Ask an Alum
Amy Schapiro ’12SW is a contractor and leader of Women Techmakers, Google’s global program to support women in technology.
You have a degree in social work. How can social work inform technology?
Social work is a field that emphasizes relationships, empathy, and community. Incorporating these principles can help ensure that industries that build technology reflect diverse human experiences. Their products can then serve people in a way that supports that kind of diversity.
What are some of the obstacles that women interested in science, technology, engineering, and math (or STEM) face?
It differs based on various institutional and cultural barriers around the world. Often there is a lack of access to (or at least a lack of support for) educational and professional opportunities. Once in the industry, many women face obstacles like unconscious bias in company culture and policies, as well as lower pay than men.
What are some of the resources available to help combat those challenges?
There are a lot of great organizations that have been incredibly helpful to women in the global technology industry. For example, the Women Techmakers membership program that I developed provides personally curated resources for women and allies in tech. The National Center for Women and Information Technology also publishes a lot of resources to support women. The re:Work program provides training in unconscious bias and instruction guides on how to build effective management programs that ensure a supportive and inclusive environment.
What advice do you have for the parents of young girls interested in STEM?
There’s a saying that “you can’t be what you can’t see,” and this message is particularly salient for underrepresented communities. So I would encourage families to expose young girls to environments where peers, mentors, and role models are also involved in STEM, so they can see the possibilities. A lot of my work with Women Techmakers focuses on increasing the visibility of rising and established technologists from underrepresented communities. That increased visibility not only provides them with a platform that they didn’t previously have: it also provides evidence that people from all sorts of backgrounds can thrive in tech.
Measures, an installation of three hand-painted sculptures by Josephine Halvorson ’07SOA, was on display this fall at the Storm King Art Center, in New York’s Hudson Valley. The piece was a part of the center’s annual Outlook series, which honors one emerging artist by commissioning a site-specific piece. All three sculptures play with scale: a twelve-foot sundial (above), a twenty-four-foot measuring stick camouflaged as a tree, and a thirty-six-foot yellow yardstick that rests horizontally in an open field. “I want these painted sculptures to heighten an individual’s curiosity for the environment and his or her place within it,” Halvorson says.
"I always wanted to be a foreign correspondent,” says Peter Klein ’93JRN. He recalls watching the 1984 film The Killing Fields as a teenager and idolizing the heroic journalist Sydney Schanberg, who braved Pol Pot’s notorious Communist guerillas to cover the 1970s Cambodian genocide for the New York Times. “I wanted to be him.”
Schanberg made it back home to collect a Pulitzer Prize, but he saw scores of his Cambodian colleagues and sources marched to their deaths by the Khmer Rouge. This fact — the relative safety of Western correspondents in relation to the life-or-death risks taken by the local “fixers” who serve as their interpreters and guides — was not lost on Klein, even as a young person. In the thirty years since, he has held onto the notion that international journalism needed a reboot. Now he’s giving it one.
This June, Klein became the founding director of the Global Reporting Centre, a Vancouver-based nonprofit that reports international stories in cooperation with local journalists. The center, which grew out of a program that Klein created in 2008 to take University of British Columbia graduate journalism students on overseas reporting trips, hopes to reinvigorate enterprise reporting and cover global issues that are currently underreported.
Klein first began thinking about how to help international and local journalists create better collaborations in the 1990s, when he covered the Bosnian war for National Public Radio and the Christian Science Monitor. While he traveled the area for months, learning the dialects and immersing himself in the culture, he was concerned when he saw “these reporters from New York and London coming in with their little reporter vests out of a Doonesbury cartoon, flying in for a couple of days, not speaking one word of any of the languages, having very little knowledge of the history of why this war was going on.”
He knew this was a systemic issue. “I thought about what a fraud this is,” he says, “and yet somehow I got sucked into that world. I would parachute into a country that I knew very little about and try to do the best I could.”
Over the following two decades, Klein would build an enviable résumé, reporting and producing for news programs such as 60 Minutes and Nightline.
