Monday, November 30, 2009

Thanksgiving Interview-a-thon

I just got back to Venice from a whirlwind trip to the U.S. where I interviewed candidates for the Venice and Santa Fe Project Centers.  The interviews are part of the process that the WPI Interdisciplinary and Global Studies Division has honed over the past two decades, to recruit and select students who will participate in our Global Perspecive Program, by completing either their Interactive Qualifying Project (IQP) in their junior year, or their Major Qualifying Project (MQP) in their senior year, at one of our global centers.

Project Centers in the World
Bangkok Boston Budapest Cape Town Copenhagen Hong Kong Ifrane Kansai Lexington San Juan, Puerto Rico Limerick London Melbourne Modesto Nancy Nantucket New York San Jose Venice Silicon Valley Washington, D.C Windhoek Worcester Wuhan Santa Fe, New Mexico Shanghai, China
As a testament to our popularity, Venice had the highest number of applicants (58) of all WPI centers.  Santa Fe also had a lot of candidates (14), despite being a brand new domestic center (the next highest non-international center was Washington with 4...).  Since we only take 28 students per center, it's too bad only half of the Venice candidates made the cut!  I hope some of them will end up in Santa Fe...
Unfortunately, I paid the price of success by having to interview a total of 72 students in two and a half days.  It was a grueling schedule from 7am to 10:30pm, non-stop, with a new student every half hour...  On Wednesday, I interviewed for a half day from 7am until noon, then went home, packed up and drove myself to the airport, bound for Oxford, UK, where I had a British/Canadian thanksgiving dinner at the "chapel of rest" (Anchor pub) with Adrian, Kseniya, Kyle and Ori.  The next day, we treated ourselves to a late night viewing of an interesting Steampunk exhibit, in the midst of a typically British pub crawl.  Oxford is such a stimulating little city!
Being away from the States on Thanksgiving day was a bittersweet way for me to avoid the memories of our traditional family gatherings in Connecticut, which ended very sadly last year after two decades of ritual turkey feasts...  It was my favorite holiday.  Not commercial at all, very down to earth and simple.  Very warm.  As I told many of my friends, in true escapist fashion, I am switching my allegiance to another set of holidays from now on.  I am thinking of "Flag Day" as a definite candidate, plus perhaps something like "Patriots Day" or "the Ascension" (in Venice, the Sensa).  Enough of these sentimental, heart-wrenching, family-oriented celebrations!  Too painful!
Yet, we do have a lot to be thankful for, despite the life-changing events of this past year.  We are all alive and in good health.  Still enjoying the richness that our life has to offer.  Still learning something new every day.  Still experiencing the love of our friends and families.

So... a big THANK YOU to all the friends who met and connected with me during this whirlwind of a trip.  It's amazing how many of you showed up in such a short time!  Thank you for being there for me this past year and for being a continuing supportive presence in my life.  Thanks...

Grazie Mille!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Death (and rebirth) in Venice

Right after President Berkey left Venice after his momentous visit, the Venice Project Center was at the center of a worldwide media whirlwind connected to an initiative entitled "The Funeral of Venice".
Through our friends in the 40xVenezia, we connected with, yet another grassroots organization (heretofore unbeknown to me) that is actively working to make a difference in Venice, through self-effacing, tongue-in-cheek, disruptive activities, such as this mock funeral to mourn the death of Venice, marking the fact that the city's population has dipped below the 60,000 mark, continuing its steep descent into oblivion from its peak around 175,000 after WWII.  Despite its macabre tone, the event was intended more as a wake-up call than a last rite.  In fact, on this occasion, venessiapuntocom unveiled a parallel initiative to gather signatures from "potential Venetians" who aspire to live in our city and would gladly move to Venice if they could.
After hearing of our project on the Origins of Venice, which - among other things - entails collecting DNA samples from individuals from the Triveneto area in the Northeast of Italy, to contribute to a National Geographic worldwide research project called The Genographic Project, the venessianipuntocom offered us the opportunity to join in the event to help expedite our data collection, whose goals were in line with the theme of death/rebirth that permeated the culminating performance by comic actor Cesare Colonnese during the funeral oration. Our participation became controversial when some misinformed (or perhaps disingenuous) national and local commentators interpreted our study as an attempt to identify "true Venetians" as part of some sort of eugenic plot to purify our race and possibly even reproduce ourselves by cloning our collected DNA...  hard to believe indeed...
I was forced to issue a clarification on the local Gazzettino newspaper to explain that the tests were simply a regional contribution of 350 samples to an worldwide genealogical study (with over 100,000 samples) aimed at producing an atlas of the ancient genetic pathways - evinced from haplogroups based on statistical haplotypes - of the original human migrations across the continents over 10,000 years ago, long before the Venetian republic even existed.  Luckily, on the day of the event, the students and I were all interviewed by a number of TV networks and members of the press, which by and large corrected the misconceived notions that were broadcast beforehand.

