A Renaissance Person

Her voice confidently radiates knowledge in a geology study group, oozes both vigor and erudition when she talks about religion and education, and it mesmerized me as she led the choir during the Charter Day ceremony. Her hand sketches creatures and caricatures while her mind paints the bigger picture of spiritual belonging. Yes, she is one of us; she is one humble but impressive TWAMP, thriving on this campus with her shrewd intellect and caring soul. It was an absolute pleasure to engage in a conversation with her. The lines in italics are mine.

Give me a list of things that you are interested in.

The list would be geology, art, music, animals, and that translates into horseback-riding – just being outside. I really like religion as well.

What led you into geology?

I don’t have a pinpoint. Just being outside has always been something that I did. As a little kid, my mom used to yell at me for digging in the wrong place in the yard, because she would set up specific places saying, “You can dig here. Don’t dig there.” I would pull rocks out of the ground. My dad was a geology major, and he has a decent fossil collection. He’s got some cool samples that he collected while he was at school, including this cool kyanite in a quartz matrix – a big blue crystal. I used to love that when I was a kid. My parents would take me to the Natural History Museum in D.C., which I’ve always called the “dinosaur museum.” It was always an interest, but it wasn’t something I knew I could do anything with until my freshman year of high school. That’s when I took earth science. I had a really great teacher who saw that I was really invested in it. He was a retired field geologist. After class, he would ask me to come to him and show me samples that he wasn’t showing the rest of the class. He would teach me the semantics of it just because I was so interested. He helped me create a research project that went to the county science fair. Through doing that I realized that I enjoyed doing geology. A woman from USGS (the United States Geological Survey) came up to me while I was at the county science fair and she asked me about my project. I later got an email from her saying, “Hey, do you want to come volunteer in our lab.” So, during high school, during the summer I got to volunteer at a paleo-ecology lab. It was almost all women, and almost all William & Mary alumni. That was part of what led me here. It was a continuous stream of events that was nudging me at it.

It seems to me that you had a lot of experience working with professionals very early in your academic career. What about those scientists attracted you?

When she first invited me to visit the lab, one thing that I really liked, which is typical of geologists, was that they were all very casually dressed. I was like, “That’s it! This is the place.” They were really friendly. They were working on restoring the Everglades by using core samples to look at where critters should be and what the salinity used to be like, so one of the things I would do would be picking through core samples to find specimens. Whenever I had questions about that, regardless of how engrossed Lynn, who ran the project, was in her work, she would always take time to answer my questions. She loved to talk to me about what was going to go on for me in the future, what other things I was interested in. She would want to hear about my singing. She was interested in not just having me there but making sure to foster my growth as a person. I’ve met some of her professors, including Gerry Johnson, who is a retired paleontology professor at William & Mary, and he still lives in the area. Brent knows her. I still email with her. It’s a really cool connection to make right away.

I have a dynamic understanding of the world, because if you simply decide “this is how it is,” that’s not good. The way the world works doesn’t change, but our understanding of it does constantly.

Bigger picture question: What does science mean to you? What is science to you?

From a rational standpoint, because humans are innately curious, it’s a way for us to understand our world through observation and experimentation. Honestly the reason why people do science is that we like to figure out why things are the way they are. I have very liberal Christian Creation views. I look at the universe as a cosmic Rube Goldberg machine. I believe in the Big Bang theory and evolution, and I get a lot of flak – not at the church here – but back home I used to, for holding all matters of science to be truth and still being Christian, which just didn’t compute with a lot of people. I would talk with my parents about how to remedy that. Both of them were really good about letting me figure that out, not just telling me “this is how it is.” I have a dynamic understanding of the world, because if you simply decide “this is how it is,” that’s not good. The way the world works doesn’t change, but our understanding of it does constantly. So you need to constantly update that, to make changes for your model. My whole idea of Creation and science is that there was a plan and things were set in motion, but it wasn’t all at once. So, to me from a religious standpoint, science is understanding that plan. It is a fact that we will never be able to understand what that is, but we will try to grasp what little parts of it interest us the most. I try to put that into words but it’s hard.

That’s the science part of thing. I want to hop real quick to art. How did you get into that and what are your experiences in that?

Very similar thing. When I was really little, we had this coffee table in my living room. There was always a big pad of Crayola paper with the chubby crayons, and so I started there and continued forward. I’ve always been drawing. I’ve always been the kid who draws. In my bedroom at home, my walls are covered by art that I’ve made over the years. One of the things that I have up there is a dinosaur encyclopedia that I made when I was four – little crayon drawings. I actually drew a lot of my inspiration from science and from nature. Most of what I draw are either animals or people. What I want to do with my art is natural illustration. I want to do stuff for textbooks. The specific branch of geology that I want to do is paleontology, so my dream illustration gig would be to reconstruct what dinosaurs looked like, to be the artist who puts flesh on the bones of these creatures that none of us have ever seen.

