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 ( 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 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):
Good Weather

What actually makes us happy:
Giving to others
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

Amherst launches Sports Analytics initiative, seeking to leverage success of its “Moneyball” alumni

Submitted on Monday, 4/14/2014, at 3:47 PM

By Peter Rooney 

In the basement of Amherst College’s Alumni Gymnasium, men’s soccer coach Justin Serpone is on a mission to introduce students to the analytical side of college athletics, and continue building a pipeline from Amherst College to the business side of sports. Justin Serpone and Megan Robertson ’15

“There’s been a lot of stories about baseball GMs like Ben Cherington ‘96, Neil Huntington ‘91 and Dan Duquette ’80 being from Amherst College,” said Serpone on a recent afternoon, his angular frame dressed in a black warm-up suit. “This is about filling in the gaps, getting students in at the ground floor and making opportunities happen.”

Serpone launched a fledgling program last fall, and has slowly been ramping it up with the support of Amherst LEADS, the college’s leadership development initiative. he recently held the inaugural Amherst Sports Analytics Forum, which featured presentations by guests like Smith College mathematics professor and former Mets statistician Ben Baumer, and several Amherst students discussed sports analytics projects that are in progress.

Among them was Megan Robertson ’15, a key member of the women’s basketball team and a statistics major. She’s working with Kevin Connors ’17 a track athlete and “huge basketball fan” to see if a series of four metrics developed by NBA analytics pioneer Dean Oliver have any relevance at the D-3 hoops level. She and Connors are wading through performance statistics for Final Four men’s and women’s teams for the past 10 years, with the aim of presenting an accessible, informative and hopefully valuable report to men’s coach David Hixon and women’s coach G. P. Gromacki.

“We may find that defense is more important, or that we need to shoot more free throws,” Robertson said. “I think this could be a huge contribution because I don’t think too many other teams are looking at statistics at this level in a way that can be useful for them.”

Also in Serpone’s office is Emily Horwitz ’17, who’s been spending several hours per week this semester scraping data from the last decade of field hockey performance statistics to see if she can uncover scoring trends.

“So far I’ve looked at goals scored versus our records, our goals scored every ten minutes to see if there’s a certain point where we tend to score or get scored against,” she said. “Also today I looked at what our winning percentage was when we scored first and when the other team scored first.”

Justin Serpone and Megan Robertson ’15 And?

“I found that 87 percent of the time if we score first we win.”

This gets Serpone excited, and he jumps out of his chair.

“What’s interesting is we did the same thing with our program!” he says. “We figured out that 95 percent of the time when we score first, we win. But 50 percent of the time when the other team scores first, we win.”

Based on those results, Serpone said he had a deep conversation with Jeremy Kesselhaut ’16, a mathematics major who has been analyzing men’s soccer team statistics since Serpone arrived in 2007.

“My first reaction was, ‘That means we should put all of our effort into scoring first,” Serpone said. “But Jeremy said, ‘Based on your record you’re going to win 83 percent of the time anyway, so don’t take the chance of trying to score first.’

“When I heard that, I thought, ‘Wow, that’s analytics in action,’” he said. “’You’re making coaches think more about what the numbers mean.’”

Kesselhaut said he enjoys panning for valuable nuggets of insight from the mountains of soccer data he’s been analyzing. Here’s another one of his findings:  if the soccer team scores three or more goals in a game, there’s a 100 percent chance they’ll win the game.

"Although I may not be on a sport's team here at Amherst, I still care a whole lot about sports,” Kesselhaut said. “I am a big believer that a competitive edge can be obtained by sifting through data. You just have to look carefully." 

There are no formal sports analytics courses yet at Amherst, though the college recently approved a new statistics major, and new statistics professor Nicholas Horton has been working with students interested in sports analytics, including Robertson.

“It’s really interesting stuff,” Horton said. “It’s connecting math, computer science, statistics and psychology to figure things out like whether to pay your goalie more, or to trade him.”

Serpone said he’s happy with the interest that students have shown in sports analytics. Now he’s thinking about how to expand the program to provide even more opportunities for students with a deep interest in the field.

As for how far analytics will guide the decision-making of coaches, Serpone said he’s open-minded, up to a point.

“I think this is important, and statistics can help you formulate thoughts and theories,” he said. “But it’s still players playing a game and everything is still based on one moment. We have to remember that, too.”

Provost’s Initiative Prompts Amherst to “Ask Big Questions”

Submitted on Monday, 4/14/2014, at 8:46 AM

By Katherine Duke ’05

Earlier this semester, mysterious signs began to pop up around the Amherst campus. A banner above the entrance to Frost Library asked WHEN DO WE CONFORM?. Posters appeared on every bulletin board, featuring question marks and the letters ABQ. Many people didn’t know what to make of them. One evening in Valentine Dining Hall, I overhead one Breaking Bad fan mutter to another, “Does that stand for ‘Albuquerque’?”

