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Revee Needham ’18: WWOOF-ing It in Costa Rica

By Peter Tschirhart on March 5, 2017

Revee Needham learned about organic farming in Costa Rica.

During winter of 2017, Alumni Memorial Scholar Revee Needham ’18 used her grant funds to learn about organic farming in Costa Rica. She writes:

I worked on the farm most mornings, helping to plant, harvest crops, and befriend the baby goat. I learned about the challenges of organic farming in Costa Rica, where pesticide use is higher than the U.S. Overall, the work was a lot more time and labor-intensive than I would’ve thought. Also, I learned about the devastation of November’s hurricane on the farm’s crops.

You can read more about Revee’s experience on Colgate’s Sustainability News blog. And you can learn more about the AMS program by clicking here.

Kelsey Soderberg ’17: “Traversing Japan: Searching for Answers to the Country’s Population Decline”

By Peter Tschirhart on March 3, 2017

Enjoying the perks of being a tourist alongside my research. Too many temples, too little time.

The following post was contributed by Alumni Memorial Scholar Kelsey Soderberg ’17, who recently completed an independent research project, using her AMS grant funds, studying population decline in Japan.

As I made my way through Tokyo’s brightly lit streets in the midst of evening rush hour, I second-guessed my previously held ideals of the country’s population decline. Never had I seen such large crowds of people, flocking together like schools of fish to enter the subway; so where was the evidence for Japan’s rapidly shrinking population?

But just like the danger of listening to a single story there lies the danger of viewing a single place to tell the whole story. While Tokyo’s streets are constantly bustling with young professionals, packs of teenagers, businessmen and foreign tourists, many areas throughout Japan are facing severe population decline as the majority of young people leave for the capital in search of a better financial and social life. This migration is accompanied by Japan’s incredibly long life expectancy (>83 years old) and shrinking birth rate (~1.4 births per woman), all contributing to a severe population decline that threatens to ravage the country’s economy and way of life if left unchecked.

With unanswered questions about Japan’s demographic challenges, a curiosity for the unknown, and a nearly overwhelming desire to see the world, I packed up my suitcase over January break and headed to the world’s largest city in the hopes of using my AMS funding to place my knowledge into real world context.

Soon enough, I had exited the plane with no knowledge of the language, simply traveling around Tokyo with a notebook and a backpack on my shoulders. While I was primarily conducting research by fire and observing the cultural and social tendencies of everyday Japanese life, I also met with geography and sociology professors at the University of Tokyo and Sophia University to discuss the impact of Japan’s shrinking population on its economic, political and cultural realms. For me, this project was the culmination of my Colgate liberal arts education: an internationally focused research project primarily fueled by a (relatively random) interest in Japanese sociological problems stemming from Professor Yamamoto’s Core Japan class during my sophomore fall. In the end, my project utilized every skill I’ve learned throughout my four years at Colgate: listening to others to find meaning, asking questions without a clear answer, opening oneself to the unknown, and finding similarities among differences. It also highlighted the interdisciplinary nature of my geography major as I searched for answers to a national problem within each realm of society.

While the rest of the country struggles with a declining population, Tokyo’s skyline goes as far as the eye can see– evidence of the vastness associated with the world’s largest city.

In academic terms, the discourse I held with the professors I met proved my previously held notions of the immediate and long-term effects of such rapid depopulation and furthered my understanding of the issue on a macroscale. But it was the more casual back and forth with each professor accompanied by my quick conversations with Japanese strangers in broken English that proved to be the most valuable parts of my research. While recent statistics clearly demonstrate the dastardly consequences that population decline will have on Japanese economic and cultural life, it was not until I spoke with Japanese people about the concerns they have about their personal finances, their children’s future, and the government’s response that I seemed to gain a more three-dimensional grasp on the interconnectedness of the issues at hand. The economic downturn has sparked a lack of confidence in the future of Japanese jobs, ultimately leading to an uncertainty in the personal decision to have children. The incredibly large number of elderly people has created a population bubble on the brink of bursting, causing many people to question the reality of obtaining their pension after a lifetime of work. Women are working more than in the past, partially out of opportunity and partially out of necessity, and childcare is almost impossible to obtain in Japan’s largest cities, leading to higher median ages of marriage and fewer children. Throughout my trip, the majority of people I spoke with worried about these problems specifically, often blaming the population decline on them and vice versa.

