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Academic Life

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.

 

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.

 

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.

Hallelujah! Sing/Play Along

Celebrate the last day of classes and the holiday season by joining the 11th annual read-through of the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah in Bucksbaum Center for the Arts' Rotunda.

Singers and instrumentalists are invited to participate; non-musicians are invited to listen. John Rommereim, Blanche Johnson Professor of Music, will conduct. The free, public event will last about 15 minutes.

Music will be provided for singers and instrumentalists, and all instruments are welcome. Instrumentalists, please email Jennifer Brown, associate professor of music, in advance to make sure there is a part that works for your instrument. Please bring your own instrument; chairs and stands will be provided.

Journalists Talk About the Iowa Caucuses

Three national political journalists will discuss the role of the news media covering the 2016 Iowa caucuses at 5:30 p.m. Monday, Dec. 7, in Joe Rosenfield '25 Center, Room 101.

The panel discussion, which is free and open to the public, will conclude the fall series of public events leading up to the Iowa caucuses sponsored by the Rosenfield Program in Public Affairs, International Relations, and Human Rights. The series has brought to campus political activists, authors, professors and, now, journalists, to share their perspectives of the Iowa caucuses. 

The journalists serving on the media panel will be:

  • David Shribman, executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette;
  • Jennifer Jacobs, chief political reporter at the Des Moines Register; and
  • Kathie Obradovich, political columnist at the Des Moines Register.

An acclaimed journalist, Shribman became the executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2003. Before joining the Post-Gazette, he covered politics for several other distinguished newspapers, including the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. His column, "My Point" is nationally syndicated. He received the Pulitzer Prize in journalism for his coverage of Washington in 1995.

Jacobs has been the chief political reporter at the Des Moines Register since 2011. She covers presidential, congressional, and state politics in Iowa, as well as Iowa's first-in-the-nation role in the caucus. A respected voice for Iowa politics, she has been featured on Iowa Press, CNN, CSPAN, MSNBC, and NPR.

A 25-year veteran of covering Iowa politics, Obradovich has been at the Des Moines Register since 2003. Her columns, focusing on presidential, congressional, and local politics, are published weekly. For 10 years, Obradovich served as the Des Moines bureau chief at the Iowa Statehouse for several Iowa papers, including the Quad-City Times, and Mason City Globe-Gazette

Grinnell welcomes and encourages the participation of people with disabilities. Rosenfield Center has accessible parking in the lot to the east. Room 101 is equipped with an induction hearing loop system. You can request accommodations from the event sponsor or Conference Operations and Events.

Our Microbial Neighbors

Adina HoweCome join in an interactive discussion of microbiology and how novel technologies have created opportunities to access and learn about our microbial neighbors and how they influence our lives.

Adina Howe, Iowa State University assistant professor of agricultural and biosystems engineering, will present the free, public biology seminar "Our Microbial Neighbors" at 11 a.m. Thursday, Dec. 3, in Robert N. Noyce ’49 Science Center, Room 2022. 

She will lead participants to explore how our gut microbes change with our diets, the importance and challenges of soil microbiology, and how microbes can help us monitor and understand water quality in Iowa lakes.

Howe is an expert in microbial ecology, soil health, water quality, big data, and metagenomics. She has had broad, interdisciplinary training, including microbiology, sustainable development, and engineering, and has been a staff scientist at Argonne National Laboratory where she continued studying microbial communities in environments such as the soil and gut.

Up From the Roots

Musicians Randye Jones of Grinnell College and Damani Phillips of the University of Iowa will commemorate the 150th anniversary of the ratification of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution by sharing the rich history of the music of the African-American tradition.

The 13th Amendment, which officially abolished slavery in America, was ratified by the states on Dec. 6, 1865, eight months after the Civil War ended.

To mark this milestone, Jones and Phillips will present a free public lecture, "Up From the Roots," and a musical performance at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Dec. 4, in Herrick Chapel.

They will explore the development of music from the end of the Civil War to the Civil Rights Movement, including spirituals, gospel, jazz, blues, and rhythm and blues.

The Office of Intercultural Affairs and the Office of Diversity and Inclusion are sponsoring the event.

Grinnell welcomes and encourages the participation of people with disabilities. You can request accommodations from the event sponsor or Conference Operations and Events.

Randye Jones

Randye JonesJones, a soprano and researcher, is a doctoral student in vocal literature at the University of Iowa. She also serves as media room supervisor in Burling Library at Grinnell College.

Jones has gained recognition for her writings on African-American vocalists and composers, and as a performer and lecturer through her projects, "The Art of the Negro Spiritual, Afrocentric Voices in Classical Music," and the recently published "The Spirituals Database."

She regularly presents lecture-recitals and concerts, and serves as a panelist at events such as the Research, Education, Activism, and Performance (REAP) National Conference on Spirituals, African American Art Song Alliance Conference, and the National Association of Negro Musicians conference.  

Damani Phillips

Damani PhillipsPhillips, formerly on the music faculty at Grinnell College, is an assistant professor of jazz studies and African-American studies at the University of Iowa.

