Alana McGillis F’13: A Williams-Mystic Imagination

By Emily Sun S’20

Emily is a student at Williams College. Her time in Mystic included long walks around the seaport, last-minute kayaking, and a wholehearted attempt at blacksmithing.

Alana McGillis F’13 has the kind of enthusiasm that comes through even over Zoom on a Monday morning. “I’m excited to talk to you,” she says when we meet, “just because Mystic’s the best thing in the world.” I couldn’t have asked for a better opening. For the next hour and a half, as we talk, Alana laughs easily and speaks openly, sharing stories from her time at Williams-Mystic and beyond. Though I’ve brought a list of questions to ask her, she ends up answering most of them for me, just in the course of our conversation — which covers her experience studying in Mystic, her work at the intersection of art and science, and more.

Alana is a freelance science illustrator whose many projects have included geology comics, museum exhibits, and even a hand-drawn zine. She’s also illustrated two children’s books (and is currently working on a third). It was Alana’s art that first got my attention, several weeks before we met; the illustrations featured on her website and Instagram page — from tremendously fun, brightly colored comics to intricate line drawings — have so much personality that as soon as I saw them, I knew I wanted to interview her. As Alana tells me about her work, it’s clear she loves creating art — so I’m surprised to learn that it wasn’t always the career she had in mind. 

One of Alana’s two published books.

“I always loved to draw, but I [didn’t take many] art classes in college,” Alana says, “because I think I got it in my head from a young age that art wasn’t a practical career — like, you can’t just draw! — even though I wanted to very badly.” Meanwhile, another subject had caught Alana’s eye. As an undergraduate at Smith College, she took an introductory geology course, and “it just blew my mind,” Alana says. “I was amazed that you could spend your days studying things that just felt like having awe for the world around you.” But she didn’t know where to go from there. She wasn’t sure that a career in research or academia was right for her, and at the time, she tells me, it felt like those were some of her only options. “There are so many other cool jobs [out there],” Alana says now. “I wish I’d known [back then].” 

Enter Williams-Mystic. When I ask her how she first heard about the program, Alana grins before recounting a story that I can’t help but think sounds like it was meant to be. “It was my sophomore year,” she says, “and I literally found out the day that applications were due. I saw a poster, and I probably screamed a little, because it was the dream. I mean, Mystic was the coolest thing I could possibly imagine.” Growing up on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, Alana loved living near the water and being immersed in maritime history. She’d been sailing before — most memorably, as a 13-year-old on the Spirit of Massachusetts — and had been waiting for the opportunity to do so again. “So when I saw Williams-Mystic, I thought, this is my chance to get back on a boat — and also, I could do geology; I could do maritime history. I wrote to them that day,” she recalls, “and I said, ‘I don’t know how quickly I can get my recommendations in, but please!'”

Fortunately, there was still space in the program (which Alana says she couldn’t believe: “How would anyone not want to do this?”). After being accepted, but before her semester began, she reached out to professor Lisa Gilbert about the possibility of helping with Lisa’s research. “I wrote to Lisa the week that I found out that I was going to get to do [Williams-Mystic],” Alana tells me. “I said, ‘Hi, I know you do oceanography, and I’d really love to work in your lab!’ And I did end up getting to do that, which was cool, but I realized pretty quickly that my favorite part of geoscience was the part where you got to tell other people about it.”

“So I came back to Mystic over the summer,” she continues, “and [by then,] I think Lisa had kind of realized that I wasn’t happy doing the research. Like, [studying] porosity and permeability of rocks was interesting, but there were other things that I wanted to do. Lisa asked, ‘What do you want to be doing?’ And I said, ‘In my ideal world, I’d be drawing geology comics.’ And she was like, ‘Why didn’t you say so?'” Working with Lisa and Lisa’s husband, who is also a professional illustrator, Alana created her first of many science comics, this one centered on “a crime-fighting geologist who uses her knowledge to solve mysteries.” And that was just the beginning. With her experience from Williams-Mystic, Alana was able to get an internship at the Paleontological Research Institution’s Museum of the Earth, for which she still creates illustrations to this day. For example, “I’m working on an exhibit right now about women in paleontology,” she says, “and that all started at Mystic. They gave me the opportunity to imagine that as an actual career path, and not just in a fantasy world.”

When I ask her what she likes best about her work, Alana says it’s having the chance to work with scientists and learn from that collaboration. “[Scientists] have high standards,” she explains, “so even though my style is cartoony, someone can still say, ‘Excuse me, that snail is backwards,’ or ‘That’s not how those bones fit together,’ and I can adjust.” As a science illustrator, there’s always more to learn — which Alana says can be intimidating (“Sometimes I’m like, ‘I’ll never know the anatomy of all these things!'”), but is also incredibly exciting. And when an illustration turns out particularly well — “if I land it and they say, ‘Yeah, that’s what I was thinking!’ — then that feels [so rewarding].”

As if being a science illustrator weren’t already cool enough, Alana also works part-time as a boatbuilding instructor. She’s been working with boats for years, ever since she moved out to California. “I got a job at a maritime museum through another Williams-Mystic alum,” she explains, “and [the museum] had a boatbuilding program that they were running with a school in San Francisco.” She started out by helping with boat maintenance, later worked as an assistant, and eventually became the lead boatbuilder for the program. Today, she teaches local middle- and high-school students as part of their math and science curriculum. The best part of the job, she tells me, is watching her students succeed, “especially if they’re not used to having someone be super enthusiastic about something they’ve just done. I get to watch them be proud — and there are so many opportunities for tiny successes. Like, if they cut something right, or they hammer something right, or they drill something right, I have the chance to say, ‘That’s great!'” 

Alana with one of her boats.

Another one of her favorite things about boatbuilding, she says, is that she gets to work with all kinds of students. Looking back on her own experience in boatbuilding school, Alana remembers how difficult it was to be the only woman — and the only young person — in that space. “So I really like it when I’m in my shop, and the teenagers there get to look at themselves and say, ‘I’m what a boatbuilder looks like,'” Alana says. “And I want that for science, too. I want to make things that let kids see themselves in the role of a scientist.” Though she’s previously created illustrations about historical figures, she says what she’d really love to make is “an exhibit or a book about modern scientists, people of all different ages and races and gender identities. That’s my dream project.” It strikes me that Alana is doing for others what Williams-Mystic, in part, did for her: helping them imagine the full extent of the possibilities that await them. 

Alana credits the program for doing exactly that. “My whole career path — boatbuilding and science illustration — Mystic was responsible for both,” she says. And when she wasn’t busy sailing or drawing, Alana’s time in Mystic also included singing sea shanties (on their recent pop-culture comeback: “My brothers called me and said, ‘Hey, guess what? That thing you did — it’s cool now!”), reading Moby Dick aboard the Charles W. Morgan (“I would go there and think, ‘Ooh, I’m reading to the ghosts on the boat!'” Alana tells me, laughing), and traveling to Hawaii for a field seminar (“I stepped on a sea urchin, which was awful, but [the trip] was so worth it, so much fun,” she says). By the time I get to the question on my list about what made Williams-Mystic so different from a typical semester at college, I almost add, “besides everything!”

