Graduating Class Superlatives


Sarah Baker

Every group of students that graduates from The Rockefeller University is quite exceptional. Along the way to their PhDs the students who have worked here, struggled here, and accomplished here have become a family. Just like a family, each individual is unique—there is the crazy uncle, the positive go-getter sister, or the cousin that is late to every family meal. This year there are 30 students graduating with PhDs and they voted on who was at the extremes of different personality traits. Here are the results.

Best Dressed
Tasos Gogakos


Best Hair
Remzi Karayol and Sandra Jones


Best Facial Expressions
Linda Molla


Best Laugh
Malik Chaker-Margot and Yuehyi Gloria Wu


Devon Collins


Biggest Procrastinator
Gregory Goldberg and Thomas Hsiao


Lena Kutscher


Most Adventurous
Douglas Deutsch



Most Ambitious

Emily Dennis and Michael Mitchell


Most Changed Since 1st Year
Wendy Wang


Most Athletic
Laura Seeholzer



Most Artistic
Zhenrun Jerry Zhang



Most Likely to Affect Policy
Avital Percher



Most Likely to be Famous
Jason Pinger


Most Likely to be President
Andrew Gregg


Most Likely to be Working All Night Long
Sean McKenzie and Sze Sing Shaun Teo


Most Likely to Live the Longest
Kenneth Atkins and Jonathan Steinman


Most Likely to Return to Rockefeller as a PI
Raphael Cohn


Most Likely to Win a Nobel Prize
Lillian Cohn


Most Likely to Write a Best-Selling Novel
Andrew Milewski


Most Musical
Christopher Jenness and Kimberly Siletti



Word of the Month

Dakota Blackman

Pride (noun)

  1. a feeling of deep pleasure or satisfaction derived from one’s own achievements, the achievements of those with whom one is closely associated, or from qualities or possessions that are widely admired.
  2. the quality of having an excessively high opinion of oneself or one’s importance.

Briefly: LGBTQ stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer—terms that are meant to represent a diversity of sexualities and gender identities. Of course, there are only five letters in this acronym and many, many more than five identities within this group. For the purposes of this article, I refer to members of the LGBTQ+ community; some members (myself included) identify with one of these terms, some identify with all, and some do not identify with any. It is not my intention to leave out or invalidate those who do not align themselves with any of these five identifiers, but instead to describe a group that, in the month of June, is remembered, acknowledged, and celebrated through pride.

Given the complex and often fraught history of LGBTQ+ rights in the United States, it is appropriate that the movement is summed up by a word of equal complexity. According to Merriam-Webster, “pride” has a myriad of definitions, but I will focus on two here: the first, bearing a neutral (or perhaps even positive) connotation, is “a feeling of deep pleasure or satisfaction derived from one’s own achievements, the achievements of those with whom one is closely associated, or from qualities or possessions that are widely admired.” Conversely, the second holds a pointedly negative connotation: “the quality of having an excessively high opinion of oneself or one’s importance.”

The word’s etymological history, interestingly enough, mirrors the movement it describes: pride, which shares its roots with the adjective “proud,” is derived from Old English prud or prut, meaning “excellent and splendid” as well as “arrogant and haughty.” In Old English, in addition to other Indo-European languages (including Old French, Greek, and even Late Latin), there is only one word for pride, and it bears both a positive and negative connotation. In its negative form, pride is, by and large, discouraged. Perhaps most telling is the fact that pride is the deadliest of the seven deadly sins; too much pride and humans will assume they are God-like. In its positive form, some amount of pride is encouraged: it is a way to recognize one’s own achievements, “qualities, or possessions that are widely admired.”

For a very long time in the United States, being a member of the LGBTQ+ community was not considered a positive quality. Even if one was proud of their identity within this group, one had the potential to face very real and very serious repercussions for openly and visibly defying the norms of gender and sexuality. A particularly salient example of such repercussions was the 1969 police raid and subsequent riot at the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in New York City. The raid was said to be due to a substandard liquor license, but police often targeted designated LGBTQ+ spaces at this time. The riot at Stonewall Inn is considered the start of the LGBT rights movement in this country because those in the community openly and actively defied mistreatment on the basis of their identities. For many today, the ability to be visible, and to have pride, largely stems from the actions of these activists who fought and continue to fight for LGBTQ+ equality.

Today, pride is not all rainbows and glitter. (It’s a fair amount of rainbows and glitter, don’t get me wrong, but there’s certainly more to it than that.) Pride, as the definition suggests, is warranted for qualities that are “widely admired,” and being a member of the LGBTQ+ community is certainly not universally accepted, much less admired. Persecution for these identities, particularly among queer and trans people of color, is still rampant. We must not lose sight of the fact that, within the LGBTQ+ movement, having pride was, and still is, an act of resistance. However, we must also remember to acknowledge that the diversity in identity, self-expression, and school of thought within this community is certainly something to be uplifted, celebrated, and—to those in the community—to be proud of.


Cannes You Handle It? – A Diary of My Time at the 71st Annual Cannes Film Festival

Jim Keller

The 71st Annual Cannes Film Official Poster

It has been a lifelong dream of mine to cross the famous Promenade de la Croisette of the Cannes Film Festival. So when my husband, Dom, and I were planning our trip to Europe last year, we made sure that the dates coincided with those of the festival to ensure we could at least be in the presence of festival—even if we wouldn’t be able to attend any film screenings. What follows is an account of how we were able to attend it and what our experience was.

Step 1 – Accreditation

In February, we came across two helpful blogs: Best of Nice and Almost Ginger, which confirmed that we had a few options to actually attend some of the screenings. For one, we could apply for accreditation as a “Cannes Cinephile”. Second, we could purchase tickets to films that screen in the Director’s Fortnight and International Critic’s Week sections of the festival. Finally, if all else failed, we could simply park it on the beach and take in a selection or two from the Cannes “Cinema on the Beach” program. It seemed clear that the right path was accreditation, so we applied right away because the window was already open, and a few short weeks later we both were granted accreditation! It’s important to note that only 1,000 non-French citizens are granted this level of accreditation. As our trip drew nearer, the Official Selection was announced, followed by the schedule, and we set to work identifying the films that we wanted to see. In retrospect, we were naïve to think that we might be able to access some of the festival’s bigger offerings, but I digress. All along we had managed our expectations—even with our accreditation, we were excited just to have the opportunity to be there in the thick of it all. After all, the festival is primarily an event for critics, the press, and other industry professionals involved in everything from pitching films to acquisition and distribution.

 The Red Carpet (left) and tickets (right).

Step 2 – Transportation Musical Chairs

Spring in France is often fraught with transportation strikes affecting both regional trains and flights. Unfortunately, this year was no different but thanks to Twitter updates on the strikes, we could adjust our schedule accordingly. When all was said and done, we made several changes to the number of days we would stay in Nice once we received our accreditation, and our trip began in Berlin on May 4. But when we were gearing up to leave Berlin, we received notice that our Air France flight had been canceled and that we had been rebooked on a flight that was not scheduled to arrive in Nice until midnight. Not cool! We already had to be up at the crack of dawn to take the 40-minute train ride to Cannes; there was no way that we could lose nine hours in Nice. Luckily, I rebooked us on a flight that arrived in Nice at 6pm, whew!

Cinema on the Beach

The Red Carpet and LED Display

Step 3 – The Mad Dash

Our hotel was conveniently located behind the famous Hotel Negresco that sits on the Promenade des Anglais, and so it was a quick (15 minutes or so) walk to the train station. Here are some notes from the train:
“We’re up early to catch the train to Cannes from Nice. After a good night’s sleep, we are looking forward to all that Cannes has to offer. A quick walk up the street brought us to the Gare de Ville where we waited in line and purchased our roundtrip tickets for both days. The blue ticket machines were impossible to navigate—even with a little blog help. Some pictures of la mer et le soleil from the train along with a light breakfast of oeufs et des riz and we are more than ready for our day to begin! Next: Procure our badges!”

8:40 a.m. –

After running around like mad men, we found the Pontiero side and are safely waiting in line at the Cannes Cinephile tent to pick up our registration.

