Category: Alumni

He thought he could turn his aquarium hobby into a career. A million YouTube subscribers say he was right

George Mavrakis ’19 brought a couple of his fish friends with him as he walked across the stage for Lawrence University’s 2019 Commencement.

Story by Ed Berthiaume / Communications

As George Mavrakis ’19 awaits delivery of his coveted Golden Play Button—a prize recognizing the milestone of 1 million subscribers to his YouTube channel—his mind flashes back to fall 2016.

He was weeks into his sophomore year at Lawrence University when word got out that he had a growing YouTube following for the videos he was making about his saltwater aquarium hobby. He didn’t think 10,000 subscribers was anything to brag about; the economics major from suburban Chicago was more concerned about finding playing time on the Lawrence basketball team.

“When I came to Lawrence, it was just a hobby,” Mavrakis said. “I didn’t tell anyone about it. It wasn’t until after my first year at Lawrence that that secret about me sort of slipped and released into the student population and everyone was like, ‘oh, he’s the fish guy.’ From that moment on, I was George the fish guy.”

Mavrakis kept saltwater tanks in his room. He filmed some of his videos on campus. He recruited others on campus to join the fun. And his YouTube following continued to grow each year, as did his editing skills and his understanding of digital algorithms.

By his senior year, things were moving fast as he balanced classwork, basketball, and aquarium commitments. Midway through the year, he and a business partner, Shawn Hale, launched a live aquarium festival, known as Aquashella, first in Chicago and then in Dallas. The first one broke even; the second one was a money-maker.

By the time he would graduate—and, yes, he carried two fish with him when he walked across the stage at Commencement in June 2019—the fish guy was getting to be a pretty big deal. Subscribers to his CoralFish12g channel had grown to 165,000, and one of his videos had gone viral, racking up millions of views. Mavrakis had come to the realization that, yes, this hobby he had launched into as a 10-year-old and nurtured during his four years at Lawrence could be much more than just a hobby.

George Mavrakis ’19 shows his saltwater tanks during his senior year at Lawrence.

So, with a degree in economics in hand and a growing understanding of the YouTube environment, he set forth to build an even larger audience and a carefully designed business enterprise, based in Glenview, Illinois. He has since produced hundreds of aquarium videos—well-researched, informative, often funny, with high energy and fast cuts—garnering nearly 150 million views over the past three years.

And, as of Dec. 21, one million subscribers.

“It’s crazy,” he said. “For me, to have that Golden Play Button on the way, it’s like a childhood dream. It’s really special.”

See more on Lawrence’s economics major here.

Saltwater fish collecting is a niche hobby, but the 24-year-old Mavrakis has found a formula that is as much entertainment as it is educational. You don’t have to be an aquarium buff to enjoy the banter or share in the laughs or appreciate the energy.

“I realized I need to appeal to a broad audience,” Mavrakis said. “How can I make aquariums and marine life interesting and entertaining and educational to everyone? How can I make anyone who just picks up their phone to watch this video be interested?”

He’s traveled to 15 countries to shoot his videos since graduating from Lawrence. He’s sought out interesting people who have stories to share and interesting locales that provide brilliant backdrops. He spent more than two months in Asia shooting dozens of videos because that region of the world supplies such a large percentage of the world’s ornamental fish.

“It’s something that sets me apart from a lot of other creators in my field,” Mavrakis said. “I like to get out there. I like to see and find the things that no one else has seen before.”

Putting his economics background to work, he’s purposefully expanded beyond videos. He didn’t want to be beholden to the ebb and flow of video consumption and advertising. He and Hale expanded Aquashella to three times a year, adding Orlando to the mix. It’s billed as the “world’s premier aquarium festival,” featuring fish, reptiles, and aquatic art.

In December, just as CoralFish12g was about to hit that magical 1 million subscriber mark, Mavrakis launched his own line of small saltwater aquariums, complete with a kit and an instructional video course targeted toward beginners. Pandemic-related shipping delays meant he could only get 50 of the first 200 he ordered, priced at $450 each, but those 50 sold out in three hours. He got another 1,500 emails expressing interest in buying the kit as soon as more become available.

Mavrakis thought it would be fun to deliver a few of the tanks in person, a thank you to those who have been fans of his videos. He didn’t tell them he was coming.

“We got on a plane and went to a few different spots in the United States,” he said. “It was really fun, really cool. And we shot that as a video. Some people were a little awkward because you catch them off guard, but there were a few people who really freaked out. It was so fun. I got to set the tanks up with them.”

Mavrakis has spent much of the past six months expanding his operation. He now has five full-time employees working with him on CoralFish12g. Another five part-time employees work on the Aquashella shows.

The quick growth has been a blessing and a challenge, he said, but he’s establishing an infrastructure that will hopefully allow CoralFish12g and Aquashella to thrive over the long haul.

“It’s hard; creators and creative people in general and small business owners in general experience burnout,” he said. “Managing that is the key. How does this continue to go on even potentially beyond me?”

Mavrakis said his Lawrence experience helped him to prepare for this journey. That includes his experiences as a student-athlete—he played basketball for four years, averaging 9.9 points and 5 rebounds during his senior season. The path wasn’t always easy, he said, but the lessons learned inform decisions he’s now making as a young entrepreneur.

“It was a place that set me up for my future,” he said of Lawrence. “I’m very grateful. It ended up being a place that put me in the best position to be successful.”

Ed Berthiaume is director of public information at Lawrence University. Email: ed.c.berthiaume@lawrence.edu

Lawrence’s Dillon earns prestigious Morgan Prize for undergrad math research

Travis Dillon ’21 (Photo by Danny Damiani)

Story by Ed Berthiaume / Communications

Travis Dillon ’21 is the recipient of one of the nation’s most esteemed awards for undergraduate students doing mathematics research.

