When the Paths Diverge 

By Ella Murdock Gardner ’22
illustration by Erin Maala
written for the fall 2023 issue of Scripps magazine

An illustration of a space shuttle launching by Erin Maala.

In this series of brief conversations, eight Scripps faculty members and students discuss the defining moments in their paths.


Ulysses J. Sofia 

Weinberg Family Dean of Science of the W.M. Keck Science Department 

Ask Ulysses J. Sofia, Weinberg Family Dean of Science of the W.M. Keck Science Department, how he became interested in astrophysics, and he will tell two stories. In the first, a two-year-old Sofia was at Cape Kennedy on a bright July morning in 1969, and Apollo 11 was embarking on its legendary expedition to the moon. Sofia felt the pulsing of the engines underfoot and clutched his father’s hand as the rocket blasted into the air. “Don’t forget this; you’re going to want to remember this,” his father told him. Sofia listened.  

“That’s the apocryphal story I like to tell my friends,” Sofia says, chuckling. 

It’s true that the launch looms large in his memory. But the real story of how he developed his academic interests is less cinematic. Sofia’s father was also an astrophysicist, albeit of a more theoretical stripe—he was “all numbers, all equations, all math,” Sofia says, “not the type of astrophysicist who could go outside and point to anything in the sky”and the family had the Astrophysical Journal delivered to their home when he was growing up. With its muted, gray cover, the periodical looked incredibly dull to Sofia. He remembers thinking, Why would anybody want to study that?  

Later, when Sofia was in high school and looking for a first job, his father connected him with a colleague at NASA who was working with data from the International Ultraviolet Explorer Satellite. “It was actual data, rather than just theory, and I just fell in love with astrophysics,” Sofia says. 

He started interning at NASA and continued to orbit the agency for years afterward as he pursued his education. In graduate school, he received a fellowship to work with the Goddard High Resolution Spectrograph, an instrument that was installed on the Hubble Space Telescope for its original launch. Based on this “brand-spanking-new Hubble data,” Sofia studied the composition of the interstellar medium—the tiny gas particles and flecks of dust floating through the yawning space between stars.  

As the Dean of the Department of Natural Sciences, Sofia is often thinking about another kind of space: the physical space of student instruction. He’s overseeing the expansion of the Department of Natural Sciences’ newest building, The Nucleus, which is set to open in fall 2024 with a wealth of new teaching labs and “nooks and crannies for students to study in.” Sofia’s favorite class to teach by far is his introductory astronomy course for nonmajors. He barely touches the planets—“that stuff’s boring to me”—and instead prefers to focus on cosmology, the structure and evolution of the universe. “The universe makes no sense,” he says. “Almost always, half the class loves this; they’re thrilled by the mystery, and the other half hates it. They want the universe to be intuitive and have answers.” No one ever really switches sides, he adds, musing that the reason must be a function of individuals’ backgrounds and personalities.  



Rivka Weinberg 

Mary W. and J. Stanley Johnson Chair in the Humanities
Professor of Philosophy 

Even as a kid, Mary W. and J. Stanley Johnson Chair in the Humanities and Professor of Philosophy Rivka Weinberg remembers feeling that questions of death and time and existence were not only present in her life but pressing. “I think I would have always been interested in philosophy if I knew it was a subject,” she says. 

But it wasn’t until she arrived at Brooklyn College, where she earned her bachelor’s degree, that she stumbled upon the discipline by way of a Byzantine course registration system, with students corralled into lines by police tape and vying for a limited number of class spots. When it was Weinberg’s turn to register, a philosophy course happened to have open seats, and she pounced. Almost immediately, she knew it would become her major. Why? She loved the ‘why’ questions. 

For her first two years of college, Weinberg took classes at night and paid her tuition with the meager salary she took home from her day job as a paralegal. In her third year, out of the blue, she received a letter notifying her that the philosophy department would begin funding her education. One of her professors had taken the initiative to apply for a scholarship on her behalf. That same professor was instrumental in Weinberg completing her degree, connecting her with professors who agreed to stay late to give her one-on-one tutorials as some of the required courses for the major weren’t offered at night. “I didn’t know what I didn’t know,” Weinberg says.  

As Weinberg continued in her career, she ventured into the emerging field of procreative ethics and ultimately wrote her first book on the moral weight of bringing children into the world. “Nobody asks to exist, and life is very risky,” she says. “I think if I was asked before I was born if I would agree to this, I would say no.” Still, she eventually decided to have children, willing to gamble on the odds that they would have good lives.  

When asked if she could imagine an alternate path for her own life—something she might have done but didn’t—Weinberg says no: “My grandmother used to say to me, because my sister is a lawyer, ‘You’re just as smart; you could have been a lawyer, too.’ I didn’t want to be a lawyer. I feel very, very fortunate to have found philosophy.”   


Ruby Wang ’24 

Hypotheticals about the past can be interesting, albeit unactionable. But might there be utility in imagining multiple directions for your future? In 2021, Ruby Wang ’24 took a gap year from Scripps and set out to explore just that. 

