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Profiles in Art: Liya Harris-Harrell

in Arts by

Swarthmore is filled with people from many different places and backgrounds, which means a plethora of stories can be told. One artist who is telling these stories is Liya Harris-Harrell ̕ 21. They are a prospective art and chemistry double major who has been drawing for most of their life. So far in their time at Swarthmore they have had their work featured in two art shows. Harris-Harrell has a unique, fun style that makes their work a pleasure to view and a great fit for this series. Not only that, but their style also allows for examination of the different emotions art can elicit.


“I would describe my art as, like, a really bubbly vibe. I think this is really captured by how I like to capture color in what I do, art wise,” Harris-Harrell explained. “I always try to use bright colors because I’ve been told that by others that my art makes them feel happy and I think that the colors are like a huge reason behind why I like to use bright colors.” Harris-Harrell does this with the pastels and light-hearted characters that fill their designs.


Harris-Harrell’s work comes from a mixture of inspiration from other artists along with their own unique take on art. They are passionate about designing and creating diverse characters and representative of the people in their life. Along with people around them, Gabriel Picolo, Laura Brouwers, and Jen Bartel are artists from whom Harris-Harrell draws inspiration.


“Being an artist to me means to be able to make art that you enjoy,” Harris-Harrell discussed. “I think that art should encompass what the artist finds inspiration in. Sometimes the art we make has a message, and sometimes it doesn’t, and that is okay.”


“I’ve always been interested in, like cartoons, as a kid, but I’ve gone in and out of drawing. I just got back into art at the end of senior year of high school when I got really into comic books,” Harris-Harrell explained.


They explained that their interest in art and potentially majoring in it became more serious last year. For Harris-Harrell art is a way to destress. Even though their interest in majoring in art is rather recent, their interest in art has been there for years.


“I think my first drawing was, like, My Little Pony fan art, because I was really into it in seventh grade,” Harris-Harrell reflected when thinking back to their earlier artworks. “It’s really embarrassing looking back at old art work that I did back in 2013, but I still have most of it, and I find myself going back when I have art block and redrawing it.”


For some artists it can be difficult to reflect on their past works, but for Harris-Harrell it shows them how they have progressed over time and gives them a sense of pride.


“My advice would be to focus on what you like to do, and not worry about if others will like it.”


September in September

in Campus Journal by

In a voice as carefree as the breeze blowing by us in Kohlberg Courtyard, September Sky Porras ’20 mentions, “I come from a very leftist family.” Now this isn’t a shock, especially considering the sort of students that Swarthmore tends to attract, but it’s nonetheless necessary to place Porras politically, and to understand the circumstances that created the activist sitting in front of me. She admits she has a lot on her mind lately.

This past August, Porras was the subject of a semi-viral video, in which she posed a piercing question to Senator Marco Rubio of Florida during a fundraiser he was hosting in Orlando. Filmed by her accompanying mother, Porras stood up and asked the senator, point-blank, to explain his rationale for taking specific contributions to power his campaigns. (Rubio is only second to Senator Ted Cruz of Texas — both recent Republican presidential hopefuls — as the largest recipient of millions of dollars from various  fossil-fuel industry donors.) The online response afterwards was rapturous; for Porras, it was an anxious, heart-palpitating affair, akin to “walking into a lion’s den.”

A Floridan herself, Porras is well aware of the environmental issues brought about by the rapid onset of climate change (to which Hurricanes Harvey and Irma can testify), and holds unambiguous opinions on her Congressional representatives—she calls Rubio in particular “a terrible person with terrible policies.”

Surprisingly, Porras was not animated by climate activism in the beginning, partly due to her own misconception of it. Once she realized that climate activism focuses on actual communities grappling with the effects of climate change, as opposed to environmentalism, which deals in more direct ecological consequences, she knew what she had to do. And while she knows they are connected, Porras believes her energies are better suited to advancing one as opposed to the other. “We — or a very wealthy few — are destroying the Earth that we live on. At the end of the day, there’s big enemies,” she tells me, referring, of course, to money-making fossil fuels.

