Great teachers can change their students’ lives, sometimes in an instant. Students can teach their professors, as well. All Samuel Gorovitz, a philosophy professor in the College of Arts and Sciences , had to do with one class of undergraduates was ask what they liked to do while driving.
For Andreacarola Urso ’16, then a junior majoring in biology and French and francophone studies , the question caught her off guard. “Most of us said that we listened to the radio or our favorite podcast," she says. “I sensed, however, that he was after something more.”
Gorovitz was, and he pressed his students further. According to Urso, his final salvo went something like this: “Do you really like listening to these things in the car, or do you just not want to listen to yourselves, to be alone with your thoughts?”
Today, Gorovitz’s query in Beautiful Minds, a popular, long-running honors course, still energizes Urso’s self-awareness. A Ph.D. candidate in molecular pharmacology and therapeutics at the Columbia University Irving Medical Center (CUIMC), she subscribes to the well-worn adage that helping others begins with understanding oneself.
“His question is the kind of thing that I ask myself almost daily, to better understand the root of my own attitudes and needs, which are often obscured by my routine,” Urso says.
Cathryn Newton, Special Advisor to the Chancellor and Provost for Faculty Engagement, applauds Urso’s perceptiveness. In addition to doing guest spots in Beautiful Minds, Newton co-teaches with Gorovitz another honors course called Linked Lenses: Science, Philosophy and the Pursuit of Knowledge.
“Staying connected with students and witnessing their personal and career evolution is fundamental to me. Some of these relationships have turned into deep friendships,” says Newton, also professor of Earth sciences and interdisciplinary sciences.
Staying connected with students and witnessing their personal and career evolution is fundamental to me. Some of these relationships have turned into deep friendships.—Cathryn Newton
Gorovitz echoes these sentiments, expressing the joy he gets from watching former students embrace life’s unforeseen opportunities and challenges. “Seeing their adaptability, grace and commitment is immensely gratifying. It helps me learn about current issues, based on circumstances they face,” he says.
Both professors are known for investing authentic personal attention in their students. As many college graduates face uncertain futures amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the need for such engagement takes on magnified importance.
Newton compares mentoring to a mighty river—specifically, the Hudson estuary in eastern New York, where the fresh water of the Hudson River mixes with the salty brine of the Atlantic, producing alternating currents. “Mentoring is like the great Mahicantuck ,” says Newton, calling the Hudson by its Mohican name. “It’s a river that flows both ways.”
While she and Gorovitz keep in touch with many former students, mostly through email, phone calls and personal visits, they are particularly close to those with ties to Beautiful Minds, Linked Lenses and Newton’s honors course The Science of Shipwrecks.
Beautiful Minds draws its inspiration from the real-life story of John Nash, a mathematician who shared a 1994 Nobel Prize for research into modern economic theory and whose struggle with mental illness was captured in an award-winning book and film, both titled A Beautiful Mind .
“We pursue the question: ‘What is a beautiful mind?’” says Gorovitz, founding director of The Renée Crown University Honors Program from 2004-10. “Each student selects a prominent thinker and, through readings from diverse fields such as literature, architecture, history and mathematics, develops an assessment of that thinker’s mind.”
One Beautiful Minds alumna is Elizabeth “Liz” Reynolds ’16, a second-year student at The F. Edward Hébert School of Medicine at Uniformed Services University in Bethesda, Maryland. She and Gorovitz correspond several times a year.
“Given recent events [with COVID-19] and knowing that I’m in medical school, he regularly calls to check on me,” says Reynolds, a second lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force. “I always appreciate hearing from him.”
Reynolds recalls her time at Syracuse University, where Beautiful Minds was an academic flashpoint. It was while probing the beauty of someone else’s mind that she began contemplating her own. “I started wondering why I made certain decisions and attracted certain experiences,” says Reynolds, who graduated cum laude from Arts and Sciences with bachelor’s degrees in biology and neuroscience .
Such reckoning came to a head last year, during her first clinical clerkship in psychiatry. “One day, I was tending to a patient with disorganized behavior and speech,” she remembers. “Who was I to say that this person’s mind wasn’t ‘beautiful’? The DSM [Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders] lists criteria for the diagnosis of a psychiatric disorder. I was reminded that the flipside of brilliance can sometimes be easily dismissed.”