Dillon, who majored in mathematics while diving deep into a wide range of research before graduating from Lawrence in June, will receive the 2022 AMS-MAA-SIAM Frank and Brennie Morgan Prize for Outstanding Research in Mathematics by an Undergraduate Student.

The Morgan Prize, presented jointly by the American Mathematical Society (AMS), the Mathematical Association of America (MAA), and the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM), will be awarded January 5 in Seattle.

Now a graduate student at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Dillon called the “incredible honor” a testament to the great mentors he had as an undergrad, including Lawrence math professor Elizabeth Sattler, with whom he collaborated frequently over the past four years.

“Liz Sattler has been, in more ways than I can count, an extraordinary mentor, advisor, and collaborator,” he said.

Travis Dillon named a National Science Foundation (NSF) Fellow.

Goldwater award goes to a Lawrence student for second consecutive year.

In making its announcement of the award, the AMS said Dillon earned the Morgan Prize for his “significant work in number theory, combinatorics, discrete geometry, and symbolic dynamics.”

“When I was told that I won, I was stunned,” Dillon said. “Every winner in the last 15 years had attended high-profile universities—either Harvard, MIT, Princeton, Stanford or Yale.”

Sattler said she first recognized Dillon’s vast potential as a math student when he dove into an independent research project with her as a sophomore.

“I was shocked at his ability to solve challenging, high-level problems in such a short amount of time,” she said. “I had anticipated this project would last an entire summer for a full-time student, but Travis solved that problem and pushed it further in just 10 weeks while still taking classes in Spring Term. Every time I threw something new at him or pointed him in a different direction, he ran away with it. It was just amazing.”

For his Senior Experience project last year, Dillon wrote a book, Graphs, Groups, Infinity: Three stories in mathematics, that looked to explain math concepts in a way that people with minimal math experience could understand and appreciate. He did it, Sattler said, with a mix of authority, expertise, and humor.

“He finished with over 200 pages of creative and imaginative text complete with pictures, stories, and exercises,” she said. “It’s more fun than your standard textbook with things like Travis Dillon’s Rule of the Infinite—‘If you think it’s true, it probably isn’t’—and abstract multiplication tables filled in with rubber ducks with hats or scarves. This was a great way for him to finish his time here at Lawrence and allowed him to put all those wonderful quirks of a liberal arts student into a document that will be around for a long time.”

The book currently lives in a digital format, with a few printed copies at Lawrence courtesy of a print-on-demand service. Now Dillon is exploring options on how “to best get it out into the world.”

The book project, he said, was a great opportunity to meld his love of math with a growing interest in writing.

“There’s a certain Zen to selecting and arranging words that communicate an idea exactly; to crafting sentences, paragraphs, sections, and chapters in my own particular style; to being sly, quirky, serious, profound, and irreverent precisely as I choose,” he said. “It’s frustrating, too, at times, but so is math. To a certain extent, difficulty is part of the appeal.”

While at Lawrence, Dillon completed seven papers, six of them published or accepted, four single-authored. In addition to independent studies with Lawrence faculty, he attended summer Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REUs) at Texas A&M University and Baruch College, and he spent a year in the Budapest Semesters in Mathematics program.

Scott Corry, professor of mathematics and chair of the Mathematics, Statistics, and Computer Science Department, called the Morgan Prize “a stunning and well-deserved achievement” for Dillon.

“Our goal at Lawrence is to help every student reach their full potential, and Travis’ potential is off the charts,” Corry said. “We are proud to have supported his development, through courses, mentoring, and research at LU as well as in off-campus programs, and we are eager to see his future contributions to mathematics and the broader world.”

This isn’t the first time Dillon has been honored for his math research while at Lawrence. Earlier this year, he received a prestigious National Science Foundation (NSF) award that will assist his work at MIT. A year prior, he was named a Goldwater Scholar, also a highly competitive honor.

Besides Sattler, Dillon said he’s had incredible mentors every step of the way. He was first inspired to pursue math while growing up near Newport, Washington. Two summers spent at a Canada/USA Mathcamp set him on his way.

This fall, Dillon began his graduate work at MIT as an MIT Presidential Fellow. Since 1999, MIT has used its Presidential Fellowships to “recruit the most outstanding students worldwide to pursue graduate studies at the Institute.” It currently supports 110 to 125 new graduate students as Presidential Fellows each year.

The Morgan Prize, awarded annually to an undergraduate student for outstanding research in mathematics, was established in 1995 and is entirely endowed by a gift from Mrs. Frank (Brennie) Morgan. Learn more here about the prize and previous recipients.

The award is one more step on the journey, Dillon said. Whether it’s more research or elevating the writing he started with his book project, the possibilities going forward are plentiful.

“I really enjoy working on research, but explaining and getting people fired up about math, leading them to their own aha! moments—that’s a different kind of joy,” he said. “Fortunately, these things often go hand in hand, and I’m looking forward to a long career in both.”

Ed Berthiaume is director of public information at Lawrence University. Email: ed.c.berthiaume@lawrence.edu

Best of 2021: Eight stories show resilience, creativity of Lawrence community

A reimagined Science Learning Commons in Youngchild Hall was three years in the making. (Photo by Danny Damiani)

Story by Ed Berthiaume / Communications

Sure, the ongoing pandemic kept things a bit weird in 2021. But that didn’t dampen the enthusiasm for telling the stories of Lawrence University and the Lawrentians who make this world a better place.

Today we’re going to spotlight eight Lawrence stories from the past year that speak to resilience, ingenuity, creativity, and resourcefulness. These stories are among our favorites of the year. If you read them the first time around, consider this a reminder of how amazing this place can be. If you missed them earlier, now is the time to catch up.

See Lawrence’s 20 most-viewed stories of 2021 here.

We hope you’ve enjoyed the journey through 2021 as much as we have.

