Two Rice University students awarded Watson Fellowships

Rice University
Office of Public Affairs / News & Media Relations


B.J. Almond

 Two Rice University students awarded Watson Fellowships

HOUSTON — (March 27, 2015) — 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.

The Rice students 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.”

Bielak, a mechanical engineering major, 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 how many tons 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.

Smith, 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 student newspaper, and her art and photography have been featured in the university’s literary magazine. 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.

Caroline Quenemoen, executive director of Rice’s Center for Civic Leadership, said the Watson Fellowship provides an invaluable opportunity for global learning and travel, and that’s why it’s highly prestigious and competitive. “Zach and Lydia have the ambition, intelligence, maturity and creativity needed for this type of experience. As always, we’re extremely grateful to the Watson Foundation, whose 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.

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High-resolution IMAGES are available for download at:
CAPTION: Zach Bielak
CAPTION: Lydia Smith

Located on a 300-acre forested campus in Houston, Rice University is consistently ranked among the nation’s top 20 universities by U.S. News & World Report. Rice has highly respected schools of Architecture, Business, Continuing Studies, Engineering, Humanities, Music, Natural Sciences and Social Sciences and is home to the Baker Institute for Public Policy. With 3,888 undergraduates and 2,610 graduate students, Rice’s undergraduate student-to-faculty ratio is 6-to-1. Its residential college system builds close-knit communities and lifelong friendships, just one reason why Rice is ranked among some of the top schools for best quality of life by the Princeton Review and for best value among private universities by Kiplinger’s Personal Finance. To read “What they’re saying about Rice,” go to

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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.