“Mystic is so different from regular college,” Alana agrees. “I think, especially if you’re the kind of student that doesn’t do well in traditional classrooms, it’s incredible. Like, I was not a great student. I didn’t have excellent grades, and I really struggled with traditional school, [because] I’m a very visual and hands-on learner. [So] Mystic was just the ideal scenario to see ideas concretely, to have so much project-based learning and freedom to study your own things.” For example, for her history project, Alana looked into a shipwreck that had taken place in her hometown, and for policy class, she researched beaches in the area that were being shut down due to shark sightings. “For all of the classes,” she says, “to go into the archives, to be out in the field, to go see in the real world the things that got you interested — that was awesome. It was just the best experience. It made me who I am and is the reason why I’m doing the things I do.” 

Before our conversation ends, I ask Alana one last question: what advice would she give to her past self, or to future Williams-Mystic students? “As much as you have passions, communicate them,” she says. “I think you can get really far by letting people know [what you’re interested in] and pursuing it. Take advantage of as much as you possibly can while you’re there, and don’t be afraid to ask for help or ask for permission to do things, because you’ll probably get it. It’s a community that wants you to succeed.”

Adventuring through Storytelling: Svati Kirsten Narula F’11

Svati said that what makes a good story “changes depending on where you’re working and who you’re pitching to.” The key to the strongest stories, she notes is, “Being able to say something surprising about something that affects a lot of people and they don’t realize it…”

Written by Hayden Gillooly S’19

Hayden is a senior Geoscience major at Williams College, with concentrations in Spanish and Maritime Studies. She is a Spring 2019 alumni of the Williams-Mystic Program.

“Williams-Mystic made me reconsider what I wanted to do and opened up the idea that anything I could do could be interdisciplinary. I couldn’t decide what I wanted to do [after graduation], and journalism is very interdisciplinary because you can write about human interest, crime, science. There are a lot of different subjects that you have to put your feet into. And you hop around as we did during Williams-Mystic.”

Svati Kirsten Narula, F’11, loves storytelling and is magnificent at it. She’s written a diverse range of stories including one about the 38th voyage of Mystic Seaport’s very own Charles W. Morgan, what it’s like to live in an underwater habitat , and the potential of oysters to help protect coastlines from the impact of hurricanes. Though Svati doesn’t just write about topics that connect to the ocean, she feels that if she “hadn’t gone to Williams-Mystic and seen how maritime topics and ocean can be connected to everything,” that she “would not have written so many ocean stories in my first year of journalism.” She added, “I did a couple of stories about the intersection of economics and the ocean, and I don’t think I could’ve pitched those stories if I hadn’t been to Williams-Mystic.” Svati has worked at The Atlantic, Outside Magazine, and Quartz, and is currently the Digital Editor for the Dartmouth Alumni Magazine. In writing stories, Svati deeply appreciates and loves “the intersection of adventure and science.” 

When asked about her favorite Williams-Mystic memories, Svati, like most alumni of the program, couldn’t choose at first. “A real big highlight for me was my west coast seminar which was California. I loved caravaning up and down the coast and belting out music and becoming close,” her smile grew while talking, and I was reminded of my fond memories singing in the vans with my own classmates. It seems that there are threads throughout all semesters; moments that stand out for us all as special, fun, and impactful. “That was the trip where I bonded the most with my fellow shipmates. And getting out and running on the sand every beach stop. And seeing professors’ personalities when they’re driving you in the car.” 

For Svati, these bonds forged in Mystic, CT, and across the country on field seminars, have remained strong. In fact, she FaceTimes frequently with one classmate, though they have not seen each other in person in 10 years. “It’s been really gratifying to stay in touch with several of my shipmates from F’ll,” Svati says. “They were some of the strongest friendships I made during my college years.” We discussed how Williams-Mystic allows students to build relationships at an almost unparalleled depth, due to the fact that you travel, live, and learn with each other constantly. Williams-Mystic classmates see all of each other’s highs and lows, and support each other through it all. Svati added, with a tinge of nostalgia, “I almost wish all four years of college could have been like that.” 

Svati said that what makes a good story “changes depending on where you’re working and who you’re pitching to.” The key to the strongest stories, she notes is, “Being able to say something surprising about something that affects a lot of people and they don’t realize it,” such as “how horseshoe crab blood is important for the creation of vaccines and modern drugs.”

“There was one story that I wrote that went viral, about the history of exploding whales, based on the news that one dead whale was possibly about to blow up on a beach in Ireland. It was easy to make the connection between this event and the famous Oregon whale explosion of 1970, which there’s video footage of, so I wrote the story up in just 30 minutes and it ended up doing much better—as far as getting read and shared on social media—than other stories I had worked for days or weeks on.” 

In April 2015, Svati was at Base Camp at Mount Everest for a journalism project when an avalanche ravaged the mountain following an earthquake. In fact, Svati brought her Williams-Mystic duffle bag on her trip (which was unfortunately lost during the fiasco)! At Base Camp, Svati was given a glimpse into a unique culture and world of Everest climbers and enthusiasts; people who dream their whole life of conquering the enormity and standing at the top of the Earth. She described that “growing up, I loved reading stories about mountain climbers but never thought I could be a part of that world. Mount Everest base camp has its own rules and cultures and the people there have different priorities than people in New York City where I was living.” 

Though she felt like “an outsider in a harsh place,” Svati said that “it was amazing to have Everest looming over you. You begin to understand why people want to climb it. A lot of people want to climb it and don’t need to go there first to know that. For me, being in the present and trekking through that little bit of Nepal, and the local food and breathing that high thin air is kind of intoxicating in its own way. And it’s cool that storytelling allowed me to do that.” 

A difference between Svati and the climbers was that “The climbers there were more prepared to possibly die, so they weren’t as shaken up as I was by the earthquake and the avalanche. Many people went right back the next year. They had their dream disrupted by a force of nature totally out of their control, and they jus twanted to go back and make their dream happen. At first, I thought they were totally crazy, but now I, too, would go back if I could.” Svati explained that the experience of being at Mount Everest during an avalanche highlighted life’s fragility, but that the rush of being in the face of such beauty has encouraged her to be more adventurous and seek out new experiences. She said that it’s important to her “to try and collect as many experiences as I can” and that “to get experiences, you have to be open and cultivate openness.” 

When asked about the role that storytelling and narrative play in increasing engagement with sustainable behavior and raising awareness about the urgency of climate change, Svati responded, “I think it’s huge. So many people will never get the opportunity to see trash in the ocean up close because not everyone lives close to the ocean. The vast majority of us won’t have a chance to see how sea ice is melting. I interviewed a scientist recently who is studying arctic sea ice up close. Most of us get our ideas about this topic from storytelling in the media—that’s all we have for those of us that can’t experience things first hand. I’ve seen the photographs, and the articles, but asking people who have experienced it firsthand again and again is how we get closer and closer to understanding things.” Svati then reflected on a phrase from Williams-Mystic Marine Policy Professor Katy Robinson Hall S’84, that has resonated with her: “we protect what we value and we value what we know.” 

Svati closed our conversation by saying that “A sense of adventure could mean saying yes to a new job or choosing to move across the country. It doesn’t have to be traveling to Mount Everest.” Hearing stories of Svati’s bravery made me think about how we all need to have our own Everests: the passions and goals that ignite a fire within us and encourage us to lean into discomfort and newness with grace. What’s yours? 

Passion with a Purpose: Gabi Serrato Marks F’13

Gabi is a science writer and communicator, along with doing advocacy work to increase accessibility in the sciences.

Written by Hayden Gillooly S’19

Hayden is a senior Geoscience major at Williams College, with concentrations in Spanish and Maritime Studies. She is a Spring 2019 alumni of the Williams-Mystic Program.

