To explore the world through the lens of one’s most intense passion is an exceptional gift. On their own, with only a rough sketch of a road map, Watson Fellows often experience a raw moment of truth that shapes the rest of their lives.
Editor’s note: This is an excerpt from a special edition of Arches magazine that commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Watson Fellowship, in which we explore the travels, stories, and reflections of Puget Sound’s fellows. For the best viewing experience, download the autumn Arches PDF.
Toby Ault ’02
When he set out to retrace Darwin’s course in The Voyage of the Beagle for his Watson year, Toby Ault knew that the world would look different after roughly 170 years. What he didn’t expect to find was that half the world he saw was under water, and the other half was in a drought.
With Darwin’s journal in hand, Toby read entries for each place he visited. In Brazil, Darwin had noted that the land “looked just boundless, like a sea of forest," Toby recalls. "Little farms cut out of the vast wilderness, like little islands of farmland.” But Toby’s own observation was nearly the opposite: “The farms and clear-cut areas are boundless, and you have these little islands where the rainforest is left.” He was amazed by the substantial change.
In Uruguay, Toby checked into a youth hostel that had boats in the parking lot instead of cars. There had been so much flooding that year because of El Niño, and everyone he spoke to told him of their troubles. The fishermen said the fish weren’t finding the bait because the water was too muddy; the farmers couldn’t plant their crops; roads were washed away, and people couldn’t get where they needed to go.
For the third leg of his trip, Toby bought a van to travel across the Australian Outback. His girlfriend had joined him, and they were driving across the vast, dry, undulating land past herds of emaciated Brahman cattle. Late in the afternoon, a cattle truck on their right blew out a tire. Toby pulled over to help, and the rancher, who lived nearby, invited the couple to join his family for dinner.
“We had dinner at the ranch and spent the night there,” Toby remembers, “and the rancher was complaining about the drought and El Niño.” Coincidentally, Darwin had made the original journey during an El Niño year, a time when warming sea temperatures in the Pacific create large-scale interactions between the ocean and atmosphere around the world. Reading from Darwin’s journal every day, observing the landscape, and talking to the people just as Darwin had, Toby thought about the long history of the Earth and the role humans play in reshaping it. What would Darwin say about the extremes he had seen in the space of a year?
Toby’s final stop was Darwin’s home in Downe, England, and he arrived just as the hottest temperatures ever recorded in the British Isles were being seen there. Nearly 70,000 people across Europe died in the 2003 heat wave. Toby decided to spend the hot and muggy afternoon at the Natural History Museum in London, and there he stumbled upon a lecture on the warming seas.
“The professor was talking about how, in the future, it’s going to be a lot warmer, and we need to understand it so we can be prepared,” Toby recalls. “He said we need numerical models of the climate system, and we need to come at this problem with every-thing we’ve got. I just sat there thinking yes. As a math major, I had a quantitative background, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do with it. This tied it all together.”
Toby went on to study climate science at the University of Arizona and is now assistant professor of Earth and atmospheric sciences at Cornell. His work involves running sophisticated numerical models on supercomputers to analyze natural climate variability and agents of climate change, such as volcanic activity, the sun’s output, and the kinds of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, to predict what we can expect from climate change in the future, and what we can do about it.
Zorba Leslie ’07
Zorba Leslie sat in the pews of Ntarama Church outside Kigali, Rwanda, stunned by the sight of this sanctuary of bones. The church, like many others throughout the country, had been the site of horrific massacres during the 1994 genocide that took an estimated 800,000 lives in less than 100 days. The killings were perpetrated primarily by the ethnic majority Hutus aligned with the government against minority Tutsis and more moderate Hutus. In many cases, the killers knew their victims—they were neighbors, relatives, friends.
“These churches were places where congregants would run to seek sanctuary,” Zorba says. Now they stand as memorials to a country’s unspeakable history, where the bones of the murdered still lay just as they fell. “It was a visceral reminder of how the politics of fear and animosity can be used, and are used—not just in the Holocaust, but in contemporary times around the world, in Syria, in Burma, in the United States—to sow distrust and extreme violence.”
But this reminder is what Zorba came for. His Watson project was about exploring the meaning of justice by studying post-conflict societies of Rwanda, South Africa, Chile, and Cambodia. It was an intense project, but he wasn’t alone. The summer after he graduated from Puget Sound, he married Jessica Henley, his childhood friend and senior prom date at Stadium High School in Tacoma. Three days after the wedding they left for Zorba’s Watson Fellowship. It was an unconventional honeymoon, he admits: “You know, a year of atrocity.”
