Evan McAlice, Assistant Director of Admissions and Communications
An extraordinary tenet of the Williams-Mystic Program is its open invitation to students across many different schools, disciplines, and academic backgrounds. Our ability to be a transformative liberal arts experience relies on our students, who collectively form a broad spectrum of perspectives that inspire incredible academic discussion. One of these extraordinary students is the subject of a recently published book, Am I Too Late: A mother’s reflection on her son’s gap year and how it prepared him for an uncertain world, and a chapter is dedicated to this student’s semester at Williams-Mystic.
Am I Too Late? details the academic journey of Mackenzie Myers (S’17) and the impact of his gap year in between high school and college. The book, authored by Mackenzie’s mother, Cindy Funk, and her collaborator Jim Bellar, explores the pressure placed upon students in a competitive academic environment and illustrates how Mackenzie rediscovers his love of learning. Chapter 11 of the book, titled “Mystic Winds,” details Mackenzie’s Williams-Mystic semester, an experience that bookended his gap year journey.
Prior to attending Williams-Mystic, Mackenzie spent his gap year hiking the Appalachian trail, teaching English in Eswatini, and sailing 226 miles on the Salish Sea in British Columbia. According to Funk, Mackenzie’s experience in Eswatini engaged him with issues of climate change and its impact on indigenous communities – an interest that was strengthened through his semester in Mystic.
“When he arrived [in Eswatini], they were under a drought,” said Funk. “Looking at that environmental impact, he became very interested in those types of issues. Williams-Mystic did a seminar in Louisiana meeting with indigenous populations, so there were all these things that happened before he got to Williams-Mystic that really drew him in.”
Mackenzie had heard about Williams-Mystic through a family friend, but was unsure if would be able to attend, given his lack of college experience. After some back and forth communication with Executive Director Tom Van Winkle, Mackenzie had been admitted to the program. Soon enough, Mackenzie boarded a plane from Portland to Boston, and his adventure began.
Funk cites Mackenzie’s housing experience as one of the first highlights she noticed about the program. Mackenzie lived in Johnston House with three other students, all of whom had drastically different lives and academic experiences. According to Funk, Mackenzie’s ability to budget and be resourceful made him a valuable community member, but it did not stop there. She discovered that these housemates had developed systems to divvy up chores that promoted open communication and collaboration.
“I was really struck by how the four of them had come together,” said Funk. “They had a calendar that outlined everyone’s chores, like who was going to buy groceries, and it was really smart. They planned their meals together too, and that is something that was such great training for them.”
In just the second week of the semester, Mackenzie and the rest of his class flew to San Juan to board the SSV Corwith Cramer for their offshore field seminar. During his time offshore, Mackenzie swam and snorkeled in the Caribbean Sea, collected and presented data to his fellow classmates, and was even voted by his peers to lead his watch.
Another academic highlight for Mackenize was his performance in Moot Court. In a week that often poses a significant challenge for many students, Mackenzie presented his argument incredibly effectively, and received glowing remarks from the faculty and the presiding judge. This was a source of pride for Funk, who had felt like Mackenzie had been proving himself to his peers, as well as displaying growth into a passionate learner.
“I think he took full advantage of Williams-Mystic,” said Funk. “And being in such a small cohort experience, it was neat to see that he had actually been recognized for his work.”
Since leaving Williams-Mystic, Mackenzie went on to graduate Magna Cum Laude and Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Oregon with a degree in Environmental Studies. Funk also shared that she didn’t even learn about her son graduating Phi Beta Kappa until a week after the graduation ceremony – a testament to Mackenzie’s growth and humility.
As Mackenzie searches for where life will take him next, Funk looks back fondly at her son’s time at Williams-Mystic, and marvels at his growth and independence.
