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Wesleyan Oscar Nominees: Miranda ’02, Topping ’89, Lonergan ’84 and Lame ’04

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The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will hold their annual award ceremony to recognize excellence on Sunday, Feb. 26, 2017, 8:30 p.m., ET. The Academy Awards—or “Oscars”— for releases in 2016 have three film nominations with Wesleyan connections.

Disney’s animated comedy-adventure Moana features the song “How Far I’ll Go.” With music and lyrics both by Lin-Manuel Miranda ’02, it is one of five nominations in the category Best Original Song and was nominated for Best Animated Feature Film. Common Sense Media reviewer Sandie Angulo Chen writes, “This engaging adventure triumphs because of its empowering storyline, which pays tribute to Polynesian culture, and because of its feel-good music, courtesy of Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda.”

Jenno Topping ’89 is one of the producers of Hidden Figures (20th Century Fox Films), along with Donna Gigliotti, Peter Chernin, Pharrell Williams and Theodore Melfi. The historical drama, about a female team of African-American mathematicians who played a vital role in the nascent years of the US space program, is one of nine films nominated for Best Picture and also received nominations for Writing (Adapted Screenplay) and Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Octavia Spencer). Peter Debruge of Variety called it “empowerment cinema … and one only wishes that the film had existed at the time it depicts.”

Also competing for Best Picture is Manchester By The Sea, which previewed at Sundance and was picked up for distribution by Amazon Studios. Joe Morgenstern of the Wall Street Journal calls it “a drama of surpassing beauty.” Kenneth Lonergan ’84, the writer and director, earned a place as one of five nominees in the “Best Director” category, as well as in Writing (Original Screenplay). Additional nominations included Actor in a Leading Role (Casey Affleck), Actor in a Supporting Role (Lucas Hedges), and Actress in a Supporting Role (Michelle Wiliams). As an additional note, Jennifer Lame ’04 served as film editor for the production.

Tucker Comments on Victorian Pseudoscience, Romance

Jennifer Tucker

Jennifer Tucker

The pseudoscientific myths about love and sexuality that abounded in the Victorian era, many of which seem “cruel and oppressive” by today’s standards, could also offer women relief from the era’s “rigid gender politics,” according to Associate Professor of History Jennifer Tucker, who comments on the topic for a Broadly article.

For much of the 19th century, the Western world was fascinated with a variety of pseudosciences, or theories that lack a basis in the scientific method.

“Definitions of science were malleable and hotly contested in the 19th century,” said Tucker, who is also associate professor of science in society, associate professor of feminist, gender and sexuality studies, and associate professor of environmental studies. “Far from being on the sidelines of intellectual life, spiritualism and other unconventional forms of knowledge often provided a means for Victorians from a variety of different social backgrounds to question scientific authority and to ask what counted as a proper science, or as a ‘scientific practice.'”

“One of the great myths about the Victorian age [was] that it was sexually repressive; on the contrary, Victorian society was obsessed with sexual reform, heterosexual and homosexual love, lust, and sex (as well as of the policing of sexual desires),” added Tucker. “Love and sex were both controversial and politicized.”

Pseudoscientific theories included phrenology (which was used to explain the different propensities of men and women toward love and sexual desire); the use of love potions made of dangerous ingredients such as arsenic and belladonna; beauty face masks made of raw beef; cures for low libido such as bull testicles; and vibrators used to treat “hysteria” in sexually frustrated women.

According to the story, “Victorians were also surprisingly progressive on what would eventually evolve into more enlightened views on gender.

“Theosophists [occult philosophers] believed that life in male and female bodies taught different lessons; for some, this meant that it was necessary for the Ego to incarnate many times as both female and male,” Tucker explains. “Many theosophists believed, for example, that in their evolutionary progress men reincarnated as women, and women as men. Therefore at any given time, as one believer in this theory said in 1892: ‘We have… men in women’s bodies, and women in men’s bodies.'”

