Face Shields from Scratch

When Jonathan Rebelsky ’20 and Sage Kapland-Goland ’20 learned about an effort to support local hospitals by using 3D printers to create face shields, they sprang into action. They found an open-source face shield plan, connected with Erik Sanning ’89, technical director in the Department of Theatre and Dance, and got to work.

Using a pair of 3D printers, including one typically used to build props, they honed a process for the delicate, time-consuming tasks and have completed dozens of shields. (A single shield, which consists of two distinct pieces, takes more than five hours to print.)

“I am lucky to have both the tools and skills to print the parts,” says Sanning. “I’m pleased that, in at least some small way, I’m able to contribute to the safety of those who are really doing the hard, dangerous work.”

Rebelsky agrees. “I’m glad that I can do something to help make the situation better,” he says.

Have you used your skills to help others during the pandemic? Tell us about it.

Nightly Piano Bar Show Takes Off Online

Jon Richardson ’10 has been a full-time performer since graduating from New England Conservatory in 2017. But the weekly piano bar shows that were his bread and butter vanished as COVID-19 accelerated.

His solution? Creating a nightly virtual piano bar on Facebook and Instagram. The lively events have drawn thousands of regular viewers. The interest has been so high that he’s brought in a partner to manage it. New artists have joined the roster to help maintain the schedule.

While there are challenges to the format (“It’s really tough to get used to finishing a song and not hearing applause,” he admits), he says he’s learning at a breakneck speed — and hopes his performances may just be a bright spot in someone’s day. “Music is a therapeutic treatment during this difficult time,” he says.

To learn more, search for “Jon Richardson Music” on Facebook.

A Transformation for an Event Space

Like many other businesses, the Central Collective, an event space in Knoxville, Tennessee, closed its doors in mid-March. But co-founder Dale Mackey ’07 has worked hard to fulfill its mission in different ways during the pause.

Instead of its regular “Good Sport Night” — a mystery event that encourages people to “be ready for anything,” Mackey sold a “Good Sport Box.” Buyers received an array of art and goods made in Knoxville. She’s also hosted a successful virtual art reception on Instagram Live, with a portion of the proceeds going to local relief efforts.

Mackey says that while the events don’t come close to replacing the income the space had during normal business, she’s proud of the work the organization has been able to do. “Seeing people banding together, helping to support each other, and finding new and innovative ways to stay afloat has been really inspiring to me,” she says. “[We’ve tried to] provide a little light during a very dark time.”

If you’ve made a surprising adaptation as a result of the pandemic, we want to hear your story.

Artist Creates Team of "Social Distancing All-Stars"

For graphic facilitator Brandy Agerbeck ’96, the pandemic has taken a brutal toll on her business. Her spring teaching tour in Europe was postponed, and her live workshops are on hold.

If there is any silver lining, it is the clarity with which she sees her role in this moment. “I’m turning to the same tool I teach,” she says. “Drawing.”

That sense of purpose led her to create a series of mascots that she calls the Social Distancing All-Stars. The lighthearted cartoon animals — from “Shelter in Place Turtles” to “Frontline Fighters” — are sold on T-shirts, mugs, and stickers.

Agerbeck says the response has been positive. “Folks get relief from humor,” she says. “There’s the fun of picking your team and feeling more of a sense of teamwork, even in isolation.”

See all of Agerbeck’s “Social Distancing All-Stars.”

Nurse Cares for Vulnerable People During the Pandemic

As a registered nurse at Minnesota Community Care, Mira Miller ’94 provides a range of care to low-income and homeless adults. A critical job during normal times, her work has become even more important during the pandemic. “Homeless patients have no homes in which to shelter in place,” she says.

Miller follows a range of new protocols to help keep her and her patients safe, including working in an outdoor tent that is erected and deconstructed daily — a challenge in Minnesota’s chilly spring temperatures — and limiting work to essential services. Those services include screening and testing for COVID-19.

While Miller says the job has gotten more challenging, she and her team are as committed as ever to their work. “We are a provider of last resort for our patients, pandemic or not,” she says. “We keep showing up to deliver the best care we can to our vulnerable patients.”

