Category: Profiles

Photo by Em Watson, American Theater

The Lion met with Rachel Chavkin, a Columbia School of the Arts graduate, to discuss her direction of a new musical on Broadway: Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812. The show is based on a 70-page snipped of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace and includes both period and modern stylistic setting.

The show itself is completely immersive as the cast performs all around you, or even right next to you! And in parts of the show, members of the audience are asked to help with everything from passing letters to providing background sounds for the musical numbers. In addition, the seating is unlike anything else on Broadway with the Imperial theater redesigned to feel like a Russian club. Several seats have been removed to make way for tables and lamps to create this atmosphere. Seats range from being in the standard orchestra and rear mezzanine sections of the theater to sitting right on the stage.

The show has an open run and is performed 8 times per week at the Imperial Theatre. The show offers both a mobile lottery and rush tickets for only $39, a great deal for people interested in seeing the show for less. This is one of the most immersive shows I have ever seen and it’s definitely something to check out! When we sat down with Rachel, we talked about her experience in theater and her journey in helping to develop productions such as The Great Comet.Continue Reading..

Andrew Gelman is a professor of statistics and political science and the director of the Applied Statistics Center at Columbia. A student of math and physics at MIT, he developed an interest in statistics as a college senior and has gone on to become a leading educator and blogger in the field. His work has focused particularly on American politics, including research on the ability to predict elections, the power of the individual voter, and the benefits of redistricting. He blogs at andrewgelman.com.

In your blog, you regularly call out and discuss statistical misinterpretation and deception. What are some important statistical lies being propagated now?
The biggest lie, I think, is that certainty is easy to attain using routine methods.  This is a lie that many people tell to themselves.  As the saying goes, the first step in fooling others is to fool yourself.
You’ve described your successful projects as endeavors aimed at “big fat targets”, such as voting patterns and election incumbency. What targets interest you most now?
In political science I’ve lately been interested in studying polarization and the role of social groups.  We’ve been thinking a lot about what we call the social penumbra, which is the set of people connected to a group.  For example, the number of gays in America is about the same as the number of Muslims in America, but, in surveys, a lot more people report having a close friend or family member who is gay, than report the same of a Muslim.  Two groups that have approximately the same size, have much different penumbras.
What larger statistical questions, in general, will emerge in coming years?
At one extreme, there’s been lots of difficult statistical work on integration of large streams of data, for problems ranging from internet marketing to self-driving cars.  At the other extreme, lots of decisions are still being made based on whether a comparison is “statistically significant.” To consider one application area:  there’s lots of talk about personalized medicine based on each person’s genome; but new medical therapies are still being evaluated using crude between-person experiments.  How can this be?  If we can barely come to a consensus about what works in medicine, or what are the effects of different diets, how can we hope to design individualized therapies?  In many areas of applications, we need more local and relevant data and less reliance on statistical significance.

Know a student, staff, or faculty member that we should interview next? Let us know by sending a note to submissions@columbialion.com. Interested in conducting interviews on behalf of The Lion? Email operations@columbialion.com to join the team.

Photo from The Daily Beast

The Lion recently sat down with Dean Baquet, the first black Executive Editor of the New York Times. He studied English at Columbia from 1974 to 1978. In 1988, he won a Pulitzer Prize for his investigative reporting on the Chicago City Council. He sat down with us to talk about how he became a journalist, what a typical day at the New York Times office is like, and more.

In the past, you’ve said that journalism was an accident for you. Can you tell us a little more about that?

First, I went to Columbia accidentally. I went to high school in New Orleans and I didn’t know where I wanted to go to college. One of my best friends applied to Columbia; I had never even heard of Columbia to be honest but he encruraged me to apply. So we both applied and I got in.

When I got to Columbia, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I thought I wanted to be an English major. I didn’t know if I wanted to be a professor, but I had a vague sense that I might want to be a writer and it stayed that way for the first couple years.

The summer between junior and senior year, I got an internship at an afternoon paper in New Orleans, because I was looking for a job. It was easy to get internships then, because there were a lot more newspapers and I just fell in love with it.I just thought it was so much fun. That’s how I got into journalism. It was an accident, and part of it was that I missed home and wanted to spend a longer time in New Orleans, but it wasn’t because I set out to become a journalist.

I noticed that you really seem to target corruption as a topic when you were a reporter. What drew you to that topic?

I think that I’m one of those people who’s always a little skeptical of powerful people. One of the big roles of news organizations is to protect the powerless in the face of unbridled power. And if you’re a reporter in a big city, then those powerful institutions besides business are big government. That’s why I was drawn to investigating government and power.

You’ve said that you’re a reporter at heart. How do you bring that passion to your editing?

I’m happiest when I’m thinking about stories, when I’m thinking about chasing stories, and when I’m thinking about how to do big stories. That’s the reporter’s sensibility in me. And when I walk around here thinking about stories and talking to reporters about coverage and I think that’s the reporter in me coming out. That’s the part of me I like best professionally. It influences the way I think about the news, coverage, and how to run the newsroom because I’m drawn to the stories like the reporters are.Continue Reading..