While living in Shanghai and interning at a tech company called KnowYourself, she drew on methods from her Scripps psychology classes to create a game called “Mock Your Ideal Life.” The game’s objective was to help users reflect on what they might achieve in their real lives by presenting them with realistic obstacles or opportunities at each stage of maturity—content that Wang developed by interviewing real people. 

“I was only a sophomore at the time, so I needed some context for adulthood and older age,” she says. She adds that her biggest takeaway from these conversations was that habitual curiosity seems to correlate with increased happiness later in life: “I’m definitely going to be a lifelong learner.”  

Throughout Wang’s time at Scripps, she has sought out opportunities to apply her interest in human-centered design to solving real-world problems. Last summer, she used psychological research and user data to create a website for J*Crow, a nonprofit seeking economic justice for Black women and women of color impacted by the US criminal justice system. She also received a We Act Grant from the Laspa Center for Leadership to design an app for international students at The Claremont Colleges—a project near and dear to her heart, as someone who knows how hard it can be to adjust to life in the United States. The app, which Wang hopes to realize in collaboration with classmates in computer science, would include a directory of mental health resources, a chatbot that could answer students’ questions in their preferred language, and up-to-date information about social functions on campus to foster connection. 

“I’m passionate about exploring how I can use design and technology to support people’s mental health and well-being in an accessible way,” she says.  


Rina Nagashima ’24 

Like Wang, Rina Nagashima ’24 acutely understands the experience of living between different worlds. A math and public policy major who spends her free time rock climbing and hanging from aerial silks—“I like to be up high,” she explains—Nagashima was born in Japan and moved to Hawaii when she was three years old. 

“When I go back to Japan, people look at the way I talk and dress and think that I’m American,” she says. “And when I went to the mainland while growing up, people would tell me, ‘Welcome to the United States,’ because they’d assume I wasn’t American. Hawaii was the one place where I felt like I belonged.”   

During the pandemic, as tourism ground to an abrupt halt, it was difficult for Nagashima to witness the economic pain her island home was suffering. She had always considered herself to be an engaged citizen, but she wanted to do more, so she took a gap year and threw herself into politics with an impressive string of internships at the local, state, and federal levels. Through working for a mayoral candidate in Honolulu; for former US Congressman Kaiali’i Kahele; for the Pacific and Asian Affairs Council, a nonprofit focused on educating citizens on international issues; and for a think tank contracted by the Hawaii state government to research how to fortify and diversify their economy, Nagashima learned how she could influence public policy without running for office herself—she might love being up high, but she’s never been interested in a soap box. 

At Scripps and beyond, Nagashima is interested in studying how specificity breeds unique needs and outcomes. “Because Hawaii is an island, there are times when policies that work for other states don’t necessarily have the same impact here,” she says. “In the work that I want to do in policy research, I want to be aware of how different places respond to policy given their unique histories and the makeup of the people who live there.” 


Lara Deeb 

Vausbinder Hockett Endowed Chair
Professor of Anthropology  

Partially owing to her own immigrant experience, Professor of Anthropology Lara Deeb has spent much of her career thinking about power through a transnational lens. Born in Lebanon, Deeb grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, an overwhelmingly white metro area where anti-Arab racism, stoked by the Iran hostage crisis, shaped the way she experienced the world on a day-to-day basis. When she got to college, Deeb didn’t have a clear path in mind, but she was drawn to anthropology classes, where the emphasis was on deconstructing stereotypes and questioning hegemony. 

“I’m interested in understanding social structures from the perspective of the subaltern, from the ground up, as opposed to top-down official narratives of what’s happening,” she says.  

Deeb had long been curious about Lebanon for reasons both personal and academic, and in graduate school, she returned to the place where she was born to conduct her dissertation research. She went from one Islamic charitable organization to the next, introducing herself and explaining her project, until one invited her to join its members in preparing for Ramadan. Through participant observation—volunteering with a group of women at a soup kitchen in a converted warehouse—she built trust and gained a deeper understanding of the community. “To experience firsthand the physical exhaustion and satisfaction of this work is entirely different from just having someone explain it to you,” she says.  

Deeb, who has been active in Arab American feminist movements and Palestinian rights conversations for years, began teaching at Scripps in 2008. The focus in many of her classes (particularly her Core III class, Walls, Borders, and Fences) is on taking a transnational approach to the study of apartheid, settler colonialism, immigration, incarceration, and migrant labor, among other subjects. She’s thrilled when she hears from students who are pursuing their interests in these areas; one of her former advisees now works for a United Nations organization in Lebanon.  


Mirabella Miller ’24 

In a world—and a country—rife with division, Mirabella Miller ’24 became less cynical about the possibility of diplomacy in, ironically enough, a class on American culture wars. “I’m not sympathetic to conservative thought, but before that, I also didn’t know what it entailed,” she says. “Approaching a viewpoint you don’t understand with curiosity is usually way more productive than trying to demonize it.” 