Nope. As we eventually learned, ABQ is short for “Ask Big Questions,” a program brought to campus by Provost Peter Uvin to encourage meaningful conversation among diverse members of the college community. Over two weeks in February, more than 130 people—a mix of students, faculty and staff—signed up for hour-long small-group discussion sessions led by 26 trained facilitators, all on a single Big Question: “When do we conform?”

Collage of students in animated discussion; event poster; Peter Uvin

Left: An Ask Big Questions discussion group. Center: An ABQ publicity poster. Right: Provost Peter Uvin.

At the sessions, held in various rooms around campus, participants (myself included) introduced ourselves and spoke of our personal experiences with conformity, grappling with smaller questions related to the Big Question. What is conformity? When had we embraced it—or broken out of it—and why? In what ways were we conforming right at that moment, in front of one another? We examined photos that illustrated conformity and nonconformity—Lady Gaga in costume, teenagers decked out for their prom, a roomful of young men all in suits and ties—and read an excerpt from “Shooting an Elephant,” George Orwell’s 1936 essay about the ways he felt pressured to behave in front of the “natives” while working as a police officer in Burma. This led to discussion of how conformity relates to power and oppression, to safety and social order, to race and gender.

These can be loaded subjects, but our conversation never got heated; it remained respectful and friendly—in keeping with the ground rules and the spirit of ABQ. “It’s very important to note that this is a dialogue and not a debate,” says Uvin. “Our students are very good at debating; many of them were champion debaters at their high schools. It’s not about that. It’s about just being human and listening to the humanity of others.”

According to Uvin, the idea for Amherst’s ABQ initiative arose last year at a workshop organized by Paul Sorrentino, the college’s director of religious life, concerning the place of spirituality on campus. During the workshop, Rabbi Bruce Bromberg Seltzer, a Jewish religious adviser at Amherst, told Uvin about the Ask Big Questions program founded by Hillel, the world’s largest Jewish campus organization. “I followed up on this, speaking to a rabbi at Tufts and also to the former president there, Lawrence Bacow,” Uvin says, “and became more enthusiastic about doing this on [Amherst’s] campus.” Representatives from the main ABQ organization came to campus to train Amherst’s facilitators and also provided 30 possible Big Questions. Uvin presented seven of these to the facilitators, who voted for the ones they wanted to delve into.

Here at Amherst, though, ABQ is not affiliated with any particular religious group or student organization; on the contrary, it’s designed to bring together a wide range of people who might not ordinarily engage deeply with one another. “It’s hard to get [dialogues] going among people who are not like each other,” notes the provost. “But the greatest value comes from doing it this way.” At the end of the discussion I attended, we all reflected upon what we had learned. I said the conversation had reminded me of the importance of listening to other perspectives, rather than remaining absorbed in my own thoughts. Our facilitator, a new young faculty member, said she’d gained insights that she could use in her advising. (I would reveal more about what other participants said, but another ground rule of ABQ is confidentiality. The personal anecdotes remain within the room, though we carry the general lessons out with us—or, as our facilitator put it, “Story stays; learning goes.”)  

To be discussed in April, the next Big Question—“What do we need to learn?”—can be interpreted in at least two ways: not just “What topics or lessons do we need to learn about?” but also “What do we need so that we may learn?”  

The Provost’s Office also plans to build ABQ into next fall’s New Student Orientation, training as many as 60 to 70 new facilitators.

“Then,” says Uvin, “it’s my hope to continue running [ABQ] throughout the next academic year and increasingly develop our own questions that are relevant to this campus.”  

Photos by Rob Mattson

Rekindled Office Hours Connect Students with President Martin

Submitted on Friday, 12/6/2013, at 11:27 AM

By Daniel Diner '14

An athlete wanted help meeting new people. A sophomore wished that faculty and administrators at Amherst would “stop telling us that we’re special” and instead put the emphasis on working hard. A once-struggling student wanted to describe the support she’d found in a religious community on campus.

Some mechanisms have always existed for students to air their concerns and suggestions to the administration. But thanks to a new initiative, these three students and many more were able to take their opinions directly to the top.

Since October, President Biddy Martin has been setting aside time every week to meet with students in scheduled but casual conversation. The opportunity to meet with Martin in one of these office hours is available to any student, and for any reason. The Student Office Hours program allots 20-minute meeting slots that students reserve online in advance.

The idea for the program came when Strategic Planning Assistant Tania Dias '13 (formerly president of the Amherst Association of Students) was conducting summer research as part of her role as historian of the Women's and Gender Center. She was reading documents in College Archives when a 1991 issue of the now-defunct Amherst College Notes caught her eye. The paper announced that Peter Pouncey, Amherst’s 16th president, was starting to hold office hours for any student interested in speaking to him.

