For her Capstone project, Kayla Cohen intertwined her two majors, Arts & Humanities and Natural Sciences, to explore the role of science in creative fiction. Using parts of her own novella and John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, she analyzed how science is incorporated into literature in a way that is both educational and entertaining.
Throughout her time at Minerva, Kayla simultaneously embraced new forms of art and honed her crafts. An avid reader and performer, she shared her love of literature, music, and art with her classmates through book clubs, spoken word performances, and jazz sessions, bringing unparalleled creativity and personal expression to Minerva.
Kayla was the first-ever student to enroll at Minerva. Bright, creative, and deeply intrigued by the world around her, Kayla chose Minerva as an opportunity to travel, study, and live with a community, while earning her undergraduate degree.
In 2014, after a gap year working in a restaurant and on an organic farm in Italy, Kayla arrived in San Francisco excited, nervous, and with zero expectations. Rather than focusing on the specific details of what the next four years would bring, she was deeply mindful of the unique responsibility of being a member of the Founding Class of students. For her, one central reason for attending Minerva was to pioneer the reinvention of the university experience, from which rituals her class would create to deciding which of their beliefs should have lasting impact on future students.
One of the ways Kayla helped define the Minerva experience was with her work with the Academic team. To integrate the “City as a Campus” model, where students are encouraged to immerse in and utilize the city around them, she helped design what is now known as Location-Based Assignments (LBAs.) Every course has an LBA, where students are given tasks that involve visiting specific locations in their residential city, learning from their history or purpose, and applying the course learning outcomes, which compliments their classroom lessons. For example, first-year students in San Francisco would be asked to have conversations with people working gig economy service jobs, such as Uber drivers and food delivery couriers, to integrate with the city’s unique culture of technology and entrepreneurship.
Another lasting impact Kayla brought to Minerva was the foundation of the first student writing club. Throughout the first year, Kayla led some of her classmates in a weekly writing session at the iconic City Lights bookstore. Using the dedicated time to write, Kayla explored the world of and intentionality behind creative writing. Already a bibliophile, the newfound discovery of the power behind the written word excited Kayla, and the writing club continued to meet in each city throughout the global rotation.
In Buenos Aires, Kayla completed her first civic project with the Argentinian government's Social and Urban Integration office. The five-student team was asked to research and design strategies on how to avoid the negative effects of gentrification of Barrio 31, an informal settlement. Drawing from their recent experience living in San Francisco and their home countries, the team compared Buenos Aires to global cities facing similar gentrification challenges.
While in Buenos Aires, Kayla engaged with local authors and studied the literary history of the city. Reading the famed Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges' work prompted her to question how writing could further impact her world. That summer, she chose to fully devote herself to craft her new passion.
“I thought, 'What would it be like to do creative writing not just for one hour in a week but for many hours in a day?' I just really wanted to write!”
So that summer, Kayla joined a writing program at the Guardian newspaper and completed a self-directed challenge to read 18 books in 18 weeks. Immersing herself in literature, she read and wrote, drawing from the inspiration she gained from the other authors.
"I felt like I grew wings, like a caterpillar that's transformed into a butterfly. Writing allowed me to fly in my imagination, to fly from the here and now."
After her summer dedicated to reading and writing, Kayla moved to Seoul. Together with her classmates Tomer Eldor and Guillaume Picard, she sang in their jazz ensemble, TOKA. Comprised of a vocalist, pianist, and drummer, the trio casually jammed, each bringing their individual musical histories and styles together to create an energetic, new sound.
Continuing to play into the next semester in Hyderabad, Tomer was discovered by a representative of the Hyderabad Western Music Foundation, who asked if TOKA would be interested in performing at a concert during Jazz Appreciation Month. Though the trio played for fun, the group eagerly accepted the opportunity to connect with the local Hyderabadi community and performed at the Musee Musical in Begumpet.
In addition to the musical adventures that semester, Kayla also collaborated with Myrahkii Learning Works, a Hyderabad-based education startup focused on child-centric, active learning. She was asked to help design a seven-month English language program for teachers in rural India.
