Evolutionary Microbiologist Vaughn Cooper ’94 on Tracking COVID-19 Through Its Genome

Submitted on Wednesday, 10/21/2020, at 4:03 PM

Vaughn Cooper ’94, an evolutionary microbiologist at the University of Pittsburgh, spoke with The Washington Post’s Bob Costa on Oct. 19 about the Cooper Lab’s use of cutting-edge technology to track genetic changes in the coronavirus in order to trace and control the virus’s spread.

After gene sequencing, “we have a complete record of all 29,000 sort of nucleotides or letters in the RNA alphabet of the coronavirus genome. And then we can compare that sequence first with the original isolate that was sequenced in Wuhan, China, but we can also compare that sequence with literally every other sequence ever decoded on the planet,” Cooper explained. “And in the context of, say, contact tracing, what it allows you to do is determine whether the virus that you're looking at came from a close relative or perhaps came from sort of general community spread.”

The extensive interview also includes, among other details, Cooper’s commentary on the lack of coordination in the United States’ federal response to COVID-19; comparison of U.S. gene-sequencing progress to that in Australia and other nations; and explanation of the importance of gene sequencing in developing a vaccine and adjusting it in the future, as the virus evolves.  

Life in the "Bubble": Amherst College Students Feeling Locked Down but Safe

Submitted on Thursday, 10/15/2020, at 2:49 PM

“I feel like the college is taking the best precautions possible, but the bitter part is being barely able to do anything,” says Lucheyla Celestino ’23, one of several Amherst students quoted in a Daily Hampshire Gazette article that details the successes and struggles of the College’s pandemic plan.

The article, by Jacquelyn Voghel, also quotes communications from President Biddy Martin. It describes the geographical, social and recreational restrictions placed on students living and studying within Amherst’s “campus-centered bubble,” and how the students have generally been willing to comply with the rules in order to prevent COVID-19 from spreading within and around the College. The students interviewed express some boredom and grief, but also say they feel safe and appreciate being on campus with friends.

The piece briefly hints at possible adjustments and enhancements to campus life for the spring semester (though most of the restrictions will likely remain in place) and also compares and contrasts Amherst’s approach to those of Hampshire, Smith and Mount Holyoke Colleges and UMass Amherst.   

Professor Austin Sarat Compares 2020 Vice Presidential Debate to 1988 Campaign

Submitted on Friday, 10/9/2020, at 2:09 PM

In a piece for The Conversation, Austin Sarat, the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science, associate provost and associate dean of the faculty, cites parallels between tactics used by Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Kamala Harris in the Oct. 7 debate to those used in the 1988 presidential race.

“Like that year’s Democratic presidential candidate, Michael Dukakis, who famously said that the campaign was about competence not ideology, Harris went after what she described as the Trump administration’s incompetence …” writes Sarat. In response, Pence “borrowed a strategy of George H.W. Bush’s 1988 campaign and insisted that Biden and Harris represent just another, out-of-the-mainstream iteration of the Democrats tax, spend and regulate agenda.”

Sarat additionally compares the way Pence blamed the Obama-Biden administration for the Islamic State Group’s 2013 capture and murder of U.S. humanitarian Kayla Mueller to “Bush’s use of the so called Willie Horton ad to discredit Dukakis.”

The Conversation article also includes debate commentary from Cynthia Young, associate professor of African American studies at Pennsylvania State University.

Manuela Lavinas Picq on the Spreading of Faith, and Disease, in the Amazon

Submitted on Thursday, 10/8/2020, at 12:16 PM

Manuela Lavinas Picq, Karl Loewenstein Fellow and visiting associate professor of political science, argues in The New York Times that evangelical Christian missionary initiatives in the Brazilian Amazon threaten Indigenous peoples, especially now that the missionaries have increased support from President Jair Bolsonaro and might carry the coronavirus with them.

In the opinion piece, part of the Times’ series “The Amazon Has Seen Our Future,” Lavinas Picq describes elements of the recent history of evangelical incursion into Indigenous territory and the effects of missionary involvement with the medical care and politics of Indigenous populations.

