2018 Alumnae Achievement Awards

Wellesley’s highest honor is presented annually to graduates of distinction who, through their achievements, have brought honor to themselves and to the College.

2018 Alumnae Achievement Awards


Camara Jones ’76

Diagnosing Racism

The eldest daughter of a surgeon-father and a mathematician-mother, Camara Jones ’76 grew up knowing that she and her two younger sisters would become physicians.

“My mother wanted to be a doctor but had been told in those days women aren’t doctors,” Jones recalls. “It was never a blatant thing really, but she subtly communicated to us that medicine was the best way to contribute to society.”

When the time came, Jones applied to medical school—as would her sisters.

But before she headed to Stanford Medical School, Wellesley presented her with an opportunity that would be life-changing and career-altering. The College nominated Jones, a molecular biology major, for the Luce Scholars program, allowing her to spend a year in Asia.

“One of my friends told me to take a question with me because I would be out of the United States for a year, and when I came back, I would have fresh eyes for this country,” Jones says. “The question I took with me to the Philippines was to understand something about race relations.”

While traveling abroad, Jones learned about and observed different systems of structured inequity and returned to the U.S. with what she says was more of a public-health orientation to medicine.

After Stanford, Jones went on to earn a master’s of public health and a doctorate in epidemiology from Johns Hopkins. As a Ph.D. student, she hypothesized that black-white differences in health outcomes in the United States are due to the accelerated aging of the black population compared to the white population and furthermore, that the accelerated aging is due to racism. These hypotheses were based on her research comparing blood-pressure distributions between black women and white women over four decades. Others are now building on her research, investigating the same phenomenon.

Today Jones is a family physician and epidemiologist whose 30-year career in the public-health sector has focused on naming, measuring, and addressing the effects of racism on the health and well-being of the nation.

Fourteen of those years were spent at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, where she served as medical officer, as well as the research director on social determinants of health and equity.

While at the CDC, Jones established and formalized the agency’s Measures of Racism Working Group, which became an official scientific work group known as the CDC Racism and Health Work Group; led the development of the “Reactions to Race” module for the Behavioral Risk Surveillance System, a telephone survey about how respondents are classified racially and whether they experience differential racial treatment at work or in receiving health care; played key roles in the development and dissemination of the award-winning PBS series Unnatural Causes: Is Inequality Making Us Sick?; and authored numerous journal articles on the effects of racism on health.

Currently a senior fellow at the Satcher Health Leadership Institute and the Cardiovascular Research Institute at the Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta, Jones now describes her work as being concerned with “race, racism, and anti-racism.” She is also an adjunct associate professor at the Morehouse School of Medicine and an adjunct professor at the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University.

Whether looking at infant-mortality rates, asthma prevalence, or obesity rates, it is well documented that differences in racial health outcomes exist, particularly for blacks compared with whites and Native Americans compared with whites. Jones says health disparities will be eliminated when health equity is achieved.

“We need to go beyond documenting race-associated differences in health outcomes to identifying racism as the root cause of those differences,” she says.

As a past president of the American Public Health Association, Jones has underscored the need for a robust national conversation on racism as a first step to creating a healthier nation.

“Camara Jones was ‘woke’ long before the term was invented,” says longtime friend and Wellesley classmate Cecilia Conrad ’76, managing director of the MacArthur Fellows program at the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation in Chicago. “A pioneer in the study of the health consequences of racism, she has always been passionate, fearless, and extremely focused.”

“Race is a dangerous variable for us to be biologizing. I observed that we were doing that as physicians because that’s how the data comes to physicians. Epidemiologists are collecting data by race, documenting race-associated differences, but we were not going beyond that.”

As a young physician, Jones questioned why a patient’s race is routinely reported as part of the chief complaints that physicians are trained to present to one another.

Challenging her attending physicians, Jones was given many reasons—from “it helps identify a patient in the emergency room” to “that’s the best information physicians have been given.”

But how would knowing the race of a 45-year-old female presenting with crushing substernal chest pain affect how the patient would be approached? What assumptions would be made about her, Jones wondered.

She was concerned that doctors were using race as if it were one of the most important factors to be communicated about a patient and that doing so could lead to differential diagnoses.

“Take an 18-year-old black female presenting with lower abdominal pain compared to the 18-year-old white female presenting with lower abdominal pain. People thought that maybe the blackness would make her more likely to have pelvic inflammatory disease, and the whiteness might make her more likely to have endometriosis,” Jones says.

