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A Pioneering Spirit

It’s not often that you get the chance to create a career for yourself that’s never existed before. Many graduates have planned their college years around jobs they want to have in the future, but for Hilary Mason ’00, carving out a place in an existing field just didn’t cut it.

A pioneer of the growing data science movement, Mason has combined her computer science background with statistics, engineering, and technology to make sense of the massive amounts of data that pile up in businesses and other enterprises.

“It’s a very rare thing to have the chance to be at the leading edge of something that has become a fairly significant movement,” Mason says. “It’s been really interesting to see it evolve.”

After working as the chief scientist at bitly.com, a well-known URL-shortening service, Mason has quickly become the face of data science. She’s been interviewed for Fortune Magazine and NPR’s Science Friday, and even cofounded a nonprofit called HackNY that connects hacking students with startup companies in New York City.

In 2014, Mason finally decided to take a leap and start her own business called Fast Forward Labs. She and her team analyze large amounts of data from their client businesses and develop prototypes for innovative technological products. The goal is to inspire their clients and show them what kinds of options are available to them.

“I saw an opportunity to add value by providing expertise to people building real products around data technology,” says Mason. “It’s a win for all, because we’re working on the most interesting technology that we can come up with at any given time!” A recent prototype they created was a program that identifies and categorizes users’ Instagram photos to provide more information about their interests.

For Mason, the Grinnellian spirit of combining multiple disciplines and thinking critically about the world we live in helped her to be a leader the field of data science. “Grinnell teaches you to think critically, communicate well, and analyze the world,” Mason says. “It’s an excellent grounding for entrepreneurship. Being able to think in that way is really helpful no matter what you end up doing.”

At Grinnell, students take classes in a wide variety of disciplines rather than just sticking within their majors. This makes them the perfect candidates for a world where thinking innovatively and combining multiple fields of knowledge is the hallmark of many of the most interesting jobs out there.

The Scoop on Shovel Knight

Although millions of people around the world enjoy playing video games, not many people have the talent or motivation to make a game of their own. For David D’Angelo ’08, however, the spark, the drive, and the talent were all there.

D’Angelo was heavily involved in music while at Grinnell, participating in the orchestra and serving as president of the acapella ensemble G-Tones. He was also an avid gamer and had always been interested in the process of making video games. After a short postgraduation stint writing commercial jingles, the dual music and computer science major moved to Los Angeles and began to pursue a career in video game design.  

He got a job as a video game programmer at WayForward, a work-for-hire video game company that produces games at the request of companies like Warner Brothers, despite the fact that the economy was crashing for many other industries. “Video games are kind of recession-proof for some reason,” he says.

After working on retro-style 2-D games like “Double Dragon Neon” and “Contra 4,” an idea began to bud in D’Angelo and a few of his coworkers. In 2013, they broke off from WayForward and began their own video game company, Yacht Club Games.

“We wanted to create a retro game that was the first in a new franchise rather than a continuation of an old series,” D’Angelo says. “We were looking at ‘Zelda II: The Adventure of Link’ and observing the underused down-thrust attack of Link, and we just thought ‘How cool would it be to base an entire game around that simple mechanic?’”

After much debate over what kind of weapon would work best for flipping enemies over and attacking their underbellies, the team decided on a shovel. “Then we thought that ‘knight’ is the funniest word you could put next to ‘shovel’, so we wound up with a game called ‘Shovel Knight,’” D’Angelo says.

D’Angelo and his team started a Kickstarter campaign to fund the game, in which they had 30 days to reach their monetary goal through online donations. To get the word out, they went to conventions to show off the game, released live-streamed video updates on the project daily, and communicated heavily with their fans.

“We streamed ourselves making the game, we streamed ourselves talking to our fans, we responded to every single email and comment we received,” D’Angelo says. “We wanted people to see how passionate we were about this game.”