By the end of her third year at Minerva, Kayla had accomplished much of what she set out to do having founded student clubs and initiated traditions, explored the literary world through internships and self immersion, and critically reflected on her global experiences and their effects on her perspective. At the end of the semester, Kayla returned home to London for the summer to prepare for her final year at Minerva.
In London, Kayla landed a summer internship with the Edge Foundation, an independent educational charity. There she researched and wrote case studies on alternative education models, including Minerva’s, and presented them to the United Kingdom Department of Education. Earning high praise for her thorough work, by September she was asked to stay on as a project manager in which she led the team’s researchers to deliver an analysis of the success of apprenticeships and higher education in the UK.
Simultaneously balancing her work at the Edge Foundation with her classes, Kayla also had Capstone Project deadlines to meet where she read works of fiction to see how different authors used creative writing techniques in combination with their own unique styles. Picking up the pen herself, she near-completed a novella featuring protagonist Olivia Rider, a fourteen-year-old girl who uses science to solve an important mystery.
“The process of writing is very intimately intertwined with questions you have to ask yourself. Your depiction of a character can only be as deep as your knowledge of yourself. So this Capstone has been an opportunity to deeply pursue something that I’m interested in. In a normal university, I might have just written a 10,000-word dissertation that would have allowed me to academically engage but not to do creative writing, which has been important for me to understand myself.”
In the first part of her Capstone Project, Kayla showcased her creative writing talents. Initially writing for a younger audience, Kayla changed the novella’s tone to Young Adult fiction after being inspired by darker poetry in her creative writing tutorial class with Professor Gillian Osborne. She pulled from her extensive literary research and also interviewed several practicing scientists to help strategize how to best introduce young readers to the broad world of science.
In Kayla’s story, Olivia Rider must regain confidence in her scientific abilities in order to solve a pressing bacterial mystery. Throughout the plot, the reader is exposed to the various organizational fields of science from molecular and organismal to population and species. Throughout mystery, the reader is educated on the role and purpose of scientific analysis.
One of the overarching themes in the novella features an issue prevalent in the scientific community––the unwelcomeness and learning barriers that girls and women still face in laboratories and classrooms. To remedy this inequality, Olivia serves as a peer role model for her reader. “Having personally experienced both access- and perception-barriers to learning science, I wanted to help empower young women not only to enter the science community but to perceive themselves as central members of that community, no longer relegated to the periphery.” As Olivia grows in her scientific confidence, Kayla hopes that her readers will too.
In addition to the creative writing aspect of her Capstone Project, Kayla also completed an in-depth literature review of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Kayla particularly noted Steinbeck’s use of emotional persuasion in the characters’ development throughout the story where he would vividly describe characters’ physical attributes and personas to establish trust in the reader and intertwine his moral message through each characters’ personal journey. Influenced by Steinbeck’s technique, when creating Olivia, Kayla added “humor, surprise, and a dash of poignancy” to make her protagonist more likable and empathetic to the reader. If the intention of the novel was to empower girls in science, it was critical that Olivia was likable enough so that readers would want her to be their role model. Kayla believed that without a level of likeability, the novella would be less effective in convincing the reader of the power of science.
Since graduating from Minerva, Kayla accepted a job as a researcher at the University of Wisconsin at the Wisconsin Institute of Discovery. In her role, Kayla is helping Institute Director Dr. Jo Handelsman, Ph.D. with her upcoming book on soil-related challenges in the 21st century. Transforming soil and agricultural science research into a digestible format for readers, the project uniquely combines Kayla's dual passions in literature and science.
Whether she is writing fiction or scientific articles, it's clear to see how Kayla has matured throughout her Minerva journey academically, developmentally, and artistically. While challenging and exhausting at times, with each move from one country to the next and each pursuit of an opportunity to inspire co-creation in her communities, Kayla has nurtured and bloomed her formidable and resilient passion of expressing herself.
“Minerva has given me the confidence to put roots down wherever I go, a sense of independence, and friendships that will last a lifetime.”