Student Journeys

Student Journeys
Debra Meyers

Learning, serving, and growing in knowledge, thanks to Taft's travel and study grants.

Alumni Connections: Partners in Conservation

Katie Bootsma '20 & Maile Kuyper '20

When it was announced that Larry Morris '65 would be named the 2019 Horace Dutton Taft Alumni Medal honoree for a lifetime of service through the Quebec-Labrador Foundation (QLF), Katie Bootsma '20 and Maile Kuyper '20 took note. As the rising editor-in-chief of The Papyrus, Katie was charged with writing about Morris, the award, and his dedication to environmental stewardship. As a lifelong environmentalist, Maile was deeply interested in QLF's global conservation initiatives.

Morris encouraged Katie and Maile to consider applying for summer internships with QLF. And they did. With support from Poole Fellowships, each spent three weeks working with the group in Canada as part of its Biodiversity Conservation Internship program. It is a program, Katie says, with two main goals: monitoring wildlife through hands-on fieldwork and educating area youth.

The interns were tasked with monitoring songbirds in the forests of New Brunswick and shorebirds along its coast. Because the songbirds are most active at dawn and dusk, the team would begin their woodland surveys by 6 a.m., hiking through the forest, stopping every 500 meters to listen, identify the species by their calls, and note their presence in a shared field journal. As high tide approached, the team would leave the forest for the shoreline, where they shifted from auditory identification to visual monitoring.

When the team was not in the field, they worked to educate area youth about environmental issues. Each of the interns conducted research and then developed an original suite of educational materials (scripts, games, and digital presentations) around their topic. Maile studied marine debris, while Katie explored wetlands. They presented their work to children ranging in age from 5 to 15 through workshops at YMCA camps and other local youth and community centers in New Brunswick.

"The experience has definitely made me a more informed Taft student and a more informed eco mon," says Katie. "All of the work I did with QLF made me more open to learning about and understanding the challenges facing our environment. I learned so much from the other interns and from the amazing people we met in New Brunswick, and hope to share that with our community."

QLF exists to promote global leadership development, to support the rural communities and environment of eastern Canada and New England, and to create models for stewardship of natural resources and cultural heritage that can be shared worldwide. Larry Morris '65 is QLF President Emeritus. Learn more at

Diversity and Disparity: Healthcare in Rwanda

Alex Robertson '20 with a child from Nyamata

Alex Robertson '20

With support from a Meg Page '74 Fellowship, Alex Robertson '20 spent a month in Rwanda last summer, where he witnessed the diversity and disparity of health services available in a nation still recovering from the horrific 1994 genocide.

Alex began his work in the village of Nyamata. Each morning, he walked 45 minutes to a home for children with profound physical disabilities run by a nurse named Cecile.

"There are currently 20 kids in Cecile's care, ranging in age from 4 to 29," Alex says. "The oldest suffers from a rather severe form of cerebral palsy; he was found abandoned in a river during the genocide."

In the aftermath of the genocide, Rwanda became the world's poorest country, with the world's highest child mortality and lowest life expectancy rates. Almost immediately, the government prioritized the development of health care systems within the country. As a result, life expectancy in Rwanda has doubled since 1995. Partners in Health, a Boston-based nonprofit that has helped build and grow health care systems across the globe, notes that "Rwanda has become a model for how resource-poor countries can build health systems from almost nothing." It points to the Butaro District Hospital as a shining example.

"We traveled up a winding dirt road, through mountains and seeing really almost nothing along the way," recalls Alex. "Then, quite suddenly, a modern, new hospital with a very large campus came into view. It offers an incredible range of medical services—they have an ER, a pharmacy, oncology, internal medicine, pediatrics, surgery—everything."

Opened in 2011, the mountaintop facility brought modern medical care to an area that previously had none. A year later, the Butaro Cancer Center of Excellence opened at the complex. Close by, Partners in Health operates the University of Global Health Equity, which awards master of science degrees in global health delivery.

