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Politics Under the Microscope (PUTM) is a student-led podcast by graduate students Joanna Yeung, Ellie Thompson, Naira Abou-Ghali, and Nina Glenn. PUTM aims to capture the thought process of policy makers as they respond to complex problems and to discuss the implications those policies will have for the scientific community and broader society. On the morning of Saturday March 6, Joanna and her fellow colleagues shared their perspectives on being a part of Politics Under the Microscope.
What is PUTM? How would you describe our missions and values?
Ellie Thompson: PUTM is like an octopus because we do so many things. We advocate for the use of a scientific perspective when analyzing and discussing political, social, and contemporary issues. Through our podcast, we also aim to recruit and retain underrepresented minorities in STEM in addition to recruitment of scientists into the political landscape.
Nina Glenn: The heart of PUTM really comes back to education. Ultimately, we want to give people the tools to be well-informed citizens who can create tangible actions based on that information. Our goal is to empower people after educating them so that they can take an informed and rational viewpoint into these discussions to educate other people and to continue educating themselves.
Joanna Yeung: Not only is PUTM about educating other people but also about educating ourselves. We are all young scientists trying to learn more science policy and PUTM was the perfect excuse for me to get more involved with science policy.
How did the PUTM members all meet each other?
Naira Abou-Ghali: The Grants Office at Weill Cornell is really proactive about sending opportunities. While I was scrolling through my emails, I saw an opportunity to get funded for a science policy themed podcast through Research America. I thought starting a podcast would be the perfect way to learn about science policy, but I needed other people with me because I knew I couldn’t do it alone. I sent a message through the SEPA (Science and Education Policy Association) Slack group and I was lucky enough to have Joanna, Ellie, and Nina reply. The rest is history.
ET: Within the span of a week of meeting each other, we were able to work on the Research America grant, submit it, and actually get funded!
Out of all the episodes PUTM has produced so far, what kinds of discussions have been really inspiring or insightful to hear about?
ET: The Reverend Holt interview was the most powerful to me. As scientists, we are so focused on the lab bench. But Reverend Holt made me realize, “Will the science I do get to the people that we care about? Will it be accessible to everyone in society?” Scientists have a role with what happens with our science and how our science is used to benefit the community as a whole.
NAG: For me, it was also Reverend Holt’s interview. I can remember getting goosebumps from just her introduction. She is a black woman who was not born at a hospital because at the time, it wasn’t allowed. She takes us to the rest of her journey of advocating for the underserved and underrepresented when it comes to their healthcare. That interview highlighted the journey of one woman that had a background in science as a nurse but didn’t actually work at the bench and she is doing incredible work for equitable access. As a scientist, we can take the extra steps to advocate for policies that bring our research out there and guarantee equitable access. We are only 1500 words away from making an impact, which is the length of a policy brief. It was just an incredible perspective to hear.
NG: Something that stuck out to me in Representative Moulton’s interview was when he mentioned K through 12 education. He noted that it’s great to care about college education, but a lot of people don’t make it to that point. It’s important to invest in what’s there (scholastic resources before the undergrad/grad level). It shows how essential it is to have well-informed policy makers because they are who we point to in society.
In Representative Houlahan’s interview, she talked about how nonlinear paths in science still matter, but are not always considered when we think about the way that policies or school policies are made. For instance, what kind of support is there for a single mother in grad school? We have to think about what the broader society looks like and not just what we look like. We need to consider how we can use our personal stories to empower other people who might have entirely disparate stories but are going through a similar experience. The biggest takeaway was the ability to use policy to see these recurring themes in science and being able to connect different pieces of society together.
JY: What I really took out of the Reverend Holt interview was the prevalence of mistrust towards COVID-19 vaccines. I’ve lived in a very privileged bubble and haven’t considered that people could have mistrust towards something that I would have absolute trust towards.
In addition, [Representative] Houlahan’s interview made me think about my privilege when she talked about her experience as a grade 11 chemistry teacher. She said something along the lines of “do you know how hard it is to teach grade 11 chemistry when the students that you’re teaching have grade three to four reading level?” This made me aware of how many people don’t have access to high quality education throughout their whole lives and as a result, have difficulty with learning more complex concepts because they lack those foundational skills. It was really insightful for me to just learn about people outside of my little bubble that I exist in.
What are PUTM’s future plans?
ET: With regards to outreach plans, we have been offered [a] guest instructor opportunity with HypotheKids to teach underserved 11th and 12th graders in the New York city area about the practical applications of science.
JY: We have a lot of cool episodes in mind that we haven’t gotten to yet. One topic we are interested in covering is climate change and the policies around that. We’re also super excited about the mental health series.
NAG: We are also planning an episode series on feminism and misogyny in STEM. We would like to talk about protecting women, especially women of color in science. You read these bone chilling accounts of the way that some women of color specifically are treated in high knowledge environments and it’s just unacceptable. That is a really important thing that we have to address as well.
For more information about Politics Under the Microscope, check out our website, social media accounts, and add us to your playlist on Spotify!
April 22, 2021 will be the 51st Earth Day. What started as an educational initiative in the United States has evolved into an annual global event to advocate for the environment.
The roots of Earth Day go back as far as the 1962 publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. That was the first impetus that made Americans aware of the effects of pollution. On January 28, 1969, an oil well off the coast of Santa Barbara, California spilled three million gallons of oil and killed more than 10,000 sea creatures and birds. The news coverage caused an increase in public awareness and support for the environment. Then, at the 1969 United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Conference, a proposal was made to honor the Earth on March 21, 1970; the day of the vernal equinox, also known as the first day of spring. The United Nations still observes Earth Day on March 21 and rings a Japanese peace bell at the exact moment of the equinox.
Senator Gaylord Nelson (D-Wisconsin), inspired by the youth activism at the time, proposed a national environmental teach-in day for April 22, 1970. He chose that day because it didn’t interfere with finals and most students would still be on campus. He recruited Dennis Hayes, a youth activist at Stanford University, to oversee coordinating activities. Senator Nelson provided his office staff to help Hayes. The United Auto Workers union was the largest financial contributor and provided office supplies. Hayes later said the first Earth Day wouldn’t have been possible without their support. Hayes changed the name to Earth Day which caught on with the media. He is still on the board of the organization today.
The first Earth Day in 1970 was celebrated in over 10,000 schools across the country and many cities including New York, Philadelphia, Washington DC, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Here in New York a group of Columbia University students got Mayor Lindsay to close part of Fifth Ave for the occasion. He also made Central Park and Union Square available for festivities. Paul Newman and Ali McGraw spoke in Union Square to much press coverage. In Philadelphia, Senator Edmund Muskie, Ralph Nader, Allen Ginsburg, and Harvard biochemist George Wald spoke. In Washington DC, Pete Seeger performed and members of Congress gave speeches. It was later that year that bipartisan support established the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). The Earth Day organization has helped advocate for many environmental protection laws since then, including the Endangered Species Act.
Since 1970, the event has grown and evolved. By Earth Day 1990, the event could be promoted on the internet and over email, as well as on television. Funding was in the millions, allowing the event to go global. Over 140 countries participated. That year, the focus was on recycling. There was a live phone call from the state of Washington to an international group of climbers on Mount Everest. The team of climbers from China, Russia, and the United States collected two tons of trash from the mountain. In 1995 the website earthday.org was established. By Earth Day 2000, 184 countries had joined in. Almost half of a million people gathered on the Washington Mall to hear Leonardo DiCaprio and others speak. In 2017, the organization coordinated with the March for Science, a group that advocates for science literacy and evidence-based policies. The 50th Earth Day in 2020 was celebrated on-line due to the COVID-19 pandemic, another example of the effects of environmental issues. The focus had shifted to citizen science and community engagement. There were three days of live stream events, with Bono, and even Pope Francis joining in.
Earth Day is now considered the largest secular event in the world. This year’s theme is Restore Our Earth, with a focus on clean-up events particularly in areas disproportionately affected by climate change. To learn more about the organization and this year’s activities, go to earthday.org.