How has your work changed as a result of the pandemic? Share your story.

An Illustrated History

In her search for an interesting research topic related to Asian American history, Sam Nakahira ’19 found her attention snagged by one compelling detail. “The first frost-resistant orange was hybridized by a Chinese American farmer in Florida,” she says. She was instantly intrigued, “because that really isn't part of the narrative of what we think of American agriculture.”

Nakahira discovered that although Asian Americans have made significant contributions to American agriculture, they haven’t really been recognized for their accomplishments. Since most research had been done on the period before World War II, she decided to focus on Japanese American farmers and food retailers in California from the 1970s to the present.

Her research project was the culmination of her Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship (MMUF). As a second-year student, Nakahira was invited to participate in the MMUF program at Grinnell (see related story, Page 16). A major part of the program is for each fellow to conduct a significant research project under the mentorship of a faculty member. Nakahira, who is fifth-generation Japanese American, chose Sarah Purcell ’92, L.F. Parker Professor of History, as her Mellon adviser (see related story, Page 22).

In addition to being an excellent history student, Nakahira is a skilled illustrator. Turning her research paper into a comic was a natural next step.

She decided to focus on one case study from her research, Bill Fujimoto, a Berkeley food retailer. “He was the first person to source Alice Waters, who is a chef at Chez Panisse,” Nakahira says. “People credit her for sparking California cuisine during the 1970s and through that, impacting local farm to table movements.”

In the comic, Nakahira asks herself and the reader questions about Japanese culture and its influence on Bill Fujimoto. She doesn’t explicitly answer the questions, instead guiding the reader to see her point, “but not forcing it over them,” she says.

Incorporating Japanese culture in her comic, especially the Japanese work ethic, also helped Nakahira see herself differently. “I gained more pride in my heritage and background,” she says. By sharing her own quest for learning, she thinks it adds resonance for her readers and makes them more invested.

“I think that direction was really helpful in creating this story,” Nakahira says. “It was suggested by my adviser, Professor Jeremy Chen.” Chen is a member of the studio art faculty and specializes in printmaking, drawing, and sculpture.

The two worked together throughout the 2018–19 school year (a two-credit independent study in the fall and a Mentored Advanced Project in the spring). During the fall semester, Nakahira created the story, and in the spring, she experimented with different art techniques.

Last fall she began a master of fine arts program at the Center for Cartoon Studies in Vermont. See her illustrations at her website. She’s considering going on for a doctorate in American studies. Whatever she does, her hard work at Grinnell has prepared her quite nicely.

How to Overcome Your Resistance to Change

When English major Deborah Helsing ’88 initially arrived at Grinnell College, she felt incredibly out of place. “It was a very different culture than what I had grown up in,” she says.

Helsing had come from a pretty homogenous environment, and Grinnell, she says, “was so open to experimentation and had all kinds of people who claimed diverse kinds of identity and difference, that it was shocking to my system.”

Ultimately, Helsing says it was “powerful” attending school with students so open to defying traditional ways of thinking. Even late professor Peter Connelly’s unconventional teaching of Oedipus Rex in her First-Year Tutorial opened her eyes to new literary ideas.

It has been in that “transformative” spirit that she has approached her job as a lecturer at Harvard University Graduate School of Education and as co-director of Minds at Work, where she coaches education, business, finance, and nonprofit leaders to diagnose and overcome their resistance to change.

“Often there is something deeper involved when we find ourselves unable to confront a crisis. Our work helps people identify the underlying barriers and unconscious beliefs that we have about ourselves or the world that keep us from being able to make change or grow,” Helsing says.

The coaching that Helsing provides, which grew out of theories of adult development and learning, helps people see more clearly the obstacles in their work and personal lives and why they might struggle to face these challenges. Helsing’s coaching helps to serve as a change-agent for leadership at organizations experiencing pressure to evolve.

