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AMS: PhilliArts 2016

By Quanzhi Guo on October 26, 2016
Downtown Philly

Looking south from N. Broad in downtown Philadelphia.

During fall break, the AMS embarked on a trip with Dean Peter Tschirhart and Professor Robert Nemes to Philadelphia, the first world heritage city in the USA, for a feast of art and culture.

Day 1: Saturday, 8 October

The 4-hour van ride from Hamilton was an enjoyable one, as fall break is the prime time for colorful foliage. And we had plenty of Dunkin’ Donuts on board, paired with stimulating discussions—including whether we should colonize Mars, and why public transport in the US doesn’t work. Our destination: center city Philadelphia.

Founded by William Penn in 1682, Philadelphia was imagined to be a city where everyone is welcomed. Nowhere  is that idea better exemplified than in the Reading Terminal Market. I first learned about the market it in a sociology class at Colgate. Described as a “cosmopolitan canopy,” the Reading Terminal offers respite and an opportunity for diverse population to come together and gain social exposure in an urban jungle. And from what we experienced, theory was reality.

After checking in at our hotel, we all ventured two blocks to the market, which presented as a multi-ethnic food market full of hustle and bustle (and jostle). With pretzels coming fresh out of the ovens at Miller’s Twist, famous cheese steak grilling and sizzling, and coffee pots clanking, the market welcomed us with open arms. And as I queued for the oldest American ice cream (that had always been at the top of my Philadelphia wish list), I indulged in people-watching—locals as well as tourists stood in long lines, engaged in casual conversations, shouting and gibbering as they hovered around scouting for seats. I inhaled and the air was dense with Thai spice, Amish baked goods, and barbecued meat (maybe from the acclaimed best sandwich in America from DiNic’s?).

Feeling satisfied, we then braved the rain and walked around downtown Philly with our guide Allen to learn about the mural arts in Philly. October is the “Mural Arts month” for Philadelphia. To bring more arts to public space, the city has been running a Mural Arts Program—the nation’s largest public art program—with the belief that art ignites change.

Walking around and admiring artworks on a random wall, in a carpark, and outside a bar, I found it interesting how the personal became the public, and how the canvas became part of the city. These murals exist not to differentiate and discriminate those who do not have access to “high culture,” but to bring the community together for to provide inspiration and a common urban experience.

The mural tour also explored inclusivity. In the piece Finding Home, participants from Project H.O.M.E., an organization that provides a variety of essential resources to people in recovery and in transition, learned simple weaving techniques and created scarves and other woven products as the canvas for the mural. As viewer, I was provoked to reflect on what it means to be an inviting community, or simply have a home. I thought about the homeless shelter in Boston, where I worked after my first year, as a Manzi fellow. And while walking around in the city center, I encountered lots of homeless people dragging all their belongings idling in the light rain. Maybe for them, home was a physical place where they can sleep; or maybe it’s an in-between space, where they can hang out, feel invited, respected, and rooted.

Day 2: Sunday, 9 October

After a late morning breakfast, we took the trolley from center city to the University of Pennsylvania campus to visit the Institute of Contemporary Arts. The exhibit we saw was called The Freedom Principle: Experiments in Art and Music 1965 to Now, and it explored the cross-pollination between jazz music and art. Organized to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM)—a Chicago-based group that is devoted to nurturing, performing, and recording serious, original music, the exhibition was a collection of engagements with avant-garde expression.

But before the exhibition, we stopped by Federal Donuts for some hot fresh treats (just a “coincidence” that we had donuts for two days in a row).

To me, the AACM was unique in the way they incorporated socio-political struggle into their arts. These artists were not only breaking new grounds through improvised jazz to explore their identities and express their frustrations, but also collaborating with dancers, theatre artists, poets and visual artists. For example, the AACM have collaborated with AfriCOBRA (the African Common of Bad Relevant Artists) to support African American struggle for freedom, equality and justice.

Other than political urgency, the art pieces were also rich in cultural context, mostly African American and native American. I really liked one piece called Rio Negro II, which was a robotic-acoustic installation that consists of rain sticks, chimes, bamboo, earth, wood, rocks, and sculptures. When one element of the installation kicked, a mechanism of sound and kinetics started. I was really transfixed by the mixing of the ancient handicrafts with the contemporary technology and the multi-sensory experience delivered through the installation.