“For many years the Brazilian government tried to protect tribes that chose to live in isolation from these incursions. Now the government is essentially backing the missionaries,” she writes. “The major danger now is that Covid-19 may kill so many people that it could result in the decimation of entire ethnic and tribal groups.”

Hugh Price ’63 Featured in Atlantic Series on School Desegregation

Submitted on Monday, 10/5/2020, at 5:43 PM

The Atlantic profiles Hugh Price ’63 H’98 as part of its series on “The Firsts”—the first children who enacted the racial desegregation of U.S. schools in the 1950s.

In the article, by Adam Harris, Price shares memories of growing up in a rigidly segregated Washington, D.C. (near pioneering civil rights lawyer Charles Hamilton Houston, class of 1915). Following the 1954 Supreme Court desegregation decision in Brown v. Board of Education, Price was among the first Black students to enroll at Taft Junior High, and later part of a small minority at Coolidge High, where, he says, the atmosphere was “not strained, but it wasn’t really open and accommodating.” School integration prompted backlash and boycotts by white families, and white flight from neighborhoods where Black families were moving in.

Upon taking an aptitude test in high school, “I was told—and I will never forget this—that I probably would get to go to college, but that I should not count on going to graduate school or professional school,” Price says. “That was my introduction to the fallacious and racist application of testing to hold kids back.” He went on to Amherst and then Yale Law School, served on the editorial board of The New York Times, and led the National Urban League from 1994 to 2003. 

Amherst Among the Colleges Learning How to Suppress Coronavirus Through Extensive Testing

Submitted on Friday, 10/2/2020, at 2:36 PM

An Oct. 2 New York Times article includes Amherst among its examples of the ways some colleges and universities around the country have been relatively successful in preventing the spread of COVID-19. It notes, “The success stories stand in relief against all that has not worked.”

“Being located in small towns, having minimal Greek life and aggressively enforcing social-distancing measures all help in suppressing the contagion, experts say. But one major thread connects the most successful campuses: testing. Extensively,” writes Times reporter Shawn Hubler. “Small colleges in New England—where the Broad Institute, a large academic laboratory affiliated with M.I.T. and Harvard, is supporting an ambitious regional testing and screening program—are showing particularly low rates of infection.” Amherst has partnered with the Broad Institute, as have Colby and Wesleyan, among other schools.

The article ends with quotes from Lily Popoli ’23, who points out a downside of Amherst’s stringent pandemic plan: the psychological and social toll of the restrictions placed on students.  

Associate Dean of Admission Xiaofeng Wan on New Challenges in Recruiting Students from China

Submitted on Tuesday, 9/29/2020, at 2:42 PM

“The United States has seen a dramatic rise in the number of Chinese students studying on its campuses over the last 10 years,” writes Xiaofeng Wan, Amherst’s associate dean of admission and coordinator of international recruitment, in Inside Higher Ed. “However, this may soon take an unexpected turn.”

In the coming years, Wan explains, U.S. colleges and universities will likely see a steep drop in interest and enrollment by students from China. Whereas Chinese students constituted a third of all international students in the country in 2018-2019, many teenagers in China are now reconsidering their plans to study in the United States. Their families cite concerns about COVID-19; the xenophobic rhetoric and restrictive immigration policies of the Trump administration; and fears about anti-Asian racism among the American public. Chinese social media sites also spread misinformation about college admissions and Sino-U.S. relations.

“In the absence of national leadership in stopping the spread of the virus and embracing talents from abroad, higher education may need to take on more of the work,” Wan writes. “As the first point of contact, admission officers have a critical role in voicing our welcoming stance and our commitment in supporting international students directly.”

Amherst College Spanish Program Connects Words with Culture

Submitted on Friday, 9/25/2020, at 4:24 PM

A MassLive article describes the evolution of the College’s Spanish program in recent years, with remarks from Professor Paul A. Schroeder Rodríguez and Professor Sara Brenneis, who chairs the department.