Zorba had always felt a deep empathy for people who had experienced trauma, informed by a personal history of people close to him who had experienced sexual or intimate-partner violence. This led to an acute interest in justice. On a David L. Boren Scholarship studying in Cairo during his junior year, he took a class on international criminal law highlighting the biggest justice and retribution questions of the 20th century. The idea that justice could be served, or that reconciliation was possible, in situations as devastating as these, was the most hopeful thing he could imagine.
After witnessing the static aftermath of unthinkable violence at the Rwandan church, Zorba and Jess sat in the grass of the Gacaca courts, in circles of Hutus and Tutsis coming together to speak and listen, to hear and to be heard. “Without even being able to directly understand the Kinyarwanda that was being spoken, even though we had an interpreter, but just observing people grappling with the most devastating life experiences anybody could ever imagine, the most vicious physical violence—hearing a mother describe having her infant daughter slashed from her arms—that was very impactful for me,” Zorba says. “The idea of a community coming together and just laying everything bare was so compelling.”
Zorba and Jess kept an especially tight grip on each other’s hands on those afternoons, and the experience began to give their future lives shape. After the Watson year, both went on to earn law degrees and to pursue careers working to end slavery, human trafficking, and gender-based violence around the world.
Regina Jorgenson ’98
In the fall of 1998, Regina Jorgenson was at a dinner party in Heidelberg, Germany, with a group of women astronomers from around the world. Drinking wine and passing dishes around a large dinner table, Regina was relishing the experience. Then she heard a name that made her gasp.
The dinner guests were colleagues at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy, and they discussed their work, as well as the conflicts that came along with it—family life, tenure, and publishing. Hours into the meal, the conversation shifted. When one woman shared her story of being sexually harassed by a colleague, others followed. “By the end of the night,” Regina recalls, “everyone was going around the table talking about their own experience.”
It was a Venezuelan woman’s story about a man who had continually harassed her at conferences that really caught Regina’s attention. The ordeal had begun with a seemingly innocuous invitation to dinner. Regina recognized this man’s name because he had asked her to dinner in the same way. Regina was 22, just out of college and a month into her Watson year. Her first thought was, “This is a really weird, small world.” But by the end of the night, she had gained new clarity about the prevalence of sexual harassment in the scientific community.
“It was like a whisper network,” Regina says, referring to the astronomers gathered in Heidelberg warning each other about certain men. “But if you were young and just coming into the field, you wouldn’t be privy to this information.” For women, Regina realized, navigating the world of science couldn’t just be about your science. And for that to change, the field needed more women.
The considerable gender gap in STEM fields had first come to Regina’s attention when, as a student at Puget Sound, she was working on a project on the history of women in physics. She found that the number of women in science differed from country to country. What was it about culture that determined who could be a scientist, and what influence did cultural norms have on the way science was practiced? With her Watson Fellowship, she set off around the world to find out.
Through a series of interviews and a survey she developed, Regina asked women in Russia, India, Japan, Australia, and all throughout Europe about how they got into astronomy and what their influences were, as well as about their experiences being a woman in astronomy/physics. In India, she found that women physicists abounded, perhaps because it was standard to have a live-in relative or housekeeper care for children. In Japan, the opposite was true, and when Regina arrived at an astronomy institute there, she had trouble finding a woman scientist to interview at all.
Regina noted that the underrepresentation of women in science starts with a lack of mentors, and the power structures that perpetuate gender bias. Science professors provide research-assistant opportunities, connections in the field, and job recommendations to their students. “That’s part of the way science works,” Regina says. “But we know from research that people choose mentees who are like them.” That’s why representation of women in the field is so important.
In her role as director of astronomy for the Maria Mitchell Association, Regina is doing her part. This year, she is organizing a symposium in honor of Maria Mitchell, the first American woman astronomer, which will include discussions on the recruitment and retention of women and girls to careers in science, technology, engineering, and math. And she is mentor to six of the country’s top undergraduate students, who arrive every year at her observatory as summer research fellows. Her goal is to give them the knowledge that will keep them in the field “and also to make them the kind of students who will increase diversity in their own ways.”
Clinton Agresti ’09
After riding for two hours from Accra, Ghana, on a little muggy bus called a tro tro, Clinton Agresti arrived at the home of a Ghanaian musician for what would become an epic collaboration. Clinton had recently interviewed the musician for his Watson project. “When I got home, this riff sort of spilled out of me,” Clinton recalls, “and when I shared it with him, he said we had to record it.” For the next few weeks, Clinton visited almost daily, bringing peanuts and fruit juice to share. “We used around two dozen instruments from all over Ghana. He was integrating styles from around West Africa, and he translated my lyrics into Twi, his native language. I suppose I brought my West Coast sensibilities,” Clinton says. Despite numerous power outages and lost sessions, the finished track was recorded. It was a collaboration that he will always remember.
