A Look Back

Making Headlines

By Peter Bronski

Vassar’s alumnae/i and faculty (sometimes one and the same) have been among the foremost movers and shakers in areas ranging from society to science, academia to athletics, outer space to kitchen space. What follows is a small sampling of Vassar pioneers, testaments to the caliber of a Vassar education that prepared each to become not just a learned thinker, but a leader.

Foodies Unite!

Anthony Bourdain ’77

Anthony Bourdain ’77 and Andrew Zimmern ’84, two of the college’s most famed foodies, followed remarkably similar paths. Both spent their childhoods in New York City, had an early education at Vassar, and achieved professional acclaim in restaurant kitchens. Forays into food writing followed, as did food-oriented Travel Channel shows, and most notably, prestigious James Beard Foundation awards. The foundation inducted Bourdain into its “Who’s Who of Food and Beverage in America,” putting him in the company of Julia Child, Bobby Flay, and Nina (’63) and Tim Zagat, while it honored Zimmern as top “TV Food Personality” in its annual awards, which Time magazine has called the “Oscars of the food world.”

Learn more about Bourdain and Zimmern.

Why Do Kids Eat Paint?

This was a question that puzzled environmental health and safety expert and MacArthur Fellowship award recipient Ellen Kovner Silbergeld ’67, until she simply picked a flake of paint off a windowsill and put it in her mouth. It was sweet. That eureka moment, and the cascade of research and discoveries that followed, brought to light the traumatic and devastating neurological health effects of lead exposure from sources such as household paint. Thanks to Silbergeld’s efforts, lead exposure and its negative health consequences are a fraction of what they once were.

Rocking the Boat

Inspired by an internship aboard the Hudson River sloop Clearwater, Adam Green ’95, in 1996, launched a volunteer boat-building project for junior-high school students at the East Harlem Maritime School. Other larger boat-building projects followed, attracting growing numbers of youth from economically disadvantaged groups. The students gained the skills they needed to achieve newly forming aspirations. In June 2001, Rocking the Boat, Green’s Bronx-based non-profit that oversees such projects, was born. Its boatbuilding, environmental education, on-water classroom, and public rowing programs now reach more than 2,500 urban youth each year.

Learn more about Silbergeld, Green, and other members of the Vassar Vanguard.

Media Mogul

After working her way up the television news ranks in Texas, Oklahoma, and New York City, Paula Williams Madison ’74 eventually landed in Los Angeles as the president and general manager of KNBC, where she became the first African American woman to head up a network station in a top-five market. She also assumed a leadership role for LA’s Telemundo Spanish language affiliates. Madison earned an area Emmy award and regional Edward R. Murrow awards for her focus on positive, community-oriented stories. Today, she serves as executive vice president of diversity at NBC. It’s the first time in the network’s history that a senior executive has had diversity as his or her main charge.

Learn more about Madison and other Media Moguls in Vassar's ranks.

Illuminating Dark Matter

The only astronomy major in her class, Vera Cooper Rubin ’48 went on to study the discrepancies between the predicted and observed angular rotation of galaxies and is widely credited with implicitly proving the existence of dark matter in the universe. Dark matter—unobservable directly—is thought to make up some 30% of the universe. Rubin’s findings made dark matter the leading contender for elucidating many of the unexplained facets of the universe. Subsequent research has supported Rubin’s findings, making definitive proof of the existence of dark matter a stone’s throw away. Today, Rubin continues her pioneering work as a senior fellow with the Carnegie Institution for the Sciences in Washington, DC.

The Quirks of Quarks

Sau Lan Wu ’63 has devoted her life to science—specifically the study of physics. Blazing a path through Vassar, Harvard, and MIT, Wu has answered some big picture questions by studying the very, very small: elementary subatomic particles known as quarks. Current physics theories hold that there are 17 such particles. Wu played integral roles in observing (and thus, discovering) two—the charm quark and the gluon. To date, 16 of the 17 have been discovered, and Wu is leading the charge to prove the existence of the last, known as the God Particle. The Large Hadron Collider, a new high-energy particle accelerator in Switzerland, is expected to help scientists either prove or disprove the particle’s existence. Wu (also a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison) is stationed there, where she is on the roster of the European Organization for Nuclear Research—CERN.

Learn more about Rubin, Wu and other scientists who are Reaching for the Stars.