In reality, though, most city folk don’t talk about the country’s demographic issues, as the sheer size of Tokyo and its suburbs makes it easy to forget about them.

It was not until I traveled to the rural, isolated town of Matsukawa in Nagano Prefecture that I realized the tangible effects of the problem lie outside of the capital. Within the Japanese Alps and other more rural areas, life is much slower and the lights less bright. After staying with a wonderful host family and exploring the mountainous region for several days, it was clear that Japan’s famously aging population and low birth rate were much more noticeable in the rural areas than in urban. Small towns like Matsukawa lack young people as many flee to Tokyo or Kyoto for college or to start their professional careers. But for most town residents, depopulation is not thought about—a common theme I found throughout my time there. I was initially struck by this lack of concern about such a pressing issue but soon realized that the Japanese, like any other culture, get caught up in the day to day struggles of life. National issues are often an afterthought, as children, jobs and happiness rank higher on the rung of importance than relatively slow-moving demographic change.

Although my academic standpoint on the critical nature of the issue had initially caused me to look at this type of large-scale apathy with contempt, traveling throughout Japan allowed me to see the humanity in a largely statistical study. Just a five-minute conversation with a Japanese stranger gave me a better grasp on the effects of this population change than many of the books I had belabored over, once again proving the indisputable benefits of the AMS program.

Villages are meticulously placed between farmland and mountains, as the Japanese use every last bit of available land to their advantage. Compared to the ultra-modern lifestyle found in Japan’s cities, rural towns like this are much different.

And in another sense, all hope is not lost. After staying in Kyoto for several days, I drove up to the small city of Ayabe in northern Kyoto Prefecture with a geography professor from Doshisha University in order to see first-hand the effects of depopulation. From the looks of the town’s main street, it was clear that young people had fled for the opportunity-filled cities, leaving behind an agriculturally dominated area struggling to get by in the 21st century. However, the area was also filled with older retirees and young couples with children who had left Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka to live life at a slower pace. This type of emigration is common in Japan’s more rural areas, as many refuse to adopt the hyper-modern, Westernized world often found in the urban core. While in Ayabe, I visited the local government offices where I learned about yearly welcoming parties held in an attempt to bring city-goers to the area. It was clear that local activism was more robust than many of the attempts to change policy at the federal level– a reflection of the imbalanced narrative and consequences of the demographic change. This will not entirely solve the problem, but it does provide hope in a relatively hopeless situation.

While my on-the-ground research reinforced many of the theories I had previously learned, much of my experience in Japan was welcomingly unexpected and had little to do with my actual research. Here are some of the moments I’ll never forget:

  • The way strangers respected each other and welcomed me. After walking into a café in a one-street town, I was given a homemade gift by the owner even though we couldn’t communicate in the same language.
  • Making my own traditional Japanese style bed each night on tatami mats.
  • Eating dried, roasted, baked, and broiled fish for breakfast, lunch and dinner- and liking them all.
  • Waking up to an earthquake in my Tokyo hotel room.
  • Experiencing Tokyo rush hour. Though I’ve worked two summers in New York, this was an indescribable experience.
  • Feeling completely “at home” with my host family in Matsukawa while playing in the snow with their two young girls and eating homemade udon noodles cross-legged on the floor.
  • Skiing the Japanese Alps at Happo-One, the site of the 1998 Winter Olympics.
  • Learning about the intricacies of Zen Buddhism, a much needed lesson to prepare for the anxieties that come with senior spring.
  • Hand carving a wasabi plant onto my vanilla ice cream. Don’t knock it ‘til you’ve tried it.
  • Thanking the geography major in me after conquering each city’s public transportation system by myself.
  • Walking through Fushimi-Inari, the land of a Thousand Gates in Kyoto, and feeling completely in awe of human capability.
  • Feeding peanuts to dozens of macaque monkeys on a mountain overlooking Kyoto. It sounds as weird and cool as it was.
  • Allowing myself to feel vulnerable and uncomfortable in a culture completely different from my own; allowing myself to feel welcomed and comforted by the kindness of strangers and a culture completely different from my own.

