In January 2005, Slava Epstein landed at a remote airstrip in the upper reaches of the Amazon basin, traveled four days upriver by boat, and stepped ashore, unannounced, into a circle of thatched-roof huts. He soon found himself standing face to face with the chief.
“This was a Yanomami chief. It’s a tribe known among ethnologists as one of the most violent tribes on the planet,” says Epstein, a professor of microbial biology, who uses his field studies abroad as a jumping-off place for his second life—explorer of remote civilizations.
“I didn’t speak a word of the chief’s language and no one spoke a word of mine. The chief was talking, but I had no idea what he was saying. There were times when his expression seemed quite severe.”
Epstein spent two days in the village, and made friends with the chief. He returned the next year with his wife, a couple of friends, a box full of presents. They stayed for three weeks.
“It’s like I was given a time machine for three weeks,” he says. “These people are living just like they did 10,000 years ago.”
When he returned to Boston, he brought back a seven-foot bow and arrow and a five-inch rope “dress” made from palm fiber that constitutes the entire wardrobe of the Yanomami women. He keeps the dress in his office. It doesn’t take up much room.
During his travels to remote corners of the globe, Epstein has collected a variety of artifacts, including a stone ax from Papua New Guinea, a five-foot blowgun from Borneo, and an iron spear used by Masai tribesmen to kill a lion in Tanzania.
“None of these are tourist items,” he says. “I bought the blowgun from a man in Borneo who was using it at the time. He insisted on selling it along with the poison darts, but I had to burn those before I got on the plane back to the U.S.”
Epstein’s goal is to reach a village where the people have never had contact with civilization. He believes he has located such a spot in the southernmost tip of Venezuela, and is hoping for the right weather conditions to reach it on his next trip to South America.
But his very next trip will be back to Tanzania this winter, where he hopes to reach an isolated tribe whose language is made up of clicking sounds.
Banjo Therapy //
Although Kier Byrnes, MBA’01, DLP’11, logs many hours staging events at Northeastern, he also knows what it’s like to be the star attraction. Byrnes is the frontman, songwriter, and adept picker of stringed instruments—guitar, banjo, and mandolin—for the country-roots-rock band Three Day Threshold.
“3DT” has an impressive resumé that includes six full-length albums (all available on iTunes), several songs used as TV soundtracks, multiple Boston Music Awards, and performances in 19 countries. His band has entertained troops at U.S. Army bases in the Middle East and Central America.
The band recently played the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, Tenn., and opened for legendary guitarist Dick Dale in Boston.
On top of his music career, fatherhood, and his job as director of operations for event management in the Curry Student Center, Byrnes recently completed his doctoral degree in law and policy.
So what keeps him going?
“I love having this outlet for creativity and this music community to tap into,” he says. “It’s very therapeutic. There is no way to be in a bad mood when you’re playing a banjo.”
Heavy Metal //
Giordana Mecagni has only worked at Northeastern for a few months, but she’s already making noise. When she’s not performing her duties as university archivist and head of Special Collections, she’s the “head thumper” for the Boston Typewriter Orchestra.
She plays a mean Underwood 5, keeping the beat on the classic, nearly indestructible office workhorse of the ’50s and ’60s. The orchestra, which includes five other members she says outshine her in eye-hand coordination, performs a percussion-dominated repertoire combined with elements of performance, comedy, and satire.
“My nerdy friends were forming the group 10 years ago. I jumped on the bandwagon two years later,” she says.
The group has done a few covers—notably an interpretation of “Wipe Out” called “White Out,” and a riff on the Gil Scott-Heron classic “The Revolution Will Not be Televised” titled “The Revolution Will be Typewritten”—but the musicians usually create their own rhythms and scripts.
They’ve played with Amanda Palmer, the rock performer who gained fame as half of The Dresden Dolls, and at rock, jazz, soul, and poetry festivals around New England. To keep their fingers in top shape, the orchestra practices once a week, “and beer is involved,” says Mecagni.
Addicted to Adrenaline //
Sure, there are bad days—like the time he got clipped during an inside pass at 130 mph and spun out into a cement wall; or the time the car in front of him lifted off the ground, flipping upside-down above his head.