Later on Sunday afternoon, we took a public bus to the Eastern State Penitentiary. (Surprisingly, it was no one’s first time taking a public bus!) Abandoned in 1971, the haunting castle-like Gothic architecture was founded upon the Quaker-inspired belief that solitary confinement could reform criminals. As a result, prisoners had to endure long periods of isolation and silence.

Once the most expensive building in the USA, the Eastern State Penitentiary was also the model for about 300 prisons across Asia and Europe. The original structure was a single 11-acre cell block that was minimalist at best, inhumane at worst. And its most notorious criminals included bank robber “Slick Willie” Sutton and Al Capone.

The United States now has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, with 2.2 million citizens in prison or jail by far. This phenomenon has generally been driven by changes in laws, policing, and sentencing, not by changes in behavior. The results have disproportionately impacted poor and disenfranchised communities but the historic changes have remained almost invisible to many Americans. To me, the greatest misery is really alive but not living, so it was quite ironic that prisoners had to lived in such conditions in the city of brotherly love.

For dinner on Sunday, we had an authentic Moroccan food experience at Marrakesh, a home-owned restaurant with vibrant and mystical decor. I have never had a meal in the US by sitting around a round table with about 10 people and using hands to share food. The physical closeness made the ambience so collegial and everyone felt much more bonded by passing the food and nudging each other. The seven-course meal included pita bread with the most savory eggplant dip, phenomenal honey almond lamb (Peter’s favorite), and succulent cumin-infused baked chicken, and without doubt, won everyone’s palette and heart.

Day 3: Monday, 10 October

Finally, on the last day, we visited the Independence Hall and Liberty Bell, where the founding fathers of America signed the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. A place where many Americans started their quest for freedom and independence, the landmark attracts so many worshippers that most of us only managed to take a peek at the Liberty Bell. I thought the cracked bell was a good metaphor, in light of the presidential debate the day before our visit. As an icon of freedom, the crack is a reminder that the liberty we have now is imperfect. But with our ideals enacted in the Constitution, we always have something to strive for.

With our senses delighted, muses enlightened, we bid goodbye to the “Athens of America”.

XYZ with Q 7: Handing-out Hot Chocolate with Michael Rodriguez ’19

By Quanzhi Guo on September 19, 2016

In the original blog series XYZ with Q, Quanzhi “Q” Guo ’18 visited current and former Benton Scholars to learn about their interests, passions, and accomplishments. Now, Alumni Memorial Scholars have joined the party!  In this post, Q visits Michael Rodriguez ’19 to give out free hot chocolate on Friday morning.

It’s getting chilly at Colgate—the time of year when the air lets you know it will soon be fall. And nothing, seriously, can beat a complimentary cup of hot chocolate (with marshmallow melted on top) handed out near the chapel steps on a brisk Friday morning. 

Little did I knew that Alumni Memorial Scholar Michael Rodriguez ’19, from Grandview in Washington State, was that guy who made the race to 8:20am classes so much more comforting, especially in the middle of the snow.

On a bright Friday morning, I joined Michael for hot-chocolate. To every person who passed by, he flashed a big smile. To Michael, small acts of kindness are one way he gives back. “When people need help, I usually go all-out to help them,” he said.

If you are scrutinizing a Colgate map and Michael walks by, chances are he will not only tell you the way, but also take you wherever you are going, for real.

Back in his hometown church, Michael volunteered as a waiter for Christian camps, worked as a dishwasher and server for local high schools, and helped the elderly as a handyman by washing cars, changing light bulbs, and installing new appliances.

When I asked Michael why he does all these kind things, he was actually a bit puzzled. “If people need help, why let them suffer. Why not try to help?”

To Michael, to help is to give someone a little bit of happiness. “We are all human beings, we all have emotions, we all go through the same sort of things. I think lots of issues today are caused by people not being nice to each other,” he said.

Michael is really humble about his deeds, and it took a while to coax him into telling me what he has done. “You can say all you want without doing anything. And I remember my father always telling me ‘do your best, forget the rest,’” he said.