“As I identified in the book, it’s his journey now,” said Funk, “but I do know that he’s still interested in learning, and that’s very exciting.” In many ways, Mackenzie is the classic Williams-Mystic success story – proof that there is no one way to succeed in our program. He perfectly demonstrates the strengths of a small program that supports students of all backgrounds. Mackenzie not only made the most out of his time with the program, but used his experience as a springboard to further his education and regain his love of learning. We can not be more proud of everything he has accomplished, and we look forward to seeing him continue to shine. Am I Too Late: A mother’s reflection on her son’s gap year and how it prepared him for an uncertain world by Cindy Funk and Jim Bellar is available to read on Amazon, Apple Books, Google Play, Indie Bound, and more. You can support Cindy Funk and her work by visiting her website.
Hayden Gillooly is an alum of Williams College, Class of 2021. She now works as the Assistant Director of Admissions for Overland Summers.
During a semester at Williams-Mystic, your house on Bruggeman Place becomes a home, and your small class a family. The Mystic Seaport campus becomes your backyard to frolic in on the way to class, and in the evenings at sunset. You will find solace sailing and kayaking in the Mystic River. And you may even find that downtown Mystic becomes a home. That your heart will sing as you bike across the bridge to your favorite coffee shop where you’ll write an essay intertwining perspectives from four disciplines you once thought were disparate. In the spring of 2019, I watched winter fade gracefully into summer through my window in Carr House overlooking Mystic Seaport, and felt myself grow each day.
What’s special about communal living as opposed to living in a dorm is that you and your housemates will get to know each other deeply because you share classes, adventures, and a home. This differs from a typical college semester in which you see your classmates in a single class, for a few hours each week. At Williams-Mystic, you’ll get to know all of the layers of your classmates—learning how to care for each other, through all of the ups and downs of a semester.
Communal living at Williams-Mystic is one of the things that stands out in making the program so extraordinary. In addition to being surrounded by like-minded students, brilliant professors, and traveling to some of the most beautiful places in the country—being able to come home at the end of the day to Bruggeman Place is quite magical. Each day at Carr, Mallory, Kemble, Albion, and Johnston houses, we were able to let our classroom learnings fold into dinner conversations and late-night chats.
You and your classmates will share dance parties, meals, and study sessions in both your home and in the classroom buildings. Since students take the same four classes: Literature of the Sea, Maritime History, Marine Policy, and either Oceanographic Processes or Marine Ecology, you and your classmates will be able to study and work together on projects. I remember one night before a big deadline for our Marine Policy final projects, my housemates and I sprawled across our living room reading policy briefs and helping each other to understand the nuances of the briefs. It felt collaborative, rather than competitive, as we worked as a team to grasp the concepts.
Our flights to our field seminars in Puerto Rico, California, and Louisiana were always early in the morning, meaning that we had to wake up around 2am to drive to the airport. The night before field seminars, my housemates and I kept our bedroom doors open while packing, and solicited input from each other on how many t-shirts and layers to bring. We felt a childlike excitement those nights as we anticipated our upcoming adventures. Our alarms would go off early in the morning, and we’d shuttle our big Williams-Mystic duffle bags downstairs together. I felt like a little kid on Christmas, eager to embark on our journey. In the pitch black, we’d all step into the bus and drive to the airport. By the end of the day, we’d be in a new place ready to explore together.
Each classmate brings a different perspective from their respective discipline to each class and field seminar. Unlike a class on your home campus, which may be geared towards students of a particular major, each Williams-Mystic class is filled with students across all different disciplines and backgrounds. This offers you the unique opportunity to consider each topic from multiple lenses. At Williams-Mystic, you’ll come to understand that we all bring something different to the table, and that having representation from the voices of all disciplines is essential in order to tackle the world’s most pressing issues. These issues may include studying indigenous rights, sea-level rise, and how biodiversity is impacted by climate change.
During “Whale Week,” we studied whales in each course. In Marine Policy, we examined the policies in place to protect whales worldwide; in Marine Ecology, we studied the ‘whale pump,’ and how whales are an integral part of their ecosystems. In Literature of the Sea, we read Herman Melville’s Moby Dick on the last wooden whaling ship in the world, The Morgan, which resides at Mystic Seaport. In History of the Sea, we read about the history of whaling voyages. It was special to see the strengths of each of my classmates shine as they discussed their perspectives.