An international political economy major, Clinton designed his Watson project around exploring traditional approaches to music in Mongolia, Ukraine, Ghana, and Bolivia. “I was interested in the ways in which music is tied to entire ways of life—identity, ritual, belief, geography, people’s sense of history, and kinship,” he says. To accomplish this, he sat with herdsmen in Mongolia who knew as many as 300 songs by heart, went to weddings and funerals, and collaborated with musicians he met along the way.
This kind of cultural immersion is second-skin to Clinton. “Throw me in a group of strangers in an unfamiliar environment, and that’s where I tend to feel most comfortable,” he says.
There were moments of both beauty and darkness. In the Khovd region of Mongolia, Clinton spent one evening in the yurt of a local family, exchanging songs, sharing a meal of boiled marmot, and drinking liquor made from fermented sheep’s milk. It felt like the middle of nowhere, there on the steppe in the foothills of the Altai Mountains. “It was golden hour,” he remembers. “The sun hadn’t quite set, but there was a golden haze over everything.” After eating and singing, the herdsmen challenged Clinton to a traditional Mongolian wrestling match. Buzzed and exhausted, he reluctantly agreed. The herdsmen tied orange sashes around Clinton and his opponent, and formed a circle around them as they began to wrestle. After several painful minutes, his opponent spread his arms like an eagle, and Clinton, following the custom, descended beneath his “wing” to signal defeat. Then he staggered behind his jeep, collapsed, and vomited.
For the next three days, Clinton was bruised, sore, and sick, lying in the fetal position in a tent on the Mongolian steppe, as lonely as he’d ever been.
The wrestling match is emblematic of Clinton’s yearlong experience reckoning with the ugly alongside the beautiful. “I had this idea that if I went and saw the world, I'd return with some kind of special wisdom,” he says. “I was dropped into vastly different cultural contexts, and I encountered some xenophobic beliefs and behaviors that were difficult for me to navigate. I was actually frustrated with a lot of what I saw. The experience made me more compassionate, but I think I’m still grappling with it.”
Angelica Spearwoman ’17
Halfway through her journey, halfway around the world, Angelica Spearwoman was sitting in the shade of a jackfruit tree at Chinmaya University in Kerala, having an epiphany. A professor there, with whom she was studying Sanskrit, had said something that changed her way of thinking. “Language is our most powerful tool as human beings, and it is key to the emancipation of human beings,” he’d said. “So when you say the world is such a violent world, that’s giving the world permission to be that way.” Conversely, Angelica realized, when you say the world is a beautiful place, you change the conversation.
This was especially poignant for Angelica because six years earlier her sister, Jessica, had been murdered. In an instant, every man became an enemy, a rapist, a murderer, a threat. Angelica learned self-defense. She kept herself on guard. For her Watson year, she visited Nicaragua, Australia, India, and Spain to teach self-defense and promote women’s safety. “I could have just crumbled, I could have just stayed where I was,” she says. “But I felt the calling to expand into something greater.”
Then, under the jackfruit tree, her approach shifted. “It occurred to me that so much of my work was about men’s violence against women and how women can reclaim their power and agency from fear,” she says. “And then I said to myself, ‘Look at how you are violent, Angelica! What are the ways in which you contribute to this society?’” Instead of talking about violence against women, Angelica turned to healing—healing relationships between men and women, healing relationships with the Earth, and ultimately healing relationships with ourselves.
Angelica just returned from her travels in August. “The Watson was this amazing gift that has put me on this completely different path,” she says. While she doesn’t know what her next year holds, poetry, ecofeminism, community service, and public speaking are all on her mind.
“I’ve come to the conclusion that any violence is just an expression of that person’s suffering, so I no longer have any interest in focusing on violence,” she says. “I want to focus on healing our wounds, which are collective and individual but not separate. Reverence and respect. That’s all I care about. Honoring life. It’s a freaking miracle that
we are alive. And I have to thank my sister because she woke me up to realize how precious this life is, and how quickly it can be taken. Because of her, I will dedicate my life to sharing with everyone how powerful and strong they are, and that we have the power to heal.”
By Margot Kahn
Photos courtesy of the subjects
Published Oct. 26, 2018