Bielak and Smith win Watson Fellowships, Griffin awarded Zeff Fellowship

Two seniors from Rice University have been awarded a 2015 Thomas J. Watson Fellowship. This highly competitive award will provide $30,000 each to Zach Bielak and Lydia Smith for a year of international travel to do research projects after they graduate from Rice.

Senior Adam Griffin was awarded the Roy and Hazel Zeff Memorial Fellowship, which also supports a year of world travel and independent study. The Zeff Fellowship is given to the Rice student who was ranked highest by the Rice Faculty Committee on Fellowships and Awards but did not receive a Watson Fellowship.

Bielak and Smith are among 50 Watson Fellows chosen for their promising potential from nearly 700 candidates nominated at select private liberal arts colleges and universities across the United States.

“While fellows pursue an independent year, they are unified by a depth of passion and commitment to their projects,” said Chris Kasabach, executive director of the Watson Foundation. “Each of this year’s fellows has taken an organic interest and crafted it into a bold, one-of-a-kind world pursuit.”

Zach Bielak

Bielak, a mechanical engineering major and member of Sid Richardson College, plans to study how community affects what is designed sustainably and how sustainable design can build community by bringing people together, fostering social sustainability and empowering marginalized groups. “It’s a complex sort of idea, but that’s exactly why I decided to dedicate an entire year toward pursuing it,” Bielak said. “It’s the pinnacle of my three greatest passions – sustainability, design and community.”

He will conduct his research project in Chile, Ghana, Sweden, India and Japan, which are countries he cited as emerging leaders in different fields of sustainable design. “By immersing myself in their communities, I hope to explore the reasons behind their different perspectives of sustainability and experience firsthand how sustainable designs are unifying communities in turn,” Bielak said.

Bielak became passionate about the environment after calculating in a math class that 160 pounds of coal  were burned per second to power his hometown of Knoxville, Tenn. The issue of sustainability became more global for him during the summer of his freshman year when he was part of a student-led team in Ecuador, where he taught school children the importance of caring for the “beautiful Earth” – specifically the Amazon rain forest. He then furthered his knowledge of sustainability issues during travels to Australia, Qatar and China.

At Rice he restarted the Rice University Biodiesel Initiative, volunteered as a committee leader for Engineers Without Borders, conducted research on sustainable organic batteries, served on the board of the former Rice Endowment for Sustainable Energy Technology, became the head EcoRep for the university and organized the 2015 Green Dorm Initiative, a competition that encourages students, staff, faculty and administrators to adopt sustainable lifestyles and implement them on campus.

Bielak said the Watson experience should help him determine which aspect of sustainable design best matches his passions and illuminate what he will pursue professionally once the fellowship is over. “I know the year is going to be completely transformative, so I’m trying to leave myself open to every possibility,” he said.

Lydia Smith

Smith, a member of Duncan College from a suburb of Chicago, is majoring in both anthropology and visual and dramatic arts (with a studio arts concentration). She will use her Watson Fellowship to visually explore how cemeteries reflect different attitudes toward death in six countries — Germany, Sweden, Australia, Japan, Egypt and Argentina — while also engaging with the communities that develop there.

“Cemeteries are rich with information about the culture, history and politics of their surrounding environment,” Smith said. “They are also a constructed landscape found all across the globe in cultures with varying religious beliefs and practices.”

She became fascinated with cemeteries after participating in an intensive drawing seminar in Auvillar, France, through Yale University the summer after her freshman year at Rice. “Over the course of a month I made over 400 drawings investigating the local churchyard, creating a sort of emotional visual ethnography of the site on paper,” Smith said. “This was an extremely intense experience, but it confirmed the relationship between my anthropology research and studio practice.”

In subsequent travels she documented abandoned German cemeteries in Prague and the “Magnificent Seven” cemeteries in London, and she’s currently studying how a cemetery can behave as a landscape of tourism through Houston’s Glenwood Cemetery for her senior capstone project in anthropology.

