From C to Shining Sea: Complex Dynamics from Combinatorics to Coastlines

If there’s one thing Williams-Mystic students learn first, it’s that you can’t study a topic as vast as our world’s oceans and coasts from the vantage point of a single discipline. From day one, Williams-Mystic prompts students to draw connections among topics as (seemingly) far afield as literature, policy, science, and history.

In his presentation Friday as part of Williams-Mystic’s Biannual Lecture Series, Williams College professor Steven J. Miller brought another perspective to bear: mathematics, specifically complex dynamics.

Complex dynamics is the study of iterations of maps. From very simple, basic rules, incredibly complex and highly structured behavior emerges, frequently surfacing in wildly different settings at many different scales. Miller’s talk introduced some of the general theory in the complex plane C and explored these connections, starting with binomial coefficients and progressing to the fractal dimension of coastlines and chaos in weather prediction.

The goal: To emphasize how the same ideas and techniques can be fruitfully applied again and again. Mathematical perspectives on complexity might seem abstract. But, Miller stressed, these perspectives can yield unique insights into real-world problems, from how to accurately measure a single island’s coastline to how to predict changing weather patterns the world over.

You can watch Miller’s talk on YouTube, and follow along on the slides posted online.

Steven Miller earned his BS in mathematics and physics from Yale and his PhD in mathematics from Princeton. He has taught at numerous colleges and universities, including Brown, Mount Holyoke, NYU, Ohio State, Princeton, Smith, and Williams, and been supported by multiple NSF grants for both research and expository writing. He is the author of over 100 papers in accounting, computer science, economics, geology, marketing, mathematics, physics, sabermetrics, and statistics, as well as five books. For several years he has recorded all his classes and many talks, which are freely available at .

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Fall 2017 Student Finds Community, Competes in Miss Connecticut USA Pageant

By Taylor Harris, Williams Mystic F’17

At Williams-Mystic, our students develop close-knit communities in the classroom, on the road, and in our student houses. They also become members of the local community.

For Fall ’17 student Taylor Harris, this means continuing her passion for competing in pageants.

Taylor came to Williams-Mystic as a junior English major from Howard University. She has been competing in pageants on and off since she was six years old and last year she competed in Miss District of Columbia USA. Taylor is excited not only to continue her passion this year but also to represent Connecticut and Williams-Mystic along the way. For Taylor, this is an opportunity to give back to a community that, while new, has become her home.

A large part of any pageant journey is associated costs and entry fees. Last year, Taylor supported this cost by working and “cold-calling” on local businesses for sponsorships. This was a challenging but rewarding task in itself. She found that much of her community not only supported her but believed in her success as well. Taylor hopes that our community, although new and unfamiliar to her, will support her in the same way. As an aid on her journey, and a place to express just what this experience means to her, Taylor has set up a GoFundMe account. It is with the help of family, friends, and most of all community that her dream may become that much closer to reality.

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Long-Distance Life Rafts Transported Hundreds of Species Across the Pacific, Study Led by Williams-Mystic Director Emeritus Finds

On March 11, 2011, a tsunami devastated Japan’s coast. More than six years later, marine organisms naScience Tsunami Covertive to Japan and representing nearly 300 species are still washing up on North America’s coasts.

These are some of the findings of a major study published September 29 in the journal Science and authored by a team led by Williams-Mystic Director Emeritus James T. Carlton.

Most of these organisms, the study revealed, clung to manmade materials. The implication: Plastic marine debris, already polluting the world’s oceans, could increase the number of non-native marine species that cross these oceans.

“This study of a remarkable ocean rafting event of unprecedented magnitude and duration reveals for the first time the profound role that plastic marine debris can now play in transporting entire communities of species in the world’s oceans—for far longer lengths of time than historic dispersal on natural substrates (such as wood) would have been possible,” Carlton says.

The study drew together a team from across the country. Williams-Mystic’s own James and Deborah Carlton joined with researchers from Oregon State University, the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, Moss Landing Marine Laboratories, and the Oregon Institute of Marine Biology. They also relied on more than 200 volunteers to collect marine debris starting in 2012 and continuing through today. As late as this September, Jim and Debby could be found cataloguing dozens of specimens in Williams-Mystic’s Marine Science Center.

The team has won accolades not just for their study’s scope but also for its imaginative approach.

“These scientists have taken the unusual tack of looking at a natural disaster and coming to new conclusions about how our activities and structures influence species distributions in the oceans,” says David Garrison, program director in the National Science Foundation’s Division of Ocean Sciences, which co-funded the research.

