Original “Syns” Prepare To Graduate

IGL News | Posted May 8, 2009

NEXUS | The IGL Newsletter | Spring 2009

By Hannah Flamm

In May, the inaugural class of 11 Synaptic Scholars will graduate. Synaptic Scholars is designed to encourage and enable students to realize their potential in collaborative, intensive, and interdisciplinary settings. It is meant to provide a forum for students to take risks, pursue passions, and challenge assumptions in an intimate and supportive environment. The program is also about developing and intellectual community and enhancing intellectual life on campus.

Run entirely as a student initiative, the first class has shaped the program over the past three years with their vision, creativity and intellect. Coming in as sophomores, they came with diverse backgrounds, from a classical pianist to an Israeli commando to a competitive skier. The projects they pursued as the “original Syns” also reflected this diversity, from communal peace building in Northern Uganda to the modular organization of the brain, from health disparities in the United States to cultural movements in Chile during the Pinochet dictatorship. Their projects and research have taken them to Bosnia-Herzegovina, Cameroon, Chile, China, El Salvador, Ghana, Guatemala, India, Israel, Jordan, Nigeria, and Uganda.

This class developed one of Synaptic Scholars’ major public programming efforts, Fireside Chats, to connect the knowledge and expertise of Tufts faculty with undergraduate interests and academic pursuits. Topics over the years have included, “Is There a Right and a Wrong?”, “Music Cognition: How do we understand music?”, “Ethics of Study, Research, and Volunteering Abroad,” and “What Is the Purpose of Higher Education?” Synaptics Scholars has also held events such as a conference on “Health Disparities in Higher Education” for the greater Boston area and a conference and concert on “Hip Hop for Social Change.”

The IGL also arranged a number of meetings for the students with prominent academics, policymakers, and journalists: Matt Bai (A’90, EPIIC’90), National Correspondent for the New York Times Magazine and author of The Argument: Billionaires, Bloggers and the Battle To Remake Democratic Politics; Benjamin Pogrund, INSPIRE Fellow, former Deputy Editor of South Africa’s Rand Daily Mail and Foreign Editor of London’s The Independent, and founder of Yakar’s Centre for Social Concern in Jerusalem; and Mort Rosenblum, former Chief Correspondent for the Associated Press and Editor in Chief of the International Herald Tribune, author of Escaping Plato’s Cave: How America’s Blindness to the Rest of the World Threatens Our Survival.

As part of the “passing of the torch” and strengthening of the program, the seniors organized three additional, internal workshops this semester. Topics included networking and mentorship; research skills and planning; and research, journalism and service. The workshops created the space for Institute staff, university faculty, and students in the program to share their advice and experience. As Alexandra Taylor explained, “One aspect of the program I've enjoyed as a senior is being able to share the skills and lessons I've learned about doing research during my time at Tufts with the younger classes. Traveling abroad to do research is challenging, and while I am also still learning how to conduct good research, I hope that the experiences I am able to share with younger Synaptic Scholars will help them to avoid pitfalls and overcome the difficulties that I and many of my peers have faced."

Within their community, the students have also organized a broad range of informal activities from hiking in New Hampshire to visits to the Institute for Contemporary Art.

The last event of the year, on May 12, is the senior class presentations. The students will discuss the trajectory and culmination of their Synaptic work before university officials and administrators as well as the students’ advisers, mentors, parents, and friends. As the presentations will no doubt demonstrate, many of the students’ Synaptic projects have influenced the students’ future career interests and opportunities.

Rachel Bergenfield will present on “Non-Governmental Organizations and Communal Peace Building in Northern Uganda,” reflecting on her research and work in the region. As the recipients of the Davis Foundation 100 Projects for Peace Award, Rachel and two recent Tufts alums founded Collaborative Transitions Africa (CTA) in 2008, a nonprofit organization focused on Northern Uganda that strives to contribute to building lasting peace after war or violent conflict by aiding local initiatives of survivors to help their own communities cope and recover. She has written papers on “Community-Based Justice in Uganda: A Challenge to Create ‘Third Options’” and “Barriers to Justice in Cameroon: Lessons from the North West Province,” which was based on study abroad and field research in Cameroon. Next year, Rachel may return to northern Uganda under a Fulbright scholarship. Her research would focus on international organization local governance capacity building programs in war-affected communities.

