Harvard Gazette, May 24, 2012
When she was a Radcliffe fellow in 2002, Lizabeth Cohen, Harvard's Howard Mumford Jones Professor of American Studies, needed help.
The deadline for her upcoming book "A Consumers' Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America," was fast approaching, and there were "holes in the work."
"I needed to clone myself," recalled Cohen, who did the next best thing. She partnered with an enthusiastic Harvard College history concentrator. "We would brainstorm, and then I would send her off to Widener to dig around and see what she could find. It was tremendously helpful, and rewarding for both of us."
Cohen, dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, took advantage of the longtime Radcliffe Institute Research Partnership Program, which pairs students with the institute's fellows: artists, scientists, scholars, and professionals who delve into a dynamic range of subjects during their Cambridge year.
Over the past decade, more than 500 students have taken part, teaming with the fellows to study such diverse topics as the history of the brownie, the search for new planets, the connection between language and cognition, the impact of Olympic stadiums on urban infrastructure, hip-hop culture, and more.
Participants agree that the benefits of the paid research positions, which require an average of five to 10 hours a week from a student, extend well beyond the financial rewards or having an extra pair of hands. "We make it clear," said Cohen, "the students are to be true partners."
For Dan Smail, the life of the secluded scholar is nothing new. As a medieval historian, he has spent countless hours alone in archives deciphering texts written in ancient scripts. Working with just your source material, admitted the Harvard professor of history, "can be very lonely." But over the past academic year, Smail received some welcome company.
Through the research program, Smail and three student collaborators created a humanities lab in his Byerly Hall office. They met weekly, for five hours at a time, lunch included, and tried to unravel material mysteries of the Middle Ages.
Smail enlisted their help for his book "Goods and Debts in Mediterranean Europe," which uses archival records generated by the process of debt recovery to examine the material culture of the time.
He employed the Latin skills of a classics concentrator to help him complete a computerized glossary of ancient terms. His two student researchers skilled in Excel pored over his notes and transcriptions of thousands of archival documents and entered the monetary value of household items into a comprehensive spreadsheet.
"The most striking conclusion of that project was the fact that the investment in movable goods (including linens, but especially clothing and fine metal wares made of silver and jewels) rivaled the investment in real estate," said Smail. "That discovery sprang out of this work."
Smail said he loved working with a team and the opportunity to bounce ideas off of a readership he would like to reach, "smart, interested people," he said, "with no special knowledge" of medieval history. If they found ideas he broached interesting, Smail said he was "sure to pursue them."
While some students look for projects connected to their fields of study, others gravitate toward those that simply pique their curiosity, or allow them to apply their skills to something new. Math concentrator Shelby Lin welcomed the chance to work with Michael Brenner, the man behind the wildly popular sessions called "Science and Cooking: From Haute Cuisine to the Science of Soft Matter."
Harvard's Glover Professor of Applied Mathematics and Applied Physics used his Radcliffe year to examine how to solve scientific questions raised in the kitchen with the help of mathematical models, along the way tracking history of two popular sweets.
Lin's team of four student researchers combed the extensive cookbook collection at the Schlesinger Library for old cookie and brownie recipes, and contacted celebrity cooks, including the pastry chef at the White House, looking for the same. They even hit the kitchen, experimenting with the ratios of ingredients in cookies and brownies.
Lin fed the collected data into a spreadsheet and developed a statistical graph that plotted the evolution of recipes for cookies and brownies over time.
"I wanted to see ways to apply math to new and interesting things," said Lin. The project did exactly that, she said, teaching her new analytical skills, while offering her insights into the evolution of the treats.
The exchange of ideas is a critical component of the program for the fellows and students alike.
Music concentrator Zach Sheets '13 used his computer skills to help composer John Aylward more efficiently capture notes on the page for his works of modern classical music. Sheets, a flutist and composer, instructed Aylward, who often still works with paper and pencil, in the nuances of the music notation software Sibelius. In turn, Aylward helped Sheets with his own arrangements, offering him suggestions on things like "musical aesthetics and how to think about beginning a composition."
"I have definitely learned a lot from talking to someone, not just once or twice but very often," said Sheets, someone "who thinks very differently about how music is constructed, or about how he constructs music or his working process."