Watson Fellow Rennie Meyers ’15 studies coral restoration projects in Malaysia.
Watson Fellow Rennie Meyers ’15 studies coral restoration projects in Malaysia.

The Transformative Power of the Watson Fellowship

Reed celebrates 50 years of partnership with the Watson Foundation propelling students around the globe to develop their potential.

By Romel Hernandez | December 13, 2019

Fifty years ago, the Thomas J. Watson Foundation embarked on a visionary, ambitious undertaking: to challenge graduating college students to create an original yearlong project arising from their own interests and passions. A key requirement: they must remain outside the United States for an entire calendar year. 

Partnering with Reed and 39 other elite colleges, the Watson Foundation forged a fellowship that has become a byword for adventure and self-discovery, and developed a generation of humane and effective leaders. Since then, 68 Reedies have been granted the unique opportunity to travel the globe, pursuing creative projects that span—and often fuse—art and science, tradition and innovation. Sometimes the fellowship proceeds more or less as planned. Sometimes it takes a radical detour. Yet when they reflect on what they learned from the experience, fellows say the chance encounters and unexpected detours were often the most significant. The journey was as meaningful as the destination.

“The Watson Fellowship is a transformative experience and an inspiring example of the power of philanthropy,” says President Audrey Bilger. “We are proud to partner with the Foundation and grateful that our students have this unique opportunity.”

Named for the first CEO of IBM, and founded by his widow Jeannette Watson, the fellowship’s guiding mission is to cultivate future leaders with an international outlook. The program offers a $36,000 stipend and covers health insurance and student loan repayments for the year. In return, the fellows are expected to completely immerse themselves in the experience, spending the entire year outside the United States and limiting visits from family or friends.

The application process is extremely competitive. At Reed, advisors at the Center for Life Beyond Reed reach out to juniors (or even sophomores) who show strong academic promise or have been nominated by the faculty, and invite them to imagine themselves doing a Watson project. The advisors support students through the process of constructing a competitive proposal over the summer and into the fall of their senior year. The proposals are then submitted to a faculty committee which nominates four finalists to the foundation. CLBR's career and fellowship advisors, along with faculty members of the fellowships and awards committee, prepare the four nominees for their final interviews with the foundation representatives. This year, the foundation selected just 41 fellows nationwide.

Reed art major Rose Driver ’19, who was named a fellow in March, was bowled over when she heard the news. “I was totally elated,” she says. “I was tearing up!” She is currently travelling through Germany, Japan, Indonesia, and Australia, where she is looking at comic artists and the communities they form, exploring the catharsis, companionship, conversations, and collective pride of creating together.

Prof. Sam Fey, assistant professor of biology, admires the way the fellowship inspires students to connect their academic curiosity to the wider world. “One of the best parts of serving on Reed's Fellowship and Awards Committee is interacting with students who passionately dive headfirst into exploring the ‘what would you want to do if you could spend a year doing anything?” question that is central to Watson Fellowship,” he says. “Regardless of the outcome, this process—which occurs between students, faculty, and CLBR staff—is often a meaningful first step for students to engage in big-picture, creative thinking about how interests inside and outside of the classroom intersect.”

To celebrate 50 years of partnership between Reed and the Watson Foundation, we caught up with a baker’s dozen of Reed fellows to ask them what they learned from their experience—and how it changed them.

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Awakening the Music Inside

Peter Child ’75 (music)

Occupation: Professor of music at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Composer.

Watson project: The Study of Karnatic Music

What was your plan? To learn techniques of South Indian singing from an acknowledged master in a traditional guru-sishya (master-disciple) one-on-one setting.

What actually happened? I studied extensively with B. Rajam Iyer, a widely acknowledged master and guru of Karnatic music and wonderful musician. I also traveled to Indonesia to hear Javanese and Balinese gamelan performances in their home context.

What did you learn? My experiences in India instilled in me an abiding love of, and appreciation for, Karnatic music. It also gave me an appreciation for the breadth of musical possibility—throughout the world, throughout history—I come back to often in my own musical thinking and compositions. In 2010-11 I composed Shantī, a large symphonic work that synthesized some of what I learned in India.

Where did you go from there? I attended Brandeis University for my Ph.D in musical composition and have taught at MIT since 1986. Currently I’m the Class of 1949 Professor of Music at MIT.

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How To Develop A Photographer

Said Nuseibeh ’80 (English)

Occupation: Photographer

Watson project: In the Footsteps of al-Mutanabbi

What was your plan? I wanted to experience and document the pastoral nomadic Bedouin civilization before it vanished, while establishing a sensual foundation for a projected translation of classical Arabic poetry into English.

