By Daney Daniel Kepple
Photography by Justin Fox Burks
It’s summertime at Rhodes and the livin’, while not exactly easy, is a breeze compared to the intensity of the academic year. Sports camps, as always, draw middle and high schoolers to the “north 40” and the purple shirt-clad students of Soulsville Academy (the charter school established by the Stax Museum of American Soul Music) learn their lessons, set their sights for a college education and teach the rest of us lessons about focus and decorum. For two weeks, aspiring high school authors from all over the country gather for the Summer Writing Institute.
The Rhodes students who choose to live on campus for the summer mostly do so to participate in the college’s various fellowship programs. They are here because they want to be—in fact, feel privileged to be—because these programs allow them to apply their classroom learning in ways that change lives, their own and those of the people they serve.
There’s not much sign of them during the day since, with the exception of the handful who work in campus labs, offices or studios, they fan out across the city and the Mid-South during business hours. They return to their East Village apartments in the evenings and experience a close community that amazes them, even on a campus that prides itself on its closeness.
They come from varied backgrounds and choose to do different work. Some discover their lifetime passion while others gain the wisdom of letting go of an old dream to pursue a new one. Every one of them will tell you in a voice filled with reverence that they would not trade the experience for the world.
Jami King ’11 arrived at Rhodes knowing what she wanted to study. In high school her interest in the Catholic Worker Movement was piqued when her brother volunteered at a CWM project in California. During her sophomore year at Rhodes she approached Religious Studies professor Tom Bremer about doing a directed inquiry on the subject. He responded, “We’ll learn together.”
The two read books and King produced a research paper. She was intrigued by the movement’s ties to communism, anarchy, communal living, women’s suffrage and pacifism. She wanted more.
Bremer suggested Memphis Theological Seminary and introduced her to Peter Gathje on the faculty there. She and fellow student Leigh DeVries ’11 identified the course they wanted to take, Poverty, Imprisonment and Resistance Theology, but it conflicted with their class schedules. Perhaps sensing their passion, Gathje agreed to tutor them privately. He also took them to Manna House, a nonresidential work community that serves the homeless by providing meals, showers, community and reflection. King was hooked.
She continues to volunteer at Manna House where, she claims, “I receive so much more than the guests do. I get an understanding of a different kind of life. I get the opportunity to analyze and examine how helping people works, how reciprocal it can be.”
She applied for the Rhodes Institute for Regional Studies (RIRS), a student summer program dedicated to furthering academic research on Memphis and the Mid-South.
“I wanted to continue, to see different sides, to understand where the CWM fits into history,” she explains.
Not only did she gain that understanding through studying the movement’s manifestations in Chicago, Memphis and New York, she got a new sense of life at Rhodes.
“It’s an opening experience to have time.” King smiles. “This campus is a wonderful place to be when you don’t have to spend all your time in the library. It’s less crowded in the summer. You can sit on the Briggs patio, enjoy the view and think without being distracted.”
She also enjoyed the RIRS field trips to venues such as the Clinton Library in Little Rock, nearby Ames Plantation where some of her colleagues participated in an archaeological dig, and Graceland.
“We got close to the professors on those trips,” she says.
Spending so much time with the homeless at Manna House, King determined to try to live frugally. Rather than joining the groups who sampled Memphis restaurants, she joined a friend who worked at the Memphis Farmers Market in finding uses for the bruised and rejected fruits and vegetables.
“I set a personal goal to save my money from RIRS to go abroad,” a goal she attained by journeying to Muscat, Oman where she took classes in Arabic, economics and political culture and participated in the International Economics, Energy and Diversification in the Gulf Program.
“The Institute for Regional Studies taught me how to do serious research, which really paid off when I went abroad,” she says. “I knew how to find sources and how long it would take to write an in-depth paper.”
This summer, as a result of receiving the Religious Studies Department’s Hyde Award, King is off to Milwaukee to study in the Hull House archives, then to New York to serve in the first Catholic Worker House, then to a communal farm in upstate New York founded by Dorothy Day, a CWM cofounder.
She’s not sure where it will all lead.
“I can’t quite put my finger on what I want to do. It will be some kind of nonprofit work but I’m not sure what. I volunteered in a soup kitchen in high school and it seemed terribly impersonal. I like the relationship model. I need to know names.”
NeNe Bafford ’11 grew up in Memphis but didn’t really discover her hometown until she came to Rhodes.
