Skip to main content area Skip to institutional navigation Skip to sub-navigation

Two National Science Foundation awardees talk about their lives at Colorado College

Spencer Williams '10 and Adrienne Wood '12

Adrienne Wood ‘12 was the psychology student who wouldn’t stop talking about embodied cognition or some other concept from her Social Cognition seminar, when her friends at lunch just wanted to chat about something else.  Likewise, Spencer Williams ‘10 was the physics and chemistry double major who’d stop professors in the hallway or organize meetings with them as he worked through his ideas about solar energy production.

Their intensity and curiosity paid off, as both received prestigious National Science Foundation fellowships this spring to pursue cutting-edge work in their fields, Wood in social psychology and Williams in materials science. Like the five other 2012 NSF awardees who graduated from Colorado College, Wood and Williams thrived on the Block Plan, where talks with professors became mini-seminars on ideas.

Show the long version of this story »

Full Story

Adrienne Wood ‘12 was the psychology student who wouldn’t stop talking about embodied cognition or some other concept from her Social Cognition seminar, when her friends at lunch just wanted to chat about something else.  Likewise, Spencer Williams ‘10 was the physics and chemistry double major who’d stop professors in the hallway or organize meetings with them as he worked through his ideas about solar energy production.

Their intensity and curiosity paid off, as both received prestigious National Science Foundation fellowships this spring to pursue cutting-edge work in their fields, Wood in social psychology and Williams in materials science. Like the five other 2012 NSF awardees who graduated from Colorado College, Wood and Williams thrived on the Block Plan, where talks with professors became mini-seminars on ideas.

“At a bigger place, I would have been running research but not developing my intellectual side,” says Wood, who did extensive research of her own. At CC, she notes, “there’s not as much [research lab] opportunity, but the opportunities you do get prepare you for independent research.”

Wood will use her NSF grant to pursue a doctorate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she’ll work in the Emotions Laboratory of Paula Niedenthal, a social psychologist and “affective scientist” who focuses on embodied emotion, or the way in which emotions are expressed physically and in the brain.

Wood’s advisor, Tomi-Ann Roberts, says Wood will be involved in cutting-edge, interdisciplinary research, an approach that has fascinated Wood since her first year.

“She wants to ask much bigger questions, questions that can be answered in an interdisciplinary way,” said Roberts, professor of psychology.  Wood, a “fantastic” student, is “gutsy,” Roberts said.

“One of the things I love about the Block Plan is that the students are game,” Roberts said.  “If I decide on a Tuesday that on Thursday we’ll form groups and make an i-movie out of something, they’ll do it.  There’s something about that kind of what-the-hell, game, gutsy quality.  They’re intellectually gutsy.” 

Wood, who is tall and smiles often — a sign of her “Midwestern” openness, she says — would like to change some aspects of the field of psychology.  An abnormal psychology course, and then a summer volunteering at a brain disease and injury rehabilitation facility, moved her to conclude that there is an “overemphasis on the problems of human functioning and interaction” and a tendency to medicate people even when their problems seemed produced by society. 

“It was at this point,” she wrote in her application for the fellowship, “that I stumbled upon the growing field of positive psychology.”

Positive psychology emphasizes well-being, strength of character, and a theory of hope, though Wood is quick to note that the field isn’t self-help or pop psychology.  Instead, it’s a relatively new field of psychology that focuses on wellness and resilience.   The laboratory where Wood will work next year is not part of this approach, and Niedenthal is not a positive psychologist, though the work of the lab will help Wood think about this new direction, she said.

The field, Wood says, tends to undervalue cultural differences, and she also hopes to bring a multicultural approach to positive psychology. Her interest in cross-cultural perspectives began in the summer of 2010, when she worked with Tricia Waters, an associate professor of psychology who had surveyed Taiwanese high school students in a study of identity formation, gender values, and relationship conflicts.

As Wood dove into psychology literature on East Asian definitions of the self, she became fascinated with the cultural differences she saw. Her future work, she says, will always involve a cross-cultural perspective. “Whatever I study, I intend to keep the cross-cultural in view,” Wood wrote.

Wood spent a semester abroad in Denmark, where she encountered the work of scholars studying the “valuing happiness paradox,” which holds that the more people value happiness as a goal, the more they can be disappointed, bringing them less happiness.  When she returned to Colorado College, she took Roberts’ emotions class and was assigned the topic of “gratitude” for a project.

“It just grabbed hold of her,” Roberts said. 

Eventually, Wood began to see a connection between the happiness paradox and the notion of gratitude.  We can undo the paradox, Wood thought, if we cultivate gratitude.   She designed a survey and experiment and wrote her senior thesis on the issue.

Wood and Roberts visited Iris Mauss, a psychologist at the University of Denver who studies the “valuing happiness paradox.”  At their first meeting, Roberts said, Mauss thought Wood was a graduate student. Roberts noted that Wood was able to ask questions from different vantage points, in an interdisciplinary way, a skill she will take with her to Wisconsin.

Despite an intense academic schedule in psychology, Wood also minored in music, taking four years of piano lessons with Susan Grace, lecturer in music and artist-in-residence at the college.  In this, she is a kindred spirit to Spencer Williams, who is so devoted to music that he has an old upright piano in his tiny office in Olin, where he is the physics department paraprofessional.

“Every once in awhile I play on this,” he said as he swiveled his office chair from his desk to the piano, playing a set of chords to demonstrate something he’d been thinking about from a jazz theory course he’s taking off campus. 