Have you done any three-dimensional modeling work in art?

I haven’t. I have been interested in that but most of my work is 2D. I haven’t done any computer stuff with that. I’m planning on taking my first official sculpture class next semester. Of course I’m a sucker for geology documentaries. I was watching one the other day about Spinosaurus. They had a 3D computer-generated model, where they had to piece together a bunch of different specimens to get an idea of what it looked like. They then used that to put muscles on him and got the computer figuring out how this dinosaur would have walked with a walk simulator. That’s really cool.

Just listening to your thoughts and experience, I think you are a very successful product of good scientific education from both family and schooling. You realize the beauty in nature. Not only do you go out and look at nature, but you also think about it, learn about it, depict and illustrate it, and put it in your head. That’s just so important. What would be something you would do in the future to give back to younger kids to excite them about science and nature?

I want to teach. The goal is either to be a paleontology professor so that I can do research and teach, or to do research for a while and retire and teach. But I absolutely have to teach at some point. I love tutoring. There was one time last semester when I was in intro lab – we were studying for the rock test. It was supposed to be for an hour, to help a friend out, but I ended up being in there for six hours. It was honestly…I looked up at the clock five hours in, and I was like, “Oh!” I’m glad you asked. I love teaching.

In your opinion, in what ways do kids learn science best?

I would want to run a class that’s all field trips – that’s not necessarily realistic. I think in general people learn best when they can be engaged with what they are learning about. It’s one thing to point up on a slide and say “this is nice,” but quite another when you put the rock in front of them; then they are like, “Aha!” – you can now see everything. It means a lot to go out and do, rather than just be told and regurgitate information. That’s one of the things that I really loved about being here so far. Even in lecture classes, I feel like there’s a lot of attention paid to making sure that there’s excitement and grasp of the material. Same thing with art, of course you have to learn art through doing, but also going to museums looking at all the masters that have come before you, learning from their example. Since I’m close to D.C., I like to go to the mammal hall with my friends at the Natural History Museum, and just draw the taxidermy animals, because they have them in such cool dynamic poses. A lot of those animals otherwise I have to travel 3000 miles to draw.

Sometimes when you are singing, you will have an out-of-body experience.

What about music?

Ah, music was again always something that I enjoyed, but I kind of tapped out of it for a while. One of the frustrating things about high school is that you are told how many courses or electives you can take. They decide what you can handle, even if you know that you can do more. I started off singing when I was a little kid, and then I stopped doing kids choir. Then I picked up viola. I played viola for about four years and then I was told by my middle school that I had to pick viola or art. I was really upset about it. I had been doing art longer, so I chose art; I saw myself being more invested in that. In high school, I was half-bullied into trying out for the school musical by a really good friend. I didn’t want to do it but she basically signed me up and gave me an audition time. I’m very thankful that she did, because I was again almost forced into the choir department after that. My choir teacher really liked my singing audition and she got me to do the chamber choir the next year. I always loved listening to music, but it was more like something I did to keep my focus while I was drawing. It wasn’t until I started doing choir that I re-found that deep connection with music. That’s been growing since my junior year of high school. I got here and I’m now in the Christopher Wren Singers, singing a lot of renaissance music. I’m also in choir, singing a lot of classical music there. I’m really glad that I re-found that connection because…music just…it’s really hard to describe. I was thinking about this when I was at an a cappella concert this weekend. Music just washes over you; the sound cascades over you. I interact with art and geology in different ways, and then with music in a completely different way. With different disciplines you get different gifts from them. Music’s return is completely different. It’s not visual. Sometimes when you are singing, you will have an out-of-body experience.

I can see you immersing yourself in that experience which is indescribable. When you were speaking, I was thinking, you are doing a lot of things and you are activating different parts your mind. How do you think all these different interests blend into one personality?

For one thing, I’m very innately curious. I’m definitely a doer; I try to involve myself in a lot of things. I’m also very spiritual, and I have spiritual experiences with those three things. With geology…I was in the paleontology lab with Linda last semester and I was looking at a trilobite. I was holding it and thinking, “This is five hundred million years old.” The weight of that time set on me. I felt at the same time very insignificant but very special for having a place in such a giant world. With art, when you are in the process of painting, you settle into that and that’s just a peaceful rhythm. You are seeing the color and feeling the motion, letting something else take over you. Of course, with music, the sounds grace you and it washes over you. All of those things are very spiritual experiences for me. I really like to investigate them, and I like being a jack of all trades, trying to be invested in a little bit of everything.

A bit like a Renaissance person. Do you like that term?

I do actually! I’ll just go ahead and say this. I feel like it’s a big compliment, and so I try not to say I’m a Renaissance person, but I do in my head consider myself that. The first time someone said that to me was one of my friends’ moms in high school, and I thought I liked that.