It occurred to Dias how useful a revitalization of this program would be. “I thought this was a really great, simple initiative to get student voices heard in a very transparent, very easy way,” Dias says. Having already gotten to know Martin through her positions with student government, Dias predicted (correctly) that the president would welcome the idea. “Biddy was really receptive. This idea is something that she embodies; she’s very down to earth, very approachable, very relaxed and very casual.”

The program’s popularity is evidence of its success: Every scheduled slot for the first semester is already filled. In a speech to parents over Family Weekend, Martin said that face-to-face meetings with students provide her a valuable perspective. “It takes a certain amount of courage and self-possession for students to bring forward [their thoughts] to the president of a college, and I think that I will continue to learn more than I would have learned otherwise by virtue of ... these office hours."

Watch President Martin talk about  Student Office Hours in the video of her Family Weekend speech (the subject comes up seven and a half minutes in).

To sign up for an office hour next semester, students can fill out the form on the program's webpage. As scheduled slots for the rest of November and December are all filled, any student wanting to meet with the president this semester should send her an email.

New Pathways mentoring program helps level the networking playing field

Submitted on Friday, 12/6/2013, at 11:25 AM


By Peter Rooney

Pathways, a new online mentoring platform aimed at increasing engagement between Amherst College’s increasingly diversified student body and its well-connected and accomplished alumni base, is off to a roaring start.

Four years in the making and a collaboration between the college’s Career Center, Alumni and Parent Programs and Information Technology offices, Pathways launched in June for alumni and on Sept. 13 for students, with a kickoff ice cream social event outside Keefe Campus Center. Its aim is to foster connections between the entire alumni and student body.

“Pathways will help Amherst’s increasingly diverse student body and alumni base develop the relationships and networks that are critical to academic and professional success,” President Biddy Martin said. “Both students and alumni  will benefit from this innovative online mentoring program.”

The democratic nature of the mentoring platform resonated with Edith Cricien ’14 of Miami, who noted that students are not equally adept at leveraging social networks, or even at  appreciating the importance that such connections can provide.

“It evens the playing field a lot more in my opinion,” said Cricien, who was at Keefe encouraging other students to register for Pathways.  “I work very closely with students who come from low-income backgrounds in my work in Admission, and with the QuestBridge scholars on campus. This is great way to make the networking process less intimidating for students from these backgrounds.”

With a student body that’s close to 50 percent non-white, and with more than 60 percent of its students receiving financial aid, Psychology Professor Elizabeth Aries said the Pathways mentoring program will help all students find alumni mentors to help navigate challenges they face.

"Alumni mentors can help students think about the kinds of coursework that would be advantageous while at Amherst, and the skills they might want to develop," said Aries, author of Speaking of Race and Class: The Student Experience at an Elite College. "Mentors may be able to provide connections to pre-professional summer jobs and internships, and jobs after graduation. While affluent students have generally had access to this type of guidance, this program helps level the playing field for lower-income students."

Also at Keefe fielding questions from her fellow students about Pathways was Tito Kolawole ’14 of Nigeria. She noted that students of all class years can benefit from having an alumni mentor with whom to discuss not just career prospects, but also how to navigate academics and other issues at Amherst.

new oathways mentoring program

Tito Kolawole ’14 (L) explains Pathways; Edith Crecien '14 (R) reviews material.

“I think it’s a way for even freshmen to start talking to people who have been through a similar situation,” she said. “People think networking is all about finding a job, but that’s not how you go about it. You can ask about majors, campus experiences, international travel, visa issues, as well as advice in finding a job. It’s just a whole world of things and information you can find out about.”

Pathways pairs interested students with alumni who have filled out a detailed professional and personal questionnaire and committed to mentoring up to two students per semester. (Go here to sign up and read more details about Pathways.) It supplements an online, searchable alumni directory that has been open to students for networking for several years.

“Pathways is definitely very student-friendly,” Cricien said.  “Before, if you used the online alumni directory you weren’t sure if alumni were interested in mentoring. With Pathways you know they are, and that makes the process much less intimidating.”

Although Pathways was already in the works when she arrived on campus two years ago, Career Center Director Ursula Olender said she strongly encouraged broadening its reach to provide all students access to an Amherst alumni mentoring experience. The end result is something she believes to be unique in higher education mentoring programs.

“I wanted the program to be available to all students and alumni, not just a segment of those two groups,” Olender said. “We went back to the drawing board to figure out how to make that work, and worked closely with IT and Alumni and Parent Programs to tap into their expertise on building highly interactive databases.”

Alumni interested in signing up to be a Pathways mentor are asked to fill out a profile, which is made available to students looking for mentors. Alumni mentors can determine their active status in the program on a semester-by-semester basis, and the online profile is designed to allow mentors to hide their profile, while saving their information, for future participation. 

Alumni selected as mentors will receive an email invitation to review the student’s profile, and can confirm or decline the request. If confirmed, students will initiate first contact with their mentors. Olender expects students and mentors to meet – online, by phone or in person – at least twice a month.

