Spotlight on Social Sciences Alumni: Meghan Ochal

Ochal
Name: Meghan Ochal ’05

Occupation:  Public Health Analyst

Education : (UR and additional): BA (Anthropology), University of Rochester, 2005; Master of Public Health, University at Albany, 2007

Current city/state of residence: Washington, DC

Community activities: Volunteer with US partner of grassroots community health organization in Chile (Educacion Popular en Salud)


When and how did you choose your major? 

I started as a pre-med/biology major, but when I took a medical anthropology course my sophomore year, I realized that I was much more interested in the social and political aspects of health, versus the more scientific side.  The more anthropology courses I took, the more I realized it was what I wanted to study (I didn’t yet know I’d go on to a career in public health though!).

What activities were you involved in as a student and what did you gain from them?

I was very involved in various community service groups and activities.  I was involved in Circle K my freshman through senior years, was an Urban Fellow, and did substantive work with the Community Service Network as a student as well as the summer after I graduated.  These experiences only helped to solidify my desire to pursue a career that addressed social and community concerns.  (I also played intramural Ultimate Frisbee all four years! J)

What resources did you use on campus that you recommend current students use? 

I think the Career Center was the a very valuable resource – advisors there helped greatly in helping me find an internship as well as developing solid graduation school applications.  I also think participating in a few of the many student groups/clubs is a great opportunity to explore interests and meet new people.

What did you do immediately after graduation? How did you decide to take that path?

Without really any short- or long-term plan, I applied to graduate programs in public health (given my interest in medical anthropology) and was fortunate to receive a scholarship to the University at Albany’s School of Public Health.  Since I wasn’t quite sure exactly what I wanted as a career, going to grad school was a smart choice for me that helped me focus my interests and gain experience in a field that I’m incredibly happy to be a part of.

What do you do now and why did you choose this career?

I work for a Federal program that provides grants to community health centers to provide health care to underserved populations, where I specifically support grantees in ensuring they are meeting requirements of the program.  As I was completing my MPH, I was drawn to working in the public sector and was accepted into the Emerging Leaders Program at the US Department of Health and Human Services, and was hired to work with the Health Center Program.

What skills, tools, or knowledge from your major have been most useful to you since graduation?  

The most valuable skills and knowledge I’ve gained from real-life experience through jobs and internships.  While having the academic coursework is critical, being able to practice using that knowledge is invaluable.

What advice do you have for current students?

I encourage everyone to seek out ‘real-life’ experiences through jobs, internships, and volunteer opportunities.  Even if you are mostly filing or answering phones, being able to see how an organization/company functions can give you so much insight as to what you want to pursue as a career and provide practical skills and experiences that future employers or academic institutions will definitely value.

Undergrad Research Recognized at National Conference

By Dan Wang ’14
Univ. Communications

In the last week of January, four Rochester undergraduates traveled to Harvard University to give a presentation at the National College Research Conference. The four participants created posters of their research and presented to panels of judges. Student Anaise Williams ’13 took home an Award of Excellence, the second place prize awarded to five out of 250 student presenters and is the top prize for the social sciences.

“I examined how rural low-income pregnant women in Northeastern Thailand negotiate traditional beliefs of prenatal precaution and biomedical prenatal recommendation. I really wanted to figure out how pregnancy is culturally scripted. How do people decide between listening to their moms and doctors?” says Williams, winner of the Award of Excellence.

This is a natural topic for someone who majors in anthropology with a focus on public health and has an interest in Asian culture. Williams conducted her research as she studied abroad in Thailand last spring. By taking part in the CIEE Development and Globalization Program arranged through Rochester’s Center for Study Abroad and Interdepartmental Programs, Williams conducted interviews with Thai women to determine how they reconciled traditional and modern views of pregnancy.

