Stephanie Gee ’20 wrote her senior thesis on her study of the effects of radiation on the brain development of zebrafish.
Stephanie Gee ’20 wrote her senior thesis on her study of the effects of radiation on the brain development of zebrafish.

Watson Winner Radiates Confidence

Neuroscience major Stephanie Gee ’20 wins a Watson Fellowship to explore effects of radiation.

By Romel Hernandez | April 2, 2020

Pressing the glowing red console button as a student operator on the Reed Research Reactor, Stephanie Gee ’20 felt a sudden surge of electricity. Figuratively, of course. 

She couldn’t know it at the time, but her experience training to work on the college’s nuclear reactor would propel her across the globe one day. Literally. 

Stephanie is one of two Reed seniors selected for a 2020 Watson Fellowship, a prestigious national program that funds a year of international travel for college graduates to pursue independent research projects. She plans to explore the societal impacts of atomic radiation, combining her interests in science and photography. Her “Living in the Nuclear Age” project will take her on a dizzying journey around the globe to Kazakhstan, Japan, Indonesia, South Korea, Spain, and Austria.

“Radiation is invisible, but it affects society in so many ways we don’t even realize,” she says. “I want this project to show how much radiation impacts our everyday lives in both good ways and bad ways.”

Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, she became interested in photography as a youngster.  She has since gone on to win awards for her photography. At Reed she set out on a path to major in neuroscience with the expectation of going on to medical school and becoming a researcher. She wrote her senior thesis on her study of the effects of radiation on the brain development of zebrafish, and has attended national conferences to present her research, which she plans to publish. 

But Stephanie has never been a lab rat. She has a passion for storytelling through photography—not as a separate hobby, but as an artistic pursuit that complements and informs her interest in science.

“That crossover is one of the major reasons I wanted to go to a liberal arts college like Reed,” she says.

She has certainly taken full advantage of the opportunities Reed offers, earning fellowships and tapping into resources through the Center for Life Beyond Reed

A Reed Summer Internship Award enabled her to spend the summer of 2018 in Borneo as a communications intern documenting local efforts to protect the rainforest and provide healthcare to villagers. She worked with Health in Harmony, a non-profit founded by Dr Kinari Webb ’95. The following winter break, she received a Fellowship for Winter International Travel funded by the college to explore how Peru’s diversity has influenced the nation’s food and architecture.

Senior year she became a regular visitor to the CLBR, where she explored post-graduation travel/study options with support from advisors such as Associate Dean Alice Harra as well as fellow Reedies. She also received invaluable mentoring from Melinda Krahenbuhl, director of the research reactor.

Stephanie considered numerous ideas before choosing the radiation project because, as she wrote in her application, “I want to explore the globe through the two ways I know how to best: science and art.”

The Watson Foundation has been awarding travel fellowships since 1969 to graduates of 40 elite private colleges and universities across the country. Some 70 graduates of Reed College have been Watson fellows over the years. The $36,000 grants support international travel for recent graduates seeking to pursue projects that, according to the foundation, “expand their vision, test and develop their potential, and build their confidence and perspective to be more humane and effective leaders on a global scale.”

Everywhere she travels, she will tote her camera to make pictures of people and places she encounters on the way. Here are some Watson-year destinations and highlights she is looking forward to:

  • Kazakhstan, to work with a research institute studying the long-term impacts of Soviet-era nuclear testing in the region, including children continuing to be born today with radiation-related deformities.
  • Japan, to meet with kataribe, storytellers who give powerful eyewitness testimony of surviving atomic bombs during WWII, and to visit communities displaced by the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster.
  • Indonesia, to learn how medical radiology, such as pregnancy ultrasounds, is improving health care provided by nonprofit organizations impoverished rural areas of the country. 
  • South Korea, to connect with researchers investigating the health risks of radiation in seafood.
  •  Spain, to visit an observatory in the Canary Islands where an international consortium is building new telescopes capable of detecting high-energy gamma rays in deep space.
  •  Austria, to meet policymakers at the headquarters of the International Atomic Energy Association.

After the fellowship, she plans to attend medical school and pursue a career in global medicine and environmental conservation. 

[Due to COVID-19, the Watson Foundation may postpone fellowships until international travel is deemed to be safe. Stephanie said she expects to hear by mid-April how her plans might change: “This is a travel award for a world that isn’t ready for travel, but I’m confident it’ll happen, just on a different timeline.”]

Tags: Academics, Awards & Achievements, Diversity/Equity/Inclusion, Institutional, Life Beyond Reed, Thesis