In short, Carlton’s ground-breaking research suggests, natural disasters like the Japanese tsunami coincide with social and economic developments to radically alter marine ecosystems the world over. The upshot–that now more than ever, addressing marine environmental issues demands an interdisciplinary approach–should sound familiar to any Williams-Mystic student.


The full paper, “Tsunami-driven rafting: Transoceanic species dispersal and implications for marine biogeography,” can be found here.

See also this accompanying video, articles in the New York Times and Washington Post, and features on the websites of Williams College and Mystic Seaport.


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“Primary Research Bootcamp”: A Recent Alumna Reflects on Her Williams-Mystic Experience

by Paula Consolini, PhD, Director, Center for Learning in Action, Williams College

Shanti Hossain (F’16) explores the Port of Oakland aboard a tugboat as part of the California Field Seminar.

Shanti Hossain (Williams ’19) attended Williams-Mystic for the Fall 2016 semester, during her sophomore year. One year later, as a junior pursuing a double major in Computer Science and English, she reflects on her semester at Williams-Mystic and the impact it has had on her time at Williams.

What drew you to Williams-Mystic in the first place?

I wasn’t considering attending Williams-Mystic at all until my freshman spring, the semester before I actually attended. On the first day of the semester, there was an informational meeting with Tom Van Winkle, the Executive Director, and several alumni from the program, and I decided to pop in. I wasn’t seriously considering the program, because I didn’t think I was the ‘type’ of student to do Mystic. I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to major in anything like Biology or Environmental Science, and while I appreciated the ocean and its importance, I wasn’t obsessed with it or wanting to study it for the rest of my life. But when the alumni of the program started talking, I realized that a lot of them were just like me. A lot of them didn’t have any particular reason for wanting to dive into studying the ocean, but they loved the program anyway–because, like all Williams students, we just love to learn, and Williams-Mystic really celebrates learning in all its forms.

What surprised you about the program when you got there?

The admissions directors of Williams-Mystic often said that the hardest part about recruiting for Williams-Mystic is trying to describe the program in one sentence, and I think that’s absolutely true. If you think about it just as “the Maritime Studies program” or “the program where you live on a boat,” then you’re really failing to capture so much of what the program is. You could just as easily describe it as “Interdisciplinary Studies 101,” or “Learning to Live in a Community,” or “Primary-Research Bootcamp,” or “Proof that Domestic Study Away Can be Just as Eye-Opening as Study Abroad,” and all of those descriptions would capture some crucial part of the Williams-Mystic experience.

How has Williams-Mystic changed the way you think about your studies?

I’ve always been interested in interdisciplinary studies; I think most of us at Williams chose to go to a liberal arts college because we’re passionate about so many different things. Part of the Williams academic ethos is taking classes across the divisions, making connections across your classes. But it’s somewhat up to you to craft a program of study that pushes you out of your comfort zone and allows for those cross-discipline connections. Williams-Mystic basically says: what if we all stopped for a semester to focus on studying one thing, the ocean as a case study, and learning what it means to experience it from every possible perspective? The program is crafted so that you’re constantly making connections, constantly relating one subject to another. The professors plan their lessons so that it happens. Our campus is a museum, so we’re constantly surrounded by our subject material. I’ve learned how important interdisciplinary learning is to me, and now that I know what true commitment to it looks like, I’m pursuing that as much as I can for the rest of my time at Williams.

How did your classmates’ perspectives change your experience?

One of my favorite parts of the program the community-living aspect of Williams-Mystic, because it gave me the opportunity to learn so much from my classmates. Academically, we do so much throughout the semester that it’s absolutely impossible for you to excel at everything. And as a result, you’re constantly bringing out the best in one another. Maybe someone’s great in one class or another, but then someone else brings a constant supply of energy to your skills class, or is that one person who’s really, really good at entertaining everyone on long car trips, or teaching housemates to cook. Because residential life and extracurricular life and travel life are just as important as academic life, it moves the focus from competing academically to growing as people, together.

What about Williams-Mystic do you think will stick with you a decade from now?

My experiences on the field seminars–the trips across the country we took with our professors–will stay with me for a long time. It was just an incredible experience to sit as a group in one spot, maybe on the banks of the Mississippi River in Louisiana, or overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, and have that one spot inspire a lecture from our history professor about a historical event that happened there, then having our English professor read and analyze a poem inspired by it, and then have our policy professor talk about the different maritime laws that impacted who used this space, and how. It showed me just how many perspectives there are around every single place and event and opinion, and it showed me how valuable–and exciting–it is to learn about as many of those perspectives as you can.