Outside of class, Michael is also an admission tour guide and hosts prospective students overnight, because his positive visit convinced him commit to Colgate. “I want to give back to the Colgate community by helping others discover the wonders of Colgate,” he said.

Now a prospective molecular biology major and a German minor, Michael wants to be a healthcare professional in the future, probably in family medicine. “Though it’s not the most glamorous (in the medicine field), I like the doctor-patient interaction,” he added.

As an AMS scholar, Michael hopes to attend the Freiburg Study Group and use his AMS funding to study the German healthcare system. “I want to see the differences between the US healthcare system and the German one. From what I learnt, they prioritize preventative measures so you’re not sick in the first place and don’t need to go to see doctors. If you feel overstressed, you can go see doctors and they will prescribe you a vacation!” he said.

Michael’s interest in healthcare comes from seeing his grandmother working at a family clinic when he was a child. To him, this is another way of giving back to more people. And as the hot chocolate barrel is emptied and the last cup of hot chocolate is given out, I am convinced that giving is better than receiving.

Jenny Nguyen ’19: Returning Home to Teach English

By Evie Lawson on September 15, 2016

The following post is by Jenny Nguyen ’19.  Nguyen used part of her AMS grant to return to her home country of Vietnam and work as a tutor at an English teaching center.

This summer I applied for AMS funding to work as a tutor for the Junior Program at YOLA Institute, an English teaching center in Vietnam. Over the course of three months, I had the chance to teach English to over forty kids, all middle-schoolers with various levels of English proficiency. I instructed them in any lesson for which they were absent in class, trained them in any lacking skills, and prepared them for upcoming standardized tests when necessary.

Classroom at YOLA Institute: Before...

Classroom at YOLA Institute: Before…

It felt quite surreal to teach something you are still learning yourself. English being my second language, I’m used to struggling with the fast and boisterous speech pattern of native speakers. Now I found myself slowing down, using simple phrases and clear pronunciation so that my students could keep up. I would explain to them basic concepts that I had taken for granted, would wait while they haltingly read a paragraph full of errors, or when some refused to speak altogether because they were frustrated with their own limitations. I like to remind them that they can accomplish anything with patience and constant practice (though I would change the subject if they asked whether I followed my own advice).

It was also an interesting professional experience. Though not quite new, the Junior Program underwent a lot of changes this summer with regards to organization and personnel. A lot of the people I worked with were still figuring things out themselves. This led to no small amount of confusion and misunderstanding. As we worked together to sort out the kinks in the system, however, we started to meet one another halfway and resolve our conflicts.

...and after

…and after

Being back in Vietnam after a year abroad definitely afforded me a different perspective. There are many things I used to know instinctively that I had to relearn all over again, like the bus schedule or the location of my favorite restaurant. I almost had an accident multiple times crossing the street (traffic culture in Vietnam is very different from Hamilton; if you ever visit our country, stick to the traffic lights). I also consumed an unhealthy amount of traditional dishes and spent the first month in strictly air-conditioned environments. Being away from home for the first time makes you appreciate everything old and familiar, as any college student knows. But the new experiences I gained in college also constitute a part of me that I treasure. (I held the door for my entire friend group, which had about fifteen people. They thought this was very strange, but I kept doing it anyway.)

Melissa Haller ’16: Investigating How Closing a Nuclear Plant Impacts Small, Rural Communities

By Evie Lawson on April 20, 2016

The following post is by Melissa Haller ’16.  Haller used part of her AMS grant to study the effect of nuclear plant closures on the small, rural communities of Haddam, Connecticut and Wiscasset, Maine.  

Most people are very aware of the Fukushima nuclear disaster that occurred in 2011. The worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl, Fukushima contaminated thousands of square miles of Japan’s land mass, and forced the eviction of more than 100,000 people from their homes. In the wake of this disastrous event, the fate of nuclear power as a source of energy production has come into question. Do the benefits of nuclear power production outweigh the potential costs? Japan shut down its nuclear reactors for a number of years after Fukushima, and Germany even elected to close all nuclear reactors after the eruption of a vehement anti-nuclear movement in 2011. While closing and decommissioning nuclear reactors may seem like a practical choice given the clear risks that nuclear plants pose, there are two sides to every story. In the United States, not only does nuclear power account for more than 20% of total electricity production, but nuclear power plants themselves tend to make up a large portion of tax revenue, income, and employment for nuclear host communities. My research aims to investigate the impacts of decommissioning on the communities that depend on nuclear power, and I travelled to two former nuclear host communities over spring break to do so.

