The Moose Abides

Submitted on Thursday, 12/4/2014, at 4:11 PM

The moose in Frost Library

by Bill Sweet

A mysterious moose has taken up residence at Frost Library, and no one is asking him to leave.

The large, black, detailed metallic sculpture was discovered in the Frost foyer when staff opened the building up the Sunday after Thanksgiving.

“I think it’s beautiful,” said Susan J. Kimball, head of access services at the library, who first discovered the moose.

The moose’s only identifier is a cryptic—and mellow—note, written on birch bark lashed to its neck. It reads, in part:

I CHOOSE WHAT I CHOOSE
AND I CHOOSE FROST,
HERE I RANGE FREELY.
I MOVE AS THE SPIRIT MOVES.

“The sign says he chooses us, and we’re happy to be chosen,” said Amherst College Librarian Bryn I. Geffert. “We’ll have to decide what we're going to do with him. There are probably all kinds of things one can do with a moose. We just have to figure out what they are.”

“It’s only a matter of time before decorations are probably going to start to appearing upon it. We were already talking about Christmas lights,” Kimball said. As a native of the state of Maine, Kimball said she felt compelled to point out that the scale of the moose’s antlers is a bit off, but that doesn't detract from the fine craftsmanship. As writing on birch bark does qualify as a written work, she said she expects the moose’s note “will need to be catalogued, once we enter it into the archives as a monograph.”

Geffert said he hasn’t decided what will be done with the moose ultimately. He is treating it as a gift, as the sculpture appears to be entirely benign in nature.

“As far as we can tell, he’s housebroken. He hasn’t bitten anybody,” Geffert said. And while the metal sculpture is hollow, there is no evidence that it is a Trojan moose, he said.

Amherst being Amherst, the motives behind the moose will likely come under considerable analysis. However, the author of the moose’s missive hopes to minimize that. Sometimes a moose is just a moose, according to the rest of the birch bark note.

I AM A MOOSE.
I AM NOT A STATEMENT.
I AM WHO I AM …
I ABIDE.
ABIDE WITH ME.

The moose abides, for now, at Frost.

Ebola: Amherst Responds

Submitted on Wednesday, 11/5/2014, at 2:34 PM

by Bill Sweet

As the world watches West Africa and beyond for the increasingly concerning news about the outbreak of Ebola, Amherst College does what it always has done: thoughtfully examine the problem, and offer help.

Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team

Setting the Ebola challenge in their sights, Amherst’s Public Health Collaborative, a student-run group partnering with health care providers in the Pioneer Valley to promote issues of public health and social justice, and Globe Med, a student-run organization that aims to strengthen the movement for global health equity, have joined an international effort to provide more accurate maps for aid workers navigating Ebola-stricken West Africa.

“It's a big concern,” said Minjee Kim ‘17, a board member of the collaborative. “There's definitely a lot of us who are following the news.”

Students have signed up to join the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team, a group of international volunteers who are adding detail to open-license OpenStreetMap maps of the region.

“Public health depends a lot on knowing the geography of the location, and the problem with West Africa is that a lot of the detail is not known,” said Andy Anderson, a specialist in Amherst’s Academic Technology Services, who is coordinating the effort. “When you get out in the rural areas you don't even see the roads.”

Project volunteers have started to meet weekly to examine satellite maps and leave notations at OpenStreetMap about where there are buildings, schools, villages. On the OpenStreetMap Team

“If you’ve been spending any time playing with Google maps and satellite imagery, you recognize things fairly well,” Anderson said. “When you have that information there, the first responders have the ability to locate where people were, where there are open spaces were a helicopter can land, and so on.”

Studying Contagion

“Ebola captures the public imagination like no other disease. It's not going away,” said Alexandra Purdy, assistant professor of biology. “There are so many facets to understanding it, we could spend all sorts of time discussing it. And we should.”

Purdy, whose specialty is in studying the genetic underpinnings of cholera, includes a unit on Ebola in her course “Contagion.” This past spring, as the outbreak bloomed, it proved tricky in teaching.