What actually happened? It took me seven months to secure acceptance and a home in the desert among the Huweitat bedu [an Arabian desert tribe—Ed]. I helped herd camels, carry water, and gather firewood for the hearth and fresh grasses for the herd. I once got stranded on a 50-foot sandstone cliff and learned how to use my mind to overcome my trembling knees and sweaty palms to climb my way out of a scary predicament. One of my most beautiful experiences was seeing how integral poetry was to daily experience, where everyone composed extemporaneous verse to accompany work and play. 

What did you learn? I achieved my goal of developing fluency in Arabic. I grew to think in Arabic instead of translating from English in my head, though my accent will always be marked with a foreign tinge.

I also grew aware of how verbal language is prone to deception and misdirection. Photography offered me the solace of being a direct, immediate and honest communication medium, despite being thousands of miles from a darkroom. I vowed to eschew literary for visual pursuits and subsequently launched a professional career of architectural and fine art photography with a concentration on art of the early Islamic period.

Where did you go from there? For 15 years I was black & white silver gelatin printer for the late artist Ruth Bernhard. As a photographer specializing in art and artifacts of the early Islamic period, I gained some notoriety for photographs of the 7th-century Islamic mosaics in the Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem. I have exhibited widely, published sparingly, but contributed frequently to scholarly international publications.

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Fingerboards and Foreign Policy

Mira Kamdar ’80 (French)

Occupation: Author, journalist, foreign-policy expert

Watson project: Folk Fiddling in France’s Massif Central

What was your plan? I wanted to learn more about a French folk-music tradition that intrigued me, but that I knew little about.

What actually happened? I had a perfect Watson year. A friend lent me a 1958 old Peugeot 403 that I repaired enough to use. I traveled, mostly alone, all over the central mountains of France with my violin, a notebook and a tape recorder. I quickly found some young people who were collecting traditional music and who introduced me to several old fiddle players in remote villages. I spent cold winter nights playing with local musicians in front of vast stone fireplaces in their homes or at village dances. I walked on narrow mountain roads between villages at midnight on Easter eve, playing music only played on that night and being welcomed into homes where people offered me and my fellow musicians eggs and wine. I made a video documentary on the relationship between these old fiddlers, who had largely stopped playing after WWII, and the young musicians and ethnomusicologists who befriended them, got them to play again, and recorded and documented the music.

What did you learn? I discovered much about fading French peasant life beyond its disappearing musical traditions. I also learned a lot of French fiddle tunes, and I made friends for life. My understanding of France was changed by that year in a remote area of the country.

Where did you go from there? I earned a PhD from UC Berkeley in French. I've worked as a university professor, a foreign-policy expert, and wrote three books, India In the 21st Century, Planet India and Motiba’s Tattoos. I was the Paris-based member of the New York Times Editorial Board, writing on international affairs, for several years. I’ve also renovated several houses and apartment and still play violin occasionally.

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The Sting of Discovery

Rebecca Braslau ’81 (chemistry)

Occupation: Professor of chemistry, UC Santa Cruz

Watson project: Investigation of Stinging Sponges on the Great Barrier Reef

What was your plan? To find, gather and isolate novel chemicals from stinging sponges on the Great Barrier Reef, exploring their potential for pharmaceutical drugs.

What actually happened? I was able to find and gather the sponge, but the stinging agent appeared to be a large macromolecule, rather than a small well-defined organic molecule that could be isolated and its structure determined. I spent the rest of the year studying potentially bioactive small organic molecules isolated from soft corals, and determining their structures. This trip included lots of scuba diving, both for my projects and as a volunteer diver for other marine researchers in chemistry and biology in Townsville, Australia.

What did you learn? I learned that the goal of an investigation often changes mid-way, but this can lead one to equally interesting and exciting science.

Where did you go from there? I got my PhD at UW Madison, followed by a postdoctoral fellowship in Switzerland, I am currently on the chemistry faculty at UC Santa Cruz, where I run a synthetic organic research laboratory and teach organic chemistry. My research is focused on developing plasticizers covalently bonded to polyvinyl chloride (PVC), as a replacement for toxic phthalates that leach out of PVC products, contaminating people and the environment. [She has also won many grants, authored numerous articles, and was honored with an award for excellence in teaching in 2014 — Ed.]

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The Mother of Invention

Daniel H. Wolf ’82 (history)

Occupation: Entrepreneur, CEO of Democracy Counts!

Watson project: Gandhian Labor Movements and Dual Market Issues

What was your plan? I proposed to study the legacy of Gandhi’s labor movement years to see their effect on modern Indian labor relations, the economy, and the sociology of the business-labor connection. 

