Illustrations by Cathryn Virginia
Illustrations by Cathryn Virginia

Simmering just below Richmond’s aesthetics is a more worthwhile benefit that Spiders recognize. We have the sense that this beautiful campus inspires students’ intellect and ambitions — in scholarship, creativity, and excellence. Sometimes, it does so in very practical ways, as the vignettes that follow show. They offer examples of how our physical space — even some of the not-so-beautiful corners unlikely to make a wall calendar — push students forward as they chase their goals and dreams.

This beautiful campus inspires students' intellect and ambitions - in scholarship, creativity, and excellence. Sometimes it does so in very practical ways.

Catch and Release illustration

Catch and release — Westhampton Lake

Westhampton Lake — so beautiful in photographs — does not feel quite so picturesque when you’re wading into it. Waist-deep waters mean that your legs sink shin-deep into mud. It’s like walking through glue, something six students working in a research lab this summer discovered. Still, summer on the lake was joyful. How could it not be?

Well, maybe not if you are a snapping turtle caught in one of the students’ nets. Snappers, musks, and other turtles are why these students pulled on waders and trudged into the mud. They were continuing a turtle-trapping project aimed at assessing the size and health of the lake’s turtle population while teaching students mark and recapture techniques, an effort started by biology professor Peter Smallwood as part of a network of colleges collecting data on the urban turtle populations on their campuses.

On Friday morning just before the July 4 holiday, students Sarah Timko, Kayla Sherman, and Khaela Sanchez retrieved four netted funnel traps opened the day before. Seven turtles from three species waited for them, along with some in-the-wrong-place-at-the-wrong-time fish and snails they tossed back. The students weighed and measured each turtle and used a file to mark the scutes around each’s carapace so they could identify it if they caught it again. Over the summer, they recorded data from 70 turtles.

While they did their work, parents and kids out for a walk invariably stopped for a peek and some chitchat. “Hey,” one woman greeted the students as she approached. Noticing the plastic bin, she took a closer look at the captured snappers, each about the size of a dinner plate. “They’re almost adorable,” she said as she walked off.

Once the data were recorded, all that remained was to slip them back into the lake.

Sun and Shadow — Weinstein Center for Recreation and Wellness

“Some people teach the course entirely within the covers of the book,” management professor Andy Litteral said about his business statistics course. He’s not one of them.

Instead, he took his students on a walk to the terrace behind the Robins Center to see the solar array on the roof of the Weinstein Center for Recreation and Wellness.

The University debuted the array in April 2016 as part of its pledge to be carbon-neutral by 2050. The 22,000-foot array includes 749 panels. About a quarter of them capture the sun’s energy from only the top side, but 569 of them are bifacial — meaning they also capture indirect light on the underside. The bifacial ones are less common and more expensive, which raises the question: Are they worth it?

The question presented statistics problems to solve far less neat and tidy than the ones in the students’ textbooks. They turned out to be more interesting, too.

“Early on, they get frustrated,” Litteral said, citing incomplete or unorganized data. “Then they work through it. They learn a lot working with real data, like, ‘What do I do about missing data?’”

Take a variation they observed within the performance of the bifacial panels. Some sit on a white reflective surface; others are over gravel. The students’ hunch was that the panels over the white surface would perform better, but the data showed the reverse. (One possible reason, Litteral speculated, is that light bounces off gravel at different angles.) The students’ analysis also raised questions about the optimal angle for the 
panels and the performances of two different converters.

“What was really cool about [the project] was the questions we generated,” Litteral said.

Under ordinary conditions, 'look up' is a simple instruction to follow. It is not so straightforward if you already happen to be hanging upside down.

Space Available illustration

Space available — Parking Lot C

The place where virtually every campus visitor takes his or her first step is unlikely to make the University’s annual calendar. Who, after all, would want to stare at a photograph of a parking space?

“Parking lots are kinda invisible,” art professor Erling Sjovold told a reporter from Virginia Currents.

He and his students saw possibility in those overlooked pieces of infrastructure. Over the 2014–15 year, two team-taught classes turned mundane spaces behind Gottwald into a public project exploring nature, art, and culture.

One student erected a nook using chunks of asphalt that were torn up for the project. Another built a canopy that directed rainwater to an adjacent spot, where a third student nourished a garden of cabbage, mustard greens, and spinach. Others made sculptures using found objects and building materials, created sound projects, and hosted screenings.

The spaces they took over were noncontiguous. Drivers parked among them daily.

Then-senior Mimi King had these drivers in mind as she developed her space. “One thing that I wanted to do is mess with viewers’ experience in a parking lot,” she told Virginia Currents. “Obviously, we’re all doing that a little bit.”