As an enthusiastic meditator, I am delighted that mindfulness is now a household word. An increased awareness of the benefits of meditation has led more people to try mindfulness practices to help combat stress, anxiety, and other afflictions, often at the suggestion of health care professionals. Mindfulness is a form of meditation that typically involves sitting quietly and focusing the attention on the sensation of the breathing. Experienced meditators claim that this practice helps to cultivate desirable mental states, including feelings of tranquility, equanimity, and even bliss. This practice may result in lasting changes in everyday life, including increased ability to focus on a task without being distracted, to deal with stressful situations in a detached manner, and to avoid getting caught up in negative emotions. In a nutshell, mindfulness makes you happier.
Meditation is an ancient practice that is traditionally associated with Eastern religions, including Buddhism and Hinduism. Meditation, like all religious practices, involves a fair amount of ritual and is accompanied by certain beliefs about the nature of the universe that do not sit well with a modern scientific worldview. When meditation was introduced to the West in the 1970s, its association with mysticism was met with skepticism by the scientific community. Western students of meditation were associated with the psychedelic hippie culture of the 1960s and 70s, which further reduced the credibility of meditation as a serious practice. Despite the flourishing of secular approaches to meditation, its origins as a mystical practice and its ongoing association with “spirituality” (whatever that may mean to you) can still be off-putting for some people. Meditation in its most fundamental form, however, is simply a technique that involves using attention in specific ways to train the mind. There is no need to sit cross-legged on a cushion, burn incense sticks and chant in Tibetan to meditate (although by all means do if you find it helpful). Modern approaches to meditation have adapted the ancient practice of mindfulness for a secular audience.
Today mindfulness is a billion-dollar industry. Overblown claims about its utility as a cure for all modern ailments can make mindfulness seem like a trendy health fad. A comparison is often made between meditation and physical exercise. Just as physical exercise improves the health of the body, so does mental exercise improve the health of the mind. The problem with this analogy, from the point of view of the skeptic, is that the benefits of physical exercise are obvious for all to see, while the benefits of meditation are primarily mental and much more difficult to ascertain. When faced with an Olympic athlete and a couch potato, nobody doubts that physical exercise can improve the functioning of the body. When an experienced meditator claims that their practice makes them feel better, the skeptic is not so easily convinced. To make things worse, most people find their first attempts at practicing mindfulness to be underwhelming. Focusing on the breath or any other subject for a period of time is surprisingly difficult. Novice meditators may doubt whether the effort is worthwhile.
The benefits of meditation take some time to become apparent. There are countless examples of anecdotal evidence for these benefits. I have an anecdote of my own; I have been practicing mindfulness meditation for several years now, and I am convinced that it helps me feel less stress, sleep better, and has improved my overall mental well-being. But there are also countless examples of people who are convinced of the healing powers of crystals or homeopathy. For a skeptic who has tried to meditate and found no benefit, why persist with a practice that takes up valuable time?
Fortunately, we do not need to rely on anecdotes to be confident that mindfulness practice results in tangible benefits. Despite the initial hesitation of the scientific community to take meditation seriously, there has been an explosion of research papers on the subject in recent years. A PubMed search for ‘mindfulness’ has approximately 20,000 hits today. There is, however, still plenty for the skeptic to object to even here. Most scientific studies on meditation are epidemiological in nature and involve comparing groups of meditators to non-meditators for the traits of interest. Controlling for confounding variables is notoriously difficult in these kinds of studies. Individuals who choose to take up meditation practices are likely to be more health conscious than the general population and separating the effects of meditation from those of diet or exercise, for example, is challenging. There is, therefore, a great deal of variation in the quality of the research papers published on mindfulness. However, there have been many rigorous, well-controlled studies that have been able to attribute improvements in mental function to specific mindfulness practices.
Mindfulness practice is often undertaken in the form of a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course, as pioneered by Jon Kabat-Zinn. These programs typically involve thirty minutes of daily meditation over an eight-week period, including mindfulness of the breath and body scans, where the attention is focused on bodily sensations. There have been hundreds of studies that show beneficial changes in individuals who participate in one of these courses. One study used fMRI to assess the brain activity of participants who had completed MBSR courses. Participants were presented with disturbing images as stressors and researchers found significant decreases in amygdala activity that correlated with reduced self-reported stress reactivity. A similar study found reduced levels of stress hormones when individuals who completed a MBSR course were exposed to stressful situations. A third study found that after completing the course, participants demonstrated increased ability to concentrate on specific sensory inputs. These changes were observed following about thirty cumulative hours of mindfulness practice, but improvements in attention have been observed in novice meditators who have been instructed in mindfulness meditation for as little as ten minutes. While these effects are certainly transient, they show that even small doses of mindfulness can be helpful.
For those who wish to take their meditation practice deeper, there have been studies of long-term meditators with thousands of hours of practice under their belt, showing profound changes in the brain, including a reduction in baseline activity in regions of the prefrontal cortex that are associated with wandering minds. These studies demonstrate that experienced meditators are less likely to be lost in thought even when they are not actively engaged in their meditation practice. For a comprehensive and critical analysis of the scientific studies of meditation, I strongly recommend reading Altered traits: science reveals how meditation changes your mind, brain and body, by Daniel Goleman and Richard J. Davidson.
I hope that this article has convinced skeptics that meditation is an activity that is worth considering. Even hard-nosed materialists who balk at the idea of spirituality can benefit from training the mind. If you are starting out with a meditation practice, it is important to have realistic expectations. The benefits of meditation are gradual, and patience is required. Novice meditators often give up because they are unable to focus on their breath for more than a few seconds and they realize how thoroughly out of control their mind is. This realization is actually a sign of progress. Most people are not aware that they spend most of their life in a state of distraction. Once you notice you are distracted, you can choose to return the awareness to the breath, even if only for a few seconds before you are lost in thought again. Repeat this process indefinitely, and the ability to notice what is going on in your mind will gradually strengthen. Everything you experience, feel, and care about takes place in your mind. Often it is your reaction to life’s events, and not the events themselves, that influences the quality of your existence. The ability to observe your inner mental state at any moment is a skill that allows you to get off the rollercoaster of reactivity that so often dictates your responses to situations. This enables you to respond in more positive ways to events as they occur, and ultimately improves the quality of your life and the lives of the people you interact with.
Over the past twenty-five years, I’ve written over two dozen novellas and abandoned about a dozen others mid-creation. Each writer has their own process, and it is the process itself that is so satisfying when creating fiction. Some authors map out an outline of their plot in advance, while others maintain biographical files for each of their characters, ensuring that their motivations and behavior remain consistent with their backstories. I use a “real time” methodology by filling in details as I create images to apply over the primer coat on the canvas of imagination. This allows for events to spontaneously roll out and evolve as I act as a somewhat passive chronicler rather than omniscient power, creating the illusion that the characters maintain free will responding instinctively to unexpected situations.
My books are inspired by revelations and chance events witnessed in day-to-day life. For example, after visiting an antique arts establishment where a gallery assistant explained to me the meaning of several celestial maps engraved by Andreas Cellarius, I began writing a story centered around the magical images, with the gallery scenario setting off the action (The Lamentation for the World). While watching the James Bond film Skyfall, when Bond’s ancestral house in the wilds of Scotland appeared onscreen, I thought, “I’m going to put a ghost in that old mansion” (The Ghost of Whispering Pines).
Once I receive that spark of an idea, I intuitively sense the main characters who will undergo the book’s adventures. At times, I use personality traits of my friends or borrow perceived and implied personas from strangers I see in passing for the demeanor of individuals appearing in the novella.
Once I have the major premise in mind, I commence each writing session knowing at most two vaguely imagined scenes of action at a time so as not to get ahead of the story. I write with key phrases of dialogue and basic events at the ready prior to sitting down at the computer. I never want to know how a book will end until very late in the process. With characters behaving in a “real time” world, each personality develops naturally and interacts with new arrivals to the action, veering off in unexpected ways. Early in the writing of one of my older books, I found a secondary character taking over as the main character after realizing through his dominating actions and ideas that he was much more interesting than the original protagonist (The Minister of Peace).