Through the phone, I could almost tell she was smiling and that her eyes were lighting up, and she described the experience of exploring stalagmites in Mexico. Gabi Serrato Marks F’13 speaks with contagious enthusiasm and a warm openness. 

Gabi recently earned her Ph.D. in marine geology from the MIT-WHOI joint program, where she studied Mexican stalagmites to understand past climate change. She is currently working as a science writer and communicator, along with doing advocacy work to increase accessibility in the sciences. 

Gabi is deeply passionate about research, “What’s really cool is being the first person in the whole world to know how old that stalagmite is. And maybe not everyone cares how old it is, but it’s cool to be the first person to know that.” She said that “Williams-Mystic was what drove me to research. I was an undergraduate at Bowdoin and interested in the liberal arts aspect of Williams-Mystic and its interdisciplinary nature. It worked really well because I am now mostly working as a science writer, so I’m applying those same interdisciplinary lenses to writing.” 

F’13 was a part of the only semester that traveled to Hawaii on a field seminar, and it ended up being more of an adventure than the program bargained for because they went during a government shutdown. The Williams-Mystic faculty and staff were actively reorganizing and replanning while already in Hawaii. Still, Gabi said the trip was exceptional, “Especially coming from a geoscience background, Hawaii is the dream.” Though F’13 did not go to Louisiana, Gabi was still able to experience the culture of southern Louisiana on a trip to LUMCON during graduate school. 

Fall 2013 in Hawaii

Gabi, like I, noted that visiting Louisiana reshaped how she thought about climate change. Before going, she wondered “why people would stay in southern Louisiana if they keep getting hit by hurricanes,” but after a few days at LUMCON, realized that these issues are much more complicated and nuanced than they may first appear. 

Gabi discussed the importance of increasing diversity in the field of Geosciences, noting that she perhaps does not fit the traditional stereotype of a geoscientist, “I was definitely not always interested in earth sciences. I’m not super outdoorsy. I’m outdoorsy in the ‘nature is pretty’ way, not the dig in the dirt kind of way. So I think that breaking the idea that a geoscientist has to be a certain way or do a certain thing would be helpful.” People from cities or people from flat areas without much topography cannot explore geology and the outdoors in the same way as people who live in the countryside. Gabi explained that making “geoscience curriculum relevant to students wherever they are” could be a crucial way to increase the field’s diversity.  

In her second year of graduate school, Gabi was diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, which has significantly impacted her life through chronic pain and fatigue which “makes it difficult to pursue a typical academic path” She is no longer doing fieldwork because it is too physically intensive and draining. Gabi does advocacy “to show how it’s possible to be a scientist with a disability,” but also grapples with the fact that due to her disability, she was unable to make a research-driven science career work for her. 

While the coronavirus pandemic has increased the accessibility for some people, it has added burdens to others. “It depends on the type of disability. It’s all about access needs. For my friend who is deaf, she cannot lip read when people wear masks. So working in-person for her is impossible. But for me and people who have migraines, staring at a screen all day is really hard. However, not commuting is better.” It’s all about “balancing access needs and prioritizing accessibility and having open communication.” 

Gabi reflected on her Williams-Mystic experience, “Being on the SSV [Robert C.] Seamans [for the offshore field seminar] was amazing and I learned so much, and I don’t think I’d be able to participate now. I don’t think my doctors and my captain would say that it’s safe for me to be on a ship. Ships are a place where it’s accepted that you have to be physically fit. And I don’t know how I feel about that. I can see how me being on board would be hard for me, but not having those experiences is also detrimental.” 

Gabi and I agreed that we love science, but recognize that the field can be improved. Gabi explained the value of integrating various forms of knowledge into science. She says that we should shift away from what her friend calls “parachute science” in which scientists go to a location to conduct research “for a week or a month and you leave and you are the author of the paper and maybe put local guides in the acknowledgments.” She said, “I think that is frustrating and wrong. I think it’s important to put everyone who contributed to the knowledge as authors: cave guides, locals who helped collect water as researchers, as authors on that specific publication. This helps add their expertise to the scientific records in a way that gives respect.” Gabi said that the best advice she’s received was that regardless of what we do in life, people will always have things to say, whether it be positive or negative, but that “We should try to still make the changes that we think are important.” 

Gabi researching at MIT

I asked Gabi how we can improve science, and who needs to be the driver of change. She said that “Undergrads are an important place [for sparking change] because it’s where people begin to build their careers.” Gabi loves “helping people connect the dots” such as “working with people who realize they really love research and didn’t think they could do it.” She fuels this passion by mentoring undergraduate students and high school students. 

Gabi believes that resource sharing partnerships between big universities and small universities “could help the excellent students have more opportunities and see themselves as researchers.” “Some people say that science doesn’t care where you’re from or what you look like, but that’s a naive look at the world.” The reality is that there is often an underlying privilege to being a part of the scientific community because of the cost of equipment, fieldwork, and tools. We must all recognize and acknowledge that truth, so that we can all be more intentional about creating accessible, welcoming, diverse and encouraging work and school spaces. 

My conversation with Gabi made me think about all of the ways in which we can all work harder to be more understanding of people with disabilities and to work towards increasing accessibility in our respective disciplines. We should weave options into academic curriculums, trip-planning, and social events, accounting for diverse student experiences.

“People don’t understand how I went ‘abroad’ to Connecticut, but it was a great choice and shaped how I think now.” 

Ally Grusky and Alex Quizon: Science (and other) Research Opportunities in the Williams-Mystic Program

This interview was conducted by Alex Quizon. Alex is a Spring 2019 Williams-Mystic alumnus and a member of the Class of 2021 at Williams College. He is writing these blog posts as a way to connect students in STEM with the opportunities at Williams-Mystic. Learn more about the opportunities available at Williams-Mystic.

Alex Quizon S’19: So how did you come to decide to apply to Williams-Mystic?

Ally Grusky S’20: Yeah, so I knew about Mystic before I came to Williams and it was one of the things that drew me here! I’ve always been interested in marine biology in particular – I did a science research class in high school and an independent project on fish and oyster aquaculture, so I’d already had some experience. When I was looking at colleges, I knew that the program was something I wanted to look into. On the other hand, by junior year I was still undecided about it: I knew I wanted to go away, but I didn’t want to go abroad to somewhere like Europe or Australia, but instead somewhere I could study both biology and history (since I’m a double major) as well as some other interdisciplinary courses. In my mind last fall, I realized that [Williams-Mystic] was a good combination of an away program, a little bit of a break, and classes that count towards both majors.

Alex: Wow, that’s awesome! [side conversation about classes and requirements for different departments] Could you talk a bit more about these independent projects you’ve done in the past and what else spurred your interests in marine biology?

Ally: I wanted to be a marine biologist since I was very, very young. But I’m also a swimmer and I loved biology, so the running joke in my family is that I combined the two! I used to go to oceanography camp up in Acadia National Park in Maine, and actually my classmate Emily Sun (S’20) and I both went to that camp in middle school – so we had a lot of fun reminiscing about it. That kickstarted my interests, and then later in high school I did a summer internship with NOAA (National Oceanographic & Atmospheric Administration) where I hauled some traps off the boat and did some data analysis for them. It was a really great introduction to the field, and I actually wrote and submitted my paper to a bunch of competitions!

Alex: That’s so cool that you started a lot of this so early on, and the swimming thing’s really funny!

