Life Mission: Looking into a distant moon ocean

Image Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

More than 340 million miles beyond Mars, an icy moon awaits its first close-up. Days before NASA’s Perseverance rover reached the surface of the Red Planet, the US space program announced updates to another long-awaited mission with the potential to find signs of life. In October 2024, the Europa Clipper will leave Earth on a private rocket, destined to begin orbiting Jupiter nearly six years later to study Europa, the smallest of the yellow planet’s largest moons.

“Unlike what one day might be discovered on Mars,” writes David W. Brown in The Mission, a swirling exploration of the history, science, money and policy maneuverings behind the two-decade journey behind the mission to Europa, “Europan life has a real chance of complexity.”

In 1610, German astronomer Simon Marius and his Italian adversary Galileo Galilei each sighted four satellites orbiting Jupiter using homemade telescopes. Galilei published his findings first. Despite centuries of improvements to telescopic technology, the Galilean moons of Jupiter — including Callisto, Ganymede, and Io — remained a mystery until NASA’s Pioneer and Voyager missions in the 1970s beamed glimpses of their surfaces back to Earth. A distant speck amidst the celestial spheres, many of the revolutions of Europa began in Providence.

“We’re mentally hardwired to think in the short term,” said Jim Head, a distinguished professor of planetary geosciences at Brown University. “We have to cultivate and work toward trying to think more in the long term.”

The Galilean moons, or satellites, of Jupiter; from left to right: Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto; Image credit: NASA/JPL/DLR

In 1961, having failed out of his sophomore year at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, Head listened to breakthroughs in the space race at home in Washington, DC, on what he calls “my first sabbatical.” Within six weeks, Soviet Yuri Gagarin became the first person in space, Alan Shepard followed as the first American, and President John F. Kennedy addressed Congress to propose not only landing on the Moon, but also “even more exciting and ambitious exploration of space… perhaps to the very end of the solar system itself.”

After gaining readmittance to Washington and Lee, Head continued his major in geology. He had enrolled in an introductory course to fulfill a science requirement. Unlike chemistry and physics, the labs took place outdoors and involved field trips. Head fell for the study of the Earth’s surface and carried his curiosity to graduate studies at Brown, writing his dissertation on the 400 million year old history held in the sedimentary rocks of the Appalachian Mountains.

As Head completed his PhD in 1969, he thumbed through an employment directory. Most of the listings for geologists involved teaching at small colleges or working for the oil industry, but in a separate section, Head found an unexpected advertisement. With the Apollo 11 mission months away, a photograph of the Moon was accompanied by the text “our job is to think our way to the Moon and back.” Although lacking lunar expertise, Head called the phone number printed in the corner. The experiences that followed, he said, “opened up the heavens.”

“When I went to NASA, I was deathly afraid they would find out I didn’t know anything about the Moon or the planets,” said Head. “And I quickly learned, of course, nobody knew anything about the planets. That’s why we were going.”

Working on the Apollo program, Head helped select lunar landing sites, trained astronauts in geology and surface exploration, and analyzed the samples they brought back from the Moon. In 1972, he returned to Providence as a member of the faculty at Brown, though shuttled back and forth to Houston for a year as interim director of the Lunar Science Institute. At home, Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon orbited around the needle of Head’s record player.

Lunar Module (left) and Lunar Roving Vehicle (right) during the Apollo 15 mission to the Moon; Image credit: Johnson Space Center

Researching the geological processes found across the planets and the historical record they left behind, Head studied Arctic and Antarctic glaciers and volcanic deposits in Hawai’i, in Iceland and along the sea floor. To improve scientific collaboration between the United States and the USSR, he established a research partnership between Brown and the Vernadsky Institute in Moscow. He advised missions to Mars, Venus and Jupiter and also worked as part of the mission teams, but said he viewed teaching undergraduates and supporting graduate research as central to his role. One of those graduate students was Louise Prockter.

Growing up in London, Prockter learned at the Natural History Museum that rocks “told stories about the world they left behind,” writes Brown. After high school, she decided not to pursue university studies. Instead, she spent several years in a series of sales roles, starting with local newspaper advertisements before finding work selling typewriters and later PVC ring binders.

“I got to think creatively at that time,” said Prockter, now chief scientist of the space exploration sector at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. “I learned a lot of things that, while having nothing to do with science, were very useful. I learned to work under pressure. I learned to work with deadlines. And that’s very useful in the space business.”

After enrolling in a part-time correspondence program on general sciences, Prockter continued her education. Attending Lancaster University as a “mature” undergraduate student, in one of her classes she read a Journal of Geophysical Research paper about crater formation on Venus. Written by Peter Schultz, a professor at Brown, the publication — a “meticulous work conducted over a number of years to solve a small oddity on another world,” writes Brown  — set an example she wished to follow. As Prockter considered US graduate programs, in July 1994 she flew from England to meet with Jim Head. Her arrival in Providence coincided with the 25th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. That week, she found a pizza party set up alongside telescopes on campus to witness a comet shattering into Jupiter.

In her own research at Brown, Prockter studied geomorphology, interpreting planetary surfaces and their relationships with geology. She focused on volcanic activity in the Earth’s ocean and on Venus, writing her dissertation on features in the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. When in 1995 Prockter witnessed images from NASA’s Galileo space probe, she understood the transferability of her research across the planets. She led the imaging plans for two of the mission’s Europa flybys.

“The payoff is unbelievable,” said Prockter. “When you get images from spacecraft that no one’s ever seen before.”