My books eventually morph into complex and intriguing puzzles and after about eighty or so pages, it dawns on me how everything fits together. This unexpected “reveal” of what has unknowingly been going on the entire time is my favorite part of the creative process.
My most recent novella, The Plot, was inspired by several eureka moments that coalesced prior to committing pen to paper. While watching the sci-fi movie Annihilation, I suspended my imagination and saw the actors as they truly were—people saying lines of a script with a camera and crew lurking unseen nearby. Yet the cast was so engrossed in the setting and their roles, it was as if their space had become a reality located somewhere between our world and one of film fantasy.
Another inspiration for The Plot was a trip to London and Florence in 2018. At dinner in a restaurant in Florence, I spied a mysterious middle-aged man dining alone, obviously held in high esteem by the wait staff. I told my wife, “I don’t know what my next book is going to be about, but it’s going to begin in this restaurant with that guy at that table.” Which is exactly how it is played out in chapter one of The Plot with those very words spoken by one of the central characters.
The lead characters in the novella are Robert Halle, based on the persona of the true-to-life 58-year-old British actor, Ralph Fiennes, and his younger counterpart, Guy Randolph, based on the physical traits and personality of Leonardo DiCaprio. With an actress, Felicity Felicitas, modeled after the British star Lily James, the three are working on a free-form film directed by an innovative young Argentinian director, Alejandro Alencia, whom I created as an amalgamation of several real-life current foreign directors. Their movie is being shot in Florence with additional scenes taking place at a Palladian Villa and Hampton Court Palace in the UK. The actor Halle portrays an intelligence agent, Karl Smythe, in service to England trying to unravel the mystery of why a novel written by Randolph’s character, Justin Teagle, has set off an international crisis the nature of which has yet to be completely understood.
Robert Halle acts as the narrator of the action both as himself and as his film persona, Agent Smythe, and the reader discovers that when he and Guy Randolph undergo the best “take” of a scene, their reality as actors completely vanishes and they become unwittingly immersed into the world of Alecia’s arthouse film, The Plot. The movie characters face growing danger as the situation in the film becomes dire, and the actors are forced to gamble prior to the cry of “Action!” that they will emerge from the fantasy before any permanent harm is inflicted upon them. As the stakes grow higher in the movie they are filming, the chances increase that Halle and Randolph will lose the capacity to escape from Alencia’s fantasy, yet they are willing to risk their lives to find out what will ultimately occur in the alternative movie reality.
I knew that at some point I would have to explain the details and specifics of what lurks behind the espionage in the imaginary film world. My own understanding of where the book was ultimately going began when I caught sight from a distance of an Italian friend of mine and thought, “She knows more about Italy than I’ll ever know—she truly embodies Italy.” A new character came to life at that moment, “The Contessa,” living in a villa designed by Palladio in the Veneto who receives both spy and novelist to lay out in detail what it is that they are chasing. Days later, I spotted on the streets of Manhattan a tastefully dressed, 55-year-old woman and I introduced her as The Contessa’s counterpart, “The Madonna,” ruling mystically and benevolently over Florence within the film being shot in The Plot.
What would The Contessa reveal to be the plot of The Plot? Turned out to be another “plot,” the Pazzi Conspiracy of fifteenth century Florence where Giuliano de’ Medici was assassinated in the famous Duomo cathedral. I have no memory of creating the idea. I only recall writing the pages of passionate and dryly humorous discussion at The Contessa’s villa where she explains through an acerbic translator to the intelligence agent Smythe and novelist Teagle, the far-flung idea that although they speak together in the year 2018, Giuliano de’ Medici, her dearest nephew, is, as they speak, en route with an entourage of angelic psychopomps to his final resting place. Prior to his expected beatitude, she tells them, Giuliano is to have an audience with God and during that meeting she fears that he will take advantage of the Being’s fondness of him to encourage the deity to undergo the swift destruction of all the world. Giuliano, The Contessa notes, is convinced that Mankind’s penchant for pitiless violence and other outrages of the soul have left the species unworthy as creations of the Divine. The Contessa believes that unless Smythe and Teagle travel back to April 28, 1478 and prevent the assassination of her nephew, God will heed the call of this most beloved son of Florence and in a single immediate stroke, destroy the earth.
The Plot ends at the meeting between the two actors and the Italian actress who had portrayed The Madonna with Giuliano de’ Medici not as their film characters but as themselves. The four of them speak seated at a long snacking table inside of a New Jersey Turnpike-style rest stop somewhere in the Heavens, an oasis and illusion created to make the living interlopers feel natural and at home somewhere in the obscure reaches of the Heavens. The savvy, intellectual, and dashingly charismatic Giuliano, with selected passages of his speech translated into Italian, makes complex and salient points about the terrible and destructive behavior of Mankind throughout history. When I initially read back his diatribe, I was surprised that his impassioned observations were in no way reflective of my own thoughts on the subject, but an expression in accordance with the personality of the character of Giuliano and seemingly under his control. I had become a passive stenographer recording the presentation of his “case” against Mankind. His manner of speaking and his complex, convoluted expression of ideas made The Plot more an intellectual read than I planned when setting out to write the tale. I had wanted to present an exciting fantasy about the nature of movies and reality and now, almost out of nowhere, I had this historical banking scion arguing on moral grounds for the destruction of the human species.
Once I knew and understood what the last chapter would entail, I anticipated a very dark ending to The Plot. In the long run, I did not go through with it because I didn’t want to be responsible for a work of fiction that damns the world to instantaneous oblivion. The pleas voiced by Halle and Randolph in defense of humankind, their metaphoric “client,” make a strong counter argument in opposition to Giuliano’s damnation, centering on allowing humankind to proceed undeterred to a potentially better future or to a natural demise of its own making, rather than one guided by divine decree. The ultimate ending of The Plot is ambiguous, leaning towards the notion that Giuliano prevails after having expressed his disappointments to a “Higher Being” about humankind’s failure to fulfill ideals of love, justice, artistic expression, and scientific creativity. His greatest disappointment is how individuals lazily withdraw from the difficult task of realizing their relationship with the Divine, ceding the responsibility to various established religions as herded congregants, and handing over the vital, essential purpose of unique souls to ignorant and greedy “priestly castes” throughout history.
In March of 2021, I remain creatively exhausted from the time and work I put into the book over two years ago and there is a very good chance that The Plot will be my last novella.
This month I had the pleasure of meeting Luna, the incredibly sweet English cream golden retriever. She lives with her parents Tatsuya Araki, a Ph.D. student in the Victora Lab at The Rockefeller University, and Jingwen Zhou, a senior research technician at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Luna approaches every interaction as an opportunity to make a new friend, and given her delightful personality, she rarely fails.
Audrey Goldfarb: How did you first meet Tatsuya and Jingwen?
Luna: We first met in Utica, New York where I was born. I greeted my pawrents with the cutest puppy dance they had ever seen! We had an instant bond!
AG: What is your favorite game to play?
L: It has to be tug of war game with my daddo!
AG: What is the best thing that happened to you this week?
L: Sleeping over at friends’ place and they gave me lots of treatos!
AG: Do you have any dog friends?
L: I am friends with almost every doggo on this campus, but Pal the corgi is my bestie!
AG: Who are your favorite human friends, other than your family?
L: This is a hard one—I love every human who says hi to me!
AG: What is your love language?
L: Happy waggy dance with a plushie toy in my mouth!
AG: What are you most excited about today?
L: Hehe… it might be insignificant, but I had some really sweet oranges that made my day!
AG: What do you think people appreciate about you?
L: I am not picky at all and will help with everything you don’t eat!
AG: If you could have a superpower, what would it be?
L: Snow day every day!
AG: Describe your perfect Saturday.
L: Double breakfast + playdate with friends + snack party + knockout next to my humans
AG: If you could be a different animal for a day, what would you be and what would you do?