If students are excited about the program, alumni are even more so, said Betsy Cannon Smith, '84, P'15, executive director of Alumni and Parent Programs. She noted that more than 600 alumni have already signed up to be mentors, even before the program was formally launched for students last week.

“In general, alumni feel that the greatest contribution they can make to the college is to be helpful to students on campus and more of a resource for them,” Smith said. “Pathways is something that fills that need for alumni, and provides a pace and platform that students accustomed to working and living online can feel comfortable with.”

At the launch last week, Jacob Pfau ’17 of Palo Alto, Calif., had just stopped by the Pathways table with Angelina Guan ’17 of Beijing; both picked up more information about the program.

“I probably will sign up,” Pfau said, as Guan nodded in agreement. “It sounds like a different format. A lot of the things that are offered are interactions between students and professors. Alumni are an entire different group of people, so I’ll check it out.”

Learn more and fill out a mentor profile.




First TEDx Showcases Amherst’s Thought Leaders

Submitted on Monday, 11/18/2013, at 12:48 PM

By Brianda Reyes '14

On Sunday, Nov. 10, Amherst College hosted its inaugural TEDx event, featuring speakers who were all affiliated with the college. Four alumni, two professors, one staff member and one student presented their talks to an audience of 350 people in Kirby Theater. (View TEDx Amherst photos here.

Sign saying "TEDx Amherst College"

TEDx events are independently organized but modeled after conferences hosted by TED, a nonprofit devoted to helping people share "ideas worth spreading." Videos of TED talks often spread virally online, viewed by hundreds of thousands of people.

“[Amherst's] event, more than a day of TEDx talks, was the result of extensive collaboration among different people in the Amherst community: a local sound and video recording company [Amherst Media], Amherst College’s stage designers, the Office of the President, Dining Services, Facilities, speakers from all over the world, the Center for Community Engagement… the list goes on and on. The event was a result of all these new interactions, and that in itself makes it successful,” said David Beron ’15, a leader in organizing the conference. “The speakers were all great, and people seemed to be excited about the talks.”

The theme of the event was “Disruptive Innovation.”

“One of the ways that we wanted to tackle this theme,” said Nicole Chi ’15, director of speaker relations, “was by inviting speakers from a bunch of different disciplines and areas, in hopes that their ideas and the innovations they have within their own disciplines can help Amherst students think about issues outside of the areas that they’re comfortable with.”

From home births to lie detection, the presentations’ topics incorporated the theme.

The MCs, Reilly Horan ’13 and Ricky Altieri ’15, started the day by introducing Provost Peter Uvin. He gave the opening remarks, talking about the different ways in which the event’s theme manifested itself at the college.

The first talk was led by Karti Subramanian ’07, co-founder of Vera Solutions, who discussed how data collection and analysis can be improved to provide better results for organizations focusing on social impact. Data, he said, could be only as good as the questions it was used to answer. His last line set up a thread that would run through the remaining talks: “Asking better questions is the real innovation.”

Karti Subramanian '07 speaking

Karti Subramanian '07

Following Subramanian was Bryn Geffert, librarian of the college, whose talk centered on Amherst College’s recently-announced digital press and the issue of open access. Geffert said, “I want to see a world in which a student in Kenya has the same access to information that students in Cornell would.”

Assistant Professor of Music Jason Robinson presented after Geffert, discussing the concept of telematic music, which he described as music performed from different locations simultaneously, by musicians connected by video and extremely high-quality audio networks. How the audience perceives the music depends on which of the locations they are in, and musicians themselves have discovered that they can work around the Internet’s 50-millisecond audio time lag by improvising around what Robinson called the “fat beat.”

After Robinson’s talk, the audience was invited to Coolidge Cage to enjoy lunch provided by Valentine Dining Hall’s catering staff. After the lunch break, The Zumbyes, one of Amherst’s a cappella groups, performed.

Saraswathi Vedam ’78, P’09, an associate professor of midwifery at the University of British Columbia, gave her talk on the debate over home births versus hospital births. She explained that in the United States, we think of “institutionalized,” or hospital, births as the disruptive innovation, because they are supposed to be better and safer. But her presentation offered a different perspective: according to Vedam, the disruptive innovation should be planned home births, which she referred to as “humanized” births. (Read an Amherst magazine story about Vedam here.)

The next presentation was given by Kenneth Danford ’88, co-founder of North Star, a self-directed learning program in Hadley, Mass., aimed at teens who have decided that school is not the right fit. Danford’s talk expanded on the goal of North Star, arguing that school is optional and that programs like his should be more readily available and encouraged.

The MCs prefaced the talk by Marisa Parham, associate professor of English, by saying it would be about two things: ghosts and robots. Although it was not about literal ghosts and robots, Parham did use the two terms to represent the past and the future. She prompted the audience to think about why we try to frame our future in relation to the past, but do not actually try to fully analyze and think critically about the past.