1. Rising to the challenge

COVID-19 testing in the Wellness Center gym was part of the routine to keep campus safe. (Photo by Danny Damiani)

Lawrence had welcomed about 800 of its students back to campus in the fall of 2020 at a time when COVID outbreaks in Wisconsin were spiking. Classes remained remote and students needed to adhere to strict safety protocols, but the opportunity to resume a semblance of campus life was a big step forward. How did Lawrentians manage to keep campus safe while the surrounding community was struggling with outbreaks? We took a closer look.

“We’ve all read the stories from other places where decisions that students make really do make or break what happens,” Assistant to the President Christyn Abaray said. “We have students who get it. They’re making some of the most mature decisions that we could ask for.”

2. A need for flexibility

Hoa Huynh ’19, De Andre King ’20, Maria Poimenidou ’20

Diving head first into a job search upon graduation can be daunting enough in the best of times. Now do it in the midst of a pandemic when the job market is in turmoil. We caught up with three newly graduated Lawrentians, Hoa Huynh ’19, De Andre King ’20, and Maria Poimenidou ’20, to talk about navigating the job search in these strange days.

“There is a lot of uncertainty that comes with that and you can fall into a spiral of worries, but the way I adapted to everything was by becoming more flexible,” Poimenidou said.

3. Debut novel brings national buzz

Andrew Graff ’09

Catching up with Lawrence alumni who are doing creative things is always a pleasure. Andrew Graff ’09 leaned heavily on the lessons learned as an English student at Lawrence as he wrote his debut novel, Raft of Stars. It arrived among the spring releases with national shout-outs from the likes of the New York Times and USA Today.

“His work is a testimony to the fact that inspired, artful writing happens over time and is not the product of a flash of genius or a single good idea,” English professor David McGlynn said. “A Lawrence student might not publish a novel while a student, but our record shows that something foundational is happening here.”

4. A new sound in the Conservatory

Jando Valdez ’24 (Photo by Danny Damiani)

Jando Valdez, a sophomore at Lawrence, has had a passion for mariachi music since his freshman year at Appleton North High School. How he turned that passion into the newly launched Lawrence University Mariachi Ensemble (LUMÉ) speaks to the beauty of the Conservatory of Music and the growing flexibility built into its various degree programs.

The first time LUMÉ was able to meet in person, it felt as if a piece of myself and my family’s heritage had been reignited,” Valdez said.

5. Pandemic rock stars

Rob Neilson and Jake Frederick became the Junkyard Tornadoes. (Photo by Danny Damiani)

This was fun. When Rob Neilson, an art professor, and Jake Frederick, a history professor, had their sabbaticals canceled by the pandemic, they hunkered down in a storage garage on campus and wrote and recorded an album. Never mind that they knew very little about writing music and even less about recording it. It was new territory, but it gave them a chance to channel some energy and creativity at a time when there was nothing much to do and nowhere to go.

“We were in shock about how crazy the world had suddenly become,” Frederick said.

6. New visibility for Indigenous students

Otāēciah, a sculpture created by artist Chris Cornelius, is gorgeous inside and out. (Photo by Danny Damiani)

The creation of a new piece of public art raises the profile of the Native community on campus to new levels. The sculpture, known as Otāēciah and located on the renamed Kaeyes Mamaceqtawuk Plaza between Mudd Library and the Wriston Art Center, was dedicated on Indigenous Peoples Day.

Once they see themselves, they kind of have that reinforcement that we’re here, and we’re always going to be here,” Taneya Garcia, a senior who is president of Lawrence University Native Americans (LUNA), said of Native students’ reaction to the sculpture.

7. Raising profile of Latin American composers

Natali Herrera-Pacheco and Horacio Contreras are leading the work of SOLA from Lawrence. (Photo by Danny Damiani)

The level of talent and commitment from Lawrence faculty is always impressive. We’ve highlighted some of that through the year. The story of Horacio Contreras, a cello professor in the Conservatory, and his wife, Natali Herrera-Pacheco, a research and intern coordinator for SOLA, stands out. They launched SOLA (Strings of Latin America) to build catalogs, biographical materials, and pedagogic tools to help raise the visibility of Latin American composers in classical music. Their efforts are paying off, with catalogs for cello and viola now available, and more on the way. Lawrence students are working as SOLA interns to move the project forward.

“Society is made up of Hispanic and Black and Asian and South Asian and all these other populations,” Contreras said. “When they go to a concert, they want to see themselves represented as well.”

8. A classroom with a purpose

Students work together during an Introduction to Physics class in the remodeled Science Learning Commons in Youngchild Hall. (Photo by Danny Damiani)

Lawrence science faculty announced three years ago that they were launching an initiative to reimagine and remodel a lecture hall in Youngchild Hall to make it more inclusive and more engaging for intro-level STEM classes. With funding from donors through the Be the Light! Campaign and an assist from a grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), they set out on a journey that would come to fruition at the outset of Fall Term 2021. We took a look at how this modern classroom moves STEM teaching forward and raises the bar across campus.

“We’re pushing some of our students out of their comfort zones intentionally,” chemistry professor Stefan Debbert said.

Ed Berthiaume is director of public information at Lawrence University. Email: ed.c.berthiaume@lawrence.edu

Most-viewed Lawrence stories of 2021: Arrival of a new president leads the way

President Laurie A. Carter speaks in front of Main Hall during a new student welcome event in September. Carter was named Lawrence’s 17th president in March and began her tenure July 1. (Photo by Danny Damiani)

Story by Ed Berthiaume / Communications

From the early March announcement of a new president being named to Lawrentians doing amazing things on and off campus, there has been no shortage of Lawrence stories to tell in 2021.

The Lawrence community (and beyond) has been hungry to read about it every step of the way. We perused the analytics so we can share today the 20 most viewed stories of the year. The list includes new faces, creative approaches to the pandemic, and the brilliance of our students, faculty, and alumni.