Bronstein ’89, Selkow ’96 join Reza Aslan for CNN Documentary Series ‘Believer’

“We have to give a shout-out to Jeanine Basinger, who changed all of our lives with her incredible mind and teaching,” Bronstein adds. “Exactly—teaching the principles of story, the foundation of drama and cinema, which we were rigorous in trying to apply to the series.”—Selkow Adds Basinger, the Corwin-Fuller Professor of Film Studies:  “I am really looking forward to seeing this show.  I’m very excited that two of my very best film students, Ben and Liz, are working together on this.  It’s a good example of the collaboration that all students who study film at Wesleyan learn.

Two film alumni, Liz Bronstein ’89 and Ben Selkow ’96 collaborated on the new CNN series, Believer. “We have to give a shout-out to Jeanine Basinger, who changed all of our lives with her incredible mind and teaching,” Bronstein notes.
Selkow concurs, adding “She taught us the principles of story, the foundation of drama and cinema, which we were rigorous in trying to apply to the series.”
For her part, Basinger, the Corwin-Fuller Professor of Film Studies says she’s looking forward to the show. “I’m very excited that two of my very best film students, Ben and Liz, are working together on this. It’s a good example of the collaboration that all students who study film at Wesleyan learn.”

A new CNN original series, Believer with Reza Aslan, premieres Sunday, March 5, at 10 p.m. ET. Billed as a “spiritual adventure series,” in which Aslan, acclaimed author and religious scholar, will “immerse himself in the world’s most fascinating faith-based groups to experience life as a true believer.” The show employs the talents of two alumni who majored in film at Wesleyan: executive producer and show runner Liz Bronstein ’89 and director Ben Selkow ’96. Additionally, Professor of Religion Liza McAlister provided both academic scholarship and on-the-ground connections when the crew traveled to Haiti for the segment on Vodou, which will air as third in the series.

Bronstein joined the project soon after a close friend sold Believer to CNN. “He told me, ‘This is the show you were born to run—and he was right.” Growing up with a “spiritually curious mother” who’d often invite different gurus to their home—and with a sister who’d left to join what the family viewed as a cult—Bronstein welcomed this opportunity “to tell the stories that I’d always wanted to tell.”

She began searching for a nonfiction television director who was also a filmmaker. Selkow fit the bill, and, like Bronstein, came with a unique backstory: he had spent most of his youth living with his mother on a religious commune. Both envisioned the show as an immersive experience. The team formed a tight bond, which became crucial in what Selkow calls “dicey situations.”

In one of these (see the trailer), Aslan is seated on the sand next to a cannibalistic tribe member, whose gestures and mood turn threatening. Aslan calls Selkow over from off-camera for assistance.

“The adage in filmmaking is that when you stop rolling, that’s when the action gets good—so we kept rolling,” Selkow recalls. “And It’s amazing to watch the scene unfold, with Reza slowly realizing that he’s in a perhaps dangerous situation and figuring out how to handle it.”

The new CNN series, Believer with Reza Aslan takes viewers on an immersive tour with the noted scholar, with Liz Bronstein ’89 as executive producer and Ben Selkow ’96 as director.

The new CNN series, Believer with Reza Aslan takes viewers on an immersive tour with the noted scholar, with Liz Bronstein ’89 as executive producer and Ben Selkow ’96 as director. (Photo © Ben Selkow)

One of the biggest challenges in filming the show was gaining access to religious communities that were often closed off and wary of outsiders. Bronstein found that working with academic scholars who had done extensive field research often opened a lot of doors in local communities.

For the episode exploring Vodou in Haiti, she researched foremost scholars: “Everybody we talked to said, ‘Liza McAlister is the one.’”

In the episode, McAlister provides Aslan with both the historical and cultural perspective on Vodou. “But more than that, she acted as an incredible ambassador and helped us get access to people we wouldn’t have known,” said Bronstein.