“In March, somebody in my Contagion class asked, what happens if it gets to a big city? And I had no response for that,” she said. “If containment protocols are not in place and if adequate supplies are not available, it has the potential to be quite serious.”

On the Front Lines

Dr. Inger Damon ’84 is currently the Incident Manager for the Ebola 2014 response for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. She took the position in August, when the CDC deployed 350 additional staffers to West Africa.

"Our primary goal is to bring to an end to the suffering of so many as well as develop the public health infrastructure there to help prevent future outbreaks,” she said at the time.

“Today, I bowed my head and cried, realizing that even if I should get Ebola tomorrow, chances are I would be left at home to die in a room with nobody around me,” Kimmie Weeks ’05 wrote from Liberia in a mid-September update on the website for Youth Action International, the philanthropic organization he started during his days at Amherst. “Even if I wanted to go to the hospital, they would not have the logistical capacity to take me in.”

“The cremation centers are operating around the clock to keep up with the bodies,” he said.

Weeks has launched a campaign to purchase or donate beds for his native Liberia. His group is also training young people for a door-to-door education campaign raising awareness about the virus and how to reduce chances of transmission. He is raising money to purchase no-touch thermometers for field volunteers, as fever is one of the first indicators of the illness.

Our Friends, Our Fight

Reports from Sierra Leone have moved three alumni to help as well. Keri Lambert ’13, Anna Sutherland ’14 and Aaron Lemle ’13, who worked in Sierra Leone for OneVillage Partners (a nonprofit started in 2006 by Jeff Hall ’87), learned in August that Ebola had reached the villages they’d called home: Foindu, Pujehun and Jokibu.

The three have launched an Indigogo campaign to fund the building of isolation units to treat the sick and keep them from infecting their families. The fund, which as of the end of August had raised more than $13,000, will also provide food, medical supplies and other aid to quarantined villages.

Taking Flight

Randy Davis ’76 was in the news after flying two Texas Health Presbyterian nurses diagnosed with Ebola from Liberia to the U.S. for treatment. Davis is vice president, general counsel and sometime pilot at the Atlanta-based Phoenix Air Group, which has been a part of a dozen Ebola-related missions, but these transports were the first into the U.S.

Davis told ABC that he was proud to have provided the transport: "I think everybody everywhere would agree that you’d like to try to help people who are so selfless.”

Making Discoveries at the Mead

Submitted on Tuesday, 9/16/2014, at 11:30 AM

A new school year means new works, new classes and new discoveries being made at Amherst College’s Mead Art Museum, starting with an exhibition that simultaneously occupies the gallery space and cyberspace.

Bradley Bailey, the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Postdoctoral Curatorial Teaching Fellow in Japanese Prints, with the assistance of Hampshire College student James Kelleher, has completed work on “Pain’s Pyrotechnic Spectacle: The Sino-Japanese War in Print” for display at the Mead, and for a dynamic experience via the Web, especially formatted for tablets.

This special exhibition, which draws exclusively from Ruth S. Nelkin’s donation of Sino-Japanese War prints to the Mead in 2000, offers a comprehensive overview of the military action of the war (1894–1895), as well as a survey of the subjects, ideas and attitudes conveyed in the prints of the era.

The Sino-Japanese War, according to contemporary accounts, saw Japan besting its ancient adversary, China, and emerging from the battle poised to assume the mantle of a modern imperial power.  In Japan, artists and publishers told the tale of the conflict using the centuries-old tradition of ukiyo-e (woodblock printmaking), which was in decline against the rising tide of lithography and photography. In Manhattan Beach, N.Y., in 1896, capitalizing on the West’s fascination with all things Japanese, Pain’s Firework Co. staged a “superb pyro-spectacle” reenacting a battle from the war. Sino-Japanese War Print

The exhibition’s website, www.painspyrospectacle.com, features several woodblock triptychs, the entire album of prints and a reproduction of the original pamphlet distributed at the Manhattan Beach “pyro-spectacle.” Visitors can view the site on their own devices or on the iPad provided alongside the exhibition at the Mead.

