In the great Venn diagram between Williams-Mystic and Ireland, I did not expect the overlap to be bagpipe music.
Having just come fresh out of a spring semester filled with spider crabs, oblong grapes, and flat sandwiches on Sunday (you just had to be there), going across the Atlantic felt like the farthest thing I could possibly imagine from the quaint seaside energy of Mystic, CT. It felt like I had barely moved out of Carr House when my lab group was packing up and hopping on a flight into Dublin. The aim of the journey? Assorted geoscience research under the incredible Rónadh Cox (say hi to her for me, F’22 and S’23), looking at subtidal boulder deposits and the encrusting marine organisms living on them. Me and my thesis partner were joined by her two underclassmen research assistants were headed over there to study coastal boulder beaches and their properties. A third underclassman researcher wrote music based on waves and boulders.
The actual research was mostly measuring boulders. Actually, it was almost completely measuring boulders, with the occasional foray into the tidepools – I got to find some European green crabs (C. maenas) in their natural, non-invasive, non-Weekapaug Point habitat! My personal highlight was finding an ovigerous green crab at Waterville Beach in County Kerry, after having found so few green crabs over the course of the semester. After being in the field all day, my lab group and I then got to discover our hidden passion for things like digestive biscuits, the TV program “Great Lighthouses of Ireland,” and unplanned caving expeditions. We didn’t get much time for sightseeing, but we did get to see Céide Fields (the oldest stone-walled settlement in the world), Doolin Cave’s Great Stalactite (the longest free-hanging stalactite in Europe), and the beautiful Cliffs of Moher.
On the last day of the trip, we wound up in Dublin for the afternoon to explore. After a pit stop at the Trinity College geoscience building and the sweetest boba I’ve ever had, we stopped to listen to a man who was playing the bagpipes on the side of the street. Almost immediately, I couldn’t help but be reminded of S’22’s spider crab release procession, accompanied by a bagpipe serenade from our own Declan Houlihan. I expected bagpipe music in Ireland, but I didn’t expect it to be the thing that made me feel so close to Williams-Mystic. It was then that I really started to realize: pieces of Williams-Mystic and Spring ‘22 are going to come with me wherever I go, no matter how far away from Mystic I am. Whether it’s Rónadh joking with her brother over the van walkie-talkies, cooking with my lab group at night, or my partner texting me pictures of the crabs we did our project on, my semester on Greenmanville Ave is going to stick. S’22, you have a death grip on my heart. You taught me to be adventurous, to embrace my inner weirdness, and to treat every place like it’s my classroom. They can take me away from the crab bagpipe procession, but they sure can’t take the crab bagpipe procession away from me. Long live Jomothy.
~ this blog post in memoriam of Diane and co, fly high our dear crabby friends~
by Evan McAlice, Assistant Director of Admissions & Communications
If there is anyone who represents the transformative nature of a Williams-Mystic semester, it’s Samuel Filiaggi, who joined us in Spring 2019 as a senior at the University of Rhode Island. Samuel came to Williams-Mystic anticipating an adventurous sendoff to his college career, but what he found was so much more. In addition to adventure, Samuel found a welcoming community, an enriching educational experience, and a new outlook that changed the course of his life.
“With it being my last college semester, there was a lot of life transition that I was going through, and I found a lot of support here,” said Samuel.
Despite taking law courses at URI, Samuel did not initially see a career in law in his future. That all changed, however, after spending a few weeks in Katy Robinson Hall’s Marine Policy course. Samuel saw the ways law applies an interdisciplinary approach, and how there were ways to use his background in Marine Affairs to inform the legislature. Pretty soon, the progression to law school – something he could not have imagined doing years ago – began to feel more and more natural.
“What really attracted me to Marine Affairs at URI and then to Williams-Mystic was just how interdisciplinary it is, and how important it is to take different perspectives from different fields and have it synthesized to make effective policy,” said Filiaggi. “The more I learned about law and looked into law schools and what their approaches are, the more I realized it’s the same.”
Samuel cites his experience in Moot Court as the moment the lightbulb went off. Due to a number of outside forces, Samuel ended up being the only person in his group to argue one of the three major facets of the case. With the help of his fellow shipmates, Samuel rose to the challenge and absorbed the material, discovering a new set of skills he did not know he possessed. After talking with the presiding judge at the post-court luncheon, he was encouraged to apply that same perseverance to all aspects of his life.
This appreciation for law and policy was nurtured throughout the semester by Katy Robinson Hall, who immediately bonded with Samuel over their shared Rhody alumhood. Fun fact, Samuel was actually in URI’s marching band at the same time as many of Katy’s children!
“Meeting Katy was like meeting a version of myself that I wanted to be when I grew up,” said Samuel. “With the work she has gotten to do, and the impact she has had in both the courtroom and the classroom, I knew that was somebody I wanted to keep a relationship with.”
