Yasmin Hamilton: Climate Justice, Lentil Stew, and a Nugget of Serpentinite

Yasmin Hamilton ’24 has found themself drawn to water during their time at Amherst, though they only recently learned to swim. A passion for environmental care and a pull towards work that is “tactile” led them to geology.

Yasmin Hamilton: Climate Justice, Lentil Stew, and a Nugget of Serpentinite
After graduation, Yasmin will be working in a biogeochemistry lab that studies ancient carbon cycles. Photo courtesy of Yasmin Hamilton ’24

As Yasmin and I sat folded into the back corner of a dimly-lit Amherst Coffee, we tried to remember when exactly it was that we’d first met. While Yasmin started as an editor for The Amherst Student in the spring of 2022, they were part of the arts and living section — which would leave Tuesday production nights around 8 p.m., right as I and the rest of the opinion section would saunter in.

Serendipitously, we both switched roles on the paper about a year later, and the portions of our Tuesday nights spent in the newsroom finally overlapped. I can’t quite recall my first impression of Yasmin, just that we’d soon begin to spend those evenings on the better of the two newsroom couches, half-working, half-laughing as we grew into friends.

I might describe Yasmin as a particularly lovely nugget of serpentinite (which happens to be one of her favorite rocks, and mine) that you might joyously stumble upon while trekking along the foothills — or perhaps, more simply, a warm mug of tea.

Yasmin’s presence on this campus is understated: whether in the classroom, clubs, or through organizing, she has a quiet impact on those around her. As her friend Sofi Farinas ’25 put it, “she has gone into specific spaces … and has really intentionally built those spaces both for herself but also for others … so there can be a little pocket of Amherst that feels like the college that we want.”

Farinas and professors of Yasmin’s described her as “a quiet leader,” “really kind,” and “just extremely insightful and thoughtful.”

“She just cares a lot about everything. And that is really refreshing,” said Farinas.

As I have grown closer to Yasmin, I’ve found myself often thinking that I could sift through her brain for hours. And, as Chair of Geology Dave Jones said, “When you engage with Yasmin, there’s so much there. That’s really delightful and interesting to discover.”

Rather than describing the act of getting to know Yasmin as if it were like peeling back layers (as in the common onion metaphor), I might describe it as something like tending different plots of seeds in a garden where you’re not yet sure what has been planted, and being pleasantly surprised by what delicious produce or lovely blooms then grow. The many elements that make up Yasmin don’t feel like they exist as layers, concealed under one another, but rather as a cohesive mass (think a conglomerate rock) where many things are held with importance, many things lie close to her center.

As someone extremely multifaceted — which really shows when you look at the number of majors she bounced between throughout her time at Amherst — Yasmin is someone who “has such … diverse interests in terms of creative things, science things, activism,” Farinas shared. “She just has really interesting thoughts about everything and thinks really deeply about the world.”

A Journey West to Come Back East

While Yasmin was born in Philadelphia and lived in Oklahoma City directly before coming to Amherst, they credit Queens, New York, with the title of their hometown.

Living there from ages four to 15, they “had friends from all different backgrounds … and also got exposed to so much different food. Every single country that you could think of … you could get that cuisine.”

This, along with her parents, helped instill in Yasmin a great love of food. “My parents are really into cooking and eating good food. Even though things were financially hard, we always had exciting food adventures. And it’s really cheap to eat well in Queens,” she told me.

(At this point, Yasmin and I entered a 15-minute tangent about food and cooking. “Yeah, I have pipe dreams of becoming a chef,” they said. “You know I’m half Peruvian. And Peruvian food is just so … flavorful and delicious. It’s like the epitome of cooking from the heart because there are no measurements whatsoever.” We (or really I) decided that when I visit them next year in Boston, they’ll absolutely be cooking for me — perhaps their lentil stew, or maybe, lomo saltado.)

Apart from exploring the cultural palate of Queens, with two sisters who are eight and sixteen years older than her, Yasmin spent a lot of her childhood entertaining herself, building forts, and “trying to invent stuff” through detailed doodles. She also made movies with her friends on her parents’ old camcorder and watched telenovelas with her mom. (Eventually, she would take Lewis-Sebring Professor of Humanities and Latin American and Latino Culture Ilan Stavans’ “Telenovelas” where she wrote the first episode of a telenovela for her final project: “That class was so cool because we just got to sit around and gossip.”)