Even as this and other exhibits are being prepared, students and staff are behind the scenes making discoveries. Just this past summer:

  • Amherst and UMass students working on a group of recently donated pre-Columbian vessels identified a curiously shaped pot as depicting a South American crustacean.
  • Amherst students discovered new details about two unusual 17th-century European luxury chests, inlaid with precious materials and featuring tiny drawers and hidden compartments, to be on view in October.
  • A scientific study of a silver perfume container engraved with scenes from classical mythology determined that it is an authentic antiquity from the Greek world of the fourth century B.C.E.

Another change afoot is the departure of Elizabeth Barker, who, after seven years as director of the Mead, has taken the position of Stanford Calderwood Director of the Boston Athenaeum. Pamela Russell, the Mead’s head of education, took over as interim director last month, and a search is under way for a permanent director. Barker’s contributions to the Mead and the college were celebrated at a Sept. 12 tea in her honor.

Under Barker, the museum expanded its operating hours and the number of free events, started offering complimentary iPod audio tours and added an espresso bar.

“On Lizzie’s watch, the Mead’s 19,000-object collection has become a fully digitized, Web-searchable resource, which is available not only to the Amherst community, but to scholars from around the globe,” said Dean of Faculty Catherine Epstein. “Lizzie led efforts to expand and conserve the collection, enhance the staff, increase access to the objects, expand the museum’s audience and improve facilities, [and she] has introduced education programs and innovative collection-based presentations.”

You might expect that faculty in the Department of Art and the History of Art take most advantage of the Mead’s collection, but the museum is routinely host to courses from throughout the school’s catalogue: American studies, anthropology, Black studies, environmental studies, geology, history, mathematics and more are instructed using the Mead. This fall, courses taught partly at the museum include

An accredited member of the American Alliance of Museums, the Mead recently won the top prize for its website from the New England Museum Association, and received second-place awards for the exhibition catalogue Picturing Enlightenment and the "Dig Into Art" activity totes for children at the museum.

The Mead and its gift shop and café are open Tuesday through Sunday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. year-round, and until midnight on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday during the academic term.

Innovative Program Helps Students Tackle Science, Math

Submitted on Thursday, 8/14/2014, at 9:52 AM

By Peter Rooney

On a summer afternoon in an Amherst College chemistry lab, new friends and incoming first-year students Natalia Dyer of Queens, N.Y., and Alejandra Possu of Houston take a break from writing a lab report.

They’re part of a group of admitted Amherst students selected to participate in an innovative science and math program that introduces them to some of the toughest calculus and chemistry problems they’ll face during their first year at Amherst.

The program seeks to level the academic playing field for promising students with an interest in science and math whose backgrounds may not have prepared for them for the rigorous courses they soon will be facing.

collage of 3 photos from summer chemistry lab

Discussing, then solving chemistry problems

“They emailed me about summer science because I’m interested in pre-med,” Dyer said. “I’ve never taken calculus before and they told us we’re going to do chemistry, calculus and bio. So I was definitely thinking I should be more prepared for college level calculus.”

After two weeks in the three-week program, Dyer and Possu were feeling more confident by the day.

“The professors are so willing to help work with you, and the doors really seem open here,” Possu said. “I’m really glad I came.”

Now in its 27th year, The Summer Science program has been tweaked and refined to the point where more than half of its participants go on to major in science and math.

Increasing the number of women, minorities and low-income students who graduate with degrees in so-called STEM fields – majors that incorporate elements of science, technology, engineering and mathematics – has long been a priority at Amherst.

It’s also become a priority at the White House, which recently invited Amherst to join other colleges and universities in improving higher education access and success for low-income students. As one of its four announced initiatives,  Amherst pledged to increase the proportion of low-income Amherst students who major in science and math fields.

