The student-led group UnICS is working to debunk the assumption that computer science is for ”insiders“ only


Welcome, Everyone, to Computer Science

By Julia Munemo

It’s a play on words—or rather on acronyms. UnICS is the name of a student-led group, and it stands for Underrepresented Identities in Computer Science. The pun is that its homophone, UNIX, is an operating system some of those students have learned to master.

“UnICS was created with the goal of providing support for students who feel excluded, especially students from groups underrepresented in computer science,” says Lauren Yu ’16, who, along with Pamela Mishkin ’16, founded the group last year. “Our main objectives in starting it were to expand dialogue around diversity and to put changes in place that would meaningfully improve students’ experiences.”

While the leaders of UnICS don’t define who might identify as underrepresented—the group is open to anyone enrolled in a computer science class—there is a national trend that sees fewer African American, Latino, and female students in undergraduate and graduate computer science programs relative to their share of the population.

UnICS is all about making the major less intimidating to those who may feel like outsiders. They offer peer mentoring, hosts regular dinners, and work to make teaching assistants and other upperclassmen more approachable to underclassmen.

“There can be an attitude that everyone even in an introductory class has been coding for years,” says José d. Rivas-García ’17, one of four leaders of the group, and one of 78 current computer science majors. “But it turns out that there are plenty of people who come in not knowing anything.”

But that isn’t necessarily obvious, says Melanie Subbiah ’17, another leader of UnICS. “In an environment where you’re constantly aware of your minority status, regardless of how inclusive it is, you’re constantly battling imposter syndrome. UnICS allows us to talk about our experiences, so people can recognize they’re not alone.”

During the fall semester, UnICS hosted a job/internship panel during which five seniors provided advice about internships and interviewing skills to an audience of roughly 20 students. They often invite a faculty member to their dinners. And after the 2016 election, the group gathered in the computer science common room to reflect on the outcome. “The group, which ranged from intro-level course-takers to senior majors, met to discuss the effects of the election and to support each other,” says Subbiah.

UnICS is not the only response to concerns about computer science being perceived as exclusive. Professors Jeannie Albrecht and Andrea Danyluk have led a Women in Computer Science group for several years. In addition to mentoring female students, each year they take a group to the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, which brings together upwards of 12,000 attendees from over 60 countries.

And in September, chair of the department Brent Heeringa took a group of students to Austin, Texas, for the Tapia Celebration of Diversity in Computing, which was founded by Richard Tapia, a mathematician, professor in the Department of Computational and Applied Mathematics at Rice University, and a national leader in education and outreach. The Tapia conference convenes a group of undergraduate and graduate students, faculty, researchers, and professionals in computing from all backgrounds and ethnicities.

“UnICS is trying to make this department into a place where everyone feels welcome,” Heeringa says. “Like everything, there are things we’re aware of and things we’re unaware of, and this group is helping both students and the department better understand how we can be the most welcoming department around.”

Rivas-García attended the Tapia conference with Heeringa. “Tapia himself talked about how being underrepresented in computer science means accepting the fact that there are hardships that we have to go through, but also recognizing that we’re one community,” he says. “It’s about learning how to get through the hardships together.”



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A term as deputy assistant secretary of microeconomics at the U.S. Department of the Treasury gave economics professor and researcher Tara Watson insight into the policy making world


Microeconomics: From Billsville to the Beltway

By Julia Munemo

What happens when someone steeped in economic research and theory spends some time in Washington D.C. developing policies? Associate Professor of Economics Tara Watson found out when she served as the deputy assistant secretary of microeconomics at the U.S. Department of the Treasury from August 2015 to November 2016.

Watson, who was on leave from Williams during that time, says her main role was to analyze and develop new microeconomic policies, or policies concerned with the determinants and effects of individual decisions relating to things like student loans, the safety net, and savings decisions. Her takeaway? Academics would serve people better if they were more willing to say what they think earlier in their research process.

