People and Projects
Trials made public
If knowledge is power, then Alexa Thorlichen McCray ’69 is empowering 17,000 people per day. That’s how many visitors use her Web site to learn about clinical trials that might offer new treatments for medical conditions.
Director of the Lister Hill National Center for Biomedical Communications (in the library of medicine at the National Institutes of Health), McCray launched www.ClinicalTrials.gov in 2000, in response to a 1997 law calling for a public clinical-trials registry. Today it’s a clearinghouse for information on nearly 12,000 clinical trials, most of them government-funded, across the United States and abroad. Along with a searchable database, the site includes explanations of trial protocols and medical terms, answers to frequently asked questions, and links to other health-information sites. Armed with a bachelor’s in modern languages and a PhD in linguistics, McCray combined her expertise in medical informatics with clear, plain language to create a navigable and user-friendly site.
Last summer ClinicalTrials.gov received an “innovations” award from the Council for Excellence in Government and Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. McCray herself has won numerous honors from professional associations and government agencies.
“I really believe that patients have the right to this kind of information,” McCray said in a Washington Post interview—“whether it’s clinical-trials data, or the latest literature on medical breakthroughs, or just getting a better understanding of some condition that you or a family member suffers from.” In fact, McCray hopes the site can eventually list more private-industry research. The American Medical Association and some US lawmakers have called for public registration of pharmaceutical companies’ clinical trials, including full disclosure of results. While many drug companies say they don’t want to reveal proprietary information lest they lose their competitive edge, McCray says mandatory registration “would go very far in ensuring transparency in the whole clinical research enterprise.” Being able to track all trials could allow researchers and policymakers to perform “better meta-analyses and systematic reviews.”
Already the information is changing individual lives: McCray has a neighbor who was able to try a new diabetes treatment thanks to a lead from ClinicalTrials.gov. —SR
Saratoga race ways
Being anti-racist is never a passive or simple undertaking, as Jean Fei ’70 will tell you. It’s a lifelong effort that requires daily scrutiny and determined unraveling of the many subtle and not-so-subtle “personal actions, cultural norms, and institutionalized systems” that perpetuate the “unearned privileges we accrue based on the oppression of others.”
A founding member and chair of Saratogians for Equality and Acceptance of Diversity, Fei (pictured second from left with local children) says the group was created fifteen years ago in response to disturbing incidents in and around Saratoga Springs one summer: some Latino students were arrested at a local bar and jailed while their white attackers got away; the Ku Klux Klan held a march in Schuylerville; and there was a cross-burning on the front lawn of a mixed-race couple in Wilton. For community leaders in Saratoga—a city that’s about 95 percent Caucasian—it was a call to action.
Race is just one focus of SEAD, which sponsors an annual community-wide Diversity Day. But members have studied “the economic impact of race in attracting, hiring, and retaining a stable work force”; examined the issue of affordable housing—especially among nonwhite residents who are “being displaced by new urban settlers”; and offered programs for kids.
While there is obvious progress, bad things still happen: locally, a Vietnamese man was beaten downtown, and another couple found racial slurs and “KKK” scrawled on their car in Ballston Spa; more globally, segregation is still a serious issue, says Fei. “It fills me with grief to see the US using bombs to resolve conflicts with people who have brown skin.”
But a sense of optimism prevails for Fei, who believes “there is tremendous challenge and growth on this path.” She finds inspiration in “people who have made the commitment to achieve the American dream of equality and justice for all”—including civil-rights lawyer Morris Dees, who founded the Southern Poverty Law Center. “When he spoke at Skidmore a few years ago, I asked him, ‘Don’t you ever get tired by how much more there is to do? How do we make change happen?’ He responded, ‘One person at a time.’” —MTS
To be able to dodge, if just for an hour, the interminable strain of existence can be finer than fine. Which is why Monica Gavin Harrington ’96 does what she does: offers massages, pedicures, facials, mud-wraps, salt-scrubs, and foot-soaks far away from the madding crowd, on six acres of country land.
Owner of Quiet Thyme Day Spa in Mason, N.H., Harrington—a dance and exercise science major—decided as a Skidmore junior to make bodywork her livelihood. Her senior thesis examined the effects of massage on the performance of the men’s crew team. “I wanted a career that kept me moving,” she says, “because I knew I’d have a hard time working behind a desk in a corporate office.” After earning a 1,000-hour certificate from Colorado’s Boulder College of Massage Therapy, she returned to her hometown of Mason to open her spa in spring 2004.
Harrington and her handful of employees strive to “lavish tender care” upon their clients, providing them a “mini-vacation” from the rush and rigors of modern American life (see www.quietthymedayspa.com). After a treatment the freshly pampered may even take a cup of tea outside and stroll on wooded paths, or sit on a rocker and absorb the natural surroundings.
