October 9, 2002: Class Notes


1991-2001 & Graduate School

Class Notes Profiles:

Back on track
Henry Posner 77 gets Third World trains running again

Have Ph.D., will make movies
Valerie Weiss 95 starts film program at Harvard

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Back on track
Henry Posner ’77 gets Third World trains running again

Photo: Posner at the throttle on one of his trains in Guatemala.

Attention investors: Feel down on the Dow? Got nightmares about Nasdaq? For portfolio stability, how about a nice Third World railroad company?

Seriously. Henry Posner III ’77 has found good returns — and a sense of public service — through his investments in and management of creaky or even abandoned rail systems. His company, Railroad Development Corporation (RDC), has put trains back on track in Latin America, Africa, and Eastern Europe (and the U.S. Midwest). In the process, Posner has played roles ranging from boardroom executive to grease-splattered locomotive repairman.

“I’ve never punched tickets, but I’ve come close,” says Posner, RDC’s chairman.

Posner was a railroad man even as an undergraduate, when he served as Amtrak’s local representative, selling tickets through a local travel agency. After graduating with a civil engineering degree, Posner worked for Conrail and earned his M.B.A. from Wharton.

In 1987 Posner formed RDC (www.rrdc.com), based in suburban Pittsburgh. Over the past 15 years he’s assembled consortiums with local and international investors to operate seven troubled rail systems, which are primarily used for shipping goods, not passengers. Typically, RDC and its partners operate the systems and the national governments get a share of the revenues or rent — while RDC takes an infrastructure problem off governments’ hands. The locals gain jobs and reduced shipping costs.

RDC’s results have varied. Guatemala has been a challenge, with the system completely abandoned and overrun by squatters before RDC took over five years ago. Posner’s company is still rebuilding sections of the rail system. Peru’s Ferrocarril Central Andino, however, has been a big success, hauling minerals, fuel, and cement over 367 mountainous miles of track. (Train buffs love Andino, the world’s highest system, with rails reaching an ear-popping 15,651 feet.) The line in Malawi, meanwhile, has played a major role in moving grain to famine-stricken areas.

“We’re trying to create new culture,” says Posner. “You see that in Latin America. Employees are taking pride in their jobs, pride in being part of a business that provides a service that’s valuable enough that people will pay to use it and efficient enough that you can see the returns from the investment.”

By Van Wallach ’80

Van Wallach ’80 is a freelance writer in Connecticut.

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Have Ph.D., will make movies
Valerie Weiss ’95 starts film program at Harvard

Photo: Valerie Weiss's first film, Dance by Design, premieres at the Roxy in Boston.

If there’s a nexus between biochemistry and filmmaking, Valerie Weiss ’95 has found it, and she’s not moving away from it anytime soon.

For Weiss, it’s simply been a question of following two of her passions: science and drama. That’s led her to a Ph.D. from Harvard Medical School, a post as “filmmaker in residence’’ at a brand-new film program for Harvard graduate students, and completion of her first feature-length film.

“I thought that if I could do a Ph.D., I could definitely make a film,” says Weiss, a Philadelphia native who now lives in Boston. “It was sort of a dream always to be doing this, but I wasn’t sure how to make the transition.”

The answer, essentially, was to avoid the transition entirely. While working on her doctorate in biochemistry, Weiss petitioned Harvard administrators to allow her to purchase the equipment needed to launch an extracurricular film program for grad students. They agreed, and three years ago the Dudley Film and Drama Program began, with Weiss in charge.

And so, while completing work on her dissertation — for the record, she solved the X-ray crystal structure of an arginine methyltransferase involved in nuclear transport — she also launched production on a feature film, Dance by Design. It’s about an architecture student who harbors a dream of becoming a professional dancer, and, more specifically, her emotional and professional struggles as she decides which path to take.

Weiss notes that the film program attracted a bevy of similarly situated grad students — would-be filmmakers who were pursuing advanced degrees in genetics, Spanish literature, graphic design, and urban planning. All brought their own perspectives and helped develop the script, which she describes as “collectively autobiographical.”

“It’s a common thing for people in their 20s,” Weiss says. “You have this present path, but you also have other potential dream paths. The philosophy behind the program is to teach people who are studying unique subjects how to use film to express themselves.”

Weiss has always been interested in science, but she’s never been far from the theater, either. At age 9, she cowrote a musical, and she acted throughout high school. At Princeton, she majored in molecular biology while earning a certificate in theater and dance.

Most of her out-of-class time at Princeton was spent directing plays at the Forbes, Wilcox, and Intime theaters. And while she only makes a cameo in Dance by Design — the film uses mostly professional actors who live in the Boston area — she still harbors an ambition to be on the other side of the camera.

For now, at least, Weiss is making a living as a filmmaker and not directly using her doctorate. She described a recent job shooting a fundraising film for the United Way as a “way to pay the bills,” and she will debut the feature film at the Roxy in Boston in October, with hopes of attracting the eye of a distributor down the line. She’s also at work writing her next feature film, tentatively titled Losing Control.

“I wouldn’t trade my experiences for anything,” Weiss says. “It’s just been a really exciting time.”

By Rick Klein ’98

Rick Klein ’98 is a reporter for the Boston Globe.

vweiss_filmmaker@yahoo.com; http://go.to/dudleyfilm

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