Yesterday afternoon, Columbia College announced its 2014 valedictorian and salutatorian. Bwog interviewed this year’s CC valedictorian, Margarete Diaz Cuadros, and salutatorian, Samuel Walker, soon after.
Bwog: How did you find out you were valedictorian, and how did you celebrate?
Margarete: I got an email from Deantini but initially ignored it because I did not realize it was meant for me personally. When I finally read it, I was tremendously surprised and also happy. The first thing I did was tell my boyfriend and forward the email to my parents. I think they were more excited than I was!
B: And that you were salutatorian?
Samuel: I had been up all night editing my senior thesis, which was due on Monday morning, and was about to get a couple hours of sleep before classes started when I happened to see that I had an email from Deantini. Unfortunately, I had class all day and then all I could think of doing was sleeping for hours and hours, so the celebration had to wait until today. It will probably consist in me catching up on my reading for Fred Neuhouser’s course on Hegel and then getting a drink or two with some friends
B: Do you feel different? Has anyone treated you differently?
S: I certainly don’t feel like a different person in any way, but I do feel thrilled, shocked, grateful, proud, and a little bit nervous about the speech. I don’t think that people who know me are treating me any differently (though family, friends, and professors have all been extremely kind in congratulating me), and I wouldn’t want them to. The strange thing is the attention I’m suddenly getting from people I don’t know (like you, faithful reader of Bwog). I’m a pretty low-key fellow to begin with, but I think the fact that I took a year off between my sophomore and junior years and that most of my close friends graduated last year has meant that not that many people on campus know who I am. I haven’t gotten this much attention since I played Humpty Dumpty in a 5th grade musical rendition of Alice in Wonderland. It’s weird.
M: I don’t really feel different, it is just very strange to be getting this much attention. It honestly makes me a little uncomfortable because I am such a shy person. It is also great to get congratulations from people that I met a couple of years ago but had not spoken with in a long time.
B: Did you find Alma Mater’s owl?
M: I didn’t, but have to admit I tried looking for it!
S: I haven’t started looking yet. Is that bad?
B: What’s your trick to studying?
S: I love books (what can I say?) so reading them and writing about them doesn’t require too much discipline. I actually think that I have pretty bad study habits (see below), apart from the fact that I do dedicate a lot of time to it.
M: What helped me the most was actually going to every lecture. This way I did not waste any time trying to catch up or teach myself from the textbook. Beyond that, I guess my only reliable study technique has been making summaries of the material.
B: How many all-nighters did you pull?
M: Only one, and that makes me proud! It was during the first semester of my sophomore year, when I took orgo lab at the same time as first-semester orgo. I spent the night writing a lab report followed by a CC paper on Aristotle’s Politics.
S: A very unhealthily high number. However, this has more to do with my bizarre sleep schedule and the fact that I’m often more productive at night than with a tendency to procrastinate. I always feel much better about my work (and my health) when I manage to finish an assignment at a reasonable hour and get some sleep.
B: Coffee, tea, Red Bull, or other?
M: Usually, I don’t need caffeine, but in extreme circumstances the only thing that will wake me up is a can of Red Bull, consumed immediately and entirely.
S: I try to stick to tea (my caffeinated beverage of choice, much to the amusement of my coffee-quaffing peers), but for the true all-nighters I do turn to Red Bull. Stay away from it if you can, kids.
B: Margarete, how has your work with Nobel prize-winning scientist Martin Chalfie influenced your experience at Columbia?
M: Marty has probably influenced me in more ways than I could ever list or even realize. He has been the most amazing mentor anyone could ever hope for. By giving me the freedom to do what I want in the lab he has taught me how to be an independent researcher, but at the same time he has spent countless hours teaching me important skills like making a poster or giving a talk. Marty has validated my interest in basic research and has shown me that we need to constantly advocate for it, given the current emphasis on applied research and limited funding. To top that off, he always has the perfect story to tell and is a really funny guy. My favorite story is the one about the softball team he was a part of during his time as a post-doc in England. The team was called the Nads, so when people cheered they would say “Go-Nads!”
B: Sam, how has your study of languages affected your experience?
S: First of all, it’s enabled me to take fantastic classes in my areas of interest that just aren’t offered in English. But it’s also enabled me to travel and to meet wonderful people with whom I otherwise would have been totally unable to interact. Despite my bookish disposition, I absolutely love immersing myself in the daily life of foreign cultures, and having (something resembling) a conversation in a foreign language is one of the most gratifying experiences I know of. The downside to my passion for foreign languages, however, has been that I haven’t taken a single course in Columbia’s apparently excellent English department. (I was always intending to take Erik Gray’s lecture on Romantic poetry, but somehow never managed to pull it off.)
B: What were your favorite and least favorite classes?
S: I had a wonderful Lit Hum professor first semester (Tobias Wilke), then had to switch to another section because of a scheduling conflict, but ended up with an equally wonderful professor (Nancy Workman). Lit Hum was a huge rite of passage for me, since I hadn’t read any of that stuff in high school. Apart from the core, it would be impossible for me to do justice to all of the great professors I’ve had (and have) without producing a really long list, so I’ll just mention a few recent ones that stand out: Aesthetics & The Philosophy of History (with Dorothea von Mücke, my thesis advisor), Rousseau & His Critics (with Joanna Stalnaker), The Naturalist Novel & World Literature (with Chris Hill). All of these were seminars, which I tend to prefer, but the lectures I’ve taken in the philosophy department (with Patricia Kitcher, Wolfgang Mann, and Fred Neuhouser) have all been truly excellent. My lips remain sealed with regards to the second part of the question. I won’t lie—there have been one or two duds. Okay, I really wasn’t a fan of FroSci.
M: My favorite class was a seminar on Neandertals that I took last semester with Professor Jill Shapiro. The discussion-based style led to interesting conversations on the nature of humanity, what constitutes behavioral modernity, and how similar (or different?) were the Neandertals we once shared the earth with. I don’t like to complain, but my least favorite class was Physical Chemistry I. This class was a requirement for the Biochemistry major and sadly it was just not of my interest, at all.
B: General plans for the future?
M: I am going to stay in the Chalfie lab for one more year and try to wrap up my project on neuron development. After that, I plan on going to graduate school to get a PhD. Hopefully one day I can be an academic researcher myself, but that is probably a far-fetched dream.
S: Next year, I’ll be teaching English somewhere in Berlin for 10 months. I’m very excited about that, but I really don’t know what comes next. A lot of my friends, family members, and professors are assuming that I’ll go into academia, and I’m certainly considering that very seriously, but I’m not hell-bent on it and I do have my hesitations. I wanted to go into filmmaking for a few years before I came here, and I still harbor incredibly vague and probably unrealistic artistic ambitions.