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Summer 2003

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Outward Bound
Skidmore grads take their talents into the real world

Each May at Commencement the college issues its stamp of approval, and a fond farewell, to hundreds of students with impressive skills and talents in a huge array of disciplines. The tiny sampling below presents four who earned Periclean and other academic honors while engaging in special projects, campus clubs, and other activities in their “free” time. With energy and ambition like theirs, it’s hard to imagine a limit on where they’ll wind up next.

Phil LaBella ’03,
B.S. (cum laude),
dance and business
     For Felix “Phil” LaBella ’03, there’s just no business like show business. The New Hartford, N.Y., resident started dance lessons at the age of five and barely paused for breath, racking up awards in competitive dance as a high-schooler. At Skidmore he used a double major in dance and business to refine his performing technique and acquire new management skills—a combination he hopes will lead to careers in performance and theater administration. His goal? Broadway. “I’m going to get there,” he vows.
     At Skidmore LaBella was active in the Cabaret Troupe, a student club that typically performs two musicals a year. LaBella seized a number of opportunities: on-stage roles in A Chorus Line, Babes in Arms, and Hello Again; assistant director and co-choreographer for Cameo; and a year as publicity manager. Last fall the troupe presented a full-scale production of Chicago, directed and choreographed by LaBella. The show, which he worked on for almost a year, was one of the most popular ever staged by the group, generating more than $4,000 in ticket sales and coverage in off-campus news outlets. The multimedia production was a “tribute” to his role model, choreographer Bob Fosse, LaBella says, adding,“Chicago was the best part of my Skidmore life.” In fact, Mary DiSanto-Rose, director of Skidmore’s dance program, credits LaBella with “helping to turn the group around.”
     Cabaret Troupe was LaBella’s passion, but it was not all-consuming. He received a warm welcome from the Saratoga City Ballet, performing as the Nutcracker Prince in the company’s popular holiday productions of The Nutcracker and completing an arts-management internship with the company this past spring. In addition, he was a member of Rithmos, a student group specializing in hip-hop and jazz dance.
     For a brief period, LaBella didn’t dance at all. He spent a semester in London, where he focused on academics, taking three business courses and one theater course. It was the first time he’d ever been outside America. “I was really homesick at first,” he admits. “I learned a lot about myself and discovered what’s important to me. I grew up a lot.” He also frequented London’s theater district, seeing some thirty-five professional shows, and visited several other countries—including Italy, home of his ancestors.
     His zest for performing and his willingness to learn are two of LaBella’s most notable attributes, says Debra Fernandez, a dance-faculty mentor. “What stands out is his terrific personality on stage. His warmth and openness come through. As a teacher, I’m very proud of him; he got as much out of this department as he could. When I saw him dance as a senior, I marveled at the maturity he achieved—he took advantage of all we had to offer.”
     The recipient of the scholarship donated by the senior class of 2002, LaBella won this year’s Margaret Paulding Award in Dance. In presenting the award, DiSanto-Rose called LaBella “an accomplished performer and valued leader.”
     This summer LaBella turned down regional-theater roles in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and A Chorus Line in favor of joining a national touring company of the hit musical Cats; he’s playing Tumble Brutus, the gymnastic cat. He’s grateful to Skidmore, he says, for providing “the relationships and experiences and incredible amount of knowledge that I take with me as I venture out into the real world.” —AW