Morissa Sobelson will present on “US Health Disparities and the Community Health Center Movement.” While Morissa’s passion for health and human rights originated during trips to Kenya and Zambia and took her to Ghana as well, she has reoriented over the past years to a more local focus. In the fall of 2007, she put on a major regional symposium for Boston-area schools, public health experts, researchers, and policymakers on “Health Disparities and Higher Education.” The conference looked specifically at the inequities in health and access to quality health care in the Boston area. Next year she will be a Fellow with the New York City Urban Fellows program, working on health policy and urban planning for the city government.

Hannah Flamm will speak about her work in Central America. One project focused on the potential impact of the opening of gold and silver mines in El Salvador. The investigation evolved into a proposed stakeholder assessment and joint fact-finding initiative to increase transparency, communication, and accountability as the mining debate proceeds at the local and national levels. A second project, developed in conjunction with the Institute’s Poverty and Power Research Initiative and mentored by Guatemalan Ambassador Jose Maria Argueta, explored the roots of poverty and inequality in developing countries, like Guatemala, at elite political, economic, and social levels. She hopes to continue studying issues of democracy and development in Latin America after college.

Maya Karwande will be presenting on the War Crimes Chamber of Bosnia-Herzegovina and its public outreach efforts. Maya has written and presented papers on international involvement in the Bosnian War Crimes Chamber, the relationship between accountability and rule of law culture in Bosnia, and legal process outsourcing. Over the summer she was an intern at the International Center for Transitional Justice in New York City. Previously she has worked as a Teacher/Research Assistant with The Fletcher School Armenian Exchange Program, preparing guides for U.N. and European Union law. In addition to her Bosnia studies and travel, she co-taught a freshman seminar with Rachel Bergenfield on “Post-Conflict Justice and Repair” in the fall of 2008. Next year, Maya expects to return to her home state of Utah to work for a year before applying to law school.

Samuel James will present his work on the Area Boys in Lagos, Nigeria. After an initial trip with three other Synaptic Scholars in 2007 under the auspices of the Nigerian Federal Ministry of Education, Sam returned to live in Lagos for six months the following year as a Research Fellow with the Social and Economic Rights Action Center (SERAC). Sam expects to return to Nigeria after college. In the meantime, he will continue to collaborate with the renowned VII Photo Agency and the Aftermath Project, with which he has traveled to Kashmir and Northern Uganda. This summer he will be based in Cincinnati, Ohio, but may travel to India and Pakistan.

Alexandra Taylor is interested in the cognitive and social neuro-scientific processes underlying individual radicalization. She has worked as a research intern for the Jebsen Center for Counterterrorism Studies at The Fletcher School, specializing in “The Situational, Contextual, and Behavioral Predictors of Intention to Commit Terrorist Acts.” She has also worked at the Harvard Psychophysiology Lab, examining how identification with a group can influence emotions, behaviors, and beliefs towards other groups. As a member of the Institute’s ALLIES program, Alex co-led a Joint Research Project trip to Jordan in 2008, which centered around the effects of the Iraq war on Jordanian society. Alex expects to study Arabic this summer at the Lebanese American University’s Summer Institute for Intensive Arabic Language and Culture.

Mie Inouye will present her research on cultural movements in Chile during the military dictatorship. This research began with an independent study during her sophomore year, developed through Synaptic Scholars, and culminated this year with a trip to Chile to interview eight Chilean authors who were members of a writers collective during the 1980s. Mie is interested in pursuing university teaching and political activism; she may enter law school or graduate programs in political theory. She will be working as a Teaching Assistant at Tufts in the Political Science department next year.

George Denfield will present on the question of the modular organization of the brain, both from a psychological and physiological perspective. He has explored different theories of modularity and types of modules through a thesis, partially advised by Philosophy Professor Daniel Dennett. Ultimately, George is interested in the development of a more systematic approach uniting cognitive science and psychology with neuroscience and physiology. Previously, George has worked at Hermann Hospital of the Houston Medical Center in Texas, helping to conduct research on renal fibrosis; the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program clinic in Jamaica Plains; the University of Texas School of Public Health, on raising awareness of colorectal cancer prevention within the Hispanic population in the Rio Grande Valley; and the Human Neuro-imaging Lab at Baylor College of Medicine, studying the effect of favors on preference judgments and decision making. George will be attending the Medical Scientist Training Program at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston next year for his MD/PhD, for a PhD in neuroscience.