“Economists tend to be obsessed with identifying whether A causes B, and that’s very important, but we can get so hung up on proving it—which can take years—that we don’t say what is probably true,” says Watson, who teaches courses in public economics and econometrics. “But out there in the world, policy makers can’t reserve judgment. Things are moving fast and you have to make your best guess.”

Watson adds that she isn’t suggesting economists in the academy pretend to know what they don’t—“We need to be clear about what we definitely know and what we’re theorizing based on research done to date”—but that doing nothing and waiting for more research to be conducted can do more harm than good.

As a case in point, she points to a student loan policy she developed. One of several she worked on during her time at the Treasury, this policy would see colleges share the risk and financial burden if a majority of their alumni failed to repay federal student loans. “A lot of the schools in this situation admit disadvantaged students, so they’re providing a service, and we don’t want to stop that,” Watson says. “But the service they’re providing can come at an unaffordable price, and so students end up in financial distress later on.”

Watson, therefore, tried to design a policy based on how she thought colleges would respond to it. “Would they stop admitting the same type of students they had in the past, or would they improve the quality of their programs—and thus their alumni’s earning power?”

There is no evidence about which outcome is more likely because such a policy has never been tried. Watson says that an academic would ask for more research to be done before landing on a decision. But policy developers don’t always have that luxury, and Watson points out that more research means sticking to the status quo. “And the status quo is harming students,” she says.

“Perhaps we’re doing more harm than picking a policy that is probably imperfect, going with it, and learning from that experience to improve the policy down the line,” Watson says. “There are situations where the best guess is probably better than doing nothing.”

Watson came to Williams in 2004 after completing a Ph.D. at Harvard and a postdoc at Princeton. Her stint with the Treasury was the first time she’s worked directly on policy development, and it’s an experience she’s thankful for. “While the student loan policy my team developed was not ultimately adopted by the administration, I learned a great deal about how policy making works, and that experience will influence my research and teaching at Williams,” she says.


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Williams announces tenure for four faculty members


Williams College Announces Tenure for Four Faculty Members

Media contact: Noelle Lemoine, communications assistant; tele: (413) 597-4277; email:

WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass., December 22, 2016—Following the recommendation of the Committee on Appointments and Promotions, the Williams College Board of Trustees Executive Committee has voted to promote four faculty to the position of associate professor with tenure. The vote will be ratified by the full board in January, and the promotions will take effect July 1, 2017, for Rashida Braggs, Africana studies; Nicolas Howe, environmental studies; Timothy Lebestky, biology; and Catherine Stroud, psychology.

Rashida Braggs, Africana studies

Braggs earned a B.A. from Yale University, an M.S. from Boston University, and a Ph.D. from Northwestern University, and she completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Stanford University. She introduces a performative lens to African diasporic cultural expressions from jazz to sports to mass media. Her book, Jazz Diasporas: Race, Music, and Migration in Post-World War II Paris, was published by University of California Press earlier this year. It investigates African-American musicians’ migratory experiences in post-WWII Paris and the illusion of a color-blind society that drew many of them there. Her work has appeared in journals including Nottingham French Studies and The James Baldwin Review. Last year, she was awarded the Berger-Carter Jazz Research Award for her new project on migrating jazz women.

Braggs teaches courses on jazz, music in African-American literature, migration, performance studies, graphic novels and sports, and is affiliated with the comparative literature and American studies programs. She currently serves on the Claiming Williams Committee.

Nicolas Howe, environmental studies

Howe is a cultural geographer whose research examines the role of religion in American environmental thought and how religious beliefs have shaped the American landscape and continue to influence contemporary environmental politics. His book Landscapes of the Secular: Law, Religion, and American Sacred Space was published by the University of Chicago Press earlier this year, and a book he coauthored, Climate Change as Social Drama: Global Warming in the Public Sphere, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2015.