And at the end of each day, you’ll go home with your classmates and cook in the kitchen while jamming to music and laughing. My three housemates and I could not have been more different, but we formed a unit. Each Sunday, we ventured downtown to a new restaurant to share brunch and reflect on the past week—something we always looked forward to. One particularly gorgeous Sunday, we used bikes from the Williams-Mystic bike fleet to head downtown. We crossed the river, huge smiles on our faces. The flowers were in bloom, and downtown was bustling with tourists visiting the Seaport.
Almost every day during my Williams-Mystic semester, I spent sunset at Mystic Seaport, watching the sky melt into bright oranges and reds against a backdrop of the sails of tall ships. I sat on the docks and listened to the Mystic River swell beneath me. One night, time got away from me while cooking dinner, and I forgot to go to the Seaport at sunset. However, three of my classmates texted me to inform me about the bright red sky, because they knew that I was a sunset enthusiast. I ran down Bruggeman Place and through the Seaport, catching the tail-end of a fiery sky. It’s a small anecdote, but it speaks to the depth with which my classmates really knew me from living, working, and adventuring alongside each other each day. I felt so heard, and so seen for who I was, and for the things that I was passionate about.
While discussing house norms and expectations with my housemates, I learned how to be a direct communicator. I learned how to compromise when our expectations differed, but we made it work anyway. I learned passion while seeing my classmates’ eyes light up during engaging conversations. And when my classmates and I saw all of the layers of each other—the beautiful, the messy—and embraced each other regardless, I learned love.
On a college campus, it’s easy for academics to feel all-consuming–like the biggest part of your identity. Students wear their backpacks everywhere, packed with textbooks and course packets. At Williams-Mystic, however, academics felt like a slice of who I was. I felt like the sum of my parts—a student, friend, sunset-chaser, writer, daughter, and adventurer. I learned about maritime science, history, literature, and policy during my Williams-Mystic semester—yes—but I also learned the power of listening intently to people. Of asking questions in our communities, and in the communities that we visit. Our professors placed value on our learning beyond the classroom, too. They knew—and instilled an understanding in us—that we could learn much, much more from the people and places around us than we ever possibly could from a textbook.
Emily is a recent graduate of Williams College. Her time in Mystic included long walks around the seaport, last-minute kayaking, and a wholehearted attempt at blacksmithing.
Katy Newcomer Lawson (F’12) has traveled far and wide. It’s one of the first things I notice in the About section of her website: the list of places where she’s worked spans coasts, countries, and even continents. In the course of her work as a marine scientist, Katy has been everywhere from the Chesapeake Bay to the coast of Maine, the Pacific Northwest to Panama, Alaska to Australia. When I give her a call one Thursday afternoon, I’m lucky enough to catch her while we’re both in the same time zone — I’m at school in Massachusetts; she’s working from home in upstate New York — and I can’t help but ask: which of those many places was her favorite?
“Favorites, that’s so hard!” Katy says. “There are so many good ones.” There’s the semester she spent studying abroad in Australia, just a hundred miles inland from the Great Barrier Reef. (“It was really immersive, because I took four classes on coral reefs,” Katy tells me. “I was like, if I’m going to be in Australia, I’m going to do it!”) There are all the times she’s gone scuba diving in the kelp forests off the coast of California. (As she describes the experience, I feel like I’m right there underwater with her: “It’s almost spooky,” she says, “but also very pretty, because the sun shines through and [it’s like] you’re swimming through a forest.”)
