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Professor Amy Smoyer and a photo of kitchen staff preparing food

What’s it like to be a woman in prison? Assistant Professor of Social Work Amy Smoyer’s research focuses on women’s lived experiences of incarceration, and she has found that a big part of living in prison is food: the kinds of food that are served, how they are served, how they are prepared, and how women feel about eating them. In her conversations with incarcerated women, she says, one woman told her, “food is what it’s all about in prison,” that “people who have been in prison all talk about the food.”

Before she became interested in the experiences of incarcerated women, and food in particular as part of that experience, Smoyer was an HIV social worker. For her research into the impact of incarceration on HIV risk, she would go to prisons to work with inmates, and through her work with these individuals, she became interested in prison. There’s a difference between lived experience and academic research, Smoyer says. She decided she wanted to look at women’s actual experiences living in prison, and she quickly learned about food’s importance.

It’s not about nutrition, she says. “Food is a tool we use to build identity, place, culture. It’s about a memory of being with family or friends. It’s an important part of our human experience, and we send cues to each other by what we eat.” People in prison are no different than anyone else when it comes to food, Smoyer says. “They use food in the same ways.” Questions like, “Who do you cook with?” and “Who do you eat with?” are important. Food and eating involve trust issues.

When she talks with incarcerated women about the prison cafeteria, Smoyer says, they say things like “the food is like slop”: it tastes, smells, and looks awful. The low quality of the food sends a powerful message to incarcerated people about how they are seen, she says, adding, “Food should send a message that says, ‘I see you as a human being and I’m giving you food that I would eat myself.’”

When Smoyer spent two months as a Fulbright Scholar in Denmark, teaching and conducting research about Danish prison food systems, she saw differences in the role of food in Danish prisons as opposed to American prisons. In Denmark’s prisons, she says there are no cafeterias; instead, prisons have kitchens where inmates can prepare and eat their own food. “It’s about being able to take care of your own body and regain control over your own nutrition, and your own lives.”

Talking to incarcerated women about what food means to them and how they’re taking care of themselves with food, Smoyer says, is a different way to talk about prison, allowing people to see the humanity of those in prison. “We all eat,” she says, so talking about the role of food in prisoners’ lives “humanizes people. People who live in prison are just normal people.”

Smoyer’s interest in the topic of incarceration encompasses more than food. She started off thinking about the massive incarceration of people in the United States and what might be done to reduce the prison population. There’s been a move to release nonviolent offenders, she says, or those who are in prison by mistake, or are in for small charges. “It’s important to remember,” Smoyer says, “the U.S. still has the largest population of incarcerated persons in the world. In Europe, the maximum sentence you can get is 15 years, while in this country you can get a life sentence for drug charges. We have to look at people who have committed felonies. If we want to reduce the number of people in prison, we have to be able to make modifications to our sentencing.” Thinking hard about “when is it enough time?” to serve is necessary if we’re going to have movement, she says.

Forgiveness as a part of reforming the criminal justice system is something to consider, Smoyer believes. “We have to be able to forgive others, ourselves, our country.” In April, she led a panel at Southern on “Breaking Good: The Role of Forgiveness and Atonement in Reducing the Number of Incarcerated Women in Connecticut,” part of the 64 Days of Nonviolence Program sponsored by the Women’s Studies Program. The forum started with a small step, Smoyer says: asking the question, “What does forgiveness mean to you? Can we forgive people for doing horrible things?”

For the panel, she brought in four women who have been impacted by the criminal system, “people who have really struggled with forgiveness and have thought a lot about what forgiveness means.” The forum was about creating a space for formerly incarcerated women to lead participants in a discussion, Smoyer says, adding that movements are most successful when led by people who are most impacted by them. And, she adds, intergroup dialog is how we learn.

The forum followed Smoyer’s participation in January in Temple University’s Inside-Out Training program, whose mission is “to create opportunities for people inside and outside of prison to have transformative learning experiences that emphasize collaboration and dialogue and that invite them to take leadership in addressing crime, justice, and other issues of social concern.” This summer, she launched an Inside-Out undergraduate course (SWK350: Research Methods) at the Manson Youth Institute in Cheshire. This course includes SCSU undergraduates and men at MYI in a transformative learning experience grounded in intergroup dialogue. All students earn three credits towards their bachelor’s degree.

For spring 2017, Smoyer was awarded the Joan Finn Junior Faculty Research Fellowship to work on her portfolio of studies about the lived experience of incarceration. In her project, “Prison at the Margins: Understanding the Intersecting Vulnerabilities of Incarcerated Lives,” she planned to analyze existing qualitative data about the incarcerated lives of two vulnerable populations — people living with HIV and transgender individuals.

Smoyer earned her Ph.D. in social welfare from Hunter College of the City University of New York, her MSW and MPA from Florida State University, and her B.A. in women’s studies from Columbia University. She has been an assistant professor in the Department of Social Work since 2015, after serving as a post-doctoral fellow at the Yale University School of Public Health from 2013 to 2015. For more information about Smoyer and her work, visit her website.

For students who are considering a career in scientific research or who are interested in doing work to help food, farms, forests, or the environment, a new internship program co-sponsored by Southern and the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station could be an ideal way to become immersed in field- or laboratory-based research projects and engage in hands-on learning.

The Summer Undergraduate Fellows in Plant Health and Protection program offers 10 undergraduate research internships during summer 2017. During the internships, which will be funded by the USDA, students will participate in research projects focused on plant health and protection, including: plant pathology, analytic chemistry, entomology, microbiology, molecular biology, plant physiology, and forest health.  Weekly enrichment activities will include field trips to learn about research careers in the public and private sector, and workshops to develop scientific leadership and communication skills.

i-MvGxgZC-X3Interns will be provided with free housing, a meal plan, and a stipend. The nine-week program beginning on June 5 will culminate with student presentations at Plant Science Day held on August 2 at the CT Agricultural Experimental Station’s outdoor research facility, “Lockwood Farm”. Students interested in conducting scientific research in areas related to agriculture and crop health are encouraged to apply.