“It’s just almost a universal language, of space,” she said. “Everybody dreams, and everybody aspires to learn more about the universe and why we’re here.”

Head and Prockter were joined in their work by Geoff Collins, now a professor at Wheaton College, and Robert Pappalardo, a postdoc arriving from Arizona State University. He had looked to space for as long as he could remember, writes Brown. Crafting a model of the solar system above his bed as a child, Pappalardo replicated the icy moons of Jupiter with “crushed masking tape” held in place by toothpicks. He found geology to be his pathway to the planets.

“I view the solar system as a laboratory for trying to understand how life originated and evolved,” said Head.

“If you want to see what it would be like, with climate change and global warming run amok, you go to Venus,” said Prockter. “If you want to see what it’s like on a world where there used to be water but now there isn’t, you go to Mars.”

For Pappalardo, Europa held particular intrigue. At Brown, he analyzed the data from Galileo and planned the mission’s campaigns to capture images of Jupiter’s icy moons, including high-resolution images of Europa. The data led Prockter, Pappalardo and their colleagues to speculate about the existence, and the implications, of water captured under its frozen surface.

“Brown’s importance to the Europa story is more than happenstance,” said Brown, the writer, about the university. “The inner workings of the ice shell surrounding the ocean were unlocked there, and scientists at Brown chipped away at the nature of the mysterious moon’s bizarre geology.”

After six years as a postdoc at Brown, Pappalardo became an assistant professor at University of Colorado, Boulder. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory plucked him from academia to become a senior research scientist at its headquarters in Pasadena, California, where he led the science behind the possibility, and then the eventuality, of exploring Europa. After Brown, Prockter moved to the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland, continuing her collaborations with Pappalardo as a scientist shaping the planning for the team’s missions.

Ice rafting on Europa, referring to the transport of sediment that became embedded in the icy surface of the Jovian moon; Image credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Brown University’s influence on planetary sciences dates back before the Revolutionary War. Then known as Rhode Island College, in 1769 Brown’s professors Benjamin West and Joseph Brown published their observations on the transit of Venus, leaving their legacy behind on the naming of Transit and Planet Streets near campus. Ladd Observatory opened for researchers in 1891 and began to welcome the public in 1930. Faculty members guided the science behind the Viking 1’s mission to Mars, confirmed the existence of water on the surface of the Earth’s moon, and uncovered further evidence of water within its interior. Research from Brown graduate students and faculty, including Head, informed the decision for the Perseverance rover and its Ingenuity helicopter to explore the Jezero crater on NASA’s current mission to Mars.

In The Mission, Brown writes that Jim Head was a “force among the chosen few in the field” whose contributions to the Apollo program were “part of the most arresting and audacious achievement of the twentieth century, if not all of human history.” By approaching his doctorate as “a degree in advanced problem solving,” Head said he sees no surprise in his career path being “nonlinear.” For the researchers whose orbits fell into alignment together under Head’s helm, including Prockter and Pappalardo, when the Europa Clipper reaches its destination in April 2030, its findings will be the result of the questions and hypotheses raised in Providence.

“Science is really simple,” said Head. “It’s just simply the exploration of the unknown. And you know, almost everything is not yet known.”

# # #

David W. Brown’s The Mission: How a Disciple of Carl Sagan, an Ex-Motocross Racer, a Texas Tea Party Congressman, the World’s Worst Typewriter Saleswoman, California Mountain People, and an Anonymous NASA Functionary Went to War with Mars, Survived an Insurgency at Saturn, Traded Blows with Washington, and Stole a Ride on an Alabama Moon Rocket to Send a Space Rocket to Jupiter in Search of the Second Garden of Eden at the Bottom of an Alien Ocean Inside of an Ice World Called Europa is published by Custom House Books.

After the pandemic, reward your inner astronomer at Rhode Island’s observatories: Ladd Observatory at Brown University in Providence; Skyscrapers, Inc.’s Seagrave Memorial Observatory in North Scituate; the Community College of Rhode Island’s Margaret M. Jacoby Observatory; and the Frosty Drew Observatory in Charlestown. The University of Rhode Island’s planetarium also hosts a public program.

Voices of the Earth: The Future of Our Planet II

This collection of 67 environmentally themed poems can be depressing and uncomfortable to read at times, which is exactly the point publisher Notable Works set out to make with this release. Local authors all contributed work inspired by our current natural world, which is, unfortunately, a disaster (to put it nicely). The poets don’t paint a positive picture of the environment we live in, instead leaving a grim reminder of the impact of our carbon footprint.

Aubrey Atwater’s “On the Changing World” sets the tone for the collection, serving as a call to action for everyone or risk losing the things we often take for granted. It’s a request for a united front to prevent the obvious (to most) dire consequences. The rest of the poems follow Atwater’s lead, focusing on where the world is, where it is inevitably going and the work that needs to be done to cause change. 

Because Voices of the Earth was released in 2020, a portion of poems discuss COVID-19. Two mention it in the title, a few allude to the virus and a couple others discuss it in depth. While they were some of the most emotionally difficult to read, they will serve to be an important part of history down the line.

While this collection is full of strong writing, two poems really stuck with me. “Beyond Recycling” by Shalissa Coutoulakis is more of a guide than a poem, but it may be the most important in the book. It discusses the correct way to recycle and (especially relevant) what not to put in the recycling bin. Coutoulakis should send this to every school to start educating the young (and hopefully teaching parents something in the process). The other poem, “Don’t Stop Me When I Say I’ve Had Enough” by M. Neil, tops out at only five lines long, but paints an amazing visual of the incoming doom and change that is about to happen to the narrator. The last two lines of the poem, when read together, may be the best ending to a poem I’ve ever read. It’s striking and powerful; one I make sure to read often. 

