Our Favorite Stories, Videos, and Podcasts of 2021

We look back over the year and share the highlights—and what they meant to us

At the end of the year, we ask the Tufts Now team to pick the favorite pieces they wrote or produced—and what those pieces meant to them.

This year, of course, was unlike any other year, and the resulting stories and videos highlight some of the challenges that faculty, students, and alumni faced and overcame.

They also celebrate students eager to learn, the aging process, scientific insight, and even footwear. Read on and learn more.

At Tufts, the Work of a Barista

One of my favorite projects to work on this past year was a short video celebrating National Coffee Day. It was one of my first times being back on campus filming indoors since the pandemic began. I was excited to collaborate with students once again, and film campus life returning to (somewhat) normal. 

I wanted to create a short video of a student barista making a pumpkin-spice latte, and was lucky to connect with Luke Petrosky, A24, who works at the Sink, a student-run coffee shop located in the Tufts campus center. Luke was incredibly kind and patient as we quickly mapped out the sequence—coordinating action and camera movements for each stage of the process. There were a lot of cups flying! It was a fun, lighthearted way to spend a morning and celebrate espresso. —Anna Miller

Black Alumni Honor Those Who Inspire

I felt lucky to have had the opportunity to work on the package page we titled Black Alumni Honor Those Who Inspire, in honor of Black Legacy Month in February.

The package featured a number of Black Tufts alumni answering the question “Whom do you honor?”—as well as a Q&A with Africana Center staff.

This project was truly a team effort, and I was happy to play an important role in executing it from start to finish: collecting submissions from Black alumni, conducting interviews, editing copy, creating videos, and determining how to best lay out the content for the web.

My favorite part of the project was being able to interview alum Jaime Smith, A02, who shared her inspiring story with me about how her late grandmother, Virtrel Lenoir, inspired her to attend Tufts, and how she continues to honor and remember her to this day. —Sara Norberg

Campus Heroes

I’m probably biased, but Tufts’ staff is the best. I’ve known that for the 20 years I’ve been working here, but it was demonstrated beyond a doubt when COVID struck.

Photos: Alonso NicholsPhotos: Alonso Nichols
Lots of employees, myself included, had to adapt to working remotely. But hundreds still had to continue reporting to the four campuses, to keep the university running—pandemic or no.

For the spring issue of Tufts Magazine and Tufts Now, I talked to 20 of these “campus heroes,” who did everything from building barriers around almost 300 operatories at the School of Dental Medicine, to making sure students got hot, healthy meals, to MacGyvering multimedia carts that could Zoom an in-progress metalworking project at the SMFA, or lessons from the School of Medicine’s gross anatomy lab.

Aside from seeing what lengths some folks went to so that they could keep reporting for work safely—one Tufts Technology Services staffer moved into an otherwise-empty Medford/Somerville dorm for a time—the assignment offered a great panorama of the many different skills and behind-the-scenes jobs needed to keep a university like Tufts going. I started to refer to the folks I interviewed as my “essential friends”—and I want to thank them all once again for being so generous with their time, when I’m sure things were hectic enough. —Helene Ragovin

Congratulations to the Class of 2021

This was my favorite video that I edited from this year. I felt that it was especially poignant given the last year and everything that the Tufts community had to endure. It was also an opportunity to bring so many folks together—we had submissions from not only all the different campuses but from all over the world.

My goal was to not only create something unique and fun to watch, but something that students, parents, faculty, and staff all alike could treasure and look back on fondly. I know we’ll all remember these past couple years for all the good and bad, and hopefully this can be something sweet to look back on. —Jenna Schad

A Conversation with Bryan Stevenson

One of the things that I love the most about being a multimedia producer is the opportunity to spend time with great leaders—and by that, I mean spend time in post-production with them. When editing a piece of content, as a visual storyteller, I develop a deep relationship with the ideas that these great leaders share with us.

This year, spending time with Bryan Stevenson was a highlight for me. Our original goal was to produce one video announcing Bryan Stevenson as our 2021 commencement speaker, but after spending hours editing the phenomenal interview that my colleague Alonso Nichols did with him in Montgomery, Alabama, I felt that we needed to make the rest of the interview available to the rest of the Tufts community. 

This is where the idea of developing a video series came to light, and I ended up producing three videos under a series called A Conversation with Bryan Stevenson, which explores topics like from  inequality, injustice, and the criminal justice system to the power of education and music. The first part is above; here are parts two and three. —Jandro Cisneros

Does Everything Get Better with Age?

A few months ago, I got to hear Assistant Professor Khareem Khubchandani share his very personal reflection on the TV show Will and Grace. Hearing him recount specific scenes he knew by heart with such fondness made me think about the shows that have had an outsized influence on me (I’m looking at you, Buffy the Vampire Slayer), and gave me the warm fuzzies. We are what we watch, I expect.