“My mom is a history teacher so I’ve always been interested in history,” she says, “especially the part of the civil rights movement that happened in Memphis.”
What better candidate for a fellowship to study the movement in Memphis and the Mid-South than in the Rhodes-based Crossroads to Freedom digital archive? Bafford is ensconced in her second year as a fellow, having served last year on the social media team.
“We did a blog, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, trying to let the rest of the world know about this wonderful tool,” she says.
She describes her feelings as “mixed” when she encountered in the archive the papers of a grand dragon of the Tennessee Ku Klux Klan from the 1960s and ’70s
“Looking at the postcards—they knew who lived on a certain block—it showed how organized they were, how intent on their purposes. Seeing those documents, holding them in my hands, was entirely different from reading about the Klan in a textbook.” Powerful in a different way was the thrill of being out in the community, “interviewing people who were alive when those things happened. We learned what their lives were like, and I would never have met them otherwise, never have heard their untold stories. This was giving people a voice, letting them know that their opinions matter.”
Bafford also formed some opinions of her own.
“I grew up in Memphis and so did two of my roommates, but we learned about a different world from our other roommate from New Orleans. She took us to museums we had never visited and we came to love restaurants we didn’t even know about. Now Central BBQ and the Hollywood Fish Market are real favorites.”
She also enjoyed getting to know professors she hadn’t encountered before and interacting with the Crossroads fellows from other schools.
“It could all happen because of the slower pace,” she says. “There’s so much less stress in the summer.”
Alex Tong ’11 grew up in Dallas but the summer after his senior year in high school his parents moved to Hong Kong. He took summer classes at the University of Hong Kong and the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Then Rhodes became home.
Accepted into the St. Jude Summer Plus program after his first year, Tong was not looking for the laid-back lifestyle so appreciated by many of his Rhodes co-residents. He was determined to make the most of the intensive research program that pairs gifted Rhodes students with St. Jude researchers for a summer, an academic year and sometimes a second summer.
“I like to keep busy and I’m very goal oriented,” he says. “A good day for me is when I have 10 things to get done.”
With the encouragement of his postdoc mentor, Dr. Satya Pondugula, Tong threw himself into his laboratory research, usually logging 60-70 hours a week.
“He taught me so much,” Tong says. “It has been such a great opportunity.”
Indeed, he was so caught up in his project, he talked the director of his lab, Dr. Taosheng Chen, into letting him work for a second academic year.
“He was using up his resources on me,” Tong explains, “plus he wrote me a personal recommendation when I applied to the Pediatric Oncology Education (POE) program,” which is also funded by St. Jude.
Tong was a shoe-in for admittance to the POE program. Not only did he have his sterling work in the laboratory and Dr. Chen’s personal recommendation, he is friends with the program director, Dr. Suzanne Gronemeyer, as a result of his other great passion, music. Tong is first violinist for the Rhodes Orchestra and was instrumental in the establishment of the Rhodes String Quartet. He takes private lessons from a member of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra and practices whenever he can.
“I’m the one you’ll hear in Hassell late at night,” he says.
Gronemeyer accepted his application early. Several weeks later he received another acceptance—to the Harvard Summer Research Program funded by the Leadership Alliance, a national higher education consortium for undergraduate research.
“It was tempting,” he concedes, “but I owed Dr. Chen my loyalty. Besides, the POE experience will also be valuable. Dr. Gronemeyer is a Ph.D. in physics who worked in the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory and she is an accomplished violinist who shares my passion for music. There will be young scientists from all over the United States ranging from undergraduates to M.D. to Pharm. D. students, a very diverse group of people. I look forward to gaining good connections in the scientific world.”
Even so, he hopes to “scale back a little,” maybe even to 40 hours a week. He’s looking forward to free Tuesdays at the zoo.
“I love the pandas.” He smiles. “Did you know they process the panda waste into paper? I bought some for my girlfriend.” (Susan Wang ’08 teaches at Soulsville Academy. She liked it but suggested a less whimsical gift for her birthday.)
He’s also looking forward to hikes at Shelby Farms, Memphis’ 4,500-acre urban park, cooking with his roommates, hanging out and watching sports at Buffalo Wild Wings. And he’s hoping to hook up with other musicians and play some gigs around town.
“Music is my way to relax,” he explains.
Erin Carter ’12, who works in Chemistry professor Mauricio Cafiero’s laboratory, shares Tong’s passion for science.
