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Cover Essay: Waiting in the Wings

Categories: Midd Blogosphere


The story of this ornithological teaching collection goes back roughly 130 years to the mid-1880s, when a couple of Addison County teenagers, Chester Parkhill and Albert Mead, became interested in local birds. They were bird fans—that was the term back then, bird fans—not birders or bird-watchers—and the way people observed birds in the late-19th century was you see a bird, you shoot it, you observe it. It was barbaric by our contemporary standards, obviously, but that was the custom.

When Parkhill and Mead were in high school, a College senior named Frank Knowlton came to their biology class to demonstrate skinning and mounting birds. The two were hooked and subsequently enlisted Knowlton to give them private tutorials. Over the next several years—Mead enrolled at Middlebury, while Parkhill stayed home to tend the family farm—they amassed a considerable collection. The skins were well preserved, and their labeling—the precision, the artistry—was done to exacting standards and is an example of museum-quality craft.

Tragically, Parkhill died at a young age. His sister left his entire collection to Mead, and then, at some point before 1939, Mead (by this point a Middlebury trustee) donated both his and Parkhill’s collections to the College. We know this because the spring 1939 News Letter published a story about how this ornithological collection was being used in biology courses.

And after that, things get murky.

During the next decades, Middlebury’s biology department added some outstanding faculty—Hal Hitchcock, George Saul, Duncan McDonald, but I don’t think they were all that interested in the museum skins. And when  the science departments were moving from Warner to the new science center in the late ’60s, my guess is that someone looked at these cabinets of birds and thought, I have no interest in those. So they were moved into storage, essentially left to be forgotten.

I was hired in 1985, and on one of my first days on campus, I went down to the storage room in the science center—which, by this point, was filled to capacity—and started rooting around. It was dark and dusty and filled with all of this junk, and at some point I spotted a couple of museum cabinets pushed against the wall way in the back. (This tells you they were probably the first things to go into storage.) They were great looking cabinets, so I started digging through stuff to get to them—it was like digging through sand. In order to go forward, I had to take something in front of me and move it behind me. Finally I reached the cabinets, cleared some space, and opened one of the doors. The overpowering smell of mothballs hit me, and my jaw dropped, not because of the smell, but because of what I saw. This cabinet was filled with these bird skins—birds from the 1880s, all from Addison County, expertly preserved*.

*Following this, Trombulak also discovered boxes of eggs, as well as mounts. They’re without documentation but he believes they were all part of the Mead collection. (More on the entire collection here.)

Unbelievable, I thought. I knew I had to move these up to my teaching room, and I have been curating the collection ever since.

The Art of Birds

Categories: Midd Blogosphere


In his natural history courses, Professor Stephen Trombulak has been using a 19th-century ornithological collection ever since he discovered the treasure buried in the far reaches of an overcrowded College storage room.

And that’s just the beginning of this fascinating tale.

“I realize now, after many years of association with colleges and educators and curriculum committees, that we were being unconsciously and pleasantly educated through the bird hobby in ways that we ourselves, let alone our elders, did not dream of.”

Albert D. Mead, Middlebury Class of 1890, expressed this sentiment in a letter to Biology Professor Samuel Longwell. Writing in the early 1930s, when he was a trustee, Mead was discussing an ornithological collection he had gifted the College in the hope that Longwell would use it in his courses. Mead had designed the collection, which consisted of Addison County birds captured and “stuffed” (in the parlance of the day) by Mead and his childhood friend Chester Parkhill.

Mead and Parkhill were self-taught, picking up the hobby while in high school after receiving a tutorial from a Middlebury senior named Frank Knowlton (who would later become a paleobotanist of some renown). They continued through Mead’s student years at Middlebury. (Parkhill was working on his family’s farm.) And as Stephen Trombulak relays later in this photo essay, their work progressed to exacting standards—much of what remains in the teaching collection is of museum quality.

Some mystery still involves parts of the collection (beyond what Trombulak describes in his cover essay on page 1): namely, the provenance of the eggs and mounted birds (such as the Great Horned Owl opposite this page). While all of the museum skins are affixed with labels documenting that Mead and Parkhill collected and prepared them, the mounts and eggs aren’t denoted the same way. (Still Trombulak believes that the mounts and eggs did come from Mead; more on that later.)  What’s not in dispute is their value in the classroom. As Trombulak says, “Not a single one of these is replaceable, because it represents the condition of the species at a point in time that we can never go back to.”

The collection also displays inherent artistic value. Though Mead reportedly didn’t see his work as art, in his letter to Longwell he noted the “graceful lines” and “the texture and the patina” of his specimens. He also likened his and Parkhill’s work to that of a sculptor: “[Our work] conduced to attentive study of form and pose in nature, and the bird skin, when freshly mounted, was a plastic medium, identical in texture, of course, with the thing we tried to represent, by which our conjured-up mental images could be adequately represented.”

Heightening the artistry are these commissioned works by world-renowned photographer Rosamond Purcell, who is best known for her work with natural history collections, with specific attention paid to birds and eggs. (One of her 12 books is the exquisite Egg & Nest.) Purcell spent the better part of two days in Bicentennial Hall exploring these and other teaching collections. Watching her in action, one was reminded of something she told National Geographic a few years ago: “I just like the way certain things work. If I don’t take a picture of these things,” she says, “I just have this feeling that they are going to [disappear] back down that hole. I have to put out a line [with my camera] and get it. It is discovery. I say to myself, ‘People have to see this.’”

While we’re confident that Trombulak won’t allow this collection once again to disappear “back down that hole,” we completely agree with Purcell’s raison d’être: people have to see this.

Modern Love

Categories: Midd Blogosphere


Increasingly discouraged by her failure to engage in a committed relationship in college, a young woman decided to explore the topic at greater depth in her senior thesis.

She found out that she was far from alone.

Confession: I’ve spent the past four years obsessed with the love lives of Middlebury students. It’s not because I’m nosy (though I kind of am); or hypersexual (though all college students kind of are); or out of the loop (I’ve experienced probably too much). My obsession stems from repeatedly recognizing romantic failure as among the most (if not the most) prominent causes of unhappiness, anxiety, and even depression among my female peers—myself included—while at Middlebury.

I should say I’m a white, heterosexual, socioeconomically secure, academically successful woman—and now in a respectful, committed relationship. I’m aware of my privileges. Many of my friends share similar advantages, and one could argue that romantic stress is a privilege in and of itself: we have the mental and emotional energy to engage in and ruminate on romantic experiences, an indulgence many students don’t have time for. Still, despite the angst caused by a heavy academic workload, intimate friendships, divided social scenes, career pressure, ceaseless snowfall—nothing seems to bother my friends more than their relationship troubles.

In college I wasn’t friends with the entire student body, but think of me as an extroverted extrovert. I’m a talker, a people person, a floater. I have close friends who are artists, athletes, activists, hipsters, nerds, and, like many Middlebury students,  I also consider myself all of these things. I ran our campus’s most-read student blog, drank on weekends, buried myself in American literature on weekdays, and occasionally (frequently) stressed out in between. I overextended myself in the mostly good way Midd Kids know so well. But by the fall of my senior year, I realized that all my female friends—even the one-meal-a-month acquaintances we all have—had experienced at least one relationship-induced episode that left them shaken and morose. My obsession with this calcified, which is how I came to focus my nonfiction creative writing thesis on women’s romantic experiences at Middlebury.*

* It’s important to note that I am interested in the romantic and sexual experiences and desires of Middlebury women who are not heterosexual as well, and while I hoped to cover bisexual and lesbian experiences in my thesis work, I had to limit my scope to heterosexual experiences due to a lack of time. Further, I fully intended to write about the experiences and desires of men at Middlebury—I included both genders in my extensive interviewing and surveying—but after feeling overwhelmed by the amount of material I was trying to sift through, my adviser suggested I focus on just one gender for my thesis.

It’s a more complicated topic than one might imagine and requires a bit of background: A couple of years ago, a New York Times writer named Kate Taylor contributed a piece to the Style section titled “Sex on Campus: She Can Play That Game, Too.”

The story opens with a young woman at the University of Pennsylvania who describes her noncommittal-though-sexually-active social status as one predicated on a “cost-benefit” analysis with “low risk and low investment cost.” Wrote Taylor: “It’s by now pretty well understood that traditional dating in college has mostly gone the way of the landline, replaced by ‘hooking up’—an ambiguous term that can signify anything from making out to oral sex to intercourse—without the emotional entanglement of a relationship.”

This sounded like Middlebury to me, and a survey I conducted seemed to confirm my observations: While some people date, I found that roughly 81 percent of the students I surveyed participated in hookups, or noncommittal sexual engagements. What troubles me, though, is not the high percentage, but the very definition of hooking up. I’m convinced that hooking up at Middlebury is different than the concept Taylor addresses.

The term is ambiguous, but most people understand it as a one-night stand—a physical encounter between consenting adults without any expectation of emotional investment. And though one-night stands happen at Middlebury, they’re not as frequent as you might expect. In fact my survey showed that fewer than 10 percent of sexually active students said they exclusively engaged in one-night stands. The hookup culture most prevalent on campus is something different: two students sexually engaging over the course of many weeks, months, even a year, without officially committing to one another. Or, as many students say, there’d be no “defining it”—that is, they’d not enter a boyfriend/girlfriend relationship with labels, openly express their emotions, or spend time together outside the bedroom. If this seems absurd, disrespectful, and unnatural, that’s because, in many ways, it is.


During the spring of my junior year, I met up with a boy every weekend night. I’d convinced myself that our conversations about Nietzsche meant we were developing something, only to learn months later he “didn’t think of me as a human being when we were hooking up.” My friend Jen (all names have been changed to preserve anonymity) was excited about a boy she’d been seeing for several months until she learned he was also seeing three other girls. Another friend spoke of a guy she’d hooked up with for a semester: he told her he could be “90 percent committed to her . . . just in case something happens, and I want to see someone else.”

