A Week of New Discoveries
As a freshman, I still don't have any concrete plans on what I want to do in the future. But with my love of art and my fascination with the human body, I thought what better way to spend the last week of my winter break than with George Wohlreich '64 at the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia, which boasts several hundred rare medical collections and anomalies, including the tallest skeleton on display in North America, conjoined twins, and much more.
I shadowed the museum educator, Laurel Weller, throughout my five days by attending informative board and public relations meetings. Not only did I get to learn about how a non-profit organization is structured, but I learned what each member of the team brings to the table and how important their joint effort was to the success of the museum. Most interesting, I felt was the energy they put into their Philly Health Info website, integrating health education with the medical knowledge they brought to the public in their museum.
One of the most memorable experiences for me though was definitely getting to see bits and pieces of their collection that were not on display - slabs of skin, strange medical tools, and 600-year-old books, to name a few. The latter was my favorite and I got to examine these in a vault of sorts where they had six stories of books, shelf after shelf. I wasn't told to wear gloves but this may have been because the pages were in surprisingly good shape. In fact, they were in better shape than books I've had for just 10 years. One book from the 1400s was filled with plant illustrations (my main attraction) and to my disbelief, the 3,000 or so pages of illustrations were each precisely colored in with green pastel! Even the letters were painstakingly colored with red - phenomenal! I was blown away by the beautiful old books as well as the librarians' utmost devotion to the collection.
To end the week, Dr. Wohlreich took us Swattie externs to a local Korean restaurant. It was a great meal and the recurring theme was "Comparing Swat: then and now," which was quite entertaining. It warmed me to get to see a Swarthmore alumnus at the head of such a grand organization and to hear about how he got to that point. All in all, it was a week of new discoveries, whether it was commuting to Philly jostled alongside other business people or looking at my first "soap lady" with disturbed curiosity.
Having an externship with Will Saletan '87 at Slate's's Washington, D.C. office was a little like the time when, at five years old, I met my favorite children's radio personality face-to-face. I was incredulous. She was a real person, not just a disembodied voice! She had grey hair! She recorded in a studio!
Okay, so I wasn't quite as shocked this time around to find that the columnists I read on Slate every day - the Explainer, the Trailhead, the XX Factor - were actually human beings, mostly youngish, friendly, sneaker- and sweater-clad. Still, it felt like I had leaned into my computer for a closer look at the daily online newspaper and fallen into the fourth-floor assemblage of cubicles where the brainstorming, writing, and editing actually took place.
To somebody interested in journalism - particularly the kind of opinion-based, irreverent writing that Slate publishes - the chance to spend a week with Saletan, an alum who writes about such varied science and technology topics as gay sheep, leopard-print Tasers, and pigeon cyborgs for the Human Nature column, was one I couldn't pass up. Most of the Swatties I talked to at the D.C. extern reception during the week, who were doing externships ranging from making paper at an art gallery to going behind the scenes at NPR, felt the same way.
Mai Schwartz '10 and I spent the week helping Saletan out with research on a broad swath of topics he was considering writing about in Human Nature. Mai chased down the Bush administration's official stance on stem cell research at several different points and got stonewalled by a few cloning companies over the phone. I tracked down academic criticism of an unsavory thesis about human intelligence.
On Monday, we sat in on the staff's conference call-style editorial meeting, during which the writers bounced story ideas for the week off of each other and the New York office. It struck me as a little bit like a Swarthmore seminar gone blissfully off track as everyone tossed out and built on each others' ideas, mulling over the primary race, the Roe v. Wade anniversary, and whether Hillary Clinton was a little bit like Tracy Flick in "Election."
Although the first day we may have felt a little bit like strange transplants in the office, by the middle of the week we were chatting with the entire staff about how they'd gotten to Slate. Some declared they were in retreat from print (or "tree") journalism, while some had followed paths from television news production, weekly magazines, and book writing. What they had in common, it appeared, was an interest in new media and an eye for quirky stories interesting enough to increase the average Slate-reading Swarthmore student's procrastination time by at least 1.3 hours per day.
One week is a difficult amount of time to be an extern. I felt like I left just as I was getting a grasp of what everyone did at the office and how a story made it from the first inkling of an idea, through copy editors and the New York-based art department, to its published form on the site every day. But hopefully some of the items Mai and I worked on will make it into an article soon.
