Author Archives: Ryan Brewster

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.

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.

To the Naysayers

“Why would you ever want to be a doctor?” That’s a question I often get when expressing my career aspirations. In light of the recent health care debacle, I can’t say I blame them. The new reforms are expected to cut salaries and increase patient volume, all together submerging physicians deeper in politics and bureaucracy. Still, though, I stand firm with my decision, and here is why:

Burnt dust kicked up behind the motorcycle as we lurched through hills and valleys. Hoards of people gathered along the side of the road, shouting interchangeably “Muzungu (White person)! Jesus!” Our destination was Kayanga, a rural village located on the outskirts of Rwanda’s capital, where we would be conducting home visits for a local health center program. The first one – a thatched-roof, clay-brick shack – was no bigger than my dorm room, yet it housed eight individuals from at least four generations. Cautious stares followed me into the house. The only thing breaking the silence was the mother’s footsteps. Careful not to wake the child strapped to her back, she rested her hand on my own. The sight of her mangled, infected wrist revealed the source of a putrid smell. The contrast was striking – Black and white, wise and naïve, sick and healthy. Indeed, my skin color had become a proxy for my healing abilities, of which I had none. Never before had I felt more powerless. Without an able body, how was this woman to support her family? How could she manage an income if she couldn’t even bring her harvest to the market? How could an ambulance ever navigate its way up here, never mind finding the home? Putting a face to global health inequities was as much a sobering experience as it was a call to action.

Three years earlier, my story was on a quite a different trajectory. Nothing about my upbringing was remarkable – I hailed from a prototypical New England town, was raised by loving, middle-class parents, and enjoyed the typical trappings of American adolescence. On top of this, I was deeply insecure about straying from conformity. It was comforting to be in the mainstream, inside the proverbial “box.” The way I saw it, risk aversion was the most certain way to succeed. Deferring to structure, however, left me with little cause to think about who I was as a person. When questions about careers popped up, the medical field appealed most, not because of sense of calling, but because the road to becoming a doctor was already well-established. If I could simply run through a checklist of requirements, in ten year’s time people would be calling me Dr. Brewster.

This is not to say that my thinking was completely misguided. Something that has always driven my interest in medicine is the challenge of connecting the small, isolated constituent to its larger context. To truly grasp a scientific concept requires a deep understanding of the elementary components from which it was derived. And, the synchrony of these parts, from the atom through the organism, is what gives rise to the universe and its occupants. Unpackaged from all its hypotheses and experiments and data, I’ve been convinced that science is merely the framework to discover the wonder behind the mundane the profound behind the phenotype. The human body is no exception. We see it as sacred and immutable when in fact it represents the product of billions of years of tinkering. Even in its current iteration, it is in a constant state of dynamic equilibrium. Doctors have the privilege of engaging this miracle, and ensure that it continues to be just that.

What I failed to realize, though, was that the big picture meant more than just managing a network of biochemical reactions. The medical practice is unique in that it is both a science and a service. It should seem obvious that preserving health can be both subject to and a determinant of an individual’s political, social, and economic agency. Access to medical care has been declared a fundamentally human right whose realization is inseparable from a person’s capacity to thrive. Yet, it took working with the most vulnerable populations for me to finally connect health to its social justice imperative.

“!José está sufriendo una parada cardíaca!” were the first words I had to translate as a Spanish-English medical interpreter. “He’s having a heart attack!,” I quickly relayed to the doctor, a retired family physician volunteering with the Open Door Clinic. The patient was one of the 1,5000 Mexican migrant workers in Vermont. Without legal documentation, they endure highly restricted living conditions and are oftentimes deprived of their most basic needs. José had effectively waived his right to health in the name of productivity. His estatus illegal had rendered him nothing more than a commodity. And as a commodity, he was disposable. So, when his condition had prevented him from working for three weeks, regardless of the clinic’s treatment, the farm owner had no recourse but to dismiss him. As I learned that subsequent summer in Rwanda, José’s story was a microcosm of the gross inequities in health care delivery around the world.

For someone whose initial motives for a medical career centered on self-interest, seeing health disparity firsthand went beyond a reality check. It was humbling to know that I had benefitted from a global system that has caused the suffering of billions. It was, in other words, that sense of calling. I realized that I had an obligation to serve those most in need, to guarantee health as a human right where it did not exist. Doctors, unlike laws, are not answerable to rules or politics; instead, they are answerable to whether a given intervention is in the best interest of the patient. The German biomedical scientist Rudolph Virchow once described physicians as the “natural attorneys of the poor.” From the farms of Middlebury to the hills of Rwanda, one’s physical well-being necessarily governs social and economic rights.  Thus, doctors can leverage medicine to promote a more socially-driven agenda. I want to be such a voice because I believe empowering communities through health can begin to right the deep inequalities between rich and poor. I want to be such a voice because I believe that where there is health, there is opportunity. Being idealistic and utopian is one thing, but I am reassured by that simple fascination of mine – Everything starts with an atom.