The high density of ideal candidates for our tests (unrelated adult males with both maternal and paternal grandparents from the Northeast of Italy) who could volunteer for the test, and the publicity received by our effort enabled us to collect 40 DNA swabs in just a couple of hours, while we had only collected a total of 80 since we started our project exactly a year ago.  On the wake of the event, we managed to quickly collect several more samples, which are being shipped to Barcelona to join last year's set, which has now crossed the threshold of 100 needed to begin the analyses, so that all past participants will be able to finally review, using their secret codes, their personal ascendants in the big haplofamilies of our ancestors.
Like their predecessors, this year's team is traveling to Barcelona to meet Dr. Comas at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra.
As we get closer to completing our initial 350 samples, the students will be discussing a joint research effort between the WPI Venice Project Center and the experts at the Unitat de Biologia Evolutiva to confirm/refute the various hypotheses concerning the origins of the ancient Veneti, by duplicating a prior study in the ancient Phoenicians.  There are two main theories regarding the Veneti’s origins:
  1. The Paphlagonian theory, which places their origins in Northern Turkey, with subsequent migrations up the Balcans and into today’s Veneto region in NE Italy.
  2. The Lusatian theory, which places their origins in central Europe (after a migration from the East) settling into modern-day Lusatia, a region at the intersection between Poland, the Czech Republic and Germany (East Germany).
There are also well-known historical mentions of the Veneti (possibly an unrelated Celtic people) in other parts of Europe, especially in Britanny (Vannes).
We hope that The Genographic Project and the National Geographic Society will sponsor this follow up study which, while it won't contribute to the rebirth of today's city of Venice, should shed some light on the long-dead ancestors of the inhabitants of the lagoons.

Orate pro nobis
("O meio do go?")

Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Eagle, the Lion, the Arm and the Hammer

WPI's President Berkey, his wife Dr. Cathy Berkey, and the VP for Development and Alumni Relations, Dexter Bailey spent three days in Venice this week. It was a great pleasure for me to host the first WPI president to visit Venice in the 20 years of existence of the Venice Project Center (VPC).
It also gave me a chance to get to know the distinguished visitors on a personal level and to share with them the successes of the VPC, as well as my dreams for the next 20 years of the center.  It was a really enjoyable and fruitful experience.
The visit started with a relaxing dinner at the Corte Sconta restaurant, near the Arsenale and a short walk from the hotel where they were staying.  At dinner, we discussed some of the main highlights about the work that WPI students have done for Venice since 1988 with the goal of "leaving Venice better than we found it".  I was positively struck by the keen interest President Berkey showed for our program, and for its impact on our students and on the City itself.  As dinner progressed, I had a chance to put forth to the president an idea that I had previously discussed with WPI trustee Stephen Rubin.  How great would it be to offer a full scholarship to a young Venetian to go to college at WPI for free?  What if we did the same at all of our global project centers?  The repercussions would be immense!  These alumni would create a permanent bond  between WPI and our project sites, which over time would foster a thriving alumni network in all the countries where we operate, with exponentially positive consequences for all.  President Berkey really liked the idea and I plan to spell it out in full detail in a memo to him after I return to the US at the end of the year.
Since they brought the sunshine with them, our esteemed visitors had a chance to see the city in its glory on the following day.  During a leisurely walk from the Arsenale to the Frari church, I showed them some of the highlights of the city and introduced them to the great work completed by the 500+ WPI students who have traveled to Venice over the past two decades.  It was a beautiful walk on a beautiful day.  They even had a chance to walk on the acqua alta planks since St. Mark's square was slightly flooded...
As a crowning climax to the walk we were treated to a backstage tour of the Venice State Archives, with its 70Km of shelves containing the history of Venice's Republic in the form of government records handwritten on parchments dating from before the year 1000 AD to 1797, when the Serenissima fell to Napoleon.  Readers of this blog may recall reading about our long-term efforts to develop an online application called uScript that would allow the cumulative transcription of ancient manuscripts, thus allowing historians to tap into the wealth of knowledge contained in the Venice archives.  We still have a $350,000 grant application pending with the National Endowment for the Humanities to bring the effort to fruition and a team of WPI students is continuing to make progress on this endeavor this term in Venice.
Following a meeting with the archive's director, who pledged full collaboration in this joint effort, the highlight of our visit was when we were shown original handwritten letters sent by none other than Benjamin Franklin, one of the most famous founding fathers, and John Adams, the second president, of the United States of America.
These most prominent of all Americans, were writing to the Doge to request a commercial treaty between the ancient Venetian republic and the newly independent colonies across the ocean.  It was enlightening to read the letter from Venice's ambassador to Paris that accompanied the American request, who begged for permission to communicate to the letter writers (who were utterly unknown to the Doge) that "at least the letter had been received and read"...  Apparently the republic had better things to do that to pay heed to these rebels from across the pond... Funny how the tides of power have turned in just 200 years!  Who knows what the balance of power will be in 2209?!
After another great meal at the Zucca, we enjoyed a complimentary taxi ride, thanks to our former project sponsors Consorzio Venezia Motoscafi, who later picked us up for the gala dinner at the Stucky Hilton Hotel.

The dinner was attended by all 27 of the current Venice Project Center students, plus a number of distinguished Venetian guests, including Dr. Pierpaolo Campostrini of Co.Ri.La., Dr. Franco Fiorin, director of the Mobility office for the City of Venice, Prof. Vincent Corruble, of Paris VI University, Dr. Emanuele Dal Carlo, founder of the 40xVenice movement, and Tyler White of the Santa Fe Complex.  One former Venice alumnus, Douglas Leenhouts, who worked on the Sounds of Venice project in the summer of 2003 was also in attendance.  The dinner was excellent and President Berkey's speech, praising the work of the students who have attended the Venice Project Center over the past two decades, was an outstanding conclusion to this very successful visit.
We all look forward to many more official (or personal) visits from WPI notables in the years to come...
Let the Eagle and the Lion be united by the Arm & Hammer!