Rachel Kennedy, New Addition to Physical Science Department, Melds Poetry and Biology

Max Neuman, ‘16

Here’s a challenge: go up to Dr. Rachel Kennedy in the hallway and talk to her for five minutes, then try to figure out what she teaches. This year, she is teaching three sections of Introduction to Biology for Year Ones. Classes that Dr. Kennedy considers teaching in the future include Environmental Toxicology, Neuroscience, Sex Differences in the Brain, and “What Makes us Human?”. The variety of topics and experiences under Dr. Kennedy’s belt, though, make her nearly uncategorizable.

After starting college at Bowdoin, a school that she says was similar to Bard College, Dr. Kennedy transferred after one year to the University of Maine, where she would remain for twelve years. There she was celebrated for her abilities on the soccer field. Previously, Dr. Kennedy had established herself as the leading career scorer in Connecticut high school history, notching 102 goals and 86 assists and making the All­-State team three times. She was also an All­-New England player twice, and only one step away from being an All­American player. She went on to play Division I soccer for the Maine Black Bears.

At the University of Maine, Dr. Kennedy pursued two seemingly disparate interests, earning Bachelor’s degrees in both English and Biochemistry. When she was considering graduate school, fiscal considerations steered Dr. Kennedy towards biology. She recalled,“I had heard that if you go to graduate school in the sciences, they pay you, and, if you go to graduate school in the humanities, they don’t.” Unusually, she applied to doctorate programs in biology prior to receiving a master’s degree. Interestingly enough, Dr. Kennedy’s alternate career plan involved obtaining an advanced degree in Russian and translating the works of her favorite poet, 20th century writer Anna Akhmatova. Upon deciding to study biology, Dr. Kennedy earned a PhD in biomedical science from the University of Maine’s inter­-institutional program. Recently, at Columbia University, she was a neuroscience postdoctoral scholar and instructor in the Discipline of Psychology.

Kennedy’s interest in poetry persists today, and she incorporates it into her teaching style. She is an active writer of poems, and is currently working on a collection of fifty works to assemble together into a small book for publication. “You mature as a writer,” she said. “Some of my earlier stuff, I look back on, and I am proud of it to a certain extent, but I feel like I really have come into a style and understanding of my writing.” So far, she is about a third of the way to her goal of fifty poems.

In class, and in life, Dr. Kennedy finds poetry and biology to be inseparable parts of a greater whole. “It’s wrong to say that they’re separate. They’re competing and complementary interests in the soul,” she says. “I’m striving to be a well­-rounded person, and I think that experiences inform many different opportunities. Going to the opera, you can get a great idea about a problem in science.” In her classrooms, Dr. Kennedy continues the Writing and Thinking elements of BHSEC that she lauds. She calls it “A wonderful way to use writing to understand what it is to think about something, and I often begin class with a focused free write to generate discussion ideas.”

With the combined interests and experiences of soccer stardom, poetic sensibilities , and academic biology, Dr. Kennedy brings a unique perspective to the Natural Sciences department and to BHSEC. The school itself drew her in, she said, when she met a colleague who had participated in the Bard Prison Initiative, “It seemed like they were really invested in education,” she says. Reflecting on BHSEC, the Prison Initiative, and her own experience recently teaching a microscopy course in Africa, she said these experiences “opened up my eyes to what education could do, and so I’d been looking for opportunities to get more involved and make meaningful contributions.”

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