“Race is a dangerous variable for us to be biologizing. I observed that we were doing that as physicians because that’s how the data comes to physicians. Epidemiologists are collecting data by race, documenting race-associated differences, but we were not going beyond that.”

For Jones, the central question was, “What do we really measure when we’re measuring race?”

The school of thought among many in the field, Jones says, is that race measures some combination of social class, culture, and genes, but she takes issue with that argument.

“When you ask why is race such a good predictor of health outcomes when it’s only a rough proxy for social class, rougher for culture, and meaningless for genes, it comes out to be that race is just a social classification of people in our race-conscious society, but it is an amazing predictor of health outcomes because of racism,” she says.

Her well-known “Gardener’s Tale” allegory, which she often presents to audiences, acts as a framework to discuss the basis of race-associated differences in health outcomes by illustrating the relationship among internalized, personally mediated, and institutionalized racism and how each form can affect health.

When she talks to people about racism, Jones makes it clear that she is talking about a system of power, not about an individual character flaw or a personal moral failing.

“Whenever I say the word ‘racism,’ I’m not trying to divide the room into who’s racist and who’s not,” she says. “I’m describing the system that is affecting all of us in different ways.”

Racism, she says, has two impacts: “It structures opportunity, and it assigns value based on the social interpretation of how one looks.”

“You look at me, and I’m clearly black, but in some parts of Brazil, you look at me, and I’m just as clearly white. In South Africa, I’m just as clearly colored. But even in those three settings, with the same physical appearance, the social interpretation of my appearance would assign me to three different racial groups,” Jones explains.

“If I were to stay in any of those settings long enough, my health outcome and my educational outcome would probably take on that group to which I’d been assigned, even though I’d have the same genes and abilities in all three places.”

From Jones’ perspective, three significant societal barriers stand in the way of achieving health equity. One of them, she says, is thinking that the present is disconnected from the past and that the current distribution of advantage and disadvantage is just a happenstance.

“It doesn’t just so happen that people of color in this country are overrepresented in poverty, while white people are overrepresented in wealth.

“Sometimes people stop me, and say, ‘Dr. Jones, why are you talking about slavery? The enslaved people were emancipated in 1865, and we’re in 2018. Don’t you think the impacts of slavery would have washed out by now? All else being equal?’

“The key phrase is ‘all else being equal,’ but all else isn’t equal,” Jones says.

A narrow focus on the individual, which makes systems and structures either invisible or irrelevant, and society’s endorsement of the myth of meritocracy are the other two barriers, she says.

“The story goes something like this: ‘If you work hard, you will make it.’ Most people who have made it have worked hard, but other people who are working just as hard or harder, will never make it because of an uneven playing field.”

Jones, who travels extensively giving talks about the intersection of race and poverty on health, is familiar with skeptics.

“I focus on race as [one of] the axes of inequity and racism as the system because it’s foundational in our nation’s history, and yet many people are in denial of the continued existence of racism and of its profound impacts on the health and well-being of the whole society,” she says.

And while she is used to people asking her why she talks so much about racism, she says the most rewarding part of her work is that most people, in fact, appreciate such conversations.

“I just came back from New Zealand, it was standing room only, and I received standing ovations. In May, I was in Edinburgh, Scotland, at the World Congress on Migration, Ethnicity, Race and Health and received a standing ovation,” Jones recalls. “People want these kinds of conversations.”

Years after hearing the “Gardener’s Tale,” people tell Jones that they use it as a tool in elementary schools or high schools for starting conversations about racism. Eventually, she would like to turn her allegories into a children’s book so that parents have the tools to talk about these issues.

“In my lifetime, I have wanted to contribute to a national conversation on racism, which in my children’s lifetime would eventuate in a national campaign against racism, which in their children’s lifetime, will result in not only a dismantling of the system, but the putting in place of a new system in which all people can develop to their full potential,” she says.

Jones says much of her career has been devoted to equipping researchers, as well as the general public, with tools for naming, measuring, and addressing the impacts of racism on the health and well-being of the nation.

“Dr. Jones is a skilled epidemiologist who has used new methods to help us better understand the role of structured racism as a social determinant of health,” says Georges Benjamin, a physician and executive director of the American Public Health Association. “An understanding of her work is essential for those in society who are working to address the health inequities that affect both individuals and populations.”

From the CDC to the American Public Health Association, Jones’ work has brought her closer to affecting policy, but lately she has been contemplating another way to effect change.

“I think the next step is politics in terms of influence,” Jones says. “Politics, which is about the distribution of resources, is the highest level of power in this. And so, I’m sort of interested.”