The class inspired Miller to become a fellow at the Open Academy, an initiative at Claremont McKenna College that promotes free inquiry into controversial topics with the goal of finding solutions for some of the most urgent problems of our time. As an English major with a creative writing emphasis, she’s found fiction to be another useful avenue for thinking through the thorny political and philosophical issues that come up in these debates. Last summer, she embarked on a creative writing project—funded by an Esterly Award—which explored aspects of modern sexual politics within the framework of an ill-advised hookup between friends. 

For as long as she can remember, Miller has liked to write, but it wasn’t until her first year at Scripps, when she won the Marie McSpadden Sands Writing Award for an academic essay, that she began to feel confident in her own abilities. “I definitely had impostor syndrome coming into college, and winning the Sands award was really formative and encouraging for me,” she says. “I was like, ‘Oh, this is something I can pursue.’” 


Eleanor Henderson ’24 

Eleanor Henderson ’24 can pinpoint the exact moment she had an important realization. It was a summer evening in 2022 at the New Mexico music camp she’d grown up attending, and Henderson—now a head counselor—was chatting with her longtime voice teacher about her career prospects. Sitting at the piano, she played with the idea of becoming a comedy writer (she’s the editor-in-chief of The Claremont Colleges’ satirical student newspaper, the Golden Antlers) or a lawyer, if that didn’t work out. Henderson paused to sing a song, and when she was finished, her teacher turned to her. 

“He was like, ‘What is wrong with you? Clearly this is what you love to do. Why aren’t you chasing it?’” she says. The true answer was that she was afraid—of failing, of graduating college without a lucrative job lined up, of the judgment of extended relatives. But suddenly, that no longer seemed like enough.   

Last summer, while interning at a small documentary company in Los Angeles, Henderson rented a room from a screenwriter named Margot. She’d planned to write songs and play open mics around the city in her spare time, but Margot swiftly connected her with a music producer who began to work with her to record her music. She has a single coming out soon—the song meditates on the woes of becoming romantically entangled with a friend—and she’s in talks with a publicist ahead of the launch.  

At Scripps, where Henderson is double majoring in philosophy and media studies, she started a rock band called Fischli’s Animals as part of a final project for a Core III course on the history of rock music in Los Angeles. From the first practice session, “hearing the sound come together was electrifying,” she says. “I wanted to keep doing it forever.” Missing the band when she studied abroad in Paris, she started another one there, determined to keep jamming no matter what.  


Marina Shishkina ’25 

Marina Shishkina ’25 revels in bringing artists together. Her focus is on visual arts—painting, sculpture, video installations—and her métier is curation, which she sees as an art form in itself. Shishkina was born in Kyiv and grew up in Ukraine and Israel before moving to New York in high school. She discovered her interest in curating at a summer arts program in Chicago, where the haphazard arrangement of works at a final exhibition distressed her. “I remember thinking, ‘this is not what it’s supposed to look like,’” she says. 

When Shishkina arrived at Scripps in fall 2021, she began curating Lovers, Strangers, Friends, a show of student work originally centered on reforming the art community in a postpandemic world. Then, two days before the exhibition was slated to open, Russia invaded her home country, and the focus of the show shifted to become a fundraiser for the Ukrainian war effort. “I got about six months of normal American college life, and then everything changed,” Shishkina says. “Everything I do from now on—academically and artistically—is focused on Ukraine.”  

Shishkina has since coordinated Raw: Ukrainian Art as the Language of Resilience and Freedom, a traveling exhibition showing in cities across the West Coast—from Claremont to Los Angeles to San Francisco to Seattle. Shishkina is interested in looking at the impacts of war from the viewpoint of those living through it, rather than “the image you get from the media or from political leaders,” as she puts it. Featuring difficult works by 15 Ukrainian artists, Raw is intended to provoke an emotional reaction in viewers that might, in turn, lead to deeper understanding.  

Last summer, Shishkina returned to Ukraine for the first time since the war broke out. There had been an explosion so close to her father’s house that fragments of a missile had become embedded in his backyard. 

“Hearing about the sirens and the bombed buildings over the phone is one thing, but arriving home and holding a piece of a Russian missile in my hand was completely different,” she says. On a street in Kyiv, a stranger handed her a blue and yellow wristband—an unbidden gesture of solidarity that she still finds incredibly moving. At Scripps, she wears the wristband—along with jewelry displaying the Ukrainian tryzub, a trident-shaped coat of arms—almost every day, hoping to keep the war in the minds of those around her. “I believe that thoughts and feelings from people around the world make a difference for the soldiers, my friends, fighting on the front lines,” she says. 

After Shishkina graduates from Scripps, she hopes to travel the world, learning from new people and bringing them together with art, using a curator’s eye to find connections even where there seem to be none. “The world is so big—that’s what I learned from growing up on three different continents, in countries at the center of so much conflict,” she says. “It’s so big and so unpredictable. And there’s a lot to do.”