"Before I went on this trip, I wasn't really thinking about going outside the United States to work in medicine. Now, I want to go back—I want to use some of the inside knowledge I have gained to work in Rwanda. With luck, I will return to Nyamata and see Cecile and the children again," he says.

Dechen la': The Land at the End of the Sticks

Bojana Drca '20

Bojana Drca '20 is passionate about the environment. She is especially passionate about climate change.

"I know that the greatest impact of changes in the climate can be measured in the Arctic," Bojana says, "and that if I really want to study and understand climate change, I should go there."

And she did. With support from a Robert Keyes Poole '50 Fellowship, Bojana spent 10 days in August at the edge of the Arctic working with two scientists from the Earthwatch Institute, an international, research-driven environmental nonprofit built on a citizen-science model.

"We worked in a very, very remote area in the Mackenzie Mountains," Bojana says. "The nearest settlement was 200 miles away, and it was an indigenous community of only 300 people. The experience was incredibly different from anything I have ever experienced before."

The expedition base was Dechen la', a remote lodge in the midst of tundra. "Dechen la'" comes from an aboriginal word meaning "the land at the end of the sticks," and indeed, the end of the sticks—the tree line—played a crucial role in Bojana's work. The lead scientist on the expedition is studying how climate and environmental changes shape tree line dynamics. Bojana identified seedlings of firs and spruces and recorded their growth in seeded and unseeded plots to establish reproductive potential.

"The data I collected will be crucial in proving that warmer growing seasons can lead to a greater number of viable tree seeds produced and higher germination success, allowing the tree line to migrate further into the tundra, where it is harder for them to survive because of the harsh conditions," says Bojana.

Bojana also worked on an ongoing project assessing the region's permafrost layer, the soil that remains frozen—below 0 degrees Celsius—for more than a year. As temperatures rise and permafrost thaws, the organic compounds in it begin to decompose, producing carbon dioxide and methane. The release of these greenhouse gases will amplify the effects of global warming.

"Earthwatch has been doing this for a long time," Bojana says. "It is a 30-year project. They come back year after year to measure the permafrost in the same locations, which was what I was doing—probing the ground using a 200-centimeter metal pole and recording the permafrost depth. I could see the direct effects immediately. They showed me the data that has been collected over the years, and the trend is really clear: the permafrost is melting. What I measured could really be influential in future research."

Illustrating Science

Rachel Peverly '20

Dr. Robert Naczi is a renowned scientist in the Institute of Systematic Botany at The New York Botanical Garden (NYBG). Among his current projects: fully revising and updating the 1991 Manual of Vascular Plants of Northeastern United States and Adjacent Canada, a reference manual that will include new tools for identifying more than 5,300 species of vascular plants growing spontaneously in 22 states and five Canadian provinces. Rachel Peverly '20 spent 10 weeks last summer assisting Dr. Naczi on the project.

"The goal for my portion of the project was to create a proof of concept for the manual," explains Rachel. "I worked on developing illustrations for the book, with a focus on Cyperaceae, particularly the Cyperus genus, which includes about 700 species of sedges worldwide."

The illustrations will serve as highly refined and updated visual identification tools in the manual. To create them, Rachel needed to learn plant identification techniques and become familiar with plant morphology, or structures, particularly those critical to differentiating and identifying plant species.

"The idea was to get a representative model of each species," Rachel says, "which means knowing which characteristics to look for to get as close to the ideal as possible."

Rachel spent many hours over several weeks examining hundreds of specimens in NYBG's William and Lynda Steere Herbarium—home to 7.8 million plant specimens— in search of representative models. She then worked with renowned botanical illustrator Bobbi Angell to generate and reproduce full specimen drawings. She also produced some images herself.

"We did that two different ways," says Rachel. "I photographed the plant spikes of each species with a digital camera, which was very straightforward. I also learned how to take high-resolution photomicrographs with a dissection microscope using 'stacking' software, which essentially produces a very crisp, clear, three-dimensional image of the spike's structure. Those fine details are really useful in identification, and something never seen before in an identification manual."