Voices of the Earth is more than a collection of poetry. It’s also a resource for people who are looking for ways they can help change the world for the better. There is a thoughtful introduction written by Lauren Parmelee, senior director of education at the Audubon Society of Rhode Island. Most importantly, there is a list of local resources via environmental agencies. The list of 53 agencies are broken down into four categories: advocacy and education; coalitions; conservation, perseveration and restoration and government agencies. All of the agencies list either their mission statement or give a description of their values and/or ways to help, as well as their contact information. 

There is an aura of hope in each poem. The doom and gloom of what currently is serves as an inspiration to change. The poems serve as a blueprint as to what needs to be different and how it could potentially be done. This is a wake-up call to every reader to take a look at what they should be doing differently and why taking care of our Earth is so extremely important. Let Voices of the Earth be the first step.

To learn more about “Voices of the Earth,” check out publisher Notable Works’ website: or Email

RI COVID-19 vaccinations open for age 75-plus now, age 65-74 next week

COVID-19 vaccination reservations can now be made for everyone age 75 or older who lives, works, or goes to school in Rhode Island, the RI Department of Health (DoH) announced this morning. Actual vaccination appointments begin tomorrow, Thursday, February 18, at the two state-run points of dispensing (PODs), Dunkin Donuts Center POD, 1 La Salle Square, Providence, and Sockanosset POD, 100 Sockanosset Cross Road, Cranston.

Reservations for those age 65-74 will open Monday, February 22. In a press briefing this afternoon, RI DoH Director Nicole Alexander-Scott confirmed in response to a question from Motif that actual vaccinations for this age group would begin the following day, Tuesday, February 23.

Each eligible age group can schedule a vaccination appointment on the web – – and, although the web is preferred, voice telephone is available for others – 844-930-1779 (weekdays 7:30am–7:00pm, weekends 8:00am–4:30pm) – unable to use the web. It is possible to make an appointment for oneself or for another eligible person using either system.

Alexander-Scott said that the website is a work in progress for which significant improvements are planned. “Another thing that I wanted to share is that the customer experience is going to be a little different today than it will be in the near future. Today, when you go into the system, you have to submit all your information. And then once you do that, you can see if any slots are available. We recognize that is not ideal, especially for someone who is going to be repeatedly looking in the system for an appointment. We are working to adjust that process so that it’s a little more user-friendly, wanting to get started first, and then we’ll continue to make the improvements as we go.”

“As of 12:30pm today [Wednesday, February 17], we have made 1,331 appointments, 86 of those over the phone and the rest of them online… at the two state-run sites we have activated,” Alexander-Scott said. “On the topic of the speed of vaccinating, another piece of good news is that we got a little bump in our allocation of vaccine. We had been at the mark of 16,000 doses a week, for the last few weeks. We found out yesterday that our weekly allocation from the feds is going to be increasing to 22,500 first doses. Part of this is an actual increase in Pfizer vaccine and part of it is that Pfizer made a change that allows six doses to be drawn from vials that we were previously getting five doses from. Again, very good news.”

The telephone system also is planned for improvement, Alexander-Scott said. “Right now when you call, the system is automated: You will be prompted to enter your phone number and then you will get a call back. Our goal is to get it set up so that when you call you get a live person right away; we expect to have this in place soon. Like everything with this pandemic, we’re looking forward and making improvements every step of the way as we go.”

“Appointments are currently open through February 27. Additional appointments may be added through the week as slots open. Appointments are expected to fill up quickly,” DoH said in a statement. In the next few weeks, RI expects to bring additional state-run sites into operation in the northern and southern regions, with a goal of doubling the daily capacity at state-run sites from 1,400 to 2,800.

The Dunkin Donuts Center POD is using the Pfizer vaccine and the Sockanosset POD is using the Moderna vaccine, both of which require two doses separated by 3 to 4 weeks: this is not important for first doses, but each recipient must get a second dose of the same type as their first dose. On the website, Alexander-Scott said, users are “signing up for the first dose as the starting point, and then as they are getting that first dose, we have as many steps in place as possible to help ensure that they enroll for the second dose right then and there, so that they’re able to come back.”

Screen capture of RI COVID-19 vaccine reservation web site for Sockanosset POD

Screen capture of RI COVID-19 vaccine reservation web site for Sockanosset POD

In addition to the two state-run PODs, vaccination is available from select retail pharmacies, and those 75 and older can schedule appointments at a retail pharmacy location: either, using the CVS Pharmacy phone app, or calling 800-746-7287; or or calling any local Walgreens. Municipalities are managing the scheduling process for additional local and regional clinics; contact each city or town directly.

Alexander-Scott said that the goal is to move eligibility in lock-step across all vaccination methods, opening up to each cohort at the same time. “We want to ensure that when we move to the next eligibility group, it is done consistently the same across all three channels from the pharmacies, as well as the local-regional approach, as well as the state run approach,” she said.