Last semester (Spring 2017), Porras joined Mountain Justice (MJ) and became a core member while still a first-year. Attracted to its record — or promise — of effectual activism, Porras discovered an outlet to put her beliefs into practice, gaining first-hand experience during the sit-in and the ensuing controversy that arose between the administration and MJ. It was then that Porras stepped up in the club, but also transitioned into working for Sunrise: a nationwide organization founded by similarly-minded Swat alumni in Philadelphia, which emphasizes mass protest and political accountability to draw attention to climate issues.

At the start of the summer, she underwent leadership training with fellow Sunrise members; a few weeks later she was back home to put that training into practice. She lept at the opportunity to bring others into the organization, which, by its nature, is decentralized, directed by discrete hubs scattered across the nation. Porras volunteered to start up the Orlando office, and later, to try to enter the Rubio fundraiser, one of a few who did or could manage on short notice. After securing tickets for herself and her mother (at $150 each), she was admitted. Even then there was no guarantee she would see Rubio; in fact she didn’t even confirm she was attending until that Tuesday afternoon. (When questioned, she acknowledged the irony of giving money to Rubio in order to publicly challenge him, but she saw no other chance to make a statement; in the wake of President Trump’s election, Republican representatives have been scrutinized for failing to meet with everyday constituents, with some avoiding town halls altogether.)

Earlier that day, Porras wondered how she could possibly approach the senator with her question. A Sunrise trainer suggested on the phone that, as he delivered his keynote speech, Porras could interrupt him at a decisive moment when he paused for rhetorical effect. At first she was horrified. “I’m brave, but I can’t do that, that would make me want to die.” She laughs, but that’s exactly what happened. And after a “totally evasive” answer by Rubio involving vague energy policies instead of campaign finance, she and her mother were requested to leave by security.

Like most loving families, Porras’ is indispensable in shaping and supporting her. She is close to her mother, a New Jerseyan, and her maternal grandparents were even fundraisers for the American Communist Party. Her father is from Costa Rica, a country she often visits to see paternal relatives. Though not a fluent Spanish speaker (attributed to her father’s insistence on “fitting in” in the United States), she enjoys the company of her abuelita and her tías, who all live on the same street. She looks forward to returning and conversing with her politically minded cousins, in contrast to others in her family who are more nonchalant about the current state of affairs.

“I think there’s an interesting juxtaposition — on one side, everything is chill, relax, don’t worry about it. But on the other side of that coin, there’s this [attitude of] not caring very much about politics and change.” But they’re not apolitical, she notes. It’s just very relaxed, maybe “too relaxed,” according to Porras.

Her elder sister works in Standing Rock with Teach for America, overseeing a class of first-graders. Last Christmas, Porras and her mom journeyed to North Dakota to see her only sibling (in the fields of “southern Canada,” as we joked), who lives and works in a tiny poor town on the reservation, roughly a thirty-minute drive from the protests against the Keystone XL Pipeline.

That winter break, Porras helped her sister grade some papers, and was astonished by the doodles the students drew and then haphazardly erased so as not to be possibly penalized. “Water is Life” and “No DAPL” made recurring appearances, likely the results of the children overhearing parental talk. “It was just so innocent and terrifying,” says Porras.  She was upset she didn’t meet any of the students, but her sister shares videos of her with them all the time, so they know.

A sophomore, her dual passions for Latin America and revolutionary politics may yet prove decisive in guiding her academic trajectory. Porras has struck up a rapport with Professor Diego Armus, who urged her to apply for the Reuben Scholarship, which, after a lengthy application process, she was duly awarded; she hopes to use it in the upcoming summer to fund an internship. She is excited to potentially pursue a major in History, perhaps on Pinochet’s Chile; as of now, however, it’s all up in the air.