“This is an interesting way to investigate how global forms of information are understood at the local level,” Williams explains. “The project adds to the anthropological discussion of how to make biomedical globalization more culturally conscious.” She concludes that the women have a Western and traditional hybrid view of pregnancy in which they have autonomy over their bodies and incorporate traditional Thai views of pregnancy. Her extensive fieldwork interviewing pregnant women through translators gave her a nuanced view of the topic.

Alisa-Johnson-'14-and-URMC-Research-Mentor-Dr.-S-VijayakumarAlong with fellow undergraduates Alisa Johnson ‘14, Siddhi Shah ‘14, and Shilpa Topudurti ‘14, Williams attended the three-day conference with 250 students from around the country. Through funding from the Office of Undergraduate Research and various academic departments, the students were able to present their research to peers and students. They also were able to listen to professors discuss their own work; lecturers this year included development economist Jeffrey Sachs and psychologist and linguist Steven Pinker.

“I learned a lot from the keynote speakers and was exposed to a variety of topics from fellow presenters from all over the country,” says Alisa Johnson. “It was a great opportunity to connect and network with other students who share a similar interest in research at the undergraduate level.”

Johnson, Shah, and Topudurti are biology majors who presented on topics ranging from kidney disease to melanoma progression.

Shilpa-Topudurti-'14These four participants condensed their findings into 15-minute presentations and a poster board. Each gave a presentation to panels of judges that included professors and their fellow peers. A second, more formal presentation determined the prizes.

The Award of Excellence prize comes as a capstone for an already accomplished academic career. Outside of her major in anthropology Williams is president of the Undergraduate Anthropology Council; a coordinator at GlobeMed; and a tutor for 5th grade students at School 29, an elementary school in the 19th Ward. And she sees her project going still further; Williams is working on fellowships that will allow her to study maternal health in Asia next year.

NCRC-2013-participants

In the Photos: First: Anaise Williams ’13 and Siddhi Shah ’14 at the National College Research Conference.  Second: Alisa Johnson ’14 and URMC Research Mentor Dr. S. Vijayakumar discuss Johnson’s research with conference participants. Third: Shilpa Topudurti ’14 presents her research during the conference. Fourth: Held at Harvard, nearly 250 students from around the country attended the National College Research Conference.  All photos courtesy of Alisa Johnson.

Fellowship Prepares Rochester Student for Career in International Affairs

By Melissa Greco Lopes
Univ. Communications

University of Rochester undergraduate Jonathan Johnson ’14 has been selected as a 2013 Public Policy & International Affairs Fellow at Carnegie Mellon’s Junior Summer Institute. He is the second Rochester student to be named a PPIA Fellow in the last two years and is among the 20 recipients selected from a national pool of candidates to participate in the program at Carnegie Mellon.

As a PPIA Fellow, Johnson will spend seven weeks at Carnegie Mellon’s Heinz College—their graduate school focusing on public policy—in this highly selective summer program designed to prepare students from diverse social and economic backgrounds for graduate study and careers in public policy and international affairs. As a political science and anthropology major, Johnson has studied refugee populations and policy effects on war and genocide. His interest in the intersection of identity and policy, specifically how disadvantaged populations overcome obstacles, led him to apply for the PPIA Fellowship, which will help hone the skills required to conduct policy analysis.

“The fellowship looks at how policy affects individuals, states, and countries in nuanced ways—both on micro and macro levels,” Johnson said, “and understanding these complex relationships will help me gain the intellectual background needed to further my goals in affecting real-world change in the future.”

At Rochester, Johnson has been an active member of the campus community. He has served as a resident advisor for three years and as a Meridian, an ambassador for the Admissions Office. A perennial member of the Dean’s List, he participated in the Compass to Personal Success and Urban Fellows programs, two leadership and civic engagement initiatives through the University’s Rochester Center for Community Leadership. Johnson also is president of the men’s volleyball club.

