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People and Projects

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Jerry Birnbaum ’50 came to Skidmore when his buddies were attending under the GI bill. His sister (Jean Birnbaum Perlmutter ’45) had recently graduated, and this emboldened him to inquire about signing up for classes.

Like many students, he enjoyed hanging out at O’Malley’s and dancing Saturday nights at the Ash Grove. Unlike many students—certainly male ones—he also had the thrill of being crowned “May Queen” (see photo below).

As for academics, Birnbaum took a serious interest in history. He recalls professors Alice Warren and Grace Cockraft saying that history was not a thing of the past. As he himself puts it, “There is something happening every day.” After graduation a friend suggested he share his enthusiasm for history with schoolchildren, and in 1967 he began teaching at a public school in New York City.

Fast-forward twenty-five years, and Jenny Herdman Lando ’93 was studying in Skidmore’s education department. As a student teacher, she was encouraged by professors Ruth Andrea Levinson and Susan Lehr to develop her own style of acquiring and sharing knowledge. She went on to teach grade-school science at PS 102 in Elmhurst, N.Y. Which is how she came to cross paths with Jerry Birnbaum.

When Lando couldn’t teach one day, “I left clear, focused lesson plans for the substitute teacher,” she says. “Even the students were surprised that although I wasn’t there, they were still doing their regular class work and not some busywork.” There was no messing with the sub that day. His name was Jerry Birnbaum, and he tracked down Lando the next day to thank her.

Birnbaum is Lando’s usual substitute, and “as the year progressed, we’d stop and chat in the hall and discuss the students we had in common,” she recalls. And one day they discovered they had Skidmore in common. “We’ve spent the past few months comparing our experiences in Saratoga,” Lando says. “And Jerry and I agree that the lessons learned at Skidmore have helped guide our professional lives.” —MTS

No midwife crisis here

Midwifery, Charlotte (Pixie) Cram Elsberry ’63 knows, is not the most understood profession. But as the practice gains popularity (today more than 10 percent of babies in the US are delivered by midwives), the myths are subsiding.

As director of midwifery at North Central Bronx (N.Y.) Hospital for nearly twenty years, Elsberry—who recently retired—oversaw forty-two midwives and two ob-gyn nurse practitioners who delivered 3,000 newborns and provided over 80,000 outpatient visits a year. Last year she received the Gold Commendation Award from the American Society of Nurse Midwives.

While certain misconceptions persist (such as: midwives deliver babies only in the home, never use anesthesia, and are illegal in some states), Elsberry says many women nationwide, of all
nationalities and economic levels, regularly seek care from licensed or accredited midwives—and not just pregnant women (fact: midwives provide health services, beyond just obstetrics, to women of all ages).

Elsberry’s career in midwifery was inspired largely during her Skidmore years, while doing her clinical nurse training in New York City. Her instructors included a pair of midwives “widely recognized as innovators in maternal health,” who assigned her to their experimental curriculum. “I was exposed to women with special needs, women with complications, and women who received hypnosis during childbirth. This was the age of ‘childbirth without fear.’ I was able to work as long as I wanted and to follow the same mother and baby through labor, delivery, and the in-hospital postpartum period. It was a truly rich and broad experience.”

Over the years Elsberry has found immense satisfaction in caring for three generations of women, oftentimes within the same families. “The women of the Bronx are wonderful people,” she says. “And the ethnic diversity is amazing. I often felt like we were a mini–United Nations.” Cultural challenges, differing belief systems, and social and economic issues were par for the course, and even with limited resources “we were expected to give uncompromised care.” Having a “dedicated, knowledgeable, and loyal staff” made that possible, she says, and her patients never hesitated to express their gratitude. —MTS

Never lax about lax

Eric Fekete ’89 is one of those lucky guys who’s “grateful every day” to be doing what he loves—in his case, coaching men’s lacrosse (nickname: lax) at Division I Quinnipiac University.

And for icing on the cake, the former T’bred and one-time coach of the US under-19 team at the 1994 World Lacrosse Games Festival in England was recently named president of the New England Intercollegiate Lacrosse Association. Being elected to this job by his coaching peers is, he says, “an exceptional honor.”

NEILA makes All New England and Academic All New England team selections, plus nominations and selections for a postseason senior all-star game showcasing the best players in New England. NEILA also offers free clinics, hosted by member schools, to provide young players “instruction and insights into the game from some exceptional coaches”—something Fekete, who competed in New England lacrosse as a youngster, has a special appreciation for.

