Doctor (Spatafora) Without Borders

At this point in my Middlebury academic career, I figured the trajectory of my Molecular Biology/Biochemistry concentration would be coming to a plateau, a stasis. The departmental requirements have been fulfilled, my current thesis project is well underway, and I am on a first name basis with most of my professors. Never did I think that the spring semester of my senior year would be anything but a gratifying reflection of the past four years.

Molecular Genetics is a course that broadly examines the function and structure of genes at the molecular scale. The field it encompasses is continually evolving, however, for all intents and purposes, that which occurs at the undergraduate level is pretty standardized. Professor Grace Spatafora begs to differ. She approaches our course through an applied lens, conveying material not in isolation, but in the context of medical case studies. DNA replication becomes Werner Syndrome. Epigenetics becomes Rett Syndrome. Such a strategy opens up avenues for exploration that could not even be fathomable with traditional textbook learning. The laboratory section is no exception. Instead of simply developing techniques relevant to molecular genetics, we are applying them in a semester-long, novel investigation. If you insist, our project studies the properties of a protein that belongs to a cavity-causing bacterium.

Such a unique course structure would be nothing without a competent instructor to direct it. Dr. Spatafora may be one of the most enthusiastic yet disciplined, brilliant yet accessible, and quirky yet grounded professors I have had the pleasure of engaging. She is the type who will belabor a point until absolutely everyone in the class understands it. She is the type who intermixes “conformation-specific yeast two-hybrid system” with “gashalt” (Still don’t know what that means, though I think it is of Yiddish origin) and “truckload.” But most importantly, she is the type whose passion for biology is infectious and tangible. This is evidenced after each one of our class meetings, when I am so invigorated, so inspired that the only way I can express myself is by proudly declaring, “SCIENCE!”

Thanks to Dr. Spatafora, the proverbial senioritis will not be a case study to be examined. If anything, she should see herself as one its most potent remedies.

Winter Carnival

February is the shortest month of the year, but then again, short is sweet! It’s one of my favourite months of the year at Midd: the days are getting longer, the spring semester begins, and it’s the month of Winter Carnival. This year we celebrated our 91st! Winter Carnival Weekend is a celebration of our varsity ski teams, where students go to the Snow Bowl or Rikert and watch the alpine and cross country ski teams race at home (that means students get Friday off to go watch races)!

The carnival also entails a big kick-off bonfire and fireworks show followed by a comedian performance right across the street! Everyone shows up to the bonfire in their big jackets and grabs a cup of hot chocolate to watch the fire grow, and soon coats are off because the heat from the fire (and the hot chocolate) is keeping everyone toasty. Soon enough, the fireworks are up in the sky and the DJ is playing tunes as everyone enjoys the evening!


Friday is always the first day of races, and friends will get together and take the shuttle up to the Snow Bowl, or to Rikert to watch our teams compete, listen to some live student bands, and get some grub, and as the day is done they come back to campus just in time for a small concert to get their groove on! Saturday entails more races, an après-ski hot chocolate bar (yes we’re big on hot chocolate here- but don’t worry there is white chocolate too!) and the Ball. Every year, 1500 students will fill the decorated Nelson Arena and enjoy snacks, some drinks, and dance till they drop (or until the ball finishes at 2am).



Now that the races are over, the ball is done, and February is starting to draw to a close, I’m waiting to see what March brings…

Got my carrel!

I finally got my thesis carrel!

At Midd, seniors have the option to sign up for reserved study carrels (not carrols, carolls, carels, carrells, or carells and I now confidently know) in the library. Last semester I did not have one because I was not yet working on my senior project, and, while working at a library table or at a friend’s carrel, I nerdily pined for my own. These carrels become campsites where you can hunker down with your fave snacks and work away. And now I have one, and it’s lovely.

I’m writing my senior essay on the role of governesses and haunting in Victorian novels. Victorian governesses operated in liminal space because of funky dynamics with their class and gender, as do ghosts because of their being neither alive nor dead. The books I’m examining (Jane Eyre and The Turn of the Screw) both have ghosts and governesses with a lot going on between them, and it’s the area I’m exploring for this essay, which by May will (hopefully) be around 40 pages. It’s a topic that I know enough about to want to learn more, and I’m currently doing a lot of that at my carrel (and checking email, reading articles, and taking Buzzfeed quizzes). 