J.Y. Ping is the co-founder of 7Sage LSAT Prep, which is dedicated to making law school accessible to everyone through high quality and affordable online LSAT prep. He is also the co-founder of PreProBono, a non-profit that helps economically disadvantaged and underrepresented minority pre-law students acquire and utilize law degrees for careers in public interest law. He graduated from Columbia University in 2007 and earned his J.D. from Harvard Law School in 2011. We sat down with him to talk about his law school experience and how he is using that to help other students prepare.

What made you want to go to law school?

Maybe this is still true, but back when I was there, Columbia’s career services pushed investment banking and strategy consulting pretty hard. I didn’t want to work those kinds of jobs because it wasn’t clear to me whether they added value to society. The summers came and went, and I found myself about to graduate with no work experience and a lot of anxiety. Law school seemed like a convenient way to defer my career choice.

Did you always want to go to law school throughout all of your undergraduate years?

Definitely not. The first week of school, I flirted with pre-med until I attended the orientation and saw how heavy the course work was going to be. Then I grew interested in philosophy via Contemporary Civilization and thought I might want to pursue graduate studies in philosophy. I took an intro-level graduate class, Modal Logic with Achille Varzi, and found the subject matter abstruse (even though Professor Varzi was a phenomenal teacher). I ended up majoring in economics-political science with a concentration in philosophy, which prepared me well for law school.
Were there any professors that inspired you to go?
Many professors at Columbia did inspire me, however briefly, to follow in their academic footsteps, but no one professor inspired me to go to law school.

What about pro bono work captivated your interest for 8 years?
I immigrated to America with my mom when I was 7 and grew up poor. My mom worked very hard to make sure I got an excellent education. I really cannot imagine what my life would’ve been like without the opportunities I found in America. Education is not an abstract concept to me. I know from personal experience its power to improve people’s lives. That’s why I founded PreProBono with Jerone Hsu (also CC ’07) during our senior year. We wanted to help poor, minority, and immigrant kids the best way we knew how. For me, that meant teaching the LSAT, because that was what I could do very well. We targeted students in the CUNY system and gave law school aspirants not just free but the best LSAT prep. It was an incredibly rewarding experience.

[Note to Joshua: I worked with PreProBono through 2013, which would make it about 5 years. I’m happy to report that the organization is doing terrific without me.]

How did that influence your founding of 7Sage?
PreProBono is a non-profit that provides LSAT instruction, along with a few other services. I was the main instructor. I only have 24 hours in a day, and eventually I’d get tired or make mistakes—or I’d begin to get impatient when I had to explain a concept for the 7th time. There were physical constraints on how much service I could provide. Scaling up would have required a lot of fundraising, and even then we could have only scaled geometrically, not exponentially, because every instructor would have been subject to the same physical constraints. 7Sage, on the other hand, benefits from being online. By digitizing my instruction at its best, I was able to transcend the constraints on my time and scale my service exponentially. Now I can help anyone who needs it with free logic game explanations and comprehensive LSAT courses at a great value.

Can you explain what areas of law 7Sage covers?
We currently have LSAT courses and a course on how to get into law school. We’re working on a bar prep course due to be released in late 2017.

Why did you pick Japan as the location for 7Sage?

7Sage’s team is entirely remote. Alan, my co-founder and CTO, is based in Vancouver, where he is from. Our student services manager, Dillon, is in Cornwall (also Canada). Nicole, our community director, is in Texas. David, our editor and admissions consultant is based in Chicago. I’m nomadic. Currently, I’m in Kyoto. I’ll be here until August, and I haven’t decided where I’ll go after.

What advice would you give to someone considering law school?
Work hard to earn a high GPA. Take as many classes as you think you can handle. Admissions committees look hard at transcripts and are very discerning. Work with professors you admire. See if you can be a research assistant, or maybe even co-author a paper with one of them. Maybe you’ll decide to be an academic after all. If not, you’ll likely get a good recommendation letter at the very least. Study long and hard for the LSAT. It’s the most important factor in law school admissions.

How did you go about studying for the LSAT? Any tips?

I set aside a very long time: over a year. I think my background in economics and philosophy helped immensely. A lot of the successful strategies I came up with I’ve implemented in the 7Sage curriculum. My biggest tip is to sign up for a free account with 7Sage. You can access our logic game explanations, our tool to find real study buddies nearby (like at Columbia), our test proctor app, and more.


What would you say was the hardest part of law school?
The huge mismatch between what you do for homework and in classes and what’s required of you on the exam. It felt like a bait and switch to me. You spend all semester discussing cases, reading a lot of them in detail, and then your entire grade depends on an issue-spotting exam.

Meet Peter. Peter, a student in the School of General Studies is a Political Science Major and a veteran. He has recently been featured in various publications including the  New York Times and MSNBC for his current CrowdPac fundraiser to pressure Republican Presidential Nominee, Donald Trump, to release his taxes. We sat down with Peter to learn more about his fundraiser and ways in which students can get involved.

From your veteran’s perspective of the candidates, what are your views of the current presidential candidates?