But on most days, racing is a high-speed ballet for Dave House, with his feet dancing from brake to accelerator and his hands working the wheel as forces up to 3G crush his body into the side of the car.
“There’s no doubt about it, I’m addicted to adrenaline,” says House, ME’69, who made his fortune leading the division that developed the Intel Pentium microchip.
At age 70, House races his Radical or Formula Pro Mazda 10 weekends each year and routinely defeats drivers a fraction of his age. He’s raced against some of the best, including Indy 500 legends Graham Rahal and Marco Andretti (son of Mario), and says he’s “up on the podium” in about 35 percent of his races.
“The kids have better reaction times, but their testosterone often gets the best of them,” says House. “I can be going two-wide around a corner at 100 mph and I’m not going to make an emotional decision.”
Part of the thrill comes after the race, when he and his team analyze all the data from his car’s computer and video equipment. “Every turn, every inch of track, and every maneuver is graphed, compared, and analyzed,” he says. “It takes a technical mind to understand it all.”
But this doesn’t account for the unpredictable decisions of other drivers—which brings us back to that cement wall. Just as he was about to complete his pass, the other driver suddenly jogged left and clipped House’s rear tire, sending him into a spin.
“Once you start to spin, you’ve gone from being a driver to being a passenger,” says House. “Nothing you do with the brakes, accelerator, or wheel will have any effect.”
This brings up an obvious question: “People ask me, ‘Aren’t you afraid of dying?’ I tell them, “What I’m most afraid of is dying—without having really lived.”
A Toast to Tradition //
For Ennio Mingolla, there is a clarity and predictability to winemaking that serves as the perfect counterpoint to his intellectual life as professor and chair of Bouvé’s Department of Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology.
“It’s very concrete. It’s physical and it involves getting my hands right in there with the fermenting grapes to stir them,” he says. “It’s sensuous. There’s no other word for it.”
Born in Puglia, Italy, Mingolla hails from a long line of vintners. He started young, “literally, at my father’s knee.” His father moved the family to the U.S. in 1955, leaving the farm where they grew food to fill their plates and grapes for income.
Once in the U.S., Mingolla’s father became a construction worker. “Like a lot of immigrants of his generation, making wine, as opposed to buying it, was an economic necessity.”
Mingolla has continued that tradition, viewing winemaking as a personal, family, and social endeavor. “It means so much to me because of the connection with my father,” he adds.
Four 50-gallon steel drums line the perimeter of the cavernous, stone-walled basement in his Wellesley, Mass., home. Each holds a concoction of warm liquid and grape skins. When it’s time, Mingolla will plunge his hand into the steel drums, “punching down the cap” of cabernet sauvignon berries.
“I don’t bottle most of my wine,” he says. “Corks are expensive. It’s hard work getting the cork in, and it’s hard work getting the cork out.”
But he does bottle some to give as gifts, and his labels capture his father’s winemaking philosophy: “Failure to regularly drink modest amounts of wine, accompanied by good food and shared with people you love, can be hazardous to your health.”
Backyard Vintner //
If you want to make your own wine, says Joseph Krackeler, “you’ve got to be ready for the fight.”
The retired vice president and technology director for a Silicon Valley engineering company wasn’t talking about competition from other vintners. He was referring to the “varmints”—gophers, deer, raccoons, and birds that can ruin a small backyard vineyard in weeks.
With the help of fencing and netting, Krackeler has managed the fight—as he has everything else about his personal winemaking operation, from planting to corking—to produce as many as 12 cases of chardonnay each year. Each of those 144 bottles carries his personal label, Huize Rixt, a reference to his wife’s old family home in the Netherlands.
Krackeler, who earned a doctorate in polymer chemistry from Northeastern in 1967 and is a frequent donor to the program, lives in Los Altos Hills, Calif., an area better known for nurturing technology than grapes.
A different locale, Sonoma County, inspired Krackeler when he realized that every other home seemed to have a backyard vineyard. He planted his own vines in 2003 and by 2006 was rewarded with enough yield to bottle his first chardonnay.
Aside from the wine itself, what Krackeler enjoys most is the crushing and the press. “That’s the part of it that is more real,” he says.
