Ancient history and science come to life as Jefferson Scholars explore Italy

The Vatican, the Roman Colosseum, the Sistine chapel, the Roman Forum: These were among the wonders beheld this past May by group of Thomas Jefferson Scholars and their N.C. State University faculty advisers. The students traveled to Italy for a week-long tour that included stops in Venice, Rome, Naples, Pompeii and Florence.

The Thomas Jefferson Scholars Academic Program in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS) and the College of Humanities and Social Sciences (CHASS) at N.C. State is a dual-degree, invitation-only opportunity for accomplished students interested in combining studies in the sciences and humanities, said Dr. Derek Aday, CALS assistant director of Academic Programs and associate professor of applied ecology, who oversees the program for CALS.

The group trip is part of a program that Aday calls “life-changing.”

“The Jefferson Scholars program challenges students to be better than they thought that they could be, to tackle grand global challenges in creative and interdisciplinary ways and to be big thinkers,” he said. “The trips, both domestic and international, that we take provide the opportunity to see science and history up close and to experience the nation and the world from different perspectives.”

Aday accompanied the students to Italy, along with co-advisers Dr. Chad Jordan, undergraduate programs coordinator in the CALS Department of Plant and Microbial Biology, and Dr. Will Kimler, CHASS director of the Jefferson Program, director of undergraduate programs and professor of history.

The TJS program requires students to choose one degree in the life sciences and one in the social sciences/humanities. As such, we look to visit an international location that has sites of scientific, historic, artistic and cultural significance,” Aday said. “The goals of the trip were to provide students with international experience and to allow them to visit globally significant sites related to their studies and, potentially, future plans.”   

The students chose the location, and Aday worked with a Cary travel agent to organize logistics and accommodations.

“We literally did planes, trains, and automobiles — and boats!” he said. “ We flew from Philadelphia to Venice (and directly over the Swiss Alps), took a beautiful wooden-hulled boat to the hotel and various other boats to get around the islands, then took a train across Italy from Venice to Rome.”

Once in Rome, the group took day trips to Naples, Pompeii, the Vatican, and Florence, all by bus. “There were 15 of us traveling,” Aday said. “We also had native guides for each trip: These folks were fantastic and really added to the experience — lots of local knowledge and insight into historical events, modern culture and life in various cities.”   

The entire trip was “brilliant,” Aday said. “I’m sure that you’d get 15 different answers to the ‘best’ moment’ question if you asked the full group.”

Among that traveling TJS group was Katie Sanders, a senior from Raleigh, majoring in integrated physiology and neurobiology and in English.

One of my favorite things to see was a church, the Basilica of San Clemente, in Rome. The church in of in itself was beautiful, covered in frescoes and stained glass. But what really made it special was its history: Under the building there was another, older basilica that had also at one point served as the temple of a mystery religion,” she said.

“The rooms of the basilica were still complete with both altars, one to Christ and the other to Mithra. There were frescoes of Bible stories I knew and statues of Persian tales I didn’t. And buried beneath that church was the home of a Roman nobleman, with a spring still running through it and intricate brick pattering. The nobleman’s home had been opportunistically built on the foundation of a republican era building that had been destroyed in a great fire that happened 64 years before the birth of Christ – one of the very men celebrated in the rooms above.”

Sanders said that the site was still being actively excavated, and so relics were still scattered around the floor.

“Climbing deeper into the earth to see the complex, interweaving layers of human life was such a tactile way to appreciate history and the passing of time,” she said. “It felt like reading a book backwards. By the time I reached the beginning, the end result had so much more context.”

Also sharing recollections of the trip was Jefferson Scholar Kathleen Shannon, a senior from Charlotte majoring in human biology and interdisciplinary studies.

In terms of cities, my favorite place that I visited in Italy was Venice,” she said. “I loved how relaxed and serene the atmosphere of the city was. It was nice to be somewhere that had such aesthetic beauty that wasn’t overshadowed by the hustle and bustle of cars and other big-city qualities. I loved being able to walk or take a boat everywhere. It was also a very artistic city in terms of the architecture and the shops and people that we walked by. There were so many painters on the side of the street who were constructing masterpieces like it was no big deal.”