For those age 65 or older, Alexander-Scott recommends using the larger-capacity state-run PODs in order to reserve smaller-capacity local and regional for those age 75 or older who may have difficulty traveling or using the web. “I do want to encourage that for going to 65-plus, we really push people toward the larger volume sites with the state-run approach that is activated. Now, when that opens on Monday [for age 65 or older], it’s really ideal to go there because it is designed to move through hundreds of individuals with vaccinating. We want our local-regional approach – our municipalities have been doing a fantastic job – really catering to those 75 years of age and older, supporting them in accessing vaccine and being able to register as they need to, making sure that they can stay local and where they need to go. I just left the call with the municipal leaders where we’re continuing to say to keep that going, make sure that they are filling all of their 75-plus slots because they’ve done a great job getting vaccine out to them, and we really want to encourage those 65 and older to go to the state run sites. We’re activating it for high volume, we want to do it as quickly and as streamlined as possible,” Alexander-Scott said. DoH spokesman Joseph Wendelken said that the daily capacity at the Sockanosset POD is 900 doses and at the Dunkin Donuts Center POD is 500 doses.

It is not necessary to schedule more than one appointment because everyone scheduled is guaranteed to be vaccinated in their assigned time slot, so making multiple reservations disadvantages others eligible for access to the extremely limited supply of vaccine.

After those age 65 and older, vaccination will be available to everyone between 16 and 64 with an underlying health condition (kidney disease, heart disease, diabetes, lung disease, immuno-compromised) that puts them at high risk of complications from COVID-19 and then by age strata for otherwise healthy people. Everyone not immediately eligible to schedule a vaccination (that is, everyone 16 to 64) can sign up to be notified when they are eligible at – where many people already have an account if they previously signed up for COVID-19 testing.

Under the RI COVID-19 vaccination plan, persons age 75 or older are covered in the 5th and final sub-phase of Phase 1, and persons age 65-74 are covered in the 1st sub-phase of Phase 2. Moving into each sub-phase does not require completing any prior sub-phase; for example, persons age 65-74 will become eligible while some age 75 and older will not yet have been vaccinated.

In response to a question from Motif, Alexander-Scott said that for those younger than age 65, “Going to the next level should be sometime in March. We can certainly move that up as we continue to accelerate our ability to push vaccine out and have additional supply to be able to do that… So for right now we’re in that same mid-March time, but certainly with each day we’ll continue to assess as we’re pushing it out, we’ll hope to speed it up. So no updates yet, but we’ll certainly be making that known as we have it.”

Responding to criticism about the slow pace of vaccination compared to other states – as of yesterday, according to data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), RI is tied for 48th place in doses administered per 100,000 population – DoH in a statement said, “Phase 1 of Rhode Island’s vaccination campaign has been focused on preserving the healthcare system and reaching groups most likely to be hospitalized – nursing home and other congregate residents, people in high-density communities, and older Rhode Islanders. While targeting these high-risk groups took more time than opening appointments to the general population from the outset, it also had the intended effect of preventing more severe cases of COVID-19, more significantly decreasing hospitalizations, and speeding up the reopening of our economy. Over the past month, Rhode Island saw a 46% decrease in hospitalizations, compared to 32% nationally and 22% in our neighboring states. And the decrease is even more significant among those in targeted groups. Because of this positive impact from Phase 1, Rhode Island can now move into Phase 2 and begin vaccinating every Rhode Islander by age group. This will allow for a significantly faster pace of vaccination.”

Alexander-Scott said at today’s press briefing, “We know that treatment with monoclonal antibodies is having a big impact. We know that our leadership with testing is an important component as well. But there is also clarity on the fact that our strategy is meeting the main objectives of the first portion of our vaccination campaign in Rhode Island. The first was to protect people in our nursing homes and other congregate settings, and the second was to make sure we have a health care workforce. Nursing homes are where we have seen the vast majority of our unfortunate deaths. And we need a healthcare workforce so that emergency care is there when you need it.”

Eat Your Veggies: Plant City X takes root on Aquidneck Island

Plant City, the popular 100% plant-based food hall and marketplace on South Water Street that opened in 2019, now has a sister “fast food” franchise churning out quick and healthy eats in the corporate-dominated gauntlet of West Main Road in Middletown. 

And according to patrons, many of whom waited months in enthusiastic anticipation of its January opening, Plant City X is living up to the hype.

Inside a refurbished 2,600-square-foot brick building that formerly housed a Papa Gino’s franchise, a site situated among a Taco Bell, a vacant Ruby Tuesday’s and a Burger King, the mid-January soft opening included hundreds of customers snaking through the drive-thru, ordering from a simple but eclectic menu, none of which has any meat or dairy-based ingredients. Even the to-go packaging comes from recycled plant-based materials. 

The inside dining area currently has seating for 85 customers, though current Department of Health regulations have limited allowable indoor capacity by half. An outdoor patio provides additional seating.

But there is no limit to its drive-thru operation, the first of its kind on the East Coast. The restaurant is now open daily from 8am to 11pm. Customers keen on the fast-food experience can get their burger (try the truffle) and shake (chocolate or vanilla) fix without the guilt. Also on offer are breaded tofu chicken nuggets, chili (cashew) cheese fries, and three types of macaroni and cheese dishes (try the buffalo), among a host of other items.

Co-owner Kim Anderson, who has partnered with world renowned chef and entrepreneur Mattew Kenney under the Plant City moniker, said she is not necessarily out to proselytize to folks on the positive outcomes of a plant-based diet, which run from better personal health to decreased environmental impact. To her, the numbers [and the food] speak for themselves: Approximately 18% of carbon-based emissions come from the agricultural economy. And the cost of healthcare due to preventable diseases exacerbated by unhealthy eating hovers around 75% of total healthcare spending in the US annually. 

“I say let the food bring the message,” Anderson said. 