Katy proved to be a valuable resource during the law school application process, writing him a wonderful letter of recommendation, but that’s not where the story ends. During that same correspondence, Katy inquired about the possibility of petitioning for a gender-affirming name change for Samuel. On February 24, after months of planning and paperwork, Samuel and Katy stood in court together as the name change became official.
It was a full-circle moment for Samuel, as his Williams-Mystic classmates were the first people he introduced himself to with his new name and pronouns. The experience exemplified the welcoming community Williams-Mystic can foster in just one semester, and how our faculty will continue to advocate for students long after their semester ends.
“Katy was a massive help with navigating the probate court,” said Samuel. “Having somebody there who understands the intricacies and unwritten rules of probate court that the layman does not have access to definitely left an impact on me.”
Beginning in the fall, Samuel will be attending the Roger Williams University School of Law. Samuel hopes to study marine and coastal law at Roger Williams through the school’s Marine Affairs Institute, which is partnered with Rhode Island Sea Grant.
Samuel plans to apply an interdisciplinary perspective to his law classes, and use the knowledge he developed at Williams-Mystic across many fields to become an effective advocate and lawyer. At Williams-Mystic, Samuel learned the ways in which narrowing his focus to one specific discipline can limit his potential. Instead, he hopes to synthesize all of his interests and skills into his law career in order to approach problems from unique perspectives.
“Some of the best lawyers are people that are creative and can take different approaches to prove their point beyond the conventional track,” said Samuel. “Having an interdisciplinary effect will definitely strengthen my practice if I can utilize different tools to get my point across, and hopefully make a difference.”
For students that are considering a semester with Williams-Mystic, Samuel encourages them to use this as an opportunity to explore and hone their interests. Particularly for students who are interested in pursuing law, he hopes students will continue to use the resources and knowledge provided to them by the program.
“You are more equipped and gifted than you could know,” said Samuel. “Keep trusting in your skills, honing your skills, and keep connecting with your professors and shipmates.”
Carlton is a Professor Emeritus of Marine Sciences and Director Emeritus of Williams-Mystic (Curriculum Vitae)
In September 2010, the Williams-Mystic class prepared messages-in-glass bottles on the Cramer to be set free in the Gulf of Maine as part of a large-scale drift experiment. However, the Cramer was never far enough offshore to release the bottles during the trip. Captain Sean Bercaw released F10’s bottles a few weeks later on October 6 when bringing Cramer down from Rockland ME to Woods Hole, in the middle of the Gulf during storm force winds and in 18-20 foot seas – enough ocean energy to send the bottles packing into the open North Atlantic.
On March 18, 2022, almost 11 ½ years later, British physician Dr. Ryan Watkins, on a visit to Windermere Island, Eleuthera, in the Bahamas, found F10 Nicola Klee’s bottle on the beach. Dr. Ryan kindly sent us (and Nicola) a picture of the bottle and her message. We’ve prepared a snapshot of the bottle to highlight that there were still living oceanic goose barnacles Lepas on the bottle, which tells us that the bottle had washed ashore perhaps a few hours before.
Where had Nicola’s bottle been all these years?
Well, if you reach over and grab your copy of the Williams-Mystic 25th Anniversary Book, and open to page 47 – we’ll give you a second – you’ll get a good sense of the journey that the bottle took, and for how long.
Bottles that were released in October 1984 by F84, off the coast of New England, landed in the Azores, Europe, Bermuda, and multiple times in the Bahamas until September 1991(Jim tells us that a few more F84 bottles were reported in subsequent years). The pattern of their discovery revealed that some bottles had gone around the North Atlantic Ocean perhaps as many as four or five times before landing!
We think Nicola’s bottle has been bobbing around and around … and around … the North Atlantic Ocean at least a few times – and the barnacles confirm it was recently out on the high seas. Finally, enough was enough, and the bottle followed its predecessors ashore in the Caribbean!
Hayden Gillooly is an alum of Williams College, Class of 2021. She now works as the Assistant Director of Admissions for Overland Summers.
In Zach Arfa’s (F19) senior year at Oberlin College, he received an email from Williams-Mystic asking if he wanted to study the ocean. The program sounded so neat, that Zach wondered whether it was real. He researched the program, applied, and was enrolled within a week. As a Dance and Psychology double major, Zach brought a unique perspective to his Williams-Mystic semester, intersecting the arts with science.
My conversation with Zach covered everything from his experience catching salmon with his bare hands during his Williams-Mystic Alaska field seminar, to understanding climate-related trauma through a psychological lens. I could have listened to Zach talk for hours—his face lit up while leapfrogging between topics. I felt like a student in class with a favorite professor, furiously writing down notes—trying to capture it all— and completely captivated by the energy that Zach emits.