Rachel's research was made possible by the Stott Family New York Botanical Garden Summer Internship and Sónia M. and John J. Batten III 'P15 Internship Fund.

Stars in the Limelight

Ben Le '21

Ben, back row on left, with the Ba Muoi team

Ben, back row on left, with the Ba Muoi team

Ms. Muoi worried that not every child in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, had access to education. To create opportunities for those "loving young and disadvantaged children," she began offering free classes in a safe and stable environment. Twenty years later, the Ba Muoi Children's Shelter continues to provide educational resources and services to disadvantaged children in Ho Chi Minh City. For the past two summers, and with support from Hatfield and Poole Fellowships, Ben Le '21 has returned home to Vietnam to serve as one of Ba Muoi's most dedicated volunteers.

Ben, along with four friends from Ho Chi Minh City, spent two and a half months working with second and seventh graders at the children's shelter, helping them build effective communication skills and self-confidence through public speaking and drama. They conceptualized the unique program and wrote the curriculum. Ben arrived at the shelter each day with carefully crafted, object-driven lesson plans. For the first two weeks, he focused on teaching his students how to speak confidently and clearly, first to a partner, then to a larger group. Eventually, they would draft responses to prompts, present them to the class, and field questions from their peers.

"Then, for the following two months, we focused on working with the children to mount a play," Ben says. "Our goal by the end of the summer was to invite everyone in the city to come and see our performance. It would be a way for the community to learn more about the shelter and about our project."

The play was an original work, scripted by Ben and his fellow volunteers. Cỏ Dại, which translates loosely to Wild Grass, included roles for each of the seventh-grade students in his class. It tells the story of children overcoming difficult circumstances in their lives to achieve dreams they never thought possible. Wild Grass was not only well received, it was well attended: proceeds from ticket sales and fundraisers totaled $1,200, which will be used to help improve the shelter's facilities and to fund cultural and educational field trips. Many of those who came shared a special bond with the children.

"The moment the children saw one of their former teachers in the audience was very moving," recalls Ben. "She taught them three years ago, and she marveled at how much they have grown. I could see in the glow of the children's eyes as they ran up to her and in their smiles that they knew they had made her very proud. They had been stars in the limelight."

A Sense of Purpose

Abigail Hano '20

"The best way to learn is to immerse yourself—to just be a part of it," says Abigail Hano '20, who did just that last summer when she traveled to Peru to work with doctors and nurses in the postas of Cusco with support from a Meg Page '74 Fellowship.

Abigail spent mornings shadowing physicians. In the afternoon she attended formal medical workshops, where she learned about conditions and diseases most common in Peru, to measure and assess medical vital signs, and to deliver therapeutic medical injections.

"I was assigned to the pre- and post-op floors of the hospital," says Abigail, "where monitoring vitals is especially important. They don't have all the electronic monitoring equipment we have here in the U.S., so the doctors were dependent on us to take the vitals every few hours to accurately monitor the patients. I feel like I had a really big, pretty important role there—a sense of purpose that was really rewarding."

Abigail also spent time working on a floor dedicated to tourists seeking medical care.

"Many of the doctors in the hospitals spoke only Spanish to the volunteers and to the patients. Because I speak some Spanish, I was often able to act as a translator for the patients on the tourist floor," Abigail says. "Those patients were usually nervous about needing medical care and about not speaking the language, so when we walked in and were able to communicate in both English and Spanish they were relieved and grateful. That experience made me think that I'd like to combine my Spanish language study with a career in medicine. Expanding my ability to communicate with a broader range of patients will make me a better doctor, and lessen the stress for my patients."

Finding a Place in Science

Eugene Acevedo '20

As a young student growing up in the Bronx, Eugene Acevedo '20 often visited The New York Botanical Garden with his classmates.

"We went there all the time on school trips," says Eugene. "We would walk around the grounds and through the conservatory. I never realized there was a laboratory there."