In suspension — Modlin Center

Under ordinary conditions, “look up” is a simple instruction to follow. It is not so straightforward if you already happen to be hanging upside down. Similarly confusing are left and right. Care to further complicate the puzzle? Consider slowly spinning the whole time.

Such was the learning curve for Alana Wiljanen as she climbed aerial silks in the Modlin Center’s black box theater late last year. It was part of her thesis work developing her play MacBheatha, which intertwines Shakespeare’s Macbeth with its historical inspiration and its contemporary political context, particularly the failed Gunpowder Plot to assassinate James I.

Her early conceptions included gravity-eluding acrobatics to evoke a staircase, a hanging, and other plot points. But working on aerial silks is a highly technical skill that comes out of the circus tradition. If Wiljanen was to teach it to her actors, she first needed to learn it herself. For that, she had Jepson professor Kristin Bezio, an experienced aerial dancer.

For two hours each Friday, Bezio taught Wiljanen the basics and helped her translate her ideas into moves that were physically possible, safe, and teachable. At first, 
Wiljanen lacked the strength to climb the silks for more than a half-hour or so, but her endurance developed. So did her creative vision for using the silks.

Her work in progress made its off-campus debut in July at the Fringe Festival in Washington, D.C. A reviewer for called her largely UR cast “a scrappy bunch.” The aerial silks “provide an extra visual bang,” he wrote. “Some of the best moments of the play are when Wiljanen’s cast uses them in surprising ways.”

The silks are another resource in Wiljanen’s exploration of physical theater. Learning them from Bezio was a no-brainer.

“If somebody offers to teach you aerial silks,” she said, “why would you say no?”

In the archive, they hold evidence of what was and what we need to think critically about. There is a sense of discovery, and then they feel compelled to keep asking questions.

Hot Enough illustration

Hot Enough For You? — Westhampton Woods

Richmond is on the front edge of an invasion of gypsy moths that have been creeping down from Massachusetts since the 1870s. Biology students working in the woods near Gottwald Center are trying to help figure out whether they’ll get much farther.

Outdoors in the sweltering summer heat, the students are monitoring two populations of the moths, one from Richmond and one from a Virginia mountainside farther west. Two students traveled to the mountains to do the same. These moths need winter cold to develop, so the question is whether Virginia’s relatively milder winter climate or blazing hot summers will deter the spread of the species farther south.

Or, put another way by biology professor Kristine Grayson, who heads up the project, “Can gypsy moths stand the heat?”

To prevent more moths from entering the local ecosystem, the Richmond students do their work in a screened pavilion with a corrugated metal roof that facilities staff built for them. The students grow the caterpillars in plastic cups like the one a server at a restaurant might bring you if you asked for your salad dressing on the side. In shorts, T-shirts, and protective blue gloves, they measure and record data about the reproductive rates and growth of their research populations.

The good news is that the Virginia heat is, in science-speak, “suboptimal” for growth during the caterpillar stage for both populations of moths. Less welcome news is that the Richmond populations seem to weather the heat better in the eggs stage. In other words, Richmond gypsy moths seem to be adapting to heat, at least in that stage of their life cycle.

Held in One’s Own Hands — Archives

The near silence might be the most jarring sensation that strikes students when they first work with paper archives in Boatwright Library and the Virginia Baptist Historical Society. The quiet is part of the culture of such places, where researchers dig through long-stored files in search of untold stories. But sometimes, the silence is broken by gasps.

For two years, Nicole Maurantonio, a professor of rhetoric and communication studies, has been bringing students in her Digital Memory and the Archive course to scour yearbooks, The Collegian, memos, reports, and other papers for information that illuminates the story of the University’s experience with race and racism.

“Encountering the material texts creates closer connections,” she said. “When students see signatures in a yearbook, for example, they might wonder who these people were and how they interacted with one another. It also begs questions about students’ own interactions today and questions of change over time.”

At, the students have curated hundreds of documents that illustrate everything from affirmations of the Confederacy and segregation to early calls by students for progress toward integration. They’ve also documented the experience of under-represented groups, such as the Student Organization for Black Awareness, which organized the University’s first Black History Week in 1974.

Today’s students are all digital natives. Opening boxes and folders and becoming the first person to hold a document in decades, in some cases, gives them ink stains on their hands and commitment to their work.

“Students tell me they have the sense that this is something that could disappear,” Maurantonio said. “In the archive, they hold evidence of what was and what we need to think critically about. There is a sense of discovery, and then they feel compelled to keep asking questions.”