Ally: Yeah – and then I sort of just kept going with it. I moved to Florida and so my freshman year of college I worked at the Smithsonian, essentially looking at invasive species around the area – a lot of field work. And then last summer I ended up taking classes in Seattle on marine invertebrate zoology, ecology, and conservation of marine birds and mammals out on the San Juan islands at Friday Harbor – a really cool marine biological laboratory. There I did a project on marine kingfishers (birds) and their energetic dynamics. So I had a bit of experience going into Williams-Mystic, but I’ve now since 180’d and now I work with bugs and plants.

Alex: It really does sound like you’ve had a bunch of great research experience going into Williams-Mystic! Given all of this experience, I’m guessing you had a fun time with research at Mystic –  what was the topic of your independent project and how did you decide what you wanted to study?

Ally: My partner was Dominick Leskiw (S’20), who is now a senior at Colby, and we took marine ecology with Tim [Pusack]. I was really interested in marine invertebrates, coming off the marine invertebrate zoology class and having done a lot of identification work. So we looked at abundance, diversity, and distribution of benthic invertebrates in Quonochontaug Pond – the pond right next to Weekapaug Point. There are some anthropogenic influences since the middle of the pond has several water sources going into it, and by looking at benthic creatures in mudflats we expected to see different organisms in places where there’s more runoff from the nearby inn and areas that are more inhabited. We expected to see more organisms capable of withstanding changes in pH, salinity, and nitrogen concentrations, and we had ~16-18 phyla that we were looking at. And then we left (due to COVID)! So we never actually did the project, which was really sad and I was pretty disappointed. But we did have 2 sampling days and had some fun playing in the mud!

Alex: Oh no, I’m so sorry you weren’t able to finish the project – but I’m glad you were able to work on some parts together! Was your lab partner also generally interested in marine invertebrate zoology?

Ally: Sort of – he comes from more of a science-writer background and worked with a professor back in California on white abalone. He’s a really good illustrator and writes for a bunch of magazines – I don’t know if you remember from reunion, but Tom [Van Winkle] was showing everyone the notebook he designed with all the sketches on the front cover.

Alex: I remember someone showing them to me – those were so good! The wide variety of talents and skills that people bring to Williams-Mystic is just fantastic. In terms of the project, were you able to do any data analysis together, or was there just not enough?

Ally: I did do some data analysis, but not for that project. There’s this group called the LTER (Long-Term Ecological Research Project), which is a national/international organization of long-term ecology projects, so 20, 30, 40 years old. So basically you choose a site – I chose the Northeast Atlantic shelf – and you can download the data as CSV files and do data analysis. I looked at forage fish feeding habits to see if there were any patterns, and I made some pretty cool conclusions out of it. They ate more and had more diverse prey (e.g. copepods) in the spring versus the fall, which they don’t think is historically accurate and is only a trend that developed in recent years. It’s likely caused by large phytoplankton blooms in the spring caused by increased pollutants and runoff into the ocean combined with warming temperatures. There’s an earlier bloom of phytoplankton and zooplankton, so fish are eating more earlier, but that also means that fish in the fall are not having as much of a varied or abundant food supply in their diet.

Alex: Did you get a chance to present your results?

Ally: In class we did do a big presentation and went into the data analysis and food web, which was fun! Do you remember making LOOPYs in class?

Alex: Oh yeah, the diagrams to model different systems and how the parts interact!

Ally: I decided to put like every single species and Tim was like there’s a thousand different species of copepods on your figure! And I said, “Sorry Tim, the copepods are important!” (laughing)

Alex: Haha, love that! And I’d love to ask more specific questions off the record, but what you were able to do given the circumstances is amazing. I guess this would mostly apply to the offshore trip since you were unable to go on the other field seminars, but what were some of your other favorite science experiences at Mystic aside from the independent project (e.g. offshore, class trips, etc.)?

Ally: I had a lot of fun offshore. Since I had a lot of experience, they put me to work identifying different sargassum species along with my science officer Olivia. I remember one night, past 2AM during dawn watch, sorting through miniscule sargassum pieces on the [Corwtih] Cramer and looking for different identifying markers. It was also really nice to work with Lisa [Gilbert] before I moved over to Tim (for class) because she’s really cool. I had taken oceanography my freshman year but of course not with her, and I wish I could’ve taken every single class at Mystic!

Alex: Can definitely relate to that. How did your interests and skills as a scientist change from before to after you had done the program?

Ally: I loved that I could do hands-on research at Mystic when we went to Weekapaug Beach, when we went to the river and estuary environments – that was just amazing. It was a change from just doing work over the summer to being in the mountains during the winter here. I’d been in a genomics lab working with cyanobacteria, so it was nice to go back to working with marine creatures. Tim is really good at working with data analysis and breaking down common statistics, so it was really useful for me going into my thesis this summer since I had a refresher in statistics using tools like R (programming software) and Excel. And I did switch my interests, partly because there isn’t much marine ecology work done on campus – I applied to Prof. Joan Edwards’ lab for a thesis working with plant pollination networks.

Alex: Any other comments or things you’d like to add?

Ally: No, not really – I think you got my whole life story!!! You’re focusing on reporting science research, but I do think that the other research aspects are really important too, for the history and policy. Putting yourself into that interdisciplinary mindset is a unique experience, and all the disciplines play into each other. That’s the beauty of Mystic: you can talk about clams in history because they were important to the history of New England and whaling history, and then there’s the policy behind it as well. I’m thankful for being able to go to Williams-Mystic, as short as it was!

If you are interested in interdisciplinary education, our oceans and coasts, and doing research across disciplines, Williams-Mystic could be the place for you!

Learn more about how you can request information and apply to the program.

A Virtual Science Research Experience and Building Community During a Pandemic

Hayden Gillooly S’19, Williams College ‘21

Hayden is a senior Geoscience major at Williams College, with concentrations in Spanish and Maritime Studies. She is a Spring 2019 alumni of the Williams-Mystic Program. Hayden is enrolled at Williams remotely in her hometown of North Adams, MA this semester, adapting to new ways of learning sparked by the pandemic. She is writing a thesis with Professor Lisa Gilbert at Williams-Mystic titled, “The Changing Climate of Maritime, Experiential, Place-Based Education in the Time of COVID-19.”

Since fall 2019, I looked forward to Summer 2020 in Mystic, CT working with Professor Lisa Gilbert and labmates in the Marine Geosciences Research Group (MGRG). I was eager to have meals together while discussing our projects; go on adventures, and soak up all that the Mystic Seaport Museum has to offer. It sounded like a dream summer, so I was undoubtedly disappointed when I found out that our summer work would have to be done remotely. “How would we build a research community virtually?” I thought, while admittedly tearing up a bit. Having never created a community virtually, nevermind started a friendship with someone from square-one virtually, it was hard to wrap my head around the possibility of having these ‘out of the classroom,’ connections via Zoom.

After our initial MGRG Zoom meeting, all of my worries dissipated. Lisa said that the thread that linked us all together, among our academic interests, was that we were all kind people. She said that was a prerequisite for working in her lab, and from the very first moment I saw the other four students’ bright smiles and enthusiasm, I could tell that this was true. After our first meeting, I ran downstairs after to my mom, and started speaking very quickly (as I always do when I’m excited) about how neat everyone seemed, and how it everyone was excited to be a part of the group and grow and learn in whatever way possible; even if those ways would be different than how we were expecting pre-COVID. 