What prompted this nostalgiafest? When we decided on the topic of aging for our latest episode of the Tell Me More podcast, we knew that we didn’t want to stick to the obvious story lines. We definitely wanted to tap our Tufts experts at the Jean Mayer Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging for practical advice on staying healthy as we get older, and our biology faculty to explain aging at the cellular level.

But what about things that you wish could age well, like old TV shows that you used to love, but now seem so out of touch? That’s what led us to Khubchandani and his love/cringe relationship with the 1990s comedy. And what about things that are supposed to get better with age, like wine? A Tufts alum who makes wine in France was willing to educate us. And who would have thought that listening to anthropologist Zarin Machanda talk about aging chimpanzees in Uganda would make me think about my friendships and how they’ve changed as I’ve gotten older? There’s a connection there, I swear. —Julie Flaherty

Does Everything Get Better with Age?

For the aging episode of our Tell Me More podcast, I did a voiceover workshop with my colleagues Julie Flaherty and Anna Miller. I was nervous because I’m very new to audio and don’t have my podcast voice down yet, but I showed up with a few lines I had written for my segment with HNRCA director Sarah Booth, and it ended up being a highlight of my week.

Photo: Pond5Photo: Pond5
It was great to discover that I actually really enjoy this scripting and voicing stuff—it’s creative in a way that’s so different from what I’m used to. Writing a conversational lede and sending it out from behind the curtain is one thing. but speaking it is another thing, because you have to show up and be there. There’s an energy, an element of performance like actors must feel, and a strong sense of both vulnerability and connection, as if you’re physically reaching out to the people you’re writing for. It’s so alive, and so personal.

I also loved getting to watch how my colleagues work. Julie had written this gorgeous, visual, personable intro that perfectly set the scene for one of her segments, and she kept pressing us for critiques even after it was clear we liked her first take a lot. Anna let slip that she routinely does dozens and dozens of takes; plus I now have a permanent image of her doing voiceovers with her mic under a blanket for a warmer, more intimate sound. Just the amount of care and effort they put into their work was very inspiring, and after the workshop I ended up rewriting my whole script and reading it through roughly 40 times while walking around and around the park across the street from my house, before I even started trying to record.

The voiceover workshop felt less like a work meeting, and more like learning a fun new art form by collaborating on a creative project. I learned a lot about sounding natural yet engaged (pro tip, talk like you’re trying to persuade someone you know. And don’t use long words that will trip you, like “deterioration,” even if that really is how you talk to people you know and like because you watched too much sci-fi as a kid). And I got to spend some time with a couple of talented and dedicated fellow artists, playing around, trying different things, and drawing on their greater experience and creative energy (and laughing a lot). I’m looking forward to our next collaboration. —Monica Jimenez

A New Theory for Why We Dream

When I heard that a Tufts researcher had proposed a new explanation for why people dream, I knew I wanted to learn more.

Illustration: iStockIllustration: iStock
Years ago, I had written a feature story about sleep research, mostly from a neurological perspective. And I remembered from that piece that researchers had many explanations for dreaming, but none of them really fit the facts. The most common explanation was that dreams somehow helped consolidate memories of things that happened during the day, even though our dreams are rarely about what we do day-to-day.

But Erik Hoel, based at the Allen Discovery Center at Tufts, had a different idea, one that seems more on target. He proposed that dreams help stop our brains from becoming “overfit”—so focused that they lose the ability to take in new information. He came to the idea from seeing how machine learning programs need to add random data to avoid becoming overfit and unable to learn—and from the fact that all mammals, and some other animals, dream. It’s an intriguing idea.

Have you ever had a problem that just seemed to defy solution? You think and think, but you remain stuck. Then you go to bed, wake up the next morning, and presto, the solution appears. It might well be, Hoel would say, that your thinking was overfitted for the task—and dreams were just the disruption your brain needed to see the problem in a fresh light. —Taylor McNeil

A Picture’s Worth 1,000 Words, or in This Case, 5788 Instagram Likes

When the Olympic games come around every two years or so, there’s not much more that excites me than being able to clear the schedule of all my own activities to simply tune in as our nation’s athletes compete against the world’s top competitors in their respective sports. And after COVID delayed Tokyo 2020 by nearly a year, I was even more excited to see this sense of normalcy return, as I think others were. too.

Photo: Courtesy of Gaurika SinghPhoto: Courtesy of Gaurika Singh
In the weeks—and in some cases, days and even hours—leading up to the revised Tokyo 2020, when we learned that members of the Tufts community would have some of their own competing, the excitement for this year’s games grew even more, and I knew that being able to tell this story across our social media channels was an opportunity we couldn’t miss.

As the university’s social media strategist, I started with direct messages to the athletes we knew were competing—notifications from the @TuftsUniversity Instagram account to Gaurika Singh, A25 (swimming, Nepal), Tyler Paige, E20 (sailing, American Samoa), Gevvie Stone, M14 (rowing, USA), and coach Andrea Baldini, F19 (fencing, Turkey).