What actually happened? I spent a lot of time listening and watching at factories and job sites, seeing how the relative prices of labor and capital determine the labor/mechanization mixes set by management. I was amazed by the strength and resilience of workers in developing countries. I learned that the Gandhian experience was pretty much an historical artifact. Today Gandhi’s work bears little relevance to Indian society, though peace and justice movements worldwide benefit from his teachings. My most amusing experience was getting arrested while climbing the girders of the old Hooghly River Bridge in then-Calcutta [now Kolkata—Ed.] while looking for the right photo angle. It turned out that all bridges, railroad stations stations, power plants, etc. were considered national security installations, and picture-taking was prohibited. I’ve since managed to get in political trouble in almost every country I’ve done research in.

What did you learn? My travels exposed me to the developing world in a way that changed how I view the developed world. The experience increased my tolerance for ambiguity and difference, and gave me intellectual and emotional tools that improved my ability to understand people and systems with different backgrounds.

Where did you go from there? I went to Harvard Law School, studied for a PhD in political science at UC San Diego, became the founding director of the TransBorder Institute, and then abandoned my thesis to start my first tech company, which produced the Armadillo, a low-cost device to clear landmines. After that I co-founded a company that developed a counter-IED robot, and later became the CEO of a public company to clean up a fraud by the founder. In 2015 I invented a method to conduct same-day election audits and co-founded Democracy Counts!, which is planning to conduct election audits in all the swing states in 2020, to ensure that the president we get is the one who genuinely won the election.

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From Improv Jazz To Investigative Journalism

Adam Penenberg ’86 (economics)

Occupation: Director, Online Journalism Master’s Program, New York University. Associate professor NYU. Author.

Watson project: Music Making in India and Japan

What was your plan? My plan was to travel to India to study music. I then moved to Tokyo to play trumpet in jazz and salsa clubs.

What actually happened? My Watson wanderjahr changed my life. It didn't last just a year; I continued to travel for three additional years. I bicycled through Europe, parts of North Africa and the Middle East, hitchhiked through eastern and southern Africa, and took the Trans-Siberian Railway from Beijing to Berlin.

What did you learn? I learned to be on my own and became adaptable. Along the way I developed a work ethic and became an obsessive autodidact. All of that has served me well in life.

Where did you go from there? I’m an author, journalist, journalism professor at New York University, and founder/director of a newly launched online master's in journalism program. I co-produced a movie called Beatbox and was portrayed in another titled Shattered Glass. I was there when online journalism was just beginning to take off. As a result, I had the pleasure of watching history in the making. I’ve written hundreds of articles and several books, including: Play At Work, Blood Highways, Trial & Terror, Virtually True, Viral Loop, and Spooked.

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You Reap What You Sow

John E. Peck ’88 (economics)

Occupation: Executive director, Family Farm Defenders

Watson project: Comparative Study of Traditional and Modern Tropical Forest Management Practices in Madagascar, Papua New Guinea, and Costa Rica.

What was your plan? After spending a month in Cameroon doing senior thesis research on economic theories behind forest management, I continued my research in a wider range of cultural and political contexts. 

What actually happened? I managed to get a rather cheap “around-the-world” plane ticket on a variety of airlines—the one stipulation was to keep going in one direction and not backtrack.

People were quite curious about my ambitious solo adventure, and also very generous in facilitating my research. In Madagascar I blundered into David Quammen, the famed natural history/travel writer, and at one point caused chaos in a remote village when they thought I was there to evict the people to make way for a proposed national park. In Papua New Guinea I met up with a U.N. researcher headed to a leper colony in the highlands, where I was going to see the impact of oil drilling on indigenous populations. Coming back I was stranded for several days and the local people came by with sago pancakes, pitpit, and brush-turkey eggs.

What did you learn? The Watson was a transformative experience. It built my self-confidence and faith in the goodness of humanity after traveling alone for a year to some very remote places, and also gave me time to reflect on my Reed experience and contemplate future trajectories. 

Where did you go from there? I got my PhD in environmental studies at UW Madison in 1997 and went on to the real world of contingent employment. Today I’m the executive director of Family Farm Defenders, a grassroots non-profit. I’m also a part-time instructor in economics and environmental studies at Madison College in Wisconsin and a wannabe farmer with an acre of vegetables and hemp (for CBD oil).

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From Poverty To Resilience

Erica Kohl-Arenas ’91 (sociology)

Occupation: Faculty Director, Imagining America. Associate professor, UC Davis. Author.