So if you’re ever around the the North Side Main Level Mezzanine in the Davis Family Library, come say hello. I might even share my snacks with you.


Save the shoes

It is beautiful and snowy.  It is that time of year when you see skis resting outside of classroom doorways anxiously awaiting the student that has the efficient plan to meet the shuttle bus at ADK right after class. Many of us have done this: wake up, pack bag for school, pack ski bag, pack a snack, attend class, hit the slopes. Both nordic and downhill lovers are privy to the prompt bus shuttle schedule from the Middlebury campus up to either Bread Loaf for some cross-country ski fun or the Snow Bowl for some shoop shoop shooping in that fresh pow pow.

Speaking of pow pow (powder in colloquial terms), we currently have some beautiful pow pow. A few feet in fact. The west coast may be the best coast but the east is beast. I have skied on the east coast my entire life and we currently have some of the best conditions I have ever had the pleasure of enjoying. However, when the wintery fluff turns to a wintery mix there can be issues.

Mainly, footwear. I made the mistake today of seeing the clear and crisp morning sky and deciding that the paths were clear enough to wear a cuter and more spring like pair of boots. Rookie mistake. As I sat in my political science seminar on US and Latin American Relations my heart sank…straight to my boots. It had begun to snow and not just a light dusting but a proper snow that meant I was about to be slipping and sliding on my way to Environmental Economics across campus. Not only was the potential embarrassment of a wipeout on my mind (we have all done it, it is a right of passage really), but these poor boots were about to get a beating.

Alas, they are only boots and alas I am a senior who should know better. Every now and again it is fun to walk on the wildside and slip on the waterslide.

Last Semester Blues

When you come visit us in the Middlebury Admissions office, we play a short video profiling a few Middlebury students to set the tone for the information session and tour to follow. While most of the movie is upbeat and sunny, in the last few moments a senior reflects on how sad she will be to graduate and leave Middlebury. It’s kind of a somber moment but it perfectly encapsulates our love for this place.

Normally, I sit in and watch the video before I start my information session, tapping my feet in time to the music and quoting the lines with the professors on screen. I know this video by heart now; I even dream it sometimes. When the video ends, I transition from the reflective last line to my silly description of a Texas girl buying snowshoes for the first time with a cheerful “And on THAT note!”

But that was last semester, fall semester, when the senior in ‘Senior Fellow’ felt more like a fancy title than an actual state of being. This state of being has an expiration date, and that date seems significantly closer on this side of j-term.

Today was our last first day of classes at Middlebury. There was the usual first-day jumble of adding or dropping classes, decoding the building acronyms on our schedules, and tumbling into the last chair in class with only a few minutes. But the “lastness” of it really hit me when I was rushing to fill up my tea thermos between classes and I overheard two brand new febs talking near the coffee pot. As I wiggled between them to grab some hot water, I heard one of the febs ask the other where the forks were in the dining hall. The other laughed and pointed to the enormous and fairly obvious island of utensils right behind her. For some reason, this small and silly interaction made me suddenly sad and nostalgic. Here these two new febs were discovering the utensil island for the first time and I’d been grabbing forks nonchalantly from that area for three and a half years now! I suddenly felt extremely old.

So now as I sit here on my last first day of classes, I’m vowing to walk into my information session after the video finishes playing. I’m doing this for all of you, future visitors, so that you don’t have to spend the first ten minutes of your first visit to Middlebury comforting a bawling senior fellow. Don’t get me wrong, I am so excited for all of you to come visit this spring and I can’t wait to talk to you as you start your journey here. But I am also insanely jealous that you have these next four years ahead of you.

As for me, time to start savoring the last four months.

Powerful January

When do pop culture, gender, and racial identity intersect? Here at Middlebury, J-term (January semester) injects life into the campus as students return refreshed from December break. J-term allows students to deviate from traditional academic courses and explore sections of academia outside of their comfort zone. This semester I took Performing Power as my final J-term class of senior year. In this course we explored the myriad dynamics of power as related to class, race, gender, etc. Following such, classes ranged from examining the power dynamics between female wrestlers to analyzing the role of performing masculinity in professional football. While the class was non-traditional, it still represented Middlebury as an institution that embraces all forms of academia whether in a laboratory or theater. Similarly, the class was composed of students from all four grades, three different countries, and several cities across the US. Each class was started by students performing a creative work that showed performing power in modern pop culture. As a neuroscience major this class was without a doubt outside of my comfort zone.  And yet that was the very reason each day was a refreshing and challenging endeavor to explore my creative side. In essence the class represents the very reason that J-term exists—to allow students to not just leave their comfort zones, but instead go flying out of it. Ending my final J-term with a class that was unlike my previous experiences has allowed me to come full circle in terms of my academic experiences at Middlebury.