This piece was written for and originally published in the Center for Learning in Action Chronicle, a publication of Williams College’s Center for Learning in Action

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At the Center of Negotiations on National Ballast Water Regulation, a W-M Alumna

by Katy Robinson Hall (S’84); edited by Meredith Carroll

From writing children’s books to conducting scientific research, the careers people pursue after Williams-Mystic are as varied as our more than 1,700 alumni. But if there’s one thing that unites many of these careers, it’s that alumni often find themselves uniquely equipped to advocate for the ocean at the intersection of science, policy, and politics.

Nicole Dobroski (F’96), who has found herself at the center of US Senate negotiations on national ballast water regulation, is the latest example of this shared theme.

It all started earlier this year, when the US Senate introduced the Vessel Incidental Discharge Act (VIDA) as part of the larger U.S. Coast Guard Authorization Act. VIDA would consolidate federal regulation of ballast water and discharges incidental to the normal operation of a vessel with the USCG. The law would also preempt state regulation of those discharges.

Dobroski, who serves as the Assistant Chief of the Marine Environmental Protection Division of the California State Lands Commission, manages California’s marine invasive species program. Ever since VIDA was introduced, she’s been hard at work forging a consensus on amendments to the legislation. In true Williams-Mystic fashion, she’s working with a wide range of stakeholders, from the California Governor’s Office and US Senate Congressional staff to scientists at state agencies to shipping agency representatives. Her end goal: maintain state protection over unique state waters–and the invaluable ecosystems they contain–while shipping industry’s desire to reduce conflicting federal and state regulatory requirements.

The process is far from over; on Thursday, Dobroski called marine policy professor Katy Robinson Hall (S’84) in the midst of negotiating with the Senate over certain aspects of the Jones Act. But standing at the intersection of ecology, policy, and environmental change, Dobroski’s work attests to the enduring value of the interdisciplinary approach to the ocean that Williams-Mystic fosters.


Nicole Dobroski (F’96), also served as our Science T.A. from Spring 2001 through Spring 2005. She earned her B.A. in Biology from Pomona College and her M.S. in Biological Sciences from the University of Rhode Island. She is currently the Assistant Chief of the California State Lands Commission’s Marine Environmental Protection Division.

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Announcing the Dates for Our 40th Reunion

Update: We are now accepting registrations! Please visit to register and explore the schedule–and don’t forget to check back often for updates from Labaree.

Alumni, mark your calendars! Williams-Mystic’s 40th annual alumni weekend will take place September 15-17, 2017. We’ll be mailing and emailing invitations later this summer; we’ll also make a sign-up link available at that time. In the meantime, we recommend practicing your whaleboat rowing form, brushing up on your Williams-Mystic trivia, and getting excited for our biggest reunion yet.

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Chanteys with Spring 2017!

Whether you’re forging a hook in the shipsmithing shop or climbing the rigging of the Charles W. Morgan as part of Mystic Seaport’s demonstration squad, maritime skills are an integral part of life here in Mystic. Beyond being a one-of-a-kind break from academics, maritime skills involve students in the day-to-day workings of our Mystic Seaport campus–and give them a firsthand experience of maritime traditions they can’t get anywhere else.

Enjoy this short excerpt from our Spring 2017 chantey singers, and check out the full performance here!

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From Tumbling Compost to Riding Bikes, How Williams-Mystic Students Live Sustainably

How do you make community living at Williams-Mystic more eco-friendly? Our student-led Sustainability Council has some answers in their new video, which they developed to introduce future students to sustainable living.

Students drive the Sustainability Council’s initiatives, which include composting, adopting reusable grocery bags, and installing energy use monitors in Williams-Mystic offices and student housing. Sustainability is already implicit in our curriculum; it’s impossible to study the ocean and not confront issues such as microplastic pollution, sea level rise, and climate change. But by implementing practices like the ones in this video, students hope to demonstrate that even small alterations to routines or mindsets can change the environment for the better.

Check out this video to learn more about their initiatives (and catch some glimpses of our campus)!

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Announcing the winner of the 2016 Ocean Essay Contest

For immediate release:

December 1, 2016

The 2016 Williams College-Mystic Seaport Ocean Essay Contest in honor of Joseph Conrad, after receiving a record-breaking number of entries from well over 70 high schools, colleges, and universities, has awarded first prize to Simon Ladner of Ocean Springs High School, Mississippi, for his entry “The Sound.”

Guest judge T. Scott McMillin of Oberlin College and author of The Meaning of Rivers, wrote of Simon’s entry:

“Ladner’s evocative piece, dwelling on what is “not exactly the ocean,” combines detailed observation, colorful metaphor, and personal reflection on the ever-changing nature of the Gulf Coast. The result is a short, sweetly shifting account of the sea’s work in a world constantly under construction, valuable in its own right and meaningful to those who will take the time to care.”

Simon Ladner is a high school senior in the small coastal town of Ocean Springs, Mississippi. He enjoys writing essays, poetry, and fiction, and he spends his free time practicing piano, singing in the local choir, and spending copious amounts of time at his favorite coffee shop. Simon will receive a $400 prize and guest passes to the Mystic Seaport.

Two honorable mentions were also selected: Heriberto Coronado of Johnny Economedes High School for his short story, “The Sailor,” and Zaria Glenn of Ardrey Kell High School for her piece, “The Devil’s Water.”


Williams-Mystic, the country’s premiere maritime studies program, is the sponsoring entity for this contest and award. This world-renowned accredited study away semester hosts students from around the world with a rigorous curriculum that is based on an interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary hands-on course of study focused on the world’s oceans and coastlines. Together, students of all majors study the history, literature, policy and science of our oceans and coastlines.

For more information about Williams-Mystic:

For more information on the Williams College-Mystic Seaport Ocean Essay Contest, please visit our contest site.

Mauro Diaz-Hernandez, Assistant Director of Admissions and Director of Enrollment, [email protected]

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Alumni Weekend 2016: Panels, Pub Quizzes, and More!

Join us this September 16-18 for our 39th Annual Alumni Weekend! Events include whaleboat races, children’s activities, a scholarship silent auction, and much more.

North CA lect spot

We are especially excited to welcome four alumni for this year’s panel: “The Future of Our Coasts.” In addition to moderator Carrie Selberg F95 of NOAA Fisheries, the panelists include:

Alanna Casey F09, University of Rhode Island

Alanna’s research uses qualitative and interpretive humanities methods to assess the changing uses and meanings of historical and cultural resources such as historic forts, ships, and archaeological sites in climate change planning.

Betsy Nicholson S94, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

As North Regional Director, Betsy Nicholson addresses ocean and coastal management issues across the Great Lakes and North Atlantic. Based in Gloucester, MA, she works collaboratively with government and other partners to advance coordinated ocean management through the development of regional ocean plans, and to promote strategies for improving resilience of coastal community in the face of a changing climate.

Cary White F10, The Nature Conservancy

Cary uses his landscape design background to conceptualize nature-based approaches to protect people, property, and infrastructure.  He is currently working on a community resilience visioning process with the municipalities of southeastern Connecticut.

Check out our full schedule below. And make sure to reserve your spot soon; the deadline for late registration is September 12 at 10 am!

Update: Registration for our 2017 Alumni Weekend will open in the late summer of 2017. Check our website for updates, keep an eye out for our mailed and emailed invitations, and mark your calendars for September 15-17.

Alumni Weekend 2016 

Friday, September 16

8-9:30 pm: Pub Trivia Night at the Carlton Marine Science Center

Saturday, September 17

9:30 am-5:30 pm: Registration at the Main Gate outside VRC

10 am-7 pm: Swag sales and general information at the tent outside the Boat Shed

10 am-4 pm: Get out on the water with a boat borrowed from the Boat House!

10 am-4 pm: Children’s activities (time varies per activity), including Games on the Green, Children’s Museum, Discovery Barn, and Toy Boat-Building

10 am-6 pm: Scholarship silent auction at the Boat Shed. All proceeds go directly toward student scholarships.

11:30 am-12:45 pm: Lunch at the Seaport Village Green, hosted by the Alumni Council

12:45-1:30 pm: Tour of campus with Maritime History Prof. Glenn Gordinier, departing from the gazebo at the Seaport Village Green

2-3 pm: Alumni panel on The Future of Our Coasts, at Greenmanville Church

3 pm: Whaleboat races at the Middle Wharf. Sign-up at registration required.

4-5 pm: Alumni Council Reception at the Carlton Lounge

4:30-5 pm: Reunion class photographs and reception at Spouter’s Tavern

5-6 pm: Alumni Swizzle at the Boat Shed

6-7 pm: Riverside dinner at the Boat Shed

7 pm: Program welcome and live auction at the Boat Shed

Sunday, September 18

9-10:30 am: Alumni breakfast at the Membership Patio (rain location: Boat Shed)

Student sailing F15

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