“You could see her years of work in the community,” said Selkow. “She was deeply trusted—and Reza would mine her for as much info as he could off-camera.”

More than gaining access, integrating cultural knowledge, and immersing themselves in the experience, the filmmakers had a further challenge:

“How are we going to tell stories about religion in a way that’s visually and emotionally exciting?” asks Bronstein. “In hour-long episodes, how will Reza participate? Scenes of people praying and mediating don’t make for the best TV. So figuring out what Reza would be doing was paramount.”

The team worked with a thesis statement for each episode, often finding the dramatic structure through a conflict. “Most episodes look at a religion that’s under siege or at least highly misunderstood for a variety of reasons,” Selkow says.

Bronstein gives an example: “For Scientology, we asked, ‘Is this what a religious reformation looks like?’ We focus on people who have left the Church of Scientology but still believe that L. Ron Hubbard is their prophet. We compare it to the Protestant reformation. The true believers featured in the series feel like, ‘The church may be corrupt, but we’re taking back the religion and doing it our way.'”

Despite preparation, the team found surprises: “With our Wesleyan film background, Liz and I know that you go into each documentary super prepared—and the outline goes out the window the first day your feet hit the ground. We’d watch Reza starting every time with ‘All right; this is what I can expect to happen,’ and then there would be a great revelation and we’d watch him go through that—and it was extraordinary.”

While the show was filmed a year ago, the two agree that the series is even more relevant today. “It demonstrates compassion for others, domestically and globally,” says Selkow.

Bronstein concurs. “During the filming of each segment we had different people on the set look at the camera and finish this sentence: ‘I believe…’. I thought it might be a cool way to end each episode. It was just an experiment we thought we’d try and it ended up working pretty well. Now CNN is doing a campaign where users can send in their own ‘I believe’ videos. In these crazy times there’s so much need for tolerance and respect for others who don’t share your beliefs.”

The production crew of Believer joined Reza Aslan in Mexico for ceremonies celebrating Santa Muerte. (Photo © Ben Selkow)

The production crew of Believer joined Reza Aslan in Mexico for ceremonies honoring Santa Muerte. (Photo © Ben Selkow)

Celebrate International Women’s Day March 8

Women at Wesleyan are hosting an International Women’s Day cocktail hour and panel discussion from 4:30 to 6 p.m. March 8 in the Smith Reading Room. Wesleyan’s faculty and staff will discuss “Being Bold for Change.” All faculty and staff are invited.

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Cardinals Win Historic Little Three Titles in Men’s Ice Hockey, Basketball, Football

The men's hockey team defeated Amherst 3-0 on Dec. 2, 2016 and claimed the Little Three title on Feb. 17. (Photo by Jonas Powell '18)

The men’s hockey team defeated Amherst 3-0 on Dec. 2, 2016 and claimed the Little Three title on Feb. 17. This is the first time the hockey team won a title since the 1986-87 season. (Photo by Jonas Powell ’18)

For the first time in the history of Wesleyan athletics, the football, men’s basketball and most recently, men’s ice hockey team, won the Little Three title in the same academic year.

The “Little Three” schools — Wesleyan, Amherst and Williams — first formally banded together in 1899 as the Triangular League. Since 1910, the teams have annually competed in the Little Three intercollegiate athletic conference.

Although men’s hockey lost to Trinity 7-2 during its Feb. 17 game, Amherst defeated Williams 1-0 on the same day, giving the Cardinals their first outright Little Three title in 30 years. The Cardinals are led by head coach Chris Potter.

Football won its Little Three title on Nov. 5, 2016 with a 59-14 win over Williams. And the men’s basketball team won its Little Three title on Feb. 7 with a thrilling 73-72 overtime victory against Amherst.

Prior to the Feb. 17 game against Trinity, Wesleyan honored the six members of its senior class: Rob Harbison, James Kline, Cole Morrissette, Quincy Oujevolk, Daniel Weiss and Dawson Sprigings.