If you missed a story earlier, take a look now. If you read it already, take another look as a reminder of the many reasons Lawrentians are brighter together.

1. Laurie A. Carter named 17th president of Lawrence University; begins July 1

“As a sitting president, I am well aware of the challenges facing higher education, but I know the Lawrence community is ready to work together to continue the traditions of excellence while ensuring a bright future for the students, the university, and the community.” – Laurie Carter

2. 10 new tenure-track faculty join Lawrence University for 2021-22 academic year

“I am absolutely thrilled to be welcoming such a talented, dedicated group of scholars to the Lawrence faculty. Our new colleagues will fortify strengths in existing academic programs and help us develop new areas of focus.” – Catherine Gunther Kodat

3. Lawrence debuts new athletics logo; Viking ship gives nod to school history

“The ship is the perfect illustration of our great campus, and having the antelope, shield, and LU all part of the design connects every corner of our campus. This is a logo for all who love and support LU; I believe it represents all of us.” – Tony Aker

4. Lawrence places high in value, teaching, first-year experience in U.S. News rankings

“Lawrence’s faculty are not only terrific scientists, artists, and scholars—they are also first-rate teachers. It’s extremely gratifying to see them receive this much-deserved national recognition for the extraordinary work they do with their students.” – Catherine Gunther Kodat

5. “Impressive” class welcomed to campus on busy opening day of student orientation

“This class has some of the strongest academic credentials we have seen in a long time. Considering that they have performed at such a high level while learning in the midst of a pandemic speaks volumes about the resilience and readiness of our newest Lawrentians. They are going to do great things.” – Ken Anselment

6. 17 things to know about No. 17: An introduction to President Laurie A. Carter

“I want to eat cheese curds; I want to do it all. Snowmobiling, too. I want to try that. I really just want to get a sense of the culture; the unique things about Wisconsin. I can’t wait. I’m very excited.” – Laurie A. Carter

7. Kenyon’s Robyn Bowers to join Lawrence as its new dean of admissions

“Lawrence’s rich liberal arts tradition, commitment to the arts, emphasis on diversity and inclusion, and welcoming community create an extraordinary learning environment.” – Robyn Bowers

8. Mayes joins Lawrence as vice president for diversity, equity, and inclusion

“To realize the unique value of a liberal arts education, you need to have an environment where people feel welcome, where people feel supported, where people can bring their authentic self to the classroom, to campus, and their presence and contributions are welcomed, valued, and celebrated.” – Eric Mayes

9. “Dedicated and richly talented:” 10 Lawrence University faculty earn tenure

“The breadth of ability and skill represented in this year’s tenure ‘class’ is truly extraordinary, both in terms of individual achievement and in how those achievements support our broader efforts to expand and enhance our curriculum to support diversity, inclusion, and excellence.” – Catherine Gunther Kodat

10. Lawrence lands on The Princeton Review’s 2022 list of best colleges in nation

“While being considered one of the best is great, we’re even more excited that The Princeton Review continues to acknowledge the important work we do every day on behalf of our students, which is providing top-notch preparation for a meaningful life after college, and doing so in a way that families can afford.” – Ken Anselment

11. Five retiring Lawrence faculty members to be honored at 2021 Commencement

“What was true when I arrived in 1998 is still true today—you have to ask the question ‘why?’ over and over, in every class you take. And that goes for the professors, too. The ‘why?’ question is the central one in critical thinking, which is the essence of the Lawrence experience.” – Jerald Podair

12. Great Midwest Trivia Contest carries on amid daunting obstacles, new rules

“It’s very difficult to balance the needs of the contest with this year’s restrictions, and, in some cases, we have had to make changes to trivia that go against tradition. Our main focus is making sure the contest happens this year and that it can be a positive experience for everyone.” – Grace Krueger ’21

13. Class of 2021 celebrated for courage, resilience: “You have shone brightly”

“Your responses have made you stronger, have tested your resolve, and have tempered you so that you will turn future challenges into opportunities. And you have validated the Lawrence experience as formative and essential to who you are, and who you will be.” – Dr. John Raymond

14. Lawrence’s beloved Rock is heading east, a gift to university’s departing president

OK, this one was a little bit of April’s Fools fun with departing President Mark Burstein. We were excited that people enjoyed it (if they read to the very end).

15. Pandemic canceled their sabbaticals; they channeled their rock star dreams instead

“The university stopped all travel. I was going to Scotland; Jake was going to Chicago. I also had a public art project that got canceled. My gallery shut down. The whole world shut down. That was the moment we realized, well, maybe we should record these tunes. We don’t have anything else to do.” – Rob Neilson

16. Lighting the Way With … Tom Coben: When Kimmel calls and statues dance

“I had a lot of very cool opportunities at Lawrence and I can honestly say that I don’t think I’d be doing what I am doing today if my professors hadn’t given me the ability to pursue my interests with as much freedom as they did.” – Tom Coben

17. Sculpture adds visibility to journey of Indigenous people; brings new conversations, reflection

“I would hope the Indigenous community here on campus would see it as a place to gather, to have as a physical symbol that they are being acknowledged, and to open those conversations up about how land was acquired and who was Indigenous to it and how do we begin to reconcile that with one another.” – Chris Cornelius

18. Building community: A study guide to Lawrence’s 2021-22 First-Year Studies

“I would like to suggest that our experience of the pandemic has thrown a new light on the works chosen for First-Year Studies. They continue to serve as an ambitious introduction to the liberal arts, but we can now see a strong sub-theme of community that runs throughout these works.” – Martyn Smith

19. “Raft of Stars,” Lawrence alumnus’ debut novel, arrives amid growing buzz

“Without Lawrence, I wouldn’t be writing, hands down. It was an interest of mine. I loved books; I always loved reading; I loved daydreaming. But it was at Lawrence where I thought, yes, I really want to try this. I got so much guidance from professors like David McGlynn and (former Lawrence professor) Faith Barrett and others that I couldn’t have done it without those years. It was absolutely informative.” – Andrew Graff

20. Reframing of a music major adds greater flexibility for Lawrence students

“The beauty of this major is that it welcomes a much broader variety of music and music makers into the Conservatory, and that’s great news and more great music for everyone.” – Brian Pertl

Bonus story: NIH fellowship lets Lawrence alum take her neuroscience research to new levels

“It wasn’t just my science course work at Lawrence that has deeply shaped my career as a scientist today. It was that experience of being in the double-degree program, having to constantly negotiate being in two different worlds.” – Katherine Meckel (This story isn’t in our 2021 top 20 yet, but it’s been our most-viewed story during December and is definitely worth reading.)