I think that, in a certain way, I still have a childlike mind.

Why do you think there are – or why do we expect to see – so few of those Renaissance people in modern days as opposed to in Leonardo da Vinci’s days?

For one thing, I’m a big proponent of education as a whole. A lot of times, people are given the impression that they can do one thing. They don’t have those interests fostered when they are little. A big thing for me was that my parents were invested in what I was doing. If I said I wanted to draw, they gave me opportunities to draw. Whenever I said I wanted to try this, they let me try and work things out in whatever way I wanted to. A lot of it was that exploration and curiosity wasn’t fostered as much as it should be. I think that, in a certain way, I still have a childlike mind. You know, kids are always awe-struck by things that people find every day. I think that happens to me a lot; I’m very easily excited. I get intense about things about things while other people would just say, “Eh, it’s a rock.” A lot of people lose that. It’s important that from an early age kids realize that it’s okay to be excited about things. Yes, it is cool, not just “whatever.” It is a nice rock that you found, and that’s awesome!

Do you think you see more people like you here at William & Mary?

Oh definitely! Through all of grade school, it was rough for me sometimes, because in the choir department I was nerdy, and then with the nerdy people I was the artsy, scatterbrained kid. It was hard for me to find my people. And then I came here and I realized these are my people. There are so many people that have very wide interests, that are so talented in so many different things. They’ll have a connection with geology people and then art people. I can find someone who has completely different things from me. I would be talking to someone who I think I have figured out, and then they’d say, “Oh I do this amazing thing too.” What?! I absolutely love it here. That was one of the main draws for me. I had it in my head that I wanted to go to a northern Ivy, and then I came here, interacted with the people here, saw the campus and how friendly everyone was, and then I decided this is it. You don’t get this anywhere else.

You have a lot of confidence about things that you do. What about things that you are not involved in?

One thing that I struggled with was that I was not super athletic. I’ve kind of come to terms with that and I found other ways to be athletic. I’m really not fast at running, so anything that involves a running sport is just off the table for me. I don’t know why. It was something that I tried to work on for a long time. I tried being a better athlete for a while but I don’t have a talent for it. I enjoy things that involve more muscular activity. I figure-skate, not competitively but I did when I was a kid. I enjoy volleyball, but I never played it, and then horseback-riding, of course. In terms of other academic disciplines, I have an appreciation for that. I don’t necessarily wish that I could do them, but I think it’s cool that there are people who are interested in them, and I like talking to people who are interested in other things.

But one thing that I found myself struggle with more is comparing myself to people that do the things that I do. One no-no that I do is comparing myself to other artists sometimes. That’s a really bad thing to do, because you should always be looking for things that you like in other artists, but you should never look at them and decide that you are not good because they are better than you. When I was little, I was the best artist all through elementary and middle school. But coming into high school art, there were a bunch of really good people, and that was something that I really had to come to terms with. No no, they might be older than you and further along, and have a different style, but that doesn’t mean they are a better person than you are, simply because they have been on that path longer.

I’m kind of a competitive person in that respect, so I struggle with that sometimes. Same thing with music, because I came in late in the game. I had to play catch-up to get into state choir. I used to be very timid about singing in front of people, and now I’m not. I was very self-conscious about if I sound good, what if people don’t like the sound that I’m creating, or what if it’s not up to other people’s standards. I’ve been coming to terms more and more with the fact that that’s not the right way to treat myself. Everyone’s got their own thing. I should be getting in touch with what these disciplines are about rather than being the best.

I think in college you are definitely going to learn more about that, not being less competitive, but to know what competition is about and what should not be about competition. That’s one thing that college really teaches you. As you said, in grade school, you are expected to do more things and be judged based on how much you are producing, creating or writing. The outcome-based point of view was very pervasive. But in college it just feels like everybody is more equal. We don’t sit together and know each other’s grades and be like, “Oh, what are you studying? Are you doing well in that class?” But more we treat each other as their mind, their personality, their soul. When you engage in conversations that are equal and see others as equals, you don’t feel as threatened, almost. You feel that, with diversity, with different people doing different things, the world can prosper. The world is not just built for THE best people.

Yes. On my mom’s side of the family, a lot of us are somewhere on the anxiety spectrum. I myself have very mild anxiety disorder, and I’m really good at monitoring when I’ve got some anxiety boiling up. I’ve gotten pretty good at quenching panic attacks and things like that. High school was rough for me with that because of how tense it is, and especially with college applications, how much you feel like people are judging you. But I was telling my mom early on in first semester that this is the calmest I’ve ever been. This is usually the time when most people feel most stressed, but all my anxiety is just gone, because like you are saying, everyone is on the same playing field and everyone is rooting for each other. It’s about what everyone’s doing, not what they are earning.

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