Prior to the Feb. 17 game against Trinity, Wesleyan honored the six members of its senior class: Rob Harbison, James Kline, Cole Morrissette, Quincy Oujevolk, Daniel Weiss and Dawson Sprigings. (Photo by Lianne Yun ’18)

Cohan Elected to Connecticut Academy of Science and Engineering

Fred Cohan

Fred Cohan

Frederick Cohan, professor of biology, professor of environmental studies, has recently been elected to the Connecticut Academy of Science and Engineering (CASE). Set to be inducted during the 42nd Annual Meeting and Dinner on May 22, 2017, Cohan will join 23 others as “Connecticut’s leading experts in science, technology, and engineering,” and the academy’s newest members during their ceremony at the University of Connecticut.

In line with CASE’s mission to honor those “on the basis of scientific and engineering distinction, achieved through significant contributions in theory or application,” Cohan’s work has led to the “development of a comprehensive new theory for the origin, maintenance, and evolutionary dynamics of bacterial species diversity that integrates ecological and genetic criteria; and to the initiation and co-development of associated software tools, which allow microbiologists to identify distinct bacterial species from DNA sequence data.”

Cohan is a graduate of Stanford University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in biological sciences in 1975. He went on to earn his PhD in organismic and evolutionary biology from Harvard University in 1982. His professional work takes him across the biological and environmental world, including, but not limited to topics such as microbial ecology, evolutionary theory, origins of bacterial diversity, molecular systematics and gene cluster analysis, horizontal genetic transfer and bacterial transformation.

Medina ’00, MD, MPH, Explores Structural Racism in Health Care

Eduardo Medina ’00, M.D. (photo credit: Emily Rumsey Photography )

Eduardo Medina ’00, MD, MPH, is one of the authors of “Structural Racism and Supporting Black Lives,” published in the New England Journal of Medicine. (Photo by Emily Rumsey Photography)

When the news broke of Philando Castile’s tragic death at the hands of a St. Paul police officer last summer, Eduardo Medina ’00, MD, MPH, like many Americans, felt called to action. As a native of New York City and a Minneapolis resident for the past 10 years, he was familiar with a number of high profile cases of police misconduct and says that he felt compelled to address the structural racism that was the underlying cause of this tragedy.

Working with colleagues Dr. Rachel Hardeman and Dr. Katy Kozhimannil, both professors in the Division of Health Policy and Management at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health, they set out to address the link between premature deaths, both in the criminal justice system and in the healthcare system in America.

Their efforts culminated in “Structural Racism and Supporting Black Lives — The Role of Health Professionals” published last December in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine. In it, the authors assert that structural racism not only plagues American policing practices, but has also corrupted the ways in which American doctors care for their patients.

Different from interpersonal racism, structural racism is, they write, “a confluence of institutions, culture, history, ideology, and codified practices that generate and perpetuate inequity among racial and ethnic groups,” so while few physicians express overt racism, they still work within a racist system. Medina cites evidence that, African American’s receive fewer referrals for cardiac catheterization and children of color often receive less adequate pain management in emergency rooms. This is, the authors believe, something that the field needs to more thoroughly acknowledge. Yet as they astutely note in their article, the term “racism” scarcely appears in medical literature.

Their research featured a shocking statistic about race and medicine in America. Citing a study published earlier in 2016, that found “50% of white medical students and residents hold false beliefs about biologic differences between black and white people,” such as: the blood of black people coagulates more quickly; the skin of black people is thicker than that of white people.

“Sadly, these misconceptions do not entirely surprise me,”Medina says, “considering America’s history of perpetuating the myth of differences based on racial classification, segregated care and medical experimentation on communities of color.”