L: I would become a cat and try to be friends with that cat sister with whom I never got along…
AG: What is your favorite thing about Tatsuya and Jingwen?
L: I can burp and fart in front of their faces with no shame!
AG: What would Tatsuya and Jingwen do without you?
L: They better not have fun behind my back… I’m watching you guys! Always!
Jennifer Groves, Program Manager in the Research Support Department at The Rockefeller University and visual artist is offering a mixed media collage instruction class. This class in vision boarding/collage making will take place via Zoom from 1-2:30 p.m. on Saturday, April 24, is $20 per person, and can be tailored to the interests of the students. Students are asked to bring their own materials and can email Groves at firstname.lastname@example.org to sign-up or for more details. Examples of Groves’ artwork can be viewed on her Instagram.
Santa Maria Pecoraro Di Vittorio of the Rice Laboratory at The Rockefeller University announces the international CD release of the Chamber Orchestra of New York performing Ottorino Respighi’s music. Vittorio was a violist in the orchestra, which performed pieces such as Ancient Airs and Dances Nos. 1-3 and Violin Concerto “all’Antica.” The album is available from Naxos Records and can be listened to online.
Nick Didkovsky, Bioinformatics Group Supervisor in the Heintz Laboratory at The Rockefeller University, recently played guest guitar on Frank Pahl’s latest record, “In Cahoots: Vol 3.” Describing the collaboration, Didkovsky said Pahl was “one of my favorite composers, and it was a joy to arrange some guitars for one track on his new release.” You can view Didkovsky playing his parts on his YouTube page, while the full album is available on Pahl’s Bandcamp page.
Bernie Langs of The Rockefeller University Development Office announces the release of two songs this month, “Turn Off the TV Set” ad “Till There Was You.” Langs composed and recorded “Turn Off the TV Set,” while Richard Spanbock, drummer and songwriter for the Robbins Lane Band wrote the lyrics. Langs performed “Till There Was You,” originally written in 1950 by Meredith Wilson and covered by The Beatles in 1963. You can listen to “Turn Off the TV” and “Till There Was You” on Langs’ SoundCloud page.
Email Megan E. Kelley at email@example.com to submit your art/music/performance/sporting/other event for next month’s “Natural Expressions” and follow @NatSelections on Twitter for more events.
Gretchen M. Michelfeld
Yes, there have been bumps in the road to rollout the coronavirus vaccine, with people who are fully eligible having trouble getting vaccination appointments while refrigerators full of doses languish unused. Those of us who worry about equitable medical treatment for marginalized populations are staying politically hypervigilant, and many are trying to help older family members and neighbors navigate New York City’s convoluted online appointment system.
But hope is in the air as we see more and more of the public vaccinated. We can almost picture ourselves in a post-COVID world replete with ball games, theatre, in-person school, and hugging.
I informally polled a number of vaccine recipients (i.e., everyone I know who has been vaccinated) to hear their stories.
David Jay Smith, a Patient Representative at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, works at the Rockefeller Outpatient Pavilion on East 53rd Street. He was vaccine-eligible because his job entails daily, direct contact with Sloan Kettering cancer patients. David received both doses of the Pfizer vaccine in January. Everything went smoothly. He got his appointments through his employer, was vaccinated at the hospital, and has experienced no side effects at all.
“I feel physically fine and getting the vaccine has been a positive thing for me emotionally. I was informed that I can still contract COVID, and can still be a carrier, so I’m taking all of the precautions I’ve been taking all year, but I believe that if I do contract COVID I will have a much milder case.”
In contrast, Ray and Bru Lopez were told that ten to fifteen days after their second shot, it would be safe to socialize indoors and mask-free. Eleven days after receiving their second Pfizer shot, Ray and Bru were thrilled to be able to attend their great-granddaughter’s birthday party.
“We were so happy to see everyone and get hugs,” Bru wrote to me, “It felt really good! That is what I have missed the most. Human touch. Fortunately, Ray and I have each other. There are so many people here who are widowed. They tell me all the time that we are so lucky to have each other.” Still, she was nervous. She wrote, “I was very reticent. I was not sure that we were totally safe. It was all family members, but still…”
The Lopezes live in The Buckingham, a retirement community in Houston, Texas. Their age made them a high priority to be in the first wave of vaccine recipients.
Bru explained, “They told us that Walgreens would be here on January 5 and again on January 26, and The Buckingham nurse called every resident and scheduled an appointment time. They administered 400 Pfizer vaccines to residents and staff. The shot was very quick, and we hardly felt it. My arm was a little sore the next day, but Ray did not have any problem. I guess you could compare it to a flu shot.”
The Lopezes and others in retirement communities and assisted living facilities are fortunate to have institutions working the system for them. I myself got a call from my mother’s nursing home, Braemar Living in Middletown, NY, saying that all residents would receive the vaccine. My mom didn’t even need an appointment. I gave my permission, and she received her first shot the same day.
New York City senior citizens who live on their own are having a tougher time getting vaccinated. Monica Liriano, a Market Research Executive in Jackson Heights, Queens, had to navigate several different websites before she could get her mother, Lady, an appointment.
“I feel like the appointment we finally got was a fluke. I was convinced we were going to show up and either it wasn’t a real thing, or she’d get turned away,” Monica told me. But once they arrived at the vaccine site at Newtown High School in Elmhurst, everything went smoothly. “All in all, the process took thirty minutes, there were no lines, no waiting outside and everything was really well organized. Also, no weird questions or directives—only that her arm might hurt and she should ice the area.” Monica was also pleased that the intake nurse made Lady’s second appointment right on the spot.
Lady was a bit nervous to get the vaccine at first, but now that she has had her first Moderna shot, she’s telling all her friends to get it too. Unfortunately, appointments are still very hard to make.
Unlike Lady, who experienced no pain or side effects, Aisha Mabarak, a staff member at a Child Advocacy Center in Brooklyn, had a bad reaction to her first Moderna shot and she has decided to follow the CDC guidelines* and not get her second.
“At minute ten of the fifteen-minute observational period after the shot I noticed my right hand was quite swollen,” Aisha told me. “A staff member called an EMT who came to my seat and, when he saw my hand, he moved me to a separate area where he checked my vitals. My heart rate was normal, but my blood pressure was a little elevated.” The on-site physician suggested she go to the ER as a precautionary measure. But Aisha hesitated (“You know, COVID and all.”) and soon the swelling subsided.
Aisha also had trouble making that first vaccine appointment. As a front-facing counselor who works alongside law enforcement and Child Protective Services, she was eligible right away, but her place of employment did not arrange for her to be vaccinated. Staff had to handle the system on their own. People whose employers arrange for vaccinations have a much easier time of it.
NYPD Sergeant Gerard Walker and Dr. Benjamin tenOever of Mt. Sinai were lucky to have their employers provide the vaccine.
Ben, the Fishberg Professor of Medicine and Director of the Virus Engineering Center for Therapeutics and Research at Mt. Sinai, was enrolled in the Phase III clinical trial for Pfizer. “We received either placebo (saline) or the vaccine,” Ben told me. “It was a blinded study, but it was very apparent what each person received based on whether their arm was sore the next day.”
Ben had to maintain a “COVID diary” thereafter to report on any symptoms he might be experiencing. He also had to promise not to get any other vaccines in the interim and, interestingly,not to have unprotected sex with anyone during the three-week period between shots. He felt totally fine after both shots, but, he says, others in the study developed fever and body aches after the booster.
Gerard feels fine as well.
“I’m glad the process is over,” he told me after he received his second Moderna shot at an NYPD shooting range in the Bronx that had been transformed into a testing/vaccination site. Like so many other vaccine recipients, Gerard reported soreness in his arm, but no other side effects.
Jim Keller, a grant writer/editor at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and former Natural Selections Editor-in-Chief, was, like fellow employee David Jay Smith, happy to have Sloan Kettering provide vaccination appointments and administer the shots on site. Jim was not asked to keep a diary, but after the first injection, Sloan Kettering sent him a follow up questionnaire every day so that he could report any side effects. The shots did not hurt, but both times he noticed his heart rate increased. He believes this was anxiety.
