Category Archives: Departments

How to Teach a Computer to Write Stories

This is part of a three part series detailing the computer science senior thesis projects. 

While computers writing stories from scratch may sound like something from science fiction, Melanie Subbiah disagrees. For her senior thesis in computer science, Melanie is teaching computers to write new stories on their own, a cutting edge field called open narrative generation. She’s always loved creative writing and has taken many Williams College literature and writing courses.  While struggling to decide on a thesis topic she says,  “it suddenly occurred to me, why not study creative writing from a computer science standpoint?”
Working with Williams Professor Andrea Danyluk, an expert on machine learning, she has developed a process to guide computers through the creative steps. First, she gives the computer a collection of stories written by regular authors to analyze. Computers require inspiration in the same way humans do! She has the computer identify the paragraphs, sentences, words, and parts of speech. With all these notes the existing stories can be broken down into patterns, something computers are adept at handling. 
In the rectangles are two short and unique stories. While they may seem very different, they can be broken down into the same pattern below. Melanie uses a large collection of human stories to identify these kinds of patterns and then automatically generate a new story by using portions of the pattern of different stories.
Good stories have a moving plot filled with impactful events. So, Melanie has designed algorithms the computer can use to identify the events of the stories. Then, it’s time to generate a new plot. She uses an increasingly popular machine learning tool called a neural network. A neural network mimics the human brain by using many neurons. Each neuron might be responsible for a very specific pattern, or in the case of our brains a memory or function. When they receive the right stimulus, e.g. a phrase or event, they fire and produce a new result. Her neural network uses the collection of events it learned from other stories to create a new plot. 
As any writer can attest, storywriting does not stop when you come up with a plot. What parts of the plot do you tell the reader? From what perspective? With what details and emotion? Melanie builds on existing work to transform the computer’s plot into sentences that we can then enjoy. 
By the end of the year, she will have several stories authored by computers as well as evaluations on how logical  and original they are. She’s very excited to continue this work, and it’s helping her decide if and where she wants to attend graduate school.
Melanie’s process, her pipeline, starts with human written stories and breaks them down into patterns. Then, she builds up a new story by taking bits and pieces from all the patterns the computer has learned.


Melanie Subbiah, Class of 2017












The splash image for this post is from this site and is not owned or originally produced by The ScientEphic. 

The Other Genome: A Profile of Biology Prof Ben Carone

By Meagan Goldman ’16

Image at top: Professor Ben Carone with his students at this year’s biology thesis poster session. From left to right: Ronak Dave ’17, Emily Shea ’16, Ben Carone, Sierra McDonald ’16.

Ben Carone is a heretic. Part philosopher, part biologist, he stumbled as an undergraduate upon a branch of genetics that challenges one of biology’s most accepted dogmas. Once he found the field, there was no turning back. He used to think a lot about the meaning of life, he told me, but philosophy didn’t help him much with that. It was science – and belief in his research – that hooked him.

His blasphemy is this: Charles Darwin was wrong. At least, he was partly wrong. Across a bare desk in his basement office at Williams College, Carone explained to me that in the nineteenth century, two dueling theorists proposed their own versions of evolution. One was Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, the other Darwin.

Continue reading The Other Genome: A Profile of Biology Prof Ben Carone

The Beinecke Stand: Williamstown’s Hidden Old-Growth Forest

By Sophia Schmidt ’17

I’ve never seen old growth forest. As Hopkins Memorial Forest manager Drew Jones leads me to the Beinecke Stand, it is not massive tree trunks I notice first – it’s the ground. The forested earth pitches sharply downward. Fallen leaves, loose sticks, and scattered stones coat this thirty-five degree slope, so we choose our footing carefully, grabbing saplings when we inevitably begin to slide down the hill. I immediately realize why this swath of forest escaped clear-cutting even during Williamstown’s agricultural peak in the 1830s – this is no place for a plow.

Continue reading The Beinecke Stand: Williamstown’s Hidden Old-Growth Forest

Prof Frank Morgan: A Mathematical Legacy

By Elizabeth Jacobsen ’16 and Avital Lipkin ’19
Frank Morgan has become one of the most beloved professors at Williams College.  His enthusiasm for math, eagerness to work with others, and quirky sense of fun make him a campus favorite.  In honor of his retirement, the ScientEphic is celebrating his career and time at Williams with our latest podcast episode, featuring Morgan and a number of students and faculty members who have worked with him over the years.  After you listen, be sure to check out this video from his blog.