Then there’s the summer she spent in Florida, patrolling beaches for sea turtle nests. (“That was the hardest I’ve ever worked, walking on the beach in the morning every single day for miles.” “When you say morning,” I ask, “do you mean, like, 9 AM morning or 5 AM morning?” “5 AM morning,” Katy confirms, telling me she had to wake up at 4 to get to the beach on time. “But, I mean, I also got to see baby sea turtles that summer,” she says, smiling, “so pros and cons, really.”) There’s also the work she’s done in St. Paul and Sitka, Alaska, which Katy says might be her two favorite field sites of all time. (“It was so interesting to go there,” she says. “Very surprising ecosystems, very diverse — [with] starfish and giant urchins and all these fun invertebrate species.”)
And the next destination on her list is equally exciting. If all goes well, next summer, Katy will be headed to Fiji, where she’ll continue to work on her PhD with conservation biologist Joshua Drew. The focus of Katy’s PhD research is marine biodiversity; she’s particularly interested in the invertebrate species that call Fiji’s coral reefs and mangrove forests home. Though her trip to those very sites was originally scheduled for this summer and had to be postponed, Katy has still been able to make progress on her project. She’s currently doing mathematical and statistical modeling work from home, while also looking forward to getting back out in the field. “That’s the part I really like,” Katy says, “is how hands-on it is. [With] marine fieldwork, when you’re out on the beach or on a boat, you feel like you’re [having] a very tactile experience.” Not to mention, she adds, of her upcoming trip, “I really enjoy traveling for work!”
But before most of that traveling — before Fiji, before Alaska and California and Australia — there was Williams-Mystic. Katy came to Mystic as an environmental studies major at Williams who had been interested in marine science since high school and a self-described “ocean girl” since long before then. “When I was looking at Williams as a college, I [wasn’t sure] if I wanted to [take] the liberal arts route or do a very marine-heavy undergrad,” she explains, “so Williams-Mystic helped convince me that I wanted to go to Williams.” It’s something the two of us have in common; as a senior in high school, I had the same dilemma and made the same decision. Something else we share: both of us remember the field seminars as one of the best parts of Williams-Mystic. We exchange stories about the offshore trip, which Katy tells me was her favorite, “because it was the most unlike anything I’d ever done before.” I’ve never really been able to put the magic of that trip into words, but Katy does it perfectly: “To keep waking up at sea was [just] an amazing experience.”
“And then [the] Louisiana [field seminar] was [also] great,” she continues. During that trip, “we stayed at LUMCON,” the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium, “which is a field site that’s also a lab. Basically, it was like a professional field location, and I’d never been to one before. [So] to experience that, where it was like — here are the scientists who work at this lab, and they do science for their job, 9 to 5 — I [just thought], that’s really cool! That’s a dream!” Back in Mystic, Katy had the chance to try out that dream for herself. She began working as a research assistant in the lab of professor emeritus (and former Williams-Mystic director) Jim Carlton. “Jim was a huge influence,” Katy tells me now. “You know, I still [study] invertebrates, which are his specialty. And I started [my career] in an invasive [species] lab that he helped found, so I’m definitely super thankful to have gone to Williams-Mystic and learned from Jim and everybody else there.”
One especially memorable learning experience, Katy says, was the research project she did when she returned to Mystic the following summer, to continue working with Jim and one of his then-PhD students. “We’d found something in the field that was really interesting,” she says, “which was that anemones were producing eggs for a reason we didn’t understand, because they were asexual. And we were like, ‘Why? We thought you were asexual!’” So Katy used her histology skills — which she’d recently honed in Australia, studying corals (what else?) — to analyze the tissue of the anemones and “figure out if they had eggs, if they had sperm, what was going on.” She pauses for a moment here, and, enthralled, I ask: What was going on? Were they really asexual?
“Yes, they were really asexual!” Katy says. “It was a totally female population — there were no sperm-holding anemones. We think it’s because they’re invasive, and they probably haven’t lost the capability to reproduce sexually from their original population — but that only one individual was transported to Mystic, [and] it was a female. And so now every single anemone in Mystic is a female,” she explains. “Other researchers also discovered this around the same time, and found other populations that are only male, [or other] female-only populations. [But] there are [also] populations that have both, and so people are trying to see if they’re going to reproduce sexually. It’ll be interesting,” she continues, “because they’re so successful [as a species] without [sexual reproduction]. But if they recombine and are able to adapt and evolve as a [typical] population might, then they [could] become even more prevalent — who knows?”