While in Pennsylvania, Johnson will study economics, statistics, policy analysis and management, writing, and public speaking. The Junior Summer Institute is a blend of classroom coursework and workshops that address a variety of domestic and international issues. Carnegie Mellon’s program provides career-planning workshops that include GRE prep and one-on-one meetings with admissions and program staff members from graduate school. Fellows also will have opportunities to meet with public affairs practitioners and take a networking trip to Washington, D.C.

Johnson, a native of Crystal River, Fla., is a graduate of Lecanto High School in Lecanto, Fla. After graduation, he hopes to spend a year teaching English as a second language in Malaysia before pursuing both a juris doctorate and master’s degree in public policy.

The Carnegie Mellon Junior Summer Institute is part of the 30-year-old Public Policy & International Affairs Fellowship Program. A national consortium of top public policy and international affairs graduate schools, PPIA seeks to prepare college juniors for advanced degrees and careers serving the public good. In addition to Carnegie Mellon, there are four other schools that host a summer institute, including the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Michigan, and Princeton University. For additional information, visit PPIA Program’s website.

Meet Samantha Whalen: Meliora Leader

By Caitlin Mack ’12 (T5)
Univ. Communications

Though only a sophomore, Samantha Whalen ’15 has managed to effectively find a  real-world application for her majors in anthropology and health, behavior & society and complement her interests in peer health advocacy and community outreach. As a participant in the Meliora Leaders Program, Whalen was given the opportunity to volunteer at the Sojourner House, a transitional housing program for homeless women and children located in the 19th ward community. There, she helps residents plan and cook healthy, nutritious meals.

For the 2012-2013 academic year, five Rochester students, including Whalen, were selected as inaugural participants in the Meliora Leaders program. Designed to support and incentivize community-based leadership among Rochester students, the new initiative is a part of the Rochester Center for Community Leadership (RCCL).

In addition to serving as publicity chair of the Refugee Student Alliance on campus and volunteering as a part of community service fraternity Alpha Phi Omega, Whalen will spend the year running a local community service project, embodying the University motto by “seeking to ameliorate the Rochester community.”

In exchange for 300 hours of service throughout the academic year, leaders receive supplemental funding through AmeriCorps, which is matched by the University of Rochester. Participants undergo leadership training, keep in contact with a member of the host organization where the service is performed, and receive regular advisement by faculty or staff at the College.

“The program benefits organizations and individuals in need in Rochester, but also provides a substantive learning experience for our students,” says Glenn Cerosaletti, director of Rochester Center for Community Leadership. “Students stand to gain a keener understanding of the Rochester community—both its needs and assets—and make lasting connections with particular individuals in the community. At the same time, I hope they will gain an understanding of project management and how to enact social change.”

Whalen’s host organization, the Sojourner House, provides shelter for roughly 16 women at a time and any children they may have. The women living in the house must complete assigned chores, attend life skills programs that help them find jobs, and sometimes undergo counseling and therapy for issues like drug and alcohol addiction. Women and their families usually stay around six months, which is preferred to secure living arrangements, although stays vary from one month to more than a year.

At the house, Whalen noticed that women usually pooled their food stamps and resources to prepare ‘comfort’ foods, which were often unhealthy. She has been working with the life skills coordinator at the house to plan healthy meals, make shopping lists, organize the kitchen so the women have better access to adequate cooking supplies, and provide advice on healthy portion sizes. She also suggests simple recipes with varied and interesting ingredients and tries to make them as healthy and nutritious as possible while staying within budget.

“The women go back to the same things that they grew up making, which is fine every once in awhile, but it’s about teaching them and their children how to live a healthier lifestyle,” Whalen explains.

Examples of healthy meals that Whalen helped plan include chicken pasta primavera, chicken stir fry, smoked pork chops with corn and okra, chicken asparagus crepes, turkey meatloaf, and chicken quesadillas.