Her work can also help people with individual problems, such as trying to lose weight, quitting smoking, or stopping procrastination. But it can also be vital when identifying fundamental cultural beliefs and values related to important and uncomfortable issues like, for example, race in America.

“Our approach helps people begin to explore those core beliefs, where they come from, and how are they impacting their life right now,” she says. “We might ask people to do things like imagine that you find out these beliefs aren’t true. What would your life be like? What could you do? How would you think differently? How did you feel differently? When do you notice that your assumptions are operating?”

It was at Grinnell that Helsing first learned the importance of being able to deeply examine your core beliefs in order to be able to grow and flourish.

“It was fundamentally jarring to have these conversations with people who approached an issue opposite than I did or saw the world completely differently,” she says. “Being able to have a really open conversation with them taught me how considering another perspective can lead to growth.”

Three Strikes and You’re … in Business

“There are more soccer clubs in the world than there are people who have ever played major league baseball,” says Sean Forman ’94. As president of Sports Reference, a collection of online sports data encyclopedias that includes baseball, football, basketball, hockey, and soccer, he ought to know.

Yet Forman’s path to an innovative business in sports analytics was not exactly a straight line. Growing up in Manning, Iowa, where his dad was the football coach, Forman helped compile the summary stats after games and wrote sports stories for his local paper.

At Grinnell he was a serious fantasy baseball player and a math major. Forman figured he could either be a teacher or an engineer, so he pursued a 3-2 engineering program. A semester shy of completing his second bachelor’s degree, he realized it wasn’t the right field for him. With the flexibility and nimbleness typical of Grinnellians, Forman changed course and earned a doctorate in applied math at the University of Iowa.

But baseball was still an important part of his world. “My last year at Iowa I was supposed to be doing my dissertation,” Forman says. “I created a baseball reference instead.”

Forman worked on the baseball website on the side, even after he landed a tenure-track job at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. In the mid-2000s, he realized he wanted to do the website full time. But he didn’t have tenure yet, and taking a leave of absence to work on a baseball website could endanger that. So he waited.

In 2006, after securing tenure, Forman took a leave of absence and dove full time into the world of sports data and analytics. “By that point I was making enough money that it did not seem like a completely insane decision,” he says.

Forman and his 10 employees continued to add features and content. About a year before the 2019 Women’s World Cup, he wanted to create the first comprehensive, online data collection of women’s soccer statistics.

Forman teamed up with Xavier Escandell, associate professor of anthropology and director of the Data Analysis and Social Inquiry Lab (DASIL) at Grinnell. Forman and Escandell, along with DASIL student mentors LaAnna Farnelli ’20, Anshul Tambay ’20, and Daniel Cook ’19, as well as Katherine Walden, digital liberal arts specialist, and Jarren Santos ’17, data scientist, crafted a plan to create a database of Women’s World Cup data since its beginning in 1991.

The students worked with the data “in a real, tangible way,” Forman says, that let them learn useful tools. “I’ve always found actually trying to do something is the best way to learn it.”

Start with a Parent-Approved, Sensible Major

When Vivek Venugopal ’01 came to Grinnell, he never anticipated that he would fall in love with everything about the College, the town, and the people. He certainly didn’t anticipate that his sensible computer science degree would lead him down a path that culminated (for now) in a career in improv comedy.

It was the intellectual curiosity that he developed at Grinnell that led Venugopal to the spotlight and performing improv as a part of his job at Speechless, a San Francisco-based company that uses the comedic tool to help train people to become more comfortable with public speaking.

“I just constantly want to learn more,” he says. “That’s what the liberal arts education at Grinnell gave me — this thirst to learn new things. My favorite computer science prof and adviser, Sam Rebelsky, always said I’d learn much more than simply how to code at Grinnell.”

His path to Speechless was not exactly a direct one. In his time at Grinnell he poured himself into everything under the sun — the Student Government Association, Grinnell Singers, Con Brio, KDIC, student affairs, dining hall, intramural sports — everything, it seems, except improv.

