A Candid Conversation with Alisha Sarang-Sieminski

Alisha Sarang-Sieminski is an unmistakable character on Olin’s campus. Arguably one of our campus’s most outwardly liberal faculty, she’s tattooed, pierced, and feminist, and not afraid to talk about it.


From the woods of Western Washington, via an accidental transfer to MIT in her college years, Alisha has been working at Olin since September of 2005 (excepting last fall semester, in which she worked for Pfizer, in Cambridge, researching biotherapeutics).

Here, she researches blood cells and teaches a variety of biology courses- including, notably, next semester’s bio-transport, with John Geddes.

Though this was the first time I’d met Alisha, she was very relaxed and direct in answering my questions, and animated and entertaining in conversation.

She and her wife live in Jamaica Plain with their dog.

FRANKLY: How long have you lived in Jamaica Plain?

AS: Since 2003. I love it. The pond, Franklin Park, the arboretum — everything’s within walking distance. There are two hardware stores, my bank, my crunchy granola do-good social justice bank, and lots of restaurants. I have a dog, we go to the park every day.

FRANKLY: Do you eat out a lot?

AS: Yeah, a fair bit; it’s sort of our hobby. Right now my favorite is actually Haven; it’s a new Scottish bar in Jamaica Plain that has vegetarian food.

FRANKLY: Who’s ‘we’?

AS: My wife and I. We just got married on September 25th. I’m in the process of changing my name to Sarang-Sieminski.

FRANKLY: Congratulations! So other than eating out, do you like to cook, too?

AS: We’re in a cooking transition right now, because we had a CSA [farm-share] over the summer. We had a huge refrigerator full of vegetables every week and we had to cook vegetables before we got a whole new refrigerator of vegetables. Right now our refrigerator’s empty because we haven’t shifted our buying patterns.

FRANKLY: Did you go and work on the farm?

AS: We did some. Some friends of ours got some land out in Concord and they started a farm, so over the summer, we would go out during the weekdays and help out. It was amazing. And they were really good teachers in terms of, ‘here’s something that you can do, you silly city person who knows nothing about farming’. They were really good at breaking things down. I appreciate their educational perspective and finding things that anyone of any ability could do. I call it farm therapy.

FRANKLY: According to your Friendster profile, you like Pat Benatar and David Bowie — have you gotten to go to any of their concerts?

AS: No, but I did go see a really amazing cover band in New York a couple of times, and one of the times, they did Pat Benatar. It was pretty high quality in a little teeny club.

FRANKLY: What else do you like to do outside of Olin?

AS: I dance. Modern dance. Mostly I take class, but the woman I take class with pretty regularly is starting a community company, basically people who take class with her, and she’s setting a piece on us right now.

FRANKLY: Does that mean you’re going to have a show?

AS: Perhaps. Usually I keep them secret, though.

FRANKLY: I’ve heard you do other art, as well?

AS: My favorite is that I have a collection of Barbies, and my motto is sort of adorning them in ways never imagined by Mattel… electrical tape is amazingly useful. Sometimes I sew little outfits, depending on the inspiration.

So it turns out that in our house, there’s this indent in one of the passageways. It’s as if the people who remodeled our house knew that I needed a Barbie nook, so we have a little nook with all the Barbies hanging.

I started when I lived in a big house in Philadelphia, so probably 1998, I just got some Barbies at a thrift store and decided I wanted to decorate them. That’s kind of how my art projects go.

FRANKLY: What sort of research do you do at Olin?

AS: I do research on blood vessels. The big theme is how the environment around cells affects what they do. Cells are kind of like people; they care about what’s around them, and they care about how they interact with each other. They’re heavily influenced by all the factors- sort of- coming into them.

The thing that I look at is how the mechanical environment affects whether cells come together. So if the environment around them is too stiff, they can’t come together to form harmonious multicellular structures.

FRANKLY: How many students do you typically work with?

AS: Over time, I have had somewhere between 2 and 5 students at any given time on those projects. Right now I’m also trying an experiment: It’s a project that spun out of a class where students wrote a research proposal and I said ‘hey, you could do that here!’, so it’s kind of an OSS-ish thing, and it’s kind of a giant research project that could kind of become a SCOPE-like thing… I think my aspiration for it is a little larger than what can really happen, but it’s an experiment in research projects that are student originated.