While these pseudo-breakups hurt, they weren’t breakups, and that’s what made them so troublesome. Really we only lost the physical nature of the relationship, which we’d attempted to convince ourselves—as our culture regulated—we liked. Worse, we were hiding this guy-related stress, ashamed that such “meaningless” experiences could shake our emotional stability.

But we were distracted from our schoolwork, had withdrawn from socializing, and we were complaining, which evidenced a different reality: my friends and I didn’t just want to hook up. In fact, we hated hooking up. We wanted commitment, labels, love. We wanted real, live, official relationships. And this reality made us feel like idiots.

So why were we engaging in such hookups? Because everyone around us appeared happy doing so and no one we knew dated, so we assumed that ultimately we’d be happy too. We also enjoyed the initial attraction, attention, and excitement, even if that seems vapid. Yet we were raised to believe in female independence, power, and equality. Unlike our parents or grandparents, we didn’t necessarily choose to be feminists—those who wholeheartedly advocate for the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes—we just were.

As we were socialized to believe real feminists thrived off noncommittal sex, we thought being fulfilled by monogamous heterosexual relationships seemed paradoxical. Our identities seemingly required we share in romantic ambivalence. But our inability to be ambivalent created dissonance in us.

There’s an interesting divide between how scholastic journals and popular publications like the Atlantic or the Times examine the hookup culture.

Most sociological studies evince concern for the hookup culture’s detrimental effects on women—as most female interviewees hoped hookups would evolve into a relationship, while most men preferred no-strings-attached. Yet these studies offer few suggestions beyond abstention, which doesn’t seem realistic. Moreover, these scholastic publications—being expensive outside academia and little known—don’t have large cultural influence.

But what about the publications we do read?

Almost every widely shared article about hooking up endorses the idea that the hookup culture is compatible with the lifestyles of busy, career-driven women. This much-cited claim by Hanna Rosin, which was published in the Atlantic, perhaps best summarizes this perspective:

“To put it crudely, feminist progress right now largely depends on the existence of a hookup culture. And to a surprising degree, it is women—not men—who are perpetuating the culture, especially in school, cannily manipulating it to make space for their success, always keeping their own ends in mind. For college girls these days, an overly serious suitor fills the same role as an accidental pregnancy did in the 19th century: a danger to be avoided at all costs, lest it get in the way of a promising future.”


I knew I should trust the studies on the (albeit dusty) Davis Library shelves more than the popular media. And yet I couldn’t shake my frustration over my inability to embrace these anti-monogamous ideals. If the Ivy League women cited in the Times could embrace “low risk, low investment hookups,” couldn’t I do the same? I soon found out that it wasn’t just me and my friends who were unhappy “playing that game.”

After interviewing 75 students and analyzing 314 online surveys, I was astounded by female students’ unanimous preferences not for the
hookup culture—but against it. Despite having diverse initial perceptions about hookup culture, 100 percent of female interviewees stated a clear preference for committed relationships. And 74 percent of female survey respondents reported that, ideally, they would be in a “committed relationship with one person” at Middlebury.

Further, 91 percent of female respondents presently in a committed relationship with a Middlebury student (or alum) reported to be “very happy” or “happy” with their situation, while a whopping zero percent of those consistently sexually engaged with one person—but who haven’t discussed their exclusivity—said that they are “very happy.” (Eight percent are “happy.”) And fewer than 20 percent of single and sexually disengaged female respondents said they were “happy” with their situation. Only about 35 percent of female respondents (and 44 percent of male respondents) find noncommittal sexual engagements fulfilling in the moment and feel fine about them later. The rest are generally dissatisfied.

Also illuminating are the interviewees’ reflections.

Kelsey, now graduated, spoke to many interviewees’ experiences. After engaging in a Middlebury hookup for more than two months, she found that her stability crashed after an unexpected “cut-the-cord” talk:

“I barely slept that night. I was just crushed, and that went on from January to July, at least… [the next semester] he wouldn’t talk to me. It was really hard because he went from being someone I could tell anything to, who knew everything about me, to someone who wouldn’t acknowledge me at all, and I think that was the hardest part—that it shifted so fast. I’d see him everywhere and it hurt every single time, because I simultaneously hated him and wanted his acceptance.”

Almost every female interviewee echoed Kelsey’s sentiments, if not experience. They reported feeling frustrated over sexual partners’ conflation of “exclusivity” and “seriousness”; disappointment over their inabilities to divorce physical intimacy from emotional investment; and confusion over how to hone even friendships without having their sexual partners perceive them as “clingy,” “crazy,” or “aggressive.” (All terms in quotes were theirs, not mine.)

Kelsey went on to say that post-pseudo-breakup, she initially embraced the “traditional hookup culture” (as described by Kate Taylor in her  Times article), but after a brief period of feeling empowered, she was left with “this emptiness in my stomach, this loneliness, again and again.”

She added: “I tried to convice myself that this ‘freedom’ is what I wanted, but I knew that what I was really craving was a relationship.”

I’ve got many pet peeves, but sanctimony definitely tops the list. So as one who aggressively preaches female independence, I deemed myself a hypocrite for concluding almost all heterosexual Middlebury women want, maybe even need, committed men.

But now I’m coming to the conclusion that I might not be hypocritical at all. I’d believed that liberal feminists should enjoy, even pursue, casual sex—an idea rooted in the notion that women don’t innately crave commitment, and that society manipulates such dependency to promote patriarchal female oppression. But if feminism is about promoting female equality and happiness, then pushing ourselves to engage in noncommittal sexual relations we consistently dislike is moving us as far from feminism as possible.

Hookup culture traditionally influences men to prefer noncommittal sexual engagements. However, in my survey, more than 70 percent of male respondents indicated they want to be in a committed relationship at Middlebury; only six percent of male respondents said they hoped to participate in casual hookups without the desire to ultimately commit.

So I worry that women are inadvertently confirming a culturally manipulated (and likely unrealistic) male perspective is not only normative, but superior. By actively subscribing to unconfirmed male “preferred” sexual behavior as a means of “sexual liberation,” women might be bolstering—rather than reacting against—societally primed male dominance. Ironically, both partners in this dance might be equally unhappy with the outcome.

Having confronted my own romantic desires and learned that hundreds of peers similarly crave stability, I’ve come to feel confident, hopeful, and empowered. Perhaps by recognizing that independence and co-dependence are not mutually exclusive, we (intelligent, self-sufficient Middlebury women and men) can seek romance, express emotions, and share with sexual partners without losing any semblance of ourselves.

Maybe we’ve been playing the wrong game all along.

Leah Fessler ’15 graduated summa cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa from Middlebury in the spring. Her senior thesis, “Can She Really ‘Play That Game, Too’?: A Narrative Exploration of Young Women’s Relation to Hookup Culture at Middlebury,”—for which she received an A—can be found at http://hookupmiddlebury.weebly.com/

For the past year, Leah has been in a committed relationship and reports to be very happy.

The Business of Beer

Categories: Midd Blogosphere


Making a living brewing craft beer requires precision, science, business savvy, and more than a touch of zaniness.

It’s Friday evening, right around happy-hour time, but Evan Williams ’08 looks more ready for a marathon than a drink. Decked out in blue shorts and a jersey picturing the Cascade Mountain Range, he’s addressing a crowd of 15 or so runners on Rainier Avenue in Seattle’s leafy Columbia City neighborhood. After thanking everyone for showing up, he describes the route they are about to run, warning about a confusing tangle of streets in the second half of the five miles.

Evan’s brother Tyler ’06, as sturdy as Evan is stringy, flanks him on the left. “Are we ready?” Evan shouts. “This might hurt a little,” Tyler mutters as he begins jogging away. Evan gestures in Tyler’s direction. “All right—let’s go!”

To a passerby, it might appear that the Williams brothers are in the business of coaching. But at the end of the jaunt they’ve organized—which wends past soggy soccer fields, under blooming cherry trees, and around Lake Washington, with its glowing house lights strung like baubles around the water—sits their real venture: Flying Lion Brewing. The Williams’s thousand-square-foot microbrewery pours a rotating collection of six original beers, painstakingly crafted and brewed by Evan’s and Tyler’s brother, Griffin.

Getting the small operation off the ground was a family effort. Evan, drawing from his Middlebury physics major, wired the control circuit and helped design the bicycle-powered barley mill. Griffin built the bar and tables with excavated wood from the building. And Tyler, an MIT-trained economist who works for Amazon, sketched a business plan and now does much of the accounting. (Their father, a food chemist, has helped the brothers experiment with home-brew recipes, while a fourth brother, Conor, lends support from afar; he’s a policy researcher in Washington, D.C.)

When Flying Lion opened in October 2014, it joined hundreds of other microbreweries, which are becoming as ubiquitous as hipster coffee shops in urban and rural locales alike. Yet even as these operations proliferate, they can’t seem to keep apace with a growing population of beer evangelists thirsty for the latest offering. For the first few days that Flying Lion was open, “people were standing in between the kettles and tanks” because it was so crowded, says Evan. Just months in, “we are having to turn down distribution deals with restaurants because we need all of our supply for the tasting room.”

Craft breweries—independent outfits that produce fewer than six million barrels annually—make up a modest but quickly growing slice of the market. In the late 1800s, these small alehouses were as commonplace as corner stores in American cities, a time when hop barons were as powerful as today’s corn farmers. But the industry nose-dived during Prohibition, ushering in an era of relatively bland suds mass-produced by the likes of Anheuser-Busch. But when a San Francisco entrepreneur named Fritz Maytag bought Bay Area favorite Anchor Brewery in 1965, he opted to keep it small-scale and focused on producing his favorite beer, Anchor Steam, which was as bold in flavor as Big Beer’s offerings were weak. Maytag’s decision in turn influenced home brewer Jack McAuliffe, who in 1976 opened the hyperlocal New Albion Brewing Company in Sonoma, California—credited by many as the modern era’s first microbrewery.