Throughout the year, the two Plant City operations employ between 90 and 140 people. Many of the employees from the Providence location travelled to Middletown to get the shop up and running, training the new hires, many of whom are Aquidneck Island locals. The concept is to take some of the bestsellers from the Providence location across the bridge to Middletown, offered at a lower price point to compete with the surrounding establishments whose business model relies more on the convenience of take-out. 

“We are 100% mission based,” said Anderson, who is also the co-founder and managing partner of Ever Hope Capital, a private venture capital firm that “invests in entrepreneurs and businesses displacing animals from the supply chain … by supporting innovative and scalable alternatives to animal-based products,” according to its mission statement.

Anderson said her culinary and sustainability ventures work hand in hand. “This is a social organization,” she said, adding that she had been getting feedback for months from loyal customers of the Providence location encouraging expansion to greater Rhode Island.

Asked about the response to the Middletown opening, Anderson related an anecdote of a family finally able to give their young son, whose allergies prevented Happy Meals, a taste of the drive-thru experience. The mother even sent Anderon a text-messaged picture of the grinning lad later that day.

“Everybody here in Middletown has been fantastic,” Anderson said. “The town was outstanding to work with and we’re so pleased so many of our loyal customers from around Rhode Island have found us here, too. I’ve heard stories about people driving 45 minutes to get here and try us out.”

Although her desire to expand her health-conscious fiefdom was a couple of years in the making, the timing of the latest venture was not lost on Anderson. While many elements of pre-pandemic society will no doubt return after the crisis abates, others should remain, she said, such as a greater awareness of our food sources.

Plant City X patrons are presented with an informative card along with their meals, which serves as a reminder of all the ways that plant-based eating can help to stall the worst environmental and personal health effects of meat consumption. 

“The reason we are in a pandemic is because of animal agriculture,” said Anderson. “We create food that is sustainable, compassionate and delicious.”

Writing Toward a Better World: 2021 PEN America Literary Award finalists with local ties

Ninety-nine years ago, Thomas Hardy sent a message to a dinner gathering of writers in London: “The exchange of International Thought is the only possible salvation of the world.” The collection of poets, essayists and editors, and novelists contributed their literary skills to the group’s acronym: P.E.N. Club, which celebrated the opening of organizations in the United States and across Europe. Nearly a century later, 100 PEN centers around the world today ladder up to PEN International, an association bridging literature and human rights while advocating for the principles of a free press and freedom of expression.

Since the inaugural PEN Translation Prize in 1963 celebrated Archibald Colquhoun for his translation of The Viceroys from Federico de Roberto’s Italian original, PEN America has expanded and evolved its annual awards to recognize new works of poetry, fiction and creative nonfiction. In an email announcing the 2021 shortlist, program director Jane Merchant called the 55 titles “the highest examples of literary excellence, during a time when writing is urgently needed to support empathy and a better world.”

Several of the finalists were influenced by time in Rhode Island and the South Coast of Massachusetts:

Lizzie Davis

Ornamental by Juan Cárdenas

Translated from Spanish into English

Published by Coffee House Press

Finalist for the PEN Translation Prize, recognizing “book-length prose translations from any language into English.”

In her “Writers on Writing” course in the Literary Arts department at Brown University, Lizzie Davis encountered unfamiliar works from independent publishers that pushed boundaries in terms of form and content. The syllabus included Rikki Ducornet’s Netsuke, the first novel she read from Coffee House Press.

“I thought, if I ever work in publishing, I want it to be for a press that publishes books like these,” Davis said. “So much of what I’m doing now seems to be the direct result of my time spent in Providence and the generosity and support of the people I encountered there.”

Now editor of Coffee House Press, based in Minneapolis, Davis credits a Brown workshop led by Forrest Gander for enabling her as an undergraduate to translate a single work of literature over the course of one semester. From a stack of books, she selected a collection of prose poems by Spanish writer Pilar Fraile Amador. The following year, when Amador visited Providence for a bilingual reading series, Gander invited Davis to participate.

“That book exerted some kind of gravitational pull on me,” said Davis. “I was hooked.”

After translating most of Amador’s poetry, co-translating Valeria Luiselli’s American Book Award-winning Tell Me How It Ends, and bringing a selection of poems, letters and various excerpts from Spanish and Italian into English, Davis met novelist Juan Cárdenas at the Medellín Book and Culture Festival. She arrived in Colombia after a hurricane cancelled a connecting flight and left her stranded for 24 hours in San Salvador, El Salvador. Since Davis was staying at the same Medellín hotel as Cárdenas, the organizers of the book fair encouraged her to get to know him and rely on him as a local guide.

“I didn’t know then that he was a writer and translator, but he mentioned that Coffee House published all his friends,” said Davis. “I found one of his books at the fair, started reading it, and immediately knew that I wanted us to publish it, and that I wanted to throw my hat into the ring as a possible translator.”

Peniel E. Joseph

The Sword and the Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.

Published by Basic Books

Finalist for the PEN/Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award for Biography, recognizing “excellence in the art of biography.”

Now a professor of public affairs at The University of Texas at Austin and founding director of the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, Dr. Peniel E. Joseph lived in Rhode Island between 1999 and 2005.

Besides a one-year fellowship with the Wilson Center in Washington, DC, during this period, Joseph served as an assistant professor at the University of Rhode Island and spent two summers on fellowships at Brown to research and write his first book, Waiting ‘Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America (Henry Holt, 2007). 

The history department and Africana Studies program at URI were “filled with world class scholars, who encouraged me as a young scholar,” said Joseph. He wrote at cafes near Brown and learned about the history of Black student activism on both campuses. He said these experiences galvanized his studies of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements and his interest in the relationship between race and democracy.

