Voices in the Wilderness

Selassie Atadika ’98 • Sue AnderBois ’05 • Dan Popa ’94, Th’94 • Damayanti “Dimpy” Desai ’13 • Aleron Kong ’03 • Lance Kramer ’06
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Selassie Atadika ’98
Culinary Ambassador
The chef gathers inspiration from her travels around the world for the United Nations.

In 1982 Atadika and her family left Ghana following a military coup, eventually settling in Westchester County, New York. But her parents made sure she and her siblings stayed connected to their homeland—mainly through food. “I’d always joke that my mother would take off only two days from cooking a year: Mother’s Day and her birthday,” says Atadika, recalling how her mom would learn ways to make traditional Ghanaian dishes even if she couldn’t find the exact ingredients. “That was a big part of our family life, coming together at the table.”

Now Atadika has become an ambassador for African cuisine as the chef for Midunu, a company she launched after moving back to Ghana in 2014. The name means “let us eat” in the Ewe language, and it’s a phrase that Atadika remembers her father saying often as she grew up. In addition to catering private parties and corporate events, Midunu throws monthly “nomadic dinners” at different locations around the capital Accra, where guests sit at communal tables and enjoy a five-course meal. The dinners—which have earned praise in publications such as Vogue and Ebony—allow foodies to sample an always-changing menu while meeting new people and discovering new places. “You can never have the same dinner twice,” she says. “Even if the meal was the same, the unknown is the company that comes.”

Another goal is to highlight fare from all over the continent—whether Atadika is reinventing an old Ghanaian favorite such as waakye (a spicy stew with rice and beans) or creating fresh recipes that give a nod to the flavors of countries such as Ethiopia (avocado panna cotta topped with honey, papaya and basil). She makes a point, too, of incorporating classic ingredients that fewer people are using these days, such as sorghum, cassava leaves and even locally grown brown rice, which Atadika says more Ghanaians are swapping for imported white rice these days. She also hosts a television show called Ghana Veg Food Diaries, a series that promotes local produce and farmers. “Beyond celebrating Africa’s culinary heritage, I want to look at preserving Africa’s culinary heritage,” she says. “With globalization and urbanization, a lot of things are getting lost.”

Despite her early orientation, Atadika’s path wasn’t always straightforward. At Dartmouth she was a premed major before switching to geography in her junior year. After graduation she worked as a civilian in U.N. peacekeeping missions in Kosovo and Angola before shifting to UNICEF to work on humanitarian projects throughout Africa. Wherever Atadika was in the world, she would always seek out neighborhood restaurants and chat with the cooks. “I would explore the local cuisine and then try to figure out how those ingredients could be played around with,” she says.

Eventually Atadika started a cooking club, and in 2011 she and two friends took leaves of absence from their jobs to spend six weeks studying at New York’s Culinary Institute of America. Returning to Africa and again working full-time, the trio decided to open a pop-up restaurant in Dakar, Senegal, serving gourmet food once a month at various spots in the city. Success with that venture inspired Atadika to change careers and start her own business in Ghana. “It was part of my dream to come back and live here, and then I had a new strength and confidence in my cooking,” she says. “It was kind of the perfect storm.”   —Heather Salerno


Sue AnderBois ’05
A Full Plate

Rhode Island is a small state, but AnderBois has a big job as its first director of food strategy. Her purview includes everything from farming and fishing to promoting healthy eating in schools and reducing food insecurity. She is working with several growing industries in Rhode Island’s more than $3-billion food sector, which includes more than 1,200 farms.

AnderBois, who was appointed to the post a year ago by Rhode Island’s governor, released the state’s first comprehensive food strategy—including recommendations on production at the state’s farms and fisheries and ways to alleviate hunger and grow markets for local products—in May. “My charge was to create a strategy that helps us look at some of our big opportunities and challenges in a more coordinated way,” she says. “It’s meant to reflect state government priorities, but also those of Rhode Island as a whole.”

It’s easy for policy reports to go unimplemented, but AnderBois, who met with hundreds of Rhode Islanders while preparing the plan, calls it a “galvanizing tool” for implementing change. The governor created AnderBois’ position at the urging of the Rhode Island Food Policy Council, an independent nonprofit that seeks to create connections across the state’s food system. AnderBois, an environmental studies major (and former DAM intern) who most recently worked as policy analyst and Rhode Island coordinator for the Boston-based New England Clean Energy Council, served on the food policy council’s volunteer board for five years. Some cities have food chiefs, but Rhode Island is the first—and so far, only—state to have a director of food strategy who works to link state agencies with each other, nonprofits and businesses. “The idea is to have state government be able to speak with one voice on food issues,” AnderBois says. “We’re hoping that if it’s successful here, other states can use this as a model.” —Kaitlin Bell Barnett ’05


Dan Popa ’94, Th’94
Bot Builder

Popa is creating robots—care-bots—that might save our lives in a few years. “If you go to a long-term-care facility or cancer wing, you have patients bedridden for days or weeks and they have to be continuously monitored. That’s typically done by an employee called a ‘sitter,’ ” says Popa, a professor of electrical engineering at the University of Louisville in Kentucky. Sitters call nurses when there’s something wrong, but they cannot intervene and are not required to converse with patients. “You have someone sitting there for 24 hours a day for days in a row who does a fairly mundane job,” he says. “There is a market push from hospitals to improve that care-delivery system and replace sitters with robots.” With $1 million in support from the National Science Foundation, Popa is developing the next generation robot nurse assistants, which will be able to monitor vital signs, fetch objects and converse.