She’s One Tough Mudder //
This is not your father’s obstacle course. Founded by a former counterterrorism agent who was frustrated with boring adventure runs, Tough Mudder events feature 10 to 12 hellish miles of obstacles involving mud, fire, ice water, and 10,000 volts of electricity.
A participant needs physical and mental resilience to persevere over challenges chillingly named “Cliffhanger,” “Electroshock Therapy,” and “Firewalker.” Jamie Ladge has what it takes. The single mother of three boys and assistant professor of management and organizational development at the D’Amore-McKim School of Business proudly displays her Tough Mudder headband, given only to those who finish the course.
“It’s the most physically depleting activity I’ve ever done,” she explains. “You can’t really prepare yourself to jump into a 38-degree pool of water filled with ice, but I can tell you that the electric shock obstacle was nothing in comparison.”
Tough Mudders don’t compete against the clock or each other. The allure is the extreme personal test and the satisfaction of finishing the course.
“I’m so proud of this,” says Ladge. “It’s also a good story to tell my students.”
Float Like a Butterfly, Sting Like a Bee //
Sara Harris may be small, but at 5 feet 3 inches, the political science grad still packs a punch. Literally.
For the past two years, Harris, SSH’13, has been training as a boxer at Sityodtong USA in Somerville, Mass. It’s the latest in a long string of athletic pursuits that include track, rugby, and tae kwon do.
But as the only female boxer at the gym, this is clearly her most unusual endeavor.
“I like being the only girl,” she says. “It’s like having a whole bunch of big brothers to fight with. Growing up, my brothers made me tough. They’re all cops now, and they’re still into martial arts.”
Harris, a Torch Scholar as a student, is no stranger to obstacles. Her father died when she was 5, and her mother struggled financially to raise five children. Neither parent went to college.
Harris is proud of her academic accomplishments, and boxing provides her with a way to channel the stress of professional life.
Since boxing is as much about control as it is about aggression, it also has more application to life after college than you might think.
“In boxing you have to stay in control because if you don’t, you won’t fight properly,” she says. “You need to go in there with a clear mind because you have to watch the other person and evaluate how they fight. You won’t notice those things if you’re seeing red.”
By the way, in case you ever get on her bad side, here are a couple of tips: Her best punch is the right cross, and her biggest weakness is the slip (a defensive maneuver that’s best described as a controlled duck). But here’s another tip—you’re the one who’s probably going to need to know how to duck.
The Other Half of His Brain //
It’s no surprise that Vladimir Torchilin is a published author. As University Distinguished Professor of Pharmaceutical Sciences at Northeastern, he has written a number of books with titles such as Delivery of Protein and Peptide Drugs in Cancer.
But since the late 1970s, he has also penned some 30 short stories and novellas that have been published in Russia’s leading literary journals and collected in five books. The latest book, Labuh (Russian slang for a jazz musician), was published in the fall of 2012.
Torchilin started writing stories in the late ’60s, while living in his native Soviet Union. He wrote of ordinary people and how they made their lives in the Soviet system. Today, he still writes about ordinary people, often those who are pulled in conflicting directions by divergent life paths or the tensions of making their way in an adopted culture.
And while Torchilin has won awards and critical acclaim in Russia—one critic wrote that he is continuing the tradition of the Russian Nobel laureate Ivan Bunin—his American fame rests entirely on his achievements in science.
To be published in the United States, “I would have to hire an agent and translator, and then I would have to worry about making money at this,” he says.
That pressure would interfere with how and why Torchilin writes: He goes for months without writing, perhaps just jotting down an intriguing word or phrase.
Suddenly, a story will crystallize in his mind.“I have to get it all out,” he says. “I feel great relief when I finish.”
When he’s not working as the provost of Northeastern University, Stephen Director escapes into a weightless world of intense color and exotic sea creatures—and the occasional 20,000-pound shark.
As an underwater photographer for more than two decades, Director has spent his recreational time jetting around the globe in search of the best diving spots, capturing the incredible beauty of the underwater world.
“Underwater photography is challenging, but it’s the only way to share what I see with family and friends who don’t dive,” he says.
During a recent trip to the Maldives, a chain of coral atolls in the Indian Ocean, he was lucky enough to cross off a few species on his underwater bucket list—the whale shark, which can reach 40 feet long and is the largest known extant fish species, and the giant manta ray, the biggest ray in the world.