Whalen especially appreciates her interactions with the children who live in the Sojourner House. In addition to biweekly visits to the house to help plan meals and improve overall nutrition, Whalen hosts a “study buddy” program on Tuesday nights, where she provides homework help to the kids who live there. The kids also participate in “Dream Seeds,” an arts enrichment program that has activities, including drumming and tap dancing. She says that talking and interacting with the children has given her a new perspective on Rochester outside of the microcosm of the River Campus.

“It’s eye-opening to interact with a different socioeconomic group. It helps me to understand Rochester more as a community,” Whalen explains. “There are two little girls that told me they aren’t allowed to play outside because there’s a criminal who lives on their street. Sojourner House is a place to go to feel safe and to do fun activities.”

A native of Saratoga Springs, N.Y., Whalen pursued this opportunity after hearing about it through Alpha Phi Omega and was in charge of finding her own project and contacts. Whalen posts monthly reflections on Blackboard so that RCCL staff can monitor her progress and make sure she stays on track.  She remains focused on maintaining a nutrition program and committed to helping the residents of the Sojourner House in any way that she can.

This article is part one of a series that will feature the Meliora Leaders of 2012-2013. Undergraduates interested in participating in the program should look for information on the RCCL page in Spring 2013. Information about the program can be found on the RCCL page at http://rochester.edu/college/rccl/meliora.html.

Sorcha Dundas Awarded Fulbright to Nepal

University of Rochester student Sorcha Dundas ’12 has been awarded a 2012-13 Fulbright Scholarship to Nepal, where she will serve as an English Teaching Assistant. Dundas, a native of Rutland, Vt., is the first Rochester student to be accepted into the Nepal program. In the past five years, 35 Rochester students and alumni have received a Fulbright Scholarship, which is among the most prestigious and competitive fellowship programs.

Rochester senior Edith Hanson, who will graduate with dual majors in Japanese and computer science and a minor in history, was named a Fulbright alternate to South Korea. Rising junior Adam Russak was chosen to participate in the 2012 Fulbright US-UK Summer Institute, where he will spend six weeks studying at Durham University in the United Kingdom. Russak, a native of Agoura Hills, Calif., is completing a bachelor of science degree in applied math and also doing a minor in classical civilization.

Dundas, who will graduate on May 20 with a bachelor of arts degree in anthropology from the College, will spend a month in Katmandu, undergoing extensive training in the Nepali language and honing her teaching skills. During her eight-month stay in Nepal, she hopes to volunteer in a local health clinic or assist in research and community projects, in addition to her teaching assistantship.

For Dundas, the Fulbright is an opportunity to build upon experiences she had working with and studying Nepali refugees in America during summer 2011. Dundas, who was awarded an Anthropology Undergraduate Research Grant, worked with newly settled Bhutanese refugees during an internship with the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program. Dundas lived with a Nepali family originally from Bhutan, serving as an in-home English tutor. During the summer, she also used her research grant to study newly formed agricultural projects that help refugees and immigrants acclimate to the United States. Both experiences will help inform her honor’s thesis, which explores the American experience of Nepali refugees.

For Dundas, traveling to Nepal as a Fulbright is not her first international education experience. She also studied abroad in Cape Town, South Africa, as a Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholar and also received an IES Africa Scholarship. During her time in South Africa, she worked in impoverished Cape Flat communities, teaching English as a Second Language to nine through 12-year-olds.

At Rochester, Dundas was involved in the campus chapter of GlobeMed, a student organization that is committed to improving the conditions of global health and advocating for social justice. As a tutor with UReading, she spent nearly 10 hours each week helping preschool children develop their language, literacy, math, and social skills at Rochester City School District School 29. She also served as a resident assistant for four semesters.

The Fulbright program, which is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, offers opportunities for career-launching study, teaching, and research abroad and are designed to promote education and cultural exchange between the United States and other nations. Postgraduate scholars pursuing study or research design their own programs and arrange institutional affiliations in the host countries. The grants cover expenses such as travel and health insurance, and also provide a monthly stipend. Established by Congress in 1946, Fulbright is the largest federally sponsored international educational exchange program.

