Observations of the Invisible


Dr. Robin Nagle writes that her research “unfolds along the curbs, edges, and purposely forgotten quarters” of society.

Nagle, nicknamed Dr. Garbage, is a clinical associate professor of anthropology and urban studies at New York University and the anthropologist-in-residence at the Department of Sanitation in New York City.

You see, she studies the Big Apple’s garbage collectors, perhaps the most overlooked and underappreciated sectors of organized society.  A city can’t run efficiently without the proper removal of its refuse.  And most of us don’t take note until our own trash piles up along the curb.

Nagle presented her lecture, “Labors of Waste and the Value of Knowledge,” to Baxter Hall Monday, hoping to shed some light on the humanity that accomplishes the feat with nary a pat on the back.

Dr. Robin Nagle (right), after presenting her lecture “Labors of Waste and the Value of Knowledge,” on Oct. 29, 2013, in Baxter Hall.

She presents compelling research in a conversational tone that brings some of the san men to life.  In order to tell that story more completely, Nagle passed the necessary tests and became an NYC Department of Sanitation employee, embedding herself in unit and earning the trust of the lifers within.

The invisibility afforded to garbage collectors isn’t unlike that of most support staff members of any institution, who toil for recognition every now and again, but are absolutely responsible for keeping the organization humming along smoothly.

“At first, it (the invisibility) made me mad, but then I also realized it was a tremendous privilege,” Nagle said. “If you are three feet from me and you are completely ignoring me, then I can watch you unfiltered.  I can just watch.

“The street becomes a kind of theater and you are the inadvertent audience,” she continued.  “A lot of sanitation workers feel that way, like ‘I’m fine being invisible,’ because there is a perk to that.  You are the fly on the wall.”

It’s a bonus to an anthropologist – trained or amateur – to get such unfiltered access.  In other words, to know what it’s like behind the scenes.  Few understand the rhythms of an institution like those who pick up after it.

So how do the essential and the invisible find a balance?

“That’s a big question about how we as a culture value or ignore certain aspects of life,” said Nagle.  “The whole issue of maintenance generally is one of those.  Think about the maintenance staff of this place.  Who knows their names or thanks them?  Some do, but most don’t, and that’s just a cultural habit.”

As the last of nearly 50 in attendance to leave Baxter Hall, I noticed that there were some empty pizza boxes left on the floor for someone else to pick up.

I suppose some habits are hard to break.

Soller ’12 Hits Goal to Bring Students for Visit

Jeff Soller’s Senior Advisory group.

Howard W. Hewitt – The power of social media and the tenacity of a young Wabash alum has been a great story throughout the summer and fall.

Jeff Soller ’12, a Lambda Chi, campus leader, and now a Teach for America participant in Houston, Texas, will be bringing four high school seniors to visit campus thanks to the generosity of more than 50 supporters. Soller used an online fund-raising website to generate $1800 to bring students to Wabash. The students are part of his advisory group.

Jeff Soller ’12

“I have 12 senior male students that I mentor throughout their time at the school,” Soller explained. “Last year, when they were juniors, I told them about Wabash, what it did for me, and what makes it a special place. It is unlike any school they had been exposed to during their time, and they were intrigued. One of my former students, Alex Reyna, is a current freshman at Wabash this year, and once my boys heard of Alex’s success, they were interested to go on a visit.

“I wanted to offer my students an opportunity to visit a school that would push their thinking about what their 4 years of college needs to be. I asked my advisees to heavily consider their interest in the College and think about whether they are truly interested or not. The result of those conversations was having 4 young men tell me they wanted to visit and apply.”

But it’s a long way from Texas to Crawfordsville so Soller turned to the web and social media. He got a lot of Wabash help along the way.

“A few proud alums were extremely instrumental in our effort. Greg Castanias ‘87 and Greg Estell ’85 were excellent advocates through social media, reaching out to their personal networks in support of the project. Also, Jeremy Wentzel ’14 was a great advocate for the project as a voice among the current student body. The Alumni Affairs office was happy to help and helped maintain the flow of donations through the summer, thanks to the help of Seton Goddard ‘14. My fraternity brothers, from multiple generations, were a huge help in creating buzz about the project.”