And how does he feel now?
“I feel fine, both physically and emotionally. Mostly grateful to have been able to receive the vaccine so soon. Although, if I could, I would have given mine to my husband.”
Everyone I interviewed reported being glad to have received the vaccine. Even Aisha hopes “as more research develops there may be future guidance on reactions, and if it is ever deemed safe for me to receive the second dose, I will.”
Monica asked me to tell people, “Don’t be nervous to get the vaccine and ask for feedback about different locations since there seems to be varying experiences depending on where you go.”
Monica’s mom is doing very well, as are David, Bru, Ray, Ben, Gerard, and Jim. My mom has dementia, so she cannot tell me how the shot has impacted her health, but her caregivers report that she is feeling great and everyone is relieved the seniors and staff at Braemar are protected.
Let us hope we are all able to avail ourselves of this protection as soon as possible.
A scorpion and a frog meet on the bank of a stream and the scorpion asks the frog to carry him across on its back. The frog asks, “How do I know you won’t sting me?” The scorpion says, “Because if I do, I will die too.” The frog is satisfied, and they set out, but midstream, the scorpion stings the frog. The frog feels the onset of paralysis and starts to sink, knowing they both will drown, but has just enough time to gasp “Why?” The scorpion replies: “It’s my nature…” – The Fable of The Scorpion and The Frog
There are countless films and television shows that document the trajectory of characters initially introduced with overbearing and seemingly insurmountable negative qualities in their personalities who, over the course of the story, gradually morph into more ethical and better versions of themselves. These tales of self-discovery deliver positive, hopeful affirmations that we are all capable of making changes amid newfound understandings of our inner natures.
The King of Staten Island (2020), directed by Judd Apatow, follows a 24-year-old man (played by Pete Davidson) struggling with Attention Deficit Disorder and frequent flare-ups of mental illness. Amid life’s pressures, he is unable to control his inner demons and transition from an adolescent mindset to that of a responsible adult. Davidson’s character, loosely based on his own experiences after the loss of his firefighter father in the 9/11 attack, never accepts and comes to terms with the death of his dad (also a firefighter in the film) at age seven, arresting his growth and development. While continuously making a mess of his own life, he drags down the life of his well-adjusted, academic sister and sabotages his mother’s first relationship since the death of her husband. He also takes advantage of the young woman who loves him as she tries again and again to make him realize his potential and do something productive with his talents. As I watched the movie, I kept wondering if he’d ever change for the better and fix the terrible mess he’d created. I also speculated on how a shift in personality would be presented believably by Apatow, given the massive scope of the protagonist’s destructive behavior. When Davidson’s character finally begins to mature and comprehend the depth of what he’s done to family and friends, it’s cathartic to watch him succeed in making believable amends.
The late German philosopher, Theodor W. Adorno, mocked American movie culture for providing plot lines where the audience knows either from the start or quite quickly how it’s going to turn out in the end, which he believed showcases the simplicity and mindlessness of the genre. I don’t mind realizing where a movie is heading, the beauty for me is in the details and originality of how each director presents stories of love, drama, laughter, and action, and at times, salvation. Films using admittedly well-worn concepts can be viewed as uniquely conceived if they present new twists and turns to tales of our timeless struggles, providing fresh emotional expression of our common humanity.
Some of my favorite movies depicting unique characters who change over the course of the story include: Blood Diamond, 10 Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, Lord of the Rings, American Hustle, Star Wars, Mad Max: Fury Road, and the 1951 version of A Christmas Carol. I find the greatest and most stunning moment of terrific self-knowledge initiating a reversal of ideals occurs in the ending sequence of the 1957 epic war film directed by David Lean, Bridge on the River Kwai. In this moment, Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness) mutters with horror, “What have I done?”, comprehending that the bridge he’s helped construct with fellow prisoners of war during World War II has value only in terms of “aiding and abetting the enemy.” The boastful pride of what they’ve created turns to horror when he finally understands what was obvious all along: the bridge will be used for troop and weapons transport by the Japanese and will cost Allied lives—and that it has to be destroyed immediately.
My favorite story documenting an admirable progressive inner change is Groundhog Day, the 1993 classic fantasy featuring Bill Murray as an acerbic, jaded television weatherman forced to reckon with himself as he’s stuck in a time loop of endless repetition of the same day, February 2. In addition to being extraordinarily funny and downright clever, the movie points to larger truths and lessons. The understandings that Murray slowly fathoms are presented in a manner that make them plausible and believable, even within the ridiculous parameters of the outlandish surreal world he inhabits. It’s a beautiful thing to behold as he finally emerges, embracing life and new-found love.
Life differs from art, but many of us have long-time friends we’ve seen grow out of their more destructive traits to embrace better ones, resulting in a less stressful relationship and a renewed bond. As individuals, it can be very difficult to forgive ourselves for things we have said or done in the past that leave us with deeply-held, often bitter, regret. To change one’s life and personality for the better can at times be a slow, difficult process taking years of struggle and constant self-awareness, while keeping a diligent eye out for relapses to past destructive patterns of behavior and thinking. Storytelling can provide an almost magical and profound hope that we can change our inner being, our unique natures, arresting the unfounded belief that our worst faults and actions are genetically impossible to prevent from expression, and the idea that at times we can’t help but act solely with innate and fixed responses, impossible to unlearn. The “nature” aspect of the “Nature or Nurture” debate should not be used as an excuse to acquiesce and surrender to the notion that we carry personality traits beyond the control of free will, choice, and reason.
Rare is the case of a human soul that behaves as the Scorpion, knowingly and unremittingly taking himself down to a watery grave along with the kindhearted frog. It is worth remembering that as murderous and unchangeable the nature of the scorpion is in the fable, the frog displays the characteristic of trust, and we should not lose heart that this inner purity of spirit finishes him off in the end. Our movies, television shows, and novels are filled with countless tales of “scorpions” who end up reversing course midstream to save the day in creatively wondrous, exciting, and moving ways.
This month, I interviewed Remy, a spunky and fashionable one-year-old French bulldog. We met for the first time on the lawn of the Graduate Student Residence on a particularly frigid February afternoon. Remy’s curious and energetic nature was undeterred despite the temperature, and also despite the fact that he has probably explored that patch of grass hundreds of times previously. His genuine enthusiasm for his surroundings reminded me to appreciate the mundanities of everyday life. And his chic red jacket and adorable booties inspired me to dress for the job I want, not for the job I have. Remy lives on campus with his doting parents, Rockefeller University Ph.D. candidate Nicole Infarinato and her partner, Ryan Platt.
Audrey Goldfarb: How did you first meet Nicole and Ryan?
Remy: We met when I was just a little puppy in New Jersey. They wanted to take me home that minute, but I had a hairy mole on my eyeball that needed surgery. I guess no one is perfect! I had to stay in a cone all by myself to heal, but I am tough as nails. Mummy and Daddy came back to pick me up during a snow squall. What is a snow SQUALL!? It took hours to get to NYC, but I loved my new home and all my new toys.
AG: Have you trained your parents to do any tricks?
R: If I huff and go under the table, that’s how they know I need to go outside, immediately. Once they understand, I do downward dog stretch to show them I’m limbering up for our walk. If I bark and gurgle at them, it means Mummy or Daddy need to stop what they’re doing immediately and come throw my tennis ball or dragon, Puff. When I drop my toys off the couch, I stamp my feet and curse in dog so they know I need immediate assistance. I do not like waiting.
AG: Have you seen any good shows lately?
R: I always start my day with the weatherman Erick Adame on New York 1 News. I love Erick Adame! Then I watch Hoda on the Morning Show. I love Hoda! And also, have you seen Paw Patrol? It is riveting and profound.
AG: What are your favorite foods?
AG: Where do you like to take Nicole and Ryan on walks?
R: Off campus! Must escape!
AG: How do you help out around the apartment?
R: Moral support and entertainment. I have been saving the year, really. I also keep watch in our window in case something very interesting is happening that we must not miss out on.