The Summer Science program is helping the college achieve that goal. The percentage of low-income students at Amherst who graduated with a STEM major increased from 9 percent in 2008 to 32 percent in 2013. (Low-income students graduate from Amherst at about the same rate as other students—95 percent.)

“In the first five years of the program about 10 percent of those who participated majored in math or science,” said Jennifer Innes, director of the Moss Quantitative Center at Amherst College and director of the Summer Science program. “That increased to about 20 percent in the next five years and to 30 percent in the decade after that. In the last three years we’re seeing 50 to 60 percent of the participants go on to major in math and science.”

Collage of 3 photos from summer math class

Math professor Robert Benedetto talks calculus

One of them is Omar Pineda, a math major from the Bronx who will be a junior this fall. A Summer Science veteran, this is his second year working as a tutor for the program.

“If I hadn’t done the program I would have come in the fall, taken math and science classes and been totally overwhelmed,” Pineda said. “Instead of majoring in math, I probably would have been discouraged from taking more of those classes.”

As tutors, Pineda and Doyin Ariyibi ’17 not only share chemistry and calculus pointers but also help students form friendships and become familiar with the routine of college life.

“One thing I really like about the program is that it’s not just academic, it’s social too,” said Ariyibi, who’s from Nigeria. “You’re bonding with people from similar backgrounds and when school starts you have a support group already, people you can study or go over notes with.”

The Summer Science program is not about lowering academic standards for students who may have attended high schools with few labs or AP courses to offer. Instead, Summer Science presents students with the most challenging material they’ll face in their freshman courses, and then provides the professors, instructors and tutors to help students work through the material.

“A lot of my work is to help students overcome negative associations they may have with chemistry from high school,” said Richmond Ampiah-Bonney, an academic manager who teaches chemistry labs, leads discussion groups and charts the progress of all Amherst students taking introductory chemistry. “I’m trying to boost their confidence.  I’m also encouraging them to access the resources here to help them succeed.”

Math professor and former dean of the faculty Gregory Call has been teaching at the program since 1994. He’s only missed one summer. Call said he keeps coming back because of the enthusiasm of the students.

“They’re immensely fun to work with,” he said. “They’re excited, dedicated, anxious and really eager to do well.”

 

 

Playing Where Brahms Once Played

Submitted on Tuesday, 8/12/2014, at 2:59 PM

By William Sweet for Amherst magazine

If you spend the bulk of the summer in Professor Larry Hunter’s lab breaking new ground in the field of physics, what do you do to take a break? If you’re Daniel Ang ’15, you hop on a jet to Vienna to perform your prize-winning piano composition for an international audience.

Daniel Ang ’15 at piano
Daniel Ang '15 is taking a break from the physics lab to perform his winning piano composition in Vienna.

Ang’s composition “Klavierstück I: Energetic Fixations for Piano Solo” won third prize in the National Young Artist category of the Golden Key Music Festival Piano Composition Competition (open to U.S. residents) as well as an honorable mention in its International Young Artist category (open to people worldwide). He performed the piece at Ehrbar Hall in Vienna—where Brahms, Bruckner and Mahler once played—as part of the organization’s August 2014 festival.

Ang is a triple major in physics, math and music. This was his first time entering a music composition contest, and he has since entered more.

Ang began composing the piece last summer, while he was also working with the Advanced Cold Molecule Electron Dipole Moment experiment group at Harvard. This followed a sophomore year in which he co-authored a paper with Hunter for the journal Science.

Sheet music for Ang's piano composition

“I started doodling on the piano,” Ang says, “and I got fixated on this opening chord. I came upon this one bar-gesture and put it on paper. The hardest part is getting that initial spark of material. Once you’ve got that, it gives you the impetus for the next bar and the bar after that.”

The composition grew out of his interest in merging the traditional and nontraditional in music. He was studying harmony that summer, and the seven-minute piece uses chordal harmony based on intervals of fourths, rather than the traditional harmony familiar to many singers and instrumentalists, which uses thirds.