Appreciating the freedom to do and see whatever I wanted in a foreign land for two weeks.

Overlooking Kyoto with a friendly visitor.

The dichotomy of modern Japan lies in the balance between old and new, urban and rural, Japanese and Western. Grappling with these differences were at the heart of most of my cultural observations.

Each place I visited, from Tokyo’s glowing streets to Matsukawa’s mountainous backdrop, provided me with a completely different perspective on Japan from the last. My own identity changed minute to minute as well, giving me distinct vantage points from which to learn and absorb information. One moment I was a well-versed student discussing the implications of a declining population on the macroeconomics of a first-world nation with renowned scholars, and the next moment I was an unaccompanied tourist making my way through foreign alleyways and unknown train stations. These solo moments as a traveler made up the majority of my trip and allowed me the freedom and independence to move from one interest of mine to the next. With few specifics on my itinerary and an impartial unfamiliarity about the realities of Japanese life, I was able to view the culture from an outsider’s perspective with few biased presumptions. Very few times in my life have I felt such autonomy to create an entirely original story while making each and every decision by and for myself. Though I still cannot claim to know what Japan will face in the coming years, the opportunity to learn more was one of the best of my life.

Sydney Loria ’18: Juliet in Modernity

By sloria on January 23, 2017

Alumni Memorial Scholar Sydney Loria ’18 used her AMS Grant to travel to Italy during the summer of 2016. For two weeks, Sydney lived in Verona, where she volunteered for the Juliet Club. Her goal was to understand how Shakespeare’s character Juliet Capulet remains relevant in modern society–and why so many people from around the world write letters to a fictional person. The following post describes her experience and results.

The story of Romeo and Juliet has inspired people for years, teaching us that love at first sight is real and true love exists. It is a narrative that is understood across generations and cultures as the archetypal story of love in its purest and deepest form. It introduces us to a character that is both childish and mature, naïve and wise, careless and cautious. For years, people have been turning to Juliet Capulet for advice about love and life as if she knew all the answers as a thirteen-year-old girl. In our Western culture, we see such young love as puerile and yet still place so much faith in the young lover. It is this seemingly hypocritical attitude that inspired me to travel to Verona, Italy and volunteer for the Juliet Club.

The tradition of leaving letters for Juliet has been around for centuries, but the club was officially founded in the 1990’s with the purpose of giving answers to lost souls. I was first introduced to the organization after watching Letters to Juliet, the popular film that came out in 2010. I found hope and inspiration in the idea of the Juliet Club, and I arranged to spend two weeks in Verona working for the club and answering some of my own questions about Juliet and the pivotal role that she continues to play throughout history.

One of the most famous tourist attractions in Verona is Juliet’s Balcony. Home to the famous bronze statue with the lucky breast and the wall where thousands of notes are posted each year, it is where people travel when they seek the advice of Juliet. The plethora of languages spoken in this small area made me more aware of the fact that Juliet’s love is such a global phenomenon. People from all over the world, with incredible differences, come to Verona with the common goal of seeking the advice of the star-crossed lover. The letters are placed inside a red mailbox, and one of the duties of the Secretaries of Juliet is to empty the mailbox and bring the letters to our office. Juliet’s Balcony is a symbol of her love for Romeo, and when standing there, one can imagine the famous balcony scene that takes place in Shakespeare’s play. Being in a place filled with the promise of such love makes us forget rationality and allows us to believe in true love and the ultimate sacrifices that people make to maintain it.