Howe earned a B.A. in English from Columbia University and an M.A. and a Ph.D. in geography from the University of California, Los Angeles. A faculty affiliate in the Department of Anthropology and Sociology and the American Studies program, he teaches courses on climate change, environmental humanities, and religion and ecology, among others. He has served on the college’s Steering Committee and the Committee on Academic Standing, and he is currently a member of the Campus Environmental Advisory Committee.

Timothy Lebestky, biology

Lebestky earned a B.S. in genetics from the University of Kansas and a Ph.D. from the University of California, Los Angeles. He conducted postdoctoral work at the California Institute of Technology and UCLA. He teaches courses on cell biology, genetics, and developmental neurobiology and is affiliated with the biochemistry and molecular biology and neuroscience programs.

As a behavioral neurogeneticist, Lebestky is interested in the genes and molecules that modulate behaviors and internal arousal states in the brain. His research uses Drosophila melanogaster, the fruit fly, as a genetic model system to understand molecular regulation of grooming, sleep, and optomotor behaviors. His experimental focus on dopamine, a prominent neurotransmitter found in humans, investigates changes that are associated with attention disorders and other human neuropathies. His work has been published in Genes, Brain, and Behavior; Genes, Genomes, Genetics; and Frontiers in Neuroscience. He recently received a grant from the Hellman Family Foundation.

Catherine Stroud, psychology

Stroud’s research focuses on the origins and consequences of depression. She examines the interface between depression and the social environment, exploring reciprocal associations among stress, interpersonal relationships, and depression in studies that examine children, adolescents, adults, couples, and families. Her research articles have been published in journals including the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, Psychoneuroendocrinology, Developmental Psychobiology, and the Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology, and she serves as the associate editor of Family Process.

Stroud teaches courses on experimentation and statistics, psychological disorders, clinical and community psychology, and depression. She earned a B.A. from the University of Wisconsin and an M.A. and Ph.D. from Stony Brook University, and she completed a postdoctoral fellowship at The Family Institute at Northwestern University. At Williams, she has served on the Winter Study Committee and the Quantitative Reasoning and Skills Task Force, and she currently serves on the Committee on Undergraduate Life.


Founded in 1793, Williams College is the second-oldest institution of higher learning in Massachusetts. The college’s 2,000 students are taught by a faculty noted for the quality of their teaching and research, and the achievement of academic goals includes active participation of students with faculty in their research. Students’ educational experience is enriched by the residential campus environment in Williamstown, Mass., which provides a host of opportunities for interaction with one another and with faculty beyond the classroom. Admission decisions on U.S. applicants are made regardless of a student’s financial ability, and the college provides grants and other assistance to meet the demonstrated needs of all who are admitted.


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A friendship born at Williams in the early 1990s has led to a new $500,000 award for outstanding Christian medical missionary service


From Williams to Africa

By Julia Munemo

A friendship born at Williams in the early 1990s has had a tremendous effect on health care in rural Africa. In December, a nonprofit founded by the two classmates announced the first winner of the Gerson L’Chaim Prize, a $500,000 award given to someone who moved to Africa to provide medical care to the poor—and who has been doing that work already for a considerable period of time.

Jon Fielder ’94 is a medical doctor and Christian missionary in Kenya, where he’s lived since 2002. Mark Gerson ’94 was trained at Yale Law School, now runs several businesses, and is a devout Jew. They met their freshman year, became close over long conversations at the snack bar, and stayed in touch through medical and law school.

Jon Fielder ’94 (left) and Mark Gerson ’94 (center) speak with a community worker.
Jon Fielder ’94 (left) and Mark Gerson ’94 (center) speak with a community worker.

Gerson says he was always impressed by Fielder’s intellectual curiosity and moral commitments. When Fielder took a year off from medical school to work with Mother Theresa in Calcutta, Gerson says, “his need and desire to serve the poor was an inspiration.”