Ang keeps his science side and his music side distinct, so don’t expect any papers on the physics of music. “I want to develop as a person with scientific skills, but also with musical skills. My version of liberal arts is: you focus on two or three areas, and you become better at being a scientist and being a person of letters. It’s about being a balanced person.”

Rob Mattson photos

College Republicans Bring Newt Gingrich to Campus

Submitted on Monday, 6/16/2014, at 11:45 AM

By Emily Gold Boutilier

A year and a half ago the Amherst College Republicans didn’t even exist. Then one student made it his business to renew the organization.

The results were impressive: Former U.S. Sen. Scott Brown spoke at an event to mark the student group’s revival. Membership grew to about 40.

Now the organization is about to host its biggest name yet.

Newt Gingrich, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1995 to 1999 and candidate for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, will deliver a talk in the college’s Johnson Chapel on Wed., Dec. 11, at 8 p.m. Gingrich's lecture is free and open to the public. Doors open at 7:30.

Newt Gingrich: Contract with Amherst poster

Gingrich is expected to draw upon his career and historical knowledge to address such topics as the Affordable Care Act and the future of the Republican Party. He and his wife, Callista, will sign  books at the conclusion of the talk.

That the Amherst College Republicans is alive today is largely due to the efforts of one tenacious student, Robert Lucido ’15. As he explains, the organization was active a decade ago, but membership dropped off and the group became dormant. In 2012, Lucido found himself “the lone conservative voice” in the room during an on-campus viewing of a presidential debate.

It was a liberal faculty member--Thomas Dumm--who gave Lucido the push. "It is often difficult to speak up when you are not endorsing what others consider to be common knowledge," says Dumm, the William H. Hastie '25 Professor of Political Science. "Robert lamented there not being any organization for student conservatives, and I suggested he might want to take the initiative to restart the dormant Young Republicans. As many know, I myself am deeply opposed to many of the policies, and in general the destructive attitudes of so many prominent members of the current GOP. That said, there should be lively discussion on our campus, and without voices from the right to serve as a foil to our more dominant, and sometimes thoughtless because unchallenged, progressive students, that discussion won't happen."

Last winter Lucido led efforts to organize, promote and raise money for an initiative titled “The Resurgence,” which, in addition to Brown, brought former U.S. Treasurer Rosario Marin and armless “toe-picking” guitarist Tony Melendez to campus. 

Robert Lucido '15 with former U.S. Sen. Scott Brown during Brown's visit to campus last winter

This fall Lucido sought assistance from the conservative Young America’s Foundation. That group helped to book the Gingrich lecture and subsidize the speaker’s fee. Other funding came from President Biddy Martin’s office and the Amherst Association of Students, as well as from outside donors and Republican groups at UMass and Smith, which are cosponsors of the talk.

Wednesday’s lecture features a contest, too: Submit a question for Gingrich via email (amherstcollegerepublicans@gmail.com). The Amherst College Republicans will choose one winning question, whose author will meet Gingrich before the talk and ask his or her question from a front-row seat during a question-and-answer period.  

Celebrating a Campaign for Core Amherst Values

Submitted on Monday, 6/16/2014, at 11:37 AM

By Peter Rooney

With music, lectures, a poet's portait unveiling and a campus-wide celebration, Amherst College thanked alumni, faculty, staff, students and their parents on Friday and Saturday for a successful fundraising campaign that faced fierce initial headwinds.

“We had a wonderful weekend that showcased our amazing faculty, staff, students, alumni and parents,” said Amherst President Biddy Martin on Saturday,kicking off an evening of food, drinks, music and games on the Main Quad (go here to view photos from the celebration).

The campus community celebrates a successful campaign

“It’s important to celebrate what it is that people actually want to support, which is a residential liberal arts education of the sort Amherst offers,” Martin reflected earlier. “It’s about emphasizing the things that matter and bringing the community together and remind us why we’re all here.”