FRANKLY: You’re teaching bio-transport next semester, guest-starring John Geddes. Have you worked with him before?

AS: [I’m working with John on a] research project: how blood vessels remodel in response to forces. It’s somewhat relevant to bio-transport. We taught bio-transport once before and it was a great success.
FRANKLY: You do a lot of research- you must be good at writing grants!

AS: I seem to be submitting a lot of grants. It’s really smart to have a lot of friends, because it’s way more fun to submit grants with other people.

FRANKLY: Do you have a teaching philosophy?

AS: I’m very application-driven. I have found that for my own learning, I really need to know why something is useful. For example, I have not historically been particularly interested in doing math for the sake of math, or even for the sake of a problem that I’m not particularly interested in, but if you put it in a context that I’m interested in, I can get excited about it. If it’s more like, I need to figure out how to solve this problem, and therefore I am going to invoke this math, I’m all over it. And I see that in at least a subset of students, I think that’s what draws some of the students to bioengineering, sort of that interest in having an application that they can see be tangibly useful for improving people’s lives.

FRANKLY: What’s the best part of teaching at Olin?

AS: There’s a lot of freedom. It was a little scary when I first got here and I was like, okay, what do you want me to teach and they were like well what do you want to teach I don’t know! Never done this before! There’s a certain level of do it yourself, fly by the seat of your pants, make stuff up, but there’s also a lot of amazing people as resources. I started out figuring things out on my own and then I started talking to other faculty and I’ve learned a lot from them.

I like that I get to choose. It’s hard to figure out where the balance is between always changing and is is an important core course that I need to teach every year, every two years, or do I need to develop something new, and finding that balance, I think it’s important to have some consistency for the students. And we really struggle with the size of the faculty, and there’s all these pieces, and they sort of fit together in this very complicated way.

The ridiculous schedules are the hard part. The back to back to back. This semester has been particularly bad for me, but just the fact that everyone is so overstretched and sometimes we don’t have time for those hallway coffee conversations where the exciting information sharing and information happens. And that’s hard. Sometimes we just have to make appointments for them: Let me stick you in my outlook calendar! Let’s get together and innovate! Because just waiting for it to happen doesn’t seem to be working.

FRANKLY: If you could teach any class you wanted, what would it be?

AS: When I first got here, and I was teaching the gender and engineering [co-curricular], I was thinking it would be really cool to teach a gender and biology course.

One of my heroes is Ann Fausto-Sterling. She started out as a biologist and she now writes a lot about gender, but from a science perspective- she does a lot of “let’s actually look at these studies that have been done” and all of the ways that the media reports what’s being said and how people talk about their science as being completely objective and free from any cultural bias, and she just blows that out of the water in a really charming sort of way.

She teaches at Brown, and teaches a lot of courses that are about that interface so I think that’s one of the things that I have this dream that I would be able to do someday, but it doesn’t seem like the kind of thing that there will be bandwidth to actually make into a full course.

FS: Can you tell me a bit about your views on gender?

AS: We’re running the Gender and Engineering co-curricular right now and that’s always really intense. We tell people when they come in, the first class, “this class is going to change your life. You’re going to see things that you didn’t see before and it’s not always comfortable and you may question whether it’s a good thing” and it always ends up being true, even though it feels like such a boastful statement.

Maybe one way to put this is what I’ve been thinking about lately in terms of gender.

One of the things I think about a lot is the small stuff. It’s true in all sorts of power inequity that generally you’re not dealing with overt racism, and overt sexism. While you do get the occasional people who walk down a hall and say ‘women can’t program,’ ‘women can’t do that,’ (those are quotes that I’ve heard), that’s not generally true, certainly not true in a more progressive-minded atmosphere, but it is true that there’s still a lot of micromessaging around, a lot of small disparities that can add up and there’s a ton of scholarly literature on that.

And also thinking about the way in which people are socialized and how that comes into any, supposedly even, playing field sort of environment and how people’s backgrounds and subtle things tend to make a lot of- incremental differences become big differences.

