Conversations with Renaissance Students

by Ellisa Valo
Some say that the current trend toward specialization in education and work has left no place for Renaissance men and women in today’s world. To those, we extend an invitation to Lewis & Clark College, where the liberal arts tradition that encourages exploration and discovery is alive and well. Meet five Renaissance students.

by Ellisa Valo

It’s true. The brilliant thinker who gave us the quantum theory of light waves and the general theory of relativity did not spend every waking moment noodling on physics problems. He also played violin. He talked philosophy with friends. He read Dostoevsky, studied astronomy, and dabbled in poetry.

Einstein recognized that pursuing his widely varying interests not only satisfied his own curiosities and passions, but also made him a more creative thinker. “The greatest scientists are always artists, as well,” he said. Biographical accounts suggest that he worked out many of his problems and equations by improvising on the violin. And he acknowledged the inspiration he found in literature when he said, “Dostoevsky gives me more than any scientist.”

Einstein, the most modern of visionaries, was a Renaissance man. We know him mainly as one of the world’s greatest scientists, but like Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Goethe before him, he was accomplished in many fields and eager to pursue his curiosity wherever it led him.

Some say that the current trend toward specialization in education and work has left no place for Renaissance men and women in today’s world. To those, we extend an invitation to Lewis & Clark College, where the liberal arts tradition that encourages exploration and discovery is alive and well.

Einstein would probably like it here.

Meet five students who like it here too.

Isaac Holeman CAS ’08: researcher, singer, political activist, health care advocate

From his seat in the audience at the Western Regional International Health Conference last year, Isaac Holeman held up his hand and asked a question: “What role do you see students playing in health care reform?”

The next thing he knew, he was playing a very big role in the Archimedes Movement, a health care reform initiative started by former Oregon governor John Kitzhaber, MD Isaac started attending the group’s meetings, formed the first college chapter the movement at Lewis & Clark, and now leads the movement’s “Young and Healthy” interest group. “I’m deeply convinced that universal access is the only economically viable model for health care,” says Isaac. “Other systems promote inefficiency because they don’t acknowledge the full moral and economic value of each person.” 

Isaac is pursuing a major in biochemistry and molecular biology and a minor in political economy at Lewis & Clark. The two disciplines together, he believes, are helping him build a solid foundation for graduate studies leading toward a future in public health. “I see a huge need for change, and change requires leaders who can organize and provide vision for grassroots movements,” says Isaac. “It’s a great societal need, and it’s one that I believe I may be able to fill.”

Last summer, Isaac was one of a handful of first-year students selected for the competitive Rogers Science Research Program, in which he worked under biology department chair Deborah Lycan. Although he continues to be involved in molecular research with Lycan, which gives him a platform in science from which to speak, Isaac is driven by a desire to cure the ailing health care system. “I’d like to get the kinds of medicines and health care that are already mainstream in America to sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America and all the places that don’t have access to them now,” he says. “That kind of change is governed by political and economic structures, and will require political and economic solutions.”

Isaac works hard, but he also makes time to sing with the College’s popular a capella group, Momo and the Coop. “That’s just so much fun,” he says. “Another school might have put up barriers to how much I could do: you can’t be a political economy minor if you’re going to major in biochemistry; you can’t be in a singing group if you want to spend a lot of time in a research lab; you can’t be deeply connected to health care activism if you want to get good grades. But here at Lewis & Clark, I find a wonderful level of support for my diverse interests. I’m allowed to wear this hat of ‘student,’ and to be interested in anything and everything.”

Tamma Carleton CAS ’09: economist, mathematician, runner

“I never, ever thought I’d end up in economics,” says Pamplin scholar Tamma Carleton. While spending a summer in Ghana doing volunteer work with a nongovernmental organization, she became convinced that her future lay in international affairs.

“In Ghana, I was thrown into this orphanage and told to teach the children, with no support and no supplies other than chalk,” she recalls. “I realized that my desire to help, alone, wasn’t enough to be effective–I needed to educate myself to gain a better understanding of how to make these types of NGO programs more effective.”

To build that understanding, Tamma dove enthusiastically into Lewis & Clark’s international affairs program. But it was in her first economics class that everything clicked. “I’ve always been math-oriented,” says Tamma, “and as I sat in that econ class, I realized: this is how I think.” Tamma changed her major to economics with an international focus, complemented by a minor in math. She is enjoying her studies so much that the professor who inspired her, department chair Cliff Becker, associate professor of economics, has invited her to do research with him this summer.

In her own research, Tamma has been focusing on Chile, and next year she will spend a semester there. Her research, her trip, her economics training, and a lot of Spanish classes are laying the groundwork for a potential future in economic development in South America, where she hopes to “take all these tools and apply them to the world.”

Tamma balances her academic interests with athletics. As a first-year student on the cross country team, she became the first woman from the College to go to nationals since 1988. She made nationals again in her sophomore year, and earned the 2006 Division III individual All-Academic honor from the U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association. She also holds the school track record in the women’s 5k.

“In a Division I school, I’d run, and that’s it,” says Tamma. “But here at Lewis & Clark, my coaches and my professors realize that I’m not just on one track. I can run, and do research with the chair of the economics department, and cook Argentinian food at my Spanish teacher’s house. That just doesn’t happen at every school.”

Niccolo Jose CAS ’09: theatre technician, sculptor, environmentalist

When Niccolo Jose left his home in the Philippines for Lewis & Clark College, his parents sent him off with this advice: “Leave 50 percent for what you want to do, and 50 percent for what you don’t expect.” Nico took their words to heart.

He arrived expecting to major in theatre, but discovered a passion for environmental science and sculpture. “I didn’t expect that at all,” he says.

