemistry research in either academia or industry.

At Grinnell, Hardy has served as a mentor to students in introductory chemistry courses. She also was invited to present her research at two research symposia in October: the Gulf Coast Undergraduate Research Symposium at Rice University in Houston, Texas; and the Research Experiences for Undergraduates Symposium in Arlington, Virginia, sponsored by the Council on Undergraduate Research.

Mike FitzpatrickSenior biological chemistry major Mike Fitzpatrick ’16 earned honorable mention for the Goldwater Scholarship. A resident of Village of Lakewood, Illinois, he plans to attend graduate school to earn doctoral degrees in medicine and neuroscience.   

Congress established the Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship Program to encourage excellence in science and mathematics for American undergraduate students with excellent academic records and outstanding potential. Grinnell College students are frequent recipients of Goldwater honors, with six students being named Goldwater Scholars and five students receiving honorable mentions since 2010.

Silvia Elena Foster-Frau ’15 awarded Hearst Journalism Fellowship

Silvia Elena Foster-Frau ’15Silvia Elena Foster-Frau ’15 has received the Hearst Journalism Fellowship, a two-year digital media journalism fellowship awarded to four to six aspiring journalists each year.

For the first year of her fellowship, Foster-Frau will be reporting for the Hearst Connecticut Media Group. She currently is reporting for the Greenwich Time newspaper in Greenwich, Connecticut, but will transition to The Connecticut Post in Bridgeport, Connecticut, for the second part of her internship. She aspires to be a feature writer for The New Yorker, Harper's Magazine, or The New York Times.

Foster-Frau's work already has made an impact. Her story about a homeless family in Greenwich inspired the community to rally together, setting up a fund of more than $4,000 and finding the family a home. A story she wrote about a transgender teen from Greenwich was picked up by the Associated Press and published in the San Francisco Chronicle, Houston Chronicle, Miami Herald, and Hartford Courant, among others.

A 2010 graduate of Galesburg High School in Galesburg, Illinois, Foster-Frau took a gap year in Mexico before enrolling in Grinnell College in 2011. She was an English major and leader in publications on campus. She served as the writing editor for The Grinnell Review and co-host of KDIC Radio Show "The Prairie's Edge." During her fourth year at Grinnell, she was a senior interviewer for the Office of Admission.

The Hearst Fellowship is a two-year program focusing on multimedia journalism funded by the Hearst Corporation, which owns many top metro papers nationwide. Fellows work 12-month rotations at two of Hearst's top newspapers, ensuring they will gain experience in a variety of news and media environments.