 9:05 a.m. –

Success! We scored free tickets to two screenings:
Rendez-vous with Ryan Coogler at Salle Buñuel (Palais) at 4:00 p.m. and 10 Years Thailand, the latest from Thai director Aphichatpong Weerasethakul at 7:00 p.m. at the Salle Du Soixantième. Afterwards we scurried over to the Marriot to score tickets for Les Confins De Monde by Guillaume Nicloux at 11:45 a.m. and then to the Miramar to try for tickets for the 3:00 p.m. screening of Paul Dano’s premiere Wildlife, but were told we don’t need tickets with a badge. Curiously enough, the guards at Theatre Croisette (Marriott) told us it is better to have tickets (blue line) than Cinephile access (green line) so we are calling their bluff and waiting in green.

While Dom held our place in line, I grabbed a quick bite at a nearby café on the Croisette: a continental breakfast consisting of tea, orange juice, a baguette with butter and strawberry jam—delish.

11:12 a.m. –

Well, we’re inside the Theatre Croisette! When the crowd began to move, we realized quickly that the ticketed line was given priority (as the guard had said), and after a suggestion from a fellow Cinephile, we ducked under the cords that separated the line and into the ticketed line. In we went! SUCCESS!

First Film: Les Confins De Monde by Guillaume Nicloux – 11:45 a.m. Theatre Croisette

The film follows Robert Tassen (Gaspard Ulliel) from 1945-1946 as he seeks Vo Binh, who is responsible for killing his family. Along the way he meets and falls in love with a Vietnamese prostitute (Lang-Khê Tran) and develops a friendship with a writer (Gérard Depardieu). The film has several awkward transitions and skips along rather unevenly. It also has a very unresolved ending. What’s more, the gunshots in the battle scenes sounded  very cheap and there is too much focus on the male sex organ—from talking about it to showing it.

I appreciate the gay character, but the idea of it was introduced too late in the film to hold any real weight. The relationship with the writer is unestablished. After the film, several cast members, including Ulliel and Tran, came out for a Q&A.

1:45 p.m. –

I joined Dom in line to try to get into the 3pm screening of Paul Dano’s Wildlife, we’ll see!

After we failed to get into Wildlife, which I’ve since learned is amazing, with a particularly strong performance by Carey Mulligan in the leading role, we decided to take some photos on the opposite side of the Croisette while making our way slowly to Salle Buñuel for the Rendez-Vous with Ryan Coogler. When we finally found the theater, we were told by a woman that there were a ton of people queuing for the event upstairs. I wanted to at least have the experience of trying to get in the Buñuel, so Dom and I forged ahead. But Dom became anxious about the bag checks because he had his food and didn’t want to throw it out so we agreed to meet at the gate where the Salle Du Soixantième was visible from. It wasn’t like I had a chance to get in anyway, right? WRONG!

Once through the security, I decided to take the elevator up as opposed to the escalator because I figured that people would be queuing in them. I stepped in the elevator, and after a stop or two, a young woman exclaimed “This elevator is so slow!” I turned to her, recognizing her as another English-speaking American, and we probably had but a minute or two to chat when the doors opened onto the 5th floor. We stepped out together and were trying to get our bearings on where we should be when people started running (presumably from the escalators). She grabbed my hand and said “Come on, we’re getting in. I’ll use my face if nothing else.” It was the Cannes Film Festival’s version of “Come with me if you want to live!”

Before I knew it, I was being pulled through the crowd, and though a woman behind me protested, straight into the Salle Buñuel with nary a security guard asking either of us for anything. Once the door was open with the frenzied crowd, it couldn’t be closed. We found some seats following a run-in with a young security guard who was trying to explain that the reserved seat sign on one seat meant the entire row was reserved. I kept apologizing for my newfound friend, who was fearless and uninterested in jumping through anyone’s hoops. Once seated, we became fast friends and learned that we would be in Paris at the same time (also in Le Marais) and that we both lived in New York City

We were both planning to take a few photos and take off within 20 mins. So, after a litany of famous people were announced and revealed themselves, including The Weeknd, and Ryan Coogler and his wife, we began plotting our exit. Ubha, as she was named, said that we had no choice but to duck down as we walked between the slightly elevated stage and the seats where The Weeknd was sitting. It was another “Come with me if you want to live!” moment, but this time I had my doubts. I was certain that if I followed her, I would be lambasted by security. So, we said a bit of a sad goodbye (but not before Ubha had taken my contact info), and I watched as Ubha made her way between the stage and disappeared through the far exit unscathed. I shrugged, took a deep breath and followed suit. Once outside, I looked feverishly for Ubha and found her going down the escalator. I shouted “Ubha!” She turned with a smile and we were reunited. Inside, Ubha decided to join me to meet up with Dom. We met him at the designated spot and began chatting. Ubha mentioned that she wanted to stop by the Scandinavian location and before we could join her, we saw a demonstration on Muay Thai kickboxing (from the Thai delegation at Cannes). One woman held a pad while another woman kicked it high over her head twenty times! Pretty cool stuff. Ubha had to jet but said she’d be in touch.

Next up, we headed to Salle Du Soixantième for 10 Years Thailand, which ended up being four short films created by Weerasethakul along with three other Thai directors. Before the screening, I met Niger, a gay writer from the U.K. He told me that Wildlife was a masterpiece and that it was his favorite film so far of the festival. Because we had a lot of time, I ended up chatting with him and another woman who worked with distributors to bring films to Bermuda. For the first time at the festival, I really got a good grasp on just how much of an industry event it is.

Anyway, the three of us chatted about films, actors, actresses, the industry, and even Trump and Brexit. It really was fascinating to get the foreigner’s perspective on all these things, and especially on Trump. I was also able to impart my knowledge of films that premiered in New York (and Los Angeles) that Dom and I had already seen: Annihilation and Disobedience, and was able to give the woman the tip on Hereditary doing well because she mentioned her difficulty in securing several films for screening in Bermuda.

I said goodbye to my two new pals when the press line started to enter and returned to my ever-patient Bunny (my pet name for Dom) waiting in the Cinephile ticket line just around the corner.

Second Film: 10 Years Thailand by Aditya Assarat, Wisit Sasanatieng, Chatayarna Sriphol, and Aphichatpong Weerasethakul – 7:00 p.m. Salle Du Soixantième

As I mentioned, the film was a collection of shorts and all the directors were on hand to present the film. In fact, they filed past the four of us (we sat with Niger and the woman from Bermuda).

2a: The first is a film about how art is monitored by the authorities in Thailand and about the difficulty of putting oneself out there altogether. There were two arcs, one: the plight of an artist to display her work in a local, hip gallery, and two: the difficulty faced by a local soldier in disclosing his true feelings about a female friend. I quite liked the film for its simplicity and restraint. It was very interesting to see a contemporary view of Thailand.

2b: The second film is set in a world where creatures with feline heads and mannerisms wear human clothing and walk on hind legs. These creatures have one objective that we know of: to track and kill their prey (humans). But in this world, one human has found a way to disguise himself among them, even participating in the rituals of howling and throwing stones at suspected humans. This human is unwittingly lured into a trap that leads to his own demise. The film touches on themes of kindness to strangers and the plight of the outsider. It’s also a film that fits snugly next to the first.

I should say now that where the first two short films were easily palatable, the next two were increasingly less so. Therefore, they are more difficult to describe.

2c: The third film is set in a world where a regal looking woman controls everything around her, literally with the touch of a button. At least, that is what we are led to believe by the filmmaker from the outset. What follows is a world that works according to the clockwork dictated (presumably) by the regal woman, where children carry other children around a track, the same children are indoctrinated into a society similar to the Boyscouts of America, where once in, they are taught a chant: “Thumbs up!” In the chant, they slap their chests with one hand, draw it out in front of them, and make the “thumbs up” sign—perhaps a comment on social media “liking” culture? The world is disrupted when the woman presses the pause button on a smart phone device, which also stops the music of the film. Up to this point, the film is fairly easy to follow, but the film takes off in a very trippy direction and it impossible for me to describe everything that happens. But needless to say, it becomes trippier and trippier as it progresses.

At this point, I’ll pause to say that the theatre this entire time had no A/C and people began to take notice as their attention waned.