Hilary Hurd Anyaso ’93 is an editor in the media relations department at Northwestern University.

Career Highlights

  • M.D. from Stanford University School of Medicine; M.P.H. and Ph.D. in epidemiology from Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health; completed two residencies: general preventive medicine and family medicine
  • Formerly medical officer and research director on social determinants of health and equity at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2000–2014)
  • Currently senior fellow, Satcher Health Leadership Institute and Cardiovascular Research Institute, Morehouse School of Medicine
  • Also adjunct associate professor, Morehouse School of Medicine, and adjunct professor, Rollins School of Public Health, Emory University; formerly assistant professor at Harvard School of Public Health
  • President, American Public Health Association (2016); fellow of the American College of Epidemiology (2009)
  • 2018 recipient of Alumnae Achievement Award, Wellesley’s highest honor

The Gardener’s Tale


In her well-known “Gardener’s Tale,” which she has shared with audiences for decades, Camara Jones presents an allegory about a gardener with two flower boxes. One has rich soil where red flowers are flourishing, and the other has poor soil where pink flowers are languishing.

Jones uses the image of the two flower boxes to illustrate the three levels of racism—institutionalized, personally mediated, and internalized—and to discuss the basis of race-associated differences in health outcomes. The gardener represents the government, which has the power to decide, to act, and control the resources, she says.

For example, to illustrate aspects of institutionalized racism in the story, there is the initial historical insult of separating the seed into the two different types of soil and not addressing the differences between the soils over the years. In addition, the gardener’s preference for the red flowers over the pink assumes the red are better. This may contribute to a blindness about the differences between the types of soil.

Personally mediated racism occurs when the gardener, disdaining the pink flowers because they are struggling, plucks the blossoms off before they can even go to seed.

Internalized racism is demonstrated by the pink flowers internalizing the belief that the red flowers are better because they look across at the other flower box and see the red flowers flourishing.

“I used to just think about it as differences in the quality of the soil that needed to be addressed,” says Jones about the Gardener’s Tale. “But then I understood that even if we were to compel the gardener to enrich the poor, rocky soil until it was as rich as the rich, fertile soil, if she continues to prefer red over pink, she’ll continue to privilege red over pink going forward. So, we have to deal with both aspects of racism—how racism is a system that structures opportunity and assigns value.”


Nergis Mavalvala ’90

A Cosmic Breakthrough

When Galileo turned a rudimentary telescope of his own invention to the sky some 400 years ago, it was a paradigm-shifting moment—not necessarily because of what he saw, but because of how. Suddenly, humans could access more of the universe than was visible to the naked eye, and in the ensuing years, scientists devoted themselves to building bigger and better telescopes to probe the universe in greater and greater detail. Yet one category of celestial curiosities eluded them: objects like black holes and neutron stars that are so dense they don’t give off any light at all, rendering them invisible to even the most powerful telescopes.

Then, in 2015, the paradigm shifted once again—scientists successfully captured two black holes colliding by detecting the gravitational waves produced by the impact. In the thick of a discovery that can only be described as monumental was an unlikely player: a Pakistani-American, openly gay, female astrophysicist named Nergis Mavalvala ’90, who began working on the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) project as a Ph.D. student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and quickly established herself as a leader in the field.

What was it like as the discovery unfolded? “Crazy. Completely crazy,” Mavalvala recalls. “Our first reaction when we saw the signal was, ‘Oh, this is a mistake or a glitch in our instrument, but not something real.’ There was this frenzy of everyone checking their own work and then others cross-checking their work.” The excitement mounted over weeks and months as the scientists determined that indeed, for the first time, LIGO had detected gravitational waves from a celestial object: ripples in the space-time continuum produced when such an object accelerates through space. The findings confirmed Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, which had predicted that massive objects in space would give off gravitational waves.

The researchers announced their findings six months later, and science would never be the same. “A hundred years from now, people won’t really remember that LIGO was the first to see these colliding black holes,” Mavalvala says. “It will really be the paradigm shift that now, instead of only being able to see things that are bright, we can also see the dark universe.”

So how did Mavalvala end up on the leading edge of one of the most significant and complex research efforts of the modern era? Her journey starts growing up in Karachi, Pakistan, where she recalls being intrigued by the origins of the universe, yet completely dissatisfied by religious and social explanations. “I remember, from early childhood, thinking, the various narratives of genesis didn’t hang together with even simple scientific observations about the age of the solar system,” she says. “I think I was trying to make sense of these opposing narratives, and to me, the scientific ones seemed more testable.”

