Citizen Scientist

Written by John Petrick, Photo by Chris Taggart

In Person

Traditional thinking often divides us into “science people” and “humanities people.” Then there’s Sarah Fiordaliso ’16, who admits she’s an enigma. “It doesn’t make sense,” says the Buffalo native. “I love science. It’s this big puzzle that you have to figure out. But I also love community work. That satisfies my soul.”

This semester Fiordaliso completed a senior thesis on the water quality of a Hudson River tributary. But she didn’t enter Sarah Lawrence passionate about microbiology. As a first-year in a community service course on child and adolescent development taught by Kim Ferguson (psychology), Fiordaliso tutored children at Iglesia Memorial de San Andres in Yonkers. “I love those children dearly,” she says.

“Both fields are really driven by my humanitarian values and goals.”

The following year she returned to the church to work with a Sarah Lawrence-led health and science after-school program, and she’s been co-chair ever since. “It’s like another home,” Fiordaliso says. “We make science and health fun with lesson plans and experiments for kids.”

Fiordaliso recently received a 2016 Independent Sector Student Community Service Award, which honors students throughout New York State. She was one of 10 recipients. As a volunteer with Habitat for Humanity, she served as student leader for this year’s alternative spring break trip to Virginia. “It’s fulfilling to get to know a lot of the community members you’re working with,” she says. Not to mention fellow students. “If you’re putting insulation on the side of a house all week, making and having dinner communally, playing board games, it’s just a great way to bond.”

Fiordaliso studied abroad with Sarah Lawrence’s program in Sub-Saharan Africa. Visiting Zimbabwe, Tanzania, and Malawi, she spent five weeks engaged in community-building projects. When she worked with African teachers and students, Fiordaliso adapted lessons she uses as a volunteer music teacher at the College’s Early Childhood Center.

An accomplished pianist, she trained first-grade teachers to play ukulele so they could incorporate music into their lessons and taught students to make instruments out of everyday objects. “There is a lot of poverty there and lack of access to education,” she says. “But it doesn’t define the people. They still feel happiness. They still feel grief. Just like us.”

While some of her work with children revealed an underlying interest in science, it was only when she took a genetics class with Drew Cressman (biology) that she felt drawn to a seemingly unrelated discipline. Cressman then hired her as a research intern in his molecular biology lab. “I realized I am very passionate about doing biological research,” she says.

Her senior thesis involved studying pollution in the Saw Mill River, which runs through Yonkers and empties into the Hudson. “We’re showing that there is a hell of a lot of fecal contamination,” she says.

That might not sound as sexy as her work in Africa, but she recognizes the symmetry. “Both fields are really driven by my humanitarian values and goals,” she says. “Whether it’s science or community work, they’re both concerned with promoting human welfare. And that’s something I want to be a part of.”