Traditionally, the article says, Spanish language instructors at Amherst and other U.S. schools have emphasized Iberian Spanish—the kind spoken in Spain—as more proper or pure than dialects spoken elsewhere. But Rodríguez, who sees the language as “a living organism that reflects richness and diversity,” has worked with Brenneis and other faculty members to broaden Amherst’s curriculum to include and celebrate Central American, South American and Caribbean versions of Spanish, and to link the language to cultures and identities.

In all its forms, “Spanish has become so visible, useful and important in our country,” says Brenneis. “I love hearing the different accents of the students.” Rodríguez mentions the course “Owning the Bilingual Self,” which focuses in part on students’ own experiences of speaking Spanish in their youth.

The MassLive piece addresses how COVID-19 has affected Spanish instruction at Amherst, and highlights how—both before the pandemic and in the foreseeable future—travel has been and will be an important component of the program. 

“Harold & Kumar” Star Partners with Romen Borsellino ’12 on New Political Comedy Show

Submitted on Tuesday, 9/22/2020, at 5:01 PM

An article in the Des Moines Register highlights the collaboration between executive producer Romen Borsellino ’12 and actor Kal Penn on a new political comedy TV series aimed at young voters. Each of the six episodes of Kal Penn Approves This Message, airing on the Freeform network, “will tackle a big issue, from health care to education and the history of voting itself.”

Penn is perhaps best known as a star of the Harold & Kumar movie series, and was associate director of the White House Office of Public Engagement under President Barack Obama. Borsellino first met Penn at a 2007 Iowa caucus event at his high school.

"I think any way you can engage folks and build as big a tent as possible and get as many people off the sidelines as possible, we should take advantage of," Borsellino says, referring to the potential of the new TV series to fire up viewers about political issues. "And if that means using comedy and storytelling and things that will connect with our friends and neighbors, then let's do it."

Amherst Trustee Andrew Nussbaum ’85 Remembers Clerking for Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg

Submitted on Tuesday, 9/22/2020, at 4:34 PM

Attorney Andrew Nussbaum ’85, chair of Amherst’s board of trustees, appeared on WBUR’s Morning Edition to share his memories of serving as a law clerk for Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died on Sept. 18. He clerked for Ginsburg while she was on the U.S. Court of Appeals in the early 1990s.

Nussbaum said Ginsburg was a “quiet and somewhat reserved person,” though she was “incredibly warm” and thoughtful toward him and his family throughout their friendship. She was, he said, both an excellent editor of legal prose and “a brilliant writer of thank-you notes.” He commented on her background as a daughter of immigrants and the obstacles she had to overcome early in her career. He also discussed the progressive judge’s friendship with conservative SCOTUS Justice Antonin Scalia, for whom Nussbaum also later clerked, thanks to a recommendation from Ginsburg.

An Amherst trustee since 2010 and board chair since 2018, Nussbaum today is a partner in the law firm of Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz. 

President Biddy Martin on the Need to Invest in Public Colleges and Universities

Submitted on Monday, 9/14/2020, at 4:36 PM

“The world needs its Amhersts, but not only its Amhersts,” writes College President Biddy Martin in an op-ed for The Hechinger Report, advocating for state and federal support for public institutions of higher learning at a time when their funding is under particular threat as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Martin presents examples from her own life and family of the value of access to public postsecondary education. She discusses the mutual prejudices between the constituents of different kinds of schools: those who favor the Ivy League and other elite private institutions often overlook or underestimate the work done at large Midwestern universities, while those private schools are derided as snobbish, exclusive and inequitable. But Martin argues that both kinds of schools have value, and that investment in a variety of educational options is necessary for the good of students and society.

“I plead with readers not to yield to the belief that we should elevate any one kind [of education] by denigrating all others,” she writes. “The diversity of postsecondary education has long been a great strength; my family is a testament to the need and the value of institutions and apprenticeships that not only meet different needs but also cultivate different talents.”

Professor Javier Corrales on What the Oil Spill in Venezuela Tells Us About Its Politics

Submitted on Thursday, 9/10/2020, at 4:34 PM

This summer, a state-owned refinery began spilling oil into Venezuela’s Morrocoy National Park, and the country’s increasingly authoritarian government took control of the executive boards of several opposition parties. According to a recent New York Times op-ed by Professor Javier Corrales, “These catastrophes are two sides of the same coin.”

