Way Worth It
At night on Easter Island, you can hear the tap of rain on a tin roof, the creak of crickets, the muttering of chickens, and you might be lulled into thinking that you’re back on the Eastern Shore in a farmhouse in the summertime. Until you rise in the morning, and the world in all directions is restless ocean, the path you walk is littered with obsidian and guarded by ancient stone moai, the volcanic rock beneath your feet is the liquid pulse of the earth, captured in solid form. If you were just any visitor, you might merely pinch yourself and walk on. But if you’re Kathy Thornton ’13, you pursue this unexpected connection; you work it over in your mind the way you turn over a shard of obsidian in your hand, examining every facet, wondering what factors made it just so, and asking yourself how what you know can inform what you have yet to comprehend. Easter Island, Thornton says, “really was a culmination of the liberal arts education, because I was drawing on everything I had possibly learned to develop a sense of place and understand the environment and culture.”
Thornton, who majored in both environmental studies and history, with a minor in biology and concentration in Chesapeake Regional Studies, graduated in Washington College’s class of 2013 with a handful of noteworthy honors. Most significant, though, was the George Washington Medal. It’s the highest honor the College gives, bestowed on the graduating senior who shows the greatest promise of understanding and implementing the ideals of a liberal arts education in life and work. Her weeklong study on Easter Island, 2,300 miles offshore in the Pacific Ocean, was a Spring Break like no other, where she hoped to use her study of environmental history to help gain insight into the demise of the Rapa Nui people. It drew from the core of that education—from the ability to clearly articulate in writing her research proposal and its results, to the confidence in entering an alien place with a curious mind and finding connections and parallels across time and culture that helped reveal answers, or at least provoked more questions. “Going into it, I knew I had to rely on what I had learned and how to pick out important parts of the culture and environment and understand how history is still tangible in the environment.” Despite hours of research and reading beforehand, she says, “I had to figure out for myself what things meant and how things might have played out.”
The value of a liberal arts education is much debated these days. It may smack of old school fustiness to some, and defining it can be rather like trying to capture mist with a net. That intangible quality can be mistaken for obsolescence or irrelevance in our pre-packaged, sound-biteable culture, because it doesn’t lend itself to superficial examination. But there are ways to measure its merit, and perhaps the best method is to let the students themselves set the bar. Theirs are stories of learning across disciplines and over boundaries, of close collaboration with teachers, of examining questions from a variety of perspectives, of jumping out of the perfectly good airplane of a college campus into the wide blue of the larger world of internships, research, or international study. And flying.
This trajectory transcends academic disciplines. For Kathy Thornton, the fascination is with the intersection of history and environment. For Eshan Patel ’13, it’s the intricacies and mysteries of human biology. Patel, a double major in biology and psychology in the premedical program, graduated this spring with the Department of Biology Research Award. This summer, he’s headed to Johns Hopkins as a postbaccalaureate fellow after earning an NIH Intramural Research Training Award. He’ll be studying molecular-based international HIV epidemiology under the mentorship of Thomas Quinn, MD, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Global Health and Chief of the International HIV/STD Section at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease.
Patel traces the parabola of his rising star directly back to his first year at Washington College when he met Professor Mindy Reynolds in general biology class. When she introduced him to her research in human lung exposure to heavy metals, he was hooked enough to apply as one of two students to her summer research program. “She was able to really guide me beyond what I wanted to do in terms of a biology or psychology degree,” Patel says. “She introduced me to the concept of research and how it is a separate avenue of learning.”
She also gave him the opportunity to write up his research findings as first author on a paper which she then submitted to the journal Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology. He presented his research at the annual meeting of the Society of Toxicology in San Francisco, where he networked with scientists across disciplines and delved deeper into the field of toxicology. His published paper, as well as the research experience he gained in Reynolds’ summer program, also helped him land an internship the following summer in the Pediatric Oncology Education program at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, TN.
“I wanted exposure to pediatrics, and toxicology could easily be applied to cancer biology, so this seemed like a good fit,” Patel says. “I already knew how to perform cell culture and western-blot analysis because of my experience in Dr. Reynolds’ lab.” At St. Jude, Patel worked in the Department of Chemical Biology and Therapeutics in the lab of Dr. Taosheng Chen. He also was able to work with pediatric patients, an experience that “solidified my decision to pursue a career in medicine. The patients at St. Jude were beyond inspiring.”