Jumaane Tafawa ’03, B.A. (cum laude), business-economics and computer science
     “I’m a global student,” declares Jumaane Tafawa ’03. “Wherever I go, I make a home for myself.” A double major in business-economics and computer science, Tafawa yearns for, and actively promotes, a world where people try to see life from the “other” person’s perspective. The Chelsea, Mass., resident also wants to address the inequities of global capitalism in the developing world.
     Tafawa was born in Guyana in northern South America. His parents came from large subsistence-farming families. In search of educational and economic opportunity, the Tafawas left Guyana in the 1980s and embarked on a four-continent journey that eventually brought them to the United States. Jumaane attended international high schools in Jos, Nigeria; Port Oremsby, Papua New Guinea; and Oxford, England. A college counselor mentioned Skidmore as a good environment for a deep thinker intent on studying several fields and comfortable with cultural differences.
     Tafawa dove right into campus life. He was a varsity rower who savored early-morning sunrises over Fish Creek; he showed off his competititve spirit and raw speed in intramural soccer matches; and he participated in student organizations like Turn Left, a liberal political group, and the International Affairs Club. A scholarship student, he was the recipient of the Roberts Sisters Endowed Scholarship in his senior year.
     Sometimes pigeonholed as a “Third World kid,” Tafawa developed a close relationship with Mehmet Odekon, his faculty advisor in the economics department. Odekon’s insistence that both sides of every story get airtime was music to Tafawa’s ears. Odekon quickly came to “appreciate the quality of Jumaane’s mind, his maturity and honesty, his curiosity, and his ability to think critically and analytically.”
     These qualities were on display at an International Affairs Club–sponsored debate on the 9/11 terrorist attacks. A panelist, Tafawa noticed that many in the audience were taken aback when his fellow international students described some negative sentiments felt by other countries toward the U.S. Sensing that their reactions were rooted in cultural differences, he asked questions that encouraged deeper discussion. He asserts, “Opinions are opinions. I couldn’t care less about them. What I see as critical is the ability to look at something from another person’s perspective. If you have that capacity, you can understand any situation.”
     As a scholar, Tafawa wrestled with two economic issues that he believes cry out for broader understanding and reform: labeling in the U.S. food industry, and the inequalities of globalization promoted by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Under Odekon’s tutelage, Tafawa waded into an ambitious research project on the costs and benefits of labeling genetically engineered food in the U.S. At the same time, dreaming of one day launching his own nongovernmental organization to spur agricultural self-sufficiency in a developing country, he arranged an independent study to begin planning such an NGO. (In a perfect world, his latest entrepreneurial brainstorm—a cable-TV channel targeted to the college audience—would help seed the NGO.) In recognition of his efforts, he was awarded the Gail Moran Morton ’60 Prize in management and business in his senior year. “I’d never had to do this much work—ever,” he says. “But it was fantastic. I was finally doing what I wanted to do.”
     Before applying to graduate schools, Tafawa intends to gain some work experience in economic research and analysis, either in the U.S. or England. Just three weeks after Commencement, he was already weighing job offers. —PM

Rachel Allen ’03, B.A. (magna cum laude), neuroscience
     Looking for a medical expert with a sharp eye, wide knowledge, and a knack for pioneering research? Put Rachel Allen ’03 in your Rolodex. Once she earns the M.D-Ph.D. she’s going for, she’s likely to be a very hot ticket.
     A Skidmore neuroscience major, Allen already had so much laboratory experience and academic promise by her sophomore year that she earned a distinguished national scholarship for her junior and senior years. Only fifteen to twenty undergraduates across the country win the annual $20,000 National Institutes of Health scholarships, which include summer internships with NIH researchers and an obligation to work at the NIH (one year’s work for each year of scholarship support) after graduation. NIH is clearly getting its money’s worth with Allen, who has racked up a Phi Beta Kappa grade-point average while spending as much as forty hours per week on genetic research in the laboratory of Skidmore biologist Marc Tetel.
     Honing a technique to target particular genes for study, Allen performed brain surgery on fifteen rats. Using detailed calculations and finely calibrated equipment, she implanted a small tube, or cannula, at just the right point in each rat’s brain. Through the cannula, she infused specially engineered genetic material, called interfering RNAs, designed to block the activity of certain genes. Other researchers have used the procedure in other organs, but Tetel and Allen are charting new territory by trying it in the brain. It’s just one step in Tetel’s $900,000 NIH-funded project to study how the hormone estrogen affects the expression of certain genes-—in a complex process involving hormone receptors, coactivators, and other factors—and how those interactions affect behavior.
     “This is a technically demanding project,” says Tetel. But Allen—who spent two summers in a highly selective program at the Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine, conducting studies on stem-cell and neuron development in mouse brains—was up to the challenge. (“I wasn’t sure about handling rats,” she says, “but when I started on Marc’s project I was surprised: rats are so much nicer than mice!”)
     “I like medicine, but I love research,” especially, she admits, when it comes to the tools of the trade. Just this past year, she not only used precision surgical apparatus, but employed a cryostat and microtome to freeze brain tissue and slice thin sections of it, and prepared slides and analyzed them under a microscope.
     As graduation neared, Allen was finishing with data analysis: counting particular brain cells to see if her injections of interfering RNAs successfully inhibited the proteins she was targeting. At the same time, she was looking forward to her second summer at the NIH in Bethesda, Md., where her project will use PET scans and MRIs to study brain activity in children. She was also getting in a few last guitar lessons; she already plays piano, flute, and French horn. And, as president of Skidmore’s Periclean honor society, she was prepping to host the Periclean Scholar Awards presentation the day before Commencement.
     “Rachel is the kind of student we love to get involved in research,” enthuses Tetel. “I enjoyed teaching her and learning from her.” Says Allen, “Marc teaches independent thinking and the art that goes into asking the right question and finding the best way to answer it.”
     With that kind of creativity being directed into medical research, don’t you feel better already? —SR