Spotlight on Social Sciences and Humanities Alumni: Gemma Sole

Name: Gemma Sole
Occupation: Senior Consultant, Strategy and Operations, Booz Allen Hamilton
Education (UR and additional):
  B.A. in Anthropology and B.A. in English , University of Rochester, 2010, Babson Business Edge.
Current city/state of residence:
Washington, D.C.
Community activities: Pro-bono consulting


When and how did you choose your major?

 

Had I been allowed to take an engineering class without having to have declared it my major, I would have probably been an engineer. I’m kind of a strange candidate because I double-majored, minored, and got a certificate (Anthropology, English Communications, Economics, and International Relations). I basically majored in the Social Sciences.  I chose Anthropology because I took Professor Robert Foster’s Culture and Consumption class my freshman year and found Anthropology to be the most intellectually stimulating.

What activities were you involved in as a student and what did you gain from them?

 

I founded UR Consulting Group (URCG) and I was an active member of the Creative Arts Club (CAC). Both of these were great opportunities to meet and work with a diverse range of students. I learned a lot about myself and gained experience, good friends, and some amazing opportunities.  A great example of merging those experiences was planning and implementing the marketing for the Art Awake 2010.

What resources did you use on campus that you recommend current students use?

 

Definitely take full advantage of the Career Center, but, really, all of the resources at the school, including your fellow students. If you’re interested in entrepreneurship, visit the Center for Entrepreneurship and have a conversation with Bob Tobin who is an amazing resource. Have conversations with your professors outside the classroom. Try everything at least once if you can. And go to the library more. You will miss Rush Rhees- I guarantee it.

What did you do immediately after graduation? How did you decide to take that path?

 

Immediately after graduation, I interned at Ogilvy and Mather in LA while working with mentors to cement my plans to participate in the Kauffman Entrepreneurial Year (KEY) Program during the 2009-2010 year. I decided I wanted to get a taste of starting my own business and this was the safest way to do that and learn more about business, entrepreneurship, and myself. I met more amazing people in that year than I could have hoped and that experience was one of the best of my academic and professional careers.

Where would you like to be in five years?

 

In five years, I would like to be a) living abroad, b) in business school, or c) running my own business, or any combination of the three. Check back in 2016!

How are you still connected with the University?

 

I participate in a lot of Alumni Career Center events.  I love talking to current students about their career goals and passions. I also stay connected with UR Consulting Group. Feel free to reach out!

What advice do you have for current students?

 

Decide what you want and do it.  Tell everyone you know about what you want to achieve and you will be surprised how many people will want to help you make that happen.  And remember, where ever you go, there you are, so enjoy it.


Students Research Tobacco Use, Putting Theory into Practice

Univ. Communications – According to a 2011 World Health Organization report on the Global Tobacco Epidemic, India is poised to lose more lives to smoking in the next generation than any other country. This startling statistic has inspired three UR students—Karishma Dara, Emma Caldwell, and Anupa Gewali—to travel to a Ladakh, a remote region in the northern Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, to research patterns of tobacco use among youth. The goal of their research has been to provide the community in Ladakh with data about its tobacco use in order to help design intervention strategies and quitting resources.

Dara ’12, an anthropology major, Caldwell ’13, an environmental studies and public health major, and Gewali ’12, also a public health major, all took a seminar with Professor Nancy Chin last year, exploring the landscape of tobacco use in countries such as the Dominican Republic. Chin had previously done research in Ladakh and wanted to go back; this past August, Chin brought the three undergraduates and a graduate student to the region, and they set out to explore the community’s relationship to tobacco.

“We had an idea of what our skills were and what our interests were but we kind of left it to the community to tell us what they needed from us,” said Gewali. Their starting point was the health department in Leh, the largest city and capital of Ladakh. The students offered their knowledge and qualitative research skills and since the health department was very concerned about tobacco use by school children, they were asked to focus their research energies on that topic.

