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February 03, 2014

A Place on Burlington's Ballot Eludes a 'Lost Boy'

LM-peterdeng-MTPeter Garang Deng, a former “Lost Boy” from South Sudan, was poised to become the first refugee to seek elected office in Vermont. But the city clerk last week barred Deng from running for a seat on the Burlington school board because he failed to submit the required number of valid signatures on his candidate petition form.

“It’s very unfair,” Deng said after being notified of his disqualification. “They should be more welcoming of candidates.”

The 27-year-old employment counselor for the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program added that his disappointment is such that he’s unlikely to run for office in Vermont in the future. And that’s a potential loss for those who would like to see more racially diverse representation in the nation’s second-whitest state. (Only Maine is more monochromatic).

Burlington’s 16-member school board may be especially in need of a broader racial mix. There are no people of color on the board sets policy for a school district whose students are 30 percent nonwhite.

Continue reading "A Place on Burlington's Ballot Eludes a 'Lost Boy'" »

February 01, 2014

J. Craig Venter, Pioneering Genome Scientist, to Speak at Norwich University

2011 photo of J. Craig Venter from Wikimedia Commons

For J. Craig Venter, the sky isn't the limit, but Mars might be. The 67-year-old biologist and entrepeneur first mapped the human genome in the late 1990s using a technique he invented and called "shotgun sequencing." A decade later, in 2010, one of his organizations, Synthetic Genomics, became the first to develop "synthetic life," essentially fabricating a strand of DNA that contained the entire genome of a bacteria cell. 

Now, as Venter writes about in his new book, Life at the Speed of Light: From the Double Helix to the Dawn of Digital Life, his organization is researching potential applications for the fledgling field of synthetic biology. They range from straightforward to totally outlandish: crafting better vaccines or more efficient sources of nutrition; cleaning water and air; and equipping NASA's Mars Curiosity Rover with DNA-sequencing techology that could digitally map Martian genomes and beam them back to Earth for re-creation in labs. 

J-craig-venter-life-speed-light-double-helix-dawn-38It wouldn't be the first time Venter has looked beyond Earth to solve our scientific riddles. For the last six years, he and other scientists have crisscrossed 80,000 miles of sea in his private yacht, the Sorcerer II. That project, known as the Global Ocean Sampling Expedition, has led to the discovery of hundreds of new species of microbes, as well as millions of genetic base pairs and a couple thousand new families of proteins.

Venter will speak about his new book at Norwich University on Monday, February 3 (details below). In advance of that lecture, we spoke with him by phone about a few of his accomplishments, as well the state of science in the U.S.

SEVEN DAYS: Since developing the first synthetic cell in 2010, you’ve said that a “vision is being borne out” for how this technology can help us create better vaccines, biofuels, cleaner water, more abundant sources of food, etc. Where do you see that vision being borne out now, and what are some developments we could feasibly see in the next five years?


J. CRAIG VENTER: Well, those are all areas that we’re actively working in at Synthetic Genomics, and it’s not clear yet where the fastest applications will be. But I think the vaccine area might be one of them, certainly based on immediate needs. New flu strains are emerging in China and other places, and the number of deaths from flu are starting to mount in the U.S., so I think it’s all very critical for new developments.


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January 10, 2014

Champlain College Announces New President


Today, the Champlain College board of trustees announced that Donald Laackman will be replacing David Finney as the school’s president. Since March 2011, Laackman (pronounced “Lock-man”) has served as president of Harold Washington College, one of Chicago’s city colleges.

“I cannot think of a person who could better embody Champlain College's ‘radically pragmatic’ approach to higher education,” said Mary Powell, chair of the board of trustees, in an announcement to students, faculty and staff in the college’s Alumni Auditorium this morning. “Don's extensive business experience will help further Champlain's work in providing an outstanding academic experience that is directly connected to developing high-functioning members of society.”

Prior to serving as president of Harold Washington, Laackman (pictured) was a principal at the Chicago-based Civic Consulting Alliance and a managing director at Accenture, a global technology consulting and outsourcing firm. He received a bachelor’s degree and master's in public policy from the University of Chicago. His wife, Allyson Laackman, is vice president and CFO at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. They have two kids. 

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December 18, 2013

School Budget Gets Nod in Walden — At Last

By Kristen Fountain

 Five turned out to be the magic number for students and educators in Walden.

After more than nine months of wrangling, voters in the small Caledonia County town finally passed a school budget after a fifth ballot vote on Tuesday, 176-131. The district was the first statewide in 20 years to operate this long without an approved budget.

“This is all I wanted for Christmas,” school board member Ray Lewis said. “I am very happy.”

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December 11, 2013

Longtime Weinberger Pal Accepts Mayor's Invitation to Give UVM's Commencement Speech

SampowerIt's not so much what you know, it's who you know.