The Kickstarter campaign was launched in the middle of March 2013 with a goal of $75,000; they reached that goal in just a few short weeks. By the end of the campaign in mid-April, the team had collected a total of $311,502 for the development of the game. The game was released in June 2014, and has since sold more than a million copies. It can be now purchased for Wii U, 3DS, PS4, PS3, PS Vita, Xbox One, Windows, Amazon Fire TV, Mac, and Linux.

When it came to the designing and marketing of “Shovel Knight,” D’Angelo says his Grinnell experience has been a valuable asset to his work. “I didn’t learn how to make games at Grinnell, but I did acquire the knowledge and tools needed to face any programming problem, and my music background helped me create and implement sound in our games,” he says. “Even the course I took in Japanese literature has come in handy as I draw on Japanese art and customs when engaging with our partners there in preparation for the game’s release.

“You get a taste of a little bit of everything at Grinnell, and that has been so important in what I do. I think the best thing you can do is to explore all your options while you’re there, because you just never know what skills you’ll end up using later on!”

Advocating for Men’s Health

While life events have helped Ryan Brown ’16 shape his aspirations, he has largely carved out his own path toward fulfilling them.

“My dad is a pediatrician, so I was raised thinking I was going to be a doctor one day,” Brown says. “I didn’t really know where I wanted to go with that until my mom got breast cancer and I realized I really wanted to do something about it.”

Originally recruited from the Chicago area to play baseball for Grinnell, Brown is a biological chemistry major who’s become intensely focused on oncological research. He has spent the past three summers interning at University of Chicago research labs that deal primarily with late-stage prostate cancers.

“More specifically, cancers that don’t respond to the normal androgen deprivation therapies,” Brown says. “Our lab works with different genetic manipulation approaches to establish models for various stages of prostate cancer progression.” 

Motivated by Coach

Thankfully, Brown’s mother is a success story. Brown’s inspiration to study men’s cancers came from another survivor — Grinnell pitching coach Casey O’Rourke (2008-2013). An all-conference phenom in his first year at the University of Iowa, O’Rourke was sidelined as a sophomore by testicular cancer.

“[O’Rourke] kind of refined my interests into men’s cancers and testicular cancer,” Brown says. “After working with him in my first year I had this motivation to work with male cancers. I just cast the net out to cancer labs that were close by me and the prostate lab was one of them.”

Early Lab Experience

Brown’s efforts to secure an internship were entirely self-directed. He sold himself as a candidate for an unpaid internship in his first summer, and he returned in a paid capacity after his second-year science classes provided the requisite knowledge.

“My first summer in the lab I really knew nothing about biology and it was pretty difficult to catch up on what everyone else knew,” Brown says. “After my second year I came back and everything made sense.”

Brown also successfully advocated for two other Grinnell students, Matt Godinsky ’16 and Shane Comiskey ’18, to work in the lab — one in each of two consecutive summers.

Creating Awareness

Last November, Brown organized a group of 20 Grinnell students and staff to join with the lab’s Moustaches in Movember team in raising funds for men’s health issues through the Movember Foundation. Grinnell’s contingent raised $1,751 of the lab’s total of $6,816.

“It’s an awareness-type thing,” Brown says. “You see a guy with a ridiculous moustache and people are likely to say, ‘Hey, what’s up with that?’ You say, ‘Sorry, I look like an idiot, but it’s for a good cause. I’m raising money for men’s health issues through Movember.’ It’s awesome. It opens conversations.”

A Better Understanding

After graduation, Brown will be working full time in the lab where he’s interned the past three summers, driving his own projects and working to publish them. He says he’ll concentrate on research for a couple of years before applying to medical school.

“I want to be a translational physician scientist,” Brown says. “A physician who’s able to translate work between the lab and exam room gains a much better understanding of what their patients experience, as well as issues that interfere with treatment.”

Ryan Brown ’16, from Chicago, Ill., is a biological chemistry major with a concentration in neuroscience.

