Professors explore the world during worthwhile sabbaticals

We’ve all heard the elementary school rumor that teachers live at school and by this point, we have hopefully had that rumor debunked. At the College, it’s even clearer that professors have a life outside the classroom; we run into them at Stop and Shop, babysit their kids and maybe even get invited to a class meeting in their homes. But what happens when they take an entire year away from the College community and go on sabbatical? The Record caught up with four professors to learn about the projects and positions they undertake during sabbatical.

Assistant Professor of Geoscience Phoebe Cohen is currently on sabbatical doing research here at the College, though she began her leave with a trip to Oxford in the United Kingdom. There she met with her research collaborator, a trip that could not have happened had she been teaching. “The biggest difference for me [being on sabbatical] is just having long, uninterrupted periods of time where I can really focus on my work,” she said. “It’s the flexibility to schedule my time, so I can leave campus and go write somewhere else for the day or take a trip.”

Her research is on proving the origin of biomineralization, which is the process by which living organisms produce minerals. She and her collaborator, an expert in minerals, are examining fossils discovered in the Yukon, Canada, which could be the oldest evidence of biomineralization. The instruments needed to examine the fossils are unavailable at the College, however, thus necessitating her trip to Oxford.

“At Williams, most faculty [members] are relatively intellectually isolated because we cover a lot of area. I can talk to my colleagues and get feedback from them, but they don’t understand the nitty-gritty specifics of what I’m doing,” Cohen said. “So, another thing that sabbaticals are really great for is that you have more time to connect with people in your field who are working on things more closely related to you.”

Staying in Williamstown for her sabbatical is somewhat of a mixed bag. “It’s nice to get to enjoy life here in a little more relaxed setting,” she said. However, it’s a little harder to focus completely on her research in the College setting. “I don’t like being alone all the time, but at the same time I feel like I’m getting brought into things and meetings and all that stuff, whereas if I had gone away for the year that wouldn’t be an option.” Overall, she has enjoyed her time on sabbatical so far and is grateful to the College for providing sabbatical for non-tenured faculty, as it has afforded her lots of opportunities. “It’s just been easier for me to say ‘yes’ to things.”

Chair and Associate Professor of Computer Science Brent Heeringa has been on two sabbaticals, the latest being two years ago. During that time, he split his days between Williamstown and Northampton, Mass., where he did research for the mobile marketing firm Fiksu. He appreciated the opportunity to work in private industry, especially as it allowed him to “learn about the latest technologies” and then later “take them back into the classroom.”

Here in Williamstown, Heeringa worked with Associate Professor of Psychology Nate Kornell on sophisticated mnemonics. “It’s a way to take information and transform it through associations, and you can take those associations and store them in imaginary places in your mind,” he said. He noted that the world memory champion could memorize an entire deck of cards in under 30 seconds and that he and Kornell hoped to bring that kind of ability to the average person.

The pair created a web-based model that used sophisticated mnemonics to allow people to memorize sensitive and private information. Users enter an important number they need to remember, like their social security number, and are then presented with as many photographs as the number of digits they submitted. The system asks them to enter a description for each image, creating an association in their mind. To retrieve the sensitive number they stored, the users must identify all or all but one of the original images they were shown when grouped with a random assortment of images. Such a system makes for especially advantageous storage, notes an article on Kornell and Heeringa’s work in the 2015 Williams Magazine, because hackers cannot decode the images. Like Cohen, Heeringa appreciated the opportunity to concentrate on research outside of the classroom. “It’s nice to be able to focus on a single research project without any distractions,”  he said.

Associate Professor of Economics Tara Watson, while not technically on sabbatical, is currently on leave from the College and serving as the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Microeconomic Analysis in the Office of Economic Policy at the U.S. Treasury in Washington, D.C. The focus of her position is domestic policy at the microeconomic level, on issues such as health and education. “It has been fantastic to be able to apply the key concepts that we teach in the economics department to important policy issues,” she said. “I have also found undergraduate teaching great preparation as it allows me to explain technical ideas to people who don’t necessarily have an economics background.” She credits the College’s sabbatical policy for allowing “professors to have different experiences and grow as scholars.”

This January, Class of 2012 Professor of Economics Stephen Sheppard will also be leaving Williamstown for his sabbatical in the Netherlands. He will be a visiting scholar for the University of Groningen, where he has collaborated with people for research in the past. His focus will primarily be on location and economic activity, specifically cultural organizations and how they influence the city in which they’re located. As his work at the college involves the process of art acquisition, he will also be attending the European Fine Art Fair to observe the art market in Europe and talk to some researchers on art pricing. He was grateful for the opportunity for this kind of travel, much like Cohen, since there are many conferences abroad that he could not attend while teaching.

Sheppard is most excited for “the chance to work on some projects and to learn from other people and get exposed to ideas that I’ll bring back and incorporate into my teaching.” Not only that, he will also get to temporarily “be a Dutchman” and enjoy riding his bike around the city of Groningen – a delightful accompaniment to any sabbatical.