2d: As I mentioned, the films became progressively difficult to follow but none more than the last film. Here, traditional Thai music mingles with the sounds of a marching band (offscreen) while the camera focuses on a statue. The marching band remains off camera the entire film, and aside from the obvious focus on the leader and a few quips from locals hanging around the spot where the statue is, there is no real through line to the film. This, combined with the heat, caused many people to walk out, including the woman from Bermuda.

Afterwards, we reconvened with Niger for the rest of the evening, chatting and learning all he has learned from ten years covering the festival. We got to see the red carpet come alive during one of the premieres that evening from several feet away, tucked safely behind a barricade with everyone else. But thanks to the enormous LED display, it was easy to see who was walking down the stairs and making their debut on the Croisette. We also got to see the chairs being setup for “Cinema on the Beach”. At around 9pm we took the train back to Nice with Niger, where we discussed any number of things, least of all politics.

The next day, because we had experienced a full day at Cannes the day before, we decided to catch one film in the morning and then head back to Nice to walk the Promenade des Anglais and Old Nice. Not being enthused with the slate of Cannes Classics tickets available to us from the Cinephile office, we opted instead to buy tickets to the Director’s Fortnight screening of Joueurs by Marie Monge.

Third Film: Joueurs by Marie Monge – 11:45 a.m. Theatre Croisette:

The film follows Ella (Stacy Martin) who helps run her father’s restaurant. Here, she hires Abel (Tahar Rahim) as a server. Abel, a staple in the cosmopolitan Paris underground circle of gambling, including extreme sports and organized crime, turns Ella onto a life where adrenaline and money prevail. Soon Ella’s life is turned upside-down as she falls deeper (in love and trouble) with Abel; she even turns on her own family. The film chugs along at a clip until the third act, which sees at least three opportunities to end the film, but regrettably passes them by. With that said, it was one of the better films we caught at the Festival.

Thank you for sharing in my experience. There certainly is a lot more that I could say, such as how I more than likely saw Jessica Chastain and Fan Bing Bing in Nice being ushered into a van outside of the Negresco Hotel, or how we got denied entry into a screening of Christophe Honoré’s Plaire, Aimer et Courir Vite, but those stories will have to wait for another time.

Next month, For Your Consideration returns with a look at some of the performances to look out for this year as the Oscar race inches closer.


Culture Corner

Emotional Immediacy in Recent Movies

Bernie Langs

Warning: Spoilers ahead!

(Source: Wikipedia)

The powerful lessons of the arts, can be used by each of us as tools for enabling the expansion of our emotional dictionaries. As the woes of the world grow in seemingly new dimensions with undercurrents of danger and potential violence, we are experiencing them through media and social network platforms at any moment of our day. I have come to depend on artistic media as a way of allaying the underlying state of anger and frustration induced by the current pervasive toxic political and cultural environment. There are many recently produced movies available on cable channels, Netflix, and other services that remind us of the complexities of our inner states, and teach us lessons about life, love and more, giving us respite and pause from the daily grind of pervasive anxieties. After a typical day’s deluge of negative news stories, I watch movies and shows to find solace in characters placed in extraordinary and unique situations, and in doing so, I become attuned to a broader depth of emotions.

As contemporary comedic dramas go, The Edge of Seventeen is a marvelous movie, starring the formidable Hailee Steinfeld as high school student Nadine Franklin caught in the whirlwind of being a strong-headed outcast at school, save for her bond with her childhood best friend. There have been many movies about the odd-person-out at school, but I venture to say that this is absolutely the best. Edge is startlingly funny, with Woody Harrelson playing one of her teachers who is placed in the uncomfortable position of having to hear out the details of Nadine’s constant travails. Harrelson has proven to be a powerful actor over the years, recently starring in and receiving a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his role as the small-town sheriff in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and as a beastly drug lord running a bare knuckle fight ring in Out of the Furnace. Almost every line he speaks in Edge generates delightful laughter, a return to the masterful comic timing he displayed on television years ago in his first major role as the dim-witted, endearing character Woody on NBC’s hit Cheers. Edge is much more than a study of teens going through growing pains. It’s a beautiful snapshot of young people today with in-your-face, realistic dialogue about sex and drinking and the tricky dynamics and pressures of friendships in a text messaging world. The supporting cast of Nadine’s schoolmates includes the nuanced and understated performance by Hayden Szeto as Erwin, her shy, smart, and talented admirer. The plotline mostly revolves around how Nadine’s one true friendship with Krista (Haley Lu Richardson) is ruined as she angrily refuses to accept that Krista has become the girlfriend of her older brother, Darian Franklin (Blake Jenner). Darian is popular, and is a school star in academics and sports. He has also become the rock for their needy widowed mother (Kyra Sedgwick), who often depends on him while serving in her role as single parent and family breadwinner. By watching the maturity and awareness of many of the movie’s high school students, I unexpectedly understand more of the world of my 20-year-old daughter. This is a joy of a film and I’ve watched it on cable at least five times.

Manchester by the Sea, written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan, is an overwhelming study in tragedy, with its actors and actresses displaying stunning skills and emotional range. I’d heard about the powerful sadness of Manchester before viewing it but the harsh sorrow of the movie still came down on me with an intense immediacy. Casey Affleck plays the lead role for which he won an Academy Award. I expected a “situational” tear-jerker, a film about men and women facing a bad turn of life and learning to cope with the fallout. Instead, Manchester is the story of how a man sets off a series of events that leads to the accidental death of his children and how, years later, he has made no progress in moving on. Michelle Williams, a young actress of extraordinary brilliance, plays his ex-wife; their final confrontation, where she pleads with him to discover a way to forgive himself in an act of surprising reconciliation and healing, is an incredible cinematic moment. As the movie began to wrap up, I was suddenly devastated with the realization that Manchester would not have a typical Hollywood ending where lessons are learned, and everyone moves on to some degree. Oddly enough, I found myself hoping for that sense of cliché and relief. But Affleck’s character, on the surface a simple man, but at times violent and unlikable, is so completely lost in guilt and grief, which he will carry in an internal prison for all his remaining days. It is a portrait of a young man unlike any I’ve ever witnessed on the screen, a hard lesson about actions and circumstances from which someone chooses not to return to any semblance of normal life after experiencing a terrible loss.

The Florida Project is a superlative “dramedy” co-written and directed by Sean Baker and for which Willem Dafoe earned Best Supporting Actor nominations at the Academy Awards and Golden Globes. He shines as Bobby Hicks, the manager of the Magic Castle, a motel in Kissimmee, Florida near Walt Disney World. Bobby handles tricky situations again and again, struggling with the problems of the motel’s residents, many of whom are engulfed in near destitute situations. The story centers on a single mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite), and her six year old daughter, Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), as Halley falls deeper and deeper into desperation and trouble. As Moonee and the other children literally run around the area without supervision and with surprising independence, the viewer can’t help but fall into their strange yet innocent world. These children, all under ten years old, are crude, wild, and unexpectedly sharp and funny. I couldn’t tell if these young actors and actresses had been allowed to purely improvise many of their well-delivered and hysterical observations or if the script called for them. The various motels, abandoned fields, and apartment complexes, along with kitsch fast food and souvenir joints, are presented through a cinematography with a rich palette of muted colors. I am a frequent visitor to Orlando, and The Florida Project exposed me to a disturbing societal underbelly of which I was not aware. Looming large in the background throughout the movie, for both the film’s characters and audience, is the shadow and unseen majesty of Disney World, a contrasting paradise to what these children experience daily as they hustle tourists for ice cream money and create other dangerous mischief. The final sequences left me completely stunned and overwhelmed, especially the final closing minutes which were as uniquely memorable and moving as it can get..

Another notable film available for streaming is Get Out, which has been widely praised, earning first time director Jordan Peele an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, resulting in the category’s first African American winner. The movie is billed as a horror flick but it is much more than that, especially with its tension-relieving humor. Outside of one difficult sequence, the violence in Get Out is in line with what has been readily shown on television. There has been a lot of press about how Get Out is an original take on race relations in the United States. I found that the movie’s lessons are unusually subtle and it takes a lot of thinking on the part of the audience to appreciate the depth of what Peele is trying to convey. The film sets up clichéd characterizations of white and black tensions that veer off unexpectedly and don’t quite resolve the way the viewer might think they would. Peele is smart, quick, and extremely funny. I recently caught much of his hysterical 2016 film acting debut alongside Keegan-Michael Key, his partner for many projects, in Keanu; an absurdly laugh-out-loud adventure of two middle class friends forced to pose as tough street assassins as they work to infiltrate a violent gang who has kidnapped Peele’s kitten and made it a coveted gangster mascot. Peele is a force to be reckoned with, a young director and writer who knows how to make his audience laugh and recoil in shock, while also giving them much to think about. I can’t wait to see what he does next.