Railroad tracks in Wiscasset, Maine

Railroad tracks in Wiscasset, Maine

Interviewing is a lot more difficult than it sounds. For this project, I wasn’t just trying to answer a few questions about the logistics of nuclear power; I wanted to speak with people about their stories, experiences, ideas, and opinions about living in a former nuclear host community, and the nuances and complexities of everyday life before and after decommissioning. Finding people willing to engage in these conversations is challenging, particularly if you are a newcomer or outsider to their community. Luckily for me, I had already spent a month this summer in the communities where I was conducting interviews, and I was able to reach out to former contacts to arrange discussions. We met in familiar spaces, often local coffee shops and restaurants, in offices and places of work, and in living rooms and kitchen tables. Wary of my own positionality as a researcher, the purpose of this trip was to make sure that my work accurately reflected their own voices and experiences. I hope that my work can be meaningful both to them and to other nuclear host communities, and this follow-up trip had an important part to play in furthering that goal.

My research centers around the communities of Haddam, Connecticut and Wiscasset, Maine. Neither community is what you might expect from a former nuclear host community: both are sleepy New England towns, complete with grand, historic properties and waterfront views. Haddam is small bedroom community along the Connecticut River, with easy access to New Haven, Harford, and nearby Middletown. Local people commute to nearby cities for work, and choose to live in Haddam for its quiet lifestyle and excellent school system. Wiscasset is a smaller village along the Sheepscot River, in the Boothbay Harbor region of Maine. Although it is much further from larger cities like Portland, many residents work in nearby Brunswick and Bath. Both communities are small, relatively rural, and reliant on tourism, small businesses, and industry in nearby cities for their economic survival. There is little evidence that a nuclear plant ever existed in either community, unless you drive out to the sites where the nuclear plants themselves once stood, which are now almost vacant, with the exception of concrete cylinders that house what remains of each plant’s nuclear waste. However, speaking with residents reveals that a nuclear legacy remains in each community, despite the twenty years that have passed since each plant has been closed. The presence of a nuclear facility facilitated growth and decline in each community, and local people have an important story to tell about their experiences with decommissioning.


Regardless of these similarities, both communities experienced nuclear decommissioning very differently. Wiscasset spent more money on services and infrastructure while the Maine Yankee Nuclear Plant was in operation, and the plant played a much more important role in community life. After closure, former nuclear workers moved away to find employment, the local school population plummeted, and the town lost 96% of its existing tax base. The transition process in Wiscasset was much rockier than in Haddam, and local people are still feeling the effects of Maine Yankee’s departure today. Haddam, on the other hand, used the taxes it collected from the nuclear plant much more frugally: the town kept taxes low, but spent its budget modestly. After closure, local people found employment in nearby cities and continued to live in Haddam. Haddam historically has had a higher standard of living than Wiscasset, and local people were more than willing to pay higher tax rates in order to remain in their quiet bedroom community. In this sense, the first lesson I learned from my research trip was that communities can seem very similar, but respond to and experience nuclear decommissioning in very different and diverse ways.

On the road to Haddam, Connecticut!

On the road to Haddam, Connecticut!

Secondly, I learned the importance of follow-up work. I hadn’t gotten my story quite right the first time, and returning to each community helped me to straighten out what I had missed. For example, in Haddam, I had believed that community organizations, local politics, and social capital were an important part of Haddam’s resilience. I quickly learned that I had over-emphasized that aspect of community life, particularly because I had met with so many civically-minded residents (politicians, members of local government, leaders of local organizations, etc.) during my first visit. I discovered that the real Haddam could not be neatly explained as a town with strong community ties: there is as much disengagement as engagement in the community, and local people are divided across either side of the Connecticut River. People are united not by some ideal vision of “Haddam,” but by their love for the community, its quiet, idyllic setting, and its complex and divisive character. I could not have recognized this aspect of Haddam’s community without following up on my initial work, and I am sure that I am still missing important parts of the story. I am not trying to perfectly understand and describe every aspect of these towns, but rather, to represent them as best I can, given my limited time and resources. I hope that I have done that successfully.

