This I Know: Distance

American asks four wonks to weigh in on a single topic

Illustra­tion by
Traci Daberko

Illustrated images of a DNA sequence, the earth and the moon, a runner running down a mountain, and a desk at the end of a ruler

Rachel Singer, SPA/MS ’94, WCL/JD ’98

For the families of crime victims, the lengthy time between the tragic death of a loved one and the arrest of the responsible person can be arduous and lonely, punctuated by frustration and pain. That same distance, however, carries a promise for many families. Their mourning is regrettably prolonged, but with the passage of time comes ever-improving technology—a big advantage for law enforcement.

A large part of my job is dedicated to investigating old, unsolved homicides. These cases often involve witnesses who are deceased or have moved, so we rely heavily on forensic evidence.

New and more sensitive DNA testing developed over the past few years has created huge breakthroughs for prosecutors, leading to the resolution of many old cases across the country—including in Brooklyn, where I work—that were cold even in the recent past. In these instances, the passage of time benefits the investigation, provides us with cutting-edge tools to solve cases, and—when we succeed in getting justice—affords families a measure of closure.

Singer is chief of the Forensic Science/Cold Case Unit in the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office.

Gregory Harry, CAS Professor

In Star Trek, the starship Enterprise travels between stars in a matter of hours, as does the Millennium Falconin Star Wars. These stories hypothesize an unrealistic warp drive—but even moving at multiples of the speed of light, it would take years to traverse the distance between stars.

In my Exoplanets in Fact and Fiction class, we study planets other than Earth as they are observed by astronomers and imagined in science fiction. It has made me realize that many people, including sci-fi writers and readers, don’t appreciate the enormity of astronomical distances.

In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams writes: “You may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist, but that’s just peanuts to space.” An Apollo astronaut traveled 240,000 miles to the moon; the recently launched Perseverance rover will travel 48 million miles to Mars; and a trip to the nearest star, Proxima Centauri, which NASA plans to visit in 2069, must cover 4.2 light years—or 24 trillion miles.

It is less than four miles from my house to the nearest Rite Aid. Peanuts.

Harry chairs AU’s physics department.

Estelle Richardson, SPExS/WSP ’12

When I pictured marathons, I envisioned crowds of cheering spectators at the Boston Marathon, reaching out to high-five the hands of decorated athletes like Shalane Flanagan, decked out in America’s colors. I imagined the crowd’s roar growing louder until it became deafening. 

Ultrarunning—distance events longer than 26.2 miles, typically on trails with significant elevation gain—is different. I run miles with no spectators and few aid stations, sometimes before sunrise. In the rugged wilderness landscape, I’m surrounded by stunning purple wildflowers, snowy peaks, and the occasional moose—but almost no humans. 

In those moments of solitude and pain, I see opportunity. If I can push through discomfort—the throbbing headaches, a raging stomach, muscle fatigue—I know I can tell my bosses something they don’t want to hear, call a candidate with bad news, or spend hours writing a detailed document. These asks don’t seem as demanding when I remember I’ve run up a mountain, summiting more than 14,000 feet in the heat. 

Richardson is a technical recruiter and ultramarathon runner in Boulder, Colorado. She finished 95th overall and 16th among women at the Pike’s Peak Marathon in August.

Karen Kleiber, SOE/MA ’00

Distance learning has its challenges. Some assume they’re inherent in teaching remotely, but as an English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) coordinator, I know that these obstacles stem from deep gaps in equity, access, and communication.

Almost 50 percent of families in my school district speak a language other than English. Our 36,000 English learners speak more than 200 languages—most commonly, Spanish, Arabic, Vietnamese, and Korean—and 67 percent receive free or reduced lunch. When we closed in March, many of our students did not have access to online learning and received packets in the mail. This fall, all students have a laptop and, if needed, a MiFi router. We’ve also implemented translation tools like United Language Group and Talking Points to improve multilingual communication.

Only when we ensure English learners have access to technology and WiFi and communicate with families in a language they can understand, will the distance in distance learning disappear. 

Kleiber is the K-12 ESOL coordinator for Fairfax County Public Schools, the nation’s 11th largest school district.