Life on a Roll


Between Sea and Sky

Elodie Pauwels

Taormina in Sicily is a corner of paradise, especially when you discover it before the busy tourist season starts.

It is perched 200 meters above the Ionian Sea and surrounded by small mountains. Mount Etna keeps an eye on the ancient city. The 360-degree view from the Greek Theatre (“Teatro Greco”) is probably the most beautiful panorama I saw. For further  adventure nearby, nothing was better than discovering Isola Bella by foot via its isthmus.

Teatro Greco

Isola Bella

Visit Elodie’s photoblog:


Natural Selections Interviews Ali Brivanlou


Natural Selections interviews Ali Brivanlou, Principal Investigator Laboratory of Stem Cell Biology and Molecular Embryology, the Rockefeller University.

Guadalupe Astorga

Together with his team, Ali investigates the molecular pathways underlying cell communication during development. Notably, his team was recently able to preserve human embryos in culture for up to 14 days. This revolutionary achievement will illuminate unknown information about our own origins that may be crucial to understanding and reversing neurodegenerative diseases, repairing diseased tissues, and growing human organs in vitro.


NS: What differentiates a stem cell from any other cell type?

AB: Stem cells come in different flavors: embryonic stem cells (ESCs) and adult stem cells (ASCs). The former are derived from the early embryo, a few days after fertilization, while adult stem cells are continuously present in almost all tissues of our body, and allow for regeneration. The big difference between these two groups is their range of ability. A human or a mouse ESC can give rise to all the organs of the body. As time moves forward, their potential decreases. So, i.e., an adult hematopoietic stem cell can only give rise to blood derivatives, and bone stem cells will give rise to bone. This difference is intense, because ESCs are the only cells that can mimic a fertilized egg and give rise to a whole organism. They contain all the information sufficient and necessary to create all the organs and their organization. These are very unique properties that put ESCs on top of the hierarchy of decision-making that allows all the fates to be established. This is really exciting because we can use human stem cells in clinical settings to repair or replace tissues; and also because it teaches us, at the most fundamental level, how cell fate is established.


NS: What gives a stem cell the information to form a whole individual?

AB: This is a very old biological problem. About 2,300 years ago, Aristotle described the development of a bird inside an egg and created the foundation of current embryology. At the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th there were two schools of theories. One defined by the British school of embryology, suggesting that fate is based on lineage – you know who you are based on who your parents and grandparents are. The other is the American school, suggesting that [it] is not the lineage that determines your fate, but your neighborhood – you know who you are depending on where you end up being and who your neighbors are. It ends up that the American school was correct, not the British. Fate in an embryo is determined by where a cell finds herself. I figured out that this is mediated by cell-cell communication, cells have a dialogue. As the embryo grows and the number of cells increases, their neighborhood becomes more complex and their fate more refined. This is mediated by receptors and secreted factors. Ligands come out of the cells and bind receptors in the recipient cell that sends the signal to the nucleus. An extrinsic piece of information becomes an intrinsic response in transcription. This allows cells to gradually figure out what they will be. We learned their language and how to manipulate it to change their fate. Many people in the stem cell field are interested in the applications of this knowledge. I am still interested in learning more about this communication.

When I was a graduate student at Berkeley and during my postdoc at Harvard, it was still questionable whether the American school was right. So I asked, “If the neighborhood defines your fate, what kind of fate would you have if you don’t have any neighbors?” Cell communication as a fate determination mechanism is conserved over millions of years. So, I took a frog embryo, which is a ball of 2,000 cells, and I dissociated them so they could no longer communicate. Any ligand sent was diluted to infinity in the medium so other cells could not “hear” it. The result was very surprising. All embryonic cells: those going to become gut, or kidney, liver, muscle, bone; every single one converted to a brain cell. Not receiving any signals pushes a cell towards a brain fate. This was very controversial when I published it because one thinks that this is the most sophisticated organ, but how can this sophistication arise from zero communication? At some point, a group of cells in the embryo decide to no longer listen to their neighbors. They close all communications and give rise to the dorsal anterior part of the nervous system. In order to generate other fates, cells have to say “Do not close your windows or your doors, listen”. This complexity is something I’m still trying to dissect.


NS: Before it was possible to obtain embryonic stem cells only from embryos. Now they can be taken from different tissues. How is this done?

AB: In 2012, a Nobel Prize was given to two of my heroes: John Gurdon and Shinya Yamanaka. They showed different things with a common denominator: that biological time can go backwards. Yamanaka showed that any adult cell can be reprogrammed to behave like an ESC. John Gurdon, who mentored both my postdoc and graduate student advisor, was the first to clone an animal. He showed that [it] is possible to create a whole individual from the nucleus of a skin cell of a tadpole (that is ahead in time) placed in an egg. But it took more than 50 years to recognize John Gurdon for his contribution. If you ask people which one was the first animal to be cloned, they always say Dolly, never the frog. But Dolly was cloned decades after the frog, people didn’t care the same. It was only when it got closer to humans that people started to really get interested.


NS: Usually embryos are implanted in women about one week after fertilization. Before you were able to keep embryos in culture for 14 days, nothing was known about this second week of development. What are the potential implications of these discoveries?

AB: It has tremendous implications. Mammalian development post implantation has always remained a mystery. The architecture and geometry of the embryo changes as it attaches to the walls of the uterus and it becomes invisible. We showed what happens after implantation in humans, unveiling, for the first time, our own origins. This was spectacular and unexpected because we showed that the human embryo has all the information to sustain its development at least for 14 days in the absence of maternal inputs. It was mesmerizing to see that self-organization occurs in the embryo, cells decide their fate and they organize in a specific structure of concentric circles, generating waveforms from the center to the edge. We stopped at 14 days because there’s a guideline in the United States, called the 14-day rule.


NS: If there was a reevaluation of the 14-day rule, where would you set the new limit and why?

AB: We are in discussions with the National Academy of Science, the National Academy of Medicine and the National Academy of Bioengineering. A lot of this work is done in collaboration with my physics colleague Eric Siggia from RU. We are trying to answer questions like “Do we want to move further than 14 days?” If the answer is yes, “How far do we want to go?”.

I’m very happy and proud to initiate the debate so we can create a dialogue regardless of our background, culture, language, or religion and together discuss how the new technology available can [help us] reevaluate this rule. This is a great question and the debate will resolve by itself. My personal opinion is that if we can double the 14 days, if the embryo survives, that would be a great advance for the 21st century, and we could get important information about organ formation, or organogenesis, because it happens during this time window.


NS: How far are you from creating human organs from stem cells?

AB: Very close actually. This work is in review in Nature now. Once you can make a human embryo, the mother of all the organs, you can make organs by [the] hundreds. If you know the language being used among cells to distinguish fate, then I can assure you, it’s a matter of [a] short term.


NS: What other passion do you share with science?

AB: The passion of curiosity, pushing the boundaries of the limit of what’s beyond. This is a human tradition, from Christopher Columbus wanting to see what is on the other side, to the pioneers of the West Coast wanting to see the boundaries of the land. It’s a natural phenomenon in us, to be attracted to the unknown. When I look down that microscope, my eyes send signals to my brain that tell me, “I want to know where I come from.”  Where does that need derive from? That need of self-understanding, I think is very human. What drives it? I don’t know, but for me it’s a necessity, not a choice. I need to know, I don’t know why, but I need to know.


Quotable Quote


“My disabilities have not been a significant handicap in my field, which is theoretical physics. Indeed, they have helped me in a way by shielding me from lecturing and administrative work that I would otherwise have been involved in. I have managed, however, only because of the large amount of help I have received from my wife, children, colleagues, and students. I find that people in general are very ready to help, but you should encourage them to feel that their efforts to aid you are worthwhile by doing as well as you possibly can.”

