Rice Awards Wagoner Scholarships to six graduate students

Award amounts range from $2,000 - $15,000 and will support research abroad

Hands hold a telephone and a compass on a table topped by a map. A croissant and a cup of coffee are on the table nearby.

The Rice University Office of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies (GPS) is proud to announce that nine Rice University graduate students have been awarded Wagoner Foreign Study Scholarships to continue their research abroad.

The Wagoner Scholarship is named for James T. Wagoner ‘29. His love of travel spurred him to establish this scholarship for students and alumni in memory of his parents and late wife. The Rice Graduate Council grants the awards to students who have demonstrated outstanding achievement and promise in their research.

You can read about each of the award winners and their projects below. Applications typically open in early February; graduate students interested in applying for the next cycle can find more information here. For questions, email the Office of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies.

Nina Cook, English

Cook's dissertation, “Engaging Frames and Absorbing Names: Interpolating the Subject in Visual and Verbal Art, 1760-1880,” argues that at the turn of the eighteenth-century, painters and prose writers co-developed representational techniques that created affective bonds with an audience. Artists prized the affective encounter between viewer and artwork as a means of ensuring audience loyalty in an age growing more saturated by verbal and visual media. Just as modern-day television shows deploy the “cliff-hanger” to ensure the audience continues to tune in, eighteenth and nineteenth-century writers and artists used structure, representational techniques, and narrative stratagems to give their art an edge in the marketplace.

Cook's formal examination of these techniques, while centered in England, goes beyond national boundaries, examining how these forms of representation intersect at crucial points with the artistic productions of other nations, such as the Sturm und Drang movement in Germany and the Realist movement in France. She will examine visual and textual allusions within these works, which she argues construct a complex intermedial world (the cultural equivalent of cinematic “easter eggs”) and in turn reinforces literary and artistic “fandoms” and makes these textual and visual objects irresistible to an audience.

Emily Elia, Political Science

Why do corrupt politicians often secure reelection in Latin America? Much research has investigated when voters will or will not punish corrupt politicians in an election, primarily focusing on the voters themselves. Yet, voters do not operate in isolation; the electoral context is constantly influenced by the politicians that hold power. When political elites are accused of behaving corruptly, they do not stand back in silence. Rather, they try to salvage their careers and maintain voter support despite corruption allegations.

Elia's dissertation asks: what strategies will political elites employ to evade electoral accountability in contexts of corruption? In this proposed project, I investigate elites’ strategic engagement with anti-corruption efforts via a case study of Argentina. Minimal research has examined how and when political elites engage with the issue of corruption. I theorize that elites engage in anti-corruption efforts in a strategic way; specifically, they only do so when they expect that these efforts will pay off electorally. Through elite interviews conducted in the field, I investigate when and how Argentine legislators and political party leaders prioritize combatting corruption within their political agendas.

Yi Hou, Earth, Environmental and Planetary Sciences

Past ice ages, or glacial periods, are characterized by climatic and environmental conditions much different than today. The changes that occurred between the last glacial period and the present-day interglacial period are critical to our understanding of Earth’s climate system, because they represent modulations and feedbacks between the climate and Earth surface processes. Understanding how these feedbacks and dynamics work will allow us to better predict the extent of anthropogenic global warming and its impacts on the regions of the planet presently covered by glaciers. The linkages between climate and the formation of soil from breaking down rocks at Earth surface (i.e. chemical weathering) is of particular interest: this process affects the climate by consuming atmospheric carbon dioxide, and the climate, in turn, determines how fast this process occurs. This feedback mechanism may help to stabilize climatic conditions over hundreds of thousands of years yet remains incompletely understood due to the lack of understanding of soil formation in the past.

In order to study soil formation in the past and track its changes through the transition from the last glacial (approximately ten thousand years ago) to present-day interglacial period, it is possible to analyze the chemical composition of ancient lake sediment. This is because chemicals released during soil formation accumulate in lake water and are subsequently taken up by lake organisms (e.g. algae) into their shells. Therefore, the shells buried in the different layers of the lake sediments provide a continuous record of lake chemistry and hence the extent of soil formation. Specifically, by measuring the substitution of “rare” isotopes into the shells preserved in ancient lake sediment, we are able to quantify a range of environmental conditions such as surface temperature and the rate of soil formation. Hou will work at the Institut de Physique du Globe de Paris (IPGP) in France, which offers specialized instrumentation and is one of the preeminent laboratories performing this type of analysis.

Robert Laroche, BioSciences

Evolutionary biologists have long sought to understand the historical patterns that underlie modern species richness. Why do some groups have many species and others very few? The disparately diverse ray-finned fishes, Actinopterygii, makeup approximately half of all extant vertebrate species, and may help us address this issue. Ray-finned fishes include Darwin’s primary examples of “living fossils”, extant organisms that had not undergone much evolutionary change from earlier geological times.

Despite this, the evolutionary history of these “living fossil” groups is underexplored and many questions remain as to how their biodiversity was maintained over long periods of time unchanged, or whether this characterization is accurate to begin with. This is due, in part, to the sparse fossil record, which confounds the history of diversification of these groups. The objectives of Laroche's study are to describe the morphological features and paleogeographic setting of two novel ray-finned fish fossils–one from a group whose modern relatives are often considered "living fossils"–determine their evolutionary relationships to the rest of Actinopterygii, and collect additional, never before seen fossils of ray-finned fishes from deep in the Sahara for analysis, before returning them to Niger where the rich biological history of the country can be appreciated.

Aja Martin, Art History

Martin will complete a multi-city research itinerary across Western Europe where she will work in artist and photographic archives, university and public libraries, and, as significantly, the private galleries and public institutions that hold sculpture, painting and drawings by Lucio Fontana. The objects she intends to view at length make up the bulk of her study and ground her claim that the grotesque mode, motivated by the various forms of dark that balance Lucio Fontana's ‘Spatialist’ oeuvre, successfully describes the artist’s larger pursuits. The sites where she will conduct primary research will necessitate the refinement of the two chapters being drafted at present and inform the remaining two chapters to be composed in 2023.

Stephen Westich, Art History

Westich's dissertation considers the medieval Norwegian stave churches from a new perspective that takes into serious consideration how they were designed in response to their specific historical and chronological context by analyzing their spatiality and materiality. This parts ways from earlier scholarship, which mostly aims to tie these buildings into a nationalistic history rooted in local Viking traditions and overlooking the international cultural exchanges in which the Norwegian kingdom at the time was engaged.

Westich's research will examine the ideological tensions of wood mimicking masonry in the buildings, and argues that the buildings were designed to demarcate sacred space through a dramatized liminal zone. This in turn had an impact on how the natural world, in which these buildings were situated, was conceptualized in law and poetry. A major aspect of interest in Westich's project is the emphasis on liminality in these buildings which is revealed both in the exterior and interior designs of space and the sculptural program. Westich will spend time at collections and museums in Oslo, Bergen, and Trondheim along with extensive field research, especially in the Sogn og Valdres and Oppland regions where the stave churches can be found.