Although it doesn't matter, really. The week showed me just how many different kinds of journalism there are. It showed me that even for people who don't know right now exactly what they want to be when they grow up, there's something to do out there for people who like to think, read, write, be funny, be outraged, be analytical, or just be surrounded by interesting people with new ideas. Even if just for a week. />
Political science and French
No doubt we have once in our lives picked up a pencil and conducted a symphony in the middle of our rooms, or have dragged our fingers across a keyboard and enjoyed the gradations of notes we hear. Learning how to put those to dreams to work was just a small portion of what I did in my externship with Dr. Youngmoo Kim '93, assistant professor in Drexel University's Electrical and Computer Engineering department.
Under his tutelage, graduate and undergraduate students alike work on several independent but related projects with tools such as the Nintendo console gesture-based Wiimote, which can be modified to 'conduct' music, or a touch-screen that can be used to play instruments. Other fascinating and more complex projects include determining the similarity of two songs - no easy task - or recognizing multiple speakers, and, perhaps most fun of all, developing a game where the objective is to find the mood of a song and to try to match your guess to that of a partner. Not only is it entertaining, but it also provides a corpus of 'moods' for each song that can be then used for additional research.
I worked towards extracting phonemes (small packets of distinct sounds that make up words) from a database of sentences, trying to identify the speaker of each phoneme, and trying to identify a particular phoneme in a sentence given a training set. Immersing myself in such an invigorating environment - where, under Dr. Kim's guidance, progress was made at breakneck speed - was truly inspiring. I hope to carry that inspiration throughout the semester and hopefully during the summer as well.
Engineering and linguistics
When I decided to sign up for an externship, I had no idea how I would end up spending my last week of winter break, but I had high hopes after a great experience last year. This year, my interest was immediately piqued when I read Chris Plum's externship description at Carbon Trap Technologies. Chris, Class of 1975, is the president of this small start-up company on a novel system to capture CO2 from the air, with the hope that some day soon, their work can be used to decrease the amount of greenhouse gases emitted by power plants.
Since I'm not a chemist, the amount of work I could do in the lab was minimal. However, my skills as an engineer proved useful in analyzing raw data collected in Carbon Trap's laboratory. I was introduced to orthogonal array testing methods, and from collected data was able to outline some of the trends found in the test data for the company.
Chris also brought me along to represent Carbon Trap at an informational session at Penn State for senior engineers. We explained the mission Carbon Trap has designed for a senior project - the creation of a small reactor prototype for the first phase of the carbon sequestration system. With any luck, we were able to interest at least two chemical and two mechanical engineers, both of which are needed for the project's success. This was a great opportunity for me to meet representatives of other companies, as well as Penn State professors, thereby creating contacts that will be of use in my pursuit of a career in engineering.
Engineering and mathematics
Block Island, R.I.
During extern week, I joined nine other Swarthmore externs to shadow physicians at Cooper University Hospital in Camden, N.J. The externship was organized by Joe Becker '66, a retired radiologist who maintains contacts at Cooper. I was excited about the chance to gain some valuable clinical experience, but I had no idea just how illuminating the externship would be or how closely we would be able to interact with the doctors, nurses, and patients at the hospital. Over the course of the week, we shadowed physicians specializing in surgery, emergency medicine, trauma, pediatrics, and internal medicine, each for one day.
On Monday morning, my partner Scott Dalane '08 and I found the surgery unit, unsure of where we were going or what to expect. We were promptly given a pair of scrubs, shoe covers, surgical masks, and hair covers, told to scrub in, and shuttled to the OR, where the doctor was in the middle of performing a laparoscopic colorectomy on a patient, removing part of her cancerous large intestine. We watched the surgery from literally a few feet away, taking in the sights, sounds, and smells of the operating room, watching the surgeon confidently work to rid the patient of cancer. A few hours later, we observed a laparoscopic feeding tube insertion in a patient who could not swallow food. Later in the week, we saw a spinal tap on a gunshot victim and neurosurgery on a woman who suffered a fall and was facing potentially life-threatening brain inflammation.
These are only a few of our experiences. In the course of a single week, we got to experience the adrenaline rush of responding to vehicular collision victims brought in by helicopter, the helplessness of seeing patients without insurance come to the emergency room as a last resort after months of being in pain, and the heartbreak of losing a patient despite everything the doctors had done.
Just as valuable as these experiences were the interactions we had with dozens of people - primarily physicians and medical students, and a few patients as well - who shared advice and insights into their professions and the roads they took to get where they were. Overall, extern week was an amazing experience, and I am grateful to Career Services, Dr. Becker, and the hospital staff for the opportunity to participate.
Biology and education