-Stephen Hawking


Life on a Roll

Morocco Log #1

Qiong Wang

Stepping straight onto the tarmac of Casablanca Mohammed V International Airport after a 6 hour flight with the Royal Air Morocco, I am officially on the continent of Africa!

The reputation of Casablanca would be overrated if it were not for the magnificent Hassan II Mosque by the Atlantic Ocean. Marrakesh, on the other hand, is what I imagined Morocco would be like – vibrant colors, ancient history, and exotic culture blended with chaos everywhere. Djema Square at the heart of the old medina is the biggest outdoor marketplace in Marrakesh. Every day, when the sky dims into a scarlet sunset and the square is re-lit with a sea of tent light bulbs, when the delicious smell of BBQ travels to your nose through clouds of smoke that rise above vender stalls, when the boisterous crowd and circus animals pour into the square from all directions, you can’t help but realize that this place has just woken up and the show is about to begin.

Wasting Not

Sarah Baker


Ainhoa Perez Garijo

“Hokusai’s Great Wave” by Bonnie Monteleone, 2016

Greenepeace USA, Turtle and Plastic in the Ocean © Troy Mayne / Oceanic Imagery Publications


Nine years ago Ainhoa Perez Garijo took the first steps towards reducing her waste and today she and her family live almost completely waste-free, meaning they do not use any unnecessary plastics and try not to not send anything to a landfill. When Ainhoa first moved to New York City almost ten years ago she became aware of the massive amount of waste that the city produces every day. The waste suddenly became “visible” to her as she realized she “was coming back from shopping with more plastic and packaging than food.” Although her transition to zero-waste was a slow process, she thinks that she could have done it more quickly and hopes that she is at the forefront of a movement that will pave the way for others.

Ainhoa grew up in the large metropolis of Madrid, Spain, and always cared about both animals and nature. Most people that she knows who live zero-waste grew up “close to nature, in the middle of the mountains, or close to the ocean,” but that was not the case for her, and she loves living in big cities and enjoying all that cities have to offer. Being environmentally aware and living in a city do not have to be mutually exclusive.

Ainhoa is currently a post-doctoral associate in Herman Stellar’s lab where she studies the “last will of dying cells,” or how cells undergoing apoptosis communicate with neighboring cells in order to coordinate collective cell death. You may recognize her from her involvement in the Child and Family Center on the Rockefeller University’s campus. A mother of two daughters, she believes that her kids have been extremely helpful in her path to zero-waste. As she says, “It’s really funny to see how my older daughter is aware of plastics and reminds her dad when he forgets to refuse any plastic item.” Ainhoa is also passionate about teaching and is currently part of the Scientist-in-Residence program, a NYC-wide initiative that matches scientists with classrooms in the NYC area to bring scientific research and expertise to high-need schools.

This past year, Ainhoa partnered with Rockefeller’s Science Communication and Media group to launch the Science & Nature documentary series, featuring various documentaries about the environment, each followed by a discussion about how to promote more sustainable practices on campus. Ainhoa wants to inspire the campus using documentaries similar to those that challenged her to change her daily life and become aware of the issues that we as a community have the opportunity to tackle. So far, Ainhoa has shown two documentaries in the year-long series, and this initiative has already brought together many people who have offered some great suggestions about how we can improve sustainability here at Rockefeller. She has plans to meet with the Sustainability Committee to relay these suggestions and to work with the administration on reducing unnecessary waste.

Ainhoa believes that whereas “Rockefeller is such a special place, probably the best institution to do research in the world…with the best scientists, the best campus, the best programs, and the best standards of living…we should become leaders in environmental policies as well, especially considering the current political situation.” As she emphatically exclaims, “If scientists don’t lead this movement, who will?” She hopes to help others in her community start to see waste. Once we realize how much trash we throw away every day and understand that it is mostly unnecessary, she declares that “it’s actually quite liberating.”

Plastic pollution is an environmental issue that largely affects CO2 emissions and conservation of biodiversity. Today, the Rockefeller community should start working with companies that use less packaging and efficiently reuse and recycle materials. Our cafeterias on campus should also be plastic-free, as there are “plenty of zero-waste options.” It is time to change our lifestyles because we are damaging the environment beyond repair. This does not only affect other species and the planet, but also greatly impacts humankind and our children. As Ainhoa pronounces, “We can easily live without plastic, or without fossil fuels, but we cannot live without breathing.”

Ainhoa believes that just as with other movements in the campaign for human rights, it is now time for the environmental movement. Although change may be initially regarded as “crazy, idealistic, or simply impossible to accomplish…once the shift is made, younger generations cannot even believe that things were the way they were in the past. We could call this the Planet Rights Movement. And Rockefeller University could make history and be remembered as a leader in this movement. It’s just the right thing to do.”

As she said passionately during her introduction to the last documentary, “As scientists, shouldn’t we do what science has told us is right and reduce our impact on our environment…People think that I am crazy and ask me how I could go waste-free…and you know what I tell them – it’s actually very easy.” If anyone is interested, she is happy to help them along the way. She wants you to get in touch, and here she has shared some of her tips for beginning your transition to zero-waste today.


Ainhoa’s Tips to More Sustainable Living:

  1. Study your garbage and try to think of alternatives to what you throw away. One day go to the supermarket and challenge yourself to buy everything plastic-free. It will help you start “seeing” the plastic.
  2. Refuse single-use plastics, especially the big 4: plastic bags, plastic bottles, plastic cups, and plastic straws. There are reusable alternatives for each of these items that you can carry with you every day.
  3. Food waste makes most of the trash that is generated in most households. If you live in Faculty House/Scholars Residence, there is compost collection in the basement. Otherwise you can take your food scraps to Green Markets or even have your own composting bin at home. Make sure that you don’t buy food in excess, and make sure you cook it, eat it. or freeze it before it goes bad.
  4. Take your own containers to stores. This is probably the easiest and most efficient way of reducing your plastic waste. The best places to buy things in bulk are food co-ops. I like very much the 4th St. Co-op and the Bushwick Co-op. You can also find large bulk food sections at Whole Foods and Fairway, buy meats and cheeses at deli counters in supermarkets where they are not pre-wrapped, and buy laundry detergents and soaps at the Package Free Shop in Brooklyn. You can find many more options using the Bulk app.
  5. Look for plastic-free alternatives or make your own. For example, I buy milk in returnable glass bottles from Trickling Springs Farms, make my own yogurt, ice cream, and toothpaste, and use a compostable toothbrush made of bamboo. For feminine products, switch to the menstrual cup or reusable panty liners, and with kids use reusable cloth diapers. And as a general rule, if there is something you want and can’t find package-free in stores, look for a way of making your own. There are plenty of easy recipes online for everything!
  6. Get rid of your trash can. Once you manage to greatly reduce your garbage, this is the best way to get as close to zero-waste as possible. Collect your remaining trash in a cup or jar in the kitchen counter, and throw it in a trash can in the street when you need to. This will make you much more aware of everything you dispose of. And it also means you won’t use plastic bags for the garbage!
  7. Repair, repurpose, or donate. Fix your non-working items, sew your broken clothes, be imaginative and make with them something new, or use something else you already have to replace them. If you want to get rid of something, think of donating instead of throwing it away. For unusable clothes and shoes, a good alternative are the Fabric Recycling points in most of the NYC Green Markets. They’ll use them to make insulating material.
  8. The single most effective way of not producing waste is not buying! Every time that you want to buy something ask yourself: do I REALLY need this? If you really need to buy, then buy second hand and products made from natural materials and with minimal or no packaging. The best of all: get it in the Faculty House Thrift Shop where it will be almost free and the few dollars you spend will benefit the RU kids. If you want to buy something new, some good options are the Package Free shop or the online store Life Without Plastic. If you want to buy a gift for someone else think of experiences instead of material things such as tickets for a museum, theater, opera, an online gift card for a bakery, restaurant, or spa, a cooking, music, or dancing lesson, etc. The options are innumerable and the gifts are way cooler.
  9. Recycling should be the last resource, only when you have something that you couldn’t refuse, reduce, or reuse. Even though it’s better than sending something to landfills, it still takes lots of energy and carbon emissions to transport and recycle something (not to mention that collection involves tons of plastic bags). Additionally, plastic recycling is especially problematic and, contrary to glass or aluminum, it is usually “downcycled” into less desirable products that can no longer be recycled. So try to make every effort to avoid plastic, even recyclable ones.