Fekete thoroughly enjoys the “dynamic environment” of college athletics and has fond memories of his own undergraduate experience, which helped set the direction of his career. “The community I found at Skidmore, particularly with athletics, was a tremendous asset for me during college and after,” the business major says. “The lessons and values I gained—the essence of teamwork, pride in your work ethic, commitment to your sport—continue to shape my outlook on life.”

Fekete still plays lacrosse and hockey whenever he has the chance—which isn’t often. Time on the road coaching and recruiting keeps him on the move, but he feels “fortunate to have a very supportive wife and four children (all under age five) who just love being around the team and the university.” In many ways, he considers his lacrosse team extended family and enjoys following the lives of his former players. In his profession, bonds form early on, and those relationships continue “long after the games are over.” —MTS

Timing is everything

Jet lag and insomnia are familiar miseries resulting from disturbances to the body’s “biological clock.” If light and darkness get out of sync with waking and sleeping times, the body’s circadian rhythms slip off schedule, affecting sleep, metabolism, mood, you name it.

Research on “clock mutant” mice (a strain of lab mice with genetically defective biological clocks) has proven that circadian-rhythm disruption interferes with female reproduction. Recently a new study explained how. Northwestern University PhD student Brooke Miller ’99, with professor Teresa Horton and Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator Joseph Takahashi, found that a faulty internal clock impairs the brain’s ability to control the release of hormones, and the out-of-whack hormones cause irregular estrous cycles (the mouse equivalent of human menstrual cycles). The researchers also found that “clock mutant” mice suffer high rates of midterm pregnancy failure. The study is published in the August 2004 issue of Current Biology.

This was Miller’s first big journal article as lead author. In 2002 she was a second author on a paper that “got a ton of publicity,” she recalls, “because we showed that as much as 10 percent of the genes in every mouse tissue we studied were under circadian control.” Currently she’s writing up a study possibly linking circadian-clock mutations with abnormal cell development and proliferation, which could have implications for embryonic or cancer development.

Miller won a National Science Foundation fellowship, and recently a research service award from the National Institutes of Health, to underwrite her doctoral studies, which she’ll finish later this summer. And her next move is already set: she’s landed a postdoc research job at the Scripps Research Institute in Palm Beach, Fla. “The place is new, and it’s packed with young, brilliant, energetic scientists, so it’s going to be a great opportunity,” she says—and one that keeps her on track toward a career in a private research institute. —SR

Pre-K: beyond play

When former elementary-school teacher Linda Crandall Smith ’62 couldn’t find a quality preschool for her son, she started one of her own. Thirty years later, the Family Development Center in Wexford, Pa., is still going strong.

From its humble beginnings in a church basement, with Smith as head teacher for a handful of students and parents as aides, FDC evolved into a fully certified and licensed nonprofit. It’s still in a church (a different one), but enrollment has crept close to 150. A parental board now runs the school, and Smith—whose own children and grandchildren were students there—remains its director.

FDC’s curriculum includes math, music, art, and science—“academic skills in an informal atmosphere,” says Smith. She’s a firm believer that preschool should be more than a playgroup (“parents shouldn’t have to pay for that”), and kindergarten teachers, she reports, have complimented her on the preparedness of her graduates.

Smith may put the “school” back in preschool, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less fun. FDC students make frequent field trips (the Gateway Clipper riverboat and Carnegie Museum) and enjoy visits from librarians, firefighters, and police officers; they even bake gingerbread cookies. Smith is a champion of hands-on learning, and FDC incorporates programs where, for example, museum exhibits are loaned to the school and symphony orchestra musicians expose the children to classical music.

Smith’s tasks at the school have run the gamut: “everything from sweeping the floors and cleaning out the guinea-pig cages to registering new families, paying bills, and arranging all the field trips.” She’s also taught two thirty-member classes of four-year-olds, three days a weeks. But come June of next year, she’ll be retiring. “It’s time to relax,” she says. On the docket: reading, travel and exercise, volunteer work, and weekend babysitting. She also hints at going back to teaching—perhaps “as a substitute, without the responsibilities.” —MTS

Whistle work

Ask Doug Hartnett ’83 what he does for a living and he’ll say, “Well, I try to prevent people who have the moral courage to stand up to abuses of authority from being destroyed for doing so.”

Hartnett, previously employed by the Government Accountability Project to defend national-security whistleblowers, is now in private legal practice in Washington, D.C. It can be a tricky business. While he carries a genuine respect and admiration for his clients—they “risk their careers, their financial well-being, their health, their reputation, and sometimes their lives to tell the truth about wrongdoing”—he is bound, as an attorney, to advise them in their best interest. “Blowing the whistle is not something you do in your own interest,” he points out. “So at least I try to maximize their chances of success.

