A Celebration of Student Scholarship 

The annual Colby Liberal Arts Symposium, believed to be the biggest undergraduate research symposium in the country, brings the campus community together

Students in Assistant Professor of Music José Martínez's Intro to Afro-Latin Drumming course rehearse in Studio 2 at the Gordon Center for Creative and Performing Arts as part of CLAS 2024.
By Abigail Curtis and Bob KeyesPhotography by Jasper Lowe
May 10, 2024

Excitement reverberated around Mayflower Hill on May 2 as classrooms and other spaces were transformed into venues for student presentations, poster projects, speech contests, dance, music, and everything else that comprise the Colby Liberal Arts Symposium, or CLAS.

The annual event, during which classes are canceled so all students can participate, is a celebration of student scholarship that is believed to be the largest undergraduate research symposium in the country. For organizers and participants, it’s a highlight of the academic year.

“I love seeing our students be spectacular,” said Jim Sloat, senior associate provost and enthusiastic administrative force behind CLAS. “What I love is that I can go and see students in English, and global studies, and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies, and environmental studies, and art history all showing the work they’ve done. I get to see the highlights of the work they’re doing, and I see their eyes light up. I just love that because they really take seriously the trust that’s placed in them to tell the story of their work.” 

A ‘Colby holiday’ 

Many students conquered apprehensions over public speaking to present their academic research to their professors and peers, then dashed from classroom to classroom to cheer on their friends. They also cheered on the four professors who participated in a PowerPoint karaoke event and used their improvisational skills to discuss PowerPoint decks they had never seen before. 

“I love seeing our students be spectacular.”

Jim Sloat, senior associate provost

Faculty created the symposium 10 years ago as a way of extending the positive impact of its predecessor, the Colby Undergraduate Research Symposium, which showcased student work but did not cancel classes, and attendance wasn’t reliably strong. 

After a three-year pandemic pause, the symposium relaunched last spring as one of the College’s beloved annual traditions, Sloat said. This year, more than 600 students presented more than 450 projects before audiences that were sometimes standing-room only. 

Special performance events like this Afro-Latin drumming concert were a part of the 2024 Colby Liberal Arts Symposium.

“I think this is our Colby holiday,” Sloat said. “This is where we feature the central part of our work. It is one of the most important days in the Colby calendar. At commencement, we celebrate four years of terrific work from our students, and that’s a beautiful thing. At our opening convocation, we welcome new members into our community, and that’s a beautiful, spectacular day … but you’re not seeing the work itself. In CLAS, we see the work, and that’s amazing.” 

A celebration of learning 

Rachel Goldberg ’24, an English and educational studies double major who studied abroad last spring, experienced her first-ever symposium last week. The senior, the 2024 recipient of the Mary Low Carver Poetry Prize, read from her work along with other senior creative writing majors and presented research from her student teaching experience at Messalonskee High School in Oakland, Maine. 

“I think my whole goal for the day has been to view CLAS just as a celebration of learning, and so that made me less nervous,” she said. “I’ve been able to hear my peers and friends present today, and celebrate their learning, and feel supported in that same way. I’ve really enjoyed today.” 

A rousing concert

Nearly two dozen students joined Assistant Professor of Music José Martínez and several musical guests to close out the day-long CLAS 2024 celebration with a rousing Afro-Latin drum concert, presented in Studio 2 of the Gordon Center for Creative and Performing Arts.

Assistant Professor of Music José Martínez rehearses with his Afro Latin Drumming class in Studio 2 at the Gordon Center for Creative and Performing Arts.
Assistant Professor of Music José Martínez rehearses with his students.

The concert, From Africa to América, was the final performance for students involved in Martínez’s Intro to Afro-Latin Drumming course. Performing on a variety of drums and percussion instruments, the students supported Martínez and his guests with energy and spirit, filling the studio with body-moving rhythms and positive vibes.

The students were joined on stage by their professor and guest musicians Sandy Perez, Vanessa Lindberg, and Michael Birenbaum Quintero, who perform and teach Latin music around New England. Martínez directed the ensemble.