“I work all the time but it’s really fun.”
Carter decided on a chemistry major and a career as a surgeon when she was a sophomore in high school.
“Surgery is just fascinating to me,” she says. “You need to know medicine, have spatial awareness, and there’s an element of creativity as well. I try to get involved any way I can.”
She stokes that flame by volunteering at the Med (Memphis’ Regional Medical Center) in its renowned trauma center.
“The Med is an excellent motivator,” she says. “When I’m feeling down or in a rut, working there gives me a kick start. Even as a student volunteer I’m helping the staff help people. It’s a great experience!”
During her first semester at Rhodes she approached Cafiero about working in his lab. He awarded her a two credit-hour apprenticeship in the spring semester, then came the prize.
“I got my own project in the summer!”
Cafiero’s lab is part of the Mercury Consortium through which several institutions pool their resources to fund a “super computer” in New York.
“The first two weeks he worked with me intensively, delivering one-on-one, in-depth lectures to get me up to speed. I learned so much,” Carter says.
Now she’s working with acetylcholine binding protein’s substrates—nicotine, cocaine, morphine, galantamine—mapping the electrical structure of the binding site, working toward designing novel drugs to treat Alzheimer’s disease.
Carter presented a poster at the Mercury Consortium conference in Syracuse at the end of the summer. “I was really nervous but it was a great experience. Since then I’ve presented at other conferences where many of the attendees are Ph.D.s. Some of them attack your research. Others give you great ideas.”
Now she’s lifeguarding at the Alburty Pool on the Rhodes campus and continuing her research project “for fun. It’s great being here in the summer,” she says. “The campus is quieter, tighter.”
She mentions a birthday party in the East Village lodge and hanging out with her roommates. But mostly it’s about her research project.
“If you’re wondering why I’m doing computational chemistry when I’m headed to medical school, it’s because I want to know how drugs work instead of just knowing what they do.”
Jake Groves ’12 felt the pull of community service but couldn’t find time for it during the academic year. His solution: apply to be a Summer Service fellow by participating in a nine-week summer program through which students work full time for specially chosen nonprofits. The process requires two essays and an interview. The staff, headed by Career Services director Sandi George Tracy, chooses 15 fellows from some 100 applicants.
Groves modeled his proposal on one previously completed by Lars Nelson ’09. He, Derek King ’10 and Hillary Relyea ’11 served as staff at the Memphis University School SLAM (Scholars Leaders Achievers of Memphis), which draws high-achieving middle school students from all over the city for an intensive academic experience. He was attracted to the program because he was considering a career in secondary education.
“It was like a test to see if I could make it as a teacher,” he says.
“While I really liked some aspects, I concluded that mine is not the best personality for teaching adolescents. It has to do with patience and an ability to go with the flow. I have a new respect for people who are teachers,” he says.
He has no regrets and has adjusted his career goals: first, a stint with an international nonprofit that deals with environmental issues, then graduate school, then a faculty position teaching Slavic studies in college.
“I learned so much from the kids, though. They were so happy to be there and so wise. We ate lunch with them and got into some pretty deep conversations. They weren’t too sophisticated, but they had a lot to say.” Besides interacting with the campers, Groves says he learned a great deal from the other fellows and the program staff.
“The Summer Service fellows met for five hours every week, and every other week Dean Robert Strandburg of the Rhodes Office of Undergraduate Research and Service would do a lecture. We learned about issues with public transportation and other big-picture issues about service. And we got to experience other people’s projects vicariously. It gave me a strong sense of the roller-coaster ride of nonprofit work.”
He also enjoyed the evenings on campus.
“I learned to shop for food and cook it,” he reports. “It was surprisingly easy, probably because it was an adventure, sharing chores with roommates.”
He admits to a sense of relief when the semester started.
“The Rat keeps me healthy and I love the variety. At the end of the summer I was pretty tired of rice, carrots, broccoli, beans and oatmeal. I’m here to tell you, you can miss Rat food!”
Groves speaks fondly of the Thursday pizza and a movie nights.
“Those evenings brought together all the different groups on campus and it was great. Some weeks there was a theme—race relations, public health or whatever. Other times it was just a fun movie.”
He also enjoyed biking to Cooper Young and hanging out at Otherlands and Java Cabana.
“Coffee shops are definitely my milieu,” he says.
