ALUMNI PROFILES — Summer 2006
   

 

Performing with One Voice, Once Again

Alumni of the a cappella group Mosaic Whispers never missed a beat as they returned to the stage on April 1, 2006, in Graham Chapel. As part of the group's 15th anniversary Splash of Color concert, the singers performed some of their greatest hits of the past 15 years, including The Rose (Bette Midler cover), Big Yellow Taxi (Joni Mitchell cover), Somebody to Love (Queen cover), and Uninvited (Alanis Morrisette cover). Of the group's 78 alumni, some 50 returned from all parts of the United States and, in one case, from China for this special evening.

"I haven't sung for about seven years, so I'm a bit rusty," says Sara Bleiberg, A.B. '00 (psychology and music), who manages a freshman residence hall as a staffer at New York University in New York City. "But it's amazing how you never forget your part in songs you've performed. It's so ingrained." No doubt that's because the group has always practiced about 10 hours per week, with rehearsals usually on two weeknights and on Sundays.

Founded in 1991, Mosaic Whispers is the oldest coed a cappella group at the University, performing everything from pop and hard rock to jazz, oldies, country, soul, and funk. One of the founding members, Josh Einsohn, A.B. '94 (drama), a casting director, who helped cast The Polar Express movie and The West Wing TV series, organized the entire reunion weekend for the alumni. Describing how the group began, he says: "Seven of us from the Burmeister Cup-winning South 40 Facade at Thurtene Carnival gathered afterward to create Mosaic Whispers, and Dan Newman (B.S.C.S. '92, B.S.E.E. '93) was the one who got the group going. We chose 'mosaic' because of the group's diverse music and members, which has held true throughout its history, and 'whispers' because that's what was left of our voices after performing at Thurtene."

Over the years, the group has grown in stage presence, and, in addition to producing albums and going on national concert tours, it now is routinely included in the highly selective Best of Collegiate A Cappella album produced annually.

"Being in the group helps you grow in guts and confidence," Bleiberg says. "And the intensity of performing well together creates a strong bond. That's why we're still like family."


Lynn Messina, A.B. '94

Fashioning a Writing Career

When her ultra-hip first novel, Fashionistas, launched her into the spotlight, Lynn Messina's wit never failed her, although she worried her wardrobe might.

"It's suddenly very daunting to buy an outfit," she says. "I'm not stylish at all, which is funny considering the title of my book."

Fashionistas (Red Dress Ink, 2003) is about a 20-something editor at a New York City fashion magazine who conspires to overthrow her shrewish boss. Although the heroine has contempt for the celebri-chic she promulgates in the magazine ("This is Jennifer Anniston's plunger. This is where you can get it."), Messina manages to avoid cynicism, writing a fond but unflinching satire of name-dropping glossies.

A Publisher's Weekly reviewer wrote, "Messina's prose is witty and assured (she's read her Austen, her Wharton, her Noel Coward), and her novel is an irresistible frolic."

Pondering the popularity of Gwyneth's eyebrows is no stretch for Messina, who has worked as an editor for InStyle, Self, TV Guide, and Metropolitan Home. She still edits freelance half the month, writing novels the other half. "There are writers who get up at 5 in the morning, write for two hours, and then go to work. I think they're insane," Messina says. "I can't divide my attention that way. Working two weeks and having two weeks off to write is the ideal situation for me. It was an opportunity that came way sooner in my career than I ever imagined."

Hollywood has come, too. A film producer bought the rights to Fashionistas in 2004, and it is currently in production with Paramount Studios. Several starlets have been linked to the project, including Lindsay Lohan. But Messina, who is not writing the screenplay, learns of developments on the film like everyone else—gossip and Google. "It's like reading tea leaves," she says.

Since Fashionistas, Messina has written Tallulahland (2004) and Mim Warner's Lost Her Cool (2005). In the first, the heroine toils as an assistant to a famous designer, gets fired, then discovers she was ready to move on long before she was forced out. A nasty work scene then a dismissal that propels the heroine to her higher purpose is not unlike TV Guide downsizing Messina, who suddenly had time for novels.