During our first week of work, my research mates and I went in with full force, scheduling get-to-know-you Zooms, where we just talked for hours about everything from majors and paths that lead us to our schools, to hopes and dreams and bucket lists. Over the next 10 weeks, we philosophized over what it meant to have a meaningful life, and about chasing our wildest, greatest passions. Our friendships evolved smoothly and naturally; it was quite magical, actually, feeling these relationships take shape over a computer screen, from hundreds of miles and states apart. In fact, when I met Maggie and Jenn in person later in the summer, it felt completely natural, as if we were picking up where we left off. It felt like we already knew each other. Because we did! 

Lisa assigned us what she called, “Paper Discussions” each week. She chose a paper for us to read and discuss with one of our labmates via Zoom. Sometimes the paper lined up with our own topic, other times, that of our labmates. These meetings served as a perfect starting point for getting to know each other, and was always something that I looked so forward to. After a few weeks of working together, we all had a strong grasp of each other’s projects, to the point where we frequently exchanged articles, podcasts and relevant resources with each other, accompanied by messages saying, “this reminds me of your project!” It always made me smile to know that someone else was thinking of my project as well. Other students’ projects ranged from creating earth science systems thinking modules for a site called Teach the Earth, to analyzing the differences between in-person and virtual communities and ecosystems; to studying intra pillow hyaloclastite to analyze its porosity and biomass within the cracks. 

I am thankful that Lisa was intentional about not only giving us a rewarding research experience independently but how she so acutely recognized the value of community and learning from the people around us. Having an interdisciplinary range of projects made for fascinating conversations, with intersections between education, literature and hard science. 

Even some projects, which at first seemed to have little overlap with mine, encouraged me to think about the world from a different perspective. Much of my thesis topic’s progression has been shaped by conversations with Lisa, Lily, Jenn, Cam, and Maggie.

It was everyone’s intentionality that made all the difference. Had we all worked on our own projects, without regard to the potential connections with our labmates, I believe that my summer work could have felt incredibly isolating and unfulfilling. Having to share progress and thoughts with others helped motivate, even on long days when I felt a little lost or overwhelmed. Our excitements all grew, not only for our own work, but for each other’s projects as well. We all became a small ecosystem, as Lily’s project could argue. And through the lens of Cam’s project, we were truly a system, each understanding our role in the larger picture: MGRG. Jenn and Maggie’s projects made me think about all that happens in between the cracks (both physically in the basalt of course, but mostly in the cracks of life). The kinds of learning that happen in the cracks of structured meetings and work. 

There were in fact some silver linings to a virtual summer; one of which was having the opportunity to attend virtual conferences. The unexpected transition from in-person to remote for these conferences made them incredibly accessible to people who may not have been able to otherwise attend due to possible time or financial constraints. 

In June, I attended an event called “Building a Meaningful Remote Internship Experience,” through the Society for Women in Marine Science (SWMS). There were about 60 attendees, composed of both mentors and mentees. Strategies were shared for building communities, as well as the challenges and opportunities that a virtual environment presented us. One main takeaway from the event was that in a virtual mentoring space, we often miss out on spontaneous updates with our mentors. I wanted to change this, so I sent Lisa an email with the subject line, “A Little Victory!” and wrote, “In the SWMS meeting from the other night, something that stuck out was how in a virtual internship experience, we sometimes miss out on sharing the exciting moments of research and discovery, and may tend to just touch base with questions or concerns. So I just wanted to share with you that I just found an article that is so relevant to the ideas I’m grappling with for my thesis, that it literally made me smile!” 

In July, I attended the Earth Educators’ Rendezvous 2020 (EER20), which is a conference that includes panel discussions, talks, poster presentations and workshops. At the two poster sessions that I attended, I was the only attendee, and had the opportunity to ask in-depth questions of the researchers, and connect their work with my thesis topic. It was so wonderful to be able to discuss my project with a wide range of faculty from universities across the country, and hear their encouragement. One faculty member I met, Professor Steven Semken at Arizona State University, is an expert in place-based education, and shared relevant articles with me; I realized after our conversation, that I had actually read many of his pieces, which were incredibly formative in my understanding of this type of education. Attending EER20 reaffirmed my desire to pursue academia, not only for my unwavering love of learning, but also because of the incredible networks and communities in the field. 

In one of our last MGRG meetings, Lisa invited an alum from the research group, Caroline Hung who graduated from Williams College in 2019, to join us. Caroline is a Ph.D geochemistry student at UC Riverside. Caroline is so passionate about what she studies, and it was incredibly inspiring to hear about her experiences, especially since a research article from her Geosciences thesis was recently published.

After we wrapped up our MGRG summer work, we had a Zoom meeting with all of the other research students who worked with Williams College Geosciences professors this summer. We all shared our project topics, and had the opportunity to ask each other questions. It was a lot of fun to hear about what everyone has been working on, and to see the diverse range of topics. My favorite part, however, was realizing that we are all a part of something greater than ourselves. We are now a part of a whole network of students and faculty who all love Geosciences and education. 

We often grow when we least expect it. Summer 2020 ended up taking a drastically different shape than how we were expecting, but it was rewarding in more ways than I could possibly measure or explain. Summer 2020 showed me the immense potential of human relationships. It showed me that no matter how different two people or projects seem at first, there are always possible grounds for understanding and connection. Maybe it just takes an ice breaker like, “What song has been on your playlist recently?”, but after that, you realize that you’re both just people trying your hardest to contribute in a meaningful way to the scientific community and the world at large. And that is often enough commonality to build a friendship. 

From Shark-Tagging to Climate Change Law: Eric Laschever’s (F’77) Williams-Mystic Story

By Meredith Carroll

Image shows Eric smiling aboard a small sailing vessel, evident from the lines neatly pinned and coiled behind him. He is wearing sunglasses
Eric Laschever (F’77) aboard the SV Elizabeth Jean

Today, Eric Laschever (F’77) is an environmental attorney and law professor who recently contributed to a landmark federal climate lawsuit. 

When he participated in the very first Williams-Mystic semester in Fall 1977, Eric was part of an educational experiment. 

“It was the hardest semester I had at Williams,” Eric says. “[Founding director] Ben Labaree had to prove to the College that this was going to be rigorous.”

For Eric, Williams-Mystic proved to be the beginning of his career. Eric conducted marine policy research on the Law of the Sea conference, then ongoing in New York. In the course of his research, he visited the United Nations, where a staffer at the treaty negotiations recommended an interdisciplinary master’s program in the School of Marine and Environmental Affairs at the University of Washington. 

Eric ultimately attended the program. Afterward, he worked for the State of Alaska for several years before landing in Washington, DC, where he earned his law degree from Georgetown. 

From there, Eric pursued a career in environmental law and land use law. It was through this work — and through his former advisor at University of Washington ‚— that he developed an interest in how the law can address climate change. Beginning in the mid-2000s, Eric remembers climate change-related issues cropping up around statues throughout his field: The Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Air Act, and more. 

At around the same time, Eric and his wife, Eulalie Sullivan, became involved in sailing education. They began volunteering with a science under sail program geared at middle– and high-school students. The program was founded by two Williams-Mystic alumni, Ellie Linen Low and Sophie Johnston. 

Near the end of the decade, Eric proposed a course on climate change law, which he taught at Seattle University Law School for several years. Eric resumed teaching again in 2018 — this time in the same University of Washington program where he’d gotten his master’s degree. 

As Eric renewed his focus on climate change litigation, he encountered Juliana v. United States: a major climate lawsuit to which he would ultimately contribute. 

Juliana v. U.S. began making its way through the federal court system in 2015. In the case, 21 youth plaintiffs (including Kelsey Juliana, for whom the case is named) assert that the federal government, through its affirmative actions in creating a national energy system that causes climate change, has violated the constitutional rights of its youngest citizens to life, liberty, and property as well as failed to protect essential public trust resources. 