Soon a restless group of do-it-yourselfers on both coasts began to revisit the idiosyncratic beers of the pre-Prohibition era. Books like Michael Jackson’s World Guide to Beer and The Complete Joy of Homebrewing by Charlie Papazian (who still heads the Brewers Association) helped catalyze the renaissance. Flavors grew bolder as the hop-crammed West Coast India Pale Ale emerged; ancient fermentation methods were dusted off, and brands began to dabble in “extreme beer,” incorporating spices and quirky materials into their brews in order to rebel against the previous decades’ “industrialized, monochromatic beer,” as Dogfish Head founder Sam Calagione described the weak brew.

To help harness the movement, the board of the Brewers Association voted in 2005 to define a craft brewer as someone whose operation produces fewer than two million barrels annually (now six million); is less than 25 percent owned by a non-craft-brewer; and uses traditional processes and ingredients, generally including malted barley.


For nearly four decades after Anchor Brewery reopened, craft beer businesses made up just a sliver of the industry. But in the last few years, Big Beer’s hold has started to slip: in 2014, for the first time, craft brewers reached over 10 percent of the overall market share by volume. “When you ask younger beer drinkers, one of the most important parts of why they choose certain beers over others is whether they are local and independent,” explains Bart Watson, the lead economist for the Brewers Association, the craft industry’s main trade group. The number of craft barrels produced nationally more than doubled between 2010 and 2014, pumping $33.9 billion into the economy in 2012. In the foodie mecca of San Francisco, the number of craft ventures is expected to double by 2016. New York saw 67 new breweries open in 2014 alone; the state of Washington welcomed 83.

Evan and Tyler Williams aren’t the only Middlebury alumni to take the leap into craft beer. Well before Flying Lion, there was Allagash Brewing Company in Maine, started in 1995 by Rob Tod ’91, who recognized the dearth of Belgian-style beers west of the Atlantic. And then there’s Matthew Osterman, who sidestepped law school after graduating from Middlebury in 2006 in order to pursue a career in suds. This past January he opened Sleeping Giant Brewing Company, the first contract-only brewery west of Minnesota. Different brands commission contract breweries to make extra batches of their product when space is tight. Sleeping Giant is the first one to cater specifically to craft shops, and it aims to help small brands like Flying Lion grow.

Using a liberal arts degree from a prestigious college to spend hours mucking floors and stirring large vats of wort to make beer wasn’t always in the master plan for these alumni (nor in their parents’). But then again, at its best, craft brewing requires an unusual blend of creativity, scientific mastery, business savvy, and deep reservoirs of persistence and zeal. As the Brewers Association will tell you, it’s about more than a malty beverage—craft brewers are highly skilled artisans who “tend to be very involved in their communities.”

I visited Flying Lion in February, just a few months after it had opened its doors. Columbia City is a picturesque neighborhood wedged between low hills in the Rainier Valley south of downtown Seattle, and it prides itself on being one of the most diverse zip codes in the United States. On Rainier Avenue, the neighborhood’s main thoroughfare, bakeries and pizzerias alternate with Senegalese eateries and Vietnamese bánh mì shops. A sign in a bookstore window reads: “We stand behind the family of Michael Brown.” Flying Lion Brewing, down the road, counts among its neighbors the Hummingbird Saloon (“Food served late/Beer to go”), Full Tilt Ice Cream, Discotera Los Tres Reyes, Bilaal Mini Market, a boarded up Vietnamese billiard hall, and a restaurant dishing up Kenyan cuisine.

When I opened the glass front door of Flying Lion, I was hit by a smell resembling warm molasses cake—the brothers were brewing. Small wooden tables and a bar sit at the front of the narrow building, but it was easy for me to see all the way through to the back where the squat boiling and fermentor tanks are housed. On the wall, painted a rusty red, Griffin’s kayak hangs like a massive frozen swordfish. And above the bar area, with its seven stools, rests a chalkboard boasting the pints on tap, $5 a pop. That day: Single-Hop Pale, Another IPA, Red IPA, Robust Porter, Chili Chocolate Porter, and a Belgian Quad.

Griffin, 25, the youngest brother and head brewer, is a slender 6’4”, with closely cropped black hair and a brooding look. I found him intently sweeping the floor, and he paused only for a moment to meet me before resuming the task. Evan, 29, slightly shorter and more muscular, has dusty auburn hair, jade green eyes, and a flattened nose. He’s effusive and sociable, and prone to launch into detailed explanations of the scientific underpinnings of his surroundings without much warning. He hustled over to meet me and within minutes was rattling off the steps required to brew.

Click image to enlarge

Click image to enlarge

Griffin has been perfecting this process for at least five years. Though he did well at Carleton College, he found himself more interested in brewing beer for his friends than studying. After working as a geologist in Minneapolis for a stint, he traded in the post for a job in a home-brew shop. He harbored dreams of opening his own place where he could make beer in larger quantities and witness people savoring his creations. Evan and Tyler had always joked about opening a family brewery; they both lived in Seattle at the time, and they lured Griffin out west with a promise to help him open Flying Lion.

Tyler, 30, was already well established in Seattle. After earning a PhD in economics at MIT and playing semi-professional rugby in Boston, he’d moved out with his wife, Julie (Gross) ’06, to start a job as a strategist at Amazon. A barrel-chested man with twinkly eyes and chestnut hair, he shares his flattened nose with Evan and has a slight lisp, which comes off as charming when combined with his ever-present smile.

Tyler hit up two friends from his Middlebury rugby days to invest in Flying Lion. With more cash from the Williams’s parents and some money secured from the crowd-funding site CrowdBrewed.com, the brothers raised under a quarter million dollars and got to work on the space in 2013. “The beer was the least of our worries,” says Tyler. The brothers already knew that Griffin would churn out a quality product. Indeed, when it comes to Griffin’s beer, remarks Flying Lion’s bartender Captain Clark, “we’ll get guys in here who’ve been in the industry for 10 or 15 years who’ll take a sip of it, look at it, look at Griffin and see how young he is, and shake their heads. His recipe formulation is just phenomenal.”

Opening a brewery isn’t just about fermentation and microbiology, explains Justin Gerardy, owner of Seattle’s Standard Brewing, who gave the Williams some precious tips when they first started out. “There are building codes, so many agencies to report to, tax rates—you have to become an expert in 10 different fields to make it happen. It’s a very difficult process; anyone who gets into it earns my respect.”

The brothers filed for permits and prepared all of their operating documents themselves. When it finally opened in October 2014, Flying Lion celebrated by perching bluegrass musicians on the loft where hops and grain are stored to serenade its new customers.

Though by definition craft brewers adhere to the traditional brewing process, they often get wacky with flavors. According to the Brewers Association, “the hallmark of craft beer and craft brewers is innovation. Craft brewers interpret historic styles with unique twists and develop new styles that have no precedent.” Jim Koch, the founder of the Boston Beer Company and creator of Samuel Adams beer, once told the New Yorker, “When you’re trying to create new brewing techniques and beer styles, you have to have a certain recklessness.”

The Williams, especially Evan and Tyler, like to flirt with the edge. “We do a lot of goofy shit,” Tyler says, whereas Griffin’s more likely to edit and improve their recipes until the quality’s right. During one of the brothers’ annual home-brewing competitions, Tyler put so many serranos, habaneros, and jalapeños in a porter, “one girl choked as she was judging it.” The beer came in dead last. “There’s a reason I’m not the head brewer,” Tyler concedes.

One of the brothers’ porters requires about 200 pounds of sweet potatoes, which equates to a quarter of a pound per pint. Griffin convinced nearby Columbia City Bakery to let him roast the potatoes in the restaurant’s industrial ovens. The tuber serves beer well; its high starch content converts easily to sugars and therefore alcohol, and the potatoes also possess the same enzyme as barley. Other unusual ingredients they’ve incorporated include cacao nibs, ginger, birch wood in an imperial rye stout, and locally gathered spruce tips.

Flying Lion has tried to make a name for itself by focusing on porters and stouts. “We wanted more dark beers in Seattle,” Tyler notes. “We were tired of hunting around.” Yet their best-selling beer remains their Another IPA. “Aren’t you focusing away from IPAs?” I ask Griffin. He laughs and shakes his head. “You can try, but people drink the heck out of IPA.” Indeed, of the 10 or so  Flying Lion beers I tasted, the Another IPA was one of my clear favorites—crisp and fruity with just the right balance of bitter Simcoe hops.

After we finished the tasting of coffee stout wort, Griffin got busy hosing out the mash tun and mopping the floor. Dressed in black muck boots and camel-brown cords, he cleaned with a methodical rhythm gained from caring for this equipment every single day, six or seven days a week. Every so often, the former competitive kayaker would kick a lever without even needing to look at it while simultaneously switching off a hose with his hand. Evan admired his brother from a few feet away. “He has an athletic brewing style, doesn’t he? There’s a coordination and choreography to it.”

If Griffin’s the highly skilled workhorse of the three, Evan’s the zealous dreamer. Enrolled as a master’s student at the University of Washington, he spends fewer hours at the brewery than Griffin, but frequently tests new recipes by brewing 10-gallon batches at home. Evan’s physics background propelled some of the brewery’s core operational functions. He pushed for the Raspberry Pi Linux computer system and helped Griffin create the glycol chilling system by hacking an old air-conditioning unit. His pride and joy is the barley mill, which is powered, like a hamster wheel, by the force of human feet—the mill is connected to a bicycle, and grinds through the 270 pounds of grain needed to fuel one batch of Flying Lion’s beer in roughly 25 minutes. “There’s so much demand from our customers to help us mill, we hardly pedal it ourselves,” he boasts. (Do the customers get a free beer for their labor? Not yet, but Evan says he’s been meaning to hop on the bike with a heart-rate monitor and figure out how many calories it takes to mill. “Then we would compensate the same number of calories in beer. I like to abide by the conservation of energy law.”)

Evan never fails to appear on Friday nights for the five-mile brewery run he organizes, which is free and open to the public. He’s designed the route to appear from above like the perimeter of the Flying Lion logo—a lion with wings.