With the Global Reporting Centre, he’s now established a global network of international and local journalists and academics to showcase voices that would have gone unheard in the for-profit media environment. For one recent project, the center partnered with an independent media organization in Mogadishu, Somalia. The team there was fitted with body cameras to offer a reporter’s-eye view of what it’s like to be a journalist in the East African country, where more than fifty reporters have been murdered in the past twelve years. Another project uses local reporting teams to examine how the mentally ill are treated in the slums of Mumbai, the refugee camps of Jordan, and the rural West African nations of Togo and Benin.
Klein admits that courting donors and filling out grant applications leaves him little time to be where he’s always wanted to be: the front lines of a story. But his efforts to expand the role of nonprofit journalism on a global level are already paying off — plans are in the works for two more centers to open in Europe and India.
— Chris Cannon
Brad Thomas Parsons ’95SOA is an amiable man with an unusual motto: “Stay bitter.” Fortunately, this has nothing to do with cynicism and everything to do with cocktails. After studying fiction-writing at Columbia and working for a decade as a cookbook editor at Amazon, Parsons published a James Beard Award–winning guide to cocktail bitters in 2011. His follow-up, Amaro, published this fall, is an ode to amari — bittersweet herbal Italian liqueurs that are the star ingredient in classic cocktails like the negroni. “Americans are starting to embrace bitter as a flavor,” says Parsons, “and bartenders are dusting off their old bottles and creating some lovely new drinks.” With more than one hundred recipes in his new book, Parsons is happy to join the cause. Here he shares a seasonal punch perfect for holiday parties.
MAKES 1 DRINK
1 orange wedge
12 fresh cranberries
1½ ounces Laird’s Straight Apple Brandy
½ ounce Amaro CioCiaro
½ ounce Aperol
2 dashes cranberry bitters
Hard apple cider
Garnish: orange zest and 3 fresh cranberries, skewered
Combine the orange wedge and cranberries in a cocktail shaker and muddle until the fruit is just broken up. Add the apple brandy, Amaro CioCiaro, Aperol, and bitters and fill with ice. Shake until chilled and double-strain into a collins glass filled with ice. Top off with the hard apple cider. Garnish with the orange zest and skewered cranberries.
Jimmy Keyrouz ’16SOA and Felecia Hunter ’13GS, ’16SOA won the narrative-film Oscar at the 2016 Student Academy Awards this fall. Their film, Nocturne in Black, which was directed by Keyrouz and co-produced by Hunter, is about a musician trying to rebuild his piano in a war-torn Middle Eastern neighborhood.
New York City health commissioner Mary Bassett ’79PS won the Frank A. Calderone Prize, one of the most prestigious honors in the field of public health. Bassett is also an associate professor of epidemiology at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health.
Authors James McBride ’80JRN and Louis Menand ’80GSAS were two of this year’s twelve National Humanities Medal winners. The award, which President Barack Obama ’83CC granted in a September ceremony at the White House, is the highest national recognition of achievement in the humanities. McBride is a novelist, memoirist, and biographer who won the 2013 National Book Award for his novel The Good Lord Bird. Menand is a critic, essayist, and professor of literature and language at Harvard University. Keyboardist, composer, and arranger Dick Hyman ’48CC was also honored this fall as a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters Fellow, which comes with $25,000 and a tribute concert.
Jorge Daniel Veneciano ’06GSAS was named director of New York’s Museum of Arts and Design. A native of Argentina, Veneciano studied English and comparative literature at Columbia. He was most recently the executive director of El Museo del Barrio, in Harlem.
Claudia Rankine ’93SOA was named a 2016 MacArthur Fellow. Rankine, a professor of poetry at Yale University, is the author of five volumes of poetry, two plays, and several essays. Her most recent work, a book-length poem called Citizen, won the 2014 National Book Critics Circle Award in poetry and was a finalist for the 2014 National Book Award.
Mia Alvar ’07SOA won the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize for her debut story collection, In the Country. The prize is given annually by the University of Rochester to “promising but less established” women authors. Past winners include Toni Morrison, Ursula K. Le Guin ’52GSAS, and Ann Patchett.
Startup Spotlight: Products with a Purpose
Industrial designer Diana Sierra ’12SPS spent almost a decade designing sunglasses, watches, and perfume bottles for companies like Kenneth Cole and Nike. But her proudest creation — and the one that would transform her professional life — was a little less glamorous: a reusable, sustainable sanitary pad for girls in developing nations who lack access to menstrual products.