In the five years since it was first brought, the case has been wending its way through the federal courts system. During that time, Eric became involved with Our Children’s Trust, the non-profit law firm that is advocating on behalf of the defendants in Juliana. In fall 2019, Eric arranged an introduction to one of the lead lawyers on the case. 

Early this year, Eric wrote and filed a brief on behalf of the expert witnesses in the case. 

As Eric describes it, Juliana draws on two areas of law: constitutional law and public trust doctrine. The public trust doctrine stands for the idea that the government holds certain resources in common for everyone. Attorneys drew on constitutional law, meanwhile, to argue that the government had a special duty to protect these resources on the behalf of children — a group both uniquely vulnerable to the effects of climate change and unable to act to protect itself from these effects. 

Neither area of the law has historically been applied to climate change. That’s a common theme, Eric says, in legal actions brought to address climate change. 

“We talk a lot about climate change adaptation and it’s not only the natural world that needs adaptation if we continue on our current trajectory. All of the institutions that we have created to deal with other issues are going to need to adapt” as well, Eric says. In most legal action addressing climate change, he says, “lawyers [have] had to come up with novel legal theories” that expand the scope of existing environmental legislation to include climate change. 

It’s a valuable strategy, Eric emphasizes. But as he sees it, this need for adaptation also highlights the lack of any federal regulatory framework specific to climate change. The private sector, he says, could play a crucial role in changing that. With enough climate change-related legal action brought under a variety of regulatory frameworks, he suggests, industry may well decide it is preferable to be regulated under “a federal scheme that actually is tailored to address” climate change and its effects. 

When it comes to Juliana v. US, the fight continues. On January 17, the most recent panel of judges to hear the case issued a divided 2-1 ruling to dismiss it. The brief that Eric wrote is part of the latest round of efforts to urge the federal courts system to reconsider the case. 

For Eric, a journey that began with Williams-Mystic’s first semester has led to the front lines of climate litigation. It’s a journey, Eric reflects, that also has to do with his connection to the ocean. 

Image shows three college students slumped side by side, napping in a cozy, wood-paneled nook belowdecks, with two bunks just visible in a wall to the right
Eric and his classmates about the Westward during their Williams-Mystic semester. From left to right: Carrie (Green) Yardley, Eric Laschever, Deborah Costa McKew, Andrew Mitchell, and (above) Lani Peterson.

“The thing that brought me to Williams-Mystic in the first place,” he says, “was that I had grown up in New Jersey, and spent a lot of time at the New Jersey shore. I had salt water in my veins, as it were. I’d grown up sailing, and I’d really had that connection to the water.” 

In Williams-Mystic, Eric saw an opportunity to retain and strengthen that connection. He participated in a boat-building lab where he and his classmates built a dory. In the back of his mind, he dreamed about “sailing off” in a boat like that. 

In 2010, he got the opportunity to fulfill that dream. He and Eulalie bought a sailboat: the Elizabeth Jean, named for their daughters. Together, they spent four years sailing from Seattle to Maine via the Panama Canal — a trip that included a stopover in Mystic, Connecticut. 

“It reconnected me to my first loves of sailing and the ocean,” Eric says. 

His recent experiences with sailing and sailing education have given Eric a new perspective on his own memories of sailing at Williams-Mystic. 

“When you are taking other people out on sailboats,” Eric reflects, “you’re taking a risk that you think is justified because the educational experience is going to be something that you could not provide them without taking the risk.” 

This lesson applies to Eric’s own education.

Even now, Eric’s Williams-Mystic offshore voyage stands out as his “most memorable college experience.” He recalls standing under floodlights on deck at night, pulling sharks out of the Atlantic Ocean as part of a shark-tagging experiment. They brought a tuna on board, too, feasting on tuna steaks later that night. 

They couldn’t have been far, Eric now realizes, from the waters where they’d swum earlier that day. It was thanks to the Gulf Stream that the class could swim in the Atlantic in mid-October — the same system that sustained the organisms that the sharks fed on. 

The memory seemed so incredible that Eric questioned whether it was accurate. On a recent visit, Founding Director Ben Labaree confirmed that Eric’s recollection was correct. 

“Professor Labaree took a lot of risks in setting up the Williams-Mystic program,” Eric now realizes. “For one thing, he had to give up his tenure at Williams College … But it was also risky to take a bunch of students out to sea” — to allow them to swim in the Gulf Stream by day, then pull sharks from those waters at night. 

“And I’m sure that that’s how Ben approached not only the sailing component of what we did but the whole thing. I think he concluded [that], unless he took the risk that he did to set the program up, he couldn’t provide the educational experience that he thought was needed at that point in time. As a nation, and really internationally, we were putting this renewed focus on the ocean and on ocean resources.”

For Eric, the result was an experience that not only launched his career but also helped sustain a lifelong connection to the ocean. 

As Eric remembers Ben Labaree advising him: “‘It’s not what you remember that’s important. It’s what you do with what you remember.’”

Six Things I Wish I’d Known When Applying to Williams-Mystic

Before I attended Williams-Mystic, I was stressed, unsatisfied, and wanted to do something new and fulfilling. I didn’t know where my path was headed, what kind of career I was looking for. But Williams-Mystic — through all the random, fun, and new experiences — changed all that, giving me the inspiration to explore and discover my true passions and interests.

By Alex Quizon (S’19) 

Alex is a junior at Williams College studying chemistry with a concentration in maritime studies. Alex participated in Williams-Mystic during the spring of his sophomore year (spring 2019), and now serves as one of Williams-Mystic’s alumni ambassadors

  1. How awesome the field seminars are.

Alex grins while cradling a baby alligator (about a foot long)
Alex during a swamp tour on the Louisiana Field Seminar.

Everyone at Williams always asks about life on the tall ship, and although that experience is amazing in itself Williams-Mystic is not just that. Some of my favorite moments were the smaller ones in California and Louisiana: Watching a classmate eat an In-and-Out burger for the first time in San Francisco, casually hiking the redwoods on a beautiful morning, Cajun dancing in Louisiana at night, and listening to Pitbull, Kesha, and Taylor Swift classics from our childhood in the vans going from place to place. When I was applying, I was nervous about maintaining and making friendships. These moments are joyous friendship-building memories I’ll never forget.

 

  1. How freeing the campus feels. 

Everyone has their own conception of ‘college’ based on the institution they attend: a small isolated campus in the rural Berkshires (me at Williams), a medium-sized campus in a Midwestern suburb, an enormous campus in the heart of New York City. Once we settled into the town of Mystic, I realized that learning doesn’t have to take place on a traditional campus. I don’t have to spend most of my time studying inside Spring Street Market or Sawyer Library or a Schow study room. At Williams-Mystic, I could do policy research on the docks near the drawbridge, or read poetry with friends for English on the lawns facing the Mystic River. And, I have to admit, I indulged in far too many treats from Sift Bakery and Bartleby’s Cafe for my “study breaks.” It was so nice truly being part of the hometown community.

  1. How everything fits together and just “makes sense.”

There’s no type of enlightenment that matches reading about Emily Dickinson’s “divine intoxication” upon traveling to the sea in English class and then actually sailing on a tall ship, feeling this exultation for yourself. I thought the interdisciplinary aspect would be sufficiently captured at “liberal arts colleges” like Williams, but Williams-Mystic takes it to a whole new level with experiential learning. One day you’re reading John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row for English and the next week you’re actually walking along Cannery Row in California and discussing the novel. Or you’re learning about coral reefs in Marine Ecology and then you’re actually in St. John’s (Virgin Islands), walking on coral and snorkeling with them. There’s no feeling like it.