In Mim Warner, Messina cannot resist poking fun at her own success: "...I'd asked her about the spate of fashion-magazine-industry-insider novels that had just been released. She made a few guesses—the way fashion editors are notoriously easy targets for satirizing, the way fashion morphed into entertainment about five years before—but ... she really didn't have an answer."

Fashionistas, which coincidentally debuted at the same time as The Devil Wears Prada and the Shopaholic series, was Messina's 10th attempt at a novel. "I thought each one would be the one that sells. When you finally have success, you have to decide: 'Is this a moment, or is this a career?'"

With an upcoming fourth book, Petra Swift Saves the World, Messina clearly is having more than just a moment. But she also is having angst about the label "Chick Lit," the genre defined by Bridget Jones and Sex and the City, wherein a clever, stylish career gal transcends the idiocy around her and always gets the guy. "I have a complex relationship with Chick Lit," Messina says. "I don't think I would have had a market for Fashionistas without it. I'm grateful for that. But the term is often reductive and dismissive. I should be able to write what I want without my books being considered throw-away."

Long before Chick Lit even existed, Messina was writing novels: as a middle-schooler, as an undergrad in favorite professor Madeline Brainard's courses, and as a junior studying abroad at King's College in London. After graduating from Washington U. with a degree in literature, she interned for Avalon Books. In a true heroine-on-a-mission caper, Messina came up with a pseudonym, wrote four books, submitted them to herself, and gave them the green light to her editor's desk. "None of them was quite right. But I got such positive feedback from those early books, I realized I could do this writing thing."    

Married and living in Manhattan, Messina has become the novelist she dreamed of as a Long Island teenager, but she won't overthink it. "I have no idea what is going to happen in a book," she says. "I ramble on long enough to find a plot and I write toward it. I don't examine my process too closely. I'm afraid it will fall apart."

— Leigh Brown Perkins



Mark Olson is a biologist who studies trees' growth patterns from the air. His favorite mode of transportation is a paraglider. In 2004, the National Geographic Society included him in a select group of "Emerging Explorers."

Plant Biologist Is High-Flier

If we had a bird's-eye view of trees, we could see how they pattern their leaves and branches to collect sunlight that fuels their growth. Instead, we usually view them from the ground. To resolve that problem, Mark Olson, Ph.D. '01, studies trees in a paraglider that skims above the treetops at 15 to 20 miles-an-hour.

In retrospect, the idea of studying trees from the air seems obvious. But Olson, now assistant professor of biology at the National University of Mexico, was the first to do it. He was also among the first to realize the paraglider's potential as a vehicle for scientific discovery. Since his first flight six years ago, the paraglider has caught on as a scientific tool, and Olson has been recognized as one of the world's best up-and-coming explorers by the National Geographic Society, which in 2004 named him to its select group of "Emerging Explorers."

Olson realized the potential of aerial surveillance while doing research for his doctorate in evolutionary and population biology. He wanted to travel to remote locations in northeast Africa but found the sites inaccessible by foot or land vehicle. A local rancher offered to fly him in a small plane, which landed in dry riverbeds and other makeshift landing strips.

To and from the sites, Olson began to observe trees from above, and then he had a flash of insight. From the ground looking up, one tree species looks much like another. From the air, the configurations of branches and foliage differ markedly from species to species. "I thought, well, of course, that stands to reason. Trees don't care what they look like from the ground. But they care very much what they look like as they face the sky because that's how they collect light."

Olson returned to St. Louis and learned to fly small prop planes but found they went too fast for research. Then he discovered the paraglider, which lets him putter above the treetops of Mexican forests while snapping digital photographs. He then returns to the lab where computers analyze the photos.

He wants to learn whether plants follow repetitive patterns in their branches and foliage to maximize light gathering and other survival functions. If that's true, every broccoli should look pretty much like every other broccoli, and every tree should look pretty much like every other tree of the same species.