The Space Between the Stars: Astronomy Students Study Interstellar Medium

By Marcus Hughes ’18

The space between stars is emptier than any vacuum we can create on Earth, but it still contains dust, hydrogen, helium, more hydrogen, some carbon, and more hydrogen. This “interstellar medium” is a critical part of the galaxy because it’s where stars are born and die.

The main telescope in the observatory, the 24-inch telescope is the large white tube at the center. Light comes in the top of the tube, reflects off a mirror at the bottom, and then reflects off another mirror before passing through a filter and into the camera, the large blue and black parts at the bottom of the telescope. Around the main telescope there are other smaller telescopes that can be looked into with just your eye, no camera needed. These are used to get a second look or sometimes to look at the sun.

Continue reading The Space Between the Stars: Astronomy Students Study Interstellar Medium

Kiki Landers on How She Fell in Love with Her Research

By Elizabeth Jacobsen ’16

Writing a thesis is a lot like being in a relationship. It requires time, dedication, and a spark that makes the effort worthwhile. Kiki Landers is working on her biology thesis with Dawn Carone, studying RNA and cancer. She is a bright, friendly people-person, yet she has devoted most of her year to studying microscopic cells in a windowless lab. I appropriated a few moments of her all-too-rare free time to ask her about the driving forces behind her thesis work. Here she shares the story of how she developed a passion for cancer research that will carry on in her post-graduate career and how she changed in the process—in short, the story of how she fell in love with her research. 

Continue reading Kiki Landers on How She Fell in Love with Her Research

Chapin Rare Books Library Unites Science and History

By Elizabeth Jacobsen ’16

The first time I visited Chapin Library was for my Astronomy 102 class. All the notable books in the history of astronomy, from Euclid to Newton, were arranged on a square of tables. We admired the fascinating geometry of the sketches, recognizing some from our textbook. The books were a leathery tan, opened to illustrations of Galileo patiently listening to Copernicus and Ptolemy argue, a giant bull adorned with stars leaping across the sky, or Kepler’s attempts to chart the heavens on the musical staff. In the center of the room was a large book, its pages a couple of feet across. It detailed the elegant but inaccurate Earth-centered system, tracing the paths of the planets in pink and blue corkscrews around Earth. At last a lean man with a soft voice and owlish glasses said, “I’m Wayne Hammond, curator here at the Chapin Library.” And in a few more soft words, he began to spin the tale of astronomy’s history, slowly orbiting the room and leaving a trail of facts floating in his wake.

Continue reading Chapin Rare Books Library Unites Science and History

Physics professor teams up with biologists to explore protein translation

By Meagan Goldman ’16

Two disciplines are better than one. That’s what Daniel Aalberts, Professor of Physics at Williams, has realized through his collaboration with biology researchers. His team, which in January published a paper in Nature, used a combination of wet lab techniques and statistical models to discover a mechanism that allows some proteins to be expressed at higher levels than others. Their findings have exciting implications for the enzyme manufacturing industry and for scientists who need to produce large quantities of proteins for their experiments.

Continue reading Physics professor teams up with biologists to explore protein translation

Batty About Bats: A Podcast by Elizabeth Jacobsen and Avital Lipkin

The ScientEphic is thrilled to present the first podcast in our new podcast series.

Bats. We often overlook or fear them, but they’re vital to our agriculture and their uniquely strong immune systems may have a lot to teach us.

Join Elizabeth Jacobsen ’16 and Avital Lipkin ’19 as they explore the many facets of bats, from the rabies-transmitting vampires of Peru to populations in New England threatened by White Nose Syndrome to the hardy bats of Alaska. Starring Professor Julie Blackwood, Alex Meyer ’16 and Sarah Cooperman ’17, whose cutting-edge research on bats contributes to our understanding of bat populations, disease spread, physiology and communication.

Batty About Bats Podcast Preview: White Nose Syndrome

The ScientEphic is thrilled to introduce a new podcast series. Today we’re presenting a preview of our first podcast, “Batty About Bats.”

By Elizabeth Jacobsen ’16 and Avital Lipkin ’19

This past weekend, many people enjoyed the traditional symbols of Halloween: pumpkins, costumes, and bats.  In honor of the occasion, we decided to take a closer look at bats.

In this preview, we talk to math professor Julie Blackwood and her thesis student, Alex Meyer, to learn about the little brown bat, which lives right here in the Berkshires. Blackwood and Meyer explain that a fungal disease called white nose syndrome is decimating bat populations in the northeast, and they discuss what the best course of action might be to stop its spread.

Look for our full podcast next week!

Batty About Bats Preview: White Nose Syndrome by The Scientephic on Mixcloud

Image Credit: Moriarty Marvin, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons