Alex Goddard
(photo by Liza Green)

Music Breeds Professionalism

Such a search for answers is nothing new, certainly, given Oberlin’s long tradition of active scholarship. Emeritus Professor of Chemistry Norman Craig ’53 ticks off several other Oberlin-unique traits that he says add to the intellectual climate: the PhD origins of faculty, the students’ use of top scientific equipment, a library that dates back more than 100 years, and Oberlin’s location on the map: “There are fewer distractions in northern Ohio than in more glamorous parts of the country. It’s easier to dedicate more hours to scholarship.”

Finally, says Craig, there’s the Conservatory: “A number of our best students are double-degree students. The commitment to professionalism in the Conservatory spills over to students in the arts and sciences.”

Take, for example, Siobhan Wilson, the MD/PhD student at Wisconsin. Also a serious violinist, she applied only to Oberlin because it perfectly matched her demands for a strong science program tied to a top-flight music school. She played her violin to take a break from intellectual pursuits: “It uses a different part of the brain.”

Michael Gallope ’04, a double-degree major in piano performance and the visual arts, says he’s using critical thinking skills learned at Oberlin—particularly in English, political science, and art history classes—to study how the corporate world influences the type of classical music we hear today. It’s cutting-edge stuff, says Randolph Coleman, professor of composition and music theory, who praises students like Gallope for dragging Oberlin to the forefront by thinking critically about music.

Laura Lowe Furge
(photo by John Hofferberth)

“Michael and dozens of these kids have become washed in new music,” Coleman says. “I have never before seen the level of seriousness of application of interest and music.”

Gallope was awarded a Mellon Fellowship in 2004 and began work toward a PhD in musicology at New York University last fall. “I’m examining how advertising, production, the way albums look, and the way styles are marketed all affect what music we hear,” he says. “Oberlin gave me a lot of freedom and let me play the music I wanted to play, not just the standard classical program.”

Even the non-music majors at Oberlin took advantage of the climate. Gareth Roberts—the mathematician—played trombone. Laura Furge plays violin in the Kalamazoo community orchestra. And then there’s Reza Beigi ’86, a violin-playing physics major at Oberlin who went on to earn a PhD in biology at Case Western Reserve University.

Michael Gallope

“I knew that Oberlin had a good music program, and when I went for a campus visit, I heard a group singing in Finney Chapel,” he says. “I knew right then. It was a beautiful place. I would take a career in science and enjoy my music.”

These days Beigi heads the science department at Laurel School, a K-12 private girls’ school near Cleveland, where he’s been spotted playing the violin in class to demonstrate the properties of vibrating strings. “It helps students understand observable properties such as frequency and wavelength,” he says.

The Thrill of Learning

For many of these intellectually driven graduates, the prospect of big money is nearly ignored as a motivator. Their doctorates are part of a path to knowledge, part of the thrill of learning.

The faculty sees this also. “There is skepticism of conventional standards of achievement,” says Dennison Smith. “These students don’t want the SUV and the big house in the best suburban development.”
Yolanda Cruz agrees. “These top students are not necessarily suited for the professional life, but more for the life of the professor—teaching and research. They won’t get an MBA and buy a Porsche by the time they are 29.”

Students, for their part, say that Oberlin’s ability to cultivate their range of interests was an important selling point. “From an admissions perspective, we look for the most interesting kids in the country,” says Leslie Braat, senior assistant director of admissions. “I often wonder when these kids sleep because of how much they do in high school.”

Mike Heithaus

For marine biologist Mike Heithaus ’95, the list of college “must-haves” included a strong biology program, a competitive swim team, and a diverse student body. “Four years of swimming under Coach Dick Michaels taught me teamwork and endurance, plus the discipline to work to exhaustion and then keep working,” he says.

Dubbed by the National Geographic Society as “one of the world’s leading shark scientists,” Heithaus has been swimming for years among the sea life of Western Australia, studying the interactions between tiger sharks, sea turtles, snakes, and dolphins. National Geographic hired him to test its Crittercam technology, which uses high-tech camcorders strapped to the backs of marine animals to capture behavior within a native habitat. The project was so successful that Heithaus was tapped to host the Crittercam TV series for a year and landed a spot on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno.

“Oberlin did unbelievably well in preparing me for a PhD,” says Heithaus, a graduate of Simon Frazier University and now assistant professor of biology at Florida International University. “Science requires creativity just as much as the arts do. Creative people try to get to the root of things. Oberlin attracts that kind of student—people who want to delve down into deeper issues.”

Steffany Haaz ’99 remembers well her first visit to Oberlin, which followed a whirlwind four-day tour of eastern colleges. “None of them held a candle to Oberlin. It was my only application,” she says. “No other school had such a unique combination of strengths.”

Haaz earned degrees in dance and biology, finding strong faculty mentors in each. Oberlin was followed by clinical research at the Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute in California and a master’s degree in dance at the University of Maryland. Now a PhD candidate at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Haaz has found a way to combine her love of movement and science into a career researching and advocating health behavior. In her work at Johns Hopkins’ Arthritis Center, she is studying how yoga may reduce the impact of rheumatoid arthritis.

“It’s about proscribing behavior rather than prescribing medicine,” says Haaz. “Eating more natural whole foods, finding ways to manage stress, organizing your time to accommodate exercise. Simple changes can bring great benefits for overall health.”

The cofounder of a natural food co-op for underserved communities in Baltimore, Haaz says she’s always wanted to help others live healthy lives. Oberlin, she says, prepared her for the challenges of both academia and social activism. “I am also lucky to have such supportive parents. They will be paying for Oberlin for another seven years, but they say that watching me grow has been worth the investment.”

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