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Watson Fellowships Allow a Pair of Pomona '06 Graduates to Travel to the Arctic and the Tropics on Research Adventures

One is heading to the arctic. The other is setting off for the tropics. But Pomona’s latest Watson Fellowship recipients, Megan Groth ’06 and Laurel McFadden ’06, share a sense of adventure that is sure to make for fascinating year-long overseas research trips. Both Groth and McFadden start their journeys this summer.

The prestigious grants provide $25,000 for students to pursue independent travel and study. One key Watson rule: Groth and McFadden can’t return to the U.S. at any time during the year-long fellowship.

Laurel McFadden: Icy Adventures Ahead

Following her junior year, Laurel McFadden ’06 spent a month living on a windswept Norwegian fjord, where she worked freezing, 14-hour days studying an obscure bird known as the little auk. The research required her to constantly be reaching her arms into dark, stinking bird holes. Occasionally, the birds bit, and she was constantly bombarded from above.

But McFadden loved working in the barren beauty of the arctic, with breathtaking views of glaciers and the chance to spot reindeer running free. “It was such a crazy adventure,” says McFadden, who went on the trip to help with research conducted by Assistant Professor of Biology Nina Karnovsky.

An even crazier adventure lies ahead for McFadden. With her Watson Fellowship, she sets off this summer with plans to visit four of the northernmost settlements in the Arctic Circle, located in Canada, Greenland, Norway and Russia. In a project called “Life in the Midnight Sun and Polar Night: Images of Arctic Survival,” McFadden will take photographs to document life in these extreme climes.

Planning the trip has been tricky, and she likely will travel by charter flights, train and even an icebreaker ship to reach her destinations. For the first segment of her trip, she will travel by icebreaker to the remote Inuit community of Resolute in Canada. The smallest details have to be thought through, including figuring out how she will get food. “It’s not like these places have restaurants,” says McFadden, who graduated with a Science, Technology and Society major.

Still, McFadden has plenty of experience with immersing herself into new cultures. Before her Norway trip, McFadden spent a semester in bustling Beijing despite having no background in Chinese. During her time in Norway for the bird research, she lived at a Polish research station, sharing a Pomona dorm-sized room with seven other people.

While McFadden grew up on a farm in sunny, citrus-scented Fillmore, Calif., she quickly warmed to the icy grandeur found in the world’s northern reaches, and is eager to return. “I remember feeling just incredibly at home there,” she says.

Megan Groth: A Building Fascination with Bamboo

Megan Groth ’06 fell in love with bamboo architecture in the strangest place: Florence, Italy, a Renaissance city full of bricks-and-marble structures.

Groth admits she may have been in a slight state of delirium, as she and other students studying abroad in Syracuse University in Florence’s pre-architecture program had been up for 36 straight hours completing a project.

Some of the other students nodded off during a visiting Colombian architect’s slide presentation about bamboo architecture. Groth was enthralled. “It’s just that movie moment where ... nothing else really matters,’’ recalls Groth. “My mind was going a million times a minute.”

A biology major at Pomona, Groth found her career plans had slowly shifted over to architecture. She realized that bamboo, being a sustainable, eco-friendly building material, was the perfect bridge between her two interests.

Groth’s groggy colleagues in Florence couldn’t understand her excitement about the bamboo presentation: “They were like, ‘OK, Megan, whatever.’” She rushed home to tell her Italian host family – she had to tell someone – but her house mom didn’t get it either. “Bamboo? Why you?,” the woman asked.

The folks who dole out the Watson Fellowships did get it, however, and Groth this year will be traveling to China, Japan, Costa Rica and Ecuador to study the art, culture and practice of bamboo home design.

Her first stop will be Beijing, China, where she will re-immerse herself in a language program (she had studied abroad in Beijing two years earlier). Beijing is home to the headquarters of the International Network for Bamboo and Rattan, where she will gather information before heading to southern China. There, charitable groups are involved in building bamboo homes for the poor. Japan offers fewer current construction projects, but the country has a rich history of bamboo architecture for Groth to study.

Costa Rica and Ecuador will provide the most hands-on opportunities. She hopes to help with the construction of bamboo homes and live for a time with a family that already dwells in one. Groth plans to eventually attend architectural school, but not until she has spent a year traveling the globe enrolled in her self-styled Bamboo U.