It all started with a $15 donation in May and ended Oct. 15 with an $85 donation from Greg Estell – honoring his class year and getting Soller to his $1,800 goal. The money came from 51 donors, including alumni and friends of the college. The fundraising page was shared on Facebook more than 1,000 times. The donation page had 650 visits in the short time frame. Alumni donors ranged from the class of 1955 to 2015.

“I have truly been blown away by the support of friends of mine, and friends of the College,” Soller wrote. “A large reason why I attended Wabash was because of the loyalty I saw from alumni, and I now have been able to tap into that resource and hopefully change the lives of students of mine.”

Soller and the students will be on campus Nov. 7-9.

Big Step in Understanding Chemistry

Richard Paige – Maybe it was the Nobel Prize, or my wanting to become a bit more familiar with things here on campus in what is week three for me at Wabash.  Perhaps it was the lure of free pizza.

No matter the reason, I swallowed hard, and climbed the stairs to Hays 319 for what was to be my first science lecture in a quarter century.

I was curious, and isn’t that half the battle?

West Virginia University’s Dr. Blake Mertz was giving a noontime talk on computational chemistry entitled, “Novel PIP2 Lipid Binding to Focal Adhesion Kinase Probed Through Coarse-Grained Molecular Dynamics Simulations.”

Computational chemistry is a branch of the science that uses the computer to help predict how molecules interact, which can be essential to understanding the nature of diseases and the production of medicine.

Last week, three scientists – Martin Karplus, Michael Levitt and Arieh Warshel – shared the Nobel Prize for chemistry with pioneering work in this area, much of it dating back to the early 1970s.

“That (the Nobel Prize) is pretty amazing based on what others with their ideas,” said Dr. Scott Feller, the Howell Professor of Chemistry.  They developed a new approach to chemistry.”

Feller continued by saying that the average person just wants science to come up with a cure for cancer so to speak, but that Karplus, Levitt and Warshel, “enabled others to find that cure with a new way to think about and study a problem.”

Mertz’s talk opened with some basics, that amino acids are the building blocks of proteins.  Check. I remember that from way back when. And much of what was discussed today, i.e. molecular dynamics, would be based on Newton’s second law of motion (F=ma).  Check.  I remember that, too.

From that point, much of what was discussed went clear over my head.  The simple thought is that one still needs to understand the theory behind the problem, how the forces change in an experiment, before all is plugged into the computer and the results are produced.

Before all of this can happen, four questions need to be answered:

1.)    Can I answer my question using simulation?  The simpler the question, the more likely that this is the case.

2.)    What is the timescale of what I want to observe?

3.)    How accurate does my model need to be?

4.)    Do I have a computer that can handle the calculations?

What I found as interesting was the fact that as these computer simulations become more powerful, there remains the potential that such simulations could render traditional experiments obsolete.

“I think eventually we’ll find a happy medium,” said Mertz.  “There is still huge bias toward experimental results in the scientific community, like ‘If I can’t see it, then I’m not going to believe it.’

“Certainly, these are questions that need to be answered,” he continued.  “The benefit of doing simulations is that you can really look at things on an atomic level.  Experimentalists are trying to get to that level where they can see atoms, but that level is so small that you can’t answer those questions with an experiment.  Ultimately, I think that computational chemistry is another tool for us to use.  What separates the men from the boys in the lab is how judiciously you use them.”

Now that’s language that I can understand.

Paige Joins Communications Team

Richard Paige has joined the Wabash College communications and marketing department as the associate director.

Richard Page

Paige comes to Wabash after 13 years at the University of Arizona, where he served as the associate director of athletic communications.   His primary responsibility was to manage all media-related activities for Arizona’s nationally ranked men’s basketball program, including all coaching staff and student-athlete interviews, press releases and web content, and credential distribution.

He also assisted in the supervision of the department’s daily activities, which included oversight of four full-time professional staff and 10 student assistants. Paige was also responsible for the coordination and implementation of all media relations policies and procedures throughout the athletic department, including copyright protections, social media policies, long-term solutions for video and photographic archival storage, and the presentation of on-line content.

In a career spanning more than two decades, Paige regularly served as a media relations agent at various conference and national-championship events, including the 2001 NCAA Final Four. He has been honored by the College Sports Information Directors of America with multiple awards for both writing and publication design.

Paige, and his wife Lydia Bell, reside in Indianapolis.  He has two children, Jake (12) and Cora (14 mos.).