Culture Corner

My Thoughts On Two Documentaries: Long Strange Trip (Amazon Studios, 2017) and Eric Clapton: Life in 12 Bars (2017 film; released on Showtime Network in February 2018 for television)

Bernie Langs


Cream in the 1960s, (from left to right) Ginger Baker, Jack Bruce and Eric Clapton (source: Wikipedia)


Promotional poster for Long Strange Trip (Amazon Video)


Two recent documentaries, one on the Grateful Dead and the other about Eric Clapton, offer fantastic insights into two of the most talented and powerful musical forces that arose in the 1960s. All of the surviving members of the Dead are interviewed at length in the Amazon Studios-produced the 6-part, Long Strange Trip directed by Amir Bar-Lev. Eric Clapton cooperated with director Lili Fini Zanuck in the making of the story of his life by giving voiceover narration to archival film footage, music, and documents from his long career as a premier English blues and rock guitarist. Both documentaries offer incredible journeys into the music and lives of those involved, including candid appraisals of some of their darker moments. In particular, the living-on-the-edge life of the Grateful Dead’s late leader Jerry Garcia (1942-1995), his tragic death, and the terrible self-abusive states of addiction suffered by Clapton.

I saw the Grateful Dead three times between 1978 and 1980. During that period, I would often play along at home or college on guitar with Dead albums, where I learned to listen carefully to the other players and respect the unity of the whole sound rather than standing out as a soloist or “stepping” on another musician’s phrase. The Grateful Dead were known for playing as a unit and for being uncannily of one mind during their complicated and experimental live performances. When I joined a band in 1979, I took this lesson to heart as I played with my fellow bandmates.  In the documentary, bassist Phil Lesh, drummers Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann, and rhythm guitarist and vocalist Bob Weir delight in discussing the magic of playing and jamming live and how the audience would be taken along with them on their journey.

As the Dead’s audience grew, it made a transition from arena performances to stadium venues. These shows attracted a large number of people who would arrive without tickets, many in hope of gaining free entry by slipping through fences or gates. Others would set up booths to sell unauthorized merchandise and there were those who abusively drank alcohol or ingested drugs leading to erratic or often dangerous behavior. The members of the Dead grew alarmed as violence became a regular feature in stadium parking lots, at times to the point of loss of life. Lesh, Weir, Hart and Kreutzmann took to recording public service announcements with forceful messages that only ticket holders were welcome and that the circus-like atmosphere that had been created was not in the true spirit of what the band stood for.

The surviving members of the Dead appear to have emerged in excellent mental shape after years of substance abuse and come across as sharp, insightful and articulate in the film’s interviews. Lesh gives a detailed account of how virtuoso guitarist Garcia deteriorated from heroin use in his final years. He notes that even if the band had stopped touring as an intervention, Garcia would have likely just gone out on the road with his solo band and met with the same sad end.

The musical soundtrack of Long Strange Trip confirms that the Grateful Dead’s performances remain beautifully textured and vital, with each member playing lines of melody that unite seamlessly into a magical whole for a refined essence.

Eric Clapton: Life in 12 Bars is a completely different tale of self-destructive behavior of a guitar magician. The documentary runs just over two hours and is an extremely painful two hours at that.

I have seen Clapton perform many times, but not in the past 25 years. I have great memories of a concert in the 1980s at a small club in Manhattan and of an outdoor festival in 1978 at an aerodrome field outside of London. I became aware of the talented blues player in 1968 when my brother mixed up our daily album selections with records by a far out band from England called Cream. I was 11 years old and records such as Wheels of Fire completely changed my understanding about music. Cream’s extended jams pounded at a breakneck pace, with Mr. Clapton soloing at blistering speed amid the complex, jazz-inspired drumming of Ginger Baker and the wandering, fuzzed basslines of Jack Bruce. I believe that this was Mr. Clapton’s peak period which was matched in 2005 at Cream’s reunion concerts at the Royal Albert Hall and Madison Square Garden where the wisdom of all of his playing years coalesced.

The band’s final album, Goodbye, was a farewell to their fans offering a selection of live recordings and studio songs. The opening number is a live version of a fast-paced blues song that was one of their signature numbers, “I’m So Glad.” The song has Clapton tearing off what I believe to be the finest guitar solo in all of rock music, performed with screaming passion and intensity that never flags.

The Cream years were rough on Clapton, having already emerged as a blues star and given the nickname “God” by his London fans. Whereas the Dead welcomed widespread fame, Clapton didn’t care in the least about stardom. He wanted to perfect his craft and was on a mission to educate the world about the unrecognized African American pioneers of the blues genre. The late Muddy Waters and B.B. King appear in the documentary speaking fondly of the unexpected popularity of their music after Clapton had worked tirelessly to promote it.

In one film segment from the 1960s, Mr. Clapton plays some riffs for an interviewer and notes how he can be “aggressive” as he slashes into a searing lead. This particular guitar tone had been a Cream staple sound during live performances, for example, in “Deserted Cities of the Heart”. Later in the film, as we watch Mr. Clapton descend into years of alcoholism, he goes on record at the time as hoping his life would end, in order to remedy his suffering. In one interview, his eyes barely open, he bitterly wishes that Cream had never existed and says that he loathed, once again, his “aggressive” tone and playing from that time.

Clapton describes in detail how his problems stem from his troubled family history, having grown up believing his grandmother and step-grandfather were his parents only to learn his older sister was his mother and that his father was nowhere in the picture. His mother went off to have another family, and when he finally does meet with her, she acts terribly, scarring him for life and pushing him into the solitude of obsessive practice, which made for a genius guitarist. Equally tragic is how much Clapton enjoyed the positive energy and friendship of fellow blues genius Jimi Hendrix and how much the overdose death of Hendrix left him feeling isolated and alone with his talents and musical insights.

I had known of Clapton’s heroin addiction, which ceased in the 1970s, and that he’d gone into alcohol rehab years later. I had not known until 12 Bars that his drug and alcohol abuse spanned decades of seemingly nonstop misery. There were years lost fretting over his relationship with Pattie Boyd, the ex-wife of his close friend, George Harrison of the Beatles. She had inspired the tortured song “Layla”, which remains a fantastic piece of music. Viewers of the film learn just how long his infatuation with Boyd lasted before it came to a maddening culmination and how Clapton remained unhappy despite finally winning her over.

The bulk of 12 Bars focuses on the period of Clapton’s emergence as a Blues guitarist through the “Layla” sessions. Many of his solo studio albums are dismissed as uneven and uninspired. After years of playing drunk onstage and making angry, embarrassing statements to his audience, he regained the great magic of his live concerts. There is a concert film produced in 2002, One More Car, One More Rider where he shines on acoustic guitar during “Bell Bottom Blues” with the late Billy Preston riffing beautifully on the organ. Clapton was also the band leader of a fantastic musical celebration of the life of the late George Harrison in 2002, “The Concert for George”, which recently was re-released in selected theaters.

12 Bars ends in the present with Clapton happily married and enjoying life with his children. He operates and funds an alcohol rehab center to assist those in need. He is set to perform concerts in October at Madison Square Garden. We can only hope that he has truly finally found peace of mind. And whether I am misinterpreting his guitar tone or not, I’ll always have the music of Cream and many other songs by Clapton to simply enjoy and assist me in my own personal journey in this life of the heart and mind.



Quotable Quote


“A flurry of leaves at the window

like those calendar pages flying

in old movies

to indicate time passing,

and it is passing,

though where it’s going

nobody seems to know.

Something is always lost

and something found —

an earring or the key

to a certain door,

to some second self.

I watch as energy and matter

bow and switch places,

as last year’s leaves appear

and disappear again.”


