Rice U.’s Zoë Wool wins NSF CAREER Award

Rice University anthropologist Zoë Wool has won a coveted National Science Foundation (NSF) CAREER Award, which includes a five-year grant that will support her research on informal caregiving for war-injured veterans and alternative models of caregiving more generally. The knowledge gained from this project could impact the understanding of long-term care for both injured veterans and other people in need.



CAREER Awards are among the NSF’s most competitive honors, and fewer than 400 are given in a typical year. According to the foundation, they are given in “support of junior faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research, excellent education and the integration of education and research within the context of the mission of their organizations.”

“I am thrilled to receive this award,” said Wool, an assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology in Rice’s School of Social Sciences. “I’ve been doing research for this project in bits and pieces since 2013, and it’s exciting to know that it can now become a real point of focus and is being recognized for its importance.”

A member of Rice’s faculty since 2015, Wool focuses her research on illness and disability, with a particular emphasis on how disability and the body affect personhood. Her first book, “After War,” was about grievously injured soldiers and their families at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

Wool said that post-Sept. 11 wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have produced approximately 3 million U.S. veterans, a population expected to nearly double in the next three years. Texas is home to one of the largest and fastest-growing post-9/11 veteran populations. Up to 900,000 of these veterans have sought medical care connected to their military service, and roughly 25 percent have a documented service-connected disability.

“Amid ongoing concerns about institutional inadequacies and the relentless problem of veteran suicide, public policy and popular attention have been turning to veterans’ family members as a key resource to help those encumbered by service-connected debility,” Wool said.

However, nearly a quarter of individuals providing everyday care to these people are friends and neighbors, which Wool said is a “uniquely high percentage compared with previous generations of veterans and civilian populations alike.”

“Care for these veterans is generally thought of as spread across two different yet occasionally overlapping domains: medical institutions, such as the VA, and veteran families,” she said.

Policy, legislation and other efforts to support veterans are overwhelmingly targeted at Veterans Affairs hospitals and veteran families, Wool said, but very little is known about and very little assistance is available to veteran caregivers outside of the family unit.

With the support of the CAREER Award, Wool will explore these care dynamics. The project will include long-term ethnographic data collection, semi-structured interviews and social network analysis to understand and map the full range of caregiving relationships that emerge around injured post-9/11 veterans. The research will be conducted in Houston and at a community for injured veterans in New Orleans.

Wool’s project will also aim to understand the way family and non-family caregiving relationships may interact with each other and may be shaped by caregiving, and gendered expectations around family relationships. In addition, the project will look to non-veteran disability communities in California and New York, which have a rich history of experiments in social arrangements of informal caregiving, including the relatively recent model of care collectives.

“Bringing the worlds of injured veterans together with the worlds of broader disability communities practiced in developing alternative caregiving networks may lead to new ways of thinking about informal long-term care and the policies that support it, both for veterans, and for the millions of other disabled Americans,” Wool said.

To help create conversations and connections between veteran and non-veteran disability communities, the project will include the creation of a free online disability studies course designed specifically for veterans, as well as a workshop that will bring together members from both veteran and non-veteran communities to discuss shared experiences and strategies and to create community caregiving resources which will be made publicly available through a website.

Wool said the project will raise the profile of critical work about disabilities taking place at Rice and will increase relationships between the university and broader Houston community. She said that it is gratifying to have the federal government acknowledge social science research.

“It’s wonderful to have this field recognized as making valuable contributions to society without having to fit into the STEM model that people think of as science,” Wool said. “It really shows the value of humanistic, qualitative research and the importance of supporting a diversity of different methodologies and approaches to understanding contemporary social issues.”

For more information on Wool, visit https://anthropology.rice.edu/zoe-wool.

About Amy McCaig

Amy is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.