For nine weeks last summer, Eugene not only discovered the Pfizer Plant Research Laboratory at NYBG, he played an integral role in the scientific research being conducted there. Eugene was an NYBG summer intern, working alongside Cullman Associate Curator of Bioinformatics Dr. Damon Little, a world-renowned research scientist and pioneer in the advancement of technological DNA barcoding. Eugene assisted Little with his research on Calliatropsis macnabiana, a species of cypress in the conifer family. Eugene studied the conifer's transfusion tracheids—cells in vascular plant tissue that assist in the transportation of water and minerals.

"Much of my work involved looking at the transfusion tracheids through a scanning electron microscope, measuring them, recording the measurements, then using an additional program to add georeferences to each sample," says Eugene. "Most came from northern and central California."

For Eugene, simply working with the scanning electron microscope (SEM) was an extraordinary opportunity.

"What I was able to see in the SEM was fascinating," Eugene says. "I was able to observe actual plant cells and structures—things that I had previously only seen in textbooks. Working with the NYBG laboratory allowed me to take my interest in science and laboratory spaces to the next level—to help me see what my place in science might be."

Eugene's internship was made possible by: The Meek Foundation; Dwight L. Stocker III '74.

Modern Medicine in Venerable Spaces

Keren Egu '21

Imagine taking up residence in the historic University of Cambridge, founded in 1209, now the second-oldest university in the Englishspeaking world and the world's fourth-oldest surviving university. At various times in history, the likes of Sir Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Stephen Hawking, and Manhattan Project leader J. Robert Oppenheimer all traipsed Cambridge's hallowed halls. Imagine putting pen to paper in a space where dramatist Christopher Marlowe, novelist Samuel Butler, and modernist writers E.M. Forster, Vladimir Nabokov, and of course, A.A. Milne all spent time learning their craft. For Keren Egu '21, this is not something to imagine, it is something to remember: Keren spent four weeks last summer studying medical science and psychology at—by nearly every measure—one of the top universities in the world.

"Our work in medical science was very hands-on. We began learning some straightforward procedures, like taking vital signs and drawing blood," Keren says. "But by the end, we were dissecting and suturing hearts. I've always been interested in science and medicine, but worried I would see blood and organs and just not be able to handle it. Once the professor brought out the heart for the dissection and I was touching it and suturing it I thought, 'OK, I can do this!' The whole program really affirmed for me for the first time that this what I want to—and can—do."

The coursework was rigorous, Keren says, but being taught by university professors was inspiring. She learned more effective notetaking strategies and skills that will allow her to better summarize material and extract the most salient details for deeper learning.

"I definitely would not have had this experience if it wasn't for Taft and the Page Grant," says Keren. "To be taught by university professors in a prestigious, historic, and beautiful place was truly amazing."


These and other student experiences were funded in part by grants from the following endowed funds:

  • Established in 2010, and made possible through the generosity of Guy Hatfield '65, Ross Hatfield, and the ongoing support of William W. Hatfield's family, the Hatfield Grant celebrates the ideals of Horace Dutton Taft—service above self—and is given annually to one or more students whose commitment to volunteerism brings to life the message behind Taft's motto: Non ut sibi ministretur sed ut ministret— Not to be served but to serve.
  • Kilbourne Summer Enrichment Fund, established by John Kilbourne, Class of 1958, in memory of his parents, Samuel W. and Evelyn S. Kilbourne, provides students with opportunities in the summer to participate in enriching programs in the arts.
  • To honor her commitment to compassionate health care, Meg Page '74 Fellowships are awarded annually to students who wish to explore an experience or course of study devoted to the provision of better health care in areas such as public health, family planning, medical research, mental health, and non- Western practices of healing.
  • Robert Keyes Poole '50 Fellowships were established in memory of Robert Keyes Poole '50, Taft master from 1956 to 1962, and are awarded each year to enable Taft students to engage in travel or in projects consistent with Mr. Poole's lifetime interest in wildlife and the environment.