Watson project: Grassroots Economic Development in Appalachia, Scotland, and Wales

What was your plan? To learn from crofters, coal miners, organizers, and community leaders about their locally owned grassroots efforts to build economic and community development opportunities in the face of industrial abandonment and growing regional poverty.

What actually happened? I learned so much from so many generous people. I bought an old car from a sheep farmer and traveled around the Scottish Highlands and outer Hebrides on my own, learned how to drink a 'wee dram' of Scottish whisky, went to small town dances and forums, walked across islands through cow and sheep pastures. The craziest thing that happened to me was in the Welsh coal-mining town of Pontrhydyfen when I visited a community town hall at a local church and found myself in the midst of a Christian healing revival lead by an evangelical preacher from San Diego.

What did you learn? I learned how to be alone, how to travel, how to take daily journals and keep project scrapbooks, and how to meet new people from very different backgrounds than myself. I also learned a lot about the compromises people make to bring in outside resources to support poor, struggling, and abandoned regions and communities.  

Where did you go from there? I spent most of the 90s and early 2000s doing grassroots community development and popular education work in California. I earned my PhD at UC Berkeley, which led me to seven years at The New School in New York City teaching community engagement, social movements, and nonprofit management.  In 2016 I published my book, The Self-Help Myth: How Philanthropy Fails to Alleviate Poverty. I’ve returned home to California for a faculty position at UC Davis in American Studies and as the faculty director of a national public scholarship consortium, Imagining America: Artists and Scholars in Public Life.

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A New Lens On Science

Rachel Scherr ’93 (physics)

Occupation: Assistant professor, University of Washington-Bothell. 

Watson project: Informal Science Education in Europe, South Asia, and Southern Africa

What was your plan? Having been profoundly influenced by the Exploratorium in San Francisco, I set out to learn what Exploratorium-type science education experiences were like in other countries. I was looking for informal science education that promoted curiosity, intellectual freedom, and inquiry that crossed boundaries between science, art and perception.

What actually happened? It turns out there are no Exploratorium-like experiences in other countries! However, I worked with students in an international school in Botswana to build a mini science museum on their campus, which was a lot of fun and very well received. 

When in Botswana we had to obtain cow eyes for dissections. We went to a slaughterhouse, having practiced just enough of the indigenous language to say to the workers, “Re kopa maatlo a dikhomo,” meaning, “I want the eyes of cows.” They were surprised by our request (incredulous really), but obligingly hacked a couple out with an axe.

What did you learn? The Watson year prompted me to get married so that my partner could come on the trip. I am happy to say that we are still together after 26 years. One of the deeper things we learned was how American we are, meaning that that much of who we are is cultural, not just “how things are.” For example, Botswanans could tell we were American by how we walked— we strode purposefully, always on the go. And we looked silly, because it was too hot for that.

Where did you go from there? I got my PhD in physics from the University of Washington and have been on the faculty at the University of Maryland, Seattle Pacific University, and (currently) the University of Washington-Bothell. I am a physics education researcher, meaning that I study the teaching and learning of physics along with physics culture and practices. I have authored over 70 publications and am a Fellow of the American Physical Society.

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The Music of the People’s Voices

Nicolle LaFleur ’93 (Chinese)

Occupation: Executive Director, Nemeth Art Center

Watson project: Chinese Folk Music: Post-Revolution Trends

What was your plan? Having studied Chinese folk music and art in China and Taiwan, I wanted to explore how folk music traditions throughout the mainland changed with the Revolution.

What actually happened? I set out to interview and record dozens of folk music artists in various locations, spanning different cultures and languages within China My travels immersed me in the historical and cultural aspects that make up the rich diversity of the country. Traveling around on hard sleeper trains, I hoped to document as many folk songs as possible.

I had the privilege of interviewing and recording a 96-year-old man from the Dong ethnic minority who claimed to be the last songwriter of his traditional style of music. I witnessed a rare parade and theatrical performance in a small town, usually closed to foreign visitors, that claims to be the birthplace of Yangge, an ancient dance style from northern China. I got the thrill of interviewing well-known elder songwriters and rock stars, going to music festivals, and even being featured on television shows and falling in love with an actor who eventually became my husband.

What did you learn? The experience helped me immensely in both my professional and personal lives, which have been greatly connected to China ever since. Seeing the interplay between political change, cultural evolution and our never-ending human desire to seek a better life has deeply influenced my worldview. 

Where did you go from there? I worked in the field of international child welfare and adoption, helping establish a China adoption program and traveling with dozens of families to meet their children. Living in Beijing I worked for UNICEF and eventually the International Federation of Red Cross & Red Crescent Societies as the Regional Program Coordinator for East Asia. I have since returned to the United States and settled back in my home state of Minnesota to run the Nemeth Art Center, circling back to my passion for the arts. Most recently, I have started writing down and telling the stories of our blended Chinese-American family. In September I won the title of “Great American Storyteller” in my community for a tale about raising our daughter with both sets of grandparents living in our first home.