Corrales, the Dwight W. Morrow 1895 Professor of Political Science and chair of political science, describes how the South American nation’s political crisis, collapsing oil industry and environmental degradation all relate to one another—and how the rhetoric and policies of the United States may be contributing to these problems. He concludes, “Venezuela’s descent into authoritarianism has the same source as July’s oil spill: Venezuela is a petrostate that has lost interest in accountability.”

Corrales is currently teaching a course on “The Political Economy of Petro States: Venezuela Compared.” He is the author or co-author of multiple books about the politics of Venezuela and other parts of Latin America.

Fortune Magazine Compares Amherst’s COVID-19 “Bubble” to That of the NBA

Submitted on Wednesday, 9/9/2020, at 3:54 PM

“On the face of it, the NBA and Amherst College have little in common. Except this: Both organizations have resumed in-person activities amidst COVID by forming a so-called ‘bubble,’” wrote Lee Clifford in Fortune magazine on Sept. 5.

Clifford’s article details many of the measures Amherst has been taking to prevent the spread of the virus, both within the boundaries of the campus itself—beyond which students are not allowed to venture—and between campus and the surrounding community. These precautions include, among others, frequent COVID testing, enhanced cleaning procedures, tents to allow classes and gatherings to be held outdoors, and a prohibition on visitors to dorms. There are also contingency plans to switch to an all-remote learning model, and even to evacuate campus if necessary.

The article notes the relative success of the College’s pandemic plan so far, but a commentator points out that Amherst is at an advantage in being a small school with a spacious campus, in contrast to larger universities such as Northwestern and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.  

Professor Shayla Lawson on “What You Need to Do” About the Perception and Treatment of Black Women

Submitted on Friday, 9/4/2020, at 2:23 PM

“In order for this period of Black awareness to succeed, you need to seriously readjust the ways you think about Black women.” So begins a recent essay by Assistant Professor of English Shayla Lawson in the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Lawson traces the stereotype of the “strong Black woman” back to exploitation under slavery, and points out the underappreciated leadership of Black women in the civil rights, LGBTQ+ liberation, Me Too and Black Lives Matter movements. She links anti-Blackness to current anti-trans rhetoric, as Black transgender women face particularly high risk of violence and murder. Writing as a Black woman herself, Lawson tells readers, “We need you to do what we have done to support you. We need you to use your activism to protect us.”

Lawson is the author of three collections of poems: I Think I’m Ready to See Frank Ocean, A Speed Education in Human Being and PANTONE. Her new essay collection, This Is Major: Notes on Diana Ross, Dark Girls, and Being Dope, was hailed on BlackGirlNerds.com as one of the best “Books on Blackness and Womanhood to Read in Your Twenties.”

1892 Amherst Grad Hamp Lewis Highlighted as Pioneer in Football and Law

Submitted on Thursday, 9/3/2020, at 3:46 PM

The Chicago Crusader features a biography of William Henry “Hamp” Lewis, class of 1892, a trailblazer among African Americans in college football and, later, in the legal profession. Lewis was the second Black student to join Amherst’s football team (after classmate William Tecumseh Sherman Jackson) and the first to be appointed team captain.  

Lewis went on to enroll in Harvard Law School and to captain and then coach Harvard’s football team. He wrote the book A Primer of College Football, serialized in Harper’s Weekly, and pushed for new rules and regulations to make it what he called “a safe, sane, and wholesome sport.”

Lewis also served as a Cambridge City Council member, an assistant U.S. attorney for Boston and Chief of the Naturalization Bureau for New England. In 1911, President William Howard Taft named him U.S. assistant attorney general, one of four members of Taft’s “Black Cabinet.” The same year, Lewis became the first Black lawyer admitted to the American Bar Association. After retiring from government in 1913, he built a successful private law practice in Boston and was among the first African American attorneys to join the NAACP's legal team.