After initial back and forth conversations, happening with a 14-hour time difference, we were able to get photos, quotes, and background information to help us tell the stories of the proud Jumbos who were competing and give insight to our audiences of life inside the Olympic bubble.

There are certain trends that our audiences on social media get excited about, and to see a finished product come together the way these social posts and Tufts Now piece about our Olympic athletes did, and the reaction that our audiences had to them on social media, there is no question that this was my favorite piece of 2021. —Mark Daly

A Pioneering Advocate for Boston’s Black Communities

Doing photo research at the Tufts Digital Collections and Archives for Women’s History Month,

Photo: Spencer Grant/Tufts Digital Collections and ArchivePhoto: Spencer Grant/Tufts Digital Collections and Archive
I typed words “women” and “student”—and 156 images came up. After going through many pages of images, I found a photograph of Mary Goode. It caught my eye not only because the title of the image had a name of a person on it—usually older archived pictures do not have people’s names—but because she was an older Black woman in the classroom. I was immediately curious about where this image came from and who she Mary Goode was.

I searched her name on Google, but nothing came until I found an image of her. The image title said “1975 Mary Goode Massachusetts House of Representatives”—and I knew immediately this was the person I was looking for. That set me on a path to learn more about her, and to pitch her as a story that our Tufts audiences would be interested in. That one image of her in the digital archive was the beginning of discovering about her life. —Momo Shinzawa

This Museum Director Focuses Solely on Shoes

Working from home during the pandemic, I haven’t had much use for the shoes I used to wear to the office. But I’m still fascinated by what people put on their feet. And I’m not alone—remember all the talk about Vice President Kamala Harris’s Converse Chuck Taylor All-Stars when she was on the campaign trail?

Photo: Getty ImagesPhoto: Getty Images
So I was delighted to learn that a Tufts alumna has made understanding the meaning of our footwear her life’s work. As the director and senior curator of the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto, Elizabeth Semmelhack, AG93, can explain the history of men in high heels one minute and how footwear has helped detectives solve crimes the next.

Freelance writer George Spencer, who proposed this piece, had just the right touch for the assignment, which he told me he completed while wearing black Dansko clogs. Describing Semmelhack’s efforts to acquire a pair of the ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz, for example, he writes, “no matter how many times Semmelhack has clicked her heels,” the shoes have eluded her.

The story—which we featured on the cover of the fall issue of Tufts Magazine—is richly illustrated with examples from the Bata and considers all sorts of questions, like how platform shoes in Renaissance Italy transformed women into “parade floats” to signal family wealth and why collectors are willing to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for old Nikes.

In the end, we also couldn’t resist asking Semmelhack what she had on her feet. Readers like me, who have redefined business casual while working remotely, will relate to her response. She said she’d been working barefoot at home, and when she went out to walk her dog, she usually wore sneakers. I would happily put myself in those shoes. —Heather Stephenson

Who Are Tomorrow’s Engineers? Meet Five with Big Ideas

My favorite story of the year showcased School of Engineering students passionate about their studies and what they’re learning.

Photo: Alonso NicholsPhoto: Alonso Nichols
Taking their cues from the nationwide celebration of Engineers Week (February 21-27), five students shared what engineering means to them and how it shapes their career plans. They spoke about the being excited by exploring and discovering new ideas, about finding their inner resourcefulness. They also expressed their thanks to the supportive faculty with whom they work, including those doing pioneering work in the Tufts Nanolab and Human-Robot Interaction Lab.

The most indelible takeaway is how life can be enriched by an open and curious mind. “Failures aren’t as important as what you’re learning,” as Myisha Majumder, E21, observed. “Even the classes that I’ve done the worst in, I’ve learned the most, because I’ve realized just how resilient I am and I can keep going.” —Laura Ferguson    

Witnessing the Multi-Generational Trauma of Indigenous Residential Schools

It’s hard to call this first-person essay from a Native American alumna my favorite project of the year because of the pain behind it. But it’s definitely the story that will stay with me the longest.

It started with an email to Danielle Lazore-Thompson, J96, an attorney with Big Fire Law and Policy Group, to see if she might be willing to speak with me for an alumni profile about her work on behalf of Native American and Indigenous people.

Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty ImagesArtur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images
She agreed, and in a captivating Zoom session, she shared the story of how the abuse at residential schools for Native American children affected generations of her family and her community.

Such schools in the United States and Canada made headlines this year when hundreds of bodies of Indigenous children were found in unmarked graves (“Schools shouldn’t have cemeteries, period,” she said), and September 30 was recently established as an annual day of remembrance for residential school survivors. Lazore-Thompson’s parents survived, but the trauma they endured caused rippling generational effects. She said they didn’t know how to hug or to love, and anything that was supposed to be secure for them was gone.

She became a lawyer to help Indigenous people, especially when it comes to their land. “We’re in this constant state of trying to adapt and respond to external pressures. There’s a lot at stake for our people and there's always a fight about something. Now that I’m older, I’m trying to look for ways to stop that fighting.” —Angela Nelson

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