At the end of that week’s jog, we convened to stretch in front of the brewery and then all tucked inside, beet-cheeked and glistening from rain and sweat. Over pints of porter, I struck up a conversation with shaggy-haired Eli Gardner, a RISD-trained architect, who recently moved to Columbia City from the East Coast. He and his girlfriend were enjoying the neighborhood well enough, except “there are not a lot of young people here,” he said. Flying Lion was one of the few nearby locales still buzzing on a Friday night. Eli describes its beers as “meaty.” He’s a fan of the brewery’s darker offerings, especially the chili chocolate porter he was drinking that night. Sure, the potent brew was a draw, but for him, being there was “less about the beer and more about the hanging out.”

In the few months it’s been open, Flying Lion has already become a gathering spot. Though I watched plenty of flannel-clad 20-somethings populate the taproom, I also noticed punks in black leather, middle-aged couples, pony-tailed joggers, dudes on Macbooks, and families with toddlers relaxing in the small but welcoming space. Cycling clubs, book clubs, and knitting clubs meet there, and a nearby food bank hosts its monthly board meeting on the premises. “The beer brings people together,” says Evan, and it helps “brainstorming and action begin for all things in the neighborhood.”

Around 9 p.m., most of the runners had drifted off or gone to change clothes. Evan eyed his empty glass, and then glanced at the bar, where Griffin was rapidly refreshing pints for the crowd. Rather than interfere to refill our glasses, Evan ran to the back and retrieved a reserve growler of pitch-black beer, a Coconut Maple Porter. “We still haven’t figured out what the owner drinking policy is,” he said sheepishly, “or whether we should drink our own beer at all.” I tasted the porter, and the nostalgic flavors of an Almond Joy flooded my mouth.

Unlike most of the taprooms in the city, which close as early as 6 p.m., Flying Lion stays open until midnight. That night, a group of customers hosting a going-away party for a couple moving to Duluth squeezed around a table heaped with Vietnamese spring rolls. Tyler’s adorable curly-haired toddler, Augie, raced his toy ambulance all over the chalkboard table, unfazed by the clamor around him.

There was finally a lull, and Griffin came over to take a break. “This week’s making me a little nervous,” he said, rubbing his eyes. “I can’t brew fast enough.” Columbia City drinks 150–200 gallons of Flying Lion’s offerings a week. Griffin hasn’t ever run out of any of the six taps, “but it’s been close lately.”

Though Flying Lion’s making money and quickly finding its place in the neighborhood, the brothers understand that their situation is still precarious. Griffin must pour all of his waking hours into the operation, working 12-hour days just to brew fast enough. Sometimes he can’t sleep at night because he’s worried about where he’ll source hops, the furry green flowers that give beer its bitterness and aroma. He purchases the buds on the spot market, which can be frustratingly unpredictable. “I never expected I’d spend so much time online looking for hops,” he says. Prized Centennial hops are already all sold out until 2016.

As Tyler puts it, a business this small-scale has its struggles. “Right now, we run a six-hour brew day,” he explains. With more hands and better equipment, “we could make five to 10 times the amount of beer in just a seven-hour brew day.”

Rob Tod remembers a similar predicament—one that lasted an entire decade. Tod first broke ground on his Portland, Maine-based brewery, Allagash Brewing, in 1995. Allagash produced 120 barrels the first year, but after 10 years, it had only grown enough to spit out three or four thousand. “Relative to what’s happening today, that’s extremely slow growth,” Tod says. Those first years “were a grind, to say the least.”

Part of the reason Allagash first faltered—and likely also the reason it ultimately thrived—was Tod’s insistence on being different. No one was doing Belgian-style beers on the East Coast before he took the leap. His first brew became his flagship: the Allagash White, a white or “wit” ale, made with wheat instead of barley and drawing on notes of coriander and orange peel. Allagash’s Dubbel Ale drew on techniques from Trappist monks and used seven kinds of malt and a proprietary strain of yeast. The resulting brew poured a hazy amber color, with hints of fig and a “wine-like complexity,” as one reviewer noted. But funky flavors aside, Tod wasn’t the only brewer to suffer during the 1990s. More than 700 craft breweries had opened in the U.S. during that period, but the lack of distribution and confusion about the new elixirs caused many of them to fizzle out.

Undeterred, Tod kept plugging away at the essential things: making high-quality suds, deepening relationships with customers and distributors, and educating people about the beauty of the wide-ranging and eclectic Belgian varieties, from lagers to lambics to tripels. In 2001, he started experimenting with bottle conditioning—adding yeast and sugar into the bottle before sealing it, causing the beer to ferment naturally and allowing its flavors to evolve over time. A few years down the line, he tried his hand at wild yeast fermentation, whereby wort is left uncovered and attracts natural microorganisms that colonize and ferment it into beer, as with blue cheese. For our overpasteurized and sanitized society, these techniques seemed like heresy. But thanks in part to pioneers like Tod, Americans are growing fonder of the sour fruits of fermentation—from kombucha to kimchi to pickled garden vegetables and unfiltered wine.

After limping along for a decade, Allagash turned a corner around 2005. Tod can’t think of one specific thing that changed: “We just kept hammering away and finally got traction.” The company now pumps out 75,000 barrels of beer a year to taps across the country and expects to double that after its current 18,000-square-foot remodel. (By way of comparison, New Belgium Brewing produces around a million barrels a year.) In 2015, Tod celebrated Allagash’s 20th anniversary. And after barely making a profit for years, the company donated $240,000 to the Maine community last year through its Tribute Series, which allots a dollar per beer sold to local nonprofits.

A University of Maine study predicts that craft beer will quadruple its presence in the state over the next four years. Tod enjoys the company and competition, though he’s somewhat glad he didn’t start a brewery during today’s boom. “A lot of those breweries haven’t been through the tough times. From the moment they open their doors, there’s been a rush of customers wanting to drink their beer,” he says. New brewers might not face anything akin to Allagash’s 10 long years of solitary dabbling and stubborn growth. But Tod’s far from bitter: “I look at it as a blessing for us, because those times teach you discipline.”

Breweries who find patrons lining up outside their doors—and worrying about having enough beer to go around—Tod might as well have been describing Flying Lion. “We are selling about three times the amount of beer we expected to,” Evan tells me. The Williamses plan to keep their operation small for now. But not all new ventures are content with maintaining a modest presence in the face of such demand. Those needing to scale up quickly can now turn to Sleeping Giant, the contract brewery out of Denver run by Matthew Osterman.

After teaching for a few years after college and toying with the idea of applying to law school, Osterman found that what most interested him was beer. (An interest many young grads have, yes, but Osterman’s was as intellectual as it was recreational.) He almost opened his own brewery in Steamboat Springs with a friend, but quickly realized he was getting in over his head. So he took a step backward and got a job running operations for Boulder-based New Planet, a brewery specializing in gluten-free brews, and picked up back-to-back medals at the Great American Beer Festival during his tenure.

To make enough beer for the growing number of gluten-intolerant ale enthusiasts, New Planet relied on contract brewing—which is essentially renting out a larger brewery’s services and space to make beer using your product’s recipe. “A lot of brewers are growing rapidly, but are capacity constrained,” says Brewers Association economist Bart Watson. “Partnering with a contract brewer can be one way to increase your capacity and get a foothold in the market.”

While at New Planet, Osterman noticed how unfair contract brewing could sometimes be for the smaller fish, because a large beer company would always prioritize its own beer. “Your house brands are your top priority—they are worth more to you emotionally and financially,” Osterman explains.

He also remembers a valuable lesson from a J-term class at Middlebury. “There are two intelligent approaches to entrepreneurship: either innovate or create,” he says. “Improve upon an existing solution or figure out a problem without a good solution and create it.” There weren’t any companies west of the Mississippi dedicated solely to contract brewing, nor only to craft. Osterman had found his niche. He hired two longtime Coors employees to manage the brewing side of things and invested in a 70,000-square-foot warehouse in southwest Denver. The space now houses a quality lab, 11 fermentation tanks, an exquisite Italian GAI bottling line, canning equipment, and a mash filter press—a sleek machine whose purpose is not unlike a coffee-geek’s Aeropress; it forces hot water through barley in much less time than gravity would, using less water and in essence doubling Sleeping Giant’s efficiency.

Since Sleeping Giant opened in January, Frisco’s Backcountry Brewery, Venice, California’s House Beer, and roughly 20 other brands have signed on. With additional equipment, Osterman expects to double the brewery’s production to 65,000 annual barrels by September.

As of the first quarter of 2015, brewers are peddling nearly 12,000 craft brands in bars, restaurants, and grocery stores across the country. Some worry that the market is becoming saturated; peak craft could be nigh. But the Brewers Association remains cheerful, boasting that “there has never been a better time or place to drink beer than in the U.S. right now.” Standard Brewing’s Justin Gerardy echoes the enthusiasm: “Everybody in the brewing community is incredibly open and helpful; we’re all learning from each other all the time, and we’re all excited about where it’s headed.”

Since February, Flying Lion has hired a new full-time bartender: Captain Clark, the baker who used to let the Williams brothers roast sweet potatoes in the oven at Columbia City Bakery. Because of his experience with bread, says Evan, “Captain has a lot of knowledge of how wild yeast and sour beers might work—he might help us make the leap into that side of brewing.” Hiring Clark full time has also allowed Griffin more normal hours. “I think he even has a girlfriend now—it’s been good for him,” Evan adds. Local restaurants recently started serving Flying Lion’s brews, and one bar down the street has them permanently on tap.

The brothers do dream of one day expanding their operation, and not just to increase their output. “We’ve been kicking around the idea of opening a brewery where people can come in and learn how to brew their own recipes on a big system,” explains Tyler. “Then we put the beers on tap so you can bring your friends in to try it out, along with other people’s efforts.”