AG: Have you been enjoying the snowy weather?
R: Yes, it’s 100% different from rain. Daddy bought me a big red coat and snow boots. This is normal and not weird at all. I am a fashion icon. Stay tuned for my spring season looks!
AG: Have you witnessed anything interesting lately?
R: Yes! There are some shady snowmen that have been popping up around campus. I do not trust them. Where are their masks!? I pull out their stick arms to defend us.
AG: What is your astrological sign?
R: Virgo, but I’m really a Taurus. I am a little bull! My birthday is September 14. Please send gifts!
AG: What is your biggest fear?
R: Missing out. I have serious FOMO.
AG: What is your love language?
AG: What is your greatest strength?
R: Keeping everyone happy during the pandemic. Also, walking in doggie boots. I slay!
AG: What is your biggest weakness?
AG: Describe your perfect Saturday.
R: After sleeping in, having brunch, and surveying campus, I watch Manchester United with Daddy. Then we all go on a long walk and explore NYC. I find a new tennis ball and am delighted. Maybe I even get to go into CVS. We end the day with cuddles and popcorn on the couch. I get many cookies and take many naps.
AG: What would Nicole and Ryan do without you?
R: *Huffs and curses in dog*
Pet owners who would like their furry, feathered, or scaly companions to be featured should direct their correspondence to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kristina Hedbacker of the Friedman Laboratory at The Rockefeller University would like to share her artwork, “Gracie.” This piece is a 16 x18 mixed media collage.
Bernie Langs and Mary Jane Folan of The Rockefeller University Development Office announce the re-release of the novella, The Isle of Souls. The book, written by Langs with new edits provided by Folan, follows the pursuit of the mysterious “Isle of Souls” in the East China Sea. This 2020 edition of The Isle of Souls is available now on Amazon.
Email Megan E. Kelley at email@example.com to submit your art/music/performance/sporting/other event for next month’s “Natural Expressions” and follow @NatSelections on Twitter for more events.
Flexibility and individualized support are major strengths of Rockefeller’s graduate program and have been especially beneficial to students in 2020. The Dean’s Office is one of Rockefeller’s most valuable resources for students. Dr. Emily Harms, the Senior Associate Dean for Graduate Studies, discussed her experience supporting the student body this year.
Harms and her colleagues in the Dean’s Office played an invaluable role in mitigating the impact of this past year’s extraordinary events. “We thought our fundamental responsibility was to provide support to students and postdocs professionally and personally,” she said. “To try to alleviate as much stress as possible by being flexible and understanding of individual circumstances.”
Harms said that many students expressed concerns about meeting deadlines after campus shut down. Almost immediately, the Dean’s Office suspended automatic email reminders for Faculty Advisory Committee meetings and other deadlines. Harms and Dr. Sid Strickland, Dean of Graduate and Postgraduate Studies, sent an email in May to reassure the student body that nearly all deadlines would be flexible and individual circumstances would be taken into account. “As we heard from students about things that were stressful to them, we tried to be very clear about expectations and flexibility,” Harms said. “People could come to talk to us about individual issues at any time.”
The Dean’s Office was proactive in making sure students were set up to manage their time most effectively. For one, they shuffled the curriculum to shift some fall courses to the summer, when labs were at limited capacity. Harms said students appreciated the opportunity to focus on coursework while stuck at home.
“I also think that people just need to take time for their personal wellness,” Harms said. The Dean’s Office discussed strategies with Rockefeller’s mental health providers, in order to better advise students who were struggling.
As the year progressed, discussions and concerns expanded beyond the pandemic to include the movement for racial justice and the divisive presidential election. Harms and her colleagues are heavily involved in diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice initiatives on campus, many of which are student-led and developing rapidly. “I think it’s great that it’s becoming part of the fabric of university operations and our day-to-day discussions, which it should be,” Harms said.
“There are a lot of committees doing work behind the scenes to work on increasing diversity and inclusion at Rockefeller,” Harms said. For example, the University is seriously considering hiring a Chief Diversity Officer.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Dean’s Office was set up to accommodate unique situations and difficulties in 2020, because this was also their pre-pandemic policy. “Because of our small size, we have the luxury of being able to deal with circumstances on a case-by-case basis,” Harms said.
This year has highlighted, not changed, the care with which Rockefeller supports its students, postdocs, and staff. “What the last year has shown me is that one of the things I value most about Rockefeller is the sense of community and support for one another,” Harms said. “I feel grateful to work at an institution where people value the truth and have each other’s backs during challenging times.”
There has been much news coverage lately about the distribution of the new COVID-19 vaccines. Dr. Anthony Fauci mentioned a previous campaign to inoculate New Yorkers against smallpox in 1947, which supposedly covered six million people in just about a month. It was the last mass vaccine campaign in New York City. There are similarities and differences between these two incidents.
Smallpox, like COVID-19, is caused by a virus, in this case the variola virus. It is a DNA virus, a single linear double strand. It is unusual in that it replicates inside the host cell’s cytoplasm rather than in its nucleus. It also makes a unique DNA-dependent RNA polymerase, and its outside is made up of Golgi body membranes, an organelle that is normally found inside a cell. Smallpox, like COVID-19, is transmitted through the air by droplets from an infected person coughing or sneezing. In some cases, although less likely, it can be transmitted by the used clothing or bed linens of an infected person. It presents as a full body rash that turns into blisters, as well as fever, body aches, and fatigue. There is no cure for smallpox, only management of the symptoms. While its mortality rate is 20-30%, people who survive smallpox are left with severe scars and sometimes blindness. It can only be definitively diagnosed by the detection of clusters of proteins called Guarneri bodies, from a skin biopsy.
The world experienced isolated outbreaks of smallpox like the one in New York City in 1947. On March 1 of that year, Eugene Le Bar, a Maine businessman, and his wife got off a bus from Mexico. They checked into a Midtown hotel and did some sight-seeing. He soon developed a fever and a rash and was admitted to Bellevue Hospital. Three days later, he was transferred to Willard Parker Hospital, the city hospital for communicable diseases at that time, on East 16th Street. His initial diagnosis was an adverse reaction to the drugs he had taken for his fever. But two days later, he died. On March 21 and 27 respectively, two other patients came in with similar symptoms who had been at Willard Parker at the same time: a 22-month-old girl from the Bronx and a 25-year-old hospital orderly, Ishmael Acosta, from Harlem. At that point, the Health Department began to suspect smallpox.
Israel Weinstein, the New York City Health Department Commissioner, received lab results that showed the presence of Guarneri bodies from Le Bar’s skin biopsy on April 4. He realized that the traditional Easter Parade was only two days away. With those massive crowds, smallpox could spread quickly. Along with Mayor William O’Dwyer, he held a news conference urging every New Yorker to get vaccinated. Even if you had gotten vaccinated as a child, he suspected that immunity may have waned. “Be safe, be sure, get vaccinated!” was the slogan. They immediately set up free clinics in hospitals, health departments, police and fire stations, and schools. They recruited volunteers from the health department, the Red Cross, off-duty police and firefighters, and the still existing World War II Air Raid Wardens to help run the clinics. The mayor received his injection on television. People lined up by the hundreds. There were only about half a million doses of smallpox vaccine in the city’s stockpile at first. Some doses were distributed to private physicians. Weinstein reached out to the seven smallpox vaccine manufacturers in the country, who promised around two million doses. He acquired another approximately 800,000 doses from the military, for a total of roughly three million doses. On April 11, The New York Times reported that 600,000 people had gotten their shot.
Carmen Acosta, Ishmael Acosta’s wife, died on April 13, the only other death in this outbreak. The story appeared on the front page of The New York Times. This drove people out to the clinics in greater numbers. The city’s tracking and tracing program concluded on April 15 that all of the traced contacts with Le Bar had been isolated or vaccinated. This practice is called ring vaccination. Some sources say that this is what eventually ended the 1947 New York City smallpox outbreak.