As a business owner, Harrington naturally considered how best to allow for personal and financial growth. And she succeeded in addressing two priorities. First, she wanted a “family-friendly” venture—which is why she set up the day spa on the first floor of her home. “I wanted to be a successful professional without taking away from my family,” she says, noting that she and her husband are expecting their first child in March. Second, she wanted to incorporate faith into her business plan—so she offers “Christian day retreats” for women, which include “faith classes, praise and worship” time, plus spa treatments.
Her biggest puzzle so far has been finding qualified (which often means licensed) employees. In this sense, Quiet Thyme’s rural setting works against her, Harrington says. But it hasn’t deterred her from believing she’s on the right track. In fact, she’s back in school, studying to become an esthetician; and she fully expects that within five years her day spa will be well known in the area for promoting stress reduction and educating the community on “the benefits of caring for their whole selves.” —MTS
Living on film
What’s it like breaking into the world of documentary filmmaking? “Precarious,” says Vera Ventura ’03—especially for those who choose the freelance path.
After earning a degree in visual anthropology (at Skidmore she made a video documenting the college’s history and produced a grant-funded documentary and multimedia art exhibit about 9/11), Ventura sidestepped the commercial-film meccas of Los Angeles and New York City—where she’d already worked as a production assistant on independent and MTV music videos—and set up shop in Boston. She freelanced on several projects with StrategicVideo.Net, which produces “high-impact” videos for use in corporate malfeasance litigation and in public-policy reform and the performing arts. As assistant director, Ventura edited original footage of the deadly 1982 explosion of a chemical plant in Bhopal, India. The film, Twenty Years without Justice: The Bhopal Chemical Disaster, was recently shown during congressional hearings on the culpability of Union Carbide and Dow Chemical for operating the plant with inadequate safety systems. In a subsequent project, Ventura shot and edited Healthcare without Harm, an exposé of the environmental effects of medical waste incineration in the United States.
Maintaining a commitment to serving the public interest as well as her own artistic standards, says Ventura, is “very tough.” Add to that the vagaries of life as a freelancer, and it’s clear she must be both creative and diligent. “You have these incredible highs and lows. One week you’re flying on a creative high as you connect with a project, and the next you’re wondering where the next paycheck will come from.” And “the competition is fierce,” she confirms. “There are a lot of other fishes out there. You really have to carve out your niche.”
Several months ago, Ventura worked as a videographer on Sneakerheads, a Nike-funded documentary about sneaker collectors, and she recently finished shooting a television pilot called Back to Nature: Hiking in America’s Great National Parks. Commercial work, she notes, helps her hone her craft—and pay the rent. “Sometimes that’s in the public interest too,” she laughs. —MM
In her new book The Waiting Place: Stories of Prisoners and Their Families, Cathy McDowell, UWW ’00, looks at the American penal system from a little-shared vantage point: the visitors’ waiting room.
In 1992 McDowell joined her mother, a seasoned prison volunteer, to design and conduct weekly programs in three New York State prisons, ranging from minimum to maximum security. “I was forty-two when I first went into a prison as a volunteer,” says McDowell. “I was white. Insulated. Naïve. The experience raised my social consciousness and changed my life.”
Startled, McDowell started “really looking at people. Sometimes when I listened to the inmates’ stories, I had to go out into the hall and cry, because I had never known anything like that.” Growing up in the ’50s in Lake George, N.Y., “I thought everyone had a mom and dad, had brothers and sisters and a dog, and spoke English.”
McDowell poured everything she saw, learned, and felt into her final UWW project, which was published last summer by RA Press. The Waiting Place is a potluck of short essays on the systemic racism, emotional deprivation, and institutional dysfunction she observed firsthand, along with equally firsthand portraits of prisoners like street-smart James William, who writes tender letters to his mother; visitors like Rachel, who, with little money for gas, food, or motels, still travels to see her inmate husband weekly; and bright-faced toddlers, who happily gabble to the guards “as if they were all Daddy.”
Against a dehumanizing background, McDowell vividly paints the determination—and grinding fatigue—of families who bus long hours to faraway prisons, wait in lines to be “processed,” or lose precious change in prison vending machines, and above all, learn to call before coming, because the state frequently transfers prisoners with no notice to their families. McDowell’s book is a cri de coeur from and for all those who “try to be a support system for someone they love,” she says. “I am most happy that they will finally have a voice.”
Currently McDowell works in Albany’s South End with recovering substance abusers, many of whom are ex-offenders. Her book is available online at auth.bluemoo.net/~donohue. —BAM