“We specifically looked at gender roles and how they impact youth tobacco use,” said Caldwell. Traditionally, in this isolated, mountainous, desert region of India smoking was designated as a male-only activity. The majority of the population is either Buddhist or Muslim and in the contexts of both religious communities smoking is viewed negatively, especially for women. However, the onset of globalization and the explosion of tourism in Ladakh since the 1970’s have made smoking a sudden and ubiquitous presence in the public sphere.

At the center of the students’ project were interviews with adolescent smokers themselves as well as communication with organizations who are concerned by the rise of smoking and its glamorization. They focused on the effect of tobacco use on adolescent girls who often perceive smoking as “a symbol of freedom,” Dara explained.

Though there are laws against smoking in public, they are not enforced and many people do not know about them. Since Ladakh has thrived from the influx of European tourism, and since many tourists smoke themselves, the locals shy away from imposing regulations that could negatively impact a major source of revenue. This further exacerbates the problem of smoking among young people.

The students found that if Ladakh continues on the same trend, in the next ten years the amount of females smoking is going to rapidly increase. They were alarmed to interview children as young as eleven and twelve years of age who had “no idea how to quit,” Cladwell said.

Though smoking is on the rise throughout India, in bigger cities and more populous regions there are more prevention and quitting resources to counteract the proliferation of smoking.  But, in Ladakh, as Gewali explained, “There were so many times when we would be interviewing ten, thirteen-year-old boys and they’d be like ‘wait, there’s a way to quit smoking?’  It’s literally a new concept.”

The students hope that the data they collected and presented back to community organization will be a vital tool to devise intervention strategies and establish quitting resources.  However, this project is just getting started and though it will eventually become a self-sustaining community health program coordinated independently by Ladakhis, in the next few years the students hope to continue assisting this community and bring more UR students to participate in the effort.

After all, the experience was not only important in helping a community struggling with a public health crisis, but it also provided an invaluable opportunity for the students themselves to grow as researchers. Dara, Caldwell, and Gewali are now working on submitting their findings for publication and applying to participate in conferences.

“We’re really eager to talk to people about this because it’s such an important opportunity. It’s really important that it keeps going not just because this community has been started on this track of intervention, but we’ve identified a really big need and we found that it can really benefit students here to have this experience,” Gewali said.

Dara stressed the importance of the application of the theories and methods social science students learn in Rochester classrooms.  Merely learning these approaches is not enough to create a realistic idea about field work and data collection. The students practiced interview skills for months with one another and in the city of Rochester, but nothing could adequately prepare them for their encounters with the community in Ladakh. “When you’re just having a conversation with a kid about why he started smoking it’s so different and it’s so much more powerful,” said Dara.

The University of Rochester name was connected with all of the students’ activities and the community in Ladakh now sees that the University is devoted to this project. The students are hoping that these sorts of engagements between the University and the world will continue and multiply.

“Hopefully the school will see that we benefited so much from this, we’re so passionate about it, that they will make more of an effort to give these opportunities to the undergraduate population,” Cladwell concluded.

Article written by Maya Dukmasova, a Take 5 Scholar at the University of Rochester and an intern at University Communications. She majored in philosophy and religion and focused her Take 5 year on researching the way American media covers current events in the Muslim world. An aspiring journalist, Dukmasova has freelanced for Rochester Magazine, the Phoenix New Times, and the Daily News Egypt in Cairo. She also maintains two blogs, one devoted to culture and society in Russia (www.out-of-russia.com) and the other to photography (www.myorientalism.com).

Photo courtesy of Anupa Gewali ’12.

Focus on Faculty: Robert Foster Rediscovers Pacific Islands Treasures

Univ. Communications – The discovery of a priceless collection of cultural treasures typically conjures up visions of dark and scary tunnels a la Raiders of the Lost Ark. But when University of Rochester anthropologist Robert Foster stumbled upon one of the oldest and largest collections of Pacific Islands artifacts, he was in the bright and friendly halls of the Buffalo Museum of Science.