There is a bit of a double standard in this current election cycle. Hillary has been held to a higher and separate standard than Donald Trump has which I think is problematic to our democracy. There’s a certain responsibility that the President as the Commander in Chief needs to have. As a veteran who has been to Afghanistan, this issue matters to me.

I am registered as an Independent voter.  I am not affiliated with either party, but trying to make up my mind as an Independent; however, Trump’s rhetoric has made it hard to be unbiased. As far as qualifications, we have a candidate who is a former Senator, former Secretary of State, and who is about as experienced as a candidate that we’ve ever seen and then we have someone else who is a celebrity.

I’m more about transparency. Ronald Reagan, who is a Republican, has a great quote: “Trust, but verify.” When it comes to a lot of Trump’s claims, I like it but I want to verify it. I’d really like to trust you Donald Trump, but I also want to verify it, so let’s release your tax returns.

Donald has done a great job about raising veteran’s issues by speaking incorrectly about them. In contrast, I don’t think that that’s the focus of my campaign; my goal is not to raise awareness, but to donate money to veterans charities. I want to use the political process to benefit veterans and reverse the system on itself.

What motivated you to start your fundraiser to pressure Trump into releasing his taxes?

This year at the Intrepid Museum, Trump and Clinton were questioned on veterans and their roles as a Commander in Chief. It was not a debate, but it was half an hour each to answer questions about military and foreign policy. I attended and I also got 15 other Columbia veterans to attend as well and we were pretty frustrated at the event because of the questions. Hillary got questioned for 10 minutes straight about her emails but when it came to Trump, nothing about his tax returns or his conflicts of interests with our national security came up, which to me is the biggest questions to ask a potential Commander in Chief.

Out of frustration from that event, I was inspired to start this campaign. The way it works is that you pledge money, but you will only get charged if the conditions of the fundraiser are met. The website [CrowdPac] was originally created for people running for office. Donors would only get charged once a candidate officially announced that he or she was running for office. I decided there was a unique way in which we could use this to make Donald Trump release his tax returns.

Trump claims to support veterans and even used them as an excuse to skip the last Republican Primary debate in January. He instead decided to do a fundraiser for veterans, because he claimed that veterans are so important that we need to raise money for them. Well if that’s true, I’ve raised 6 million dollars, which is more money than he had raised and it’s almost easier for him to donate this money; he just needs to release his taxes.

It’s important that he release his tax returns, especially if Trump has business interests or outstanding debts to a foreign country. Let’s say it’s Russia. Let’s say Trump owes Russian companies millions of dollars; if we as a country get into conflict or declare war with Russia, he would be absolved of his debts. There’s no reason for him to pay money to a country we’re at war with. This happens with every war and that to me is dangerous. That’s a direct conflict of interest with the country and our foreign policy and his business interests. His failure to release his tax returns is telling about him as a person and his potential Presidency.

People use veterans for props. I decided that being a Political Science student studying the campaign finance system, this would be a clever way to divert some of the money going to corporation’s profits to charities instead.

How did you react when Reid Hoffman (the Chairman of LinkedIn) pledged to quintuple all donations? 

Reid Hoffman pledged to quintuple the money we raised up to a million dollars, so a total of 5 million dollars. We were able to meet the goal and the money has been added. The fundraiser is now at over 6.2 million dollars.

After the Commander in Chief forum, I had an appearance on the Rachel Maddow Show. I made an appearance and I guess he saw me on Twitter announcing my CrowdPac campaign and decided to support it; ever since them we have gotten a lot of publicity.

This campaign has done a great job speaking on veterans issues by being incorrect about them. My goal is to send money to groups that can help. There are a lot of things our government does well, but non-profits can help them. I want to use the political system to help veterans.

Do you think Trump will release his taxes? Why do you think he has yet to release them?

I genuinely hope he does. I don’t understand how the campaign would let Mike Pence release his for 10 years yet Trump would not. I’m probably the last optimistic person on this planet that thinks he might release his tax returns. Considering that the reports out of the New York Times are not endearing, you would think he would release his tax returns to change the narrative. The fact that he hasn’t suggests he has something to hide and that’s deeply concerning.

How do you recommend students get involved? 

The biggest thing is if you don’t have money to donate, share the campaign with people who do. Share it on your social media and help get the word out. We’ve reached $6.2 million and I’d love to reach $10 million by October 19th. With every dollar raised, there’s that much more pressure on Trump to release his tax returns. And now instead of rewarding Trump for doing something he already should have, there is a benefit for veterans. And it also means that there’s now an explicit cost to not releasing them. Now if he doesn’t release them, it will have cost veterans 6 million dollars. Clearly those tax returns are worth something.

Anything else?

Get out and vote. This is why we have fall break. Get out to vote.

I don’t speak for all veterans nor anyone else in the military, but I think that ’s it. Every president since Nixon has released his tax returns. Why shouldn’t Trump? We can’t let him get by this double standard.

To support Peter’s CrowdPac fundraiser, click here.

Know of a Columbia affiliate working to make an impact in the world? Recommend them for an interview with The Lion by emailing submissions@columbialion.com