One in Two Thousand: Katie Swoap ’17

Photo courtesy of Katie Swoap.
Photo courtesy of Katie Swoap.

Swoap is a fairly common name at the College. Between Professor of Biology Steven Swoap, Jennifer Swoap in the Center for Learning in Action, and Katie (‘17), there seem to be a lot of them. Katie is determined to do everything Williams has to offer. We finally caught her to chat about her experiences at Mystic Seaport, what life as a townie is like and her plan to save the cod. 

Why did you choose to go to Williams-Mystic Maritime Studies Program (Mystic)?

I went on a field trip with my oceanography class at the end of my sophomore spring. It was pouring rain, and everyone was super bummed that we were going out there because it was a three-hour drive. But then we got there and started doing all of this cool field work for science, and we visited the rocky [exposed bedrock] in Rhode Island, and it was just super fun. They showed us all the different animals and the rock; I thought it was super cool. And I saw how happy all the students were there. It just seemed like a really fun place to be.

Was that the Mystic campus?

Yeah, so the oceanography class drove out there, and we met the scientists and other professors as well. They gave us all an introduction to what they teach. The [literature] professor read us this passage while we were overlooking the water, which was super fun. And then we went and did water quality sampling and the professors were super bad ass – sorry I can’t swear [laughs] – and everyone was wearing full rain gear because it was pouring. They took this massive sediment core and let it plop out onto my hands which was really magical. Then they showed us this strip of sand that was from… I think it was from Hurricane Sandy. Basically they were just talking about geology and stuff. It was super cool, and the professors were awesome.

What was your favorite part of Mystic?

It’s really fun because you get to travel a lot. I guess I really liked seeing all of the different ecosystems we got to go visit. You get to go view the ocean from a bunch of different coasts so we went to the four [different] coasts; the Pacific Coast, and then down the Gulf Coast, the East Coast and [the coast of] Lake Erie. It was really fun to be able to go look at all those different ecosystems. When I went to the Pacific Coast – we were out in California – when we went out to the rocky, I saw there were 300 species of different starfish. It was the coolest thing ever. It blew my mind. [Laughs.] Because in New England, they have only 20 or 30 species in the rocky and so I just assumed that was how it was everywhere. So we get there, and it’s the most diverse,  amazing place in the whole world. They said, “Think about why there’s so much diversity.” I literally could not think of why. It turns out because there are no glaciers covering the rocky intertidal, so there’s been a lot more time for them to evolve and diversify. And I had only ever learned about glaciers shaping the geology, such as locally in Williamstown. So that blew my mind.

Mystic is a Williams program, but not many Williams kids go, right?

Yeah, it’s the hidden gem of Williams. It’s our coastal campus. Basically now I’m trying to make a bigger integrated link between the two campuses, because it’s such a cool resource that students have access to but no one really knows about it. And everyone thinks you’re on a boat the whole time, and that’s not true. No one really knows about the whole travel component. You get to do a lot of cool research, which is super fun, with all the professors and in all your different classes. You get to do marine policy. I had never taken a policy class, or government or political science or any of that. I ended up taking this policy class and it was the coolest thing. You get to be outside a lot, which I loved.

So I hear you have beef with the dining halls about a certain kind of fish.

I am very passionate about Atlantic cod. So this kind of happened while I was doing my marine policy research project. I was looking at this portion of Georgia’s Bank, which is right off Cape Cod, that the New England fisheries management people – the government that regulates that area of the ocean – they wanted to open up this area of protected waters for ground fishing. So basically there are a bunch of scallops down there, which is the most lucrative fishing industry, like more lucrative than salmon or lobster, so all of these scallop people were really pushing and lobbying the government to say look, open this area so we can come get these scallops. And basically the issue with that is that it was a ground fish habitat for cod, so it was where they go and spawn and have all their juveniles. Basically by opening that water they were ruining all this cod habitat, and it’s extremely overfished, it’s at one or two percent of its stock levels. So I kind of got into this “save the cod” mindset. And then I got back here, and we were serving Atlantic cod to our students, and I couldn’t believe it. In this place where we care a lot about the environment, they’re serving us Atlantic cod! Serve us something like mackerel or pollock or haddock that doesn’t have a huge carbon footprint and that we can source locally and use our resources that we have not entirely depleted. We can use resources from a fishery that is well run.

What’s it like having your parents both work on campus?

My dad is actually on a three-semeser sabbatical. So it’s funny because last year my boyfriend and a bunch of my best friends were in his class, so that was a little bit weird. [Laughs.] I was like, “Well, I hope you guys do well!” And they were all competitive with each other. My dad and I get along super well. We have the same sense of humor.

Does he love science more or less than you do?

Oh he’s kind of the reason why I love science. I think the research he does is super cool. Over winter break I came in and did a surgery with him. It was father-daughter bonding time. He showed me how to stitch up a mouse. It’s fun with my mom, also. She is just super cute and helps a ton of students here.  I get a lot of flack for being a bio major because my dad’s in the department. But it’s fun. I’ll never have him as a professor, it just never worked out that way, but it’s fun.

Even though you grew up here and go to school here, you’ve had time away from Williamstown. You spent time in Argentina, right?

Yeah. Basically when I was checking out which colleges I wanted to go to, I did not start with Williams as my first choice. I ended up visiting 14 different colleges and taking a ton of tours and interviews. Then I decided I wanted to go to Williams. It was really nice that my parents did not push me at all. But then when I applied to Williams I decided that I definitely needed to go out and do my own thing. So I’d previously been out of the country for a year when I was a freshman in high school [and] we lived in Australia for my dad’s sabbatical, but I wanted to go do a similar thing but by myself. So I found an exchange program through the Rotary Club. I went to Argentina for a year as a high school exchange student, which was hilarious because I’d already graduated high school. I did not speak a word of Spanish when I got there. And I wasn’t in Buenos Aires, I was in San Juan, which is kind of less Europeanized. There are no English speakers in San Juan. So I showed up to the airport – oh my gosh, it was such a mess. I told my host family I was getting in at 3 p.m., and they thought I meant three in the morning because they use military time, so they showed up at three in the morning and I obviously was not there. I didn’t speak any Spanish at all, and they didn’t speak any English, so I had to learn really fast. And I went to high school, which was hilarious. I made a lot of friends and they taught me to speak Spanish. And I traveled around a lot, which was super fun. I read all of the Harry Potter books in Spanish. That’s kind of my claim to Argentina. I did not do well in school there. It was pretty brutal. I would take exams, and I would hand it in to the professor and they’d just throw it in the recycling bin. They wouldn’t even read it. It was so sad.

Freshman year you also backpacked through Europe, right?

I made a bunch of friends in Argentina who were also exchange students, and I decided that I wanted to go to Europe and see them. But I was pretty broke, so I needed to stay with people. I emailed a bunch of Williams alums saying, “Hi, I’m Katie, I’m a freshman at Williams and I’m going on a solo backpacking trip this summer, can I crash on your couch for a couple of days?” A ton of alums said yes – I could’ve lived in Europe for a year with all these alums who told me I could stay with them. Actually, I ended up being in Berlin for the World Cup Final between Germany and Argentina. When [Germany] won, I truly thought I was going to lose my life. That was the wildest thing I’ve ever seen. People were just throwing fireworks into the crowd and spraying beer and champagne everywhere. Everyone was chanting, punching the ceiling with this German fight song. I was like, “My mom would kill me if she saw this!” But yeah, that was super fun. People should go stay with Williams alums! It’s the way to do it.

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