In the meantime, Evan just helped Griffin install a new chilling system and build a sidewalk patio where customers can cavort outside. He’s still home-brewing in his spare time; his latest experiment doubles as an energy drink. “I wanted to make something that might make me feasibly faster if I stopped to drink it during a marathon or a trail run,” he tells me over the phone, a day before running the Eugene Marathon in 2 hours and 41 minutes. He based the “PNW Ultra” beer, as he’s calling it, on the Mexican Tarahumara of Born to Run fame, who sometimes down a weak corn-based beer before taking off on their epic 200-mile hauls. Evan’s beer includes cornmeal and caramelized barley, making it light and sugary, tempered with a healthy dose of Pacific Northwest hops. “Its malty sweetness would hopefully give you energy to run farther,” he explains, and “the alcohol content might numb you for the remainder of your run.” He’s thinking about adding a pinch of salt to the finished product for electrolytes.

“That’s quite an experiment,” I tell him. There’s a pause on the line. “It’s not very good yet,” he concedes. “But it could be worse. We’ll get there.”

Maddie Oatman ’08 is a San Francisco-based writer and senior research editor for Mother Jones, where she covers food, culture, and the environment.

On the Hunt

Categories: Midd Blogosphere


For 72 hours in late January, a campus becomes consumed with the unusual.

Ten hooded figures crept across West Cemetery, the small graveyard along Route 30 and across from the Mahaney Center for the Arts. It was just before sunrise on a frigid January morning, and the only sounds were footsteps crunching through hard-packed snow.  Marching in two parallel lines, the 10 carried between them a plank upon which a motionless figure rested. They arrived at a large stone mausoleum, setting down the plank and assembling around the body.  One person knelt as if to perform rites and thrust into the air a limp, yellow figure.

Then a young women intoned, “We gather this day to sacrifice…SpongeBob.”

And in fact, the object is a stuffed SpongeBob SquarePants. As the yellow blob is held aloft, the group manages to chat several rounds of “SpongeBob, SpongeBob,” before breaking into laughter.

The second day of the Hunt has begun.


The Hunt is a three-day competition that many would likely call a scavenger hunt, except this search-and-discover mission is unlike most others.

Two Hunt masters compile 100-plus clues.  (By rule, the masters are the leaders of the previous year’s winning team.) Hunt masters can task teams with anything from building a Rube Goldberg machine with no fewer than seven components (clue #85) to recording an interview with someone from the Class of 1975 (clue #78).

The first Hunt was held in January 2008 and arose from Middlebury’s Programs on Creativity and Innovation in the Liberal Arts (PCI). The year before, Ron Liebowitz and his wife, Jessica, had convened a working group of five faculty members to brainstorm extracurricular programming and a dedicated workspace that would facilitate creative problem solving and intellectual risk taking among students.  The Middlebury president felts these traits were lacking—not just among the student body, but among 18–22 year olds more broadly. This committee—Daniel Scharstein, the late Ana Martínez-Lage, Noah Graham, Suzanne Gurland, and Antonia Losano—included professors in computer science, Spanish, physics, psychology, and English.  And their ideas were as diverse as their disciplines.

“Ron believed that students had to be given more opportunity to be creative and stop doing everything that they were comfortable with,” explained Liz Robinson ’84,  who has overseen PCI since its creation. “In high school, many students were perfect and had done everything really well, and Ron wanted them to take some risks and try some things they were interested in, whether they were going to fail or not.”

It was an hour before the 2015 Hunt would begin. Joy Wood ’17, captain of “Scott’s Tots,” stood before her assembled team. Nine people sat around a circular table, watching the clock and discussing strategy. Joy announced that her dorm room would serve as team headquarters for the next three days. It would be home to all the team’s video cameras and chargers, she said, as well as a base for video editing. Anyone interested in learning about basic video editing, she added, should come by later in the afternoon to sharpen their skills.

She explained how to access the team’s Google spreadsheet and made sure that everyone had the proper contact information to coordinate communications. When no one had any more questions, the nine team members stood and formed a queue behind a cardboard box at a neighboring table. Each person grabbed from it a blue sweatshirt—the de facto team uniform—and then left to take care of any last-minute preparations.

As it came closer to the 9:00 a.m. clue release, anticipation continued to build.  Across campus, eight people—members of a different team—sat around a table while five stood behind seated members, peering over their shoulders. Five laptops were arrayed around the table, sharing space with three cameras, two external hard drives, a pocket camcorder, and a nest of chargers and cords. People continued refreshing their computers in anticipation of the Hunt clues being released.

“They’re up!” someone yelled.

Across campus, 12 other teams bunched around their own computers and smartphones, reading the same clues and preparing to dive into three days of competition.

“Seeing the clue list is like opening your Christmas presents,” said Angela Santee ’13, Brainerd CRA and five-year Hunt veteran. “But what makes our Hunt grounded in Middlebury are the efforts that the Hunt masters make to connect it to the community and talk about topics that are relevant to us.”

The clues makes evident why the Hunt is special. This year, the two Hunt masters—Kirk Horton ’17 and Melissa Surrette ’16—came up with 106. They started developing them last summer.

The clues are designed to encourage Middlebury students to solve problems they’d never find in a classroom, to create connections with other people and places, and to celebrate Middlebury’s institutional and student culture.

“The Hunt connects people,” said Liz Robinson. “Those cohorts become really close because they are together for those three days and they are so intense and competitive. There’s the connection there, but then there’s the connection to […] older alums, to the past and to people in the past, to their peers at our institution, and to people around the world.”

Per tradition, the Hunt masters develop clues that encourage participants to engage with professors, administrators, staff members, town residents, and each other. “The year we competed, we noticed that while the clues were a blast they also engaged with different parts of the community and the town,” said Horton. “So we made a conscious effort to include all of those aspects.”

The Hunt is at its best, said five-time participant Angela Santee, when the Hunt masters decide to really push the teams to see what they can do in three days.…“Because you just never know what people will pull off.”


Clue number eight: freestyle rap battle.

“We should charge you a fee, we’re gonna bask in glee, Monday night, you grovel before me!” Tom Dobrow ’16 rapped to a thumping bass line as his teammates cheered and his opponents looked on. “We’re going off the top of our head! The Hunt 2015 is life, and y’all are DEAD!”

To wild applause, Dobrow, in a purple Brainerd tank top, sunglasses, and a metallic green necklace, worked his way around Hepburn Lounge, adding the opposing teams’ names into his rhymes.

Some of these rappers were team members; others were friends willing to spit rhymes. Dobrow repped Trial by Combat, Santee’s squad, and he was among the dozen or so participating in this rap battle, which started around 10:30 p.m. on the Hunt’s opening day. All the furniture had been pushed to the room’s perimeter to give the rappers mobility—and they weren’t shy about using it. Rappers yet to perform were waiting for Dobrow to finish so they could take their turn. After everyone rapped to the first song—Ratatat’s “Loud Pipes”—they’d get a second shot with Eve’s “Let Me Blow Ya Mind.” None of the rappers knew which songs would play or wrote their raps down.

Members from the 13 different teams filled the lounge. During the competition, each team was allowed 10 official competitors, but could also use as many “contributors” as they needed—and plenty of students were willing to join in. “Everyone contribute[s] to different degrees—some people maybe in one video and other people may … just write one ode to a Battell bathtub—so it’s collective,” said Wood, the captain of Scott’s Tots.

Organizers believe a well-rounded team is necessary to win the Hunt. Some team captains recruit for specific skill sets, and competition for prized team members can become fierce.

“It’s really good to have a nice blend of talents,” Erika Sloan ’16 said. “Not everyone has to be artistic or musical or good at singing or shameless in public, you just need a good mix of all of those things.”

While important, team construction is only one part of Hunt strategy. Successful Hunt teams have highly organized systems of communication and coordination. Santee’s group used a Google Doc to coordinate completing different clues—a typical strategy. She had arranged the Google Doc—which team members updated constantly throughout the competition— to show the 106 clues, their point values, those members currently working on the clue, and any associated notes/tips about the clue others might find helpful. The spreadsheet was color-coded—challenges deemed impossible were tagged red, challenges underway tagged yellow, challenges completed were green, and challenges that required group participation were purple. As soon as Santee’s team successfully completed the rap battle, they changed the tag for clue eight, “Freestyle rap battle,” to green.


On the Hunt’s second day, and three hours after sacrificing SpongeBob at the mausoleum, two members of Trial by Combat were en route to Burlington to visit the Echo Lake Aquarium and Science Center. For the entire ride, they were balancing an egg on a spoon. The two were about to complete clue three (Roooooooaaadtrip!! To the Burlington Aquarium—six points; bonus points if you keep an egg on a spoon for the entire trip without breaking it). Pulling into the parking lot, they were careful not to dislodge the camera documenting the egg still balanced in the spoon.  As the two walked into the aquarium’s lobby, a number of pedestrians turned and looked quizzically at the two guys bustling past them with an egg on a spoon, a giant poster, and a camera.

“For an individual participant, I think the shamelessness is a pretty big part of success,” said Erika Sloan. “A lot of the clues involve embarrassing yourself in public or doing silly things in public, so you really can’t be afraid of that kind of thing. Creativity is really important.”

Certainly many Hunt clues require students to shed their self-consciousness. “Civilians” walking around on campus who are not participating in the Hunt would likely be scratching their heads if they saw people licking strangers’ elbows or walking around clad in nothing but a banana peel—but for Hunt participants, it’s all part of the game.

The Hunt’s beauty isn’t in its competition, however, but in the collaboration it spurs. “On the one hand we can be isolated in Vermont, and this is a problem sometimes,” said President Liebowitz, explaining this rather unusual spirit of collaboration. “On the other hand, it is an incredible benefit to student culture that is unique even among residential liberal arts colleges. Students, during their four years here, are socialized into an unconscious understanding that they are going to rely on the 2,400 students on this campus for most of their cultural, social, and intellectual stimulation. Therefore, there is an unwritten rule about how kids here interact with one another—it’s less competitive, despite being such a high-pressure-packed academic institution. Within the student body, there is an incredible civility and also a collaborative, noncompetitive type of environment.”

Hunt2A few members of the original Innovation Competition Committee—including Suzanne Gurland, an associate professor of psychology—had experience with academic scavenger hunts, which they thought could serve as models for Middlebury’s competition.