Read more: Best of 2021: We’re highlighting 8 stories that speak to resilience, creativity at Lawrence

Ed Berthiaume is director of public information at Lawrence University. Email: ed.c.berthiaume@lawrence.edu

NIH fellowship lets Lawrence alum take her neuroscience research to new levels

Katherine Meckel ’11

Story by Ed Berthiaume / Communications

Katherine Meckel ’11 is the recipient of a six-year, $447,000 fellowship from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) that will allow her to continue her neuroscience research through her final two years as a doctorate student and then four years of postdoctoral work.

It’s a huge honor for Meckel, who first found her passion for neuroscience research while an undergraduate at Lawrence University. Now in pursuit of her Ph.D. at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City, she is one of 31 young scientists across the country to receive the NIH Blueprint Diversity Specialized Predoctoral to Postdoctoral Advancement in Neuroscience (D-SPAN) Award. Her research is centered on neuropharmacology and gastroenterology, studying how bacteria in the gut can influence addictive-like behavior, work that has the potential to uncover novel pathways for drug development and treatments for people with substance-use disorders.

Meckel was a sophomore at Lawrence when she became intrigued with the world of neuroscience research. A biochemistry and music performance (vocal) dual-degree candidate, she had her sights set on becoming a physician specializing in vocal disorders or a scholar of vocal pedagogy. But a class she took with now-retired psychology professor Bruce Hetzler, Brain and Behavior 1, lit a fire she hadn’t expected.

Reimagined Science Learning Commons changes the game for STEM intro classes.

STEM rankings, pedagogy changes bring new excitement to the sciences.

“I was so fascinated by the idea that drugs and neurotransmitters can act on receptors in the brain and elsewhere in the body, kind of like a lock and key, where the receptor is the lock and the neurotransmitter, or the drug, is the key,” she said. “What receptors the drug acts on and how those drugs tickle that particular receptor is all molecular geometry. I just found this idea so fascinating and continued taking more neuroscience classes.

“I found I really loved doing behavioral neuroscience research. I enjoyed the process of working with animals and trying to understand what was going on in their brains and how that was influencing their behavior. This, in turn, synergized with my growing love for molecular biology. These scientific questions continue to excite me to this day. My long-term goal is to understand what’s going on at a molecular level in particular cells within the brain and how that drives drug-seeking behavior.”

Meckel was able to do significant behavioral pharmacology research with Hetzler while at Lawrence. It is work she continues to build on.

It also piqued her curiosity about modern molecular biology techniques, which led her to a research job in gastroenterology at the University of Chicago after graduating from Lawrence. Her work there studied how certain peripheral factors could influence the development of inflammatory bowel disease and colorectal cancers. And that got her thinking about how peripheral factors such as the bacteria in our guts and the metabolites they produce can influence not just direct organs where they’re produced but also other organs, including the brain.

“This is something that in neuroscience we don’t usually talk about as much,” Meckel said. “We study the brain in isolation, but in actuality, the brain exists in communication with all these other organs in the body.”

Those dual interests—the neuroscience studies at Lawrence and the gastroenterology work at UChicago—led her to Mount Sinai and helped launch her current research.

“The long-term goal of this line of research is to understand how we can exploit products from the gut microbiome to potentially influence gene expression in the brain and ultimately reduce risk of relapse,” Meckel said. “Decades of research have gone into understanding how prolonged drug use causes long-term molecular adaptations in the brain. We have a sophisticated understanding of those changes, but unfortunately it hasn’t resulted in successful medicinal therapies for patients with cocaine-use disorder. We’re trying to look outside the brain to identify novel targets for therapeutics to help patients.”

Lessons from Lawrence

Meckel credits much of her success as a young scientist to the experiences she had at Lawrence. The pursuit of a dual degree in areas as seemingly disparate as biochemistry and vocal performance taught her lessons she continues to put to use on a daily basis in her research work at Mount Sinai.

“It wasn’t just my science course work at Lawrence that has deeply shaped my career as a scientist today,” she said. “It was that experience of being in the double-degree program, having to constantly negotiate being in two different worlds. Whether it was being a musician and trying to find ties between the science course work and applying that to assignments like music history journals, or vice versa. Trying to translate those two worlds and merge them together was a challenge. You are negotiating two different areas you really love. And now I’m bridging gastroenterology and neuroscience, which are two fields that normally don’t have much communication with each other.

“And all the performance training I did in the double-degree program has made me a much better communicator of my science. I am an introverted person, but it’s easier for me to go on stage and give a scientific talk at a conference or stand in front of a classroom and give a lecture because of my performance training at Lawrence.”

Whether seeking a dual degree or not, it’s the approach of a liberal arts education that can help a science student thrive, Meckel said. She sees the results all the time, whether through her own research or through the students at Mount Sinai she mentors. She praises Lawrence professors Hetzler, Nancy Wall (biology), Beth De Stasio (biology), and Stefan Debbert (chemistry), among others, for instilling in her the belief that science and a wide swath of liberal arts go hand in hand.