As she grew older, so did her love for literature. She recalled reading classics in middle school and English being her favorite subject throughout high school. After attending high school in Oklahoma, however, Yasmin wanted to come back to the East Coast. Set, at the time, on being an English major, she was “really allured” by the fact that Amherst was “the writing college.”

“It was also one of the schools that I did fly out for,” she said, “so I just had more of a sense of what [it] was like. … And they also had really good financial aid.”

She journeyed to campus alone with a couch-cushion face mask, a face shield, and all of her stuff vacuum-sealed to fit into two suitcases. When she began her classes, all of them occurred virtually, except for one in-person geology class. She found herself enamored by her film class with Professor of English in Film and Media Studies Amelie Hastie, and thought then that she perhaps wanted to major in film and media studies. She explored this interest further, joining the Film Society, and doing research with Hastie on Latin American cinema as a Schupf Fellow the summer after her freshman year.

They gained a lot of hobbies during this first year (some of which have stuck more than others), crocheting, skating, watching movies, and letter-writing to their grandma and friends from home. (“I would spend a lot of time decorating the envelopes and notes. … And my grandma really appreciates handwritten letters,” they said.) They also joined the Multicultural Students Union (MSU) and wrote for The Student’s arts and living section.

Still thinking about an English major, they also, at the time, considered journalism as a career prospect. “But that’s not why I joined the paper,” they clarified. “I was just excited about writing.”

Her sophomore year, Yasmin became an arts and living editor for The Student, and part of the MSU e-board. During this second year, she found herself drawn to sociology, but flip-flopped between that and English, film and media studies, and statistics.

“[My classes] were not cohesive at all,” she said. “I really made use of the open curriculum.”

Thinking With Rocks

At some point in the spring of her sophomore year, Yasmin recalled trudging through a swamp of end-of-semester assignments and responsibilities.

“I remembered thinking, ‘Why am I producing so much, and not taking in enough?’ And then I was like, ‘I really feel like I need to do something tactile with my hands.’”

They remembered the geology class from their first semester: “I was like, ‘Wow … the feeling of picking something up and interacting with it is really nice.’ Really closely interacting with a chunk of Earth … it really appealed to me.”

While being a geology major was just an inkling of an idea then, what helped seal the deal was a summer internship with Earth Refuge, a nonprofit dedicated to climate migrants and global climate change.

“I just realized that I do care a lot about the environment, and … I’d [been taking] sociology classes also cross-listed as environmental studies,” they said. “Geology would really bring together a lot of what I’m interested in.”

While Yasmin had to double up every semester after to fulfill the geology major requirements, she continued to also take sociology classes.

“I think in any science context, it’s important to be grounded in the world we live in — not just the science,” she said.

During her junior year, she recalled taking “Unequal Footprints” with Chair of Anthropology and Sociology Hannah Holleman. “We read a lot of stuff from the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change], all these science reports, and utilized them to think about public opinion on climate change, and also racial disparities within environmental devastation.”

They also found themself thinking a lot about water, taking “Water As Leitmotif” with then-Visiting Artist in Residence Ohan Breiding and “Hydrogeology” with Professor of Geology and Environmental Studies Anna Martini. In Martini’s class, they “went out into the field and collected water samples,” working on a presentation to the Town of Amherst about the contamination that comes from Fearing Brook, which runs through Amherst College campus, down into the Fort River.

Martini cited Yasmin’s involvement in this project as a moment that struck her when reminiscing about them. “I asked them to do one of the harder parts for the presentation. … Using a lot of data, Yasmin was using mathematical mixing models to get the number [for the concentration of this contaminant], and it was really high. They brought it in and were like, ‘Okay, I’ve done the math. I want to walk it through with you.’ … They were appropriately cautious over the data that we were about to present … [especially because] it was this external presentation to the town,” said Martini. “She just struck me as being a really good scientist.”

Yasmin continued exploring water through biogeochemistry research, working in Martini’s lab during her junior and senior years. After applying to geology-related research experiences aimed at undergraduates (called REUs) to gain lab experience and see if she’d be interested in doing academia, she also ended up doing an REU at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute the summer after her junior year.