To tackle these inequities, medical professionals “will have to recognize racism, not just race,” they write. Instead of simply attributing health disparities solely to biological differences, professionals ought to also examine other, broader, more structural factors that influence the health of their patients. A solution, the authors propose, is to integrate anti-racism programs along with traditional healthcare when dealing with illnesses such as diabetes, whose complications disproportionately effect black Americans.

Medina’s integration of social justice and medicine, he notes, actually echoes a history of political activism amongst Latin American physicians, like Che Guevara and Salvador Allende, something he studied as a Latin American Studies major, even while on the pre-med track at Wesleyan.

“Wesleyan offered a lot of opportunities that I was able to build on as I went forward with my career,” he says. Outside of class, he found a “rich intellectual, cultural and spiritual community” particularly among students of color. Medina even had the opportunity to fulfill his work-study at a local health care clinic.

Today, Medina still keeps up with several Wesleyan friends, including Lauren Gilchrist ’99, Senior Policy Advisor to the Governor of  Minnesota. Meanwhile, he and his spouse, Dr. Hardeman, intend to keep fighting for justice and equity for marginalized patients. “As medical professionals of color if we’re not doing this work,” he asks, “then who else is?”

Lawrence-Riddell ’98 Brings Hip-Hop To Classrooms As Mr. El-Are

Michael Lawrence-Riddell ’98, a middle school language arts teacher, composes hip-hop songs to teach literature and history. (photo: Lauren Lawrence-Riddell)

Michael Lawrence-Riddell ’98, a middle school language arts teacher, composes hip-hop songs to teach literature and history. (Photo by Lauren Lawrence-Riddell)

It turns out that Lin-Manuel Miranda ’02 is not the only Wesleyan alumnus presenting history through the sounds of hip-hop. Just upstream from Wesleyan, in Amherst, Mass., Michael Lawrence-Riddell ’98 has worked to bring hip-hop music from the stage into the classroom with the help of several other Wesleyan alumni.

So far, this middle school language arts teacher has written and recorded more than a dozen original songs, each intended to engage students while offering context and analysis of literature and history. Some historical topics mentioned in his work include the Harlem Renaissance, Hurricane Katrina and the Stono Rebellion. His songs also tackle American literary classics like The Great Gatsby, Catcher in the Rye and To Kill a Mockingbird. One song “Descendants of Cain,” about John Steinbeck’s famous novella Of Mice and Men, focuses on the many allusions found throughout the work, as well as its central theme of solitude. For many of these 15 songs, Lawrence-Riddell also offers unique lesson plans intended for use by other teachers.

Lawrence-Riddell has received plenty of support for his project, called Mind Your Music, including the skills of Wesleyan friends Kimani Rogers ’97, Tarik Holder ’98 and Keith Witty ’99, as well as financial backing from a Kickstarter campaign.

Cover copyAs an African American Studies major at Wesleyan, Lawrence-Riddell always sought ways to communicate the complex history of race and racism in America. Music would become a conduit for this mission. In the unapologetically political and pro-Black stances of many of his favorite hip-hop groups he found a call to action and inspiration to create socially conscious art.

Attending Wesleyan during a ‘golden age’ of independent hip-hop, he remembers returning from class with his friends to their Nicholson and Hewitt dorm rooms on Tuesday afternoons to discuss and listen to the latest albums. Together, Rogers, Holder and Lawrence-Riddell also worked for the student hip-hop publication Off Tha Top. When Rogers and Holder formed the hip-hop group The Masterminds, Lawrence-Riddell served as their manager, touring the country with hip-hop legends like A Tribe Called Quest, Mos Def, MF Doom and others.

“The experiences and memories that we built were incredible…those guys were, and are to this day, my brothers,” he says.

For those who’d like a sample of the hip-hop art of Mister El-Are, Lawrence-Riddell notes that YouTube offers a video for the song “Firebrands (Stand Up!) about the Stono Rebellion, Nat Turner and his insurrection, Denmark Vesey’s plotted rebellion, and John Brown and the raid on Harper’s Ferry. Lawrence-Riddell, Holder, Rogers and Akrobatik provide bombastic lyrical delivery and hard hitting beats that align with the radically progressive message of the subject matter.