Performing Locally, Thinking Globally

For many, theatrical performances are a way to explore the unfamiliar, to experience things that are different from the place and people they call home. For Leda Hoffmann ’09, however, theatre has been a tool for making a strange new place feel like home.

The daughter of a foreign service officer, Hoffmann’s life before Grinnell was spread across multiple continents. While some might see moving around between Malaysia, Indonesia, Nepal, Canada, and the United States as an obstacle to getting involved in a community, Hoffman dove headfirst into local theatre to make friends in each new city.  

So why did this internationally-inclined student choose to come to the middle of Iowa? The answer is simple: To get the benefits of international ideas without the distractions of a big city.

“I had never lived anywhere that wasn’t a big city, but going to Grinnell was easy for me,” she says. “Grinnell felt cosmopolitan enough that I knew if I went, there would be people from big cities, smaller towns, and all over the world.”

A theatre and dance major, Hoffmann directed numerous student-run plays during her time at Grinnell, working closely with theatre faculty. “Grinnell professors push you to do better,” she says. “To have professors and other students push you and go, ‘That’s not good enough, push harder. Ask more questions.’ That’s the whole point of going to Grinnell for me.”

This willingness to engage and challenge each other is part of what attracted Hoffman to Grinnell in the first place. “The people I talked to at Grinnell felt really honest and connected to what was going on there,” Hoffmann says. “It felt like a really strong community and one that felt true to whatever it wanted to be.”

After graduating, Hoffmann began her theatre career as an assistant lighting designer for Studio Theatre in Washington, D.C. and later as an education apprentice at Hartford Stage in Connecticut. More recently, she has worked her way from education coordinator to literary coordinator and director at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater.

“When I started as an intern at the Repertory Theater, I did a lot of teaching literacy through theatre. After two years, I had enough connections in town to become a director,” says Hoffmann. “As director of community engagement, I create and execute the programs that ignite positive change in our community. It’s a job that combines my love of theater with the social justice mindset Grinnell instilled in me.”

Grinnellians Earn Esteemed Watson Fellowships

Lane Atmore ’16 of St. Paul, Minn., and Chase Booth ’16 of Wichita, Kan., have been awarded the prestigious Watson Fellowship for one year of independent study and travel abroad.

They are two of 40 students selected nationwide to receive the $30,000 fellowship for postgraduate study from the Thomas J. Watson Foundation.

The students’ projects will take them around the world during their Watson year.

Lane Atmore

Lane AtmoreAtmore, an anthropology and Chinese major, will travel to Guam, Micronesia, Thailand, Greenland, Russia, and Greece to examine “Boat Culture as Island Identity” in coastal communities.

She plans to attend festivals, live with local families, and work with boat builders and cultural leaders to study the relationship between boat culture and island identity. She hopes to be able to find some universal aspects of island culture, as well as see how climate change and globalization have impacted traditional island communities.

“I’m most excited about deepening my appreciation and knowledge of something that I love and also understanding how much it means to the people I will be living with,” Atmore said. “I’m going into this with no expectations and an open mind, excited to learn what the world has to teach me.”

“Lane put a great deal of thought, passion and effort into crafting her wonderfully original Watson proposal,” said Jon Andelson ’70, professor of anthropology. “I know from having supervised her summer MAP (Mentored Advanced Project) research last summer that she will bring an open mind, a discerning eye, and a boundless curiosity to her Watson project.”

An accomplished pianist, Atmore won a piano competition despite breaking her right elbow and learning a one-handed piece only three days before the contest.

Following her Watson year, Atmore plans to pursue a doctorate in anthropology and continue to do field research.

Chase Booth

Chase BoothBooth, a classics major, will journey to Australia, South Africa, Greece, and Ireland to study the different forms of support offered in response to a community’s shared emotional crisis.

His project, “Emotional Support in Communities Under Duress,” will investigate whether the support offered by government-funded agencies and nongovernmental organizations is responsive to the needs of various communities. These communities include the displaced aboriginal populations in Australia, black youth and students in South Africa, sexual assault victims-survivors in Ireland, and victims of the economic crisis in Greece.