Making Connectiions, in this case dots: a recurring theme in the fundraising campaign

The campaign was launched in October 2008, the same month a global stock market plunge sparked a recession while trimming about 23 percent from the college's endowment value.

Just over $502 million and almost five years later, Amherst College President Biddy Martin said the campaign, which roared past its original goal of $425 million, was an extraordinary reflection of support for the campaign’s objectives -- maintaining the college’s need-blind financial aid policies, capitalizing upon its increasingly diverse student body and fostering faculty-student research opportunities.

“The campaign was not only launched during a challenging time but it succeeded during the worst downturn since the Great Depression,” Martin said. “The fact that this campaign was aimed at ensuring socioeconomic, racial and ethnic diversity at Amherst as well as affordability is certainly worth celebrating because it reflects so well upon those who helped make it a success.”

Martin also pointed out the high number of anonymous donations, totalling more than $138 million, including separate anonymous gifts of $100 million and $25 million, and the high proportion of unrestricted gifts, about 47 percent of the campaign total, as being noteworthy and unusual.

At Amherst, the campaign’s success was the responsibility of Chief Advancement Officer Megan Morey, who worked closely with her staff, trustees and a Campaign Executive Committee chaired by alumni and trustees Brian J. Conway '80, Hope E. Pascucci '90 and Jide J. Zeitlin '85.  

The campaign, which was named “Lives of Consequence,” allowed the college to broaden access to Amherst, enhance the curriculum and the physical campus, and foster greater engagement between the college and the wider community, Morey said. Acknowledging the severity of the recession when the campaign was in full swing, organizers encouraged giving of all kinds, she noted.

“We encouraged and recognized alumni engagement as a form of giving,” she said. “Alumni and parents are a tremendous resource and we will continue to emphasize and support the opportunities created from alumni connecting with students, faculty and one another through academic, co-curricular, regional and volunteer programming.”

By the end of the campaign, 86 percent of alumni had engaged with the campaign in one way or another, one of the top levels of engagement for any college or university in the country, Morey said.

“I’ve been hard-pressed to come across somebody who didn’t at some point connect with the college in some way,” she said. “It’s incredible.”

Invitations to this weekend’s “You Did It!” celebration were sent out to all of the college’s 22,000 alumni, as well as to students, their parents, faculty and staff.

Several hundred were on hand for the weekend’s events, which included a reading and portrait dedication in Johnson Chapel featuring Richard Wilbur '42, two-time Pulitzer Prize for Poetry winner, former U.S. Poet Laureate, literary translator and, since 2008, the John Woodruff Simpson Lecturer at Amherst College, the same position held at the college by Robert Frost.

Richard Wilbur '42, reading poetry next to the newly unveiled portrait of him

At the unveiling of the painting by portraitist Sarah Belchetz-Swenson, which was made possible with the generous support of Axel Schupf ’57, President Martin noted Wilbur’s “ebullient and often surprising humor, and celebration of everyday things.”

Before reading a series of poems by his colleague Wilbur, Professor of English David Sofield recalled their “fierce doubles tennis partnership,” their five years of teaching together, the fact that Wilbur “has more poems by heart than anyone else in the world” and alluded to Wilbur’s experience during World War II, “following combat all the way from south central Italy to France, Germany and Austria.”

Then he read the poem Terza Rima, published in The New Yorker in 2008, more than 60 years after World War II had ended:

In this great form, as Dante proved in Hell,

There is no dreadful thing that can’t be said

In passing. Here, for instance, one could tell

How our jeep skidded sideways toward the dead

Enemy soldier with the staring eyes,

Bumping a little as it struck his head,

And then flew on, as if toward Paradise.