Andy Tyson ’03, B.A. (cum laude), Spanish and music
     Andrew Tyson ’03 is in his element onstage, which is where he spent a lot of time last spring, readying his new musical, Implications of Dinner. And his new musical really is his—Tyson wrote the script (based on a bittersweet experience of his own), composed score and lyrics, directed and produced, and even played keyboard for the show’s three performances in April. An impressive achievement, especially since Tyson did it not for the academic credit he garnered but because he really wanted to.
     A singer, dancer, actor, and musician, Tyson picked out his first one-finger tune on the piano when he was five. In junior high, he started hanging out with the Walpole Players in his New Hampshire hometown (pop. 3,000), moving up from backstage “chap in black” to bellhop roles and bit parts for the community theater group.
     At Skidmore, he completed a double major in music and Spanish (including a semester in Madrid) while considerably expanding his performing-arts capabilities. A member of the campus dance group Swing Fever since freshman year, as its president he produced showcases for campus performance groups. For the student Cabaret Troupe, Tyson performed in A Chorus Line and Chicago and directed Babes in Arms, earning such a reputation as the go-to guy on campus that he wound up as the Student Government Association’s vice president for clubs and organizations. “Everyone kept asking how to get these things done, so I figured maybe I should do the job officially,” Tyson grins.
     But it took all that and more to develop Implications, a vastly ambitious project that taught him hard and exhilarating lessons. Two years in the making, the show began as a collaboration with a Skidmore friend, a classically trained dancer. After she pulled out, Tyson pared the show down from a big production with extravagant dance numbers and twenty players to a cast of five Skidmore student actors, playing two couples performing a lounge act and the bartender who’s booking them.
     As in any good learning experience, the complications came thick and fast. No space on campus for the show? Theater department pals helped scout out the Saratoga Music Hall, a grand old space atop City Hall. No money for a downtown production? Tyson scraped together $3,500 from family “angels” and a benefit performance at his high school. He learned to do without a prop if there was no time to build it, cut a musical number he didn’t have time to write. But he kept the essentials of the plot and characters—their show-biz banter, the ripple and weave of backstage relationships and romances—and the melodically beautiful score. Then (playwrights have their privileges) he added a happy ending , because “I didn’t like the way it ended in real life,” he says with a wry smile.
     The experience taught him worlds about theater. “When you first create a show, what you’re working toward is art. But two weeks before curtain time, you switch to ‘OK, we have to put on a show.’ You take what you have and make it work.”
     The little musical also gave him a lead on what he might like to do for an encore. “My dream is to be the producer for my own theater,” says Tyson. “I’ve done every part of theater and I know how to put it all together. I can call up all these nice people and say, ‘Hey, want to put on a show?’”—BAM


© 2003 Skidmore College