Two Rice seniors win Watson Fellowships


B.J. Almond

HOUSTON – (April 18, 2012) – Rice University undergraduates Rachael Petersen and Becky Wade are among 40 graduating seniors from around the country awarded a 2012 Thomas J. Watson Fellowship. Each will receive $25,000 for 12 months of world travel and experiential learning to study a topic of their choice.

Petersen and Wade were chosen from 147 finalists nominated by select private colleges and universities from more than 700 candidates for the fellowship, which is given to exceptional college seniors.

“Rice is extremely fortunate to be one of only 40 schools eligible to nominate students for the Watson Fellowship,” said Caroline Quenemoen, director of fellowships and undergraduate research. “The Watson award offers a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for both personal and intellectual growth. Over the next year, Rice’s winners will find themselves exhilarated and challenged as they encounter a host of new experiences in pursuit of their passions around the globe.”

Petersen, from Temple, Texas, is majoring in both anthropology and public policy and minoring in poverty, justice and human capabilities. She plans to use the Watson Fellowship to study how indigenous communities are harnessing digital tools to assert their cultural identity and sovereignty around the world.

Although indigenous peoples are often portrayed as “primitive tribes” stuck in the past, these images are based on “misguided assumptions,” Petersen said. “Indigenous peoples are now seeking to bridge the digital divide on their own terms by implementing technological initiatives within their communities.”

Petersen will spend about 10 weeks each in Canada, Ecuador, Brazil, Malaysia and Australia to get a broad overview of different indigenous groups – the Inuit, Surui, Schuar, the Kelabit and Aboriginal groups of the Australian outback. “I want my journey to reflect the unique experiences of different native peoples around the world,” Petersen said. “I also aimed to capture a range of technology usages, from social media to GIS technology, AV and radio broadcasts, in order to better understand the variety of ways technology is being harnessed by the Fourth World.”

Petersen first interacted with indigenous peoples the summer after her freshman year with a Loewenstern International Service Fellowship in Peru. In December 2009, she was a Rice delegate to the COP15 Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, where she focused on indigenous participation in the negotiations. She has also been involved with indigenous issues as a summer intern with the Environmental Defense Fund in Washington, D.C. (supported by Rice’s Baker Institute for Public Policy) and while studying abroad in Guatemala for a semester. Petersen also qualified for the highly prestigious Fulbright grant to do research in Germany, but she opted to receive the Watson Fellowship.

Petersen has served as a research assistant for a National Science Foundation-funded project that focused on the social impact of wind-energy development in rural Oaxaca, Mexico. She splits her time volunteering as a Spanish interpreter in Houston’s Ben Taub General Hospital and directing the Rice Women’s Resource Center.

Wade, from Dallas, is majoring in history, psychology and sociology. She plans to use the Watson Fellowship to study the long-distance running cultures in five countries with unique and storied running histories: United Kingdom, Ethiopia, Japan, New Zealand and Finland.

“Track and field is the most global of all sports,” said Wade, a U.S. Junior National Champion and NCAA Division I All-American in track and field. “It transcends national, demographic and socio-economic boundaries and attracts representatives from more countries to its major competitions than any other sport.”

Wade said her desire to explore running cultures around the world began when she raced in the 2008 World Junior Track Championship in Poland. “During that trip, I befriended competitors from other countries and grew deeply curious about their unique living and training conditions,” she said.

“My ultimate objective is to construct an encompassing and comparative view of these diverse environments as I investigate the role of running on an individual, societal and global scale,” Wade said. By interviewing athletes, coaches and spectators and running on popular trails and competing in races, Wade hopes to learn more about the history, recreational running, elite training and social attitudes of the running culture in the countries where she will live for two to three months each.

Wade runs 80 miles a week while maintaining a 4.0 grade point average at Rice. She recently qualified for the U.S. Olympic trials in the 10,000 meters. As a sociology research assistant at Rice and the University of Texas, Wade has submitted two papers for publication. She serves as a student ambassador and tutor and volunteers in the Houston community.

The Watson Fellowship Program is a major activity of the Thomas J. Watson Foundation, which was created in 1961 as a charitable trust by Mrs. Thomas Watson Sr. in honor of her late husband, the founder of IBM. The Watsons had a long-standing interest in education and world affairs.

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Photos for download:

Rachael Petersen

Becky Wade

This news release can be found online at

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About B.J. Almond

B.J. Almond is senior director of news and media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.