A world away from the quiet focus of the research lab, Ryan Bankert ’13 found at Washington College the perfect union of his mutual passions for Spanish and business. A double major in both disciplines (business management and Hispanic studies) with a minor in economics, Bankert graduated this spring with nearly half a dozen honors, among them the top two business prizes, the W. Dennis Berry ’87 Leadership Award and the Stanley A. Schottland Business Leadership Award. He also graduated with that Holy Grail of solid employment, a position in Stanley Black & Decker’s Leadership Program. The company appeals to him not only for its breadth of product lines but also for its international reach. Eventually, he wants to work in some capacity with Latin American markets.
It was the Spanish half of his major that pushed Bankert into a summer internship in Santiago, Chile, where he honed his business skills while immersing in Chilean culture. Traveling abroad is one of the Spanish major’s requirements, and with help from Spanish Professor Shawn Stein and the College’s Career Development Office, Bankert found the internship with a digital software start-up. Working directly beneath the owner in sales and marketing, Bankert targeted companies that were potential clients, researched them, and pitched his proposals. Because the company was small, the principals pushed him into every part of the process. It was intense not only for the hands-on, real-world business education, but also for the cultural experience. Daily, Bankert says, he pushed himself out of his comfort zone to communicate effectively in his second language in a business environment. Though he initially felt over his head, he quickly acclimated.
That kind of personal and intellectual risk-taking Bankert attributes largely to his experience at Washington College. Small classes and direct attention from professors demand engagement that requires some element of emotional risk. “You have this school that says, you need to speak in class, you need to challenge your professors’ ideas and other students’ ideas … you’re challenging yourself and risking what others are going to think of that idea, and you’re risking your ability to defend your ideas. I think what the school does is callouses you to that fear.”
At the opposite end of the academic spectrum, English and drama major Maegan Clearwood ’13 shared a similar experience when Professor Kate Moncrief, the English Department chair, suggested that for her Senior Capstone Experience she combine the strengths of both majors and act as the dramaturge in the College’s performance of The Tragedy of King Lear—a huge deal since the play would be the farewell performances of two beloved drama professors, Tim Maloney and Jason Rubin. “I didn’t want to do it at first,” says Clearwood, who minored in creative writing and graduated with top awards in drama and writing. For one thing, she wasn’t deeply familiar with the role of the dramaturge, a literary editor who studies dramatic compositions and works with directors and authors on the texts. Second, she would be working with her professors in an entirely new way, as a peer. “It’s kind of a leap from being a student to being a colleague. We would be collaborating together.”
To deepen her understanding of the play and its cultural history, she traveled to the Royal Shakespeare Theatre Company and the Globe Theatre archives in England to study stage practices, reviews, prompt books and photographs. “Talk about empowering,” Clearwood says. “I like to say that I came out of my dramaturgy shell after the England experience because I felt as close to being an expert as I could. And that was part of what made me feel comfortable talking to Jason and Dr. Moncrief on a professional level.”
Her success led her to apply to a dramaturgy debut panel at an August conference of the Association for Theatre in Higher Education. She is one of three panelists chosen and the only undergrad. “I’m going to speak to ATHE members, graduate students and theatre educators about my work, specifically about my research in England, its role as my Capstone Experience and the collaborative nature of the project.” After that, she’s off to a one-year dramaturgy education apprenticeship at the Olney Theatre Center for the Arts in Olney, MD.
Her early college expectations of being an “English major who does creative writing” were completely blown away by working across the English, drama and writing disciplines, giving her far more options than she realized existed. “I’ve seen how all of the skills I’ve developed can be used in so many different ways,” she says. “And my professors pushed me to do as much as I could. They knew I could do it, and they knew it would be difficult. I tried things I never thought I would.”
Likewise, Kyle Benk ’13 found that majoring in computer science was only an opening into wider possibilities fed by his passion for the stock market. At the same time he was developing his skills as a mobile app developer, he was learning more about the stock market through the Alex. Brown Student Investment Fund. Established by W. James Price IV, a former partner and managing director of Alex. Brown & Sons and an emeritus member of the College’s Board of Visitors and Governors, the program puts students in charge of investing $500,000, from researching companies and industries to working with investment professionals. “I highly recommend it to anyone who’s interested in the stock market,” Benk says. “It enhances all of your skills.”
For his Senior Capstone, Benk decided to combine the disciplines, creating a mobile app that would let users practice how to research, analyze and invest in stocks by creating virtual portfolios and using real-time stock data to watch them work. “It’s basically a virtual stock trader,” he says of his new app called TradeTrainer. “It’s something you can dip your feet in. If you don’t like it, that’s fine, but if you do like it, you can actually see your money.” The more you work with it, Benk says, the more experienced and confident you’ll become in real investing.
The fourth member of his family to graduate from Washington College, Benk earned departmental honors. His TradeTrainer app went live in mid-April.
By Wendy Mitman Clarke
Wendy Mitman Clarke wrote about bird-banding in the spring issue of the WCM.