  1. How you can make your own interests fit with the interests of the Williams-Mystic program.

20130105-DSC06539Many of my classmates at Williams have a hard time differentiating the “water” component from “maritime studies.” You do not have to be interested in marine science or marine policy to find this program fulfilling; my classmates had majors in Classics, Math, Biology, History, and many other subjects.

For my history final research paper I learned more about my cultural identity, writing about the movement and subsequent treatment of Filipino immigrants in America. For my English final project, I incorporated my musical expertise by writing a Broadway-esque original composition inspired by Moby-Dick. Whatever your interests and passions are, there’s a way to make it work.

  1. How there will be so many delightful surprises and new experiences.

image shows two students laughing as they crawl onto a dock while wearing life jackets
Alex and sailing partner Jonna recover from some minor capsizing

I learned some sea chanteys. I not only went sailing in the Mystic River for my first time but accidentally capsized at the very end of the regatta. I ran out of the van in a pouring thunderstorm with Stephen and Lisa at Grand Isle Beach to collect seashells for our science project. And I got to steer a tall ship at 2AM with the compass light turned off, guided only by the stars in the night sky.

Before I attended Williams-Mystic, I was stressed, unsatisfied, and wanted to do something new and fulfilling. I didn’t know where my path was headed, what kind of career I was looking for. But Williams-Mystic — through all the random, fun, and new experiences — changed all that, giving me the inspiration to explore and discover my true passions and interests.

  1. How loving and understanding the community is.

This cannot be overstated. Everyone — faculty, administration, Mystic Seaport staff, Mystic residents, classmates, etc. — is cheering you on through this program. There is an unparalleled amount of overwhelming support. Your professors are right across the street and they’re more than happy to chat and help. You can always pass by Laurie’s office (Lab Manager) and say hi, you can talk to Tom (Director) about any of your problems, and if you ever want to see sunshine in its purest form you can pass by Mary O’Loughlin (Deputy Director) for a warm smile and piece of chocolate. Everyone is there to help you learn and succeed, and I’m forever grateful for this love and support.

A Year Ago: Reflecting on the Impact of a Williams-Mystic Semester

By Hayden Gillooly (Williams-Mystic S’19)

Hayden Gillooly is a junior at Williams College majoring in Geosciences with a concentration in Maritime Studies. Hayden grew up loving the ocean, and Williams-Mystic allowed her to take her passion to the next level. She is particularly interested in the effects of climate change and hopes to pursue higher education in Geosciences or Oceanography. Hayden dreams of finding a career that allows her to explore the world, teach, and make a positive impact on the communities around her. Spring 2020 she will be studying Geosciences and Spanish at the University of Cordoba in Spain.

Just about a year ago, I was packing for Williams-Mystic: A semester that would transform my life in more ways than I could possibly imagine. It’s funny: once something happens or someone enters your life, it’s hard to envision a life without it. And quite honestly, I don’t want to imagine a life without my Williams-Mystic family and roots. I love them too much. 

A year ago today, I had not yet watched the world come alive while on dawn watch on the Corwith Cramer, feeling small in the great big world. I had not yet squealed like a child while watching a pod of dolphins swim alongside the ship, or listened to my classmate and professor playing music on deck to the rhythm of the waves. I had not learned about coral reefs while sitting on a beach, and then finished the lecture by snorkeling and seeing one firsthand. 

A year ago today, I had not yet played in tide pools in California and gently poked a purple sea anemone. Nor had I eaten an entire caramel sundae at Ghirardelli in Monterey Bay; watched sea otters munch on kelp and ride the incoming waves; or stared up at the Redwoods in sheer amazement. I had not watched my classmates do cartwheels across the beach in Bodega Bay. 

I had yet to have long van conversations while riding along the coast, feeling so heard and seen by the people around me. I hadn’t sung at the top of my lungs to Wicked while driving to Cajun dancing in Louisiana. Or ran and jumped with my classmates on a beach in Grand Isle, Louisiana during a rainstorm. 

Picture shows four students smiling at a table in a breakfast restaurant
Carr House S’19 enjoying their weekly brunch tradition.

I had not yet nearly capsized during sailing class and laughed hysterically while grabbing at sails I’d yet to learn the names of. I had not sailed downtown to get Drawbridge Ice Cream, walked across the street to have a potluck dinner with my friends, or biked downtown to write in coffee shops. The tradition of going out to brunch on Sundays with my housemates had yet to be established. I had yet to fall in love with sunsets at the Mystic Seaport Museum, chasing them daily. I had not made Mystic a home; it had not yet become one of my favorite places in the whole world. I did not know the absolute magic of living and learning in a close-knit community. 

This time last year, words and phrases such as Swizzle, B-watch, foulies, sessiles and Moot Court had yet to join my vocabulary. It did not know what it really meant to have interdisciplinary academics. I did not know that such seemingly disparate subjects as science, policy, history, and literature could intersect so seamlessly. I had not conducted an independent project in each of these subjects! 

I am now packing for an adventure to Eleuthra, the Bahamas, for a Williams College Winter Study course. I cannot pack a bag for a trip without thinking of piles of blue 

Williams-Mystic duffle bags and early morning bus rides to airports: of counting off before heading into vans and onto the next adventure with my professors and 18 classmates. 

In Eleuthera, we’ll be doing Tropical Marine Conservation research. We will be talking with locals about how ecotourism affects their lives. I am looking forward to learning from them because I learned the power of people through our Louisiana Field Seminar. We will be looking at a sustainable lobster fishery as well. I did my Marine Policy research project on sustainable seafood, and I am excited to see such an operation firsthand. As I learned during Williams-Mystic, experiential learning brings the material to life in a way that no textbook can. 

Williams-Mystic Executive Director Tom Van Winkle left a journal on each of our desks for our move-in day last January. He had written a personal note inside each student. In mine, he included a quote by scientist and author Rachel Carson: “If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children, I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantments of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things that are artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength.” Williams-Mystic gifted me with this unwavering curiosity and wonder. While the program has inevitably evolved since 1977, talking with alums has shown me that this Williams-Mystic’s transformative magic has remained the same.

An Education With a Purpose: Two Students Reflect on the Impact of Williams-Mystic

What’s so unique about this program specifically is that it tells you why the academics apply to real life, why the academics ought to be brought into life — because they’re necessarily connected. 

20130110-DSC06707-2.JPG

At the end of their Williams-Mystic semester, Spring 2019 students Hayden Gillooly and Alex Quizon sat down to reflect on how their Williams-Mystic semester fit into their time at Williams College. Hayden had just declared a new major based on her Williams-Mystic experience; Alex simply felt more certain of his path forward. But both students agreed that Williams-Mystic has equipped them to approach the rest of their education with purpose. 

You’re both sophomores. Did you all declare your majors this semester? 

Hayden: I’m studying Spanish at Williams. Last spring and this fall, I took two Geosciences classes at Williams. Both of them opened my eyes to the subject of climate change and how it’s more than just a scientific issue; it affects everybody. I hadn’t really thought about majoring in science or anything (I was also a political science major). 