As J-term comes to an end one can sense the changes in the student body. Dining halls slowly empty, tearful goodbyes are said to graduating Febs, and professors begin to prepare their Spring lesson plans. It is certainly a period of change—change that resonates through the whole school.

Middlebury, Re-Wired

Cable television is accepted as a basic household amenity in most Western countries. Alongside the Internet and cell phones, it is arguably one of the greatest revolutions in mass communication over the past century. While growing accessibility to the tube has become an important vehicle for global citizenship and interconnectedness, there has been a concomitant decline in our ability to engage life outside the screen.

A brief look into any dorm room will reveal how Middlebury has responded to this trend. Amidst the unfolded laundry and scattered homework, the unmistakable tangle of wires leading to a cable box is missing. There is no 85” widescreen occupying half of the living space. Middlebury’s policy on residential television is stated in subtle, but deliberate language. Basic cable services are provided “in most residential hall lounges” and “some senior suites.” The reasons why such luxuries are not available in individual rooms are unclear, but I believe they derive from the mission on which the school is built – To cultivate a vibrant and diverse academic community inspired by the world around us. So much of this is realized through widespread social interaction, something that is hampered if we are too caught up in the latest reality show.

Since the arrangement was introduced in the 1990’s, the problems once attributed to cable are now being perpetuated by new technologies. Admittedly, limiting television privileges is having less and less of a direct impact on students. What is relevant here, though is not so much the action itself, but rather the spirit and character behind it. If Middlebury has taught me anything, it is that human connection is the most rich form of learning. Because people take precedence over prime time, the relationships we forge as peers, as intellectuals and as a community become all the more stronger.

5pm Freedom

On this day, at 5pm, I will be done with my two-semester long thesis process (I suppose it is past 5pm now posting this but the writing took place early this morning pre 5pm deadline…act of procrastination, if you will). It has been a rollercoaster with all parts included. First was the decision to take the ride, a self-selecting, self-challenging, and almost self-loathing prophesy. As an economics major, it is not required to write a senior thesis or do some form of culminating senior work (although I believe this has since changed and I was grandfathered into the old system) so those of us who choose to are making this decision for ourselves and ourselves only. No one else but yourself is putting you in the seat, and your very own driver’s seat, to launch yourself into a thrill ride the likes of Kingda Ka, a ride that shuts down at the slightest signs of precipitation. However, this ride includes not only the largest and steepest vertical plummet of the green tracks, but also the twist and loops of Batman and the flying thrill of Superman. Rain, snow, ice, or shine this ride is open and ready to go. (For those unfamiliar with the roller coaster references, please visit the New Jersey 6 Flags park map for clarification. However, these are merely metaphors for the adventure that is the thesis process, much popcorn included). So now you have decided to embark on this process and are waiting in the metaphoric line that is hoping to get your thesis topic approved. You have mustered up the strength to put yourself out there and now you keep your fingers crossed that you make it to the front of the ride before it closes.

Approved! Great. Now you are stepping in, strapping on your seat belt, and wildly excited while simultaneously nervous for the next few seconds, minutes, and in reality, months. You are not alone, however. You have the support and guidance of your advisor as well as the other students who have decided to take the same trip. You are ready to begin.

Woosh! And somehow you are in it all. All the rush, the ups, the downs, the turns you never knew you were going to take, the surprises beyond the next corner, the slows of the climb and the adrenaline of the decrescendo.  This, of course, for me was related to the research process, diving into more empirical studies in macroeconomic growth literature than I knew was physically and mentally possible, and the analytically driven methodology, models, and STATA coding. More interests. More equations. More variables. More endogeneity (we don’t want that, okay, now back to the drawing board). New interests. New equations. New variables. More endogeneity. Okay, now a larger drawing board, more erasers, and definitely more chalk.

