Graduating seniors Vera Rudi and Anders Villalta are recipients of the highly selective Thomas J. Watson Fellowship.
Rudi, a neuroscience major, and Villalta, a studio art major, have each been awarded $30,000 for 12 months of independent study and travel outside of the United States.
A Watson year provides graduating seniors from any major or discipline with an opportunity to test their aspirations, abilities, and perseverance through a personal project that is cultivated on an international scale. Recipients come from select private liberal arts colleges and universities across the United States. From the program's 40 partner institutions, 152 finalists were nominated to compete on the national level, from which 40 fellows were selected. In addition to the monetary stipend, fellows receive college loan assistance as applicable and a health insurance allowance.
Rudi, an aspiring neuroscientist and accomplished pianist and film actor, will immerse herself in meditative cultures in Thailand, India, Japan, and South Africa to enrich her scientific understanding of the ways meditative practices affect cognitive control. Villalta will pursue research on how mainstream beauty cultures are socially constructed to the disadvantage of queer communities of color, and how these communities respond by asserting and affirming their beauty through art, music, poetry, performance and dance. The project will take Villalta to South Africa, Australia, Brazil, and the Dominican Republic.
Rudi says her inspiration for the project comes from her own struggles with stage fright when performing on the piano. Born and raised in Oslo, she was accepted into Norway’s most prestigious music institute at age 13. For reasons she can’t explain, she developed intense performance anxiety in her teen years.
“I started researching cognitive control in the context of performance practice. What I learned sparked an interest in how we can potentially alter deeply ingrained mind-body processes—and do so through exploration of the self. I wanted to learn how control of different states of awareness and consciousness can be applied in other contexts, specifically in education and learning, in creative practices, in the workplace, and in medicine and healing.”
She plans to meet many different people on her journey, including Japanese business people, Indian gurus, artists, international scientists, and ascetic monks in Thailand.
Rudi explains that meditation research is a relatively new area of study. Past studies on Buddhist monks have gathered data on the neurological changes that occur in a lab. However, the experiments involved putting their subjects in an MRI or hooking them up to an extensive collection of electrodes or recording devices, all while they try to meditate.
“This is not exactly the natural environment that fosters these meditative practices, and I can’t help but wonder what gets lost in translation,” she says. “I think a more complete understanding of the natural contexts might expand the scope of contemplative science in a way that is beneficial for both the field of research and for potential applications. I want to take the monks and the meditators out of the machines and seek them where they usually reside.”
While Rudi has continued her piano studies in the Conservatory of Music, she ultimately opted to shift her focus to neuroscience, and she plans to apply to graduate school following her Watson year. She has conducted research with Professor Michael Loose, and for her most recent winter term, with the Kavli Institute for Systems Neuroscience at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.
“I have been fortunate to take neuroscience classes and labs that engage with material and research at a very high level, and I feel comfortable jumping into the research I want to do in the future. Working in Professor Loose’s lab has been invaluable in understanding the processes, difficulties, and joys of research.”
Villalta, a Los Angeles native, is motivated by anti-violence and anti-oppression initiatives, having worked toward this end in Third-World Co-op and the student-led Preventing and Responding to Sexual Misconduct group.
“I am committed to artistic practices that decolonize the mind,” Villalta says. “That means unpacking the white supremacist, cisheterosexist, ableist, fatphobic ways we are taught to understand ourselves and others. Art, like any other medium, is both a reflection of and a driving force behind the way we perceive the world. I want to learn strategies for employing art to center the beauty and worth of marginalized people. In the face of structural and cultural oppression, being able to speak your beauty is a powerful tool of healing and resistance.”
Villalta selected countries based on their language proficiency and existing knowledge of the cultures and histories of the regions. “I want to remain sensitive to the ways my privilege as an American, as an English speaker, and my economic privilege with this fellowship creates power dynamics between me and the people I will meet abroad. I don’t want to approach people expecting them to ‘teach me.’”
Villalta has identified poets, students, and queer organizations they want to meet. “On my Watson year, I just want to make good friends. And this project is basically a structured way for me to meet the cool people I would already want to meet, who share some of my passions, hobbies, and visions for the future, and to learn with each other in the most organic ways one can.”
Following the Watson year, Villalta is interested in work that supports migrants, as well as anti-violence advocacy and education. “I think the more I grow as a person and an artist, the better equipped I will be to do community organizing.”
The Watson Foundation was established in 1961 as a charitable trust by Jeannette K. Watson in honor of her late husband, IBM founder Thomas J. Watson. More than 2,800 Watsons have been awarded since the fellowship's founding in 1968.