At the same time, Mavalvala was cultivating her natural aptitude for math and science in school while spending her free time pursuing her interest in building and fixing: making things out of spare parts, repairing bicycles. Not realizing that she could have a career as a scientist, she assumed she would become an engineer.

That all changed at Wellesley, where she spent three years conducting research with physics professor Robbie Berg. “That was my first taste of working in a physics lab, and I remember thinking this was the most fun thing anyone could ever do—I could be here, day in and day out, and it felt just right,” she recalls. Her research focused on understanding the properties of a relatively unknown but promising semiconductor called aluminum gallium arsenide by looking for defects in its crystalline structure.

‘I always tell my students, you’re not at the cutting edge if you also aren’t breaking something.’

Of course, it wasn’t always smooth sailing. One of the first things Mavalvala did was break a laser … sort of. Charged with cleaning the mirrors on the instrument, Mavalvala enthusiastically removed all of them at the same time, rather than one at a time per the protocol. It took a week to get the laser working again, but Mavalvala learned a valuable lesson: “I always tell my students, you’re not at the cutting edge if you also aren’t breaking something.”

Wellesley, however, was about more than just research for Mavalvala. She honed her competitive edge on the varsity squash team, spending so much time at the sports center that the women at the front desk became concerned if she missed a day. She also found a home away from home at the Slater International Center, and developed a habit of riding her bike back and forth between Wellesley and MIT for class, too impatient to deal with the bus. “I think a lot of my identity, even today, kind of gelled there,” she says.

After graduating from Wellesley with a double major in astronomy and physics, Mavalvala headed to MIT for her Ph.D. “I knew I wanted to do physics. I wasn’t so wedded to what part of physics, and in fact LIGO was nowhere on my radar,” she recalls. “When I first heard of it was more or less the day I joined.”

That day came in 1991, after Mavalvala’s original advisor departed MIT, leaving her shopping for a lab. She met with Rainer Weiss, now an emeritus professor of physics at MIT, and a Nobel laureate for his contributions to LIGO. During the meeting, she recalls, Weiss had his feet up on his desk and a pipe in his mouth and asked her, “Well, what do you know?” As Mavalvala rattled off a list of advanced physics coursework, Weiss stopped her and clarified, “But what do you know how to do?” Mavalvala then told him about repairing bicycles growing up, and building electronics and using a machine shop at Wellesley, at which point he invited her to join his lab. “I was both amused and perplexed,” Mavalvala says. Weiss, for his part, had a simple reason for making the offer: “I could see that she was determined, and she was zippy, and that makes all the difference in the world.”

As Weiss pitched Mavalvala the LIGO project, which was still squarely in its startup phase, “I actually thought it was completely insane—I didn’t think anybody could make such a measurement with this level of precision,” she says. “But I thought about it the whole day after that, and I felt that if you could do it, it would be amazing, not just as a technical feat, but in terms of the science of being able to look at the universe with gravity instead of light.”

There are two LIGO detectors in the United States, the Hanford Observatory in Washington State and the Livingston Observatory in Louisiana. Each is shaped like an L, with each “arm” of the L extending 4 kilometers (roughly 2.5 miles.) At the end of each arm is a 35-centimeter diameter, 40-kilogram mirror that is perfectly aligned to face a similar mirror at the corner of the L. Laser beams are used to continually compare the distance between the two mirrors on each arm. As gravitational waves produced by celestial objects like black holes pass through the Earth, the distance between the mirrors on each arm changes by 10-19 meters—one ten-thousandth the width of a proton—which the laser beams can then detect.

A major challenge of the project is to detect the almost imperceptible movements of the mirrors caused by the gravitational waves while ensuring that the mirrors aren’t misaligned or moving due to some other force. For her Ph.D., Mavalvala developed a system to sense the orientations of the mirrors and perfectly align them. “It’s one of the most difficult of all the problems we have in LIGO, how to get all the mirrors aligned so they’re all pointing in the right direction,” Weiss says. “You have to do that automatically with enormous precision.” Mavalvala’s system is still used in the detectors today.

While advising her, Weiss came to realize that Mavalvala possesses two traits he considers critical for any successful scientist. “She has good ideas, but also has the persistence to make it happen,” he says. “When something’s not right, she finds out what’s wrong, and she fixes it. And she doesn’t give up—she is as stubborn as a mule.”