An active saxophone player, pedagogue, and composer, Phillips has taught and performed throughout the United States, England, and Japan, and is actively sought as a guest artist, clinician and adjudicator. Phillips has performed with artists/groups such as Lewis Nash, Christian McBride, the touring Dave Matthews cover band "Crush," and many others. He has released five albums of his own, including his most recent recording project, "Duality," a double album featuring a unique synergy between straight-ahead jazz and hip hop music.

Art Collecting, Inventory, and Criminality in Ming Imperial China (1368-1644)

Huiping PangHuiping Pang, professor of art history at the University of Iowa, will give a talk using Chinese art as historical documents to investigate the legal history and imperial violence of the Ming imperial era. The free, public lecture starts at 4 p.m. Nov. 20, in Alumni Recitation Hall, Room 120.

Titled "Art Collecting, Inventory, and Criminality in Ming Imperial China (1368-1644)," this lecture will explore the darker side of the art collecting culture of the Ming imperial dynasty. Pang will look at 201 canonical Chinese artworks, focusing on the imperial half-seals and half-codes marked on the art. These marks show how Ming emperors abused their prime ministers, took their art collections, and put inventory half-marks on the stolen art to make their actions legally justifiable. 

An accomplished art historian, Pang holds two Ph.D. degrees in the history of Chinese art, one from Stanford University and the other from Beijing University. She received her postdoctoral fellowship from the Smithsonian Institution. Her scholarship focuses on a diverse range of topics, including 10th-17th century Chinese institutional and court history, climate change, politics, art-collecting culture and horse paintings. Pang has published 20 articles in leading English and Chinese peer-reviewed journals.

A Level Playing Field?

Sociology professor Matthew Hughey Matthew Hughey of the University of Connecticut will deliver a lecture on Monday, Nov. 30, about how media coverage of athletics perpetuates the myth of "black brawn vs. white brains."

The free, public lecture, titled "A Level Playing Field? Zombie Theories of Athletics, Genetics and Race in Media," starts at 7:30 p.m. in Joe Rosenfield '25 Center, Room 101.

Black and white image of Jesse Owens racingHughey will discuss the role the news media play in perpetuating the myth of "black brawn vs. white brains" – that blacks have an inherent biological disposition toward athletic excellence. Despite biological and sociological evidence that debunks this theory, Hughey contends that many still believe in a link between black athleticism and biological determinism. He will argue that while empirically impossible, this thesis is a zombie theory – an idea that just won't die.

The author of several books, Hughey has written extensively about race, including The White Savior Film: Content, Critics and Consumption and  White Bound: Nationalists, Antiracists and the Shared Meanings of Race. He also serves as co-editor of The Obamas and a (Post) Racial America?

National media outlets such as NPR, ABC and CBS frequently call upon Hughey for his sociological expertise. He also is a contributing writer to The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Today, and the Huffington Post, among others.

Hughey has received numerous honors throughout his career, such as the Distinguished Early Career Award from the American Sociological Association's Section on Racial and Ethnic Minorities. Hughey is a member of both the Africana Studies and American Studies departments at the University of Connecticut.

Assistant Professor Casey Oberlin, sociology, is organizing the event. Co-sponsors are the Office of Diversity and Inclusion; the Center for Humanities; the Rosenfield Program in Public Affairs, International Relations, and Human Rights; the Instructional Support Committee; the Gender, Women's, and Sexuality Studies Department; the Department of Sociology; and the Department of Anthropology.

Grinnell welcomes and encourages the participation of people with disabilities. Rosenfield Center has accessible parking in the lot to the east. Room 101 is equipped with an induction hearing loop system. You can request accommodations from the event sponsor or Conference Operations and Events.

Sharing Neuroscience Research with the World

Grinnell students, faculty, and alumni joined more than 30,000 colleagues from more than 80 countries at 2015 Society for Neuroscience (SfN) Annual Meeting.

Faculty joined the students as they presented their Mentored Advanced Projects (MAP) research at the Faculty for Undergraduate Neuroscience poster session, and met with alumni at an event sponsored by the College.

The Society for Neuroscience is the world’s largest organization of scientists and physicians devoted to understanding the brain and nervous system, and the annual meeting is billed as the premier venue for neuroscientists to present emerging science, learn from experts, forge collaborations with peers, explore new tools and technologies, and advance careers.

Students and professor in front of poster titled Effect of High-fat Diet-induced Obesity on Spatial and Declarative MemoryGrinnellians at the conference included professors Mark Levandoski (chemistry, biological chemistry, and neuroscience), Clark Lindgren (biology and neuroscience), Nancy Rempel-Clower (psychology and neuroscience), and Andrea Tracy ’99 (psychology and neuroscience).

Their MAP students included Tom Earnest '16, Mike Fitzpatrick '16, Anthony Mack '16, Takahiro Omura '17, Marissa Yetter '16, and Jacob Ziontz ’16.

At least 14 alumni also attended, ranging from the classes of ’00 to ’15.

The SfN meeting is one of many professional events where Grinnell students have had the opportunity to share their research and meet others with similar interests.

Photos courtesy of Takahiro Omura '17.