Coveted Watson Fellowships awarded to two Rice seniors

Martin and Nyveen will travel abroad for a year; Kubik awarded Zeff Fellowship to do the same

Two Rice seniors have won a 2019 Thomas J. Watson Fellowship, a highly competitive award that provides $30,000 for a year of international travel and research following graduation.

Baker College senior Eliza Martin

Baker College senior Eliza Martin (Photo credit: Kirated Photography)

Baker College senior Eliza Martin and Wiess College senior Ilana Nyveen are two of 40 Watson Fellows chosen from more than 150 candidates nominated at select private liberal arts colleges and universities across the United States.

McMurtry College senior Mackenzie Kubik was awarded the Zeff Fellowship, which also supports a year of world travel and independent study; it 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.

Martin, a history and political science major, was driving back from Florida, where she and 12 friends spent three days relaxing at the beach over Spring Break, and had pulled into a Starbucks to take a coffee break when she heard the news.

“When I checked my phone, I realized I had received several text messages from people saying that I had won,” she said. “I didn’t believe it could be real, so I checked the Watson Foundation website and saw that my name was listed.”

Her first phone call was to her mother, letting her know the trip she’d been dreaming of would become reality.

Martin learned about the Watson program when she became Baker College president last year and was matched up with a mentor through the Student Activities Office: Danika Brown, director of fellowships in the Center for Civic Leadership (CCL).

“In addition to being an incredible mentor, Danika pushed me to think more critically about my future and how fellowships could help move me toward some of my goals,” Martin said. “Of the fellowships available for Rice students to apply, I was most drawn to the Watson because it provided a space to articulate my most fundamental passions and ask questions about the world in a way that I had never really done before.”

She’ll leave Aug. 1 for a trip that will take her to the United Kingdom, Norway, Netherlands, Japan and New Zealand, studying the different state models, religious groups and nongovernmental organizations that support and empower caretakers of immigrants.

“I’ll also focus on learning from and connecting with those who, like me, have shared the joyful and complex experience of caring for family members who are immigrants,” Martin said. “I’m hoping to pursue a joint (Juris Doctor and Master of Public Policy) degree and then utilize my education and life experiences to advocate for the rights and humanity of immigrants.”

Ilana Nyveen

Wiess College senior Ilana Nyveen

Nyveen, who was binge-watching the new season of “Queer Eye” at a friend’s house in Mexico City when she heard the news, hasn’t quite nailed down her travel plans, but she does know exactly what she wants to study — finally.

After “being consistently rejected from every internship and fellowship I had applied to while at Rice,” she said, winning the Watson has helped her realize the right path for her research.

“Coming into Rice, I knew I wanted to study great apes, but I could never quite figure out from what angle,” Nyveen said. “My major is ecology and evolutionary biology, but I’m also interested in great apes from philosophical, anthropological and psychological perspectives.

“I wanted to apply for this fellowship because I’ve always felt like I didn’t fit any one discipline,” she said. “The Watson gives you the opportunity to explore a topic from a global perspective, and it seemed like an amazing way to dive deeper into this passion I have.”

Though she still making her travel plans, Nyveen knows they will include visiting great apes in Asia and Africa as well as meeting researchers in Germany.

“By working alongside sanctuaries, trekking and examining a range of human-primate contact, I’m looking to explore what it means to be an ape, from the ones in the jungle to the ones I meet every day,” she said.

Kubik, who’s majoring in chemistry, Latin American studies and policy studies, plans to leave for her year of Zeff-funded research right after graduation this May. First on her list of places to visit are India, Kenya, Morocco and Ireland, where she’ll be studying tea — specifically the ways in which women engage with tea around the world, using “the culture of tea as a lens through which to examine intersectional themes of feminism and human rights,” she said.

“In India, for example, I plan to visit tea plantations and engage with women who participate in the picking process,” Kubik said. For some women, work on tea plantations can offer empowerment through self-sufficiency, physical endurance and the ability to provide for family. But the work can also be dangerous.

“Every year, thousands of women are trafficked into and out of tea plantations and menial industries in India, as well as subjected to abusive living conditions and inadequate wages,” Kubik said. “Exploring India with both these perspectives on tea production, and not traveling to any country with preconceived notions of women’s experiences there, is really important to me but also something I think will be very challenging.”

She applied for the Watson and Zeff Fellowships while working in Greece last summer as a part of another fellowship she received through the CCL.

McMurtry College senior Mackenzie Kubik

McMurtry College senior Mackenzie Kubik

“The Loewenstern Fellowship has been one of the most formative experiences of my Rice career — and life — in that it really challenged me to humanize concepts of feminism and human rights that I’ve studied academically at Rice,” Kubik said. “I realized through reflecting on that experience that if scholarship and research in these disciplines is something I’m thinking about pursuing career-wise that I needed to get out of the library, get out in the world and listen to real stories firsthand.”

Kubik found out she won the Zeff Fellowship while on a run across the street from campus. She “promptly started crying in the middle of Hermann Park and everyone on their morning walks looked really concerned.”

Kubik had already enlisted in the Peace Corps. For now, though, that work will have to wait.

“I’m working with the Peace Corps now to figure out the logistics of deferring my invitation, but am still planning on joining the Peace Corps after my Zeff year,” said Kubik, who’s hoping to eventually pursue graduate work related to public health and humanitarian affairs.

Brown, who sifted through the applications with her team at the CCL this year, said that “everyone who worked with these students were genuinely inspired by them.”

“What an amazing group,” said Brown of this year’s winners. “They all engaged in an impressive level of self-reflection, defining their passions and identifying exciting ways to envision a year of exploration and transformation.”

About Katharine Shilcutt

Katharine Shilcutt is a media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.