Dreaming big

Four seniors hold their breath, waiting to hear if they'll win the research grant of a lifetime

For almost 40 years the Thomas J. Watson Foundation has been sending graduating seniors out into the world on quests for visionary, Earth-spanning, and sometimes downright quirky knowledge.

“The program is designed to fund the most creative dreams of our fellows with a minimum of restrictions,” said Norvell E. Brasch, a past director of the Watson program. “The world is their canvas, and we let them tell us how they want to paint it.”

Puget Sound is one of 50 U.S. liberal arts colleges participating in the Watson program, which was begun by the children of IBM founder Thomas J. Watson Sr. Fellows receive $25,000 for a full year of independent study outside the United States. Since 1994, 13 Puget Sound graduates have won Watsons for such projects as retracing the voyage of Darwin’s ship, The Beagle; studying the culture and history of the world’s grandest canyons; and examining how the lore of mythical lake monsters affects the communities where the creatures supposedly lurk.

Winning a Watson is an odyssey in itself that begins at the end of the junior year. Students first must apply to the university, which can nominate up to four students each year. Then, based on the written materials and interviews, the Watson Foundation selects up to 50 Watson Fellows from the total of about 200 students put forth by the participating colleges. Awards are announced in mid-March.

Here, summaries of the topics Puget Sound’s 2006 candidates have proposed for their dream research grant:

Heidi Benson
Singing Still: Folk Songs and Conflict in Russia, Ireland, and Vietnam
Major: Music Performance, emphasis in Voice
Hometown: Gunnison, Colo.

“I will travel to Yelizovo in Russia, Ireland, central and southern Mexico, and the region of Galicia in Spain, exploring folk song traditions. As an aspiring opera singer, the lack of a pervasive folk tradition in my own country fascinates me. By exploring how folk music reflects political situations, values, demographic differences, and nationalism in these places, I hope to come to an understanding of its importance to other peoples and how it has fallen by the wayside in my own country.”

Chai Blair-Stahn
The Language of Movement: Exploring the Storytelling Dances of Polynesia
Major: Biology; Religion and Literature
Hometown: San Francisco, Calif.

“Among Polynesian dances, I will focus on storytelling dances, where the dancer alludes to the words of a song by outlining images with hand and arm movements. To study these dances and the factors that influence them, I plan to travel to Fiji, Tuvalu, the Marquesas, the Cook Islands, and Samoa. As a dancer, I will document and record the dances by learning and performing them. Learning storytelling dances will allow me to pursue my passion for Polynesian dancing and also allow me to understand the danced narrative Polynesians tell about themselves.”  

Greg Groggel
Chasing the Flame: The Lasting Legacy of Hosting the Summer Olympics
Major: International Political Economy
Hometown: Omaha, Neb.

“The impact the Olympic Games can have in transforming a society is far-reaching. Having worked for ESPN at the most recent Summer Olympic Games, I can personally attest to the many imperfections. The experience left me fascinated by the questions that arise from the concept of ‘Olympism.’ Are the fundamental principles of the Olympic Charter achieved when a country plays host to the world? Is the host city forever enlightened, awash in its newly found peace and prosperity, or is it left shell-shocked, wading through debt and cultural exploitation? Broadly, my study seeks to probe these questions through comparative investigation of the Mexico City, Munich, Moscow, Seoul, Sydney, and Beijing Olympic sites.”

Linh Vuong
Into the Wind: Exploring the Evolving Art of Kite-making and Natural Design
Major: Environmental Studies
Hometown: Houston, Texas

“While kites have an ancient history in Asia and the Asian Pacific, this history hasn’t always been smooth. Modernity, missionaries, and moods have led to kites’ changing fortunes. Today there are few places remaining where the old art is alive. By exploring the collective and personal history of kite-making and design in peninsular Malaysia, Vietnam, India, and New Zealand, and participating in design and construction with local artisans, I hope to understand the larger significance of kite-making as it relates to the preservation of cultural and environmental identities. I intend to investigate in each of these places the traditional ways in which kites were used as well as the ways in which kite design, manufacture, and usage has changed in these places over the centuries.”