On April 16, the Times reported that the city had run out of vaccine doses. Police had to break up crowds who were told that there were no more shots after waiting in line. The next day, the city received another million doses from private labs. The Times daily tally on April 21 stated that a total of 3.4 million New Yorkers had been vaccinated. The next day, the tally was another 200,000.
The city declared the outbreak over on April 24 and started closing clinics two days later. The last clinic closed on May 3, and the city said that they had vaccinated six million people. If one adds up the daily counts from the Times, the total comes to 2.5 million. It is not clear which number is accurate, but the lower number is still an impressive feat in just one month. In the end, there were twelve confirmed infections and two deaths. The city had an advantage in 1947 as opposed to now in that the smallpox vaccine already existed, and only one shot was required. Smallpox was declared eradicated in 1980 by the 33rd World Health Assembly. As for COVID-19, as of January 14, 2021 the city had administered 303,671 shots since December 15, most of which were the first dose. The daily number of doses administered has been as high as 24,289. If this rate increases, and our vaccine supply is sufficient, it is possible that we may have all ten million New Yorkers vaccinated in a little over a year.
In the pre-COVID world, if you had seen me running down the street, it would have almost certainly meant that someone was chasing me down with a machete. As an avid dancer, I took my cardiovascular fitness for granted and snubbed every other form of cardio, including running. This all changed in March 2020 when I took to running up and down the East River Esplanade to appease my stressed-out and sleep-deprived brain. Day by day and mile by mile, I became faster and stronger. With an improvement in fitness came an increase in confidence, and with it—the incessant need to keep on moving, no matter what. And then it got cold. Cold weather running is a reprieve for the restless, and, with the right gear, it can be safe and pleasant. However, my biggest challenge was overcoming the activation barrier that keeps you from stepping outside and doing something that is objectively hard while battling the elements. This is where the tradition of New Years’ resolutions came in handy.
Browsing through upcoming challenges on the fitness tracking app Strava one day, I came across a “New Year 90” challenge sponsored by a certain high-end athleisure retailer. All I had to do was workout for ninety minutes a week for the first twenty-one days of 2021, clocking in four and a half hours in total. And although any workout could count toward the goal, I decided to make it all about running. This resolution is not going to carry me through all of 2021, but it will certainly allow me to start the year with the right attitude. As a bonus, completing this challenge on Strava would give me a 30% discount on purchases made with the certain-high-end-retailer, and who doesn’t need another pair of $100 leggings in their life?! While I made the resolution to stop being a baby about the cold weather and run consistently, other members of our community decided to run smart:
Audrey Goldfarb, graduate student and member of the Natural Selections editorial board:
“My resolution is to run less and to avoid overuse injuries, which were a major problem for me in 2019-2020. Broadly, I want to balance out running with other kinds of exercise and listen to my body more when it’s hurting.
So far, that’s meant doing two to three shorter runs during the week and a longer run on the weekends, doing a short yoga/stretching routine when I have time in the morning or evening, and cross training (lifting, climbing, or biking) on the other days. I’m also working on making peace with rest days.”
For those of us who want to stay active but avoid going outside, online spin classes are a great option and one that is easily accessible on a variety of platforms. Our former editor-in-chief and a recent Rockefeller University graduate is partial to Peloton Digital, and app that gives you access to spin classes even if you don’t own a Peloton bike (yet!):
Sarah Martini (Baker), Ph.D., Rockefeller University graduate program alumna:
“I recently made the decision to try to mimic the Peloton experience without the Peloton price tag and got a basic spin bike which I have paired with the Peloton app. My goal is to go on 300 rides throughout the course of 2021. As winter has set in and work-from-home fatigue has dragged on, I have found that having a new fitness goal and a variety of classes to take is helping me to stay excited to work out each day. Plus, following my former colleagues’ fitness journeys through the Peloton app is helping me stay connected and motivated. Feel free to add me on Peloton @skbake!”
In 2020, many more people experienced the excitement of digital spin classes, and a lucky member of our community even got to take home the most coveted e-bike that she happily shares with her family:
Erin Norris, research assistant professor in the Laboratory of Neurobiology and Genetics:
“After sitting around for months in quarantine and literally watching my physical fitness plummet, my husband and I decided to purchase a Peloton. Several of our friends have done the same. Having the bike to ride (in addition to strength, yoga, and meditation classes) has been amazing for multiple reasons. I can already feel myself becoming fitter, my energy and mood are better, and my sleep has improved greatly. Sharing this experience with my husband has helped encourage both of us to exercise every single day, and we communicate with our friends about favorite rides and instructors. My daughters have also joined me in yoga sessions! It’s become a fitness resolution for my whole family, which is very exciting and a lot of fun!”
However, cardiovascular exercise is only a small part of the journey that leads to improved physical and mental health. Equally important are other forms of physical activity, well-balanced diet, and quality sleep. A member of our community who chose to stay anonymous has made the resolution to prioritize restful sleep in an effort to make full recovery from COVID-19:
“My fitness goals this year are quite modest—I spent the majority of last year struggling with symptoms of “long COVID,” and I am hesitant to physically overextend myself and relapse. I’m working on my posture and occasionally taking the stairs or walking around campus when I have the energy. I’m not sure if sleep is a fitness goal, but I’ve prioritized getting enough rest and I can say it’s already having a positive impact.”
Whatever your destination may be, you have no choice but to start from where you are. That New Year’s resolution might be just the first step, but isn’t that where every great journey starts? At Natural Selections, we are happy to cheer you on as you embark on your fitness journey in 2021.
The 1994 film Forrest Gump, directed by Robert Zemeckis, focuses on the life of a supposedly simple-minded man who manages to constantly find himself in the center of many historically turbulent moments during the 1960s and 1970s. Along the way, the Greenbow, Alabama native meets several presidents, sees combat action in the Vietnam war, founds a highly successful shrimping business, and literally jogs across the entire expanse of America. The movie, which won numerous Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Actor for Tom Hanks as Gump, and Best Director for Zemeckis, is also a touching love story that tracks Gump’s childhood love of the kind-hearted and rebellious Jenny (Robin Wright) to their cathartic yet heartbreaking marriage.
Hanks’ Gump, with his melodic southern twang and amusing range set of sayings and vocal mannerisms, is best described as an “Innocent.” He is marvelously good-natured and a steadfast friend to his war buddy Bubba (Mykelti Williamson) and the formidable Lieutenant Dan (Gary Sinise), saving the latter’s life during an intense napalm bombing during the Vietnam war. Lt. Dan later descends into despair as a double amputee war veteran, and it is through Gump’s dedication to him over many years that he emerges once more a renewed man with a fresh lease on life. Gump encouraged a similar transformation in Jenny, who struggled with disastrous self-hatred and drug abuse before finally realizing, like the savvy Lt. Dan, what is of real importance in life. Their understanding is gained by slowly awakening to the consistent, exemplary behavior of Gump, an expression of his quiet, “God-given” instinctive ethical wisdom. Gump has, through the thick and thin of all his extraordinary experiences, remained consistent to his unique self, and has the uncanny ability to brush aside constant insults and abuse about his intelligence, which he hears and quickly dismisses as of no real relevance.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button was released in 2008 and was directed by David Fincher. Fincher’s movies always take chances and films such as Mank (2020), The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011), and The Social Network (2010) stand up to repeated viewing. Benjamin Button received numerous Oscar nominations, but won only three in minor categories. Brad Pitt, perhaps the most underrated and underappreciated actor in movie history, is absolutely stunning in the lead as Benjamin Button, a native of New Orleans raised by Queenie (Taraji P. Henson) as her own. Button’s Louisiana accent is a completely different Southern vocal characterization compared to Gump’s. Pitt’s character speaks with intonations and inflections that are music to the ear, akin to the flow of a melodic ballad softly performed by a New Orleans jazz band. Pitt masterfully rises and falls on the waves of his character’s unique and amazing life, as we witness how he is welcomed into the hearts of those he encounters on his journey.