Parham’s talk was followed by Yilin Andre Wang ’14’s presentation, the only one led by a student. The TEDx team had held a contest for all students interested in presenting during the event, and Wang was the panel’s unanimous choice. A senior psychology major, he presented a talk about the pitfalls of human biases when trying to detect lies. Asked what he hopes the audience took away from his presentation, Wang said, “I hope my audience will realize how easily our judgments can be skewed by environmental and personal factors, and even start to reflect on the ways biases affect their lives in unexpected ways. I also hope that they will become smarter consumers of psychology as represented in popular media, because its immediate appeal sometimes leads to dubious claims and sensational products in the market that misinterpret research.”

The Bluestockings, an all-female a cappella group, performed before the final talk, which was given by Rosanne Haggerty ’82,  a life trustee of the college. Haggerty spoke about the valuable lessons she has learned as the founder of Common Ground, an organization focused on finding solutions to homelessness. Haggerty’s talk returned full-circle to the first talk, given by Subramanian, as she explained that one must always ask the right questions to obtain the best results.

Rosanne Haggerty '82 speaking

Rosanne Haggerty '82

The event ended with all of the volunteers and planning team members onstage, as Molly Mead, director of the Center for Community Engagement and mentor to the TEDx team, thanked them for a job well done.

Members of the Social Innovation Leadership Team (SILT) decided a year ago that they wanted to host a TEDx conference. They knew that this would be a large-scale event, so they hired a team to deal specifically with bringing TEDx to Amherst.

“We [in SILT] seek to foster innovative approaches to social problems, provide skills and resources to students who want to make a change and provide connections that can lead to sustainable collaborations,” said Shane Zhao ’14, SILT team leader and license holder for the TEDx conference. “Given SILT’s mission, we thought a TEDx event with the theme of ‘Disruptive Innovation’ could catalyze innovation at Amherst and provide a platform for people from the Amherst community to share their innovative ideas.”

The team wasted no time in beginning the plans for the event. They sought speakers from all over the world, with connections to Amherst, to share their ideas.

One of the main obstacles arose during the summer, when the members were dispersed throughout the world. “The team was spread around five or six different time zones, so coordinating effective meetings became a problem. Nevertheless, we accomplished most of our summer goals and made sure to step it up in the fall,” said Beron.

The team faced some other small obstacles along the way. For example, one of the desired speakers had already given a TEDx talk at a different location; since one of the goals of TEDx is to give speakers a platform to discuss previously unheard ideas, that potential candidate could not speak at Amherst. Later in the planning process, the TEDx team discovered that each speaker had to own all the rights to each image in his or her presentation; speakers had already submitted their presentations—therefore the team had to send them back to the speakers to fix.

To reach their goal, the TEDx team sought and received funding from SILT, the Office of the President, the Center for Community Engagement and the Association of Amherst Students. Tickets to the event sold out in two days and left almost 100 people in the waiting list.

The team plans to host a TEDx event annually. This year, much of the planning process was laying groundwork for future events, so team members believe that in future years, the planning process will be much smoother.

All of the TedX talks were recorded by Amherst Media, a local production studio, and will be submitted for possible inclusion on The team leaders expect that the video recordings will be on their own website in a few weeks.

Photos by Hao Liu '16 and Eugene Lee '16

Student Requests Drive Recent IT Projects

Submitted on Tuesday, 11/12/2013, at 8:54 AM

By Daniel Diner ’14

Let's say you're a student, and the dirty clothes are piling up in your hamper. But every time you go to do laundry, the machines are in use. The Information Technology office at Amherst has found a way to help. In response to student requests, the IT staff has developed and implemented Web Laundry, a system that fasttracks the laundry process by displaying a schematic that shows every machine on campus and which of them are available. What's more, it notifies students when their laundry is ready.

The project began from an anonymous user’s suggestion to the Tell the CIO program: "Can we have an online system where we can see if laundry machines are available without having to go to the laundry room with all our stuff? Also, maybe even an alert system for when the machines are done?” The software research was undertaken by Taylor Perkins ’11 from the Office of the Chief Information Officer and the IT Systems and Networking group.

A student does laundry.

Web Laundry is one of several student-driven projects that IT undertook last summer. It's also one of many ways in which IT has expanded use of the ID card-linked OneCard system. The system was born in 1987, when Dining Services was looking for a means to track Valentine use and restrict hall access according to meal plan records.“It was a huge boost to efficiency," says Liz Lucas, a 33-year veteran of Dining Services. “I saw it as a convenience for the students and an efficiency for the staff.”

The student body quickly adapted to the OneCard, and requests for expansions started coming in soon afterwards. IT took over most of the OneCard operations when the system was expanded to regulate door access to campus buildings. Now students are able to pay for Valentine, campus cafes, vending machines and laundry services through student IDs, using a debit system.