So in 2002, when Fielder had completed his residency at Johns Hopkins and was planning to serve as a medical missionary in Kenya, Gerson made what would be the first of many philanthropic donations to Fielder’s work. “His donations to support HIV-infected patients at the hospital started before I even arrived,” Fielder says.

Gerson explains that even when he couldn’t give very much, he was committed to supporting his friend’s work, and he knew that “if Jon said my philanthropic dollars would have an effect, I could absolutely trust him.”

The problems Fielder faced in rural Kenya were enormous. When he arrived at Kijabe Hospital, deep in an escarpment in the Great Rift Valley, he was the only member of the staff who knew how to treat HIV. Medical supplies were limited, and the medicine that could prolong the lives of HIV-positive patients was impossibly expensive.

“Thanks to Mark’s early gifts, we were able to establish a subsidy program through which patients paid what they could afford, and the hospital paid the rest,” Fielder says. Within a few years, the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief provided those medicines for free, and Gerson’s gifts—along with those of others he and Fielder brought together, including Sean Fieler ’95—were directed at bigger-picture problems, such as a lack of facilities and trained personnel in the region.

In 2010, Gerson and Fielder established the African Mission Healthcare Foundation (AMHF). The AMHF has built clinics around Kenya and in other countries; established a medical-personnel training program; and supported other medical missionaries doing similar work to Fielder.

When asked why this type of philanthropy is so important to him, Gerson says, “The Torah tells us 36 times to love the stranger, and who is more of a stranger than people suffering from TB or AIDS or any number of disabilities in a rural African village?”

Since founding AMHF, Fielder has helped train thousands of physician’s assistants and nurses, who now work in clinics around Kenya and Malawi. “It is amazing to think that a dozen years ago, I was the only person at Kijabe who could treat HIV, and now there all of these people doing that work in clinics located much closer to where the patients actually live,” he says.

But the fact remains that in many regions, doctors like Fielder are the only health care providers for thousands of local residents. “It is obvious to me that the work these medical missionaries do is completely extraordinary,” Gerson says of the four finalists for the prize. “They have devoted their whole lives to it, they moved there and they don’t ever leave. But they don’t see themselves as extraordinary.”

Gerson and Fielder hope the prize, which will be awarded annually, brings recognition to the work these medical missionaries are doing and encourages others to donate.

“Resources for health can stretch much farther in Africa than they do in America,” Fielder says. “These doctors have been in Africa for a long time, the hospitals have been there a long time. Our focus is to support that kind of longitudinal institution building, because of the huge effects those institutions have on the populations they serve.”

This year’s winner of the Gerson L’Chaim Prize was Dr. Jason Fader, a son of medical missionaries and now on a team of American physicians in Burundi, the world’s hungriest nation.

To learn more about the AMHF, visit

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Sociology professor Olga Shevchenko has found important clues about the Soviet past in Russian family photo albums


Memory and Silence

Sociology professor Olga Shevchenko has been visiting with Russian families and studying their old photo albums, searching for clues about the Soviet past and knitting together a narrative about memory and silence.

Shevchenko became interested in photographs and memory while working on her book Crisis and the Everyday in Postsocialist Moscow (Indiana University Press, 2008). While conducting interviews for the book, she was often invited to look at old pictures. “I realized that photographs both authenticated memories and, sometimes, ran counter to them,” she says.

She began investigating family photo collections with Oksana Sarkisova, a researcher at the Open Society Archives at Central European University in Budapest and a friend from their undergraduate years at Moscow State University. For each collection, the researchers interviewed the owner and his or her children and grandchildren, for a total of 53 families living throughout Russia.

“We see different permutations of silence between the generations,” says Shevchenko. “ The older generation knows things but won’t speak about them, whereas the younger generation are oftentimes unaware of why, for example, their grandparents might remove a face from a photograph.”