Shannon said Italy had more than met her expectation that everything there would be “magnificent.”

“It is one thing to see monumental buildings and sculpture in pictures or productions, such as The Borgias and Angels and Demons, and quite another to be physically standing in front of those same monuments,” she said.

“Everything was bigger than life, and I loved it. I actually read Dan Brown’s Inferno the first night we were in Venice. The book started out in Florence, which was exciting because we were visiting Florence later in the week, but the story ended up in Venice. It was so unbelievably wonderful to read about the Basilica di San Marco after actually walking through it hours before. After reading about the four horses housed on the top floor of the basilica, I was able to go see them the very next morning. That was, and still is, one of the coolest parts of the trip for me. It added new, personal meaning to reading the book and to seeing the city.”

But what Shannon enjoyed most was spending time with the other Jeffersons in one of the most beautiful countries in the world.

“I count the Italy group as some of my closest friends, and I am so grateful that I was able to share such an amazing experience with them. We all grew closer as a result, and I think that bond will last longer than many other relationships I’ve developed in college. Seeing Italy was incredible, but seeing it with great friends was even better,” she said. “Through this trip, I was able to grow personally and with my peers. I have a greater thirst for the wonders of the world and have created stronger relationships with my friends. Honestly, it’s hard to put how valuable this trip was into words, but I am so grateful to everyone who made it possible.”

Sanders likewise appreciated the opportunity to travel with friends who were enthusiastic about sight-seeing and had similar interests. “I also enjoyed traveling with such knowledgeable professors,” she said.

“For instance, one of my favorite things in Pompeii was to hear one of my professors talk about how the excavation of Pompeii had inspired the geologist Charles Lyell to hypothesize the Earth evolved through geological processes and was older than we had first thought. This, in turn, inspired Charles Darwin and helped him to discover evolution,” Sanders said and then added, “Traveling with the Jeffersons and the Jefferson professors makes a big school like State feel smaller.”

Shannon agreed that the trip added a new dimension to her education.

“Instead of simply reading or hearing about history, science and culture, we were able to experience it firsthand,” she said. “It was great to see how people lived in the past, how they live today and how those two are so much more connected than we realize.”

The TSJ group is shown at the Pompeii Forum, with Mount Vesuvius in background.
The TSJ group is shown at the Pompeii Forum, with Mount Vesuvius in background.

That part of the experience also resonated with Sanders who found it “very moving” to be where history took place.

“There was a dichotomy,” she said. “The huge relics are the pinnacle of human accomplishment – for instance, the Pantheon still has the largest unreinforced concrete dome in the world. And yet through these places we’ve preserved so carefully you could see how people then were just like people now. For instance, we saw where people used to bring tiny grills up into the Colosseum stands to roast meat, and it reminded me of how we tailgate. Pompeii, in particular, where we could see old restaurants, still complete with ovens and large pots, and citizen’s private gardens, felt very human. It connected me more to the people that created the great monuments and works of art that I was there to learn about. It was especially interesting to see the Vatican at the same time; to see my era’s addition to history. It broadened my perspective on time.”

And from the scientific perspective, Sanders enjoyed visiting one of the first marine labs, and hearing about how the study of frog eggs there was the beginning of embryology. “This was one of my favorite things to see, as it related to a lecture that we had heard earlier in our History of the Life Sciences course,” she said.  

“Part of the educational experience was to show that it’s hard to talk about science and history separately; a lot of the time we artificially separate them, and it’s so much more interesting when we don’t.”  

That lesson is just what Aday and his fellow TJS advisers were aiming for.

As for upcoming travel plans, Aday said the Jefferson Scholars will head this fall to Charleston, S.C., for the group’s domestic trip. Later in the semester, the junior class will decide where to go for the international trip next spring. 

“The Jefferson Scholars program creates wonderful opportunities for exceptional CALS students, thanks in large part to financial contributions from college alumni and friends,” Aday said. “We depend on annual giving to make events like this happen and we hope that people will appreciate the benefit that this program provides to the College, to N.C. State and to the broader community, and that they will help us make the program successful.”  Terri Leith     


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