The anemone project — which ultimately turned into Katy’s undergraduate thesis — exemplifies what she says she loves most about doing research: asking questions and finding ways to answer them. “I have a lot of fun designing research questions and thinking up what we want to test and why it’s important,” she says. “And going through the process of trial and error in the field — I really enjoy that part of it.” I’m curious about what that process is like, never having been through it on my own. Katy nods: “I think it’s hard to get experience doing that until either you have an independent project or you work on a project with somebody [else] from start to finish. But it’s definitely one of the most surprising things I’ve learned [about research], is that it’s very iterative. Because there are so many things in the field that can affect your project, like weather, waves, currents, other animals, other humans… So you have to kind of think of solutions on the spot and be ready for almost anything to happen.”
“And it can be really nerve-racking the first time it happens to you,” Katy tells me. “Like, [for] my first internship project, the animal I was trying to study didn’t come that year — they [just] didn’t settle in that location that year — so when I got there, [and] I saw barnacles instead of bryozoans, I was like, ‘Oh. Well, my study is now on barnacles!’” Katy laughs. Despite the challenges, it seems like everything worked out in the end. That barnacle project took place while Katy was an intern at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC), where she later became a full-time lab technician. She gives credit to Williams-Mystic for helping her get that initial opportunity: “I definitely would not have gotten the internship at [SERC] without [my] experience working with Jim,” she says. “And then the research I did [with him] for my thesis” — the aforementioned anemone project — “turned into a paper, so that was my first big publication — which was probably [also] very impactful, [to have that] on my resume [when I applied] to grad school.”
I ask Katy if there are other ways in which she thinks Williams-Mystic has shaped her life since. “I mean, I met my husband [there],” she says with a smile, “and I made really great friends [who] I still talk to and hang out with a lot.” (She remembers paddleboarding on the Mystic River in the summer, going to Clyde’s for apple cider donuts in the fall — the foundation for friendships that are still going strong, even now, years later.) Though some of her favorite memories are from time spent outside of class, Katy tells me she really enjoyed her courses, too. She admits to having a favorite — “as a science person, I was obsessed with the ecology class” — but says she also appreciated “the way all [the classes] intersected, how they all built upon each other.”
Looking back on her coursework as a whole, Katy says, “I think the immersion of [all] the different courses helped expand my view of doing marine science. You know, it can be anthropological; it can be community-based. It’s not just science alone — there’s this whole other huge part of knowing about the marine world that’s not based in the research, it’s based in the human systems. So I think that’s had a big impact on the way I think about things.” For example, Katy recalls, “When we went to Louisiana, I was always amazed at how close the connections were between some of the professors at Mystic and some of the people [we met] in Louisiana. I thought that was so impressive, to have collaborators who they’ve [known] for like twenty years, who they’re friends with and who live in that community.”
Today, Katy hopes to build similarly strong connections through her own work. For the ongoing Fiji project, she says, “we do a lot of collaboration with the local indigenous community. [We] try to focus on what they’re interested in studying [and] develop research questions that might further their own interest in the conservation process. For example, there are a lot of services that they value more than the Western community [does], like sustenance fishing or traditional uses of mangrove wood. So we want to try to develop study questions that support those kinds of values.” It’s important, she says, to focus on projects that are not only of scientific interest, but also of value to the surrounding community — and it’s equally important to work with local collaborators, to ensure they are involved with and invested in the research being done.
