A photo still from a video game showing a humanoid sunflower.
A still from a narrative-based game Emilie Zhang ’24 created in which players are represented as humanoid sunflowers who “date” a humanoid angel figure. Conference attendees will get a chance to play a demo of the game.
Image credit: Emilie Zhang ’24

From Humanoid Sunflowers to the Hornworm: Ruhlman Returns

Quinn Etoll ’23
April 24, 2023

Wellesley’s annual Ruhlman Conference will take place April 26, and will celebrate the collaboration of students and faculty to enhance the intellectual life of the College. At the conference, now in its 26th year, students representing a range of academic disciplines will highlight their academic achievements as well as their personal stories through a series of presentations and panel discussions. 

One of those students is Alo Perez ’24, who will be featured in Belonging at Wellesley: Stories from STEM Students, a panel that includes performances of personal stories from students of color. Perez, a media arts and sciences major and a Japanese minor, was advised by Sohie Lee, senior instructor in computer science laboratory, and professors Jon Adler and Gillian Epstein of Olin College. She will share how her experience as a person of color impacts how she navigates Wellesley. Her story, “Fish Number 5,” centers largely on the parallels between her high school life and the lives of the  many fish she raised during that time. The message she hopes people take from her story is to “support [people of color], but not just in the one way that you want. … Actually show up.”

Jivonsha Ffrench ’24 will present research she has collaborated on with Yui Suzuki, professor of biological sciences, through the Sophomore Early Research Program. Ffrench, who has worked in Sukuki’s lab for the past three years, says that though her main academic interests lie in psychology, the lab has taught her how to research the biological aspects of psychiatric diseases. She has studied the development and other characteristics of hornworms under different temperature conditions, mirroring the circumstances of rising global temperatures. She and her coworkers in the lab have found a distinct shortening of the vital periods of early development, which could be from hormonal, genetic, or other factors. This research bodes poorly for the hornworm, Ffrench says, as it could “cause eradication of the whole species.”

Jivonsha Ffrench ’24 (left) and Caroline Francois ’23 are both presenting research during the Ruhlman Conference.

A staple of the conference each year is senior thesis presentations. Caroline Francois ’23, a history major and Schiff Fellow whose thesis advisor is Ryan Quintana, associate professor of history, will talk about her research into the company town of Donora, Pa., the center of an environmental disaster in 1948 that left 20 people dead and thousands ill as a result of an air inversion, an unusual weather event that traps warm air close to the ground. The inversion collected pollution from the nearby zinc and steel plants, causing respiratory distress for residents of the town. (Francois first came across the story of Donora in an episode of the Netflix series The Crown.) Much academic attention has been paid to the political effects and scientific intricacies of the 1948 event, but Francois was curious about the feelings of the townsfolk who experienced it. She expected to find records revealing a populace angry and disappointed with the companies that polluted Donora’s air and water, but instead she discovered a group that felt warmly about the employers of 70% of the working men in town. The ample wages from the steel and zinc plants paid for good lives, even at the expense of people’s health. “They could buy cars, they owned their homes, they could take their families on vacation,” Francois says. “This participation in a postwar consumer culture was really part of what their U.S. Steel job was giving them.” Through reading diaries and journals found in public archives, she recognized that the everyday lives of those in Donora parallel our own in many ways. Francois describes the core of her work as asking why people historically made the choices they did, and what was important to those communities moving forward.

Emilie Zhang ’24, advised by Jordan Tynes, Hess Fellow and lecturer in computer science, is doing something a bit different from the others. Drawing on her background in computer science and user experience, she created a fictional, narrative-based game that she says will “reveal a dark secret about the player.” With funding from the MIT Trope Tank and in collaboration with Lena He, a visual artist who is an undergraduate at Brown University, Zhang is building what she calls the “Biblically Accurate Dating Simulator.” At the conference, Zhang is excited to have attendees play a demo of the game, in which they will “date” a humanoid angel figure as a humanoid sunflower. Zhang, who has experience in creative writing, also wrote the game’s script.

The 2023 Ruhlman Conference is the second since the death of Barbara Peterson Ruhlman ’54, the philanthropist, volunteer, and tireless advocate for Wellesley who founded the event. For more information and to see the complete schedule, see the Ruhlman website.