Gaudon Remembered for Scholarly Research on Victor Hugo

Sheila Gaudon, professor of romance languages and literatures, emerita, died on Feb. 19 at the age of 83.

Born in Liverpool, England, Gaudon received a BA from Manchester University, and a “Docteur de l’Université des Sciences humaines de Strasbourg.” She joined the Wesleyan faculty in 1970 and taught French literature courses in the Romance Languages and Literatures Department for 23 years. She served as director of the Wesleyan Program in Paris several times and as department chair.

Gaudon was an active scholar whose research focused on Victor Hugo. She worked extensively with the National Scientific Research Centre (CNRS) in Paris over many years. In 1982 she began a three-year appointment as “Chargée de recherches” at the CNRS to prepare the first volumes of Victor Hugo’s family correspondence. After retiring to Paris in 1993, she continued to use an office at the Victor Hugo museum, which houses one of the largest archive collections in Paris. Gaudon spoke at colloquia around Europe throughout her retirement on subjects concerning Hugo.

Gaudon will be remembered by her colleagues for the steady leadership she provided to the department.

“Those who were close to her will remember her as well as a remarkable cook, an unsurpassed lover of the stage, and a caring and loyal friend,” said Antonio Gonzalez, professor of Spanish.

She is survived by her husband, Jean Gaudon, who lives in Paris.

Alumni Speak to Students about Careers in Management Consulting

Two Wesleyan alumni and two students who have experience working for global management consulting firms Deloitte Consulting and McKinsey & Company visited Wesleyan’s Gordon Career Center on Feb. 17 to speak with undergraduates about “Management Consulting 101.”

The alumni, Michele Drossner ’14 (Deloitte) and Winston Soh ’14 (Deloitte), and students Cindy Horng ’17 (Deloitte) and Asad Hassanali ’17 (McKinsey) advised the students to prepare themselves for internships and full-time recruiting. The event concluded with a Q&A session.

Drossner majored in economics and psychology and works with clients in the life sciences, business model transformation and strategy. Soh majored in the College of Social Studies and economics and works with clients in consumer products and media, strategy and supply chain logistics. Hassanali is majoring in the College of Social Studies and economics and works with clients in chemicals and energy. And Horng is majoring in economics and French and has client experience in finance. She interned at Deloitte last summer and is returning full-time after graduation.

(Photos by Rebecca Goldfarb Terry ’19)

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Researchers’ Paper Selected as “Editor’s Choice” by American Chemical Society

Three faculty and one graduate student co-authored a paper titled “Statistical Coupling Analysis combined with all-atom Molecular Simulation Postulates Dynamical Allosterism in the MutS DNA Mismatch Repair Protein,” published in the Journal of Physical Chemistry – Biophysics, published by The American Chemical Society.

The authors include David Beveridge, the Joshua Boger University Professor of the Sciences and Mathematics, professor of chemistry, professor of integrative sciences; Manju Hingorani, professor of molecular biology and biochemistry, professor of integrative sciences; Kelly Thayer, visiting assistant professor of computer science; and molecular biology and biochemistry graduate student Bharat Lakhani.

This project is part of Lakhani’s ’16 PhD thesis of Lakhani. Notably, the project brings together the experimental biochemistry of Hingorani’s research program, which specializes in DNA mismatch repair, and the computational biophysics in Beveridge’s Laboratory, which specializes in molecular dynamics simulations. All theoretical calculations were carried out using the Wesleyan High Performance Computer Cluster.

In addition, the article was selected as an ACS “Editor’s Choice,” an honor given to one article from the entire ACS portfolio of journals each day of the year. As a consequence, the authors have been invited to submit a 30-40 minute online presentation to “ACS LiveSlides,” which increases the exposure of the published work.