“In short, I owe such an enormous intellectual and personal debt to the many friends and colleagues and students and administrators and community folk who supported me during my years in Rhode Island,” said Joseph. “I loved every minute of my time there.”

Emily Levesque

The Last Stargazers: The Enduring Story of Astronomy’s Vanishing Explorers

Published by Sourcebooks

Finalist for the PEN/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award, recognizing “writing that exemplifies literary excellence on the subject of the physical or biological sciences and communicates complex scientific concepts to a lay audience.”

As a professor of astronomy at the University of Washington in Seattle, Dr. Emily Levesque researches and explains how massive stars evolve and die. Born and raised in Taunton, her earliest memories of stargazing took place in the backyard of her childhood home. In The Last Stargazers, she writes of first meeting an astronomer during an astronomy night hosted nearby at Wheaton College.

“My writing and astronomy career were both heavily shaped by the arts and science opportunities that my parents and teachers were able to make possible in the area,” Levesque said.

She participated in local, regional and state science fairs while growing up. At Taunton High School, Levesque joined the math team and participated in band and theater.

“As a university professor, now I’m starting to get a small understanding of how immensely hard some of our teachers in the Taunton school system worked and fought to make these opportunities available,” she said. 

Levesque considered Kenneth Perry, her eighth grade science at Martin Middle School in East Taunton, a “big driving force.” She also studied music under Ann Danis, now a professor of music and director of orchestral activities at URI, and played violin in Rhode Island youth orchestras.

“Science and the arts have always been very closely connected for me,” she said. “I think learning how to enjoy hard work, how to find and tell a good story and how to pass your enthusiasm on to an audience are all crucial components of both.”

Emma Ramadan

A Country for Dying by Abdellah Taïa

Translated from French into English

Published by Seven Stories Press

Finalist for the PEN Translation Prize, recognizing “book-length prose translations from any language into English.”

After Emma Ramadan earned her B.A. in comparative literature and literary translation at Brown, she pursued a master’s degree in Paris, a Fulbright in Morocco and a stint in New York City before returning to Providence in 2016 to co-found Riffraff bookstore and bar with her husband Tom Roberge. (Read Motif’s December 2019 feature on Riffraff and Q&A with Ramadan and Roberge.)

Ramadan credited Cole Swensen and Forrest Gander at Brown who “made it feel like the community of writers in Providence was something very special and that people like that were being drawn here.”

As well as bringing Moroccan writer and filmmaker Abdellah Taïa’s novel A Country for Dying to readers of English, Ramadan has translated more than a dozen novels and poetry collections from French.

Her translations of Zabor, or the Psalms by Algerian journalist Kamel Daoud will publish in March with Other Press and In Concrete by French novelist Anne F. Garréta will publish in April with Deep Vellum.

Asako Serizawa


Published by Doubleday

Finalist for the PEN Open Book Award, recognizing “book-length writings by authors of color.”

While pursuing graduate studies in American and English literature at Brown in the late 1990s, Asako Serizawa hadn’t considered the possibility of writing fiction. Interested in modernist and postcolonial literature, she considered classes taught by Neil Lazarus and Mary Ann Doana to be “foundational” to her creative work.

“Brown was absolutely crucial,” Serizawa said. “It gave me a critical frame, a way to think about not just my material, the context and content, but my aesthetic choices, as well.”

Living in an attic apartment along Benefit Street in Providence, Serizawa often braved the wintertime risks of the “craggy back steps” for coffee and popovers downstairs at the now shuttered Cable Car cinema and cafe.

“It would’ve been the perfect place to revise manuscripts,” she said, “if I’d been working on my book then.”

Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore

The Freezer Door

Published by Semiotext(e)

Finalist for the PEN/Jean Stein Book Award, recognizing “a book-length work of any genre for its originality, merit and impact.”

Although spending much of her time at Brown in 1991 involved with campus activism, protesting against the university over issues of class and race in admissions, Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore discovered the avant-garde form of “language poetry” in workshops with Lee Ann Brown and C.D. Wright.

“What language poetry taught me was to condense all of my experiences into just a few spare words on a page,” said Sycamore. “Through that, I really learned how to edit.”

Sycamore withdrew from Brown and moved to San Francisco, but returned to Brown in 1994 for what would have been her senior year before withdrawing one semester later. During this time, she explored the city’s gay bars, club culture, and arts venues and events. At ’Stravaganza, AS220’s annual queer entertainment showcase, she read her first short story based on making a living in San Francisco as a sex worker.

“One thing I learned over the years is to write toward feeling,” said Sycamore. “I think that what I was actually learning at Brown was more about clinical detachment in writing.”

She has now edited five nonfiction collections, three novels and two memoirs, including The Freezer Door.

“As a queer kid growing up in a world that I knew wanted me to die or disappear and growing up in a family that magnified that violence rather than protecting or nourishing me, leaving Brown and moving to San Francisco was the best choice I ever made,” said Sycamore. “It allowed me to find other kids like me and to find other queers and outsiders who were intent on building our own world, building our own value system, building our own ways of living with, and lusting for, and taking care of one another.”

C Pam Zhang

How Much of These Hills Is Gold

(Riverhead Books, 2020)

Finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award for Debut Novel, recognizing “a debut novel of exceptional merit by an American author who has not previously published a full-length book of fiction.”