[On our Louisiana Field Seminar, I had] a conversation with my friend Angus. He said, ‘Is what I am studying good for others?’ And that really stuck with me: How can I make a difference? I’m learning about people’s stories, and how their lives are affected so deeply by a changing world. And at the end of the day, if I’m helping people in some way, I would consider it a life well-lived. So I decided to add the Geoscience majors in addition to Spanish. And I think those coupled together, particularly because a lot of Spanish-speaking countries are on coasts, will be really interesting. I’m so excited to go back to Williams now and study those two subjects and be a part of the Geosciences department. 

Alex: I came into Mystic planning to declare eventually in the Chemistry major and the environmental studies concentration. Holy cow, Mystic was a roller coaster! There was an entire month where the experiences I had at Mystic were shaping so many of my interests and flopping them around. The field seminars definitely shaped that; the classes, in the way they make you think, definitely shaped that. But eventually I realized, especially through my science research project, that chemistry is what I want to do: Working on ocean acidification, that’s what I want to do. So I submitted my form electronically last week to declare the chemistry major and environmental studies concentration. But now I’m more resolved knowing that. 

What will you bring back to Williams from your experiences at Mystic? 

Alex: I think what’s really important to underscore is that this program really is for everyone. Hayden’s a Spanish major, and there are history majors, biology majors, classics majors. It’s for everyone, because the ocean necessarily creates the connection between all these fields that society tells us are different. This is a liberal arts program; it’s about finding out how to put those things together and put those ideas together. If you don’t have a major in mind coming into Williams-Mystic, you’re certainly going to have a better and more clear understanding of what that major or concentration or minor is by the end of it. 

Hayden: I’ve realized that there is as much value in non-academics during a school semester as there can be in academics. I’ve learned so much this semester in the cracks of classes, in those van conversations, and philosophizing about life over coffee with friends. Those moments, too, are times that change us and that allow us to view the world differently. 

Alex: I agree with you completely. Work and life — we shouldn’t make them separate, even though it seems like we have to allocate [them that way]. That frame of mind is also what I want to bring back. What’s so unique about this program specifically is that it tells you why the academics apply to real life, why the academics ought to be brought into life — because they’re necessarily connected. 

Hayden: This semester, more than ever, the schoolwork has become something I really want to do. It makes me think about life, and how I want to live a life. I’ve engaged a lot this semester with the topic of passion. I want a life in which what I am doing is something I’m excited to do.

Want to experience Williams-Mystic’s close-knit community for yourself? We are still welcoming applications for our Spring 2020 semester. Please reach out to wmadmissions@williams.edu to express your interest, and visit https://mystic.williams.edu/admissions to start your application.

 

An Open Letter to Williams-Mystic from Hayden Gillooly (S’19)

It is week two back on the Williams College campus after being at Williams-Mystic Spring 2019. I find that the ways in which Williams-Mystic changed me keep unfolding; I keep being re-reminded daily of what a special, and transformative semester I had.

This blog post is written by Hayden Gillooly, a junior majoring in Geosciences and Spanish who attended Williams-Mystic during S’19, the spring of her sophomore year. 

It is week two back on the Williams College campus after being at Williams-Mystic Spring 2019. I find that the ways in which Williams-Mystic changed me keep unfolding; I keep being re-reminded daily of what a special, and transformative semester I had. I chose to do Williams-Mystic on a sort of whim — looking for a change in learning environments — and now I cannot imagine my life having not spent a semester feeling my eyes light up like fire and flint on field seminars and in labs in the marshes of Mystic. I cannot imagine a life without my dear friends who I met through the program. 

I am sitting in my room across from a full-wall photo collage I have created, including many, many photos from the past semester. The photos were taken across the country: in Puerto Rico, California, Mystic, Louisiana; on ships and on sailboat; on the docks and in classrooms; from within vans and atop rooftops; from aboard trawling vessels and tugboats; while holding sea anemones and starfish, lobsters and sessile organisms; in cafes and restaurants celebrating birthdays. They all have one thing in common: in each and every one, I am absolutely beaming. All someone has to do is mention Williams-Mystic, and I feel a giant smile spread across my face. How could I not smile thinking about it?! Confession: I am utterly and completely obsessed with Williams-Mystic and will rant about it to anyone who expresses even a spark of interest. 

After WM, I changed my major to Geosciences with a concentration in Maritime Studies because I fell in love with hands-on outdoor learning, and with the topics in that field. Naturally, after this huge educational change, this semester feels different from past ones. This is mainly because two days a week, I spend afternoons in geosciences labs, either outdoors exploring rocks and piecing together geologic histories in Structural Geology with Professor Paul Karabinos, or in the lovely Clark Hall learning about commercial uses for rocks in Economic Geology and Earth Resources with Professor Ronadh Cox. Last Thursday, we went on a class field trip with Ronadh to D.A. Collins limestone quarry in Wilton, NY, where we spoke with geologists and directors about the precise process of quarrying the limestone and grading it into appropriate sizes. Later, we learned about the science behind making concrete, and the tests to measure strength and durability of the products. As we spoke with D.A. Collins employees about their lives and paths and passions, I was reminded of how at WM, I learned the power of people. I learned how intricate our world is: how there truly is no better textbook than the world or a storyteller in front of you. On our van ride back to campus, Ronadh treated us to ice cream, which of course reminded me of a moment on our Louisiana Field Seminar with WM: after a fun night of cajun dancing, Executive Director of Williams-Mystic, Tom Van Winkle, called our professors, asking them to please stop at Sonic for ice cream on Williams-Mystic. 

On Monday, I hiked into the woods with my classmate (yes, just one — another beauty of this field is the small community) and professor, and tried to figure out what layers of rocks and the size of their grains told us about the environment in which they were deposited. More than ever, after WM, I feel inspired to ask questions (lots of them!) of my professors and classmates, and feel like we are learning together. As we sat at Sugarloaf overlook in Vermont eating a delicious assortment of fruits and veggies with hummus and guacamole, talking about life, I reminisced about how magical it is to travel and adventure with professors: to be known and to know them beyond the classroom. 

My third class is Environmental Law — taken, of course, after Marine Policy with Professor Katy Hall at Williams-Mystic sparked my interest. I feel so engaged by the material, and with each reading, I feel myself making connections to things we learned and experienced with Williams-Mystic. In a class discussion about whose voices are heard and valued in the midst of climate change, I thought of our friends in Grande Isle, Louisiana. I thought about how crucial it is that the people most affected by climate change and sea-level rise be a part of conversations and solutions. So many phrases in readings brought back memories of Katy’s class and Friday policy snacks of blue frosting-covered brownies topped with Swedish Fish and other foodie interpretations of our readings. 

Today in Earth Resources lab, as we analyzed the properties of various minerals in class, something magical happened. When “We Didn’t Start the Fire” by Billy Joel came up on shuffle, my classmates and I danced and were silly; I felt myself exhale, and thought, ‘This feels right.’ All the pieces lined up, everything feels as it should be: the classes I am taking, the people I surround myself with; my excitement about the world around me.

Williams-Mystic, was, and continues to be exactly what I needed: as a person, a student, a friend and as a global citizen. I think of Williams-Mystic more often than sometimes. Of chasing sunsets against a backdrop of tall ships at Mystic Seaport before dinner. Of laughing hysterically while almost capsizing during sailing class and having brunch downtown with housemates. Of days spent counting sessile organisms for our Marine Ecology research project. Of staring up at redwoods and feeling small, yet calm. Of piles of blue duffel bags in airports and van rides through the rolling highways of California. To say that I feel myself changed by Williams-Mystic and that community is an understatement. Mystic very quickly, and probably always will, feel like a home, and my friends from S’19, a family.