In the theatre department, he found that his strongest role was backstage, doing stage building and stage management. “Carpentry is actually my dad’s thing,” he says. “As a kid, I always wanted to play with his tools, but he would yell, ‘Don’t play with that, you’ll hurt yourself!’ And now, here I am, playing with hammers and chainsaws and everything I wanted as a kid.”

When the stage design position wasn’t open last fall, Nico looked for something similar to fill his newfound passion for working with his hands. He found it in a sculpture class. “It sounded similar,” says Nico. “They have the same power tools in the studio, so I thought I might have fun there.” Nico thrives in the sculpture environment, creating large-scale, expressive, and sometimes controversial works. From a wedding dress wrapped in chains, to a woven tree figure of a human suffering, his work never fails to draw a reaction.

Environmental studies was another subject Nico just wanted to explore, and now he is majoring in the field. “I had no idea I would do that when I came here,” he says. “It opened my eyes and showed me that everything is connected.”

Now Nico is starting to find connections between his interests, as well. He has added a studio art concentration to his major, something that hasn’t been done before in the Environmental Studies Program until this year. And he has several ideas for reflecting environmental studies in art, pieces that “have a reconciliation with nature and that can make an impact on how people react to their environment.”

Nico chose Lewis & Clark, he says, because “I was looking for a place that would feel different from home; I wanted to meet new people and be forced to get into different things, to develop myself. Lewis & Clark sounded like the kind of place where I could do that.” In that respect, at least, his college experience is turning out just as he expected.

Jill DeCoursey BA ’07: art historian, mathematician, environmentalist

Jill DeCoursey planned to major in physics when she came to Lewis & Clark, but instead, became captivated by cave art. When she settled on art history as her major, she says, “My only concern was, what can I do with that to contribute to society?” That concern has long since faded, however. “I’ve discovered that if you just let yourself learn about the things that interest you, you’ll find a way to use that knowledge to create positive change in the world.”

In addition to art and art history, the things that interest Jill include math and environmental activism. “Art and math are not completely unrelated,” she says. “Artists and architects have always drawn on scientific and mathematic innovations to inspire them with new ways to see the world.”

As for her interest in environmentalism, she says, “It just seems obvious to me that we need to take care of the Earth.” A member of Students Engaged in Eco Defense, Jill represented Lewis & Clark at a climate-change convention at Harvard University in 2004, and has championed recycled paper use and pesticide-free groundskeeping at the College.

Although she gave herself the freedom to explore each of her disparate interests on its own merits, Jill has found a way to merge them all. An overseas semester taking in the timeless cityscapes of Sienna, Prague, and Barcelona sealed the deal: “That’s when I knew for sure that I wanted to be an architect,” says Jill. “Good architecture requires both mathematical engineering and aesthetics–it combines all of my favorite things.”

Adding in the environmental angle, Jill hopes eventually “to make a visible contribution toward reducing global warming through green building design.” She hopes to land a job at a green building firm in Portland and work there for a year before applying to graduate programs in architecture. After that, she wants to apply her passion for recycling on a grand scale: “My dream job would be to revitalize historically significant buildings through the green building process. In Siena, some of the most beautiful buildings are 700 years old, and people are still living in them. In this country, we are too prone to tearing down; we should be preserving.”

Charlie Morgan CAS ’08: biochemistry, researcher, world traveler, athlete, musician

Charlie Morgan stood 10,000 feet above the sea, watching his frozen breath escape into the thin air, and had a troubling thought: “I definitely didn’t pack enough warm clothes.” That was just one of many lessons he learned in Oaxaca, Mexico, where he spent last summer working with a village physician to reintroduce the native amaranth plant–wiped out by conquistadors–into the local diet.

The opportunity for experiences like this was one of the deciding factors that attracted Charlie to Lewis & Clark three years ago. High school exchange programs to Germany and Ecuador had left him hungry for more exposure to the world, and the College satisfied that hunger from the moment he moved into Akin, the multicultural residence hall. “I knew that I was going to major in the sciences, but it was Lewis & Clark’s reputation as an outstanding school with a strong international flavor that attracted me to this campus,” says Charlie. “I fell in love with the community of international students here.”

Charlie’s major is chemistry. “What I love about it,” he explains, “is that it makes me look at the world in new ways, similar to the way that living abroad does.” This summer, he will spend much of his time focusing on the world up close. He was selected from among numerous candidates to work in a biochemistry laboratory at Oregon Health & Science University, where he will be researching an important protein that’s over-expressed in cancer.

Charlie starts most days on the Willamette River with the Lewis & Clark crew team. “I’m probably one of very few college students who see the sunrise every morning,” he says. The team rows hard for two hours, starting so early that the only visible scenery is the stars reflected in the water. Charlie can’t think of a better way to start his day. “Even if I have a quantum mechanics test later on,” he says, “I know that the hardest part of my day is already done.”

At the end of the day, he relaxes with music. He plays bassoon and contrabassoon in the Lewis & Clark Wind Symphony. “Right now I’m taking three chemistry classes and a cross-cultural psychology class,” he says. “It’s kind of overwhelming, so I really look forward to the evenings when I get to play music.”

Charlie hopes, some day, to blend his interests in international humanitarian work, chemistry and research. “Turning on the tap and being able to drink water from a faucet is something very foreign to most of the world,” he says. “I want to be able to use my research experience, and hopefully a graduate degree in chemistry, to find ways to supply clean drinking water, or to clean up the environment, or to help developing communities in some other meaningful way.”

Freelance writer Ellisa Valo is always inspired by the students she meets at Lewis & Clark. Photographs by Robert Reynolds.