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Planting Seeds of Change

Kraig Kraft ’00 (biology)

Occupation: Global programs director, World Coffee Research. Author.

Watson project: Agricultural Biotechnologies in the Service of the Poor

What was your plan? My proposal was to see the promise and the realities of GMOs that proclaimed to solve a problem for poor farmers in the developing world. 

What actually happened? I visited the Philippines for the first time since my family left when I was two years old. I saw giant, nitrogen-fixing corn [which minimizes need for fertilizer—Ed] in the mountains of Oaxaca. I saw non-cyanogenic cassava [eliminating naturally occurring cyanide in the tropical tuber—Ed] and ate it fresh out of the ground in Brazil.

I was working in Lima, Peru on 9/11. I was working at the Centro Internacional de la Papa when people just stopped working and gathered around TVs. As one of the few Americans there that day, the crowd alternated watching the TV with staring at me. I quickly went back to the boarding house I was staying in and watched by myself.

What did you learn? I learned I wanted to get a PhD, not only for the science and the discovery, but to become an authority in the field. I learned to be travel-savvy and how to be alone. I also learned to scuba dive. 

Where did you go from there? I got a PhD in agricultural ecology from UC Davis, where my research focused on the genetics and ecology of the chile pepper in Mexico. I co-authored a book titled Chasing Chiles: Hot Spots on the Pepper Trail. I worked in Nicaragua for a large faith-based international NGO as the technical advisor for coffee & cacao in Latin America.  After getting caught up in that country’s recent social unrest, I moved with my family to France to work as global programs director for World Coffee Research, a nonprofit focused on building more sustainable and dignified livelihoods for coffee farmers.

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Stagecraft and Diplomacy

Geoff Finger Thomas ’07 (religion)

Occupation: Foreign service officer, US State Department.

Watson project: Moving Beyond The Stage: Dance and Social Change

What was your plan? To work with dance companies, arts advocates, and educators to explore the successes and challenges of dance therapy, outreach, and activism programs.

What actually happened? I helped produce an Aboriginal dance festival in Australia, participated in a dance festival for West African artists in Ouagadougou, rode into Sahel on a pickup with Tuareg musicians for a festival outside Timbuktu, studied intensive Afro-Brazilian dance and Capoeira in Salvador. I also hiked a glacier, failed at the tango, and got punched by someone dressed as Gandhi at Carnaval in Brazil.

What did you learn? My Watson year galvanized my appreciation of the privilege of being overseas, of being welcomed as a foreigner, of connecting as an outsider. I learned that the best collaborations with artists grew from working with them with their creative vocabulary, getting into the studio, and sharing.

Where did you go from there? After college I worked for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company and Ashoka: Innovators for the Public. I earned my MA in international affairs from Tufts and joined the State Department, where I’m a foreign service officer. I’ve worked on international arts exchanges and environmental cooperation in Egypt and now Mexico. Next stop, Costa Rica!

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Deep-Diving Into Coral Reefs

Rennie S. Meyers ’15 (environmental studies-history)

Occupation: SeaGrant Marine Policy Fellow, U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.

Watson project: Deep Water, Horizons: Artificial Reef Communities, Above and Below the Water Line

What was your plan? To explore how different communities use artificial reefs and coral restoration projects to mitigate and adapt to climate change impacts. 

What actually happened? I learned about nature-based infrastructure, design, coastal hazards and risk, and just how much people care about coral. Some side adventures—like almost running over a nine-foot anaconda in the jungle, or having my headlamp flare out while climbing through caves in Malaysia, or swimming alone with a dozen sharks (by accident)—stand out since they were so unexpected.

What did you learn? Working with communities invested in coastal resilience helped me center equity, inclusion, and access in my understanding of coastal development and adaptation planning, and pointed out just how much international conservation work can be a colonizing practice. I am grateful for the adventure and for what was, generally, a productively destabilizing experience. I also learned to deal with disappointment when things fell through.

Where did you go from there? After I got home and recovered, I did service jobs and went to graduate school to process all the material collected in my travels. I now work on ocean, coastal, and maritime policy in Washington, D.C. I try to bring resilience, equity, design-thinking, and good science to everything I do in my work. I'm not too far out from my Watson, and still care deeply about how nature-based, green- and gray-infrastructure projects interact with and use the environment.  That lens has been invaluable to me working on transportation and infrastructure policy.

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