After the portrait was unveiled by Martin and Board of Trustees Chairman  Cullen Murphy, Wilbur himself took the stage, to thank those who have supported him over the years. He then  read a brief selection of poems, including one, “The House,” which he dedicated to his wife “Charlee,” Mary Charlotte Hayes Ward, who died in 2007. It also was published in The New Yorker and captivated the assembled audience:

Sometimes, on waking, she would close her eyes

For a last look at that white house she knew

In sleep alone, and held no title to,

And had not entered yet, for all her sighs.

What did she tell me of that house of hers?

White gatepost; terrace; fanlight of the door;

A widow’s walk above the bouldered shore;

Salt winds that ruffle the surrounding firs.

Is she now there, wherever there may be?

Only a foolish man would hope to find

That haven fashioned by her dreaming mind.

Night after night, my love, I put to sea.

This weekend’s program (see the full schedule here) also featured:

  • A keynote address on Friday by Howard Gardner, an Amherst College Trustee and the John H. and Elisabeth A. Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Howard spoke on “Education in the Liberal Arts and Sciences: Glancing Backward, Imagining Forward.”
  • A “point-counterpoint” conversation on affirmative action between two Amherst alumni, Bert Rein '61, plaintiff's counsel in the Supreme Court Case Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, and Paul Smith '76, whose three-decade Supreme Court practice includes a landmark victory in Lawrence v. Texas (moderated by Professor Martha Umphrey, professor of law, jurisprudence and social thought.
  • Student-Faculty research presentations featuring three projects from across disciplines from Austin Sarat, William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science, and Madeline Sprung-Keyser ‘13; Lisa Brooks, co-chair of the Five College Native American Indian Studies Certificate Program, and Danielle Trevino ‘14; and Anna Martini, professor of geology, and Robert Gaffey ’15.  

Reddit Co-Founder Talks with Students about Internet Entrepreneurship

Submitted on Monday, 6/16/2014, at 11:35 AM

By Daniel Diner ’14

Reddit co-found Alex Ohanian talks with students

Optimistic, energetic, inquisitive—Alexis Ohanian is everything you would expect a young Internet entrepreneur to be. He shared his optimism, energy and intellectual curiosity with an excited group of students and fans recently when he spoke in Johnson Chapel. Ohanian discussed his experience with founding the social news and entertainment website Reddit and other Web startups; the direction of Internet entrepreneurship; and his new book, Without Their Permission: How the 21st Century Will Be Made, Not Managed.

Ohanian came to Amherst at the invitation of the Amherst College Entrepreneur’s Society, a recently reanimated student group that has brought to campus such other speakers as Shaukat Aziz, former prime minister of Pakistan, and has launched a series of oral and video-based business-pitch competitions.

When most eminent speakers visit, it is the students that get particularly excited for the interaction, but with Ohanian it was the opposite: the structure of his #WTPBook tour initiative encourages him to reach out to the students. Before he even arrived on campus, he put out a video on YouTube, engaging Amherst students directly and expressing his enthusiasm for the upcoming talk. He complimented President Biddy Martin because he “heard it was the cool thing to do” and joked about the recent announcement regarding the impending demolition of the social dorms.

Ohanian is one of the best-known names in the tech world. Shortly after graduating from the University of Virginia in 2005, he and his classmate Steve Huffman received funding from the specialized venture capital firm Y Combinator to start Reddit, now one of the most frequented sites on the Web. Ohanian has garnered more national attention through his founding of Breadpig, an enterprise which consults in self-publishing and crowdfunding, and donates its profits to charity; his co-founding of Hipmunk, a visually innovative travel search company; and his leadership roles in the successful grassroots Internet campaigns against the Stop Online Piracy Act and Project IP Act, two highly controversial Congressional bills that would have tightened regulation of the Internet. It’s understandable how Ohanian believes the internet to be one of the most culture-bridging elements of this century. “Thomas Friedman was wrong,” Ohanian said during his talk. “The world is not flat…but the World Wide Web is.”

