Class of 2017’s Biehl Scholars Present Research

By Phillip Davis

Staff Writer

At 4:30 p.m. on Thursday, September 29, the McGriff Alumni House hosted the presentation of this year’s Biehl International Research Fellowships scholars.

The Biehl Fellowship began in 1991 with a donation from Carl Biehl (C’32) used to award up to $4,000 to do “independent social science research outside of the United States, where the primary language is not English,” according to the event’s introductory speaker, Elizabeth Wilson, the Assistant Director of the Career and Leadership Development Center. Any current sophomore or junior in the Anthropology, Asian Studies, Economics, Environment & Sustainability, History, IGS, or Politics department is eligible to apply for the grant, the deadline for which is in February. Applicants must present a specific question along with a provisional plan for conducting research to answer that question.

Before the presentations, Wilson thanked the Biehl proposal selections committee, comprised by Professors Russell Fielding, Richard O’Connor, Nick Roberts, Doug Williams, and Scott Williams.

Each presenter compressed their research, done over the course of six to ten weeks last summer, into ten minutes. First was Armonté Butler (C’17), whose talk was titled “Exploring How HIV and AIDS Organizations Combat Stigma and Discrimination by Gay Men, Other Men who have Sex with Men, and Transgender Individuals in the Dominican Republic.” It all began, Butler said, when he tweeted a journalist that had written extensively on his topic. He studied two geographically contrasting HIV/AIDS groups, concluding that despite significantly different circumstances, both groups emphasize confidentiality, and that in both areas trans women are most affected by stigma and discrimination, among other findings.

Next, Austin Heerema (C’17) discussed “Blue and White in the Land of Orange: Use of Delftware for Understanding the Dutch Place in the Early Modern World.” Delftware is “a kind of earthenware dish made with clay and fired,” Heerema explained. Due to its resemblance to porcelain, he continued, it became very popular in 17th-century Europe, but especially in the Netherlands (Deft itself is a Dutch Town,) where makers would adopt generically Chinese or otherwise Asian symbols and visual styles as a signal of their dominance in global trade. However, these symbols were often totally removed from any meaningful context, and mixed randomly with Western styles and themes, such as cherubs and portraits.

Lillie Howell (C’17) followed with a presentation on the motivations behind “Waste Management, Freshwater Production, and Sustainability” on the French-speaking island of St. Barthelemy, whose economy has been dependent on tourism since the 1960’s. The resulting dependence on a pristine natural landscape motivates a sense of “civic duty,” Howell found, so strong that “St. Barth Cleanup” has become an “exciting and well-attended” annual holiday where citizens eat, drink, and pick up trash. Since the community is so small and tight-knit, people hold each other accountable, despite old habits like trash-burning and the government’s reluctance to support environmental efforts for its own sake.

After that, Eva Miller (C’17)  presented on “The effects of religious violence on the Lag ba Omer pilgrimage on Djerba” in Tunisia. Her research relates to a 2002 Al-Qaeda bombing at the Lag ba Omer synagogue that killed 21 people, mostly Western tourists, resulting in doubts that the attack was religiously motivated. As such, Miller found that the pilgrimage, which is central to the region’s Jews, has continued to thrive despite the incident.

Last but not least was Shay O’Connell (C’17) talking about “Declining Marriage Rates” in Japan. Beyond retreading this phenomenon’s cause, typically described as their high-powered work culture and stagnating wages, she investigated people’s attitudes through personal interviews, and in doing so, was proposed to three times. Respondents have different attitudes toward the increasingly popular “matchmaking services” which replace traditional arranged marriage — some say they would prefer a partner met through a matchmaker, while others feel that only “losers” would need help to find a match, although the former attitude is quickly gaining ground, analogous to apps like Tinder in the United States.

Many speakers recalled challenges such as language barriers to research interviews and difficulty gaining the trust of their subjects, especially in culturally distant countries like Japan or Morocco. They also had trouble speaking to relatively disadvantaged people in the Dominican Republic, or discussing sensitive issues such as discrimination, love, or inter-religious violence. However, asked what advice she’d give to prospective applicants, O’Connell says not to get “discouraged if people refuse to help you at first — you will find…other ways to find the information you’re looking for.”

“[O]ne of the most valuable aspects of the Biehl Fellowship for students is the opportunity to try out a larger-scale academic research project, especially for those who might be interested in pursuing an academic career,” says Wilson. “Students get the chance to be stretched culturally, linguistically, personally, and academically.” Miller concurs: “I’m a lot more mature…my language skills progressed in both French and Arabic and I completed over 60 pages of academic research.”