Read more from the alumni who, as students, helped inspire Dickinson faculty members to explore new paths, as told in "10 Inspirations."
Working with Carol Ann on her Welty project was the defining experience of my academic life. I knew it was a privilege at the time, since talking about literature with Carol Ann was what it entailed, and talking about literature with Carol Ann was exhilarating to me in a kind of water-skiing/famous-painting-seeing/meeting-your-idol kind of way. And while it ended up being exciting, I’m going to go ahead and use the word formative here: This work with Carol Ann over Welty uncovered and exercised abilities I didn’t know I had, filled in and reformed deficits, grew me up all over. Pretty big praise for research work, but there it is.
I didn't go into working with Welty with any kind of knowledge or proclivity—I didn't like short stories as a genre at the time (so grim), and I didn't have any particular interest in the South. And on first reading I didn't like Welty. Carol Ann's instructions just before the start of that first summer: read the stories again. That digging in (which I did, partly out of obedience but also trusting that I'd learned was a sort of mutuality of taste) worked. I was hooked and eager to take on the research. My part: Read and abstract current Welty criticism and then talk with Carol Ann about it. It was practical scholarship that most students don't get to do until senior year. It demystified critical writing and tutored me in it at the same time. Carol Ann kept the top spinning while I was in Scotland the next year. She spurred my writing a proposal for an honors thesis, and then guided me with firm hand through writing the thing—memorably asking me to work on chapters 1 and 3 at the same time (again, demystifying a project that might intimidate a first-timer: Carol Ann was always good at diagnosis and remedy).
Of course Carol Ann is right: the most important parts of the work were less apparent and describable, and happened in travel. Our trip to Jackson to see Welty (which actually happened, due to our staggering innocence in how hard it might be to get some of her time and, I suspect, to Welty's own delight in visiting and telling stories) was life-altering for me. I'd never acknowledged my own Yankee-bred prejudice against the South, and my discomfort with the pace, rituals of address and history provided fodder for some new conversations for Carol Ann and me—old friends by then but still teacher and student. I've never been so glad to be pulled up short.
Pretty sure we can trace my eventual decision to become a teacher—and a teacher in an environment of need—to that trip, and to my experience of being taught so long and so well by so talented an educator. And my work as a writer? Well, of course that's all college, and so much of college was this work as a research assistant to a writer of formidably clear prose.
I arrived from India to Dickinson College, aiming to pursue a major in physics. But the flexibility, opportunities and close guidance from outstanding faculty, all afforded by the college, enabled me to ambitiously pursue my curiosities. I sought to understand the brain, the most complex system in the universe, using analytical techniques from mathematics and physics. I graduated with a triple major in mathematics, physics and neuroscience (with honors in all of them).
Lars English was instrumental in me amalgamating my diverse interests. When I was merely 19, he encouraged me: “The future is interdisciplinary,” he said, sagacious words that henceforth became my motto. I was fascinated by his work on how order emerges from disarray, like an audience of individuals each applauding with his/her rhythm emerge to clap in unison, without any external orchestrator or conductor. What if one individual could influence the other depending on how similar their rhythms were? This is akin to the principle that the brain uses to organize its wiring—neurons that fire together, wire together or Hebbian learning. Combining Lars’ expertise in mathematical analyses of nonlinear dynamics and the physics of synchronization with the neuroscience background I gained at Dickinson, we explored how synchronization and learning interact with one another in a model neuronal network, discovering that two synchronous clusters emerge when learning is fast (similar to an audience clapping at two opposing rhythms, or neuronal networks involved in walking), but only one emerged when learning is slow.
I presented this work at many venues, my presentations were essential to me gaining graduate admission at the world’s best institutes for theoretical neuroscience. My research with Lars became my physics honors thesis, in addition to being published (my first peer-reviewed publication) in Physics Review E, the premier journal for nonlinear and statistical physics, which in turn helped me gain a prize for young computational neuroscientists from one of Germany’s top neuroscience centers.
But most important, the words “The future is interdisciplinary” became not just a motto, but also a successful prediction. They came to define my career, perspectives and aspirations. I also learned to think analytically, precisely and deeply through problems, both scientific and in general, and persevere when roadblocks impeded progress.
True to the motto, I am currently researching how, similar to any physical system (e.g., a microwave), specific circuits in the brain compute, in my case, specifically to perform cost-benefit decision-making in real time (what to do, when to do it, how long and how fast to do it for, for example: how fast to bike, how long to wait for a bus, how long to work and rest), and how this is impaired in diseases such as depression. This combination of theoretical and experimental techniques brings to bear not only the theoretical neuroscience skills I gained in my Ph.D. program, but the entire range of the mathematics, physics and neuroscience education I gained at Dickinson.
After I graduated from Dickinson, Lars raised another sagacious question: Could the brain and mind really be understood within a set of consistent quantitative principles and frameworks, in much the same way the laws of motion and theory of gravitation are intertwined? I am currently working to further show, that in probably all cases, this is true! The brain may be the most complex system in the universe, but like all other systems, it can be understood with a finite set of self-consistent, quantitative principles.
While a junior attending the semester in environmental science at the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL), I met a student who was working with Jim Galloway on the Nitrogen Footprint of the MBL for her independent research project. The project interested me, but I pursued research in a soil-ecology project for my five weeks instead. Upon returning to Dickinson in spring 2013, I knew I wanted to conduct a senior thesis but wasn’t sure what it would be. I contemplated another soil-ecology project but had difficulty finding a faculty member to be my advisor. I decided instead that I would create the first-ever nitrogen footprint of Dickinson College. Neil Leary offered to be my advisor for the project, and Jim Galloway. along with Alley Leach at University of Virginia (UVA), helped greatly in making the project a reality.
The most meaningful part of the project was certainly being able to create the first-ever nitrogen footprint of Dickinson. To be able to say I was a senior in college, with advising from three mentors, and able to produce an entire footprint for the college in a year working by myself is amazing. The most meaningful thing to come out of the experience is that Dickinson has now joined with UVA and the MBL, along with four other institutions, in a multi-institutional project on nitrogen footprints.
I was the recruitment coordinator for the semester in environmental science at the MBL but in March started a new job as a research assistant for Jim Tang (my independent research advisor from my semester there). I also am volunteering with two MBL scientists to update the institution’s nitrogen footprint. Since I had created one for Dickinson, the MBL believed my knowledge would help in updating the 2011 footprint. I’m looking forward to the conference at the MBL this summer!
I was working as an office assistant in the English department when Professor Nichols approached me with his idea for a summer student-faculty research project that involved updating his Romantic Natural History website and contributing articles to this online resource. I was eager to learn more about literary natural history, as it was not my area of academic focus. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that I would be researching several female writers. It was important to both of us that a greater number of women literary figures be featured on the website.
Learning about the roles women writers played in this literary era and having the opportunity to write about these women for an academic audience was particularly meaningful. Although I had not known of these women prior to this research project, and their names are rarely (if ever) mentioned in literature courses, their contributions were tremendous. While researching I realized how little information we have about their lives and how important it is that this website spread the word about these writers.
I’m working, taking classes and exploring careers, and this project certainly helped me identify female role models in my life. For example, after graduation I began playing roller derby, and gained strong, boundary-shattering teammates who inspire me to pursue my goals every day. Although there is progress to be made, I am proud that women are now being acknowledged for their past and present contributions to art, science, sports and business. I know that no matter where I end up or what I do, my voice will be heard.
Read "10 Inspirations" for the faculty perspectives on these student-inspired projects.
Read more from the spring 2015 issue of Dickinson Magazine.
Published April 14, 2015