“While traveling around the world is obviously a huge part of the Watson and something I am looking forward to, having the opportunity to pursue something I love and care about in depth will surely be the most rewarding part of my year abroad,” Booth said. “I can’t thank enough everyone who has helped me get to this point in my life.”

“I am thrilled for Chase” said Monessa Cummins, associate professor of classics and Booth’s faculty adviser. “He embraced academic and personal challenges at Grinnell and is now well poised to take on the rigors and opportunities of a Watson year abroad.”

Booth served as co-leader of Grinnell Monologues, a student group in which participants write and present essays on emotional well-being and self-perception.

After his Watson year, Booth hopes to work for a program similar to the Schuler Scholar Program, which provides support to underprivileged Chicago-area high school students going to selective universities. Then he intends to apply to law school and pursue opportunities in civil and human rights law.

The Thomas J. Watson Fellowship Program

The Thomas J. Watson Fellowship Program offers college graduates of unusual promise a year of independent exploration and travel outside the United States to foster effective participation in the world community.

Grinnell has been a partner with the Watson program since it was established in 1968. With the announcement of this year’s Watson Fellows, 75 Grinnell students have received this prestigious award.

Learn more about what a fellowship can mean through the journey of Wadzanai Motsi ’12, an earlier Watson winner.

Grinnell a Peace Corps ‘Top School’

Grinnell College has once again earned a spot on the Peace Corps’ annual Top Volunteer-Producing Colleges and Universities list, coming in at No. 23 among small universities. Currently, eight Grinnell graduates are making a difference around the world as volunteers.

For the past four consecutive years, Grinnell has made it onto the annual list. Since the agency was created in 1961, 375 Grinnell alums have served overseas.

"The Peace Corps is a unique opportunity for college graduates to put their education into practice and become agents of change in communities around the world," Peace Corps Director Carrie Hessler-Radelet said. "Today’s graduates understand the importance of intercultural understanding and are raising their hands in record numbers to take on the challenge of international service."

Grinnellian Justin Miller ’12 is making a difference as a Peace Corps volunteer. Miller has been serving in Burkina Faso as an education volunteer since August 2014. Miller works primarily as a high school math and English teacher at local schools. Additionally, Miller is working on recording public service announcements on nutrition and sexual education topics, and will distribute the recordings to his community through Bluetooth.

For Miller, the best part about serving as an education volunteer is getting to know his students personally and teaching them American games. Looking back, it was his passion for service and trying new things that led him to Peace Corps.

"Professor Terri Geller at Grinnell once told me, ‘If you aren't doing anything to help, you're saying that you're OK with how things are.’ There’s a lot of injustice in the U.S. and the world as a whole," said Miller, who graduated with a B.A. in mathematics. "The school's strong social justice environment pushed me to try to help people."

This year’s rankings follow a 40-year high in applications for the Peace Corps in 2015.  This record-breaking number comes after the first full year that the agency implemented historic reforms allowing applicants to choose the countries and assignments they'd like to be considered for. Graduating college students are encouraged to browse open programs and apply by April 1 for assignments departing fall 2016.

Iowa-based Peace Corps recruiter Ryan Cairns, a returned volunteer who served in Bulgaria, advises Grinnell candidates.  Students who are interested in post-graduate service are encouraged to meet with Keira Wilson, assistant director of service and social innovation, in the Center for Careers, Life, and Service. Visit Peace Corp Events to learn of in-person and online opportunities to chat with a recruiter.

About the Peace Corps

The Peace Corps sends the best and brightest Americans abroad on behalf of the United States to address the most pressing needs of people around the world. Volunteers work with their community members at the grassroots level to develop sustainable solutions to challenges in education, health, economic development, agriculture, environment and youth development.

Through their service, volunteers gain a unique cultural understanding and a life-long commitment to service that positions them to succeed in today’s global economy.