“I’m surprised on every dive,” he says.
The first camera he brought along was a disposable—with real film—protected by a waterproof case. The trouble with film cameras, he says, is that you have no idea if your subject is in focus or if the lighting is right until after you surface and have the film processed and photos printed.
But advanced digital cameras and computer editing software have dramatically changed the ballgame, according to Director. Now, using a digital camera’s display, he can judge his pictures while still underwater.
This photo above is just one of his breathtaking results. For more, click here.
Laughing Matters //
When people say Steve Cody is a stand-up guy, they’re not just commenting on his personal integrity.
By day, Cody, LA’77, manages Peppercomm, an award-winning strategic communications firm he co-founded in New York City. At night, the self-proclaimed “midlife crisis comic” performs his own brand of stand-up comedy several times a month in Manhattan.
“It was supposed to be a bucket-list thing,” he says. “One and done.” But when the emcee at his first gig complimented his set, a comic was born.
Cody had no experience in stand-up, but enrolled at the American Comedy Institute after a conversation with a colleague piqued his interest. His debut is seared in his brain.
“It was one of those seminal moments, like your wedding day: electrifying and scary at the same time.”
Cody, who is also a member of the Corporation and a generous donor to the College of Arts, Media and Design, is a news junkie who mines current events for material. When a recent study claimed that rats found Oreos as addictive as cocaine, Cody had a new two-minute routine, because, as he says, “Oreos were my gateway drug.”
Comedy works in his business world as well. In addition to more traditional services, the company offers “The Peppercomm Comedy Experience,” teaching clients to use the principles of stand-up to build rapport within their own organizations. In addition, every Peppercomm employee goes through stand-up training.
The culture of fun is one reason that Peppercomm beat out more than 900 other companies when Crain’s New York Business named it the “Best Place to Work in New York City.”
“It’s far and away the most important recognition we’ve received,” says Cody.
Even accolades are fair game for one-liners. “I’ve already got our motto for next year: ‘nowhere to go but down.’”
Last Sumo Standing //
When you meet the petite Anastasia Sinyakina, DMSB’17, chances are that “sumo wrestler” doesn’t spring to mind.
Yet the Russian native not only bested Europe’s silver medalist to win the 2012 women’s division tournament in her country, she also took second place in the Moscow judo championship that same year.
In spite of her martial arts prowess, Sinyakina didn’t start either sport until the eighth grade, when she enrolled at the Moscow Female Cadet Boarding School. A lifelong swimmer, she was thirsty for a new challenge to balance her rigorous class load.
The coach soon noticed her tenacity and dedication, and set out to make her a star. He tutored her on strength training, and helped her identify her weaknesses, as well as those of her opponents. With his support, she topped the ranks in a sport that’s usually associated with refrigerator-sized men and women.
Although she once pinned an opponent in five seconds, endurance is her trademark. It was this quality that made it possible for her to wear down her strongest opponent in the tournament competition.
Now, as an international business major at Northeastern, she has picked up swimming once again. But that doesn’t mean her sumo career is behind her; she plans to start a sumo wrestling club next year, where she’ll teach her fellow Huskies the ropes.
“Mastering sumo made me feel confident, purposeful, and strong,” she says. “People are usually shocked when I tell them it’s what I do, but I know if they try it, they will love it, too.”
From the Bottom to the Top //
At age 38, Mark Gomes, DMSB’93, woke up after a night of partying, lying in a bathtub full of water. It was rock bottom.
He had graduated with honors from Northeastern in 1993 with a business degree and a distinguished track-and-field record. “But when I graduated and lost eligibility for sports, I had a hard time adjusting. I started drinking on a regular basis,” he says.
When he finally got on a scale, the formerly buff track star was astounded at his 50-pound weight gain.
So Gomes cut out carbs, alcohol, and sugar (“except I gave myself a furlough on Saturdays”) and set a goal. He decided to train for the elite U.S. Masters Track & Field Championships, while still serving as CEO of his consulting company, Pipeline Data LLC, which provides stock market research to large U.S financial institutions.