Finding smarter ways to solve problems

An animated hum rose from the Parker-Reed Room all day long as scores of students explained the research behind their poster projects. Henry Landay ’26, a computer science major with a concentration in artificial intelligence, is working on developing AI technology that could assist Maine communities that are struggling with the explosion of the toxic browntail moth caterpillar. It’s a problem that is expensive, if not impossible, to solve within the confines of currently available technology. 

“What we’ve been trying to do is take drone-captured imaging from directly over the top of the trees and use AI on the images to basically detect if a tree is infested,” he said. “If you’re trying to investigate an entire swath of forest, it’s not cost-effective to hire arborists to go out and walk it. If you can just fly over with a drone, then hopefully you can save so much time and effort. … I think this has a lot of applications to save towns across the Northeast a lot of money.” 

Asking critical questions

Maimouna Cherif ’24, a global studies major, did an oral presentation based on her capstone project, “Truth Commissions and the (Re)Invention of Democracy in Brazil and South Africa.” Cherif looked at the centrality and use of truth commissions, a popular tool of citizen justice, in societies that are emerging from oppressive regimes. 

“I hypothesize that truth commissions’ mandates, and their ad hoc nature, are not conducive to the promotion of justice and reconciliation,” she said. “My argument relies on the idea that truth commissions are based on ideas of justice and violence that are really Western-imposed ideas that have been codified in international human rights law and that have been universalized to fit different communities outside of those contexts.” 

Although she said later that having the audience ask her questions after the presentation was a nerve-wracking proposition, Cherif rose to the occasion. “I was really stressed out about not being able to answer questions, but then I just remembered that, on this specific topic, I probably know more than anybody in the room,” she said. 

A powerful speech

When computational psychology major Alexandra Gillespie ’25 took the podium in the Phi Beta Kappa Student Speech Contest, the roomful of people grew quiet. The six student competitors had each prepared speeches based on a prompt that asked how the liberal arts prepare people to live a good life, and the students and others present were ready to listen. 

“I’m going to stand here and argue … that a good life is the best that you can do with the cards that you’re dealt. Liberal arts teaches you how to play those cards well.”

Alexandra Gillespie ’25

Gillespie told them she had written a whole other speech she ended up throwing out after she started thinking about her mother’s experiences surviving cancer in her early 30s. The first speech “just didn’t seem to hold a candle to the important life experiences and what it means to live a good life,” she said. So she got to work on another one. 

“I’m not going to stand here and argue that the liberal arts prepare you to lead a good life by telling you what a good life is,” she said. “I’m going to stand here and argue, instead, that a good life is the best that you can do with the cards that you’re dealt. Liberal arts teaches you how to play those cards well.” 

The audience erupted in applause after Gillespie’s speech, and she wound up winning the contest. “This whole experience was about having fun, and being creative, and thinking about life in a non-existentially scary way,” she said afterward. 

Encouraging big dreams

The Halloran Lab for Entrepreneurship hosted a venture showcase with $40,000 in prize money on the table to advance student ventures. Student entrepreneurs competed in the pitch event in Ostrove Auditorium in the Diamond Building and were judged by a panel of guests selected to represent a diversity of experience, industries, and sector expertise.

With a prize of $25,000, first place went to Mawjam Energy Analytics, an enterprise of Wyatt Tune ’26 and Youssif Mostafa ’26, who are proposing a venture that would efficiently connect solar-energy installers with customers using a variety of technologies.

Second place, with a $12,500 prize, went to Jacob Ju ’26, who pitched a company called Pachyceph that would make eco-friendly headwear combining the protection of helmets with the comfort and style of everyday hats.

The $2,500 Audience Choice Award went to Jack Richard ’25, Lee Trombley ’25, and Travis Bender ’26. Their company, GOOD BALNCE, would use fashion as a vehicle for authentic collaboration by creating personalized, sustainable clothing.