The former site of the Connecticut Yankee Nuclear Plant in Haddam, Connecticut

The former site of the Connecticut Yankee Nuclear Plant in Haddam, Connecticut

Overall, this research trip was incredibly successful. Not only will this follow-up work help me to write a more accurate and meaningful paper for my geography honors thesis, but it contributed valuable insight to my understanding of nuclear decommissioning in each community, and I hope that it will help me to better tell the stories of community members as I move forward with my project. As more communities in the United States and abroad experience nuclear decommissioning, the stories of Haddam and Wiscasset are becoming more and more important to tell, and I hope that other communities will find these insights and ideas valuable for their own future planning. Furthermore, this work has helped me to explore my own interests in community and regional economic development, and has helped me to gain important tools and perspectives that I will take with me as I prepare to pursue my PhD in geography at UCLA next fall. This trip was an incredible and valuable experience, one that will continually shape my research and my academic career for years to come.

Katie Mason ’16: Visit to the American Physical Society in Baltimore

By Evie Lawson on April 20, 2016

The following post is by Katie Mason ’16.  Mason used part of her AMS grant to visit the American Physical Society March Meeting in Baltimore, MD in an effort to explore the different concentrations within the world of physics.  

As a senior in my final semester, I often get asked the question, “What are you doing next year?” It’s a question that is never far from my mind. I am a Physics major with two research experiences under my belt, so graduate school seemed like the obvious path. I love my field. I love being able to explore everything from the smallest particles to the largest galaxies. The problem is, since Physics is so large, I am having a lot of trouble narrowing my focus to a specific concentration. In all honesty, it is not the worst problem to have. I enjoy many of the fields and find them fascinating. However, I noticed while starting my applications that most schools want their students to have some sort of idea about what they will want to study.

I decided I had to do more research into the different concentrations within Physics. There is no better place to do this than the American Physical Society March Meeting. This yearly conference is one of the biggest Physics conferences in the country, and it was held in Baltimore this year. My goal at this conference wasn’t to present, but rather to absorb as much as I could and hopefully sort more through my options for the future.

Hubble Space Telescope

Hubble Space Telescope

I took advantage of the conference’s location and spent the weekend before in Washington D.C to go to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. It was amazing to see all of the rockets and planes up close. I spent an entire day wandering through the exhibits. Some of the highlights for me were the model of the Hubble Space Telescope (complete with solar panels), one of the Wright Brothers’ planes, and a planetarium show about dark matter narrated by Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson.

Upon arriving at the actual conference, I was at first struck by just how many people attended. I was also overwhelmed by how many presentations there were. Each day was split into three hour session and each session had around 25 short talks. There were also a few longer presentations. My first day, I decided to play it safe by only attending events marked as undergraduate friendly. The first talk I went to was in the session entitled “Physics of Epidemics” given by Charles Macal from the Argonne National Laboratory. In it, the speaker discussed computer modeling techniques and how they can be used to model and predict future epidemics. I found it fascinating as I have enjoyed computer modeling I have done in my research at Colgate. I also loved the interdisciplinary nature of the work. Though the primary researcher was a physicist, he emphasized his collaboration with biologists and public health workers.

Main Exhibit Hall

Main Exhibit Hall

Physicists are often viewed as being isolationists and are not known for their work with other fields, so it was very refreshing to see all of the interdisciplinary talks throughout the week. Some of the other sessions included physics and cancer research, the statistical mechanics of social systems, and robotics for use in archaeology. For me, these talks were the highlights of the week, as they showed many broader applications of physics that I haven’t been exposed to before.

I believe I ended my trip feeling even more passionate about physics as a whole. I also have more of a direction now, I will hopefully use the skills I am learning in physics, especially computer modeling and data analysis, and apply them to problems not often associated with physics. It was a very worthwhile experience and gave me a clearer picture of what I would like to research as I enter graduate school. I am continuing on to Tufts University in the PhD track where I will hopefully join a research group in the field of Condensed Matter Physics that also makes use of computer modeling for theoretical predictions.