“I think a lot of time in STEM we place so much value on taking a bunch of science and engineering classes,” she said. “I am by no means going to deny that work is important and valuable in your training as a scientist. But I always encourage my mentees to take some liberal arts classes. Take something in history, take a foreign language, take a theater or music class. Do something that expands your perspective beyond science. That way of looking at the world from a different angle is going to make you a better scientist with a unique viewpoint.”

Ed Berthiaume is director of public information at Lawrence University. Email: ed.c.berthiaume@lawrence.edu

Lawrence mourns death of former Board of Trustees chair Margaret Carroll

Margaret Carroll ’61

Story by Ed Berthiaume / Communications

Lawrence University is mourning the loss of Margaret Carroll ’61, a former Lawrence trustee who was a leader in Washington, D.C., journalism in the 1960s before forging an impressive career in public policy and business research that spanned more than three decades.

A resident of Appleton since retiring in 2002, she died Dec. 7 with her sisters by her side. She was 82.

Carroll provided significant leadership to her alma mater, serving as a member of the Lawrence Board of Trustees from 1974 to 1980 and again from 1983 to 2006. She chaired the Board from 1993 to 1995 and was Board secretary from 1998 to 2006, when she was elected an emerita trustee.

She volunteered in a variety of other capacities through the years and continued to offer her guidance until her final days.

“Personally, I always enjoyed Margaret’s thoughtful insights and her willingness to engage you on the side during Board breaks,” said Cory Nettles ’92, current chair of the Board of Trustees.

Carroll, a native of New York City, began her work in the nation’s capital while studying at Lawrence. She interned at the Congressional Quarterly for two summers and would go to work for the publication following her graduation from Lawrence,

During the late 1960s, she became director of publications at the National Urban Coalition, where she also served as acting director of communications. In 1969, she helped create the National Journal and later served as the organization’s congressional editor and associate editor. 

Then in the early 1970s, Carroll was involved in the creation of the Investor Responsibility Research Center in Washington, D.C., which helped provide assessments of public policy and business matters. The center provided research to institutional investors, foundations, colleges, corporations, and law firms. She would go on to serve as its executive director for 20 years.

When she retired in 2002, she moved back to Appleton and immersed herself in the community, including her continued efforts to be a mentor in and around Lawrence. She represented Lawrence on the City of Appleton’s College Avenue Design Committee, and in 2007 was the recipient of an honorary doctorate of education from Lawrence. Four years later, she was awarded Lawrence’s Gertrude Breithaupt Jupp Outstanding Service Award in recognition of her volunteer service.

The wisdom honed during a brilliant professional career and through decades of leadership and volunteerism at Lawrence was a gift that was never taken for granted, Nettles said.

“For me, a trustee many years her junior and many more times less experienced in institutional governance, she was generous in dispensing her wisdom and always extraordinarily kind and patient,” he said.

Ed Berthiaume is director of public information at Lawrence University. Email: ed.c.berthiaume@lawrence.edu

Conservatory faculty, students, alumni honored with five American Prize awards

Emily Richter as Countess Rosina and Emma Milton as Susanna dress Sam Gibson as Cherubino during a dress rehearsal for The Marriage of Figaro in Stansbury Theater in March 2020.

Story by Ed Berthiaume / Communications

The Lawrence Conservatory of Music drew high praise in the recently released 2021 The American Prize Awards, with two faculty—and the students they direct—and three alumni being honored.

The American Prize annually hands out awards of excellence in the performing arts among nonprofit arts organizations and schools across the country.

This year’s recipients include:

Mark Dupere, director of orchestral studies, received a third-place honor for the Lawrence Symphony Orchestra in the college orchestral category.

Copeland Woodruff, director of opera studies, received a third-place honor in the college opera category for the 2020 production of The Marriage of Figaro.

Evan Williams ’10 received a Special Judges’ Citation for Music Both Relevant and Thought-Provoking. He was honored for his piece, Dead White Man Music, in the orchestral performance category.

Nicolas Bizub ’16 received a Special Judges’ Citation for Social Relevance and Musical Quality. He was honored for his piece, Fill The Swamp, in the composition category.

Nick Fahrenkrug ’20 received a Special Citation for Artistic Achievement. He was honored for his short performance film, Dichterliebe: Within + Without, in the opera category.

See more on the Lawrence Conservatory of Music here.

Dupere and the Lawrence Symphony Orchestra

Mark Dupere leads a rehearsal of the Lawrence Symphony Orchestra in the Shattuck Hall of Music in October 2019.

While Dupere’s name is on the award, he said it’s really an honor for the students who perform with the Lawrence Symphony Orchestra. The performances cited for the award pre-date the arrival of the pandemic in March 2020.

“I’m deeply proud of our students for receiving this honor and thankful for the opportunity to show the great things Lawrence students are doing,” Dupere said. “It is a privilege to work with these highly motivated students who are committed to pursuing an excellent level of playing and creating meaningful and memorable performances. I love coming to work every day with these students.”

See information on upcoming Lawrence Symphony Orchestra performances here.

Woodruff and the cast of 2020’s The Marriage of Figaro

Erik Nordstrom as Count Almaviva and Max Muter as Figaro during a dress rehearsal for The Marriage of Figaro in March 2020.

When The Marriage of Figaro took to the stage in early 2020, Woodruff heaped praise on the students in the cast for the way they embraced the challenges of staging the comic opera.

“It’s one of the most generous casts I’ve worked with in a long time,” Woodruff said. “They’re just generous with each other as far as sharing the stage space and working with one another.”

The American Prize called it a team effort between students and faculty worth celebrating, one that is seen often in Lawrence’s opera theatre program: “Recent productions have garnered national attention because of their well-crafted and dedicated musical and dramatic performances.”

Williams: Dead White Man Music

Evan Williams ’10

Williams, a composer and conductor, received the citation for his harpsichord concerto with chamber orchestra, which he says is at times a love letter to the classical music of Bach, Brahms, and Dowland and at other times a celebration of jazz, soul, and gospel. 