Then after graduating, he moved to Chicago and became roommates with fellow Grinnell alum Kumail Nanjiani ’01. “It was right after 9/11 and we were worried we wouldn’t find jobs,” Venugopal says. “We were two brown immigrants, and it was a scary environment to be in.”

But though he was lucky to find a job through Grinnell alumni as a software developer in Chicago, Venugopal says he decided to take his career in a different direction and went into nonprofit fundraising because he wanted a job that had true social impact. That career moved him to San Francisco where he eventually jumped back into tech, into a startup acquired by LinkedIn in 2014.

Now he works as Speechless’ director of revenue, masterminding the company’s sales and marketing strategy. “It’s a tremendously impactful job,” Venugopal says. “We do a lot of work with women, minorities, and underrepresented, marginalized people. We give them the tools to amplify their authentic voices in spaces where they aren’t always listened to.”

Venugopal was initially attracted to the company after attending some of its open-mic sessions, which featured comedians delivering improvised talks based on slides they had never seen. That led to a love of all things improv and that passion led to him working with the company and creating his own musical improv show, American Immigrants.

“I’ve always felt that my superpower is my ability to give a coherent talk about any topic, to any group of people,” he says.

“Now I get paid to use that superpower to help people. I am incredibly lucky.”

Preserving the College's History

Chris Jones, Archivist of the CollegeChris Jones, special collections librarian and archivist of the College, stumbled into archival work while working in the rare books collection as a student at the University of Illinois, but he has since found a home in the basement of Burling Library, where he oversees a collection of more than 10,000 volumes. Within the collection lies the meaningful history of the College, as seen through institutional documents, photographs, letters, and other artifacts. But those items are just the tip of the iceberg for Jones, as he works to preserve the stories from Grinnell’s past and ensure their longevity for future generations.

Ben Binversie ’17 ventured down into the Burling Library basement to talk with Jones about his work.

BB: How do you collect the current happenings and publications at the College?

CJ: We use what’s referred to as a sampling plan. So, we don’t try to necessarily collect every single document that has ever been printed on a College printer, but we do try to collect enough about each event or lecture held on campus to give a future researcher an idea of why it might have been important. We try to capture as many of the student-led activities as possible and hope that it’s good enough.

Do you have any favorite moments in Grinnell’s history that you’ve learned about through the archives?

The [1971] takeover of Burling Library by the Concerned Black Students (CBS) was a big deal. Very few people understand that at the time that that happened, the College administrative offices were located in Burling basement. They chained themselves inside the building that housed the administrative offices so that the administrators had to listen to them.

How do you interact with alumni through the archives?

During Reunion, Allison Haack, library assistant, and I have set up a table for alumni to look through photos and help identify the people, places, and events depicted. It’s been great for us, and the alumni enjoy seeing the old photos and contributing to our work. Digital Grinnell and The Scarlet & Black online archive are great resources for alumni to view pictures or information from their time on campus.

What are some of your favorite highlights of the collection?

Our two oldest printed books were both printed in 1477. One of them weighs in at a solid 9.5 pounds, and the front and back covers are both made out of wood. That one will be around for a long time. I also really like the Salvador Dali-illustrated Alice in Wonderland. That’s pretty trippy.

Are there any new projects on the horizon?

The College recently negotiated with Salisbury House in Des Moines to purchase approximately 3,000 volumes and 2,500 documents from that collection, including a couple of books printed between 1400 and 1500, medieval manuscripts, and first editions of Sinclair Lewis, among other treasures [See Page 6]. In anticipation of acquiring the collection, we installed compact shelving in the vaults so we could have space to house all of it. Previously, our collection included around 10,000 volumes in the archives, and the new shelving created space for the additional volumes from the Salisbury House library collection.

If you have questions with which the archives might be able to assist, Jones encourages you to contact him. He is happy to take phone calls, 641-269-3364, or emails joneschr[at]grinnell[dot]edu, but the archivist in him really appreciates a good old-fashioned handwritten letter, so that’s an option, too.

To hear the full interview with Jones, see Season 2 of the podcast All Things Grinnell at or wherever you listen to podcasts.