Since President John F. Kennedy established the Peace Corps in 1961, more than 220,000 Americans of all ages have served in 141 countries worldwide.

Coding for a Cause

As all Grinnellians know, it’s important to use what you learn to make a difference in your community. In Grinnell’s computer science department, the students in the Team Software Development for Community Organizations class are using what they learn in class to benefit local nonprofits.

“We think our students should understand the ways in which their computing skills can make a positive difference in the world,” says Samuel A. Rebelsky, professor of computer science. “At the same time, it’s important for students to learn how to work with clients who know what they want done, but not how it can be done.”

Helping the Local Food Pantry

Students choose a project at the beginning of the semester, such as creating a website that shows the current needs of the Mid-Iowa Community Action (MICA) food pantry so people know what to donate. Another project the students have worked on is making an online resource portal to help MICA’s clients quickly find the support they need for food, housing, and jobs.

Zoe Wolter ’16, who worked on the MICA resource portal project, says that the class was a great way to get a feel for what she can do with the skills she’s developed at Grinnell. “Getting to actually apply what we’ve learned in class to a real project really expanded my knowledge of what opportunities are out there,” she says. “It really opened my mind to possibilities that I hadn’t thought of before.”

Developing Marketable Skills

Albert Owusu-Asare ’16, in his work on MICA’s resource portal, developed vital skills for communicating with clients who aren’t fluent in computer science language. “I found that it’s best to have them draw pictures and diagrams of what they want so that we can see what we need to do and there’s no confusion,” says Owusu-Asare. “That’s something I couldn’t have learned just sitting in class.”

Having worked on a large project with actual clients has also been useful for students seeking jobs in the tech industry. John Brady ’16, who developed the food bank site for MICA, found that his experience with that project came in handy for interviews. “Having a project that you can talk about that shows some actual real world experience working for clients was fantastic, because projects just for school just don’t have the same weight,” Brady says. He recently accepted a job offer from Amazon.

Receiving Support from Alumni Mentors

Cassie Schmitz talking with students in the courseIn addition to in-class learning, students also get support from alumni mentors who are now working in fields where they do the same kind of work the students are doing. Mentors come to campus once a semester to meet with students and Skype with them every few weeks to support them and answer questions.

“It’s just nice to have someone who went through the computer science department and is now working in the field,” says Owusu-Asare. “You see that they’re doing all these cool things, and it makes me excited for what I’ll do in the future.” Owusu-Asare plans to work as a software developer for Goldman-Sachs after graduating.

The class also supports the College’s commitment to staying connected to the greater Grinnell community. “In a lot of other college towns there’s a big divide between the town and the college, but Grinnell is really committed to bridging that gap,” says Cassie Schmitz ’05, who has been a mentor for the class for the past two years. “Students are encouraged to really engage meaningfully with the community, and this class is an important part of that engagement.”

Albert Owusu-Asare ’16 is a computer science and physics double major from Kumasi, Ghana.

John Brady ’16 is from Rosco, Ill., and is a double major in computer science and mathematics.

Zoe Wolter ’16 is a computer science and theatre double major from Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

National Scholarships Support Study Abroad

Six Grinnell College students in the class of 2017 have received federally funded Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarships to support their study abroad during the 2015 fall semester or the 2016 spring semester. Winners were chosen from a group of approximately 1,600 American undergraduates from 355 colleges and universities across the United States.

Two of Grinnell's scholars, Lizzie Eason ’17 and Lily Galloway ’17, studied abroad during the fall semester, and four are studying abroad this spring.  

Mathematics Meets Migration

Lizzie Eason '07 in front of Vajdahunyad Castle

Eason at Budapest's Vajdahunyad Castle

Eason, a mathematics major from Lamoni, Iowa, was in Budapest, Hungary. There, she studied with world-renowned professors of mathematics and witnessed first-hand the refugee crisis in Europe.