(Linda Pastan, 1932- )


Culture Corner


“Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman & Designer” (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, November 13, 2017 – February 12, 2018)


Bernie Langs


The Metropolitan Museum of Art recently had on view an internationally acclaimed exhibition, “Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman & Designer”, which closed on February 12th. Of the 600 drawings attributed to the great genius of the Italian Renaissance, the show brought together 133 of them from all over the world, the largest number of such works ever assembled by the Master. In addition, the show offered a handful of sculptures by Michelangelo as well as many rare preparatory “cartoons” and one of his early paintings. Drawings, paintings, and sculptures from the hands of other great artists of the period, including those in Michelangelo’s inner circle, were on hand, along with art from other eras serving to drive home essential ideas about what influenced him and why. One of the larger galleries boasted a brightly lit, small-scale reproduction of the Sistine Chapel’s famous ceiling, which hovered above the large space. Many of the drawings in that room were studies for specific images from the Chapel and each of the placards highlighted exactly where you could locate them above on the ceiling. These included a preliminary sketch of God’s reaching arm for the touch that will enliven Adam’s soul, the faces and bodies of the Sybils (including the well-known sheet in the Met’s collection, Studies for the Libyan Sibyl), and a letter written by Michelangelo with a tiny self-portrait illustrating the physical misery of this huge undertaking.


Just days after I had seen the exhibit, the curator, Dr. Carmen C. Bambach, and Research Assistant Jeffrey Fraiman who was deeply involved with many of the logistics of the project, invited me for an afterhours viewing with only about 25 others in attendance. I jumped at the opportunity.


Given this chance of a lifetime, for what end would I use it? One of the first major exhibitions I had ever attended, was in 1980 at the Morgan Library, “Michelangelo and His World”, which brought together 41 of the Master’s drawings. I specifically recall my strategy on studying his drawings at that visit, and this time, I specifically chose to take the exact opposite approach to understand the profound ideas revealed by the drawings. One can demand that the works of art assist with the progression of one’s own personal theories in hope of completing aesthetic, spiritual, or mystical inner dimensions within the soul or psyche. Upon entry to the Michelangelo exhibition, I said to myself: “Rubbish to all that,” and dove in simply to look at the drawings in the hope of experiencing what Kenneth Clark’s aptly calls “Moments of Vision”.


The Michelangelo exhibition gave its audience a chance to discover hints of how a genius of the highest level worked out his ideas. Viewers can see first-hand how his creative process initiated, perhaps as a work on paper in charcoal or in the wonderful textures induced by red chalk, and ended up as the sublime perfection of the frescoes in the Vatican or the perfect sculptures of The David or The Moses. The long-dead Michelangelo can’t go on camera and reveal how he did it so we are left in the uncomfortable situation of having to imply what his thinking process may have been by examining the clues he left behind and mixing them with tales of his personality gleaned from the reports at the time about his life or writings of his friends, such as Girogio Vasari in “The Lives of the Artists”.


The Met’s staff, including Dr. Bambach and Mr. Fraiman, do the tireless groundwork for all of us prior to our visit. They comb through the complicated historical record and centuries of scholarship, subsequently devising and writing up their theories. Dr. Bambach and Mr. Fraiman and their colleagues perform the Herculean task of condensing centuries of study and ideas so that their impressively educated passion sparks the hearts and minds of each one of the more than 600,000 people who viewed show.


A sheet of paper in one of the first galleries held numerous drawn studies of varying images by Michelangelo, some popping into the viewer’s eyes seemingly out of nowhere and retreating as another one emerged in its place. The drawing was crammed tight with idea after idea. On one side, I found of great interest an incomplete profile of a man buried in all the images of faces and bodies, fabulous in solid, confident detail, yet unusually halted in its progression. Other drawings in nearby galleries had isolated sketches on the same page floating in their own spatial realms and aesthetic dimensions, worked out by strokes of chalk, charcoal or pen. Many drawings were fully formed, or at times, there would be a section of a lightly present image next to another in sharp detail, reminiscent of da Vinci’s obsessive sketches in his famous notebooks.


Two of the rare works in the exhibition were large planning “cartoons”, one a section of a preparatory drawing for Michelangelo’s Vatican frescoes, depicting a detail of Roman soldiers for The Crucifixion of Saint Peter in the Pauline Chapel. The second was a design attributed to the Master and his workshop for Michele di Jacopo Cosini’s painting, Venus Kissing Cupid (the finished painting was also on view). The Vatican fragment left me engulfed in pure amazement and overwhelming awe. The Pauline paintings in the Vatican are of a completely different nature than the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling and Last Judgement wall. They seem to present an intense inner contemplative expression of Michelangelo’s suffering and spiritual conflicts. The frescoes have a tightness and harsher spatial reality of personal tortured reality than the grand images in the Sistine. Yet the cartoon at the Met had aspects of softness and clarity not apparent in the completed project.


Other highlights of the exhibition included a powerful sculpted bust depicting Brutus, displayed alongside an ancient Roman sculpture of a similarly posed emperor. There was also a sublime unfinished sculpture  ambiguously titled, Apollo-David, similar in its chiseled texture to the unfinished Deposition in Florence in which a self-portrait of Michelangelo appears as Nicodemus. These sculptures are fabulously rough as opposed to the polish of Pietà in Saint Peters in Rome.


A room with red chalk drawings of unparalleled genius had depictions of emotional subjects such as Study for a Descent from the Cross and the dynamic display of Archers Shooting at a Herm. I found myself incapable of thinking about anything besides their exceptional power and beauty. I also found myself returning a number of times to gaze at the Unfinished Cartoon of the Virgin and Child. The face of the Madonna is similar in its features to many of the faces in the frescoed Sistine Chapel. The delicacy of the figure is ethereal, almost beyond physical reality, and well past thoughts of flesh and blood, perhaps created in the Master’s mind from his vision of the Platonic form of feminine beauty itself. His ideal became the blueprint for artists of the time in representing the divine in the guise of paint.


Michelangelo was a captive of the times in which he lived, as we all are. He had to create within the confines of the ideas, society, culture, and territorial realities of Italy during his lifespan of 1475-1564. Michelangelo guided art into a new paradigm reaching untold heights and revealing realms of ideas and thoughts on all manners of subjects, both human and spiritual in nature. We can all thank him for his efforts as well as those who continue to study the works of all of the greats and present them to us for the betterment of Mankind.


View of the Met Museum’s recreated Sistine Chapel with related drawings on display.



Michelangelo Buonarroti Roman Soldiers, Cartoon Fragment for the Lower Left Part of the Crucifixion of Saint Peter in the Pauline Chapel. Charcoal, with some black chalk, on approximately nineteen sheets of paper, outlines pricked for transfer. Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte, Gabinetto Disegni e Stampe, Naples (and detail).


Michelangelo Buonarroti Sketches of the Virgin, the Christ Child Reclining on a Cushion, and Other Sketches of Infants. Pen and brown ink. Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Kupferstichkabinett.


LEFT: Mural Fragment of a Male Nude in Three-Quarter Length (Triton or Satyr). Charcoal on rough porous plaster. Sernesi Family, Villa Michelangiolo, Settignano;

CENTER: Bastiano (Aristotile) da Sangallo (Italian, 1481–1551). Copy after the Central Episode of the Bathers in Michelangelo’s Battle of Cascina.


Michelangelo Buonarroti (with slight retouching by a later hand in pen and ink). Unfinished Cartoon of the Virgin and Child. Black chalk, red chalk, traces of brush and brown wash, with lead-white gouache highlights. Casa Buonarroti, Florence.


Michelangelo Buonarroti  with some assistance by Tiberio Calcagni Bust of Brutus (unfinished). Carrara marble. Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence.


View of the two galleries of the Met Museum’s exhibition “Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman & Designer”.


Nessa Noms: Flip Sigi


Vanessa J. Wu


Flip Sigi has been a long time coming. This Filipino taqueria is headed by Chef Jordan Andino who was born in Canada, grew up in California. He takes inspiration from his Filipino grandmother and draws on skills from the time he spent working in fine dining.


Jordan’s first restaurant in the West Village was originally named 2nd City, but has now joined the second restaurant located on the Upper East Side (UES) in sharing the name Flip Sigi.


With two locations, limited edition menu specials every month, and collaborations with other businesses, there’s always something new to experience, but always with a hint of familiarity, maybe even nostalgia. And don’t forget the distinctive hot sauces! There’s 1st Base, 2nd Base, 3rd Base, and Jordan’s very own recipe: Home Run. Put it on your burritos, bowls, burgers, and even Bloody Marys for an extra kick!