FRANKLY: So which part of the liberal Northwest are you from?

AS: I grew up in western Washington, which is a very different planet from eastern Washington. I actually think of them as sort of two states and I think it would be better maybe if you just cut it off at the mountains and sort of gave the rest to Idaho. That’s maybe a little extreme, but politically, there actually is a bright and shining line that cuts the state in half.

But I grew up in Everett. Sometimes I describe Everett as the town that kids from the smaller, neighboring farm towns come for night life, which is really, really sad.

FRANKLY: So you came to Boston for college?
AS: I went to University of Washington for a couple of years, and then I sort of accidentally transferred to MIT.

FRANKLY: Accidentally?

AS: I was a couple years in, and I was in chemical engineering, and all of the internships and applications that people were talking about involved chemical processing plants and smokestacks, and I had been really excited about the content of the courses, and then I realized that there was maybe a mismatch in my interests and where I was headed.

So I was sort of searching for something else, and I was really college clueless; it wasn’t part of my family culture. I knew that MIT was an engineering school, but that was more or less what I knew. And for some personal reasons, I decided I wanted to move to Boston.

And then I discovered food science, so my career aspiration at the time was to make candy flavoring, potentially jelly bean flavoring, things like that, but better candies. By the time I got there, they’d actually closed down their food science department. But I managed to get a job- I don’t know why- as a computer programmer- I mean I don’t know why they hired me.

I had taken one computer programming class in a language called ADA, that no one’s ever heard of.

I was lucky enough to get a job as a computer programmer after not getting a job at a place that did food science because they were trying to make better tasting fat-free foods, and I think I might have told the interviewer that I didn’t really like fat-free foods, which was maybe a bad choice on my part.

But I was much happier at the programming place. They were actually doing molecular dynamics, so it had a very biological application, and I learned a ton. They were all very academic people who had a lot of interest in teaching young people, and in the meantime, I put in my transfer application to MIT.

Basically in December, I was either going to move back home and go back to Seattle, or get in, and I called the admissions office every day.

I actually think the reason I got in was I- well, in the meantime, I discovered bioengineering, and I wanted to do drug delivery and so I wrote all about drug delivery, but I also included an additional essay at the very last minute right before I sent it in, about ‘yes, there’s all this academic stuff, and I wrote all the right stuff about being passionate about learning and whatever you write in college essays, but I’m also a tattooed, pierced person, and here’s this whole other side of me that there’s no place for in these other essays’. And I’m actually convinced that that’s what got me into the MIT transfer.

FRANKLY: What made you decide to write that essay?

AS: Partly I talked to some people; I talked to someone who’d really wanted to go to MIT and had not gotten in, who was my roommate at the time, and he was talking about how they like interesting. There’s tons and tons of smart people who apply there but they like interesting. I figured, I don’t think I came across as über-brilliant in terms of testing and grades, and I was like, well, I’m smart, and I’ll play the interesting card if I can. I don’t know if that’s true, but putting interesting things on my resume was the thing that caught the attention of the postdoc who hired me to do research in the Langer lab, which is sort of the biggest bioengineering lab in the world, more or less.

There was this wall of resumes, and I had my resume, and I had some minor research experiences, and I put at the bottom a little statement about what I like to do, and that I like to dance, and that I was passionate about dancing, and that’s the thing that made my very first research mentor notice my resume out of these hundreds and hundreds of resumes on a wall. I’m always encouraging people to let their actual personalities come through instead of trying to be these little perfect researchers.

FRANKLY: Can I ask about the tattoos?

AS: (laughs) I have a vine with a purple snake, and a dragon on my back, it’s colorful. It’s actually from an anthology of children’s stories. The stories are called Poo-Poo and the Dragon, and the dragon’s name is Horatio Heavysides Dragon.

FRANKLY: Do they have special significance?

AS: Much like the art, they’re just sort of inspirations. I mean, they’re thought-out inspirations. There’s also a fairy on a leaf, too. She was my first. They just come into my head and it’s like, yes, this is what I need to do. This is the inspiration I was waiting for.

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