Shevchenko and Sarkisova came across albums with pictures that were torn in half. Others contained photos with faces ripped or scribbled out. The owner of an image taken at a health resort in Crimea in the 1930s (pictured on the facing page) passed away. “Her great-nieces look at this photograph without a trace of suspicion,” Shevchenko says. “To them, the album is a record of their great-aunt’s exciting travels to regions that are now financially and logistically out of reach.”

Olga Shevchenko found this photo at a flea market in 1960. The picture was taken at Livadia Palace in Crimea. The 19th-century palace was turned into a health resort for Soviet workers in 1925 and, 20 years later, was home to the Yalta Conference.

Shevchenko can’t know for sure why that particular face was removed, but her research suggests it may have to do with Stalin’s power. “Every arrest of an enemy of the people triggered the removal of that person’s image from photographs owned by others,” she says. “Because her great-nieces don’t suspect anything sinister when they look at this image, we can only assume the owner didn’t share her reasons for scratching out that face. What she did share with her family was her life philosophy: ‘Whenever you see or hear anything, just keep quiet.’”

Group photographs such as these are likely to appear in dozens of family albums around Russia, nestled between baby pictures and family portraits. “These trips were subsidized by workplaces, and so the shots are of near strangers posed to look like friends,” Shevchenko says. “One would meet people from other regions who worked in the same industry, and each brought home a group shot as a record of their experience.”

The depiction of architectural landmarks in the Baltic states, the Caucasus, and Crimea is also common. In a 1960s photo taken in Crimea (above), the group is posed in front of Livadia Palace, where the Yalta Conference took place in 1945. Pictures of such landmarks “tied together disparate locations and contributed to the idea of a united Soviet space,” Shevchenko says. “In their small way, these pictures contribute to the logic in which the recent annexation of Crimea was couched, that ‘Crimea was always part of Russia.’

“Photographs enable a kind of half-life of silence,” Shevchenko adds. “They conjure visions of the past and, sometimes, prevent people from knowing something definitively. Nonetheless, the sense that the past is a source of danger, not of pride, is passed along to the next generation.”

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Luke Baumann ’19 is one of six students on Williams’ renewable energy task force, meeting weekly with environmental consultants to study potential projects


Environmental Impact

In high school at St. Andrew’s in Delaware, Luke Baumann ’19 led a student task force in developing a proposal to install a small solar array on campus. They succeeded—researching the technology, meeting with contractors, presenting to the board of trustees, and securing funding through grants and donations—and the experience gave Baumann a sense of the impact he could have on the environment by working hard to advance data-driven ideas.

So he came to Williams hoping to do more of the same. Within days of his arrival in 2015, the college announced an ambitious $50 million plan aimed at addressing climate change. Soon after, Williams’ Zilkha Center for Environmental Initiatives put out a call for students to help in the effort by analyzing renewable energy development projects in which the college might invest.

Today, he and five other students make up the school’s renewable energy task force, meeting weekly with environmental consultants to study potential projects. Earlier this year, the students helped Williams lend its support to a 1.9-megawatt solar project on Williamstown’s capped landfill.

“We are fundamentally involved in the work to fulfill the college’s goals for climate change,” he says. “It’s a really rare opportunity and a great experience.”

Amy Johns ’98, director of the Zilkha Center, says Baumann and his peers are at the very front line of the college’s sustainability work. “In many ways they are getting the same experience that an entry-level position in a renewable energy development firm would have,” she says. “That’s one of the things that we really focus on in the Zilkha Center—giving students a very concrete opportunity to work on thinking about how you do sustainability.”

Baumann, a computer science and math major, also has written a program for the Zilkha Center to calculate the carbon toll of college business-related air travel and plotted an optimal commuter bus route based on faculty and staff home addresses. He’s now considering a career in renewable energy development or smart-grid technology.

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Teach It Forward

The Campaign for Williams


Teach It Forward

Enjoy a collection of Teach It Forward talks and videos from our first year of campaign events. The $650 million comprehensive campaign launched in fall 2015.

Visit the Williams Campaign website.

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