Another summer project was anonline package notification system for the campus post office. The office is small but the volume of mail large (more than 19,000 student packages have been delivered so far this semester), and after years of students asking for an alternative to paper package notices, the post office began to seek methods of electronic notifications.

Unsatisfied with the high cost and lack of specificity in software solutions offered by outside vendors, the post office staff turned to IT to come up with an in-house solution. Rob Ansaldo took to the challenge, writing a prototype application the very evening he first heard the request. It was soon put into use. “This was an incredibly simple problem space that was begging for a really simple solution,” Ansaldo says.

Among other recent projects are mobile printing and printing release stations, the Pathways alumni-student mentoring system, the installation of audio recording booths and a video recording studio in Seeley Mudd and an update of the Amherst mobile app. An expansion of the AC Dollars system is now in testing; new updates enable parents and guardians to add funds to student accounts.

Photo by Rob Mattson

The Mead's Mummy Mystery

Submitted on Wednesday, 10/30/2013, at 10:15 AM

by William Sweet

The Mead’s mummy is missing.

Truth be told, the 2,600-year-old mummy case has likely been empty for the entire half-century that it’s been with the Mead Art Museum. But records show that it once contained a preserved human body. This leaves museum staff with a mystery worth unraveling even as they prepare an ancient artifact for exhibit.

As with any good mystery, the more one learns about the Mead’s mummy case, the more questions arise.

Amherst College acquired the case, with a mummy, in 1905, decades before the Mead came into being. Along with the case came the lid for a different mummy case. There appear to be no records indicating where these items were kept or where the mummy went. No records, just stories.

“When I first started working here in 2000, I was told that Amherst College did at one time possess a mummy and it was stolen,” said Stephen S. Fisher, the Mead’s collections manager. As to the date and the circumstances of the theft, he has no clue. “All I know is that it has never been found,” he said.

Staff at the Mead have been investigating this issue as they start a project which they hope will allow the mummy case and lid to be brought out of storage and displayed for the public.

“The coffin is an interesting object because it has a story to tell, and because the craftsmanship is of good quality,” said Bettina Jungen, senior curator and Thomas P. Whitney Class of 1937 Curator of Russian Art. She noted that Amherst is unique among the Five Colleges in having such an object. Conservator Erin Toomey Examines the Mumy Case

Conservator Erin Toomey examines the mummy case lid

Erin Toomey, an objects conservator with the Brooklyn-based Art Conservation Group, recently visited the Mead’s storage facility to examine the case and lid. She plans to compile a report for the museum on what its options may be to restore, conserve and otherwise prepare the objects for exhibit. Jungen said that the museum would need to raise funds for any restorative work.

Joyce Haynes, a Egyptologist formerly with Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, has been approached to take a look at the hieroglyphics on the case.

While the mummy case is unusual, it is not the only mortuary piece at the Mead. The museum recently put on display a second-century Roman sarcophagus, which originally held the remains of two young children, a brother and sister ages 6 and 10, possibly the victims of a plague that swept the Roman Empire. For the exhibit, poet Richard Wilbur ’42, the John Woodruff Simpson Lecturer at Amherst, translated the marble sarcophagus’s inscription, which refers to the children being preceded in death by their father, leaving a widow and mother whose “eyes shall nevermore be dry.”

While the mummy case is not as display-ready as the Roman piece, “the paintings on the side are in incredible shape,” Toomey said, and the wood beneath the paint and gesso is relatively solid for its age.

“Pieces are falling off, but a lot can be done to stabilize it and get it into shape,” she added.

The fact that the artifacts do not seem to have generated much interest in years past may have helped preserve the pieces, as some past practices aimed at restoring ancient artifacts can compromise them, Toomey said. “A lot of times what happens is a piece like this will be restored and all painted in and varnished, all the missing parts filled in, and it almost becomes like a decorative object, and we wouldn’t want it to look like a decorative object.”

What exactly was done with the mummy, the case and the lid during their first 50 years at the college—and even where these items were stored throughout that time—remains unknown.

According to information on the undated accession card at the Mead, the case is for a woman embalmed in Abydos about 650 B.C., and the lid is for the coffin of a priest interred during the same era, Egypt’s 26th Dynasty. Both artifacts are decorated with hieroglyphics, including some in praise of Osiris, the Egyptian god of the afterlife.

The artifacts were donated to the college in 1905 by Dr. Stephen Holmes Weeks (1835–1909), dean of the medical school at Bowdoin College, sometime after Weeks had been awarded an honorary law doctorate at Amherst’s 1905 Commencement. The Amherst trustees endorsed a resolution in June 1906 to extend their thanks to Weeks “for the valuable gift of a mummy lately presented by him to the College.” A June 1906 article in The Student mentions a mummy as well, noting that it was procured from the Cairo Museum. The Mead's Mummy Case

The Mead's Mummy Case

There is apparently no previous connection between Weeks and Amherst College. According to his 1909 obituary in The New York Times, he was a founder of the former Maine State Sanatorium and had a national reputation as an expert on anatomy. Known for his work on tuberculosis, he was “the first surgeon to use absorbent drainage tubes in surgery.”