It was a transformative ride that has all culminated to a presentation, a poster, and one large paper. While the car has pulled back into the station with all passengers intact, perhaps a few misplaced hairs due to high velocity of travel, an unkempt look of a wind brushed face, and a smile of gratitude and satisfaction for successful completion, they each may laugh at the idea of getting on again. Funny enough however, they each would. Perhaps not right away, perhaps needing a break to look back on the experience to laugh and smile at all the hours, triumphs, headaches, coffee breaks, and stress dreams. But, they each would do it all again.

5pm. You are coming ever so soon, not fast enough, yet too soon to unbuckle the seat belt. It has been a great ride.

Thesis Poster Presentation

Never Too Late

In Midd-December (get it??) my 97-year-old grandfather, Preston, died peacefully in his sleep. He was a man of few words and constant projects. Always an engineer, he devoted his retired years to transforming old railroad tracks into bike trails, building boats in his garage, riding his recumbent bicycle, and learning to play bridge. Not only did Preston remain active into his aging years, but he did so despite the fact that cataracts had made him legally blind. While Preston had many sustained lifelong interests, what characterized him equally was his constant attraction to new and exciting ventures. He was always looking for the next way to sharpen his mind or skills.

When I was seven years old a few of my friends began taking piano lessons. I felt anxious that I had missed the boat and my friends would all go off on musical adventures without me, and that I would never ever be able to play the piano if I didn’t begin NOW. Unfortunately this attitude was not new for me and my parents had the wisdom to say “no” to many things I had fleeting interest in like horseback riding, harmonica lessons ( mostly because they don’t really exist), tap dancing, etc. But I was positive piano was different and that is was REALLY important that I start. But my parents held a firm “no” as I was already quite busy (and prone to melt-downs when starved for downtime).

Anyways, it was around that time Preston began taking piano lessons, meeting weekly with his teacher and tapping out progressively more complicated melodies on the keyboard in my grandparents’ living room. I found this image of an old man struggling with the same tunes my friends were learning to be incredibly calming. If Preston could start playing piano in his eighties, then I had plenty of time.

I remember this moment whenever I feel like I’m too old to start something new. This J-term it was cross-country skiing. My friends Becky, Gregg, and I all decided to take lessons together. The people at Rikert are wonderful, patient, and  excited to share their love of the sport. Tiring and fun with beautiful scenery, learning to ski has been a great thing to do this month, even if my instructors have been younger than me.

Here’s a picture of me and my fellow nordic newbies Becky and Gregg in the bright, bright sun!


Moving Out, Moving On

As J-term comes to a close, so too does my time living on campus at Middlebury. This is not for any particular reason. I quite enjoy my senior housing down in Homestead on Weybridge Street. It combines many of the luxuries of dorm-life with a geographic separateness that’s often refreshing. The walk up to Proctor in the morning is always cold, but I like the briskness of 9 am in Vermont as trucks whizz by on their way out to the country.

Now I am off to a new home! My sixth and final room. I am moving with a few close friends to live at 2 Park Street in town, above a custom leather-shoes workshop that has given the space its colloquial name: Leatherworks. Leatherworks promises to be a nice change of pace as well as a nice lead-in to life after college. There is a patio and a clean kitchen and a big shower. We have to take out our own trash and keep the bathroom stocked with toilet paper. We’ll probably cook many of our own breakfasts. As I write this post from the comfort of my sofa in Homestead, I am feeling quite claustrophobic as boxes begin to tower in preparation for the big move. And then that will be it, and I’ll be out of here, and I’ll have moved on to a new chapter.

Thinking back on my tiny Allen double, my vaulted-ceilinged Coffrin single, my party-suite Palmer single, my upstairs Palmer double, and now my cozy room in Homestead, I realize how much I have changed in my four years. A wide-eyed and overly enthusiastic freshman Nathan lived in Allen. A hardworking student with a lot of ambition took over Coffrin. A back-from-abroad and determined-to-get-better-at-squash Nathan soaked up the drama of Palmer House as a junior. This semester I was a student of constitutional law, a Disney movie screener, and an active job-searcher. How will my Leatherworks months be defined? Which new version of myself awaits? I always feel a real connection to the space I occupy. “Home” is where the heart is, but I have managed to make all of these places home in one way or another. Each time I move I leave a little bit of myself behind. Each room is replete with memories that weave together like a tapestry of my college experiences. I love moving. A new place, new smells, new sounds in the morning, new visitors, a new view. Fresh, new, alive, like the spring.

Another adventure awaits!

PS Jill, awesome movie.