Benjamin Button is a difficult movie. The story maintains a disturbing undercurrent leaving the viewer feeling almost guilty in finding it so troublesome. Based loosely on a 1922 short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Benjamin Button is a lifespan fantasy of, for lack of better words, a “freak of nature,” who biologically ages in reverse, from old to young. He is born to this world and immediately abandoned as an infant-sized, shriveled, old man with the neurology of a baby. He ends his days plagued with dementia and senility in the body of a boy, finally retreating and passing away as a newborn, perhaps in his 80s or older.
Benjamin Button is presented as the most kind-hearted of “Innocents,” with quiet smarts as well as powers of observance far beyond the capabilities of Gump. Like Gump, he faces the turbulence and tumults of history, some of which are played out in the 1940s. Both characters come into their own in the 1960s and both not only survive war, but are present at the moment of the violent deaths of their closest friend in battle. Gump expresses regret that the last words he says to his best friend Bubba as he dies in Vietnam border on absurd. Captain Mike is blessed to die on a small boat at sea during a fierce battle during World War II with Button grasping his hand to comfort him. Both scenes are tearfully and emotionally staged by the two innovative film directors.
Each film was highly praised on release for its innovative use of special effects, especially Zemeckis for how he magically interjected Gump to meet three United States presidents and the late recording artist, John Lennon, using historical footage. Critics also praised Fincher’s ability to physically change Brad Pitt’s body over his trajectory from old age to youth.
Gump had his Jenny, while Button was enamored by Daisy, portrayed by the brilliant Cate Blanchett. When Button meets Daisy, they are both young children, and it’s disturbing to see the extremely old man that Button’s body maintains at that time playing with a little girl—however, the viewer is reminded that they are actually close in age and that he poses no unnatural danger to her. Their dynamic changes and evolves as they approach physical parity as she grows up and he “grows down.” Daisy’s rebellion is completely different from Jenny’s when she leaves her New Orleans hometown, but both are motivated by the enticement of discovering a larger world and embracing opportunities for excitement. Daisy enters a bohemian life as a celebrated ballerina, and her unexpected encounter with Button in the arts scene of Manhattan is reminiscent of Jenny accidently reuniting with Gump at a Washington DC anti-war rally in the 1960s. Both relationships take many more years to come to fruition as Daisy and Jenny seek out other lovers and pursuits.
Jenny chooses to run from Gump after she’s come out of her self-destructiveness. She emotionally restores herself in Greenbow at Gump’s home. When Forrest proposes to her, she softly declines:
Forrest Gump: Will you marry me? I’d make a good husband, Jenny.
Jenny: You would, Forrest.
Gump: But you won’t marry me.
Jenny: You don’t wanna marry me.
Gump: Why don’t you love me, Jenny? I’m not a smart man, but I know what love is.
It’s one of the few vocal inflections Hanks uses in the entire movie with an edge to it. The viewer is left to note, “Perhaps he is not such an ‘Innocent’ after all.” Jenny abandons her own self-hatred, and their reunification towards the film’s end comes at a bad time: after finally settling down, Jenny is doomed by what is most likely a deadly AIDS diagnosis and Gump is left to raise their child alone.
Daisy reunites with Button when her dancing career is halted after a tragic car accident. They begin a deeply loving relationship, but ironically it is Button who decides to steal away for good after they have a baby and he becomes disturbed by the idea that he, as a father, is destined to physically morph over the years to having a child-like appearance and an aging mind. The scenes Pitt subsequently traveling to obscure spots of the world and the Indian subcontinent in a spiritual quest reminded me of the adventures of the Austrian mountaineer Heinrich Harrer that Pitt portrayed in 1997’s Seven Years in Tibet.
An “Innocent” maintains an easy, positive attitude and optimism through all of life’s trials and tribulations. Such an individual cannot waver from their path because it is seemingly embedded in their DNA and naturally expressed in their unique nature. Gump and Button touch the lives of the many people they encounter with magical ease. Their relatives, lovers, and friends stand in awe and respect of the power of how a simple, easy personality is profoundly rooted in ideals, ethics, and morality, which is endearingly miraculous. Gump meets Lt. Dan in Vietnam as his war-wise, superior officer who will eventually berate him for not leaving him to die on the field of battle. In their last scene together, Dan is a surprise guest at the wedding of Gump and Jenny, and you can see the esteem in which he holds Gump. Button’s biological father, a wealthy businessman in New Orleans, surreptitiously befriends his son. He soon reveals his paternity and admits the cowardice of leaving him on Queenie’s doorstep after seeing his appearance at birth as a tiny, shriveled old man. Benjamin displays a moment of frustrated despair and anger, but soon returns to reconcile in a most wonderous way as his father is dying, carrying him to a bench where he can gaze in peace at the rising orange sun on the distant horizon across the waters of the Gulf. The way that the elder Button glances at Benjamin reveals his silent understanding of how his son has “grown down” to be a man of profound kindness, permeated head to toe by what can only be described as the natural good of “The Innocent.”
Happy 2021! 2020 saw a surge in pet adoption and foster care, emptying shelters across the country. You may have noticed new furry faces around campus, or maybe you yourself are enjoying the company of a recently adopted companion. We at Natural Selections are eager to meet the new kids on the block this year, and we hope you enjoy reading about them, too! Pet owners who would like their furry, feathered, or scaly companions to be featured should direct their correspondence to firstname.lastname@example.org.
For this issue, I interviewed Yofi the dog, the best bud of Dani Keahi (Rockefeller University Ph.D. Candidate). Every encounter I’ve had with Yofi in the three years that I’ve known him has centered around fetch. Although this is always a treat—his athleticism is remarkable—I was curious to delve into more serious topics. Yofi is a tough nut to crack but at his core is a tranquil and thoughtful soul.
Audrey Goldfarb: How old are you? In human years?
Yofi: 4 years old!
AG: How did you first meet Dani?
Y: We met in Hawai’i where both of us were born. I was the size of a guinea pig when I met mom, she bought me my first ball, and I knew I’d follow her anywhere! I was also very good and quiet on the long flight to NYC at only 12 weeks old.
AG: Is there a story behind your name?
Y: Yofi means beautiful or good in Hebrew, so you could say that Yofi is yofi.
AG: If I promise to play fetch after this, can you sit still for 10 minutes?
Y: I will TRY. But please hide the ball for the duration or I will go nuts.
AG: Do you have a favorite ball?
Y: ALL balls are my favorite and ball is life!
AG: What are your favorite foods?
Y: WET FOOD. But also, mom and dad give me a bit of filet mignon on my birthday.
AG: I hear you’re moving soon. How do you feel about that?
Y: I’m excited to try new and exotic balls in Seattle. What will it be like to fetch in the rain?
AG: What will you miss most about NYC?
Y: So many friends who indulge me by throwing the ball! Shoutout to Uncle Isaac, Uncle Samer, and Uncle Phil for taking such good care of me when mom and dad travel.
AG: What are your top three favorite things to do/places to go in the city?
Y: 1) Outdoor dining, 2) Fetching the ball at Carl Schurz dog park, 3) long walks around Central Park.
AG: Do you ever get tired?
Y: Not really. I’m actually a very capable hiker and have summited Mt. Marcy, Mt. Algonquin, and Big Slide in the Adirondacks.
AG: What is your biggest responsibility?
Y: Letting people know if there is an idle ball present in any room I enter.
AG: What is your biggest weakness?
Y: I do not like music. I do not like anything with violins, “All I Want for Christmas is You” by Mariah Carey, big band, jazz, or orchestral movie soundtracks. Makes me howl.
AG: What is your favorite thing about yourself?
Y: My passion for ball! It makes mom more motivated to pursue her favorite things in life with a dogged determination. Hopefully this means more balls for me in the future.
AG: What is your favorite thing about Dani?
Y: We go together like peas and carrots.
AG: How do you feel about other humans? How about other non-human animals?
Y: I love all people and very much miss when many humans can gather around me indoors and take turns throwing the ball. I like most other dogs, but puppies sometimes freak me out. I tolerate my guinea pig sister, Bernadette.
AG: What would Dani do without you?
Y: She wouldn’t know what to do with herself!