The idea came to Sierra in 2012 when she was pursuing her master’s degree in sustainability management. She had come to Columbia looking for more meaningful ways to apply her skill set. “As an industrial designer, you rarely get to choose what you work on,” she says. “After a while, I felt like I was making products that had no purpose. I wanted to design something that actually improved people’s lives.”
Toward the end of the program, Sierra traveled to Uganda as an intern for the Millennium Villages Project, a development initiative co-led by Columbia’s Earth Institute that helps communities in Africa lift themselves out of poverty. There, she learned something troubling from one of the village’s schoolteachers: once girls got their period, they started missing a week of class every month because they didn’t have access to pads or tampons. “Girls would use anything they could find, like dried grasses and pieces of old mattresses,” says Sierra. Not only were these materials unhygienic and irritating, but they would also fall out of a girl’s underwear when she moved. “The girls eventually stayed home so often that their parents pulled them out of school,” says Sierra.
Sierra was stunned. “Basically, these girls were being denied an education because of their biology,” she says. “It was the kind of problem industrial designers are meant to solve.” She used the few materials she had with her in Uganda — umbrellas, mosquito netting, scissors, and a needle and thread — to develop a prototype of a reusable sanitary pad with a permeable pouch that could be filled with any type of safe, absorbent material such as toilet paper or washable cloth. After getting approval from the teacher and the girls’ parents, she gave the pads to the students to test. “Menstruation is such a taboo subject in Uganda that the girls couldn’t believe I was even talking about it,” says Sierra.
The pad got a thumbs-up, and with the help of her teachers and the Millennium Villages Project, Sierra refined the pads and tested them in other countries. “I discovered that girls in Tanzania and Malawi didn’t even have underwear, which led me to develop panties with a built-in sanitary pouch,” she says. In 2014, Sierra and her Columbia classmate Pablo Freund ’12SPS launched Be Girl, a for-profit social enterprise that provides the pads and underwear to girls in developing countries. The underwear is also available to the general public at Begirl.org; for each pair purchased, the company donates a pair to a girl in need.
In the past two years, Be Girl has distributed over sixteen thousand pads and panties in twenty- three countries. Sierra credits much of her success to the creative freedom and support she received at Columbia. “I came from a humble background myself,” says Sierra, who grew up in rural Colombia. “My hometown didn’t even appear on Google Maps until last year. Now I’m traveling the world helping people. It’s my dream job.”
— Jessica Brown
The National Museum of African American History and Culture: A Virtual Tour with Mabel O. Wilson ’91GSAPP
On September 24, 2016, President Barack Obama ’83CC opened the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture — an institution, he said, that seeks to reaffirm “that African-American history is not somehow separate from our larger American story. It’s not the underside of the American story. It is central to the American story.” The four-hundred-thousand square-foot museum, designed by David Adjaye, displays more than three thousand artifacts. Mabel O. Wilson ’91GSAPP, a professor at Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation and a scholar of African-American studies, wrote the official companion book to the museum. Here she highlights some of the building’s most meaningful architectural features.
The building has a triple-tiered corona, a decorative façade that gives it a very distinct shape. It is particularly striking on the National Mall, which is dominated by classical architecture. The tiers are meant to recall hands raised in celebration, and also the West African caryatid, a ceremonial sculpture from Yorubaland, in what is now Nigeria.
The building is covered in metallic panels that morph from reddish gold to deep sepia in the changing light. The lace detail is based on wrought-iron construction that you see on railings and balconies in New Orleans, Charleston, and other parts of the American South. Most of that work was done by Black slaves who were, of course, not credited for their craftsmanship. There’s Black history hidden in plain sight everywhere; we just don’t recognize it.
Most museums have a cloistered, enclosed interior. This museum opens into a huge space with vast floor-to-ceiling windows. You feel suspended between the inside and the outside. The space evokes the clearing field — the middle of an open field of crops — which was the only community gathering space for many slaves.
The view from the upper floors is powerful. Large windows look directly out onto the Washington Monument and, at different points, out to the Mall, the Capitol, the White House, and the city itself. Washington, DC is an important character in the African-American story; the strategically placed windows are also an important reminder that this museum is not just about African-Americans, but about the American experience as a whole.