Earning her bachelor’s degree in English from Brown, C Pam Zhang specialized in Creative Nonfiction. Her senior thesis received the David Rome Prize for the best lyric essay by a Brown undergraduate, and an excerpt of the lyric poem, written in eight parts, was featured in Prospect, an annual Brown anthology.

“Half of what I know about writing fiction derives from nonfiction forms I encountered and tried for the first time in classes with Catherine Imbriglio and Carol DeBoer-Langworthy,” said Zhang.

“I was fueled by far too many 5am potatoes and buttered muffins at Louis on Brook Street.”

The longlist for the 2021 PEN Literary Awards also included a few other authors with local connections:

  • Rachel Tzvia Back, longlisted for the PEN Award for Poetry in Translation for her Hebrew-to-English translation of Now at the Threshold: The Late Poems of Tuvia Ruebner, led Brown’s joint study-abroad program for Israeli and Palestinian studies in Jerusalem.
  • Jotham Burrello, longlisted for the the PEN/Hemingway Award for Debut Novel for Spindle City, was born in Fall River and weaves the city’s history throughout his novel.
  • Asako Serizawa’s Inheritors was longlisted for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Short Story Collection as well as being shortlisted for the PEN Open Book Award.
  • David Wallace-Wells, longlisted for the PEN/John Kenneth Galbraith Award for Nonfiction for The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming, earned a BA from Brown. 

Kevin’s Culture Picks: Stay entertained like Kevin does this month

Cobra Kai – Season 2 – Episode 203

Every week, I’ve been doing a deep dive into cultural issues, usually theater-related, that are bothering me or that deserve a second look. But who needs another thinkpiece, right?

I host two weekly programs on my theater company’s Faceboook page ( where I ask guests what has been keeping them creatively engaged or excited, and I thought I could put together some of the movies, television shows, books, and music we discuss.

I’ll do this at the beginning of every month (until we’re out of … this), and hopefully it’ll keep you busy during these endless winter months.

So, here’s what I’m enjoying so far this month:


Herself (Streaming on Amazon)

One Night in Miami (Streaming on Amazon)

MLK/FBI (On Demand)

The White Tiger (Streaming on Netflix)


“Cobra Kai”

“Blown Away”


“Pretend It’s a City”

“The Night Stalker”

(All Streaming on Netflix)


Detransition, Baby, by Torrey Peters

A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, by George Saunders

Hades, Argentina, by Daniel Loedel


Heaux Tales, Jasmine Sullivan

Magic Mirror, Pearl Charles

Collapsed in Sunbeams, Arlo Parks

OK Human, Weezer

Sex, Addiction, and Everyone Else, Nictone Dolls

Not Your Muse, Celeste

I Need a Freak, Harassment

Best Streaming Theater of the Month

In and Of Itself — Normally I’m not all that into shows that are built around magic, but this is a gorgeous reflection on identity and storytelling that’ll leave you stunned by its powerful ending. Check it out on Hulu.

Come for Brunch, Stay for Dinner: The southern influence of Saje Kitchen finds Fed Hill

“Excuse me, are you a middle school teacher?” a beautiful 20-something with long, wavy locks asked my friend, Mr. M., just as we were finishing up our two-hour brunch/dinner at Saje Kitchen on a late Sunday afternoon.

“I am…” he answered hesitantly.

“Oh my gosh, you were my science teacher in 2009!” she said, and in her what-are-the-odds joy, asked for a photo together.

Now I know what you’re thinking: That’s so Rhode Island. However, neither my friend nor his former student are from Rhode Island, nor do they live here now. But somehow we all had the same idea: to investigate a new addition to Federal Hill that serves creative American fare with a southern twist. (And I’m guessing the table of 20-somethings was very excited about the large cocktail pitchers — Lavender Lemonade or Apple Cider & Gingerbeer, mixed with a spirit of choice). I can safely say we all walked away with more than we expected that day, reunion photos aside.

As I mentioned, Mr. M and I arrived in time for brunch and stayed until dinner. This dining strategy is hard to achieve in most restaurants because they require a transition period, but Saje Kitchen fully accommodates my level of gluttony. Breakfast, lunch and dinner, all in one sitting! The hobbits of Middle Earth might be disappointed, but I was thrilled. 

The restaurant has an eclectic vibe. The décor is very “new age” club, with a backlit bar, various clusters of balloons and velvet green booths. The playlist brought me back to my high school days, and I remember noting that I hadn’t heard “Lose Yourself” by Eminem in quite some time. Meanwhile, the TV above the bar featured an animated penguin movie and Kenan & Kel, a nostalgic throwback I haven’t seen since I was Mr. M’s students’ age. Then there was the menu, creative and classy, with a wide variety of drinks and dishes to accommodate any meal or occasion. 

We began our gluttony with brunch cocktails. Saje Kitchen has the usual contenders, Bloody Marys and Bottomless Mimosas, but Mr. M is an Espresso Martini aficionado (he always opts for Baileys, as one should), and I wanted a Painkiller, which is like the love child of a Mai Tai and a Piña Colada. Contrary to drinking at other Providence locales (perhaps, say, a rooftop), you’re not just drinking juice here — these cocktails were alcohol forward, in the best kind of way, unless dry January really did me in. Thus, we ordered carbs and protein to keep me grounded. 