 A check with the Maine Historical Society’s research library and Amherst’s own Archives and Special Collections could not produce any connections.

“Perhaps he thought [Amherst] could use [the mummy] for anatomical study,” said Jamie Cantoni, reference assistant for the Maine Historical Society. “I suppose we may never know.”

“It baffles me that such a gift would be so unremarked upon,” said Amherst College Archivist Peter Nelson, who unearthed the early references to the mummy. “Where is she now?”

While the ultimate fate of the mummy may remain a mystery, Jungen said she hoped that the hieroglyphics will have their own story to tell.

“We will know much more after it has been translated and put into context,” she said. “This will, actually, be a very exciting part and provide the basis for making a real show around it.”

Two Exhibitions Mark President Kennedy's Visit to Amherst 50 Years Ago

By Peter Rooney

The photos are atmospheric, historic and dramatic, some in color, some in black and white, capturing the historic day on Oct. 26, 1963, when President John F. Kennedy visited Amherst College to receive an honorary degree and preside over the groundbreaking for the Robert Frost Library.

President Kennedy with Calvin  H. Plimpton ‘39, then president of Amherst College

Frost, who had taught at Amherst for decades and whose poetry Kennedy frequently quoted in his speeches, had been the first poet to read at a Presidential Inauguration. He had died earlier in the year, and Kennedy’s words on that fall day honored not only Frost and the important role that arts and culture play in society, but also the obligation that graduates of elite colleges such as Amherst have to serve society.

“It was a huge event in the history of the college,” said Michael Kelly, director of Archives and Special Collections at Amherst and curator of two exhibitions, one at the college, one online, that commemorate Kennedy’s visit to campus. “How many colleges get a sitting president to come to their groundbreaking ceremony?”

 The presidential motorcade approaches campus

To mark the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s historic visit, in which he delivered what historians consider to be his last major speech before his assassination less than a month later, the college’s Frost Library has prepared an online exhibition, called “The President and The Poet,” as well a display of photographs and mementos on the library’s Mezzanine level.

An exhibition reception on Saturday, Oct. 26 will take place from 3 to 5 p.m. in the library’s Friendly Reading Room, with a viewing of the speech and gallery talk by family members of Robert Sargent Fay '56, who took the color photographs in the exhibition.

Kennedy had been invited to Amherst by John McCloy ’16, an influential adviser and a college trustee. The exhibition includes programs from the events, and pages from the speech itself, with handwritten notes by Kennedy, black and white photographs taken by college staff and color photographs taken by Fay.

Kennedy at the groundbreaking for Frost Library

The photographs leave no doubt about what a major event the speech was for the college. They include images of helicopters landing on Memorial Field; bulky television cameras on platforms at the Cage gymnasium; Amherst students carrying signs that proclaimed support for Kennedy’s Civil Rights program; and Kennedy in the back seat of a car with Calvin H. Plimpton ‘39, then president of Amherst College.

Edward “Ted” Plimpton, a son of President Plimpton, was 11 at the time and is an Amherst-based psychologist. He has many memories of that day, from the President’s house being surrounded by Secret Service agents, to a phone installed there with a direct line to the White House. But it was what Kennedy said to the boy at the end of his visit that resonated most.

“As he was leaving Amherst he turned to me on the steps of the President’s house and said, ‘Young man, we have great hopes for you,'” Plimpton recalled. “Then he popped into his car and off he went.”

Earlier in the day, as many as 10,000 people had visited campus. 

“It was a huge crowd and a media circus,” Kelly said. “We have all the press passes where the cameras were allowed to set up. There was a lot of participation by Amherst students as well. I’ve met many alumni who say, ‘I stood right next to JFK.’”

Kelly’s favorite image in the exhibition is of a group of well-dressed students carrying signs in support of civil rights, significant because it foreshadowed an era of activism not only at Amherst but on campuses nationwide.

Amherst students with signs supporting Kennedy on civil rights 

“These are guys at an elite college standing up in favor of civil rights,” Kelly said. “This is Mad Men, pre-hippie civil rights, with very serious young men about to embark upon amazing careers.”

Kennedy’s convocation speech that day (he also spoke at the groundbreaking; the text of both speeches can be read here, and listened to here), is frequently cited. Two quotations from it are carved in stone at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., and his Amherst speech also is quoted on the website of the National Endowment for the Arts, which was established by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965.

Though it didn't really resonate with him at age 11, Plimpton said he's carefully read Kennedy's speech several times since his visit to campus 50 years ago. The phrase that's remained with him all these years?

With no hesitation, Plimpton recited:

"When power corrupts, poetry cleanses."


