WE’VE GOT PLANS: Think Vassar students spend their summers lounging by the pool? We didn’t think you did. Supported by grants and fellowships (six students received Fulbright fellowships this year), many choose to pursue their passions around the world. Others stay closer to home, tackling tough research questions with the one-on-one help of a professor. Whether they’re assisting on the set of a major motion picture or utilizing a grant to bring potable water to a remote community, here’s a look at how three students spent their summer vacations.
Woodrow Travers ’09
Summer Plan: Assisted Ron Howard on film Angels and Demons.
Pictured: Travers and assistant director Bill Connor
When Woodrow Travers ’09 discovered that film director Ron Howard was making an appearance at Vassar, he knew he had one chance. “After my film professor introduced us, I asked him, ‘What do I have to do to be able to work with you?’,” recalls Travers. After submitting his résumé last year, Travers waited, knowing there were only two spots for Howard’s upcoming film Angels and Demons. “In the end, after what seemed like a ridiculously long series of lucky chances, I was finally chosen,” he says.
An aspiring independent filmmaker, Travers headed to Los Angeles last summer and onto the set of a 200-million-dollar movie starring Tom Hanks, Ayelet Zurer, and Ewan McGregor. “This was a once in a lifetime opportunity,” says Travers. “When I arrived, Ron Howard said, ‘Your only responsibility is to learn.’” Travers immediately began filling a notebook with observations, interviewing hundreds of people on the set about the specifics of their jobs. “They were so excited to talk to me about their profession, and I think I learned the most from the people behind the scenes—the people who have so much knowledge, but are rarely asked questions.”
During the 14- to 16-hour days on set, Travers explored the catwalk, admired the near perfect replicas of St. Peter’s Square and other famous Roman architecture, learned how to tie lights, and even experienced his first LA earthquake. Instead of fetching coffee, Travers’ duties included arranging the daily footage for Howard and helping the assistant director. “Tom Hanks was so nice and very open,” recalls Travers. “We would talk in between takes and he would come back and pick up where our conversation left off.”
By the end of the summer, Travers had filled his book with 200 pages of notes as he learned the ins and outs of everything from creating a 250,000-watt bolt of lightning to pushing the dolly for one of the film’s camera shots. “This experience really confirmed everything I felt about film and filmmaking,” concludes Travers. “This is definitely what I want to do for the rest of my life.”
Maria Méndez ’10
Major: Political science
Summer Plan: Delivered clean water to 500 residents of El Ciruelo, Honduras.
According to the World Health Organization, 1.1 billion people—nearly 20 percent of the world’s population—lack access to safe drinking water. This staggering number hits close to home for Maria Méndez ’10, a native of Honduras. After learning of her grandpa’s frustration trying to convince the local government to fund a water project in the community of El Ciruelo, Méndez was struck by an idea.
The Kathryn Wasserman Davis 100 Projects for Peace fund annually awards students a total of $1 million to create and implement peace-building ideas throughout the world. Determined to make a difference, Méndez submitted a proposal outlining the financial hardship and daily struggles of El Ciruelo’s 500 residents. Thanks to her efforts, Méndez was awarded $10,000 and is spending the summer building a new well and water system to deliver clean water to every house in the village.
“It was extremely rewarding to know that the hopes and effort we’d put into designing the project would materialize,” says Méndez, who credits the Vassar course “Water and Cities” with sparking her interest in water problems. “The course inspired me to propose a project to reduce some of these impacts at least in one small community in my country.”
Assisted by 16 members of the village council, she is spearheading an effort to build a new 10-meter-deep well, plus install a water pump, piping system, and 10,000-gallon water tank on top of a neighboring hill. She cites this elaborate technical work as “the biggest challenge,” and works with people who specialize in well construction. The project is also integrated with an educational campaign on water conservation.
“The thought of giving something back to the people who have been so constitutive of my visions and identity really motivates me,” she says. “It’s important to move beyond the simple assertion that there are problems here and to instead take part in the solutions.”
Katie Interlichia ’11
Major: Earth science
Summer Plan: Studied the implications of salt levels in Casperkill Creek.
Katie Interlichia ’11 slips on a pair of brown rubber waders, clicks on her headlamp, and quickly searches for the muddy path leading to the banks of the Casperkill Creek. Every hour for 24 hours, Interlichia and four other student researchers collect water samples, which are analyzed to better understand the creek’s water quality.
One of more than two dozen summer science projects at Vassar, the Casperkill research group is part of the college’s Undergraduate Research Summer Institute (URSI), a program where students and professors collaborate for 10 weeks of intensive summer research. For Interlichia and her group, the summer session began with a trip to Waterloo, Canada, to attend a conference on road salt, a pivotal element in their water study. “We were the only undergraduate students there, but people visiting the conference from around the world asked questions and treated us like experts,” she reports. “At Vassar I’ve already published a scientific paper and given a professional talk. This is invaluable work for an undergraduate.”
Interlichia, an earth science major, is working this summer to gather data on the amount of salt dumped on area roads in the winter and to find out how much ends up in the Casperkill, a creek that has been the focus of study for several years. Much of the Casperkill research is conducted right on Vassar’s farm and campus, where the stream runs through several different environments. “There aren’t many papers written on this salt, so we’re blazing our own path,” she says, adding that this is also one of the first projects to collect water samples from every stream in the county. “We continually bounce ideas around with our professors and our input drives the direction of the research.”
According to Interlichia, people don’t necessarily think about the implications of salt in the winter, but road salt affects everyone, whether it’s seeping into well water or altering a creek’s ecosystem. Backed by its own data, the research group will offer suggestions to the local government that will both save money and help protect area creeks.
“This work has such a real world application,” says Interlichia. “At Vassar, studying science is a journey. It’s not about doing research out of a book for the sole purpose of being published. We’re doing science because we’re curious.”