The Savory Sweet Potato Hash, made with pulled pork and poached eggs, was packed with flavor. The sweet potato was thinly sliced, looking like shaved carrots, and the eggs were perfectly poached. The pico de gallo topping had a spicy kick to it that both of us loved, and it was Mr. M’s favorite dish of the day. We also ordered the Pineapple Coconut Waffle, which was as tantalizing as it sounds: charred pineapple compote, coconut cream and candied walnuts. When the server dropped it off and asked if we needed anything, I wondered if I should ask for syrup, but after one bite, the definitive answer was no — the charred pineapple compote and coconut cream were perfect. A bit smoky and a bit spicy, sweet but not too sweet. Even though I’ve been told the Chicken and Waffles are stellar, and I was curious about the Cajun Eggs Benedict, I would definitely order the exact same thing again.

The dinner menu offers a range of plate sizes, allowing people to share light bites as well as some of the heavier southern favorites. According to Ethan Jaffe, one of the owners who lived in North Carolina for a few years, “I’d always eat so much [in the south], I couldn’t move! I wanted people to be able to pick and choose, to offer a little something for everyone.” In the spirit of sharing, we ordered one “large” plate, the classic Shrimp and Grits, and two medium plates: the Crispy Brussels Sprouts and the Glazed Baby Back Ribs. 

One thing that is consistent among all the dishes is that play on sweet and spicy, or smoky and sweet. The Crispy Brussels Sprouts, for instance, were crisped to perfection — what I always hope to achieve at home and never do — and pairing them with sweet apple slices and crème fraiche created a flavor profile that was unlike any other I’ve had. The ribs were tangy and sweet, and the meat delectably tender. The shrimp and grits were served with a remoulade that was smoky and savory, with occasional bursts of warm blistered tomatoes. 

Last but not least: the dinner cocktails. One of the highlights of my night was the Flatbush Snush, made with cognac, strawberry, and lemonade. This drink is a vibrant shade of red and arrived with a thin layer of smoke billowing from the top, looking like a volcano. Dry ice — in a drink! “You can get a cocktail anywhere,” Jaffe said, “but we want you to engage in a fun and unique experience.” 

Whether you’re wanting a casual brunch or planning to celebrate a special occasion, Saje Kitchen has got you covered. They’re putting together a Valentine’s Day weekend prix-fixe, which you can learn more about by following them on social media. One thing I feel confident about: you’ll discover both sweet and savory surprises. You might even come for brunch and decide to stay for dinner.


332 Atwells Ave, PVD

Lights, Camera …

In February 2020, the Providence Children’s Film Festival shorts program was held in the basement of The Athanaeum. Kids crawled over each other like puppies and draped over adults — some theirs, some not — to better see the screen. It was a cozy and enthralling afternoon away from the frigid outdoor temperatures, inspiring to even the tiniest cinephile.

This year, COVID won’t allow for quite the same joyful experience of togetherness, but the 12th annual festival, which takes place February 12 – 21, keeps it just as cozy and inspiring with a full slate of films from around the world that will virtually connect children and families throughout New England.

For schedule and screening information, go to

Sweets To The Sweet: RI Food Fights Valentine’s pop-up has our sweet tooth swooning!

Rhode Island Food Fights is back with a Valentine’s Day Pop Up Box that you’ll want as your plus-one for the loveliest day of the year! Vegan and non-vegan epicureans will find their perfect match within this treasure trove of locally sourced confections, and no matter which one you swipe right on, you’ll be in for a treat! The non-vegan box serves up jumbo Red Velvet Cupcakes from Lasalle Bakery, Almond Brittle Toffee from Anchor Toffee, and Macarons from Silver Spoon Bakery, among other dessert delights, while the vegan box dazzles with Raspberry and Vanilla Doughnuts from Knead, Chipwiches from Miss Vegan, and Chocolate Strawberry Cotton Tails from Basil & Bunny (mouthwatering morsels of cakey goodness dipped in white chocolate n’ cookie crumbles), and that’s only the beginning! Pre-order yours at to make sure you don’t miss out on finding your sugary soulmate!

Pre-orders for vegan and non-vegan boxes ($50 each) at Contactless pickup on February 13 and 14 from 3-6pm at Providence Bagel Drive Thru (695 North Main Street, PVD).

All the Single Ladies (and Men): Now, with dinner options

As someone who’s been “uncoupled” on Valentine’s Day for the last decade, with the exception of 2017 when I ate fried Mars Bars with a Scotsman, I can assure you that this holiday is no picnic for single people. Don’t even get me started on the fact that “Galentine’s Day” has been relegated to February 13 so that “real” Valentine’s Day can still happen as usual.

But where there is global distress, there is also a silver lining: Suddenly people are aware of how shitty it is to be alone on special holidays. This year I’ve seen a number of restaurants offering Valentine’s Day experiences for single people. (Two that came across my newsfeed are Angelo’s on the Hill and Mosaic Table, where “smooches” will get you a discount of $20 on a Valentine’s Day experience.)

But Bites By Bre, who we profiled way back in the spring (, fully acknowledges the “double-decker shit sandwich” (to quote her friend) it is to be single in the midst of a pandemic, so Bre Goldsmith is offering a special for Valentine’s Day that will make everyone feel loved.

Here’s what you can expect: three mouth-watering courses (spoiler alert: this includes candied slab bacon and a chocolate whoopie pie with strawberry-infused fluff), flowers, chocolate, complementary add-ons particular to whichever meal you choose (if you’re ordering dinner for one vs. dinner for two), an option to add wine, and heart-shaped dog biscuits, if your Valentine actually comes when you call him.

I might just be looking forward to this holiday after all…

Get your tickets via ($48 per person; option to add a bottle of wine for $16.) Choose delivery if in Providence, or pick-up at 11-17 Aleppo Street, PVD.