The program is open to undergraduate students from any college or university who: are U.S. citizens or permanent residents; are at least 18 years of age; will have completed two to four semesters toward a biology, chemistry, or related science major by June 2017; are in good academic standing; and can commit to live at SCSU and to work full-time from June 5-August 4, 2017 (not including July 4). Underclassmen and novice researchers (students with no prior paid research experience) are strongly encouraged to apply, as are first-generation and minority college students. The deadline for applications is March 10, 2017.

For more details or to apply, visit www.planthealthfellows.com.

Scott Graves, drone

In April 2010, Scott Graves was watching news coverage of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. A geologist and oceanographer who spent his early career making maps from aerial views of the landscape, Graves began wondering: How would scientists document the spread of the spill along the coastline and into surrounding marshes?

Curious, he started poking around the internet. The federal government had basically shut down flights over the area, but Graves learned a small group of researchers was getting aerial shots by dangling cameras from kites and balloons.

Thinking it would be great to bring the technique to Southern, Graves, associate professor in the Department of the Environment, Geography and Marines Sciences, decided to learn what he could and worked with his department to acquire a balloon and a kite.

“I just started ‘MacGyvering’ camera systems together,” he recalls, referencing the 1980s TV character known for cobbling together everyday items to get out of tough situations. Then, a few years later, drones became widely available, and Graves thought: “That’s it.”

Today, Graves is a pioneer in the growing movement to use drones for environmental research and conservation — and he’s passionate about sharing that technology with Southern students. Over the last year, he has donated about $10,000 worth of drones, mapping software and other related equipment to forward the effort at Southern.

He has also gifted about $70,000 to establish the Osprey Endowed Scholarship for Environmental and Marine Studies, named for the coastal bird that flies at the same altitude as his drones. The scholarship is earmarked for undergraduate and graduate students who are conducting research with a faculty mentor through the Werth Center for Coastal and Marine Studies or the Center for Environmental Literacy and Sustainability Education, both research centers at Southern. Although it’s not required, the first two recipients have included drone technology as a focal point of their projects.

Peter Broadbridge, who is pursuing a master’s degree in science education at Southern, notes that receiving the scholarship in 2015 changed his perspective on life — and possibly his career path. Broadbridge, who studied the health of marshes along West Haven’s Cove River, worked with Graves to parlay the scholarship into a NASA-funded grant to continue his drone-assisted research. This year’s winner, Christine Woehrle, is using drones to study the health of local vineyards.

Graves’ commitment to students and the environment also is forwarded through his leadership-level involvement with GLOBE — The Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment Program — which is sponsored by the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the National Science Foundation (NSF), with support from other government agencies. An international science and education program, GLOBE connects students, teachers, scientists and citizens from around the world, inviting them to conduct hands-on science related to their local environment and put it in a global perspective. GLOBE’s 21st annual meeting and student research experience is being held at Southern from July 30 to Aug. 4.

In Graves’ opinion, drones hold enormous potential as a less expensive, more effective way for environmental scientists to collect data from aerial perspectives. “This is an incredibly powerful tool for getting information on landscapes that might otherwise be inaccessible,” says Graves. “In the past, if you wanted to have aerial photography, you either had to hire a helicopter or an airplane — either of which needed to fly very high. But now, for a couple thousand dollars, you can get a drone that carries a 4K camera, learn how to fly it yourself, and get very low-altitude imagery.”

Graves’ obsession with learning about his surroundings dates back to childhood. Growing up in Malibu, Calif., he spent hours with friends exploring the creek near his family’s home.

“I’d get home from school and my mom would say, ‘See you at sundown,’” he recalls.

During his senior year in high school, he took an earth science class and decided he wanted to become a geologist. After earning a bachelor’s degree from the University of California-Santa Cruz, he took a job with the U.S. Geological Survey, where he was charged with producing a map of coastal erosion in the Arctic.

In 1986, Graves’ quest to earn a doctorate in oceanography led him to the University of Rhode Island. But funding for research was sparse, and Graves ultimately graduated with a master’s degree when his major professor retired abruptly before he could finish the program.

“I was devastated because I’d spent five years in a Ph.D. program and passed all the preliminaries and qualifications,” Graves says. “Here’s your dream. You’re pursing it and the door slams right in your face. So what do you do? You have to change directions.”

He took a break from academia to work as a snowboard instructor before landing a job with a nonprofit organization, where he co-designed an environmental education curriculum for middle schoolers. While presenting at a conference at the University of Idaho, he was recruited into a doctoral program, and earned his doctorate in science education in 1999.

It was there that he got his big break — authoring a successful $7.5 million federal grant to train teachers from New Jersey to Oregon in how to use GIS (geographic information system) technology to document 200 years of change along the Lewis and Clark Expedition Trail — a career highlight that would consume his time for the next five years.

In 2005, wanting to move to an urban area near the coast, he came to Southern and never looked back. “I fell in love with the programs and the people in this department,” he says.

While he has made smaller donations to his various alma maters, he reserves the bulk of his philanthropy for Southern. Graves also was among a group of benefactors — that included the Werth Family Foundation and others — who recently bought the Southwest Ledge Lighthouse in New Haven for student research.

Reflecting on the ups and downs of his own career, Graves says his philanthropy is a “pay it forward scenario,” noting he’s “had some breaks along the way.”

“I know what it’s like to have your dreams shut down — and I know what it’s like to suddenly see a new horizon and go for it,” he says.