“I was a college student at the University of Chicago in the late ’80s and early ’90s and there was an annual scavenger hunt,” said Gurland. “One of the things that we all loved about it was the intellectual fun. Everyone was having a blast but it was also really challenging, hard questions.”

In fact, Chicago’s scavenger hunt—known to Chicago students as “Scav”—is the largest of its kind. Created in 1987, the competition began as a part of the university’s summer carnival and has since taken on a life of its own. Similar scavenger hunts exist at other schools. For instance, MIT has hosted its “Mystery Hunt” since 1981. While both of these competitions involve some lateral creativity, they heavily rely on engineering problems and puzzles that require what may be thought of as classroom knowledge for success.

At a meeting on August 8, 2007, Middlebury’s Innovation Competition Committee resolved to create a competition “different than many that we have heard about at other schools. Ours will be deliberately broad in scope as to reflect innovation in a liberal arts environment.” They decided upon the scavenger-hunt format and by September, a list of tentative names for the competition had already emerged: the J-term Chase, the Middlebury Mystery, and Mystbury were early top contenders. In January the committee had created a final product: the Hunt.

“I would wager that competitions at Chicago and Cornell take on a more cutthroat type of approach,” said President Liebowitz. “Competition for [our Hunt] is intense as well, but I know that the way that Middlebury students work together and the way that they ‘compete’ is a little bit different.”


It was early evening on the Hunt’s second day, and Melissa Surrette, a Hunt master, sat on her bed while two Hunt participants reenacted a scene from Fifty Shades of Grey. (Don’t worry, it wasn’t too explicit.) Crouching behind Melissa’s pullout closet in the corner, Kirk Horton, the other Hunt master, tried not to laugh too loudly.

The Trial by Combat members were trying to solve two clues. Clue one: a dramatic reading from Fifty Shades of Grey—three points. And Clue 93: on Fridays Surrette goes to bed at 8:00 p.m; come read a bedtime story to put her to sleep—five points.

Outside Surrette’s doorway, about 25 Hunt participants had lined up to regale her with their own bedtime tales. A mermaid was waiting, as was a guitarist and a group that had brought hot cocoa to sweeten the deal. Many team members knew Surrette prior to the Hunt and one girl, who was in a class with her, had taken a story they’d read together in class and modified it so she became part of the story. For another 40 minutes, Surrette sat in bed listening to bedtime tales. Horton, giving away his hiding spot by laughing, eventually moved to the other side of the room to enjoy the creative performances.

While Surrette and Horton successfully orchestrated the 2015 Hunt, not all Hunts have gone as smoothly. During the Hunt’s first year, members of its advertising committee put stickers all over doors and walls on campus—a campaign the College’s custodial team understandably found frustrating. Another year, a clue inadvertently encouraged teams to hack into the all-student email system. By 2010, student interest in the Hunt seemed to be on a terminal downswing.

“I was given the authority to support student initiatives and programs,” Robinson said. “But I couldn’t run them myself if there wasn’t interest. There were a couple years where the Hunt wasn’t as popular, and then in 2010 we didn’t have it.”

In 2011, after a winter without a Hunt, two seniors—Ben Wessel ’11 and Taryn Tilton ’11—approached Robinson, telling her they wanted to resurrect the competition. She happily complied.

Wessel and Tilton put in play several techniques to revitalize the competition and encourage broader participation. One method: encouraging more photo and video documentation—both to increase visibility and to enable students off-campus to participate.

Wessel and Tilton’s efforts were successful. That year, the Middlebury Campus published an article titled “The Hunt Comes Back With a Bang.” And since 2011, the Hunt has gone on every year, as has the practice of using technology in creative ways to make connections. In recent Hunts, social media platforms like Twitter and Instagram have become integral to the competition even when the Hunt masters don’t specifically include them in the clue list.


The 2015 Hunt was coming to a close. Horton and Surrette, standing onstage in Crossroads Café, asked the cheering crowd to hold their applause so they could announce the competition’s winner. All the Hunt participants—and more than a few of their friends—had arranged themselves around six round tables before the stage.

Many were still laughing, having just watched a video presentation of the most interesting and hilarious submissions (as chosen by the Hunt masters), and talking about their favorite clues. Everyone looked exhausted, as staying up all night the final evening of the competition has become a Hunt tradition.

“The first night I went to sleep at 4:00 a.m., and the second night I went to sleep at 6,” laughed Wood. “And the last night I obviously don’t sleep at all.”

“It’s exhausting,” said Sloan. “But it’s so much fun and it builds friendships to stay up all night like that doing ridiculous things.”

Friendships forged during the Hunt are often some of the strongest participants make at Middlebury.

“My freshman year when I did [the Hunt], those kids that I did it with became some of my best friends,” Wood said.

Angela Santee recalled how the Hunt shaped her relationships during her junior year, giving her and her friends a foundation for lifelong friendship and communication.

“As juniors—already divided in our social circles because half of everybody was abroad—we really bonded over those three days, and then afterwards we had so many great memories crammed into a 72-hour period that we could draw upon,” Santee said. “We still send each other things on Facebook when something reminds us of a clue, or we think it would make a great clue for a subsequent year.”

Surrette and Horton had already awarded the most enthusiastic male and most enthusiastic female (which went to Erika Sloan). Then they announced the third place team and followed by the second place.

Finally the time had come to announce the winner.

“And the winner is…Trial by Combat!”

Santee and her teammates were yelling before the Hunt masters had finished the end of the sentence.

“It’s not really about winning for me at this point,” Wood said after she and her team didn’t come out on top. “Middlebury says ‘we want you to go do this silly thing that will challenge you and make you cry and have the time of your life and make friends and be a better leader and do all of these ridiculous things.’ I think that’s pretty cool.”

Following three days of competition and months of planning, the 2015 Hunt was over. After congratulating everyone, Horton and Surrette packed up their equipment and walked out of Wilson Hall. Already they have next year’s Hunt masters in mind, and when the two members of Trial by Combat take over in a week or two, it will be time to prepare for Hunt 2016. After all, only 360 days remain until clue release.

The Liebowitz Years: A Vision Realized

Categories: Midd Blogosphere


The special partnership that preserved Bread Loaf for the ages.

In 1915, when Joseph Battell died and willed his expanse of lands along the spine of the Green Mountains to Middlebury College, he included a proviso that the College “preserve as far as reasonably may be the forests of said park, and neither to cut nor permit to be cut thereon any trees whatsoever except such as are dead or down and such as it may be necessary to cut in making and repairing needful roads; it being a principal object of this [will] to preserve intact such wild lands as a specimen of the original Vermont forest.”

Which seems fairly conclusive. Except that in the 1930s, with the College facing a financial crisis, its trustees sold off 90 percent of the land that Battell had left it.


For more than 50 years, Bread Loaf and its 2,100 acres of forest and mountain meadow—the remaining 10 percent of Battell’s original bequest—had remained a changeless place, echoing with Robert Frost’s Yankee accent. Down in the valley, Middlebury’s main campus had spent the better part of the half-century undergoing a massive building boom, yet the Ripton domain was a bit of an afterthought for trustees and administrators until, in 1997, an Environmental Studies class devoted much of a semester to studying Battell’s will.

The buyer of the land in the 1930s sale was the U.S. Forest Service, and the real estate had become the core of the northern portion of the Green Mountain National Forest—one of whose chief goals is growing trees so that they may be cut. Over time the Forest Service, at least in Vermont, has developed a more sustainable outlook, yet the students looking at the will felt real pause: What might the College do with Bread Loaf if it hit financial trouble again? Condos?

These students met with the Board of Trustees, who, while respectful of their research and recommendation that the College never sell the remaining land, took the position that they couldn’t “tie the hands” of future trustees. “They said nice things about the student presentation, but they also said: ‘Look at what happened in the Depression,’” recalls a participant in the discussion. “‘How can we take out of our successors’ hands the ability to monetize those lands?’”

That participant was the provost at the time, and while he, too, was impressed with the students’ presentation, he was preoccupied with other matters. But, he says, “I kept that in my back pocket,” and when Ron Liebowitz was named president in 2004, he scheduled his first meeting of the trustee’s Prudential Committee up at Bread Loaf. “They asked me, ‘What would be your dream for the next 10 years?’ And I think I shocked them when I said, ‘Preserving Bread Loaf.’ The wealthiest person in the room said, ‘What would it cost?’ And I said, ‘I have no idea.’”


If the prototypical Vermonter is Calvin Coolidge—so taciturn they called him Silent Cal—then outgoing Middlebury President Ron Liebowitz is pretty much the polar opposite. The first thing one notices about him, even before his relentless intelligence, is the relentless speed with which he converses. Faster than anyone I’ve ever met, a subway-train rush of words. His Brooklyn birthplace and his Jersey upbringing shine through even after 31 years in the Green Mountains. You think: city boy.

And yet those three decades in Vermont have worked their particular magic. His parting gift to the College, spurred by a deep love for the landscape, is remarkable: finding the funds to preserve forever the thousands of acres in the Bread Loaf landscape. Liebowitz will rightly be remembered as the man who brought the College through financial crisis and broadened its reach to the shores of the Pacific, but his legacy is perhaps most secure in the tens of thousands of birch and beech and maple, the red pine and green grass, the unbroken vistas that will stay unbroken. In thousands of Ripton acres where, most of the time, no one ever says a word, and certainly not fast.

On a chill March day, towards the tail end of the finest winter in years, I walked with Liebowitz through the woods east of the Bread Loaf Inn. There was still two feet of snow on the ground, so we were on snowshoes, and he reminisced about his first glimpse of this land. After his undergraduate years at Bucknell, Liebowitz went to graduate school at Columbia, a budding Sovietologist. But his Russian was weak, so his professors dispatched him to Middlebury for a summer of language school. He was three weeks in, which he said was going “gruesomely,” when a friend called and, speaking forbidden English, convinced him to take a weekend trip. “He whisked me away to Bread Loaf—that was the first time. This was 1982, and there was a real heat wave down in the valley. I was suffocating from language school, and from the weather. But then we were suddenly on Rte. 125, climbing up this tiny road. Halfway up the temperature dropped 12 degrees; suddenly it was almost chilly. By the time we got up to Bread Loaf—well, I never forgot it. Immediately it was an important part of my own conception of Middlebury.”