Today, Gorovitz maintains a strong connection with Reynolds, providing recommendation letters and asking about her running. (At Syracuse University, she was a nationally ranked 800- and 1,500-meter runner.) “Professors Newton and Gorovitz have taught me the value of thinking critically and approaching problems from different angles,” says Reynolds, a self-avowed lifelong learner. “I have a couple of ‘long-term assignments’ that still need to be completed, including a visit to the Grand Canyon.”
Anthony Schramm ’16 also considers himself a lifelong learner—a trait honed during his University honors experience. When Schramm first met Newton and Gorovitz in the fall of 2015, he didn't foresee the impact they would have on him. “As a student, I was impressed with not only their breadth and depth of knowledge, but also their willingness to meticulously listen and respond to my ideas,” says Schramm, who graduated summa cum laude from Arts and Sciences with a degree in biochemistry . “Now, every time I communicate with them, I walk away with new knowledge and inspiration.”
Several months ago, Schramm decided to fast-track his final year of medical school to join the fight against COVID-19. Today, he works in the intensive care unit at Stony Brook University (SBU) Hospital on Long Island, while preparing for a four-year residency at NewYork-Presbyterian, which is part of CUIMC.
Schramm says Newton and Gorovitz have been unwaveringly supportive of his career choices. “We regularly discuss the challenges of treating SARS-CoV-2,” says Schramm, referring to the strain of virus causing COVID-19. “Dr. Gorovitz and I also have discussed his involvement with the New York State Task Force on Life and the Law, regarding the allocation and distribution of N95 respirators.”
That it has taken a pandemic to rekindle the trio’s relationship is not without irony. “I’ve always considered them friends and mentors, but it was really hard to stay in touch during medical school,” says the aspiring anesthesiologist.
That all changed on April 8, when Schramm was part of a virtual graduation ceremony at SBU’s Renaissance School of Medicine. No sooner had he taken the Hippocratic Oath than some of his former friends and colleagues from Syracuse University Ambulance, which he used to supervise, began transporting 22 nurses from Upstate University Hospital to SBU Hospital to aid in COVID-19 patient care.
“Dr. Newton and I applauded the nurses’ bravery and Syracuse University’s presence in the courageous response to the pandemic. We shared videos of the police and EMS motorcade, lights and sirens ablaze, and celebrated everyone’s arrival at Stony Brook,” Schramm says. “Afterward, she, Dr. Gorovitz and I promised to keep in touch as much as possible.”
Urso made a similar promise four years ago, after graduating magna cum laude from Arts and Sciences. She says that while her relationship with Gorovitz is founded on “great cerebral insight and stimulating curiosity,” her connection with Newton is made of different stuff—an appreciation based on the professor’s “fearless and absurdly knowledgeable” character.
“Her success in a male-dominated field [i.e., marine paleoecology] is unusually progressive,” Urso says. “I feel incredible pride in hearing Dr. Newton’s story, and I hope that I can transmit the same pride and engagement to someone else.”
Urso says that Beautiful Minds changed her approach to collecting, analyzing and interpreting information. It also reaffirmed her desire to break the glass ceiling.
“In science, there is a lingering bias of singularity—that, as a woman, you’re supposed to be really good at only one thing and your excellence in any other ability can, in some way, shadow your scientific proficiency,” says Urso, whose expertise extends to pediatric infectious lung diseases. “Drs. Newton and Gorovitz have taught me how to capitalize on all my skills and nourish them, to invest in myself and to always push harder.”
Drs. Newton and Gorovitz have taught me how to capitalize on all my skills and nourish them, to invest in myself and to always push harder.—Andreacarola Urso
In addition to managing research projects at CUIMC, Urso is responsible for the science itself. She currently plays a role in assembling an international database of lung transplant recipients diagnosed with COVID-19. “We are in weekly contact with colleagues in Turin, Milan, Pavia and New York City, collecting clinical data and blood samples to identify patterns in this immunosuppressed patient population,” says Urso, who also has launched several Columbia Response Against COVID-19 projects and volunteers at Morgan Stanley Children's Hospital of NewYork-Presbyterian. “The itch to help is too strong.”
Urso owes much of her success to Newton and Gorovitz, with whom she has corresponded regularly since 2016. “My relationship with them is crucial because their contributions to my life go beyond academics, which are important, but peripheral to me,” Urso concludes. “They have reached the core of who I am and who I want to be.