Larkin Accinelli ’10 spent two summers on campus, trying to identify her primary passion. She had an affinity for math and science so she tried St. Jude Summer Plus first. The following year she worked in Biology professor Mary Miller’s lab.
“It was a fabulous experience,” she says. “Dr. Miller is so passionate about her research, and that is contagious. I was challenged and pushed beyond anything I had ever done. We accomplished more than I thought we could in three short months.”
On the other hand, “As much as I liked it and appreciate Professor Miller’s mentoring, I realized at the end that research is not how I want to spend my life. There’s a lot of value in that and I’m grateful for the opportunity to learn it early.”
She’s also grateful for her memories of those two summers on campus.
“Everybody in East Village propped their doors open and people drifted in and out. One night we would be in an intense, deep, nerdy conversation for six hours. The next night we would share Popsicles and sing. It was great!”
She recalls training for a marathon with a friend and jumping into the pool at the end of a run: “We would walk back to East Village in our soaking wet clothes. It felt so good!”
Other favorite memories are of walking to local restaurants, roller boarding and skating on the River Walk, and biking to the Memphis Farmers Market where she would play with the puppies from the Humane Society before filling her backpack with fresh food and pedaling back to campus.
One of the reasons Accinelli concluded that research was too abstract for her was that she was still in the thrall of the chaplaincy internship she had done the previous spring.
“I was terrified going in, thinking I would be expected to lead religious discussions, but it wasn’t like that at all. Professor Craig Jordan in Religious Studies taught us about active listening, being a healing presence. We would write up our experiences and present them to others in the class. It was a safe place to process, to learn from our experiences and those of others as well.” Accinelli was so moved, she signed up for Jordan’s Pain, Suffering and Death class the following fall, then worked in the end-of-life care unit at St. Jude. Now she’s at Emory on a fellowship to work toward a Ph.D. in nursing and a master’s in medical ethics.
“I believe that by 2015, doctoral nurses will be the primary care providers and I want to work with families who are facing difficult chronic illnesses. I want to be very patient focused. I learned through my experiences at Rhodes that if you focus on curing the illness, you forget about treating the patient. I think that knowledge will make me a much better health care provider.”
Lindsey Bierle’s ’12 experience in Mary Miller’s lab was the mirror image of Accinelli’s. She came to Rhodes focused on medical school. It just made sense. Her dad is a physician, she went to a math and sciences high school, she loves biology. Now she’s considering the M.D. Ph.D. route.
“Professor Miller taught the genetics section of my intro Biology class. I enjoyed it because I understood her. She was very approachable. I told her I wanted to join her lab. She said, ‘Wait until summer. That’s the best time to learn.’”
Bierle and three upperclass students worked in Miller’s lab the summer after her first year.
“They were like my older siblings,” she says.
And she’s never left.
“Everyone in the sciences knows that Professor Miller’s lab is my haven,” she says. “It’s very much a part of who I am.”
She’s glad she started in the summer because, “There’s a more relaxed atmosphere and more time to focus and concentrate.”
The steep learning curve was worth the effort.
“Research isn’t force-fed. You can’t regurgitate facts. You have to come up with theories and hypotheses. It’s frustrating and breathtaking. I’m doing things nobody has ever done before. It is so exciting to think that my contributions could be worthwhile.”
Even spending 40 hours a week in the lab, Bierle “saw a side of the campus you don’t see in the winter. There’s time to enjoy the architecture and sit on the Barret lawn. You have a chance to notice the little things.”
“I loved to go to the Farmers Market on Saturday morning, buy peaches and eat them on Mud Island. I can still see myself sitting by the river eating peaches.” Life in East Village was also fun.
“I lived with another researcher, a Summer Service fellow and a student living on campus, just because. I learned to cook and explored the restaurants. I played a lot of piano. It was great.”
Lauren Lieb ’10 has a way of making her own luck. A passionate lover of animals, she admits that Rhodes’ location across the street from the Memphis Zoo played into her college decision. And she’s taken full advantage of that stellar resource.
At the beginning of her junior year she applied for and received an internship working with penguins and she’s never really left. She’s worked with elephants, done panda nutritional research and helped identify the deadly chytrid fungus in amphibians. Not all of it was glamorous. In fact, she’s not attracted to the glamour. It’s all about helping animals.
