Four Profiles

The English House Gazette opens its fall 2012 season with four profiles.

Syndey Espinosa, whose beat is science, profiles a Bryn Mawr biology professor who has had a life-long fascination with leeches.  Yes, leeches.

Tianyuan Zhang, whose beat is culture shock, offers a profile of Sharon Bain, a Russian teacher who grew up experiencing immersion in different cultures, both in America and overseas.

Ariel Kraakman, who covers public art, tells of a Bryn Mawr student who has joined an international movement to anonymously leave small hearts with inspirational messages in random places.

Ivy Gray-Klein, who is covering art and culture, offers a profile of Katy Otto, the drummer of a local group called Trophy Wife.

In Love With Leeches

A professor who likes leeches, despite the yuck factor.

By Sydney Espinosa

At Bryn Mawr College, deep within the infamous labyrinth of the Park Science building, a modern-day beast master tames his minions, looking on as his creatures vainly wriggle about in their watery prison.

Dr. Peter Brodfuehrer, a professor of Biology at Bryn Mawr, is this mustachioed Poseidon; and his mighty Leviathan? Leeches.

“It’s a versatile beast,” said Brodfuehrer. “It’s a hardy preparation that people can manipulate and look at different aspects of it, even when manipulations are pretty gross.”

He has been studying the nervous system of the leech—exploring how its neurons make it swim—since attending graduate school at the University of Virginia.

Yet, Brodfuehrer admits that the leech love ran cold while he was a Post Doc at Cornell University, but after coming to Bryn Mawr College in 1981, he rekindled his love with leeches and has never looked back.

“I decided to go back to the leech because there were some unanswered questions that came out of my thesis work that I didn’t pursue because I had finished the original,” he said, “but there was data that said here is another question or line of investigation.”

But what does Brodfuehrer find so important about a leech swimming around in a bucket?

His latest research looks at the neuron’s glutamate receptors, which are important in the leech’s nervous system for sending the specific signals for swimming through the nervous system. Glutamate is essential in almost all animals, including humans, for sending signals required for muscle movement.

“Rhythmic behaviors, for example, like swimming, walking, flying, things like that, most of them are episodic behaviors,” he explained. “They start, they go for a while, and then they stop…How do you actually turn on these behaviors? What are the neural mechanisms?”

While the research may not sound blockbuster exciting, his findings in leeches are surprisingly similar to what others have found in humans.

“There are a set of general principles that apply to how you get any system to produce any rhythmic behavior,” he explained, “like, how do you walk? What neural circuits allow you to alternate the movement of your legs? That’s a rhythmic motor pattern.”

Continue reading

From Russia With Love

How Bryn Mawr’s Sharon Bain learned about culture shock

By Tianyuan Zhang

Sharon Bain never expected she would be shocked by her own native culture.

On December 23rd, 1991, Bain returned to America from Russia, where the Communist regime was about to collapse. She went grocery shopping for the first time in four months. As she wandered down the aisle of laundry detergents, surrounded by different brands of detergents for different machines with different scents, Bain was surprised and completely lost. She stood there, indecisively, until her mother came, grabbed a box of detergent and took her home.

“In Russia, you were happy if you could find a bag of sugar,” said Bain, “But in America, not only were the stores filled with things you really needed, but also with things that nobody needed.”

Bain started wondering why culture shock happened and how the differences between two cultures reconciled. Seventeen years later, as a lecturer in Russian department at Bryn Mawr College, she has designed a writing seminar called “Culture Shock,” which focuses on the understanding of stories about people entering new cultures.

“Culture shock is a constant process of assessment and diagnosis,” she said. “I like sharing my experiences of navigating new cultures and the way which helps me become the person I am.”

Bain’s exposure to culture shock started as early as when she was six months old, when her family moved from Virginia to south California.

“I grew up in that casual culture,” she said, “I called my friends’ parents by their first names.”

At age 12, she moved to South Carolina, the conservative “Bible Belt.” There she had her first taste of culture shock. While enjoying the southern hospitality, Bain learned the importance of respect, addressing people as

Sharon Bain at the whiteboard

“Mister” or “Missus” and saying “yes, Sir” instead of simply “yes.”

Four years later, Bain moved to Pennsylvania, where she described as a “more reserved” place. Different from the cordial South, said Bain, friendships in the Northeast took more time to form.

Bain said her early experience of seeing things she liked and disliked around the country indirectly influenced her future interest in Russian and other cultures.

It was during the Cold War when Bain decided to learn Russian.

She just came to the Philadelphia area.

“I was the new kid. I was already odd, so why not?” Bain joked about her decision, “but Russian also interests me.”

Her interest came from her doubt in what she saw in the media. Russians were always the evil guys on the screens, Bain said. She figured there must be more than that.

“It’s not possible that all Russians are bad,” said Bain, “I wanted to find out the truth.”

