It was almost their final act.
To conclude the second semester on May 16 and 18 — just before a graduation-week gala that included a presidential diploma ceremony, a farewell dinner, and an outing to Fenway Park — each of the 10 fellows in KSJ’s Class of 2016-17 gave a half-hour “Showcase” presentation of highlights from the year in Cambridge. And the final showcase was a one-act play.
Titled “The Fellows Are Due on Ames Street,” it was Mark Wolverton’s “Twilight Zone” take on the fellowship year, a surreal travelogue through the corridors of MIT and Harvard — with stops on Boston’s T and on Election Night (talk about surreal), advice from professors and from every fellow, and frequent visits from a Monster embodying Mark’s book deadline. (In the role of the Monster, the scenery-chewing Sally Deneen brought down the house.)
You can watch Mark’s play here. And while it may have been the most uproarious showcase offering, the other nine were just as distinctive. Robert McClure cooked and served medieval food — spiced meatballs and “wardonys in syrup” (pears poached in spiced red wine). The recipes arose from an MIT history course he’d found via typical KSJ serendipity: He met the instructor while doing “vox pop” interviews for Ibby Caputo’s audio workshop early in the first semester.
There were videos and photo essays. During a KSJ statistics workshop between semesters, Fabio Turone grew fascinated by the work of an instructor with profound hearing loss who teaches statistics at Gallaudet University; that fascination led to a documentary about developing sign language for teaching statistical concepts to the deaf. Another documentary grew out of a chance encounter between Rosalia Omungo and Bouba Diemé, a young man she met in a global development course at the Harvard Kennedy School. She wanted to know what he was carrying around in the large box slung from his shoulder; it turned out to be a machine that was keeping his heart pumping. Iván Carrillo spent two semesters researching and filming the story of Marisol Robles, a friend from Mexico with kidney failure who began keeping an online journal after a failed transplant operation. Ultimately, she received a successful transplant thanks to a pioneering global exchange system developed by a transplant surgeon and a Nobel Prize-winning economist. The resulting videos — Fabio’s “Statistics in 4D” (to be published in Undark), Rosalia’s “My Heart Mate,” and Iván’s “Journal of Thirst” — brought tears to at least one viewer’s eyes.
As did Bianca Vázquez Toness’s “Moth”-style narrative — developed for of a course in personal storytelling — about a New Delhi medical drama involving her 2-month-old son’s hospitalization for pneumonia. That drama ended happily; not so the story of another mother whom she met in the hospital, who lost a daughter to pneumonia. “Now he’s 19 months old, fat, and happy,” Bianca said of her son, “and I rock him every chance I get.”
Meera Subramanian, a book author who decided to stretch herself this year by taking courses in photojournalism and “short-attention-span documentaries,” showed two films: “The Prophetess of Roxbury Crossing,” a photo essay, with lyrical voiceover narration, about a 59-year-old “lady of God” juggling the demands of church, community, and an extended family; and “100 Days of Anger & Angels,” about a Cape Cod artist’s delightfully subversive venture into fake news, supermarket-tabloid division.
Chloé Hecketsweiler, another writer eager to branch out into photojournalism, arranged to spend a month embedded in a lab at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute where researchers are looking for ways to turn embryonic stem cells into the pancreatic cells that make insulin. The resulting photo essay was published in Undark. Among its lessons, she said, was a scientific truth “you won’t read in Nature”: that research has a human face, often blemished with “uncertainties and dead ends, silly mistakes and unknown errors.” But what shines through the essay is dedication; the experiments, one researcher told her, “are like our babies.”
Freed by the fellowship from the grind of covering the fine points of the Affordable Care Act and managing a constant tangle of wires as a multimedia journalist, Lauren M. Whaley delved deeply into a health-care story that gets too little attention: maternal mortality. With inspiration from the Harvard sociologist David Williams, who studies racism and health, and Gene Declercq, a B.U. professor of community health sciences who specializes in childbirth, she developed a strong case that the United States is falling far behind other advanced nations in safeguarding women — especially African-Americans — during pregnancy, childbirth, and early motherhood. As a coda to her sobering presentation, Lauren shared images from her months-long personal photography project documenting daily life in her son’s play-based preschool classroom.
Maura O’Connor’s second book is tentatively titled “Wayfinding: Mysteries of Navigation in the Age of GPS,” and she promised that by the time she was done, we’d think twice before ever again using a smartphone to get from Point A to Points B, C, and D. Promise kept: Maura’s research makes a convincing case that the ability to navigate is as integral to human functioning as memory itself — and that overreliance on gadgets like GPS might have diminishing effects on the small, seahorse-shaped organ called the hippocampus, essential in the formation of memory. A shrunken hippocampus, Maura warned, is associated not just with impaired spatial memory but with Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias. And that led her to several pieces of advice that could apply not only to hippocampal health but to life in general, and maybe even to a future class of KSJ fellows:
Try using a compass to orient yourself (Maura wears one on her wrist). Focus your powers of deduction on the natural world. All children — and adults, too? — need unmonitored free play outdoors. And finally: To build new cognitive maps, don’t be afraid of exploring new places.