That hoary adage seems to apply to the University of Vermont's announcement Tuesday that Samantha Power, the United States ambassador to the United Nations, will speak at UVM's commencement ceremony next May.

Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger, a Yale graduate with a master's degree from Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, undoubtedly knows a lot of what. But he also knows an important who: Power. Their longtime friendship appears to have played a key role in her accepting an invitation to deliver UVM's commencement address.

Continue reading "Longtime Weinberger Pal Accepts Mayor's Invitation to Give UVM's Commencement Speech" »

December 04, 2013

This Week's Issue: COTS Stations, Mobile Meals and 2014 Election News


Cover-120413Boy, how about those F-35s, huh? When you're done reading about the planes on this here blog, check out the stories on other newsy topics in this week's Seven Days.

Read all about it in print, online or on the iOS app.

Cover photo of folk singer Rik Palieri by Matthew Thorsen.

November 25, 2013

Burlington College Cuts Spark Fears and Student Protests

Christine Plunkett on the Burlington College campus. (file: Matthew Thorsen)

Budget cuts resulting in the loss of four faculty and staff members at financially shaky Burlington College are sparking protests by students who say they're worried about their school's viability.

Two department chairs at the 41-year-old college — Anna Blackmer (humanities) and Emily Schmidt (fine arts) — recently resigned after being offered contracts that would have made them half-time employees and terminated their health benefits. Blackmer, 63, has been working full-time at the college for 25 years.

Web administrator and veterans' liaison Erin Elliott, who is eight months pregnant, saw her position eliminated.

A third academic program head, Gordon Glover (film), was not offered a new contract. And Mary Arbuckle, a professor in the film department, had her hours cut in half and her benefits terminated. That scale-back sharply constricts the one department for which Burlington College has achieved a degree of recognition beyond its North Avenue campus.

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November 15, 2013

Back to School in Winooski the Day After a Gunman Scare

Winooski-schoolIt seemed like a normal day at JFK Elementary School this morning when I dropped my kids off for school. The only sign that today was different than any other was the larger-than-usual contingent of staff and administrators waiting to greet us as we approached. They welcomed both my kids by name — my daughter gave principal Mary O'Rourke a hug.

Looking at the scene, you’d never guess that hours before, the school was surrounded by police cars and officers with guns drawn.

About an hour after school let out yesterday afternoon, a home invasion was reported near the Winooski Educational Center, a complex that houses JFK, along with the Winooski Middle-High School. According to school officials, the Winooski Police believed two suspects fled in the direction of the school, prompting a lockdown for the students and staff remaining in the building. During the lockdown, someone inside the school called 911 to report that a gunman was inside.

Multiple law enforcement agencies responded and thoroughly searched the school. News of a possible gunman exploded on social media. Reporters and community members posted numerous updates and photos from the scene. Parents whose kids were in the after-school program raced to the scene, terrified about what they might find.


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October 11, 2013

Superintendents Shelve Calendar 2.0, Look to Better Engage Public in Future

Photo (1)Last night, in a nearly full auditorium at Champlain Valley Union High School in Hinesburg, a group of superintendents from across the Champlain Valley hosted the fourth and final forum to discuss a controversial new school calendar they had originally proposed for the 2014-15 year.

Known as Calendar 2.0, the proposal would have shortened summer vacation by two weeks, reallocating those days into several one-to-two-week recesses throughout the school year. Such “intersessions,” the superintendents and fans of the proposal have argued, would allow underperforming students to catch up on schoolwork, while allowing others to pursue volunteer work and internships.

But after revealing this week that negative feedback had prompted them to nix the proposal for next year, the superintendents used last night's meeting as an opportunity to collect final input from parents and students. While remaining vague about their future plans for a new calendar, the administrators also assured the public a role in future conversations about time and learning.  


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October 03, 2013

Forums Begin to Discuss Proposed New School Calendar

PhotoParents and students from all over Chittenden County packed the Essex High School cafeteria last night to respond to a proposal that would permanently change the school calendar. Members of the Champlain Valley Superintendent's Association were surrounded, literally. When their efforts to keep the meeting orderly — by getting attendees to write down their reactions on pieces of paper — failed, facilitators passed around mics instead.

The first in a series of four forums this month stayed mostly civil, but the parents who spoke up were largely against the idea of shortening the traditional summer vacation by two weeks to create three "intercessions" during the academic year. One of the goals of Calendar 2.0, which has been proposed for schools in Chittenden, Franklin and Grand Isle counties, is to increase the number of opportunities to identify and help struggling students. 

The idea is that the intercessions would allow students who fall behind in classes to catch up, while giving other students a chance to pursue internships and enrichment opportunities. 

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