After finishing her Ph.D. in 1997, Mavalvala carried her technical savvy and gritty, hands-on work ethic to the California Institute of Technology, where she continued working on LIGO, first as a postdoctoral researcher, and later as a staff scientist. There, she helped build the LIGO detectors, spending some 25 days a month on site in Washington or Louisiana. “That was perhaps one of the most fun times of my life, because we were building something from scratch, and we were doing something that had never been done before, so we were inventing,” she says. “I felt like there was tremendous room for trying out ideas, because we were doing something that was so difficult.”

During that time, she worked closely with Stanley Whitcomb of Caltech, a chief scientist for LIGO. “I could see immediately that she had a liveliness and a sparkle that was going to take her a long way,” he recalls. “I grew to have an enormous respect for not only her technical ability, but also her ability to work with people of all levels. Nergis was the first person that anybody on the site would go to if they needed to have something explained to them about how the detectors work—she was more accessible and could explain things better than most anybody else.”

In 2002, as the detectors got up and running and the project expanded to include thousands of scientists all over the world, Mavalvala accepted a faculty position at MIT, where she has continued working on LIGO while leading a team of graduate students and postdoctoral researchers. Unable to spend as much time at the sites, she carved out a piece of the project related to quantum mechanics to tackle in the lab. Quantum mechanics is a fundamental theory of physics that attempts to describe nature at its smallest scale. Quantum uncertainty, a principle of quantum mechanics, states that we cannot know the exact location of microscopic particles like electrons and protons due to their natural jittering. However, even though the LIGO mirrors are quite large, “it turns out that when you try to make measurements at that precision, quantum mechanics is important,” Mavalvala explains, since quantum uncertainty means that the laser light used to measure the microscopic changes in the distances between the mirrors jitters ever so slightly, thus limiting the precision of the measurements. (Mavalvala describes it as trying to measure a piece of paper with a ruler where the tick marks are continuously shaking.)

“In our group here at MIT, we’ve been doing something called quantum engineering: We’re developing light sources that perform better than just an ordinary laser by using ideas of quantum engineering,” Mavalvala says.

One of the group’s major developments is “squeezed light”: laser light that overcomes the limitations of quantum uncertainty in measuring the distance between the mirrors. To do this, the laser light becomes extremely precise in one property that the researchers are interested in measuring—namely the arrival rate of the high-energy photons that make up the laser beam—by sacrificing precision in another property the researchers don’t need to quantify—specifically, the total number of photons in the beam.

“Even as we speak, our students are installing the first of these squeezed light sources on LIGO, so when it comes back after this present shutdown for improvements, it will be a quantum enhanced detector,” Mavalvala says, adding that her work also has implications for other quantum measurement systems such as quantum computing. In fact, Mavalvala won a MacArthur Fellowship (a “genius grant”) in 2010 for her research, and Weiss credits her with launching a new field called the quantum physics of macroscopic objects.

With an illustrious scientific career spanning some three decades, it is no surprise that Mavalvala has become a role model for the groups she represents, including women in science and the queer and immigrant communities. And while Mavalvala is not entirely comfortable with the idea, she appreciates that she can have a positive impact simply by living her life openly and without reservation. “Somehow, by just being who I am, it can make a difference to people in terms of inspiring them be who they want to be, and that’s a wonderful thing,” she says. Mavalvala, who lives in Arlington, Mass., with her partner and their two boys, says that these days, her life largely revolves around work and family. Though she doesn’t find much time for squash, she still bikes everywhere.

As for her scientific aspirations, Mavalvala has no intention of slowing down on her quest to discover whatever the universe may still be concealing just out of sight. “Nature gives us signals, and they are what they are, so our job is to always be thinking, how do we measure these?” Mavalvala says. “What I love is thinking about instruments that can tease out these secrets of nature—how you design an experiment that will tell you something new about how nature works.”

Catherine Caruso ’10 is a Boston-based science writer who has written for various publications, including Scientific American, MIT Technology Review, and STAT.

Career Highlights

  • Designed a key system for the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) project while earning her Ph.D. in physics from MIT in 1997
  • Involved in building the LIGO detectors as a postdoctoral researcher and staff scientist at the California Institute of Technology from 1997 to 2002
  • Associate head of the department of physics at MIT, where she studies the quantum mechanics of macroscopic objects within the context of LIGO; Curtis and Kathleen Marble Professor of Astrophysics
  • Won a MacArthur Fellowship in 2010 for her work on quantum mechanics and LIGO; elected to the National Academy of Sciences (2017)
  • 2018 recipient of Alumnae Achievement Award, Wellesley’s highest honor
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