“Contrary to what people often think, whistleblowers don’t usually set out to be whistleblowers,” he adds. And while they may be perceived as trying to bring down their employers, in fact they are typically the “true believers” in their organizations. “Nuclear-power whistleblowers, for example, are usually strong supporters, personally, of nuclear power.” They object to “cost-cutting, fraud, or shortcuts on safety because they know it will increase the chances of an accident” and give nuclear power a bad rap. “So they blow the whistle, and, seen from the outside, seem to be attacking the very institution they acted to defend.”

Hartnett’s cases typically involve suing his clients’ employers for retaliating against them. And he uses whatever resources he can, including “the law, the media, political pressure, and community support,” to draw attention to a case. Even if concrete changes aren’t achieved, Hartnett says, whistleblowers may still positively affect the organizations they challenge.

His clients have included Coleen Rowley, the FBI attorney who blew the whistle on the mishandling of the investigation of 9/11 terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui, and Kathy Harris, the customs inspector who “single-handedly changed abusive racial profiling practices against black women in the Atlanta airport.” Hartnett is pleased that both women emerged from their experiences “empowered and energized. They are now committed activists, working to help others who share their courage and to hold those in power accountable.” —MTS

On a high horse

Jackie Abodeely ’97 remembers going to Yellowstone National Park as a child and seeing a female law-enforcement ranger on horseback. “I looked at her and dreamed that I would be doing her job some day,” she says.

For Abodeely, dreaming paid off. A couple of years ago, she braved six months of boot camp at the New York State police academy to become a park officer. Then she was sent to New York City, where she worked the night shift in state parks in Harlem and the Bronx (“they say if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere—I think it’s really true”). Last May she was transferred to the Saratoga area, attended “mounted school,” and now sits tall and proud upon her horse.

Abodeely and her cohorts patrol Saratoga Spa State Park as well as other parks in the region; they also work special details, including parades, funerals, fairs, festivals, and concerts. Off their horses, park police officers are on regular patrol—and not just in their cruisers: they might ride an ATV, boat, Jet Ski, or snowmobile.

Training for mounted officers does not require prior riding experience, though Abodeely has been riding horses since she was five. Riders learn “basic horsemanship based on principles originally taught by the US cavalry,” she says. Later they study horse health and behavior, followed by police techniques such as how to search and handcuff people from horseback. “We learned crowd-control movements and how to break up fights.

We also spent weeks with sensory training, teaching horses to deal calmly with fireworks, smoke bombs, flags, Frisbees—things they might encounter in the field.”

The horse she rides—a Clydesdale-Hackney cross about sixteen hands tall—is named King. “In a previous career he was a carriage horse. He’s very playful, loves people, and loves to show off with his high-stepping gait and arched neck.” Abodeely gets a kick out of seeing the public’s reaction when she’s on patrol. “There’s excitement and intrigue in their eyes—I think a mounted officer reminds them of an earlier time.” The scenic work environment isn’t so bad either. “Sometimes I can’t believe I’m getting paid to be riding in the park—it’s amazing.” —MTS

Slick Schick show

"XXX” in a title perhaps implies a certain bawdiness. But when Skidmore’s Schick Art Gallery hosted a spring show titled XXX and Under, the Xs just referred to the approximate age of the exhibiting artists.

The concept was bandied about by the gallery committee last fall. Soon thereafter, Skidmore’s art professors were given a long list of youngish art majors—about 500 have graduated in the last ten years—and asked to whittle it down. They narrowed the pool to about sixty nominees, who were asked to submit slides of their work. About thirty responded, and the committee of five faculty artists selected seven exhibitors.

In April artworks began arriving on campus from several parts of the country: a series of engraved beeswax panels by Montana-based painter Eben Goff ’00; a 3-by-9-foot oil painting Chryse Planitia (detail below) by Missouri’s Anna Kaye ’02; a 10-by-17-foot mixed-media work mounted on canvas (luckily, it can be rolled up) by Vermonter Abigail Rubenstein ’97; a 500-pound granite-and-steel table by Boston artist Michael Green ’95; a pair of large wood sculptures by Philadelphia’s Scott White ’95; several large, royal-blue earthenware pieces by Gregg Moore ’97, also of Pennsylvania; and several acrylic paintings by Ian Bissonnette ’00, transported from Canada.

Favorable response to the exhibit—which remained in place through early June—was apparent in the guest book comments: “Fantastic show!” “Clever.” “Wonderful work.” “Exciting.” If you missed it this time, don’t despair; professor David Miller, director of the Schick, has a goal to curate an alumni exhibit there every other year. —MTS