Padden Murphy will be presenting on a range of projects and interests. He is a cofounder of the Institute’s civil-military program, ALLIES, and the editor-in-chief of Discourse, the Tufts journal dedicated to the power of reason and the exchange of ideas. The second issue, coming out this month, with written and visual works by several Synaptic Scholars, includes: “The Forgotten Crisis: How High Food Prices Have Impoverished Millions and Threatened Governments,” by Austin Siadak; “Do No Harm? The Security Development Complex,” by Ashraf Ghani; “The Complexity of Powerlessness,” by Saskia Sassen, and “American Nightmare: Understanding the Mortgage Crisis,” by Jessica Herrmann, among others. As a Synaptic Scholar, Padden has done extensive research on Chinese investment and influence in Nigeria and its political implications for the US and the region. He has worked with Seeds of Peace to coordinate a charity comedy festival called “Laughs of Love” with the Tufts improvisational theater group, Cheap Sox, of which he is a member. Padden will be interning with the Global Financial Integrity Project of the Center for International Policy in Washington, DC, this summer and then teaching English in China for a year before pursuing a law degree.

Eyal Amit will be presenting on his experiences serving in a special operations unit of the Israeli Defense Forces Paratroopers as well as his more recent exploration of behavioral economics and rational choice. Since 2007, Eyal has lectured about the Lebanon War, discussing his personal story and working to document the experience as well. As an Economics and Psychology double major, Eyal has worked as a research assistant throughout his time at Tufts. His work on evaluating strategic colorblindness and self-regulation in interracial interaction was published in October 2008 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Eyal will be returning to Israel after graduation.

Aliza Lailari will be presenting on her interest in volunteerism and research in India, “Navigating Multiple Cultural Worlds: Women Call Center Workers in Bangalore, India.” This study led her to Bangalore to explore some of the many impacts of globalization. Previously, Aliza participated in the Synaptic Scholars trip to Lagos, Nigeria, through which she studied religion and ethnicity in the megacity. Aliza has also served as a research assistant to a psychology study on how empowerment leads to helping behavior and has interned at the Brookings Institution with their Initiative on Volunteering and Service. She has co-taught a Perspectives course on International Film and youth photography courses for the organization Critical Exposure in Washington, DC. Next year, Aliza expects to be in Washington.

As the seniors depart, ten new Synaptic Scholars are being welcomed into the Synaptics community. Sarah Grace, a competitive rower and avid National Geographic reader, is interested in exploring and writing about the way the mind works. Lillian Prueher, attracted to the program in part because she “has always been most interested in the overlaps between seemingly unrelated fields,” expects to study how cultural, political, and social factors affect women’s participation in medicine and the way medical communities perceive women in Russia and China.

Yun Luo, a native of Shanghai studying civil engineering, hopes to work on sustainability issues and to investigate the dynamics and interaction between human activities, engineering systems and natural systems. Having conducted research on the effects of the upcoming 2010 Winter Olympic Games on the urban poor in Vancouver and on concentration of wealth in the Philippines, Cody Valdes wants to explore the possibility for solar energy to create a climate for peace in the conflicted cities of Gaza City, Palestine and Sderot, Israel.

Allister Chang, a professional figure skater and a member of TCU ECOM and the TCU Senate Education Committee, is interested in exploring queer subcultures in the context of national and individual security. Samujjal 'Shayan' Purkayastha, a native of Kolkata, India, a web-designer and debater, with a passion for using technology to help others has begun an exploration of the similar root causes of economic and environmental challenges in Medford and Bhopal.

Taylor Bates, a former US Senate Page, wants to use Bayesian rationality to provide the public with an iPhone application to calculate normative degrees of belief. It would be a way to help individuals make better choices, as he puts it: “A $0.99 software program won’t solve every bias, but it can help upgrade our decisions.” James Voorhis, a member of the American Society of Civil Engineers and the Tufts Solar Decathlon Team, will soon begin analyzing data on star-forming regions in the galaxy M33 from the Spitzer Space Telescope. He is interested in studying the historical, modern, and future similarities and differences between the scientific views and philosophical ventures into the beginnings of the universe.

Ryan Rifkin, interested in social work and public health, hopes to create a documentary to show the relationship between minority groups and reasons for homelessness. Sasha de Beausset is a Guatemalan who has studied in Hong Kong and who believes that “the diversity of thoughts, ideas, and values among the human race could be our ultimate downfall or triumph.” She is interested in developing an “Across Boundaries Think Tank,” aimed to open space for the transfer of knowledge, experience, and opportunity among university students across borders.

The current sophomores and juniors are deeply engaged in developing their projects as well, some from as far as Vietnam and England, others as close as downtown Boston and the Tufts music library. They are the core and the future of the Synaptic Scholars program now.

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