Like his hot sauce, Jordan is anything but bland. I had the pleasure of meeting him, and his energy is always so high that you’ll probably feel it leaping off the page!


NS: What is the meaning behind the name Flip Sigi?

JA: Flip Sigi basically means “Go Filipino” coming from a play on the words ‘Flip’ – Filipino and ‘Sigi’ – which basically means go!


NS: Why do you think Filipino food is gaining momentum?

JA: Filipino food is gaining momentum because, as a whole cuisine, it speaks to the 3 major cuisines that are popular and understood in the United States: Chinese, Spanish, and American. The fact that Filipino food has all these small elements people are familiar with will make them more keen to try something new.


NS: I know you take inspiration from your grandmother’s Filipino recipes. Why do you choose to remake other known foods with a Filipino take rather than traditional Filipino dishes?

JA: I like to remake the classic dishes because it helps introduce my culture and cuisine to a wider range of palates. The more that try it, the more people get introduced to my culture via my cuisine.


NS: What are your hopes for the future of your restaurants? Any specific goals?

JA: I hope my future restaurants will be great in number and widely respected among my cohorts and peers. Ideally, we create a culture, company, and restaurant that all people from the US can feel comfortable going to and eating at!


NS: How has your Californian identity influenced your food? As a Californian myself, I actually do get quite a bit of a Californian vibe from your food, your personality, and, to some extent, your restaurant decor!

JA: I would say that California influences my restaurants in two different ways: in my use of avocado and my vibe!  I can’t help but love that laid-back feeling while trying to eat because it’s just how I was raised!


NS: Why did you choose New York to open your restaurants in?

JA: I opened in NYC because as cliché as it sounds, when it comes to food, if you can prove yourself successful here, you’re now universally respected.


NS: Why the UES and West Village neighborhoods specifically?

JA: Luckily for me, both the West Village and UES locations came from great contacts in the real estate business. We initially searched [in the West Village] because the reputation that restaurants have in this neighborhood is that of class and quality. We just had to be here to establish our brand as food-serious. We initially searched [on the UES] because with the opening of the 2nd Avenue Q train, this area will eventually be a hotbed of youth and an area that will attract guests in our price range.


NS: Is there anything that sets apart your UES location and your West Village location other than what’s explicitly on the menu and what’s on the “secret menu?”

JA: The locations are the same but have different fingerprints, so to speak. We want each place to have their own identity for the neighborhood that they’re part of.


NS: Of all your monthly specials and collabs thus far, which would you say is your personal favorite? I was a fan of the December longanisa poutine. You should definitely make that a regular item!

JA: I’ve done so many of the specials and collabs that it’s hard to remember. I’d say my two favorites are the Flip N Out Burger and the Sinigang Flip Bowl. Both are regular menu items now, but started as specials!  Although I do agree: the longanisa poutine was insane!


NS: What about your favorite non-rotating menu item?

JA: Favorite non-rotating menu item – Cali Burrito.


NS: I saw that you’re going to be a part of the Food Show at the Javits Center in March. What are you planning on demo-ing? Anything from Flip Sigi?

JA: For the food show in March, I’m going to be on center stage demo-ing the highlights of Flip Sigi as well as some fun hacks for the general cook.


NS: Bonus Question: In-N-Out or Shake Shack?

JA: In-N-Out for life!!!!


The author with Flip Sigi’s chef, Jordan Andino.


From left to right 1) Flip Bowl: one of Jordan’s favorite limited-edition item, now here to stay; 2) Longanisa Poutine: Natural Selection’s Vanessa’s favorite limited-edition item; 3) Cali Burrito: Jordan’s favorite regular menu item.


Flip Ramen: The first limited edition item of 2018 – a ramen with both chicken and pork adobo!


L.A.E. Me: a collab with black seed bagels now on the official Flip Sigi menu – longanisa, American cheese, and a fried egg on an everything bagel.


Poke Me: a twist on the classic tuna poke bowl served with sweet miso coconut steamed rice.


For my review of this restaurant and others:


For more photos from this restaurant and others:


Black Magic Juice


Johannes Buheitel

I’m confused, disoriented. The ringing from my alarm still in my ear, I’m performing the absolute minimum necessary number of tasks that prepare me to go out and join the herd of zombies slowly moving through the streets. Phasing in and out of consciousness, me and my fellow undead finally manage to stumble into the same type of place, as if we had all been drawn there by an invisible force. It is here, where I get what I crave: A black magic juice whose ingestion will allow me to start feeling like a human being for the first time that day. What I crave, of course, is coffee.

I might be slightly exaggerating for dramatic effect, which doesn’t make it less true that many people all around the globe rely on a good morning cup of joe as an essential part of their daily routine. But recently, those people started to grow increasingly worried as news outlets have begun reporting that the State of California wants to force coffee shops and other places that sell brewed coffee to label it as cancerogenic. So clearly, many are now asking: Have we been drinking poison the whole time?

Let’s back up a moment: Since 1986, California law requires all companies with 10 or more employees to post clear warnings on or around products that could pose a danger to a potential consumer (apparently, if your company has only 9 employees you’re allowed to give people cancer, but let’s not go there). This risk is defined by a product containing certain chemicals that are listed in the law’s documentation, among them, one at the center of this debate: acrylamide. Acrylamide is formed as a byproduct of the Maillard reaction, which occurs pretty much anytime food items (especially starchy ones) are heated over a certain temperature. This reaction is responsible for the crust on a seared steak, the dark rind of a freshly baked loaf of bread, or the crispy exterior of a french fry (you know, all the good stuff). And—you guessed it—coffee beans owe their beautiful brown sheen to this chemical reaction happening during the roasting process.

So how dangerous is acrylamide? Well, it all depends on how you look at it. The results of studies in which mice and rats had been fed with the chemicals have shown a clear dose-dependent correlation between cancer and acrylamide. Taking these results at face value, we could fairly confidently assume that acrylamide will have a cancerogenic effect on humans as long as—and this is important—one ingests enough of it. I’m stressing this fact, because the amount of acrylamide the rodents were exposed to in these laboratory experiments are 1,000 – 100,000 times higher on a per kilogram basis than what can be expected from dietary consumption in humans, which makes it very unlikely that one can take up enough dietary acrylamide to cause immediate harm.

Of course, this fact doesn’t exonerate acrylamide just yet. What about long-term exposure of humans to small amounts of this compound? This is where it gets complicated. You see, long-term dietary studies are usually quite tricky to perform, control, and analyze well. This is due to many reasons, with one of the most problematic being the reliance of many studies on their subject’s self-reporting and our tendency to (willingly or unwillingly) misrepresent the number of things we put into our mouths. Nonetheless, these studies have been scientists’ bread and butter (no pun intended) for decades, allowing them to assess the influence of diet on our health. And up to this day all of these studies have failed to prove a clear correlation between acrylamide in cancer in humans. This means that from all the information we have so far, we can assume that it is unlikely that the concentrations found in a normal human diet (including in coffee) will have any measurable effect on your health. In particular, your cancer risk is way more likely to be influenced by factors such as genetics, certain habits, such as smoking, or whether you are occupationally exposed to higher concentrations of chemicals or radiation. But, as I mentioned, our current studies aren’t perfect, which is why the National Cancer Institute suggests additional epidemiological long-term studies that do a better job tracking certain metabolic markers.

But now let’s get back to coffee. Should you stop drinking it because of acrylamide? Probably not. Should it get a label because of its acrylamide content? Probably not. Even so, you might say to yourself: “Well, let’s just play it safe and cut the coffee”. In this case; however, I want you to consider this: In 2014, the results of a meta-analysis of 21 studies conducted between 1966 and 2013 showed that coffee consumption of 3-4 cups per day was not only not correlated with cancer mortality, but even decreased (!) the likelihood of death from all causes and also specifically from cardiovascular disease. So, the next time you want to reach for this expensive face cream behind your bathroom mirror, think about going into your kitchen instead, because those little brown beans on the counter might hold the actual secret formula for longevity. Black magic juice, indeed.