“I have changed … and I think I’ve changed in the sense that I don’t know anything.” She laughs. “Maybe I don’t know what I’m doing, but that’s life, it’ll work out.”

Biochem research with Meghann Kasal

in Campus Journal/Columns/STEM Spotlight by


This week, I talked to Meghann Kasal ’17, who does research with Professor Stephen Miller in the biochemistry department. Kasal’s work centers around bacterial communication, specifically with a process called quorum sensing. In quorum sensing, bacteria produce molecules called autoinducers. The greater the density of bacterial cells, the greater the concentration of autoinducers, and past a certain threshold, the autoinducers are detected by the bacteria and result in a change in gene expression. This process allows for rapid, community-wide communication, used for things like bioluminescence (bacteria that glow) and biofilms (bacteria that stick to each other and form a film, often a major culprit in chronic bacterial infecitons). This communication, explained Kasal, can occur both intra-species (within the same species) or inter-species (between different species). Kasal focuses on inter-species communication. Quorum sensing in bacteria has strong implications for antibiotics, among other important future directions, so figuring out the mechanism behind it is hugely useful.

Kasal applied to do research in the biochemistry department with Professor Miller last summer after taking biochemistry in the spring. Coming into the lab, Kasal’s research would focus on a family of inter-converting molecules called AI-2 that are used in quorum-sensing communication in bacteria. AI-2 consists of one binding ligand that can convert between two known forms, although Khasal believes the molecule can probably convert between more than just those forms. AI-2 is special, both because it is produced by and binds to many different types of bacteria. One receptor that binds AI-2 is called the LsrB protein. Many bacteria can synthesize AI-2 using an enzyme called LuxS, and bind AI-2 by the LsrB receptor. Because of this, the greater the concentration of bacteria that can produce AI-2, the greater the concentration of AI-2 is, which enables the quorum-sensing communication that Kasal studies.

Kasal’s work was to identify receptors on novel species that could potentially bind  AI-2, and to figure out if they could bind the molecule based on the structure of the receptors. Kasal found potential LsrB-like receptors on species that are likely to bind AI-2 by identifying the extent to which the binding sites on the novel receptors were conserved. The more amino acids at binding sites that are conserved between the known LsrB receptor and the putative receptors on the novel species, the more likely the receptor is to bind AI-2. They had some bacteria species that had many binding sites conserved, and some with fewer. One species, said Kasal, only has 3 of the 6 key binding sites conserved on the receptor protein. However, Kasal said they still have hopes that it will bind, because the changes in amino acid sequence are modest compared to the known receptor proteins. Additionally, AI-2 itself is a molecule that is known to be able to adapt to its receptor, so if AI-2 can convert to other forms that have not yet been discovered, it may be able to bind many more species than previously thought.

Kasal went through a process of designing plasmids (small, independent bundles of the relevant genes for the receptor protein) and amplifying them using PCR, or polymerase chain reaction. PCR replicates a gene sequence of interest through a cycle of heating and cooling during which DNA polymerase, an enzyme used in DNA replication, creates a chain reaction of DNA replication at the desired site. The heating separates the two strands of the double helix, creating two template strands. When the temperature is lowered, the polymerase uses the strands as primers to replicate the sequence. The end result is thousands to millions of copies of the desired DNA sequence.

After doing PCR, Kasal inserted her genes into vectors (molecules that carry the protein) and transformed them into bacterial cells of different species to end up with new bacterial species that now contained the putative AI-2 receptors. In one species, she used two types: a LuxS+ strain, meaning it produced AI-2, and a LuxS- strain, meaning it did not produce AI-2.