The Secretaries of Juliet take on the role of Juliet, and answer each letter that is sent to Verona. After watching the movie that the Juliet Club inspired, I had expected to find a table of experienced woman answering the pleas of these heartsick women. However, I found a table of high school girls. I learned from them that as part of their schooling, they were required to volunteer over the summer at a place that matched with their schooling specialties. As these girls had all chosen to attend high schools with language-intensive programs, they chose the Juliet Club to practice the variety of languages that they were learning. I was left wondering how a group of such young girls, including myself, held the wisdom and ability to truly help the hundreds of people with problems that many of us had not yet even faced ourselves.

Throughout my time volunteering, I found that the letters generally fell into a couple of categories. The most prominent of which were letters from those who faced a crossroads in their love lives. There were also letters that were written for the sole purpose of expressing personal content in a relationship. Many letters addressed problems that were not at all love related, and the type that I least expected came from school children. Many teachers instructed their students to write to Juliet as an exercise after reading the play; these letters proved to be the most amusing. Many of the students reflected on specific details from the play and asked Juliet about how she could be so foolish to think that she had found true love at such a young age. Other students wrote to Juliet as a means of practicing their English skills. The students showed a genuine curiosity about the story of Romeo and Juliet, and they were faced with the same questions that I had wondered about before leaving for Italy. The exposure to Romeo and Juliet at such a young age, and across many countries, demonstrates how literature plays an important role in spreading the notion of Juliet’s wisdom and ability to help others who are facing difficulties.

The history of the Juliet Club became quite apparent when one day I was able to visit the archives. This room housed letters that had been received each year since the foundation of the club. The man that took us to the archives also explained that they were currently working on a project where the entire manuscript of Romeo and Juliet was being copied, each line by a different person. These traditions and history succeed in bringing people together and surmounting the vast differences that are seen between cultures and beliefs. I learned that the Juliet Club is a very welcoming and open organization, allowing anyone that walks into the office to ask questions and even offer their own advice by means of answering a letter. We can’t offer each person that writes to us the perfect advice or provide them with all the answers, but we can give them love and hope. The ability of the Secretaries, even though we were all young, to successfully respond to the variety of letters we received was dependent upon our ability to provide a sense of hope. Hope is what has brought millions of people over the years to Verona and to Juliet’s Balcony. The ability of Juliet to find a love that she was willing to die for is inspiring, and although the outcome of her story can be described as nothing short of tragic, she was strong and she was determined and she was hopeful that one day she would be reunited with her Romeo. We all strive to attain the ultimate goal of love and success, and the key to finding these things is finding hope and strength. Juliet’s story embodies such feelings and the ability of the Secretaries to translate these messages into our letters is what makes the Juliet Club successful and encourages the people of the world to continue to put their faith in Juliet.

All the Secretaries that I worked with had the same feelings regarding love and the meaning behind the character of Juliet. We still keep in touch, and in general, this was a very powerful and eye-opening experience for me. I loved being able to feel a connection with people from all around the world, and I really appreaciated the welcoming environment of the Juliet Club. The people who write to Juliet don’t expect to receive all the answers to their problems in our responses. They want the courage and strength to be able to decide what is best for them, and if we can offer a little personal advice along the way, then they can feel like someone is listening. I loved the time that I spent in Verona, and I am positive that Juliet will continue to remain a symbol of love and hope for generations to come.




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

By Evie Lawson on April 20, 2016

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

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

Railroad tracks in Wiscasset, Maine

Railroad tracks in Wiscasset, Maine

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

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


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

On the road to Haddam, Connecticut!

On the road to Haddam, Connecticut!

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

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

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

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

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

By Evie Lawson on April 20, 2016

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

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

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

Hubble Space Telescope

Hubble Space Telescope

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

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

Main Exhibit Hall

Main Exhibit Hall

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

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