So, while the trustees may have been surprised by Liebowitz’s 10-year dream, it was in keeping with his longer view of the place. Work to evaluate the property began but like everything else, this took a back seat to surviving the financial crisis that soon broke out. “I mean, the endowment went from $962 million to $649 million,” says Liebowitz (figures that seem etched in his mind). But as the ship slowly righted itself, he began to pursue the project more actively, engaging a trustee, a hedge fund magnate who had already won plaudits from conservationists for preserving large tracts of land on Long Island Sound, Colorado, and the Outer Banks.


couple of years ago, Louis Bacon ’79 received one of the highest honors in conservation, recognition from the Audubon Society for all that he has done to “preserve and protect key natural ecosystems.” Accepting the Audubon Medal, he gave a speech at a gala in New York in which he talked about how important his Middlebury education—and the sense of place that came with it—had been to his development. He spoke of taking courses in environmental studies; of spending a lot of time outdoors, hunting, fishing, and skiing; of majoring in American literature and channeling Ernest Hemingway. It was an idyllic time, he said.

“That was a fat, juicy pitch right there,” says Liebowitz, who was in attendance that night. “And so from then on I got to be really direct, quoting his words at him. I kept telling him this was logical and he was the guy.”

“Ron is persuasive, and I think he knows a donor’s soft spot,” says Bacon, who fondly recalls a deer hunt at Bread Loaf one Thanksgiving when he couldn’t make the trip home to North Carolina. (He’d shot, gutted, and hid his prize in the snow, till the next day when Ripton resident and beloved professor Horace Beck helped him drag it out.) “Otherwise, I remember cross-country skiing on the trails in the afternoons after swishing down the Snow Bowl, trying to keep up with my much more practiced Finnish girlfriend. I had learned to ski cross country on the flats of the Middlebury campus, and I was not prepared for the downhill parts of the hills behind the Bread Loaf campus; I remember the terror of speeding along towards the creek bed on two skinny, unstable reeds to which the toe of my shoe was fixed, my ankle in the balance. Swearing if I survived I would never do this again, I was nonetheless at it again and again.”

Bacon—who says he initially reacted in “disbelief” at the thought that the trustees could ever contemplate selling off the lands—funded four or five researchers to scour the property. The College’s forest ecologist, Marc Lapin ’83, coordinated student research on the flora and fauna; Middlebury’s chief philanthropic adviser, Mike Schoenfeld ’73, helped pull the efforts into a package that eventually spurred “an eight-figure gift” from Bacon. In effect, he’d bought the development rights from the trustees and placed them off-limits; they’d monetized the land, and he’d paid the money, extinguishing those rights. And with that the Bread Loaf lands were secure. In a sense Bacon had made good on Battell’s intention, with Liebowitz as the proud midwife.

“I think it’s crucial to Middlebury, absolutely crucial,” says Liebowitz. “This is a microcosm of Middlebury, but in some ways it’s the place where you feel the connection to our past most deeply.” What makes the sentiment remarkable is that, viewed from a distance, the Liebowitz years have been about expanding Middlebury ever further out: the acquisition of Monterey, the spread of the Schools Abroad, the expansion of the Language Schools.

“But with all that expansion one thing remains constant,” he says. “From September to May we’re always and only about undergraduate education, and that’s centered here in Vermont.

“And undergraduate education, in a lot of ways, is about contemplation. You can have a graduate education anywhere. But we needed to retain the core of who we are, and that’s why this Vermont piece is so important,” Liebowitz says.

Bacon speaks in much the same terms: the landscape provides a “combination and closeness of nature and scholastics” especially valuable “in this day of the rush of modernity and electronic devices, because it allows one to ponder larger questions undistracted.”

Bread Loaf is contemplation defined—Ripton’s population today is about 500, or the same as the town of Middlebury when the College was founded. “To lose this would take away a large, symbolic piece of Middlebury’s identity,” says Liebowitz. “I’m not an outdoors person, but I am a geographer; that’s why it’s so easy for me to see that our location has been so central to our success.”

Has been, and will be. For perpetuity, as they say in wills.

Code Breaker

Categories: Midd Blogosphere


Geneticist Heidi Rehm ’93 is at the forefront of a genetic revolution in medicine, which may eventually lead to personalized care based on individual DNA.

In 1998, Mark Dunning’s daughter was born deaf. “There were no lullabies, no cooing her to sleep, no baby talk,” he says. “If I wanted to ask, ‘Do you want milk?’ I had to figure out what the sign was for it, then teach it to her again and again.”  As Bella began to grow, Dunning and his wife, Julia, realized that Bella’s problems went beyond deafness. Bella took nearly 18 months to walk, and even then she had problems with her balance. She also seemed to have issues seeing in the dark. “I would go into her room at night and hand her something to drink and she would grab at the air,” Dunning says.

When Bella was eight years old, a specialist at Boston Children’s Hospital asked Dunning and his wife if Bella suffered from a series of symptoms, including those of night blindness and difficulty balancing. “Is this something I want to remain blissfully unaware of?” asked
Dunning halfway through.

“Have you ever heard of Usher syndrome?” the specialist asked.

Dunning hadn’t. But that night he looked it up on the Internet to learn it was a rare genetic disease first identified by Scottish ophthalmologist Charles Usher in 1914. Usher syndrome causes hearing loss and balance problems due to inner ear malfunctions. As the disease progresses, it results in deteriorating retinas, as well, which leads first to night blindness and loss of peripheral vision and ultimately to a complete lack of sight. “It described Bella perfectly, but in this horrible clinical way, with these definitive outcomes, including that she would go blind,” says Dunning.

There was no cure. However, they could determine if Bella had the syndrome: a simple genetic test had just been developed that could identify the mutation causing it. Her parents faced a terrible choice: continue to remain unaware of the causes of their daughter’s symptoms or risk learning their worst fears were true.

Since the completion of the Human Genome Project—the massive, international undertaking that sequenced all three billion base pairs of human DNA—these kinds of choices have become more common. In 2012, actress Angelina Jolie revealed she’d had a double mastectomy after testing positive for a mutation of the BRCA1 gene, which can cause the breast cancer that killed her mother and aunt. Following the announcement, referrals for genetic breast cancer testing nearly doubled. And pregnant mothers can now test to see if they’re carriers for the gene causing cystic fibrosis. The test is becoming the norm in prenatal care and leads to an 85 percent abortion rate for those testing positive.

Meanwhile, private companies like 23andMe (named after the 23 pairs of chromosomes that carry human DNA) have for years offered personalized genetic analysis to identify human ancestry. Until recently, the company also returned detailed health information on the risk of genetic disorders, but stopped in February 2015 after running afoul of the FDA. Companies such as Illumina Genome Network still offer genome sequencing through clinics, but the sequencing costs $5,000 to $8,000 and insurance doesn’t cover it.

This rush of genetic information promises to revolutionize medical care, and yet it also raises thorny questions: How much information is too much? How accurately can we know our genetic risks?  What actions should we take if we test positive for a genetic mutation?  And will these expensive tests create a two-tiered medical system—those who have access to their genetic codes and those who don’t?

For the past two decades, Heidi Rehm ’93 has been on the front lines of these questions. Having created the test for Usher syndrome, among many other genetic tests, Rehm currently directs the Laboratory for Molecular Medicine at Partners Healthcare Personalized Medicine in Cambridge, Massachusetts. There she helps identify genetic disorders for those at risk for disease. She’s also increasingly on the forefront of determining how genetic information is gathered and revealed—whether we have familial histories of genetic disorders.

“If we sequence your genome and find something scary in it that puts you at grave risk, why wouldn’t we tell you what we find?” asks Rehm, sitting in the café at Harvard Medical School, where she is an associate professor of pathology. Petite and dressed in a comfy wool sweater, she wears her wavy brown hair pulled back into a hair clip. Two years ago, in the journal Nature, she was involved in a controversial recommendation that advocated fully disclosing genetic information to patients. “If you go to a dermatologist with an itchy patch on your arm and they find a melanoma, they are not going to keep that information from you. I think in general our society does a pretty good job of evaluating risk and putting information in context.”

At the same time, she says, releasing information the right way is important. That way, patients can best decide what to do with it. After agonizing over whether to have their child undergo genetic testing, Bella Dunning’s parents did decide to do the test. Rehm sequenced the results, finding Bella positive for the mutation. “I couldn’t get off the floor,” says Dunning. “I could carry myself during the day, but as soon as the kids were in bed, I would lay on the floor with the lights off and start to cry. All I could think about was how I was going to watch my daughter go blind.”

However, as he processed the diagnosis his attitude began to shift. A cochlear implant Bella had gotten as an infant had helped her hearing, so now the family got a second implant as a backup in case her vision worsened, and she could no longer communicate through sign language. They also began to protect Bella’s eyes from direct sunlight and changed her diet to include more fatty fish, which had shown to help protect against disease symptoms.

“Whether those things helped or not, they gave us something to do, which made us feel like we were helping our daughter,” says Dunning, who reached out to specialists, including Rehm, to find out more about the disease. “I learned genetics from Heidi,” says Dunning. “She always found time in her busy schedule to meet with me.” During an early conversation, Rehm suggested Dunning start a website to share information with other parents and patients suffering from Usher syndrome. Dunning turned that into the Usher Syndrome Coalition, which shares information on treatment, lobbies Congress for funding, and provides emotional support to those suffering from the disorder.