On that day in 2006, Foster visited the museum to view a few artifacts from New Guinea he had read about. But when he was led into the museum’s storage area to see the rest of the P. G. Black Collection, Foster could scarcely believe his eyes. There, safely preserved for the past seven decades, were some 6,200 objects from remote villages and colonial outposts across island Melanesia — everything from stone axes and toys to fishing tools and spears. Although individual items had been displayed, a catalogue of the collection had never been published.

Photo Slideshow: Rediscovering Cultural Treasures from the Pacific Islands

For Foster, who travels across the globe to do field research in Papua New Guinea, here was one of the Pacific Island’s most important cultural treasures just a short drive from his home in Upstate New York. “I was stunned,” he recalls.

Thus began the quest to find out more about the Black Collection and to help share its riches with a wider audience – a quest that earned Foster a prestigious National Endowment for Humanities Fellowship for 2011-12. This month Foster was also awarded an American Council of Learned Societies Fellowship to assist his project—one of only 64 scholars chosen from a pool of 1160 applicants. His scholarly sleuthing will culminate in a book, a museum exhibit, and an online catalogue.

“The collection provides a window into the early encounter between Pacific Islanders and traders, missionaries, and collectors,” says Foster, an expert on the effects of globalization. “These objects reveal islanders’ innovative response to the influx of Europeans and new technologies around the turn of the 20th century.”

Part of that response, says Foster, was to trade handmade items, like stone axes and clay pots, for more effective manufactured weapons and tools. This is exactly the kind of exchange that P.G. Black appears to have employed during the three decades starting in 1886 that he amassed the collection. An accountant for an Australian trading company, Black acquired artifacts during his annual business trips to remote missions, plantations, and trading posts in Fiji, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea, then called British New Guinea or Papua.

In 1938, the Buffalo Museum of Science purchased the 40-crate collection sight unseen, but lacking proper documentation, it has remained relatively unknown even among Pacific studies specialists. The problem, Foster explains, is that without accurate records of where and under what circumstances objects were acquired, scholars have been unable to place the items in the proper context.

Now a lucky break and some timely advocacy by museum staff and Foster himself have solved the mystery. After tracking down P. G. Black’s grandson in California during the mid-1990s, a former museum curator discovered that the family owned three trunks of papers, including material from the period when Black was collecting. This past spring, following inquiries from Foster, P. G. Black’s great grandson donated the original diaries to the museum. From these documents – itineraries, really, says Foster – and other material in Australian archives, Foster has been able to piece together some of the missing background on the collection.

The new NEH and ACLS fellowships will allow Foster to complete a “cultural biography” of the collection during a year of academic leave. “Things, like people, have social lives,” explains Foster. His book will trace the evolving social meaning of the artifacts – from their initial acquisition as “native curios” to their symbolic importance as records of Australia’s national heritage and finally to their representation as primitive art in several museums, most prominently, the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

In addition to this scholarly work, Foster is co-curator of Journeys Into Papua, a Buffalo Museum of Science exhibit opening on Sept. 17, 2011 in celebration of the institution’s 150th birthday. The museum also is developing an online catalog of the artifacts, with digital images accompanied by descriptions.

The collaboration is a “match made in heaven,” says Kathryn Leacock, curator of collections at the museum. “He provides the research, we have the collection.”

Foster anticipates that the insights culled from the Black collection will eventually come full circle. He is already working with senior researchers at the Australian Museum, the National Gallery of Australia, and the Australian National University on ways to incorporate the objects from the Black collection into regional projects. Such initiatives, Foster says, will help make the artifacts accessible to the communities from which they originated and provide a rich set of resources for constructing local histories.

(Story courtesy of Susan Hagen, University Communications)