Succeeding at Amherst—Advice for First-Years

September 27, 2013

Daniel Diner '14 walked around campus recently and asked a simple question of students and staff:  "What advice do you have for the freshman class?" The answers may surprise you. Click here for more information about Admission and Financial Aid at Amherst College

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A Ton of Watermelon: Book & Plow's First Harvest

Submitted on Tuesday, 9/24/2013, at 8:25 PM

by William Sweet

How local is locally-grown produce? At Amherst College it means you can barely break a sweat walking to where your salad came from.

This fall, the Book & Plow Farm began supplying Dining Services wth the fruits --and vegetables-- of its first harvest. 

Farmers Peter McLean and Tobin Porter-Brown, with the help of students and other volunteers, kicked off the school year with a ton of watermelon, hundreds of pounds of kale, mustard, bok choi and tot soi, and pounds and pounds of tomatoes. Dining Services is also using carrots, onions, summer squashes and herbs from the farm.

Early this year, the college signed a lease with the pair to establish a farm that supplies Dining Services with produce. The for-profit operation sells crops to a few other customers, including some local restaurants and Hampshire College, but Amherst College is by far the largest customer and plays a large role in deciding what gets planted.

Harvesting Greens

“It’s a beautiful product,” said the college's Executive Chef Jeremy Roush. “They've been blessed with the right weather this year. The tomatoes have been like candy.”

Those involved say it’s been the beginning of a beautiful friendship, but a relationship which requires some flexibility and creativity, largely because the academic and agricultural years run practically on opposite schedules: Valentine Dining Hall shuts down for its big pre-Orientation cleaning just when harvest season is going gangbusters.

“We’re trying to extend the season in both directions as far as possible,” said McLean. “We’re trying to deliver food as far into December as we can, by growing things under plastic in the greenhouse, and we are going to plant some things in the fall that we know we won't be able to harvest until the spring.”

What the kitchen staff have not cooked up in a given week has been prepped and preserved for the weeks and months ahead. Which is the paradox: all this effort to go fresher has resulted in the top chef’s having to come up with more ways to preserve all that produce.

“When 200 pounds of kale comes in, you gotta do something with it,” said salad worker Bernadette Lynch, de-seeding a batch of the farm’s peppers. Rather than let pounds and pounds of basil, cilantro and dill go bad, they got prepping.

“The basil we preserved in olive oil, similar to a pesto; [with] the fresh dill we made a compound butter. Other herbs we dried over salt and infused the salt to make ‘herb salt’ for seasoning roasts and other items,” Roush said. “With tomatoes we made a classic puree to serve as a foundation for multiple other tomato-based sauces.”

All in all, they’ve prepared and frozen some 400 pounds of kale. They also blanched the braising greens and froze them to use as soup stock for the winter.

“Jeremy’s been really creative at how to extend the produce as long as possible,” said McLean. “On our end, we are growing frost-tolerant and hardy plants for the winter months.”

“This is the inaugural year, so obviously it's a very experimental year,” Roush said. “We are learning a great deal, working with new products, such as Komatsuna and Hakurei turnips. … This is a very exciting time for a chef.”

Preparing Farm Veggies at Val

There are products they won’t take, where good intentions run up against the fact that thousands of meals are served every day at Val. Garlic, because of the sheer volume in which it is used, still has to be bought peeled and chopped. Butternut squash, because it is labor-intensive to prepare, is purchased from larger farms in the Pioneer Valley.

McLean said the farm relies on the support of volunteers and student interns, who came out even during the blistering heat wave this summer. “These guys are great: super-spirited and super motivated. It didn’t matter how hot it was, they were up for it. We just bought the crew more popsicles.”

After all, Amherst students made this happen. A student group first approached the college’s administration in 2010 with the farm proposal. This grew into a committee of students, faculty and staff who solicited proposals from farmers wishing to lease land with “the dual goals of raising local produce and conducting educational and research programs that involve the entire College.” About a dozen farmers submitted proposals, and McLean and Porter-Brown were the top the choice.

“I think the Book & Plow Farm is a great addition to what Amherst College already provides our students and community in the area of academics, social life and real-life experiences,” said Charles Thompson, director of dining services. “As for the dining program: we’ve long been a big supporter of local businesses and sustainable goods, so having our own farm on campus is about as good as it gets.”

Sure, sometimes the tomatoes are lumpy, and sometimes the red peppers are green. For those involved, supporting sustainability is worth some less-than-picture-perfect fruits and vegetables. For Roush, though, it all comes down to flavor.

“Some of the tomatoes that we had were not the prettiest, but what are you giving up? You might be giving up that polished pink-looking thing that is hard as a rock, for something that is rich, red, and juicy. The watermelon that we served for Orientation luncheon had some scarring on the rind, but once you cut it into wedges, you didn't have to worry about it, because the taste of it was so fantastic and so juicy. It’s just what it should be.”