After doing some trials, Kasal has found that three of her identified receptors have so far exhibited binding to AI-2. They have yet to do trials on the protein that only has 3 of the 6 binding sites that is conserved, but Kasal has hopes that it will work. The next step, she said, is figuring out the exact structure of each receptor protein and the type of AI-2 molecule binding to it. This can be done using a process called X-ray crystallography, in which the protein is grown into a crystal and then shot through with X-ray beams. The diffraction pattern — or the specific angles and orientations of the beams — can be converted into a three-dimensional model of the exact structure of the protein. Then, said Kasal, they can compare the structure of the protein to the predicted structure that their sequence gave them. Kasal also hopes that they can do this for a receptor protein that is bound to AI-2, because then they can observe the type of AI-2 molecule that is bound, and maybe even identify a new form of the molecule. The long-term implications for this are exciting: Kasal said that understanding the process by which bacteria can communicate in these large-scale ways has huge medical applications.

“If we can basically hijack bacterial communication, then we can control bacterial levels, and that can then be applied to, for example, the human gut microbiome, and it can be used alongside antibiotics and other treatments,” she said.

Kasal told me she knew she wanted to be a biochemistry major since early in high school. She loved chemistry in high school and especially loved organic chemistry here at Swarthmore, but has also loved biology. Biochemistry is, for her, the perfect match of those major interests.

“In my head, just combining [biology and chemistry] and looking at biochemistry is to me the way that I can put those interests together,” she explained. “I look at chemistry and I see all these ways to figure things out, but then I see bio and I’m like, I can use these realistically in these applications. I like that kind of detail, but I like studying it at the level of the organism.”

Khasal said she finds research specifically interesting because she likes to be able to solve a problem, “basically from step 0.” She likes not only the problem-solving aspect, but also the idea that she’s in the lab herself, carrying out the experiment that she designed.

Kasal expects to spend the next year and a half at Swarthmore working on the crystallization process for the AI-2 receptors, and writing her thesis on this research. After that, she plans to go to graduate school to pursue a Ph.D in a biochemistry-related field, and then she wants to become a professor. For Kasal, being able to pursue research while also being able to teach about her passion is the dream.

“I really like the idea of doing research and continuing research my whole life, but teaching is really fun for me and I really want other people to have that experience where they look at biochemistry and say, wow this is awesome,” she said.


A stroll around the Emerald Isle: Tess Wei ’17

in Arts by

Tess Wei ’17 is an aspiring student artist. She can always be seen walking around campus at a calm pace, with no rush or hurry.  It appears that she is constantly in search of things that are beautiful as well as soothing to capture and preserve through her art. Although I had never interacted with her — except that for always bumping into her in List Gallery during receptions for new artists — I have wanted to know her better as an artist for a long time.

This summer, Wei went on a six-week trip to the Ballinglen Art Foundation in Ballycastle, County Mayo, Ireland with Professor of Art Randall Exon and two other Swatties. I was extremely pleased to be able to interact with her for this profile and interview her about this uncommon and amazing learning experience. In person, Wei is really comfortable to be around and start a conversation with. Her sincere passion for art, evident as she spoke, walked me through the beautiful art journey she embarked on.


Li Tian: What inspired you to be an artist?


Tess Wei: I came to Swat undecided and didn’t take an art class until the second semester freshman year. And I think one of the reasons I chose to pursue art is that when I am doing the work for the classes, it doesn’t really feel like work. I look forward to doing it and time just disappears — I cannot really tell how long I am working for. I don’t know… time just freezes, or stands still, or goes by quickly. I think that doing an assignment but being in love with it was something that indicates to me, “hey, this is something that I should be doing.”


LT: Is there any person in particular that gave you that inspiration?


TW: The first art class that I had was with Logan [Grider]. He understands what different students are trying to explore and caters his suggestions to them. That type of understanding and thoughtfulness have made me so intrigued by the art department and everybody else who I have met in the department has been equally inspiring. One of them is Professor Randall Exon, and he is the professor who I went to Ireland with this summer.


LT: That’s awesome! So you have been experimenting with art for about two years so far. Do you have a preferred medium?