She finished a B.A. in Russian studies at University of Delaware, got her M.A. at Bryn Mawr College in 1998, taught Russian at University of Delaware from 2002 to 2004, and has worked at Bryn Mawr College since 2004, after she finished her Ph.D. Continue reading

The Queen of (Hidden) Hearts

A student campaigns to add joy to people’s lives

By Ariel Kraakman

Piper Martz puts her heart into everything she does. A social Bryn Mawr College freshman with long brown hair, clear blue eyes and a ready smile, she is a college’s dream of “well-rounded”. In her profile on she describes herself as “a right-brain, left-brain type of person…creativity surges out of me and flows into everything I do.” She’s a researcher, a soccer player, a photographer, and ran for class president. Learn more about her, however, and you’ll realize that her heart is literally everywhere–or should we say, her hearts.

Perhaps you are in a dark corner of a library basement looking through old books. You open a dust-covered volume at random, and out falls a red cardboard heart. Something special is written on it. Piper has been here, and she has been hoping for this moment.

Piper Martz is one of perhaps hundreds of people around the globe who leave messages on cardboard hearts as part of the Little Red Heart Project, an American-based initiative started by two girls. Or so Piper thinks. “There’s no time frame on when it started, or how long it’s been going,” she said one Friday night. “And I don’t even think…the creators take credit. I think it might be more anonymous…which is clever.”  She was sitting on a cozy couche in a well-lit common room. The easy flow of  conversation seemed to take its own form in the cascade of waist length hair spilling over her fine green scarf and down her long tie-dyed dress.

A Hopeful Message

“You create a little red heart that’s painted red or sharpied red,” she explained, “and you-you leave a piece of your heart behind, in random places. And you write a secret, or someone else’s secret, or a thought, or quote…there’s something very exhilarating about leaving part of you behind.” Piper decorates her hearts with uplifting quotes, hoping that people will find them and make hearts themselves.

The project had become a small international sensation by the time Piper heard about it. She recalls enthusiastically how, after reading about it online, she immediately “wanted to get my hands dirty and start crafting.” These days Piper often takes a stash of hearts with her wherever she goes. She leaves them around campus, in shoes at the mall, on train seats, and in between candy bars at the store, to name a few locales. “Art can carry such a powerful message and…for me…happiness is so contagious,” she said. “And I like to-I don’t know-to inflict that on people as often as possible.” Continue reading

The Life and Times of Trophy Wife

All Katy Otto wants to do is to bang the drum all day

By Ivy Gray-Klein

Katy Otto’s blonde hair flies around her face as she sways to music in a cramped room near Spring Garden St. But unlike the crowd, she isn’t dancing. She’s drumming.

Between performing with her band, Trophy Wife, and running Exotic Fever Records, Otto has become a mainstay of Philadelphia’s independent music scene.

Originally from the Washington D.C. area, Otto left two years ago after noticing a decline in the creative community.

“A lot of people had moved to New York or to the West Coast and I wanted to be in a place that felt like it had a lot going on artistically,” she said. “Everything that I experience with Philly is the perfect blend.”

Otto’s involvement with music began as an adolescent. At 17 she picked up her first set of drumsticks after seeing legendary grunge band Hole at Lollapalooza in 1995.

“It changed my life,” said Otto. “I saw [Patty Schemel] play drums and I was convinced it was the most powerful and beautiful thing I had ever seen a woman do in my life. I’d seen other bands, but something about her was just magic to me.”

As a young woman learning an instrument dominated by men, Otto found encouragement from her teacher. He introduced her to world-renowned female percussionists, like Evelyn Glennie and Susie Ibarra.

Trophy Wife. Diane Foglizzo (left) & Katy Otto

While still in high school, Otto formed her first band, Bald Rapunzel.

“It was kind of a band name that you’d give when you’re a teenager [laughs],” said Otto. “I don’t think I’d quite name a band that now.”

Otto and Bonnie Schlegel, her Bald Rapunzel bandmate, started Exotic Fever Records in 2000. Both inexperienced in music distribution, Otto and Schlegel taught themselves as they went along. Exotic Fever has released over 40 records in 12 years.

“It’s a different landscape now because of digital distribution of music. It makes it a little tricky to know how to put out stuff,” said Otto. “I still put out records when I think a band will support it. You just can’t really afford to put money into someone else’s project and then they break up. I end up sitting there with tons of extra records that just don’t go anywhere.”

While the immediacy of digital music has its benefits, Otto still laments the disappearing mail order culture.

“This morning a person from Portland ordered a record. It’s always exciting to me, but I used to get several of those emails a week,” said Otto. “I know it’s because we do digital distrubtion that people buy the record that way, too. But I miss pouring through a catalog. It’s changed a lot since I started doing stuff.” Continue reading