Fondren Library honors students for research chops

Four Rice students found that effectively using a library’s varied resources can earn a student more than a good grade. Graduate students Julie Knutson, Marcel LaFlamme and Olivia Wolf and junior Amol Utrankar have won Fondren Library Research Awards.

Marcel LaFlamme, Olivia Wolf, Julie Knutson and Amol Utrankar, Fondren Library Research Award winners, presented their research to the Friends of Fondren Library board April 18.

The grants, given annually, are funded by the Friends of Fondren Library. The organization’s board heard brief presentations from each winner at a luncheon April 18.

“It’s such a pleasure to hear from you, what you’re working on and how you use the resources,” board member Karen Brisch told the award winners. “It gives a lot of meaning to what we’re doing.”

This was the fifth year for the prizes, which are designed to recognize student projects that demonstrate “extraordinary skill and creativity” in using the library’s resources for original scholarship. To enter, students submit a research project they have completed in the past year, then supplement that with a 1,000-word essay explaining how they used Fondren’s resources. The winners are chosen by the University Library Committee and a representative from the Friends of Fondren Library board.

This year’s winners entered research in the fields of anthropology, art history and sociology. The students used a wide array of library resources to complete their research; their materials ranged from prints housed in the Woodson Research Center to international online databases.

Utrankar, a member of Will Rice College, who is majoring in economics and sociology, won the $500 honorable mention undergraduate prize for his project, “Empathy in the Physician-Patient Relationship: How Physicians Define, Develop and Demonstrate Emotional Work in Clinical Practice.’”

Utrankar, also a volunteer for Rice EMS, said the project stemmed from sociology class on research methodology. His goal was to pose research questions that discern how physicians understand empathy and how they practice empathy and manage emotions in their interactions with patients.

He accessed the library’s collections, subscription databases and interlibrary loan services to research existing literature and also found the library’s “how-to” research guides invaluable in the process.

“I am so thankful to have these resources as a student,” Utrankar said. “I went to the library stacks to find one book that a professor recommended, and 20 more jumped out at me. It was basically the equivalent of opening Pandora’s Box.”

He hopes to further pursue this project as a senior thesis topic. “It’s one of the great things about being a Rice student that you have these resources when you pursue an independent research question,” Utrankar said. “Without that sort of resource backing, it would be difficult to take one’s scholarly endeavor to the next level.”

Knutson, a graduate student in Rice School of Humanities’ Art History Department, won the $1,000 first-place prize in the graduate student category for her project, “Nurturing the Individual and National Body from Sickness to Health in Images of the U.S. Civil War.” She produced the project for an art history class, The Age of Romanticism, and explored popular representations of convalescent soldiers being nursed back to health by concerned female caregivers.

Knutson drew on Civil War-era materials housed in Woodson Research Center collection, including the diary of John C. Crosby and personal letters of Aaron Martin. Woodson’s resources both helped humanize the conflict and complicate representations of it, she said. “Ultimately, I propose that mass-produced engravings and photos were employed to urge a traumatized citizenry onto a path of national reconciliation,” Knutson said.

Anthropology graduate student LaFlamme was also honored with a $1,000 first-place prize for his project, “‘A Riot, a Market, a Pilgrimage, a Beating’: Aerial Photography and Anthropological Method.” His research examined anthropology’s historical engagement with aerial photography and proposed three areas of renewed relevance for it today. It grew out of a 2012 seminar and formed the basis of the Ph.D. candidacy paper he recently submitted.

LaFlamme’s study began with the work and life of Marcel Griaule, the French anthropologist and former Air Force pilot who was the first to use aerial photography for ethnographic research. Drawing on Fondren’s print and digital collections as well as interlibrary loan services, LaFlamme found Griaule was more than the “cheerful colonialist” historians of anthropology have made him out to be. An essay written by the young Griaule for a surrealist art journal pointed toward a more complicated relationship to visuality: “To look at an object with desire is to appropriate it, to take pleasure in it.”

“This felt like a find; this felt like maybe I was on to something,” LaFlamme said. “[This was] a way to sort of re-read the tradition of aerial photography in anthropology and to say, ‘Is there something going on here beyond this oppressive gaze from above?’”

Wolf, a graduate student in the Art History Department, received a $500 honorable mention graduate prize for her project, “Naturalizing the Neocolonial: Probing the ‘Civilizing’ Legacy of the Beaux-Arts Movement.” Her research traces the ideological and stylistic links between the Beaux Arts and Neocolonial Revival architectural movements in the mid-19th- to early 20th-century Brazil.

Wolf accessed Brazilian primary sources held in the Woodson Special Collections and electronic resources, including the Geographic Information Systems collection’s Andreatta Atlas, which contains maps of modern urban developments in Rio de Janeiro. “The Fondren Library is really this wellspring of visual resources for us,” Wolf said.

The Fondren Library Research Awards are presented each spring. For more details on the rules and requirements, visit the Friends of Fondren Library Research Awards pages, and

About Jeff Falk

Jeff Falk is associate director of national media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.