For the last few years, Zach worked at the Hilltown Youth Recovery Theater, doing movement and circus arts with teenagers who are overcoming trauma and addiction. Now, Zach is currently working for Americorps through a disaster relief program. He was deployed in Louisiana, and then in Texas, and recently moved again to Kentucky to help rebuild and do mold remediation. I was immediately curious to hear about what it’s like to enter communities whose infrastructure has been ravaged by natural disasters. “They said that if you’ve seen one disaster, you’ve seen one disaster,” Zach said, matter of factly. Each situation is unique. There is little separation between one’s work in this field, and their “off” hours, since so much of the experience requires workers to live in the disaster zone, too. Zach and his coworkers were living in an RV, eating frozen meals, and working 12-14 hours six days a week.
Zach explained how stress is, at its core, a physical process. “It lives in our bodies”—with tension and electrical signals. We often think of stress as a “cognitive and emotional thing,” however, “it’s kind of nebulous (in our colloquial understanding), even though we all feel it.” It sometimes feels all-encompassing, when in reality, there are pinpointable components of stress within us. Perhaps it’s in our tensed shoulders, or locked jaw. Studying dance in conjunction with psychology has allowed Zach to “reconceptualize it [stress] as this physical sensation.”
For Zach, movement—in both big and small ways—allows him to reconnect with his body even in the times of most intense stress. This is especially important when Zach is “engaged with situations where the stakes couldn’t be any higher,” such as working on the frontlines of disaster relief. Zach shared a strategy that one of his dance professors uses during times when she is busy and overwhelmed with deadlines. It’s not necessarily about big, grandiose movements—it’s about “feeling the weight of the library doors while entering and tracing the little pen movement that creates vibrations, or the weight of the lawn mower.” Zach believes that “attention to these moments of our day that we take for granted can be that respite.” Since chatting with Zach about this technique, I’ve integrated into my own life—being intentional about noticing the feeling of the snow crunching beneath my boots, and my fingers tapping on my keyboard. Our bodies are a miracle, really—our heart beating and lungs filling with air, without us asking them to. Savoring these small touch-points feels like an expression of gratitude.
As two Williams-Mystic alumni, our conversation naturally shifted to focus on environmentalism. Approaching climate studies from a psychological lens, Zach wonders “how do you face an existential crisis in the face and not get paralyzed?” He discussed recently listening to the podcast Drilled, which dives into the cover-up strategies of the oil industry, and explores just how much these companies knew and know. Zach explained how the companies’ strategies are to put the blame onto consumers—to make us feel as if all of the environmental degradation is a result of the inaction of individuals. This feeling is engrained “deep in us, and fits in with a culture of individualism—it’s the American myth that we think we’re strong individuals.” When, in reality, it is the systems set up by those large companies that are responsible for the climate crisis. In other words, it’s not the fact that you drive your car to work every day, but the fact that the only way to get to work on time is to travel on roads with a certain speed limit and vehicle type requirement that only cars fulfill, and no other option is easily available. The strategy of the anti climate change action organizations is to “dilute the issue to make it seem like individuals in isolation can do anything.” We need to be thinking about systems; not just how we get better cars, but how we get better roads. As we grapple with the emotions related to climate change Zach said that “we don’t need to feel the guilt and shame as strongly as we do.”
Strong approaches to addressing systemic issues must be rooted in building connections. “It’s too much to put on ourselves. We need to hold this [trauma and stress] together,” Zach explained. And processing these nuanced and complicated topics together isn’t about “getting rid of the hopelessness and fear,” because all of our emotions are valid. It’s about holding these feelings together through all of the trials and tribulations of our changing world.
After the Williams-Mystic Louisiana field seminar, Zach felt overwhelmed by the magnitude of struggles that Lousianans are facing as a result of climate change. In Zach’s time processing his role in these large-scale issues, a quote attributed to 16th century theologian, Martin Luther, stuck with him. Martin Luther was asked, “What would you do if you knew the world was ending tomorrow?” Luther replied, “I would plant a tree.”
Whether it be helping to pick up the pieces after a natural disaster, or working with young people to spark their joy and enthusiasm about movement and dance—the work that Zach is doing certainly plants seeds of change. Zach explained how the work “doesn’t have to be huge and dramatic. It just has to be engaging, and feeding that sense of purpose to do good work.” Knowing that special people like Zach are ‘planting trees’ for our future makes me feel hopeful about the world that we live in.
Evan McAlice, Assistant Director of Admissions and Communications
An extraordinary tenet of the Williams-Mystic Program is its open invitation to students from 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 his semester at Williams-Mystic.
Am I Too Late? details the academic journey of Mackenzie Myers (S’17) and the impact of his gap year 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 heard about Williams-Mystic through a family friend, but was unsure if he would be able to attend, given his lack of college experience. After some back and forth communication with Executive Director Tom Van Winkle, Mackenzie was 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. The Johnston 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 chosen 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 effectively and received glowing remarks from the faculty and the presiding judge. This was a source of pride for Mackenzie, who had been proving himself to his peers, as well as displaying growth into a more active leader.
“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.”