At Rice, Smith has directed the Matchbox Gallery, a student-run exhibition space, where she curated 15 shows. She has served as a docent at the Rice University Art Gallery and helped prepare the installations and created a video accompanying the most recent exhibition. She also designed an exhibition titled “Not Born Yesterday” for the Pop-Up Gallery housed in Rice’s BioScience Research Collaborative and was part of the team that won a university competition for the first student-created public art installation on campus, an interactive sculpture called “Soundworm.” Her illustrations have appeared in the Rice Thresher, and her art and photography have been featured in the Rice Review. She also taught a class at Rice that visited different religious houses of worship in Houston and discussed interfaith relationships.

After she completes her Watson travels, Smith plans to pursue a Master of Fine Arts degree in the visual arts. “I hope to work either as an artist in an arts institution such as a museum or gallery or in the field of art education,” she said.

Adam Griffin

Griffin, a member of Sid Richardson College from Skokie, Ill., is majoring in psychology and kinesiology (with a sports medicine focus). The Zeff Fellowship will enable him to travel to South Africa, Australia, India and Japan to study mind-body healing practices around the world, including acupressure, Shiatsu, yoga, Ayurveda and Reiki.

“I will also explore traditions that we hear about a lot less frequently in America which are wholly separate from those of East and South Asia, such as Aboriginal healing in Australia and the traditional healing of indigenous South Africans,” Griffin said.

His interest in the mind and body stems from childhood. “My dad is a psychologist, so talking to him growing up always fascinated me,” Griffin said. He also noted his mother’s influence after she was in an accident during his middle school years. “Watching her recovery made me a daily witness to the powerful connection between the body and mind and the impact that connection can have on healing,” he said.

After his freshman year at Rice, Griffin completed his yoga teacher certification training. He has served as president of the Rice Alliance for Mental Health Awareness and as campuswide coordinator for the Rice Health Advisers program. “All of these experiences have enriched each other as I’ve come to see how much there is to learn and how universally applicable all of these teachings can be,” he said. Griffin said interacting with so many talented people in the Rice community with different backgrounds and perspectives has been “one of the most meaningful” parts of his education.

Last summer Griffin participated in the Summer Mentorship Experience, which involved a two-month internship with an unfamiliar company in an unfamiliar city. “This full immersion in a new environment helped me breed more grit, independence and resourcefulness that I think will be useful while I’m abroad,” he said.

Griffin is currently pondering whether to pursue a Ph.D. program in clinical psychology or an M.D. program in psychiatry. “I’m trying to stay open to everything I learn and any opportunities that present themselves over the next year,” he said. “I already teach yoga, and if all goes according to plan, I will have a lot more knowledge and even some additional official certifications when I return from my year abroad.”

Caroline Quenemoen, executive director of Rice’s Center for Civic Leadership, said the Watson and Zeff fellowships provide an invaluable opportunity for global learning and travel, and that’s why they’re highly prestigious and competitive. “Zach, Lydia and Adam have the ambition, intelligence, maturity and creativity needed for this type of experience. As always, we’re extremely grateful to the Watson Foundation and also to Rice Professor Stephen Zeff, who endowed the Zeff Fellowship. Their generosity makes it possible for graduating Rice students to spend a year furthering their education through world travel and study.”

The Watson Foundation was established in 1961 as a charitable trust by Jeannette Watson in honor of her late husband, Thomas J. Watson, the founder of IBM. Their children made the Watson Fellowship Program a major activity of the foundation in 1968 in recognition of their parents’ long-standing interest in education and world affairs.

Zeff, the Keith Anderson Professorship in Business and professor of accounting, created the Zeff Fellowship at Rice in honor of his parents, Roy and Hazel Zeff. When the fellowship was first awarded in 2002, Stephen Zeff told Rice News, “There are so many meritorious proposals that are submitted each year [for the Watson]. This scholarship gives another Rice student the opportunity, so it’s as if Rice has an additional student who received the Watson.”

About B.J. Almond

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