William & Mary

Tying Science and Literature Together Makes Sense to Nate Burgess '08

Nate Burgess '08

Nate Burgess '08 has pursued two majors that feed "two sides of my personality": English and geology.

"On the surface it may not look like there's a connection--geology is hands-on, English is discussion." But he's found a way to tie the two together in his independent study of Thomas Hardy's library.

Hardy, a nineteenth-century British author, was an avid reader of contemporary scientific works. The Victorian era witnessed England's spectacular rise through the Industrial Revolution, and Hardy read widely on such topics as the theory of evolution and geology (a "cutting edge" science for the Victorians). Another aspect that made Hardy interesting to Nate is that Hardy "began his young life as an architect," which happens to be "one of my two major career interests."

In his independent study, Nate is examining how the books Hardy was reading in the sciences fit into the books he was writing:

Hardy's language for describing the vivid landscapes of his novels clearly draws inspiration from the technical vocabulary of the earth sciences. For example, in A Pair of Blue Eyes, protagonist Henry Knight nearly falls to his death over a cliff. As he hangs precariously against the rock face, Knight examines fossils in the cliff's sedimentary layers. During this process, Knight, who Hardy describes as "a geologist...pioneer of the thoughts of men," sees "Time closed up like a fan before him."

Hardy goes on to speak of Trilobites, Zoophytes, mollusca, and shell-fish, terminology clearly derived from his readings in the earth science textbooks of the day (such as those in his own library). This precise, scientific observation plays a role in Hardy's aesthetic in many other major novels. I am exploring this sort of relationship by reading Hardy's major novels alongside Victorian scientific textbooks such as Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology and Charles Darwin's Origin of the Species.

As preparation for the study, Nate compiled an extensive reading list and his own course syllabus, working with Professor Morse in the English department.

Nate is also working closely with Professor Hancock doing thesis research in the geology department. His experience overall with William and Mary professors? "The faculty have been amazing. In high school, teachers warned us that college professors don't have time to care about their students. That's not true here at William and Mary. So many professors have given me great advice and encouragement."

"Professor Pease, architecture professor in William and Mary's art department, has always been willing to advise me on Monroe research projects, career-contemplation, and even general life quandaries. This, despite the fact that I haven't been in his formal classes since freshman year! Similarly, Professor Hancock in the geology department and Professor Morse in the English department have been extremely accessible and encouraging. I get the feeling that this is pretty unique about our school."


Community Service through Housing Partnerships
Outside the classroom, Nate has combined his interests in community service and architecture, bringing volunteers from the campus service fraternity Alpha Phi Omega (APO) each week to work with the nonprofit Housing Partnerships, Inc. According to Nate, "the general idea is that we work with the local organization to repair houses for low-income people in the Williamsburg area."


Image of Nate at work

Nate at work on a Habitat for Humanity project.

"Last year, APO was given the responsibility of painting the exterior of a man's house about thirty minutes away in Hampton. On the first day of painting, I noticed the elderly owner of the house, clearly disabled by a back problem that kept him hunched over at nearly 90 degrees, riding to work (in what must have been a painful experience) on an old bicycle. Though it took us a long time to complete the job, it was obvious that without our help, this man's home would never receive the simple protection of a fresh coat of paint. I have been honored to help in my small way by rounding up APO volunteers on weekends. It's been really meaningful for me. It's been a lot of fun, too!" Nate has also volunteered with Habitat for Humanity.


Looking Ahead
And after graduation from William and Mary? "I have a long list of things I want to apply for," Nate said. Knowing the list will have to be narrowed down, he's leaning toward "a few years in an environmental or nonprofit organization" such as Teach for America or the Peace Corps. Afterwards, Nate plans to go to graduate school - in either the earth sciences or architecture, he's not sure yet. "There's still the question of when and what exactly."

Nate decided to come to William and Mary for two main reasons: the Monroe Scholars Program; and because "I immediately felt welcome at William and Mary when I visited campus." Like many new college students, he found himself intimidated at first. His advice for students who might feel as he did: "Don't get bogged down by the competitive atmosphere and other people's opinions. If you have an interest in something, go after it."