The theory holds with broccoli. But trees are tougher to analyze because storms knock off branches and change the way they look. So with trees, Olson expects to find that they try to grow in repetitive patterns that maximize light gathering but aren't always able to do so because of environmental conditions and the weather.

While much of his research focuses on trees, shrubs, and vines of the world's dry tropical forests, his aerial research focuses on rain forests, where trees are much taller. That lets Olson fly at higher, safer altitudes and still get good photos.

His findings may yield critical insights into how plants work in general, knowledge that could aid efforts to protect endangered forests and to help researchers create better, stronger versions of the plants that feed us.

Olson grew up in California and went to undergraduate school at the University of California at Santa Barbara. He had planned on a career researching California flora, but Washington University opened new vistas. "At Washington University, faculty encouraged us to ask questions with global implications," he says. "With this research, I am trying to learn things about trees that could apply everywhere."         

— Doug McInnis


Susan Borgen is owner of T-Party Antiques and Tea Room in Darien, Connecticut.

Designing a Business That Fits to a 'T'

T-Party Antiques and Tea Room, located in the historic downtown section of Darien, Connecticut, is the brainchild of Susan Borgen, B.F.A. '80. After a successful graphic design career, including seven years with various New York City companies and 17 years at her own firm, Susan Borgen Design in Connecticut, she was ready for a change.

"The bottom line is that I didn't want to be tied to the computer forever for my work," says Borgen. "Then one day my husband said to me: 'You know, you don't have to do graphic design forever. A lot of people change professions in midstream.' And although I had always thought somewhere in the back of my mind about opening an antique shop, I never thought that I could just stop what I was doing and start something new.

"I have an entrepreneurial spirit," she continues. "I have a lot of energy and always like trying new things. That part is not daunting to me. That's exciting. I also knew that I wanted to combine the antiques with something else, and I felt this would be the perfect combination, tea and antiques."

T-Party opened its doors in July 2003. While her business partner, a talented chef, creates the tea time treats, Borgen keeps her creative juices flowing by designing all of the shop's marketing materials, including the Web site and logo, as well as the ever-changing merchandising displays of antiques and collectibles in the 1890 farmhouse T-Party calls home.

"It's extremely satisfying," Borgen says. "I'm working directly with the public now, which I love. Many wonderful people come in, and often they come to celebrate something special in their lives, which makes it a really warm, happy, fun place to work."

Although the tearoom was not designed as an English-style tearoom, British patrons have happily noted the similarities, including the traditional scones and clotted cream. "We consider ourselves to be a quintessentially American tearoom," Borgen says. The "T" in T-Party Antiques and Tea Room harkens back to the early 20th century and the Prohibition era, when many women, often supporters of the Temperance Movement (with its trademark stand-alone capital "T"), opened tearooms in their homes.

  There is no stereotypical tearoom patron, Borgen notes. She even has many male patrons who love tea and enjoy the generous amount of food offered. Tea is served at set times, with two scheduled seatings four days a week. Frequently larger groups will rent the entire place for special events such as birthday parties, showers, or simply an afternoon outing with friends.

"When you come for tea, you're going to spend at least an hour or more relaxing and enjoying the food and the company. It's a nice respite in the middle of a busy day," says Borgen. "It's something that I think is sorely needed, and most people don't take the time out to do. It's a very civilized and wonderful way to reconnect with family members or cherished friends."

Borgen has no regrets about giving up her successful design business. "It's fun to go to work every day," she says. "My husband and kids are incredibly supportive, and I love the people who come in. Their enthusiasm is just wonderful. It's infectious."

T-Party has also generated attention from the local and national media having received a favorable review in the New York Times as well as a segment on Food Network's Roker on the Road* series.

For more information, please visit tpartyantiques.com. (*Roker on the Road aired in September 2005 and March 2006.)                                    

—Terri McClain