Now 16 years old, Bella is a straight-A student who is winning blue ribbons in horse-riding competitions, studying for her driver’s license test, and preparing potentially to take part in a clinical trial for a new genetic therapy. “A lot of people when they hear they might have Usher syndrome don’t want to get the genetic test, because they don’t want to know for sure,” says Dunning. But getting Bella’s test results proved very important. “It helped put a name to the problems that Bella had that I had been suspicious of for a long time. Knowing definitively what it was gave me the ability to do something about it.”


Rehm leaves for her office at 6:00 each morning, driving a black Lexus with the vanity plate GENES. (“My first choice was GENOME, but that was already taken,” she quips.) She always knew she’d be a scientist. “For my high school reunion, they showed us what we had written down for graduation for what our career would be, and I said genetic engineer,” she says. “So I was pretty close.” “I” comes out at “ah”—a slight twang in her voice left over, perhaps, from living her first 18 months in Mississippi, where her father attended graduate school for biology. But she spent most of her childhood in Lake George, New York, on “forty acres of land on the side of a mountain,” and an hour and a half drive from Middlebury.

Her ease communicating with patients, however, took time to develop. A math whiz, she was valedictorian of her class, but she was also shy and couldn’t imagine teaching, as her father did. Arriving in Middlebury in 1989, she majored in molecular biology and biochemistry, a new major announced her sophomore year. She spent her senior year working in Bob Cluss’s lab, researching the bacteria that causes Lyme disease. Cluss remembers her as exceptionally devoted to her experiments.

“One day after she had been working the night before, she came into the lab in the morning and went immediately to the bench to start looking at what her results were without even taking her coat off,” he recalls. “You can’t engender that kind of excitement in a student.”

Cluss speculates that going to Middlebury also provided good training for her current career, which involves dividing her time between patients and the lab.

“There’s something about a liberal arts experience that gives you an appreciation for the enormity of the knowledge we have accumulated as a race and allows you to embrace that and take risks but also to be respectful and know your limitations,” says Cluss. “She’s in a unique intersection between basic research, clinical work, teaching, and interacting with patients. There aren’t that many people who are doing all of those things at that level.”

At Middlebury, Rehm also overcame her shyness. While in Sunhee Choi’s chemistry class, she began tutoring a fellow student who was having trouble with the material. Eventually that student invited a friend, who invited another friend, until Rehm was giving repeat lectures to a large chunk of the class.

“It was just an incredible experience where I learned that I loved to teach and communicate my ideas,” she says. “Now I probably give 100 seminars, lectures, and plenaries a year, and I love it.”

Rehm went on to study at Harvard Medical School, where she dove into genetics. “I am a type A personality; I like order,” she says. “There was something about the genetic code that seemed so clear and concrete to me.”

For her PhD, Rehm studied the genetic variants that caused hearing loss, focusing specifically on a genetic malady called Norrie disease that causes babies to be born blind and often, over time, to lose their hearing. Trying to identify a way to treat this hearing loss, Rehm was able to isolate the gene on the X chromosome and to examine its effects on proteins it produced.

In 2000, after receiving her degree, Rehm started a laboratory at Harvard that investigated hereditary hearing loss. Two years later, Partners Healthcare collaborated with the medical school to expand Rehm’s lab to include genetic testing for a wide range of disorders. Rehm helmed the newly created Laboratory for Molecular Medicine, working with other leaders at the Harvard Partners Center for Genetics and Genomics to acquire equipment and hire team members involved in the Human Genome Project. Doing so greatly increased the lab’s capacity to sequence complex genes.

Rehm first developed a genetic test for hearing loss, but others soon followed: for lung cancer; for a heart disorder called cardiomyopathy; and for more targeted disorders like Usher syndrome. In many cases, the tests aimed to give definitive evidence of a malady doctors already suspected. “There is this notion of ending the diagnostic odyssey,” says Rehm. “When patients have syndromes they keep getting more and more tests to find the answer; when you have a diagnosis, you have a much better idea of what the future will hold.”

Since genetic disorders necessarily run in families, tests can also help identify those at risk for disorders before they display symptoms—in some cases saving lives. Consider a heart disorder called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, which causes defective heart tissue that fails to expand and contract properly. The heart then makes more and more tissue, causing the organ to swell dangerously large and block off blood-vessel flow, leading in many cases to a sudden heart attack. HCM is carried on the dominant gene, meaning that patients only need one gene in a pair to have it and that a patient’s close relatives each have a 50 percent chance of having the disease. Rehm developed a test for it. One of her patients, Lisa Salberg, worried about her daughter, Becca. Salberg’s grandfather, aunt, and sister all died from the disease, and she herself had been diagnosed at 12 and fitted with an implantable cardioverter-defibrillator to prevent heart attack. So Salberg had her daughter annually undergo electrocardiogram tests.

“It was an emotional roller coaster, every time we walked in,” says Salberg. Though her tests routinely came back negative, Salberg’s daughter, from as early as four years old, would wake up complaining about chest pains. When Rehm developed a test for HCM in 2004, Salberg made sure her daughter was among the first to receive it. After the test came back positive, Salberg pushed for a new EKG that confirmed her daughter had the disease and then had an ICD implanted into Becca’s heart when she was 10.

It may have saved her life. One day when Becca was riding a horse that bolted, her heart raced dangerously fast. “It stopped her at 225 bpm and helped get her back to 80,” says Salberg. “Maybe she would have done that on her own, but no one can tell.” Salberg founded the Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy Association in 1996 to raise awareness for the disease. As director she’s referred many sufferers and potential sufferers of HCM to Rehm. “Heidi has done an extraordinary job of balancing the amazing power of science with the amazing compassion of dealing with people. Heidi, I daresay, is brilliant, and I think she has a very clear and concise picture of what the future of genetics can be.”


Rehm2WebThat future isn’t clear to the average medical patient who is without obvious history of family genetic disease. The rise in private companies offering genetic information has created confusion about how that information should be used. What does it mean, for example, if you’re told you’re 20 percent more at risk for heart disease? Should you stop eating red meat? Start taking beta blockers? Or just try not to worry?

Four years ago, to help clarify such issues, Rehm joined a Harvard-based study called MedSeq as a coprincipal investigator. Foreseeing that in the near future genome sequencing will be the norm, the study asks how doctors can use that information to help patients rather than to alarm or confuse them.

The head of the study, Robert Green, was a student in Rehm’s genetics class at Harvard and admired her clear thinking. (A highly regarded neurologist several years Rehm’s senior, Green studied under Rehm as a fellow in Harvard’s Genetics Training Program.)

“Heidi is very much a leader in terms of genetic sequencing in this country, and someone everyone is drawn to for her intelligence and good sense,” he says.

The study has three parts: to develop a protocol for testing, to determine which genes to test, and to monitor how physicians transmit information to patients. Green hired Rehm to oversee the study’s second part: wading through the genome’s complexity to decide which gene mutations the report should include. There are no easy answers as to what makes the cut. Of the three billion base pairs in the human genome, a full three to five million vary person to person. Some determine physical differences such as hair and eye color; some seem to do nothing at all; and some play major roles in producing organs and enzymes. A mutation in one can lead to a genetic disorder.

The challenge is to determine which of those three to five million variants matter, and by how much. A breast-cancer-causing mutation like the one that affected Angelina Jolie should of course be included, but what about a mild variant for dry skin? Or a late-onset neurological disorder that may not even affect a patient in his lifetime? Even trickier are genes definitely associated with disease but unlikely ever to manifest.

Rehm and her team sifted through journals and genetic databases to offer their best judgments on which variants matter, eventually narrowing the field down to about 4,000. With those genes in hand, the researchers sequenced the genome for 100 patients, returning results for variants. In the end, 95 out of 100 had some genetic mutation that carried risk for disease. Most were carriers for recessive disorders they would never have. However, 20 percent did have the genetic disorders.

Several subjects, for example, had Factor V Leiden thrombophilia, a problem with blood clotting that can be particularly dangerous for women pregnant or on birth control. One had a variant called Long QT syndrome, a heart disorder that can lead to sudden cardiac death, but is treatable with beta blockers. They promptly referred that woman to a cardiologist. With these patients, the team also needed to see what the doctors would do with the information. There are very few geneticists compared to the general population, so it often falls to general practitioners to convey test results. Twenty practitioners participated in the study, and Rehm’s team gave them six hours of training in delivering information accurately.

One patient who had a familial history of breast cancer, for example, was relieved when her test didn’t display mutations for breast cancer genes—but the physician had to explain that even though she may be free of those particular mutations, she may not be free from contracting genetically based breast cancer. Over time, the MedSeq study will trace the decisions doctors and patients make with genetic information—whether they get more or better treatment and if the information affects the outcome of their illnesses.

The same research team has also started a study at Boston’s Brigham & Women’s and Children’s Hospital to sequence the genomes of newborn babies—developing a rapid turnaround of only a few weeks. For this study, Rehm’s team has only considered child-onset diseases, narrowing the number down to about 800 variants that have significant enough probability of disease in childhood. As with MedSeq, the BabySeq study will monitor how treatment of babies diagnosed with genetic disorders differs from those who aren’t diagnosed.

Depending on what these findings reveal, the study could set new standards for patient care and provide new impetus to adopt genetic sequencing, starting at birth, as standard practice. Even so, large-scale genetic sequencing is unlikely to really catch on until costs come down—or until insurance carriers start covering it, which is doubtful in the current environment. “In terms of predictive medicine, I don’t know any circumstance in which genetic testing has been covered,” says Rehm. Even though genetic testing could help catch a problem early, leading to decreased costs, it could just as easily surface a problem the patient didn’t know about—adding costs for care that may not be strictly necessary.

“In some cases you can make those arguments by costs, and in some cases you can’t,” says Rehm. Of course, those arguments are separate from the medical arguments of what will provide the best care and save lives in the long run. As costs inevitably come down and more people take advantage of genetic testing, the question of how it improves medical care will likely become about how people handle information when they receive it. The studies Rehm and her colleagues are conducting will go a long way to determining that—one  gene variant at a time.

Michael Blanding is an award-winning writer in Boston, where he is currently a senior fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University. His most recent story for this magazine was “On the Road,” which appeared in our fall 2014 issue.