Popa grew up in Bucharest, Romania. At Dartmouth he was a Montgomery scholar and earned his A.B. in three years. He has a Ph.D. in robots and controls from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, where he launched his robots research group, Next Generation Systems. Before working on care-bots he created cushioned robotic skin, in part to help protect humans from the machine’s hardware. “It’s one way to make sure the care-bot is safe—that it won’t run into you and injure you,” he says.

Popa says robots could soon be as common as smartphones. “In five to 10 years you’ll be going to the store and picking up your robot, customizing it, bringing it home and teaching it to help you with whatever you need to do in the house,” he says. Does that mean we should worry about rogue robots trying to take over the world? “I can tell you that that’s a very, very distant prospect,” he says. “Unfortunately, today’s robots are not that smart, and they break down all the time.” —Abigail Drachman-Jones ’03


Damayanti “Dimpy” Desai ’13

As a second-year law student at the University of Michigan, Desai joined the school’s Innocence Clinic, hoping to help overturn wrongful convictions. On her first day, Desai uncovered a key piece of evidence that helped free a man after two decades behind bars.

Desai and a fellow student were assigned to the case of Lamarr Monson, who had been convicted in 1997 of murdering a 12-year-old Detroit girl. When Desai got the case, Monson was still languishing in prison, even though a witness had told police three years earlier that her ex-boyfriend committed the murder—and despite a bloody print from the scene matching that of the ex-boyfriend, not Monson. With the clinic director, Desai and a law school classmate decided to reinspect the toilet tank lid on which the original print had been found. They located a new print that also matched the other suspect, then convinced prosecutors to retest the lid. “When we first saw the print it was a little surreal because it was our first day on the case,” says Desai, who at Dartmouth ran the Prison Project, which offers education and recreation programs at a local men’s minimum security prison. “We didn’t realize the full impact of it until later.”

In total, investigators identified nine prints that matched the other suspect. Monson, freed in February, will face a new trial on the same charges this fall. “A lot of the reasons why people are wrongfully incarcerated stem from broader problems that plague the criminal justice system,” says Desai, who plans to clerk for a federal judge in New Mexico after graduation. “I hope being able to highlight those through our work results in correcting those problems.” —Kaitlin Bell Barnett ’05


Aleron Kong ’03
Sci-fi Legend

If you end up in an ER in Atlanta, there's a good chance Kong will be your doctor. He works night shifts at Piedmont and Northside hospitals, treating everything from broken bones to heart attacks. But under that white coat is a man with another title: Father of American LitRPG. That’s not a typo. LitRPG stands for “literature role-playing game,” a literary genre still crawling out of infancy that combines science fiction, fantasy and online role-playing games. (For those who’ve never heard of  Warcraft and Elder Scrolls, think Game of Thrones, if it were a video game.) Kong published his first LitRPG book, The Land: Founding, in November 2015, and since then he’s written five more novels, sold close to 100,000 e-books and joined the ranks of the top 100 sci-fi fantasy authors on Amazon.

Kong’s books follow a black protagonist named Richter (named for the earthquake scale) who’s drawn into a fantasy world called the Land. Using his medical expertise, Kong imagines fight scenes that are accurate down to the last severed artery. He also incorporates larger issues, such as slavery and homosexuality. “My books are never just about a cool story. I have to touch on issues I think are important, which revolve around inclusion and acceptance,” he says. “I always thought the real power of sci-fi isn’t to watch more zombies, but to make these fantastic situations so you can really examine the human condition.” Kong earned his M.D. at Morehouse, then spent five years at Grady Memorial Hospital before landing at Piedmont and Northside. His hard-driving schedule has taught him to find free moments for creativity. “I learned in med school there are a bajillion wasted moments a day, so I will be talking to friends and an idea will hit me, and I’ll pull out my phone and take notes,” he says. “Or if I wake up in the middle of the night, I start writing. It adds up.” —Abigail Drachman-Jones ’03


Lance Kramer ’06
Candid Camera

A documentary filmmaker, Kramer wandered into his role behind the camera. After working in print journalism on the West Coast, the Washington, D.C.–area native returned home to figure out next steps and met a documentary film producer at a local bookstore. A former film minor who says he “completely overlooked” documentary classes at Dartmouth, Kramer was hooked. “I never made the connection that my love of film and journalism would converge,” he says.

Kramer and his brother and fellow filmmaker, Brandon, formed Meridian Hill Pictures (named for the park across from their D.C. office) in 2010. The siblings found their first project next door, at local nonprofit Washington Parks & People, which created a jobs-training program to help the unemployed find work and care for parks in their neighborhoods. Kramer was amazed by the trainees’ candor in front of the camera. “We found ourselves in extremely vulnerable moments in peoples’ lives—you could feel the intense struggles and stakes they were up against,” he says.

The resulting City of Trees (2015) was a film festival success and aired on PBS and Netflix. Kramer has also produced or directed a range of other films focused on complex social issues, including Hard Earned, an Al Jazeera America documentary series focused on the challenges faced by the working class. City of Trees also connected Kramer to political analyst Van Jones to work on the 2016 documentary miniseries The Messy Truth, seen by millions online and on CNN. He’ll next tackle projects focused on education and social justice. —Lauren Chisholm ’02

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