Vassar Today

Summertime at Vassar: Is the Living Easy?

By Daniel Steckenberg ’06

Though his father Sudha is a doctor, it’s not the science of medicine that interests Anoop Pillarisetti ’07, but the social, political, and ethical issues that new medicines inevitably raise.

Born in Illinois and raised in Alexandria, Louisiana, a small city in the middle of the state on the Red River, Pillarisetti believes in Southern hospitality, but said he’s “happy to get away from the...cultural climate of Alexandria, to try something new.”

This summer, as a Ford Scholar working with Professor of Political Science Molly Shanley, Pillarisetti had a chance to stay at Vassar and explore his interests. Shanley’s project was called “Social Justice and New Reproductive Technologies.” When most people think of reproductive technologies, Shanley said, they think of profoundly personal issues. “I want to suggest that there are larger social issues involved.”

Shanley and Pillarisetti started with the broad topic of new reproductive technologies and then began to narrow their scope, eventually finding that infertility treatment interested them most. Because having a child affects a person’s legal standing within a state, the availability of infertility treatment could affect people’s citizenship. Shanley and Pillarisetti found that access to new treatments increased with socioeconomic standing.

Each summer the Ford Scholar program allows a small number of Vassar students to live on campus as they work closely with a professor in his or her research. This summer there were 12 Ford Scholars on campus, working on a variety of projects. Pillarisetti’s and Shanley’s work will culminate in November when Pillarisetti accompanies Shanley to a conference at Hofstra Law School where she will present a paper on their findings.

For Pillarisetti, the Ford Scholar position was more than just remunerative. “I wanted to see what it actually means to be in academia,” he said. This is one of the main draws of the Ford Scholar program. For perhaps the first time in a student’s life, he or she gets paid to do research. Study becomes a job, in some ways mimicking the life of a professor

The library was Pillarisetti’s “office” this summer. He spent two to three hours a day doing research there. The next morning he would meet with Shanley to discuss the previous day’s findings. His work for the summer added up to a large annotated bibliography, the more interesting parts of which might end up on Shanley’s syllabus this year, or as a part of her paper.

This kind of research, Pillarisetti admitted, was far different from writing a paper for one of his political science classes, where the professor largely determines the subject. It was more open, and Pillarisetti had to find his own focus. The work “helps me move from a broad category to something more specific,” he said. “When I imagine myself writing my thesis, I imagine the same thing.”

This is music to Shanley’s ears. She called the ability for undergraduates to have close contact with professors doing research “one of Vassar’s really strong points. We don’t have graduate students,” she said. “We treat our seniors like graduates, like colleagues. I look at this as a collegial relationship. I am not teaching Anoop.” If her Ford Scholar doesn’t enjoy research, she said, “It’s going to be the summer from hell.”

Luckily, Pillarisetti had a good time. He called the nearly deserted summer campus “peaceful,” and seemed to enjoy living in the Town Houses, a preview of his senior-year housing. Living with four other people required “a lot more diplomacy” than dorm living, he said, but added that “it’s good to be able to cook for myself — and clean up for myself sometimes.”