TW: I planned out my senior show with painting, specifically oil painting. Right now I am doing independent study with Randal. I work exclusively with a palette knife. I don’t use a brush. I use palette knife for a few reasons. One [is that] I can get certain textures that cannot be achieved with a brush. Another is that I can make very specific and crisp edges. So having an edge relationship, I am kind of exploring the linearity in my work. And the reason I like oil is that it dries so slowly that I can constantly be scraping parts off or mixing, not having to rush or worry about the drying.


LT:  We learned that you had an awesome summer exploring art in Ireland. Can you talk a little more about that? How did you get the opportunity?


TW: I had never had Randall as a professor before, but last spring when I was in the hallway of the art department, I overheard him talking about Ireland. So when he ended up talking to the other student, I went in and introduced myself. “Hello, basically I don’t really know you, but what you were talking about…I want to do that with my summer!” So he guided me to apply for the humanities grant to fund my trip to Ireland.


LT: That was so exciting! What exactly did you do there?


TW: I was there with two other students, Steve [Sekula ‘17] and Emma [Kate-Shaw ‘16]. We got our own studio space in the Ballinglen Art Foundation in Ballycastle, County Mayo, Ireland. It was absolutely beautiful. It is a small town, with only three pubs and lots of cows. I had never imagined myself traveling to Ireland. We participated in a two-week landscape painting master class, which was co-taught by Randall and another professor named Jeffrey Reed. Apart from three of us, there were several more adults in the class who are artists and people whose passion is painting. I was never in a position that I could make friends directly with adults … [I]n Ireland, we were just all friends. I am still in touch with some of them. To have this dissolving of age boundary is something that I had never had the opportunity to experience before. And for four weeks after that, just the three of us had our own independent study. It was really nice to just [take] what I had learned for the first two weeks and continue to apply that. It was completely on our own time — we made our own schedule. We could do whatever we wanted to do. I got a ton of work done, including landscape, interior spaces, structures, and studies of Irish butter. It was also nice because there were some artists with fellowships for those four weeks. So we got to meet them and sometimes hang out with them. And there was not any sense of any type of hierarchy or aloofness. Instead, everybody was interested in what others are exploring. And it was really nice to get a taste of constantly painting. Really, really amazing time.


LT: You mentioned that you studied Irish butter. What is so special about that?


TW: At almost every meal, we were served with brown bread with Irish butter, and I was really intrigued by how light shone through the butter and casted shades on the table. So I spent some time just studying the butter!


LT: That sounds like so much fun. Did you guys ever take a road trip to paint outside?


TW: Mostly for the two weeks, we would take a drive somewhere and paint on site. We did a lot of “en plein air” painting, the French term for painting outside. And for the four weeks, we worked mainly around the studio. But the best way to describe that experience was magical. It was magical.


LT: Magical?

TW: No, I am serious. If I could accurately convey what I felt there, it was magical. My sense of time was lost, and the connection that I had was so filled with love. The personal relationships that I made really made my painting aspect so much richer as well. All of them worked together and it was not that my paintings were separate from the relationship that I enjoyed. And Ireland itself is a beautiful place. It is kind of shocking that someplace could be so beautiful that it almost doesn’t seem real at first. The large expanses of fields, all the different shades of green and so many cows with such minimal buildings that are not encroaching on the landscape but are part of it. You could just really feel the age of the age — it is very peaceful. It slows you down in a perfect way. It was one of the best experiences [of] my life and might be the best forever.


LT: Was there a specifically memorable experience during the trip?


TW: Looking back at the body of work that I produced, not even just in the quantity but different studies that I did, there was a trajectory of a growth. During the two weeks, the whole class would have dinner together. It was one of my favorite parts to be able to break bread and enjoy each other’s company in a very sincere way. I don’t think that there is not one specific event that stands out because there was not just one highlight. They are all highlights. So the peak doesn’t seem so much as a peak when they are all peaks. I want to go back to Ireland. I am missing it already.


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