In this program, they worked on a project where they cultured coccolithophores, a type of phytoplankton, mixing seawater to mimic the different chemical compositions of different time periods and seeing how they responded.

(This was also the summer that Yasmin successfully learned how to swim, getting tips from a friend in the REU program who used to be in the Marines. “Because I grew up in Queens and there’s not much access to public pools in the city, I just never learned how to swim,” she said. “I knew how to float so that was a good skill to have — I really internalized that one when I tried to learn how to swim in Oklahoma — but I didn’t know the correct form or how to tread water, and also getting in water kind of scared me. …  I didn’t realize that you could literally just wiggle around and you wouldn’t sink.”)

Her senior year, instead of doing a thesis, Yasmin decided to take math and chemistry classes to set herself up for the possibility of graduate school.

“I would definitely have volunteered to be her thesis advisor, as I really enjoy working with her, but I do think she made the right decision,” said Martini. “I think she saw the possibilities. And she saw the education that she could get here … and she made this long-term, big-perspective decision that was really insightful.”

Martini and Jones spoke more to me about having Yasmin in their classes. “I mean, I think professors would wish that we had classrooms filled with Yasmins,” said Martini. “She asks insightful questions and is kind to other people … and she’s patient and supportive.”

Yasmin and "Italian Stratigraphy" classmates during their spring break trip to Italy. Photo courtesy of Yasmin Hamilton ’24

Yasmin has a way of helping a group “develop a group identity and group cohesion” echoed Jones. He spoke to me about the trip his “Italian Stratigraphy” course (and the first he had with Yasmin) took this past spring break: “Yasmin was just such a great member of the group — she really helped to make … the group of 10 students gel together.”

“Sometimes you have these experiences as a professor where you get to know somebody in their last semester at college, and you think, ‘Oh, I wish I would have had more time with that person,’ because, you only just begin to get to see the things that make them special,” Jones continued. “And I feel that way about Yasmin. She is just a wonderful member of the community.”

In their last year at Amherst, Yasmin also became more involved in organizing, which they plan to continue doing after graduation. “I think there’s a lot of complicity and apathy … it’s really easy to feel helpless,” she said. “But realizing how much power you do have if you’re a U.S. citizen and actively contributing to … your community and beyond, it’s important. … The more people that are involved in engaging with the community, the better for everyone else.”

Joining a “Little Lineage”

After graduation, Yasmin will have a postbaccalaureate position as a lab manager and lab technician in a biogeochemistry lab at Boston College that focuses on carbon cycle data.

“The principal investigator at the lab was a thesis student of Anna Martini, and it’ll be exciting to have that mentorship from her,” said Yasmin. “It’s really cool that I’ll be part of a little lineage of biogeochemists.”

She also got excited as she spoke about the new skills she’ll get to learn and the tasks she’ll get to work on: “I’m gonna be able to code, and teach myself how to work with Python and MATLAB, and do more puzzle-solving and hands-on lab work.”

After this job, Yasmin described her path as “still unfinished.” While she has been thinking about grad school, she’s also been considering other alternatives, and revisiting her love for writing.

“I spent so much time doing journalism at Amherst. I feel like … when I switched to geology, some of it kind of fell away. But I would revisit the idea of journalism, but maybe doing something [within it] related to climate change … [or] any kind of science communication thing.”

No matter what path Yasmin ends up forging, her natural curiosity, resilience and flexibility, and “ability to stick with something even when it is kind of confusing or it’s not clear how it’s going to end is … a really productive way to be within the world,” said Jones. “And so I think that that combination of characteristics is going to allow her to engage with whatever is new in the world in a way that is going to be interesting for her and generative of new ideas.”

And no matter where Yasmin ends up, I see her living her life in a way that truly aligns with her values, and centers her care for the world and the people around her.

“I think that she’ll bring a sense of inclusion and belonging to the people who she ends up working with. And I think that she will foster communities that are respectful and collaborative and generative, whether that’s in a research setting or anywhere else,” said Jones.

There are a few vivid images that come to mind when I think of Yasmin now — them clambering up a rock wall, tucked into a tree, cross-legged on their floor as they paint swirls onto scraps of paper — and as they move two hours eastward in a few weeks, I’ll continue to hold these close, awaiting the next time I see them, and they serves me a hearty bowl of lentil stew.