"I returned to my home college, Grinnell, with a broader perspective both on mathematics and foreign policy," Eason said. She noted that her school was only two blocks away from Keleti Pályaudvar, the train station shut down by police to stop migrants from the Middle East from traveling through the European Union.

"On the day Keleti shut down, it was more crowded than I had ever seen it," Eason recalled. "There were narrow paths on the ground with no blankets where people could walk, but every other space on the floor was taken up by blankets on which refugee adults and children were begging for money and food."

Language Expands Archeological Options

Galloway, an anthropology major from Westchester, Illinois, spent her fall semester in Tanzania. There, she planned and executed with other undergraduates an archeological excavation of a 700,000-year-old elephant carcass. She also studied Kiswahili, one of the most spoken languages in Tanzania. She plans to pursue a career in archaeology.

"With this background and continued study of Kiswahili as part of Grinnell's Alternate Language Study Option program, I'll be able to promote dialogue between English-speaking archaeologists and Kiswahili speakers," Galloway said. "This will help improve communication about heritage preservation and lead to more collaborative scientific work on human origins in East Africa."

From Chile to the Czech Republic

Four of our Gilman scholars are studying abroad this semester:

  • Jinna Kim ’17, a sociology and Spanish major from Bellevue, Washington, is in Argentina.
  • Hankyeol Song ’17, a media and cultural praxis (independent) major from Bettendorf, Iowa, is in the Czech Republic.
  • Aniqa Rahman ’17, a biological chemistry and French major from Hillsboro, Missouri, is in Morocco.
  • Robin Crotteau ’17, a political science major from Boise, Idaho, is in Chile.

About the Scholarship

Funded by the U.S. Department of State, Gilman Scholars receive up to $5,000 to apply toward their study abroad or internship program costs. The program aims to diversify the kinds of students who study abroad and the countries and regions in which they study by supporting undergraduates who might otherwise not participate due to financial constraints. 

Students receiving a Federal Pell Grant from two- and four-year institutions who will be studying abroad or participating in a career-oriented international internship for academic credit are eligible to apply.

Students can apply now on the Gilman website for funding for study abroad during the 2016 fall semester or the 2016–17 academic year. Applications are due March 1.

Creating a Life that Matters

Wes MooreWes Moore, a New York Times bestselling author, Army combat veteran, youth advocate and CEO of BridgeEDU, will speak at Grinnell College on Monday, Feb. 29.

His speech, titled “Wes Moore: Creating a Life that Matters,” will explore why work filled with meaning and purpose can create lasting and transformative personal and societal change. 

The talk, which is free and open to the public, will start at 7 p.m. in Sebring Lewis-Hall in the Bucksbaum Center for the Arts. A reception in the rotunda will follow the lecture.

Moore is an accomplished author, writing two New York Times bestsellers. His first book, The Other Wes Moore is a story of the importance of individual decisions as well as community support. It investigates the vastly different lives of two children — both named Wes Moore — growing up in inner Baltimore.

The author grew up to be a Rhodes Scholar, White House Fellow, and business leader, whereas the other Wes Moore is serving a life sentence for killing a police officer during an armed robbery. The Work, Moore’s other bestseller, chronicles his journey to discover meaning in his work and how he found that meaning in service.

Moore’s work as a youth advocate started when he was a student at Johns Hopkins University. He founded STAND! — an organization that works with Baltimore youth in criminal justice system. He also founded and serves as CEO of BridgeEDU, an innovative college platform that addresses the college completion and job placement crisis by reinventing a student’s first year in college and providing more support throughout college.

A gifted speaker, Moore has been featured in USA Today, People magazine, “Meet the Press,” “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” “The View,” “MSNBC,” and NPR, among many other national media sources. He also hosts “Beyond Belief” on the Oprah Winfrey Network and also serves as executive producer and host of “Coming Back with Wes Moore” on PBS.

Moore’s talk is sponsored by the Finkelman Deanship in the Center for Careers, Life, and Service and the Careers in Education Professions Program.