Katy’s belief that science should be accessible and inclusive extends even beyond the immediate community, into the wider world. “I think [doing] outreach is a really important part of any scientist’s job,” she says, whether that means giving talks, using social media, or finding other ways to share science with the public. In addition to keeping people informed, Katy also wants to help them join in research efforts themselves, as citizen scientists. “I really enjoy that, connecting people to projects and getting them involved,” she says. “I think people are more keen than we think. There are plenty of people who [want to] help, and it’s super beneficial for science [for the public] to have a [better] understanding of what we do.”
While at SERC, for example, Katy helped develop an online citizen science project called Invader ID. The goal of the project is to study fouling communities, which are made up of organisms that live underwater on artificial surfaces, such as docks and ship hulls. As a volunteer, you can access photos that SERC has collected of these organisms, then try your hand at identifying them. Katy says Invader ID “gets people interested in [species] that they would maybe never see,” like tunicates and tubeworms. “But also,” she adds, “it helps us track [these] communities through time. So we can put up [photos] from the early 2000s that we never got around to analyzing, and if the public identifies [the species in them], then we have a data point that we would have never been able to get [otherwise].” To date, more than 5,000 volunteers have contributed to the project. And Katy thinks that, in general, participation in similar citizen science efforts is on the rise. When I ask her how she sees the field of marine science changing, either in the present or in the years to come, she says, “I think more people are expressing interest, and I think more scientists are recognizing that it’s important to [reach out to them] actively.”
“And then with that,” she continues, “I think [science] is becoming more localized. People are realizing, like, to just go to a far-flung place, do research, and come back — and not learn about that place — is maybe a bad idea. You should be more aware of where you’re going, what you’re doing, and how that data is related to that place and those people. And [you should] really connect with the community there and the public in general.” It’s an area where Katy acknowledges that scientists, on the whole, have lots of room for improvement — but she’s optimistic that things will change for the better.
To me, it’s clear that Katy herself is at the forefront of that change, given how closely her work in Fiji is tied to the local community. In addition to the ecological fieldwork, Katy’s project also has a major sociological component. She says, “[One of the questions] that I’m asking is, in high biodiversity sites — assuming biodiversity is a proxy for healthy ecosystems — do people appreciate more ecosystem services, and do they value those [more highly]?” Through surveys and interviews, Katy will work to better understand the local community and its relationship with the environment, in order to make sure that local priorities are taken into account. When designing a research project, Katy says, “it’s important to make sure that you’re not doing [one thing] when the community thinks there’s something [else] that’s more important. So it’s a balance” — a balance she is working hard to achieve.
What’s next for Katy after Fiji? “I’m getting more into this idea of connecting the community with the ecosystem,” she says, “so I think I’m going to try to do projects that are more local to me. That could mean in the Great Lakes region, or it could mean coastal New York, [or even] up to Maine, where there are a lot of local towns that are really invested in the lobster, scallop, and [other] fishing industries. So that’s what I hope to do next, because I want to have that connection to place.” And at the end of the day, it’s that same connection to place that Katy emphasizes when she talks about her time at Williams-Mystic. One of the last questions I ask her is this: In just a few sentences, how would she describe the program?
“I think you just really live in that place,” she says. “You live in the world of [a] New England, ocean-based lifestyle, and you learn a lot about the ocean from the perspective of a coastal community, even if you’ve never been [part of that community before].” (Katy herself grew up in Georgia. “On the coast?” I ask her. “Nope!” she says, smiling. “Anywhere near the coast?” “Nope,” she says again, laughing now. “Central Georgia. My family went to the beach during the summer, but that was it.”) In Mystic, though, “you [really] experience the water,” she says. “You live there on the water, you learn all about the water, you go other places with water — and it’s great. I loved every minute of it.”
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.
“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!'”
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.”
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?
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.
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.”
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.”
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 moreabout the opportunities available at Williams-Mystic.
Alex Quizon S’19: So how did you come to decide to apply to Williams-Mystic?
AllyGrusky 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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.’”
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.
How awesome the field seminars are.
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.
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.
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.
How you can make your own interests fit with the interests of the Williams-Mystic program.
Many 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.
How there will be so many delightful surprises and new experiences.
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.
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.