Along with a double major in the sciences, Williams managed to take four blocks of music theory, the better to fuel his love of music. He played in the Indonesian Gamelan ensemble and spent time in Bali playing music and studying melodic structures. He sometimes wears a Balinese sarong, a long cotton skirt made by folding a single piece of fabric around the waist.  As the weather warmed this spring he sat under a tree on the plaza outside Olin, plucking his banjo, the sun reflecting off his blond hair and round, wire-rimmed glasses.

“Music makes you comfortable doing new things,” he told Wood, who agreed, when they met for the first time a few weeks ago.  “You have to make that sound,” he said. “It’s a similar process in real-world research:  you publish a paper, you make a statement.” 

Williams will use his National Science Foundation award to pursue a doctorate through research in the laboratory of Alex Jen at the University of Washington.  He will be working with solar energy production and applications of polymer and nanomaterial engineering in technology and health.  Like Wood, Williams said Colorado College had given him an ability to think.

“Because of the Block Plan, the amount of lab experience and practical experience is less than you’d get at a technical institution,” Williams said.  “But, at a technical institution, you are doing a procedure, not doing science.  CC is better for fundamental understanding. . .  and for intuitive capacity.”

Understanding is what he was looking for when he sought out Murphy Brasuel ‘96, associate professor of chemistry.  Brasuel, his advisor, works in the field of design, development, and analytical application of novel nano-optical sensors.  The semiconductor quantum dots that Brasuel developed caught Williams’ eye because of their potential applications in the production of solar energy.  He asked Brasuel if he could work with him. 

With Brasuel and other students, he came up with a system of materials that he plans to use in future research, he explained to the NSF reviewers.  The work also constituted his senior capstone project in chemistry.

“Murphy was very supportive,” Williams said.  “He gave me the flexibility to go in my own direction.”

Williams wanted to take an interdisciplinary approach, and Brasuel encouraged him.  “It wasn’t too much of a stretch for him to do that,” Brasuel said.  “I could tell he had a passion for it.” He “took ownership” of his own research and pushed forward, plying his advisor with questions and thinking about the work.

“He is not shy when it comes to learning about what he’s interested in,” Brasuel said.

Brasuel wasn’t the only professor he peppered with questions.  During a summer of research at Colorado College in 2009, Williams organized meetings with Ted Lindeman and Nate Bower, both professors of chemistry, and Harold Jones, professor emeritus of chemistry.  He also frequently consulted Sally Meyer, professor of chemistry, for her knowledge of physical chemistry.  “I corralled her in the hallway,” Williams said. 

“A close network of professors are accessible here,” Williams said.  “This means a lot when you have to chase down the knowledge you want.”  In fact, Brasuel remembers Williams running up and down stairs in Olin, shuttling between the physics and chemistry departments, his head full of thoughts and questions.

“He’s comfortable approaching professors,” Brasuel said.

With the hallway consultations and meetings he scheduled, Williams gained some of the fundamental understanding he values.

“I taught myself to learn about materials science,” he said, noting that he wants eventually to have a “real-world impact” by working on key ideas and processes in energy and sustainability.

Williams’ senior capstone project in physics was based on summer work at Northwestern University’s Materials Research Science and Engineering Center, where he spun polymer films to a thickness on the order of magnitude of the wavelength of visible light.  With that, he decided that materials science was the field he wanted to pursue.

“It gave me an opportunity to see how patience and a careful set of hands can produce real, substantial results which only strengthened my growing passion for research,” he said in his NSF application.

Within the Jen lab at the University of Washington, Williams will join a smaller group of researchers working on the problem of solar energy production. One important aspect of this will be “self-assembly,” in which a set of nanoparticles are designed to line up in a particular way to “create a highway for electrons to move,” he says. He is hoping he will be able to spend time on other projects during his time there as well.

The lab’s broad range of research is exciting for Williams, who wants to develop an overview of the field of nanotechnology as well as expertise on specific projects.  “I ultimately want to teach,” he said.  “To do that, you need a massive breadth of knowledge as well as depth.” 

Williams’ passion for learning was clear in the first course he took with Brasuel, general chemistry.  “He sat in the front of the room, excited about the topic,” Brasuel said.  The material wasn’t difficult for him, so he turned to other students who needed help, and explained concepts to them.  Eventually, he became a tutor at the Quantitative Resource Center, where students can go for support in science and math.

“He’s very patient,” Brasuel said.  “It’s a special characteristic that he has, and he gets enjoyment out of teaching.”

An Evergreen, Colo., native, Williams came for the block system and the environment.  “I wasn’t ready to leave the mountains,” he said. The block system was a good fit for his need to plunge into a subject.

“I get obsessively focused on things,” he said.  Science on the Block Plan gave him plenty of time to focus, with three hours of class each morning and labs for three to five hours every other afternoon, and four to eight hours of homework a night.

Williams came to college wanting to be a writer, as he had already immersed himself in writing and reading poetry, short stories, and philosophy. But Patricia Loeblien, a high school chemistry and physics teacher, had also inspired him, helping him realize he could bring the same creativity to science.  He tried to take a triple major in physics, chemistry, and philosophy, but settled on only the first two. “I got flack for that, and it’s a valid point,” he said, referring to the liberal arts notion that students need to take a variety of courses in many departments rather than taking many courses in one or two fields.   

Most of all, Williams values what he calls “intellectual openness” in other students and in his own approach to learning.

Such openness is what Brasuel and Roberts say they love as they watch students learn.    “You just have to enable them, and they take off,” Brasuel said.  “It’s fun to be a part of this.”