He logged 906 straight days of training and became the 2011 800-meter U.S. Masters Outdoor Champion at 40 years old. Not content with an individual record, in 2013 he and three partners went on to break the U.S. record in their age group for the 4×800 relay.
The Internet played a big part in his comeback, he says. “The human body hadn’t changed, but the advent of social computing allowed us to learn much more about what worked and what didn’t.”
He now donates his time—and stays in shape—by coaching high-school cross-country in Miami Beach, Fla.
Special Delivery //
The red dust was everywhere in this tiny Ghanaian village—it settled on the bed sheets, permeated the air, and clung to the sweat-covered forehead of the young African woman giving birth at Margo Maternity Clinic.
Gaylen Alexander, BHS’18, wiped the woman’s forehead with a cool cloth and hoped the electricity wouldn’t cut out again. Only 17 years old herself, she had come from her Vermont home to work as a doula—a woman trained to assist other women during childbirth—in the remote village of Jei-Krodua.
But she wasn’t on international co-op. She wasn’t even a Northeastern student—not yet. Before Alexander stepped on campus, she trained with Doulas of North America, and volunteered in Ghana her senior year. There, she prepped equipment in a clinic that had no running water, and provided women with physical and emotional support before and during delivery.
Drawn to Northeastern’s global, experiential educational philosophy, Alexander arrived on campus in September as part of the newest group of University Scholars. As a health science major, she is already teaching pregnancy prevention classes to high-school students, with international co-op plans on the horizon. “My goal,” she says, “is to empower women through healthcare worldwide, either starting or working at a clinic, or training women’s healthcare workers.”
Great Power, Great Responsibility //
“Muay Thai taught me to stay humble and gave me the confidence to push my body and mind,” says Mark Nardone, Northeastern’s director of information security.
Known as the “art of eight limbs,” Muay Thai permits the fighter to strike his opponent with his fists, elbows, knees, and shins. The vast majority of matches end in knockouts, and competitors routinely suffer broken jaws, cracked ribs, and torn muscles. Nardone, however, has never suffered any serious injuries.
When he was living in Scotland, a friend introduced him to the sport, and he began training in 1986 under the auspices of the British Thai Boxing Council. From 1987–90, the 5-foot-8-inch, 150-pound fighter competed at the semipro and professional levels, amassing six wins and two losses in eight career matches. In 1990, he moved to Boston to study sports medicine at Northeastern. After graduation, he became an Internet security specialist almost by accident after completing a summer networking project for Northeastern.
A year later, Nardone began teaching self-defense seminars and soon opened Boston’s first Muay Thai school.
Over the years, he has become a leader in the sport’s global community as the vice president of the World Muay Thai Federation and U.S. representative to the Institute of Muay Thai Conservation.
In a national ceremony in Thailand this year, he was elevated to the rank of Arjarn, or Master, by the Kru Muay Thai Association of Thailand.
“I try to teach my students to be good people and show respect,” Nardone says, “because with great power, comes great responsibility.”
All That Jazz //
Sheila Puffer usually manages to separate her day job as University Distinguished Professor of International Business from her nighttime gig as a keyboard player in a classic rock cover band and chanteuse in a Boston-area jazz combo.
“But sometimes, I can’t help mixing the two,” she admits.
Last year, while dining at a restaurant with international colleagues attending a prestigious cross-cultural management conference in Heilbronn, Germany, she realized the band was performing tunes she had been rehearsing with her combo.
She popped out of her chair, asked to sit in with the band, and crooned “I’m Beginning to See the Light,” made famous by Ella Fitzgerald. Recovering from their surprise, the party of esteemed business scholars quickly gathered around, pulling out their cellphone cameras and treating Puffer like a star.
But fame isn’t why Puffer returned to music after decades away from the avocation. It just felt like the right time in her life to strike a new balance, she says.
“Prior to joining the bands, I would have said, ‘What’s a hobby?’” says Puffer.
Today, she regularly jams with her rock band, Off the Record, punching out classics by Eric Clapton and Bob Dylan during fundraisers, such as one for Hurricane Katrina relief.
Puffer says that performing live has improved her classroom teaching—her delivery and body language, in particular. But that’s a side benefit. Playing and singing in an ensemble is “a great way to relieve stress, while creating something wonderful with your friends.”