“Most of my musical training consisted of studying works of the Western canon—so mostly the music of dead European men,” Williams said. “As someone who doesn’t look like that, I started to question if I should continue to study and make music in this tradition. Dead White Man Music is me grappling with that question.”

Williams said he heard some negative feedback related to the title of the piece but otherwise has gotten an overwhelmingly positive response.

“This special citation from the American Prize is further proof that this is a conversation worth having in the concert halls and music classrooms around the world,” he said.

Williams serves as assistant professor of music and director of instrumental activities at Rhodes College in Tennessee.

Bizub: “Radiance and light”

Nicolas Bizub ’16

Bizub describes his music as “dark, striving, and yearning, which also points toward radiance and light.”

For Bizub, music is one more outlet to speak up for social and environmental justice.

“Most of my work is concerned with advocating for rights within the LGBTQIA+ community, of which I am a part, as well as responding to the climate change crisis,” he said. “So, for me, receiving this particular honor from The American Prize was quite special and humbling, as it is affirmation that the social relevance I attempt to imbue in music I write is starting to hit an intended mark.”

It also speaks to the lessons he learned as an undergraduate at Lawrence.

“I began this journey at Lawrence, and the training I received from their composition department has stayed with me as I continue writing music today,” he said.

Bizub graduated in May from the College-Conservatory of Music in Cincinnati with a doctoral degree in music composition.

Fahrenkrug: A new vision

Nick Fahrenkrug ’20

Fahrenkrug began his Dichterliebe: Within + Without video project while a senior at Lawrence. It was conceived as a response to the initial outbreak of COVID-19.

“I was not interested in going through the motions of performing a voice recital to an empty room,” he said. “At the time, we didn’t even have the livestreaming system that Lawrence now uses.”

He began talking with professors and others about creating a voice project that would cater to a virtual, screen-based viewing experience. He quickly realized his initial recital repertoire wasn’t going to work, so he shifted his vision.

“From there I decided to pare down the music to only Schumann’s Dichterliebe, and took the following three months to realize and complete the entire video cycle, which very much realized itself in real time,” Fahrenkrug said. “What I mean by this is that while I was able to form a loose concept in the beginning, it really was more a set of guidelines and boundaries from which I could play in, rather than a preconceived vision of how everything would go. It was truly the most artistically liberating project I’ve ever worked on.”

Fahrenkrug is currently pursuing a master’s in vocal performance at Louisiana State University.

Ed Berthiaume is director of public information at Lawrence University. Email: ed.c.berthiaume@lawrence.edu

Tuning in with Ty Collins: Career Center podcast connects alumni, students

Ty Collins (Photo by Danny Damiani)

By Karina Herrera ’22

Ty Collins has put his experience working in radio to good use at Lawrence, recently launching a podcast that aims to connect alumni with students as they plan for life after college.

Collins, assistant director in the Career Center, interviews alumni who share career advice, discuss avenues into particular fields, and talk about successes and missteps along the way.  The podcast is heard at lucareersandcommunity on Soundcloud

The idea for the podcast came about in Spring Term of 2020 when students were sent home as the COVID-19 pandemic hit. The Career Center, located on the second floor of Chapman Hall, was discussing ways to reach students who were no longer on campus. Collins floated the idea of hosting a podcast series.

“Pairing my background in broadcasting with my knowledge of Lawrence students and alumni and the Lawrence environment, I think combined to work out pretty well,” Collins said.

Collins, who came to Lawrence five years ago, has worked in radio for more than 20 years. He continues to work part-time for Woodward Radio Group in Appleton.

Mike O’Connor, the Riaz Waraich Dean for the Career Center & Center for Community Engagement and Social Change, said he hopes Collins’ podcast helps to humanize career trajectories and stories.

“Things rarely, if ever, go by plan,” O’Connor said. “Where you end up is way more a function of your life circumstances and network than your plan. Hearing about failures of alums I really admire is very uplifting.”

Collins also knows how demanding students’ schedules are, so a podcast seemed to be a good fit. Rather than having an event on campus at a certain time of day where maybe a student could not attend due to class or other scheduling conflicts, a podcast can be listened to wherever and whenever. 

The podcast is updated every month when classes are in session. Each episode runs about 20 minutes. Collins said he wants Lawrence alumni to share their unique experiences and offer advice to students who are just beginning their career journey.

He aims for the podcast to feature alumni from each of the eight Career Communities so that students can listen to an episode catered to their own area of study.

There is a widespread network of Lawrence alumni who have a lot of wisdom and advice they can offer students but who aren’t always taken advantage of as resources, Collins said. His goal is for students to gain some insight from alumni who can influence or inspire their plans.

“I figure that if a former student did it and now they’re really successful, then a current student will at least consider doing it because clearly it worked for someone else,” Collins said.

Collins uploaded the first episode about seven months ago. It featured an interview with Josh Dukelow ’02, a history major who is currently the host of Fresh Take on WHBY radio in Appleton. Collins talked with Dukelow about his career trajectory and what led him to particular jobs.

So far, the podcast has five episodes. Several of the interviewees are recent alumni who Collins worked with when they were students – McKenzie Fetters ’19, an editing associate at Guidehouse; Nick Ashley ’18, a data science consultant with Grant Thornton LLP; and Sarah Woody ’19, a graduate student in biology at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh.

Collins uses LinkedIn and Viking Connect to reach out to potential podcast guests. Most, if not all, of the alumni are willing to be contacted by students as well, Collins said.

The interviews take place over Zoom. Collins uses a microphone to make his sound quality better and then spends about two hours editing the recording before it’s uploaded to Soundcloud.

“I try to ask questions that are going to generate answers that students might find interesting,” Collins said. “I’m always trying to approach it with a perspective of, ‘Would the student want to hear this answer or not?’”