Ohanian used his platform in Johnson Chapel to engage and encourage the audience. He spoke about his success with Reddit, but only to emphasize how nonlinear his path was and how improbable success seemed before he actually reached it (he and his co-founder didn’t expect to meet Y Combinator’s challenge of “building the front page of the Internet”). He described how his success hinged on his learning of computer-programming skills, and he urged the audience to study programming as well, as learn-to-program websites such as Codeacademy.com make the task hugely accessible and the process uniquely democratic. “[Programming] is the most valuable skill of this century … and for those who don’t [program], I have good news… It’s also one of the most accessible.”

And Ohanian’s engagement didn’t end in how he spoke to the audience; he also asked questions, starting with:  “Is anyone working on anything interesting right now?” When a woman raised her hand, Ohanian invited her onto the stage to tell the crowd about her startup. “I do this at every place I visit,” Ohanian said. “And the result is always exciting.”

He also devoted a large chunk of his time to a live interview of Parker Holcomb ’11, who is known best around the Amherst community for running All College Laundry and All College Storage, both of which he founded while still a student.

Ohanian’s message was abundantly clear: Young people have access to historically unprecedented opportunities through the Internet, and they ought to consider those over traditional options. “One of my initiatives,” he said, “is to get [college graduates] off the street… Wall Street.”

What Makes Us Happy? The Answer is Not Kids, and It's Not Money

Submitted on Monday, 5/5/2014, at 3:20 PM

Remember your first cell phone? You loved it. But when a friend got an iPhone your old flip phone lost its charm. You bought a new phone, and the cycle repeated.

This is one example Catherine Sanderson, the James E. Ostendarp Professor of Psychology, uses to describe why belongings don’t make people happy. To boost your happiness level, the science suggests, it’s better to spend money on experiences: take a vacation, see a play, go to a game.

Here’s what else improves happiness: figure out what you do well and find ways to do it. If this holds true, Sanderson is feeling uncommonly happy right now.

Catherine Sanderson Speaking in the Cole Assembly Room Sanderson giving her talk in the Cole Assembly Room at Amherst

That’s because a lecture she gives on the science of happiness has become one of the most popular offered by the adult education program One Day University. “Out of more than 200 different lectures from renowned professors from around the country, hers is in the top five” in attendance, says company founder Steven Schragis. “In fact, it may be number one.” In the past year alone, nearly 2,000 people have come to hear Sanderson’s talk, which she gives in cities nationwide. “Everybody wants to know about happiness,” Schragis says.

In addition to high attendance, her lecture has resulted in media attention from The Atlantic, The Washington Post, the Today show and others. She’s also given the talk at Amherst, and she’ll give it again at reunion this year.

Catherine Sanderson Catherine Sanderson

As Sanderson says in her lecture, happy people live longer than others, and they’re more helpful and more productive. They have a greater capacity to adapt to both good and bad life changes. “The power of human spirit suggests that we can regain happiness,” she tells her audience—through effort, mindset and behaviors.

Genetics explains about 50 percent of happiness, she says. The rest is determined by outside factors. Drawing on research in psychology, biology, neuroscience and economics, Sanderson explains to her audiences that neither education nor parenthood makes people happy. For men, marriage increases happiness; for women, only a happy marriage does.

Over the years, Sanderson has spoken on topics including the mind-body connection, the psychology of persuasion and the psychology of sports success, but her happiness lecture has resonated most, even though it’s not directly related to her research. (She studies relationship satisfaction and health behavior.)

Happiness is a topic that’s universally interesting, Sanderson says: we lead our lives in a deliberate effort to become happier or to ensure that our children are happy. “It’s the kind of talk,” she says, “that feels very meaningful for me to give.”

 

What we think makes us happy (but really doesn’t):
Education
Money
Good Weather
Marriage
Parenthood

What actually makes us happy:
Exercise
Giving to others
Nature
High self-esteem
Meaningful conversations

To increase happiness:
Keep a gratitude journal
Read a book you love
Figure out your strengths and find ways to use them
Spend time outside
Donate to charity
Spend money on experiences, not belongings
Don’t compare yourself to others
Build and maintain close relationships