Researching bamboo, the pandas’ favorite food, for example, involved tromping through research plots at Shelby Farms, which resulted in “a lot of mosquito and tick issues.” Perhaps the most grueling experience was last summer when Lieb was charged with identifying, tagging and plotting on a Geographic Information System (GIS) map every tree in the 172-acre, oldgrowth forest area of Overton Park that is slated to become the new Chickasaw Bluffs Exhibit.
Lieb describes it as “exhausting and rewarding.” The nature of her work made her experience of living on campus in the summer a little different. “I slept for fun,” she says. “But occasionally we would venture downtown to Beale Street for a concert or check out the South Main Arts District.”
Her experience also paid big dividends.
“I heard over the summer that the zoo would be getting baby bears for the new Teton Trek exhibit,” she says. “I spoke with Dr. Andy Kouba, the head of conservation and research at the zoo.”
She also spoke with Dr. Sarah Boyle in the Rhodes Biology Department, and the two agreed on a research project for Lieb.
So, with research partner Kelly Patton ’13, she spent her senior year observing the behaviors of five grizzly bear cubs—two from Alaska and three siblings that were sent to Memphis after their mother was killed in Yellowstone Park. The research is aimed at measuring any stress the animals suffered in their adjustment to captivity. She noted their behaviors every two minutes.
“It was really fun when they were swimming and playing,” she notes, “but there were just as many times when I got to stand there and watch them sleep for an hour. In the winter months, they did a lot of huddling together.”
The good news: “They seem just fine! I didn’t observe any stress at all. The Memphis Zoo is where I would want to be if I were a bear cub.”
Lieb, who’s headed for graduate school in some area of animal conservation after a year of animal rescue work back home in Ohio, says it’s important to recognize the zoos that are trying to save animals that wouldn’t have made it in the wild.
“The Memphis Zoo is doing a great job with their conservation program,” she declares.
Chassidy Groover ’10 had no intention of coming to Rhodes.
“I had never heard of it. I filled out the common application and picked my 21 schools. My mom added Rhodes after she came to Memphis on a business trip and visited the campus. She fell in love with it. When I got the Bonner Scholarship she said, ‘That’s it. You’re going to Rhodes.’”
Groover spent her first two summers fulfilling her Bonner service commitment. Since then, she has returned to her duties as a summer camp director at Upward Community Services in her hometown of Covington, LA. During the winter she volunteered at The Med. Chemistry professor Loretta Jackson-Hayes was always part of her cadre of mentors, serving both as academic adviser and as a member of Groover’s Bonner committee.
“Professor Jackson-Hayes was a constant. She saw my grades, she knew my strengths and weaknesses. She thought of things I had never thought of.”
One of the things Jackson-Hayes thought of was for Groover to join the lab she shared with Biology professor Terry Hill and Chemistry professor Darlene Loprete.
“Bonner gave me a peer group from the beginning and that was a blessing,” Groover says. “The research was an opportunity of a lifetime. I’ve had experiences undergraduates rarely get—three faculty mentors, just think of it!”
One summer, Groover worked with three other Rhodes students and four from historically black colleges or universities who were included in the National Science Foundation grant that funded the lab. The work seeks to discover how fungal cells work at their core, a subject about which little is known. The work is important in the development of antifungal drugs. “It’s microscopic but it could have a lot of implications,” Groover explains. “What we’re doing can help with targeted activity so the medication only kills what it’s intended to kill.”
She loved the challenge and the communal nature of the lab.
“We worked together all day and ate lunch together, so we got really close. Professor Loprete had us all over for a cookout on the Fourth of July. It was great.”
Groover also included the lab group in the activities she shared with her suitemates.
“We had them over for dinner a lot and invited them along when we hung out on weekends. There was lots going on. The Big Diehl (a recreational program managed by the Residence Life staff) got us tickets to Memphis Redbirds baseball games, we went to fireworks shows and concerts, the Overton Park Friday night jazz series in Levitt Shell. We used Google Maps to find Jerry’s Sno Cones. They’re different from New Orleans snowballs, but good! We had to have a schedule just to take advantage of all of it.”
At the end of the summer Jackson-Hayes pointed out that Groover has a talent for research that can be combined with her passion for service. So thanks to her mentor’s guidance, Groover is headed for graduate school in public health, possibly to be followed by medical school.
“My mom is so pleased that she was right about Rhodes, and she certainly was,” Groover says. “At Rhodes, if you’re interested in it, whether you know it or not, somebody will figure it out and connect you to it.”