O’Connor said Collins’ podcast is a tool that partners well with Career Communities, Viking Connect and other efforts to better utilize alumni as resources and mentors for Lawrence students.

“He’s an excellent interviewer and has the ability to communicate a lot of information very quickly and concisely,” O’Connor said of Collins. “The podcast wouldn’t have happened without Ty.”

Karina Herrera ’22 is a student writer in the Office of Communications.

Alumna Katy Schwartz-Strei joins Lawrence’s Board of Trustees

Katy Schwartz-Strei ’84

Story by Ed Berthiaume / Communications

Katy Schwartz-Strei ’84, who has forged an impressive career as a leader in human resources, has joined the Lawrence University Board of Trustees.

Schwartz-Strei serves as executive vice president for human resources and chief human resource officer at Emergent BioSolutions. Before joining Emergent in 2016, she was an independent consultant, specializing in leadership and organizational development.

“On behalf of our entire board, I would like to welcome Katy Schwartz-Strei to our Board of Trustees,” Board Chair Cory Nettles ’92 said. “The leadership and organizational development skills she has shown over the past three decades will be invaluable as we continue the important work of moving Lawrence forward.”

She previously worked as vice president of global leadership and organizational development with MedImmune and as director of executive development with Fannie Mae.

Schwartz-Strei majored in sociology at Lawrence and went on to earn a master’s degree in organizational development from American University. She also holds a certificate in executive leadership and coaching from Georgetown University.

She has been active with Lawrence through the years. She served as a member of her 35th cluster reunion committee as well as an earlier reunion, served as a longtime class agent, was a member of her Class Leadership Team, and has been an admissions volunteer. She received Lawrence’s Hulbert Young Alumni Service Award in 1994.

More recently, Schwartz-Strei was on the Lawrence University Alumni Association (LUAA) Board from 2016 to 2020, was an LUAA Executive Committee member, and co-chaired the LUAA Connecting Alumni Committee.

She is married to another Lawrentian, Jeff Strei ’83. They live in the Washington, D.C., area.

Three other Lawrence alumni have been named trustee emeriti. They include:

  • Susan Stillman Kane ’72. She joined the Board of Trustees in 2003. She served as chair of the Board from 2016 to 2018. She previously served as secretary of the Board from 2011 to 2013 and vice chair in 2014-15, among numerous other committee assignments. She was a member of the Presidential Search Committee for Lawrence’s 16th and 17th presidents.
  • Charlot Nelson Singleton ’67. She joined the board in 2007. From 2012 to 2021, she chaired the Development Committee, shaping a leadership model that is donor centered. She served as one of the tri-chairs of the Be the Light! Campaign and was a key part of numerous other committees through the years.
  • Stephanie H. Vrabec ’80. She joined the board in 2009. She was a key member of the Academic and Student Affairs Committee for years, serving as chair from 2015 to 2018. She held both the roles of vice chair and chair on the Academic Affairs Committee before it merged with the Committee on Student Affairs. She also was an instrumental member of the Presidential Search Committee for Lawrence’s 15th and 16th presidents.

Ed Berthiaume is director of public information at Lawrence University. Email: ed.c.berthiaume@lawrence.edu

Giving Day builds on momentum, sets records for Lawrence donors, donations

Spin the Wheel Trivia was part of Giving Day activities at Lawrence on Wednesday. (Photos by Danny Damiani)

Story by Ed Berthiaume / Communications

More than 3,300 donors stepped up Wednesday to contribute more than $1.97 million in Lawrence University’s Giving Day—both all-time highs for the eighth annual event.

The day was a celebration of being back together after more than a year of remote study, with on-campus engagement events mixed with a virtual campaign to connect with alumni, faculty, staff, students, and friends, getting them excited about what’s to come for Lawrence.

Amber Nelson, associate director of annual giving and project manager for Giving Day, said the day was all about supporting students—current and future—and nurturing day-to-day life at Lawrence, mostly through the Lawrence Fund, which provides for campus improvements, sustainability efforts, academic innovations, and student opportunities in arts and athletics. Alumni who signed up as “game changers” matched donated funds as part of various “game changer challenges” on campus and on social media throughout the day.

“We are so grateful that the Lawrence community shined so bright on Giving Day to help us break records for both donors and dollars,” Nelson said.

Nelson said support came from on and off campus. There was a 36% increase in participation from faculty and staff; more than 150 alumni volunteers signed up to help spread the word of Giving Day; and students helped unlock $5,000 of “game changer” funds while organizing and participating in a bag toss challenge.

“The success of this day really was a full community effort—from alumni reaching out to their classmates encouraging them to give, to staff answering phones, to students running events on campus, to the generosity of our ‘game changers’ who provided matching gift funds, to countless other ways people showed their support for Lawrence,” Nelson said.

President Laurie A. Carter, who began her tenure as Lawrence’s 17th president in July, participated in her first Giving Day. She joined students for trivia and bag toss challenges.

Senior Anna Kallay (left) joins President Laurie A. Carter in a bag toss challenge on Main Hall Green.

“There is so much to love about Lawrence, but one thing I notice every day is how much our community cares,” Carter said. “Giving Day is such a powerful and exciting example of that.”  

A year ago, Giving Day went entirely virtual because of COVID-19 pandemic protocols. Having on-campus activities again provided additional enthusiasm, another “shining example,” Carter said, of being “Brighter Together.”

All of the “game changer” challenges were met.

“Lawrentians are pretty humble,” said Matthew Baumler, executive director of Alumni and Constituency Engagement. “All that changes on Giving Day when their support, their stories, and their encouragement is heard from around the world. It’s a day that reaffirms our commitment to the mission, and I couldn’t be more grateful.”

Ed Berthiaume is director of public information at Lawrence University. Email: ed.c.berthiaume@lawrence.edu