Family (Festival) Matters

Our suite was suddenly spotless. The dining halls began serving lox garnished with capers, onions and sliced tomatoes. Every leaf seemed to be perfectly positioned as to transform the Vermont backdrop into a computer background.  All of these signs were diagnostic of one thing – Fall Family Weekend. Every year, in the heart of the autumn season, students are encouraged to invite parents, siblings, uncles and any other possible familial relation to campus for three days of Middlebury festivities.

Formal programming hosted by the school seeks to capture our institutional ethos through a variety of talks, workshops and student panels. In addition, many of our extracurricular organizations put their passions on display, ranging from dance performances to the Solar Decathalon Open House. A particularly memorable event was an address delivered by President Ron Liebowitz. He, at length, discussed the benefits of a liberal arts system. Even the most skeptical parents couldn’t disagree with the assertion that the Middlebury academic experience “doesn’t prepare students for their first job. It prepares them for their career.” Much to the satisfaction of my mother, it was made clear that the degrees conferred by the liberal arts equip students to thrive in any path within an increasingly globalized, heterogeneous world.

For me, however, Fall Family Weekend is more than just providing parent’s the reaffirmation needed to continue to send their child here. Prior to arriving at Middlebury, the Ryan Brewster profile was relatively unchanging – I was passionate about competitive freestyle skiing, enjoyed the sciences, and my height had stabilized at an enormous 5’ 6”. My evolution was hardly perceptible to the people who had nurtured me constantly for the better part of 18 years. As far as they were concerned, the formative years of my life had long passed.

Dropping me off at college was my parent’s first exposure to “empty nesterdom.” It wouldn’t be a normal week without a whimpering call from my mom saying she missed me. Out of reach of their constant overbearing tendencies (after all, what are parent’s for?), I was left to my own devices, to my own-self discovery. Since then, every year has been marked by something new. And aside from a weekly phone call and brief home stints during vacations, who I have become at Middlebury has remained largely outside my parents’ purview. My latest stunt was travelling to Rwanda this past summer, and failing to tell me parents until I had already signed a binding agreement. Oops. But for Fall Family Weekend, the patchwork of stories they’ve compiled over the years comes together as a cohesive whole. There was some always some revelatory connection wherever we’d go on campus. “Oh, so this is where you dissect your ovaries!” “You must be Ryan’s roommate from Freshman year. He’s told me all about you!” However blush-inducing, it was always validating to see them really interacting with my niche, engaged and interested.

Playing acoustic guitar is one of those passions I’ve developed nearly exclusively at Middlebury. It was through a Winter Term introductory workshop that I picked up the instrument. The subsequent months were dedicated to mastering it. I sought out jam sessions and devoured music theory books. The first thing my parents noticed upon my return that summer was not the fact that I was wearing a dress shirt (another huge transformation in itself), but that I had a guitar case in my hand. The disbelief persisted even after filling the house with my playing. After all, how could they truly understand this new interest of mine without having any real context to attach to it? The music culture is what really drew me in, as it infused a real sense of craftsmanship and community into an otherwise very individual activity. Yet, all that my parents saw was me and my guitar, completely isolated from this identity.

Three years had elapsed, with mom and dad still stuck with the incomplete story. That looked to be the case again, until the opportunity presented itself to perform at this year’s Fall Family Festival. The origins of Playing with Arrows are rather humble, and to be brief, involve a couple Adirondack chairs, campfire songs, and some incredible vocalism from my two close friends.

More Than Just a Run

The past three years have proven to be a period of massive intellectual, social and personal transformation. That being said, there are still things left to accomplish as I launch into my final year at Middlebury. Finish the infamous Ben and Jerry’s Vermonster. Meet one student from each of the 50 states. Finally ask out that girl I’ve had a crush on since freshman year. My Middlebury bucket list is just about at the point of saturation. While most aspirations have and will likely to continue to collect dust, the opportunity presented itself last week to realize one of the most daunting line items – Run the Trail Around Middlebury, more commonly known as the TAM, in its entirety.

For 16 miles, the TAM weaves through forests, roads, and farmland in its circumnavigation around the village of Middlebury. And depending on whose using them, the paths can take on manifold identities. It becomes an outdoor classroom in the eyes of local naturalists, who inform residents and students alike of the natural ecology. Likewise, Middlebury College identifies the TAM as a symbol of environmental stewardship, and as such, is committed to trail design and maintenance. What can be appreciated for its academic applications can also be more recreationally enjoyed by runners, hikers, bikers, snowshoes, and cross-country skiers. The rolling and vibrant Vermont landscape provides a breathtaking backdrop for trail-goers. At the very least – as I learned the hard way – it offers some solace for those braving the full 16-mile challenge.

Posters for the 24th annual TAM Trek, a fundraising initiative to support maintenance expenses, began appearing around campus about a week before the race. I consider myself a pretty athletic individual, but registering for the event without any  long-distance running experience whatsoever seemed more than a bit ill advised. Making matters even more intimidating, the peers who I recruited to join me just happened to be either accomplished marathon runners or collegiate track athletes.

Race day quickly arrived, and at 7:00 AM, all full-TAM participants congregated at the college’s golf course. There was little fanfare accompanying our start. In typical Vermont style, curious livestock, groaning agricultural machinery, and a nascent sunrise constituted the spectators, the wild applause and the television broadcast, respectively. And instead of a dramatic horn signaling the start of the race, the event coordinator simply encouraged us to start “whenever we wanted.” The runners, albeit thrown by the somewhat anticlimactic exposition, heeded these instructions and took off onto the course.

The subsequent miles and miles…and miles formed a narrative colored with moments of introspection, community and comraderie:

Mile 3 // Scanning my “competition” as we settle into our respective positions, I notice quite the hodgepodge of demographics. Interspersed with us students were professors, faculty members, Middlebury residents and even a couple canines (one of whom I was convinced was Air Bud). Running really is the great equalizer. Our common objective gave way to a profound sense of community. Whatever obligations or identities were cast aside in pursuit of crossing that finish line together. As I was conceptualizing this in my head, I found myself flanked by my former chemistry professor and a local running enthusiast. Introductions were briefly exchanged, and aside from a brief “What do you do?” conversation, there was suddenly nothing separating a renowned synthetic organic chemist from a small-town storeowner. It was truly a meaningful moment to have witnessed such tangible community, despite me first having to cope with the fact that my middle-aged, nerdy, lanky professor was matching my pace. In my defense, he is far more decorated as a long-distance runner and even even authors his own trailrunning blog, called “The Middlebury Trailrunner.”

Mile 6 // A tight wooded path feeds into an expansive tract of farmland. Set against the Green Mountains and littered with grazing cows, the picturesque scene before us led us to break out in a chorus of “The Hills Are Alive”, only with fewer aprons and prancing. Unfortunately, the elation ended rather abruptly, when I managed to sink my feet into two feet of cow dung.

Mile 12 // The initial adrenaline surge has worn off. I have poop caked all the way up my leg. Out of some perverse version of Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” we misread a trailhead and had to re-trace our steps for about a mile and a half. Why am I doing this again? I was just about at the point of resignation until something amazing happened. Suddenly, a profound sense of awareness overtook me. The leaves crackling beneath my feet, my cadenced breathing, the colors of autumn – All these sensory stimuli became heightened and magnified. Nature and I, as it seemed, were in perfect synchrony. What I was experiencing was the elusive “Runner’s high.” Being a hard sciences major, I know this phenomenon from a strictly physiological standpoint – It represents the upregulation of endorphin secretion when glycogen stores are depleted, thus staving off pain sensations with temporary feelings of euphoria and exhilaration. In this moment, however, I was absorbed in an experience far more intangible, far more beautiful than a simple endocrinal pathway.

 Mile 16 // Two and half hours have elapsed, and the finish is finally in view. A crowd of community members, students and faculty cheered us through our final steps, after which I collapsed under my own weight. Physically drained yet personally fulfilled, I accept a hand and a cider doughnut from my middle-aged, nerdy, lanky chemistry professor. Yes, in a shot to my perceived fitness level, he did beat me…

It is befitting that the TAM encircles the whole of Middlebury. The trails delineate the heart of our community, where the college and the town share a mutual awareness and investment in each other. To say that “town-gown” relations are good suggests that members of the academic and non-academic population happily co-exist, but still retain their own identities. Running the trails alongside community members, alongside faculty reminded me not of these differences, but of the common thread between us – We proudly call this place home.