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From Iceland to China: Meet the UA professors who are taking their research worldwide

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Elijah Bia | The Daily Wildcat

Old Main, blocked off to allow landscape workers to operate. Taken on Aug. 10, 2020, off of the UA Mall.

This year, the University of Arizona set a university record for most Fulbright Scholar awards among its faculty. This placed the UA as the third highest Fulbright Scholar-producing research institution in the U.S. 

Fulbright Scholar awards give academics the opportunity to travel to a host country where they can pursue a project involving research and teaching. According to the Fulbright website, their mission is to “expand and strengthen the relationships between the people of the United States and citizens of the rest of the world.”

The UA’s Fulbright recipients are studying a diverse range of subjects from culture and immigration to volcanology. We spoke with the scholars to learn more about their global research and where it has taken them.

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Melissa Fitch

UA Spanish and Portuguese professor Melissa Fitch has received three Fulbright awards in support of her research examining the global influence of Latin American culture. She currently serves as a Fulbright specialist with emphasis on collaboration and teaching at universities worldwide.

Fitch said that her research journey led her to apply to Fulbright when, while visiting a friend in China, she found herself in a salsa bar.

“They were singing in Spanish, but then they were counting in Mandarin for the dancers,” Fitch recalled. “I was just transfixed. I thought this was the most interesting and unexpected thing. But along with that, I thought, how is it possible that I'm a specialist in Latin American popular culture and it never even crossed my mind to think about how expansive Latin American popular culture is across the world?”

As Fitch’s visit came to a close, she knew she had to return. She promptly applied for a Fulbright award in order to further examine the representation of Latin American culture in China. 

Fitch received the award, taking her to the Chinese University of Hong Kong. There, her exploration led her to a salsa dance competition in which she noticed many competitors were Indian. This sparked Fitch to apply for her subsequent Fulbright in India.

“It's like every Fulbright experience led me to a detour to the next Fulbright experience, which brought me to the next one,” Fitch said.

Fitch is currently completing her manuscript on Latin American culture in India as it appears in film, dance, music and literature. She also works as a Fulbright Specialist in order to coordinate with international universities and facilitate a dialogue about multiculturalism in the U.S. 

Although COVID-19 has added increased uncertainty in global travel, according to current plans Fitch will be working in Chile in the fall followed by travel to Antarctica and India. 

Susan Brewer-Osorio

Susan Brewer-Osorio is an assistant professor of Latin American studies. She studies the relationship between drug policy, illicit markets and contentious politics in Andean South America. Brewer-Osorio’s current research explores the fate of ex-rebel communities in Columbia.

After the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia agreed to disarm in 2016, it “adopted both a collective and individual framework for reincorporating ex-combatants into civilian life,” Brewer-Osorio’s abstract stated. Part of the process involved consolidating ex-combatants into 26 camps across the country and providing them with opportunities to reintegrate into civilian life. Some camps became permanent communities, while others fragmented or were abandoned.

Brewer-Osorio’s project will attempt to identify why this disparity exists between these communities by examining some of the key factors that contribute to successful reintegration: service provisions, security conditions, economic opportunity and community relations. The project will utilize interviews with ex-combatants and data from Colombian government agencies on conditions near and within the communities.

“The Fulbright Scholar award will support a research project on ex-combatant reintegration in Colombia after their 2016 peace agreement,” Brewer-Osorio said via email. “In addition, I will be teaching a class at the Pontificia Universidad Javeriana in Bogotá, Colombia. The award will support the completion of an ongoing research project on peacebuilding and collective reincorporation of ex-combatants, and also support expanding my teacher experience and skills. The University of Arizona initiated a study abroad program in Bogota in 2019 that we hope to continue in the future.”

Eric Butcher

Eric Butcher is a professor of aerospace and mechanical engineering and an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering. His previous research concerned spacecraft guidance, navigation and control, estimation and control of spacecraft attitude and relative motion dynamics and vibration-based damage detection in structural and rotordynamic systems.

Megan Carney

Megan Carney is an assistant professor in the School of Anthropology and the director of the Center for Regional Food Studies at the UA. Her research focuses on transnational and gendered migration, food and food systems, immigration policy and health inequality. Carney’s current project will examine the COVID-19 pandemic’s global effect on food security.

“The focus of my project is to bring together social scientists and policymakers throughout Europe and surrounding regions to examine the links between food and migration, specifically food- and climate-related displacement, which is projected to increase dramatically over the coming years as a result of the pandemic exacerbating food crises in the global South,” Carney told the Daily Wildcat via email.

Carney received the Fulbright Schuman award to support her research at the Migration Policy Centre in Florence, Italy for five months, where she will explore issues related to human rights and migration.

“The ultimate goal is to advocate for more integrated food security, agriculture, and migration/immigration policies that uphold the human right to food as well as recognize food insecurity as a legitimate reason for seeking asylum,” Carney said.

Due to travel difficulties caused by the pandemic, Carney has decided to postpone the award to next year.

Christopher Hamilton 

Christopher Hamilton is an associate professor for the lunar and planetary laboratory at the UA. His area of research relates to planetary analog research and volcanology. Hamilton explained that a planetary analog refers to a location on Earth that exhibits some similarities to another planetary environment.

“For my Fulbright research in Iceland, my projects mainly focus on lava-inducted hydrothermal systems associated with the 2014–2015 Holuhraun eruption and newly discovered subglacial volcanism associated with the northeastern end of the 1783–1784 Laki fissure-eruption,” Hamilton said via email.

However, with the new Geldingadalur eruption on the Reykjanes Peninsula, his emphasis is shifting to the study of this new active volcano.

Hamilton explained that he first traveled to Iceland through a study abroad program as an undergraduate student in 2002–03. Since then, he has returned to Iceland most summers but has not lived in Iceland since then. Therefore, for his sabbatical, he wanted to return to Iceland to build upon existing collaborations and establish new ones.

“The 2020–2021 Fulbright scholarship made this possible, and I consider myself very fortunate to have been able to move back to Reykjavík, engage with the local community, meet members [of the] Fulbright program and learn about their research,” Hamilton stated.

Sunggye Hong

Sunggye Hong is a UA associate professor of the Department of Disability and Psychoeducational Studies. His area of research is educational practices of students with visual impairments including personnel preparation, transition and technology. 

Hong's journey to apply to the Fulbright program began with identifying a hosting country. He explained that this process was relatively easy for him since he still has many friends and family members back in South Korea.

Hong explained that the experience of joining a talented group of researchers, practitioners and policy makers in a country other than your own while carrying the mission of contributing to promote mutual understanding of different cultures makes him very excited to be selected as a 2020 Fulbright U.S. scholar. 

“The opportunity to engage with local scholars, teachers, university students, and students with visual impairments in my hosting country will broaden my understanding of the diverse context of special education outside of the U.S.,” Hong stated via email.

Hong explained that he feels like his goal as a researcher has a real opportunity to come to fruition through this program. He expects numerous collaborative opportunities and professional level interactions with local scholars.

“I will have an exciting venue to talk about my research agenda, my colleagues, the University of Arizona, and the Department of Disability and Psychoeducational studies here in the U.S. to Korean network of professionals,” Hong stated.

Anna Ochoa O'Leary

Anna Ochoa O'Leary is a UA professor and department head of Mexican American Studies. Her area of research is focusing on the "undocumented immigration to the U.S., education, culture and urban politics of Mexican/U.S.-Mexican populations, the political economy of the U.S.-Mexico border and gender issues." 

O'Leary's Fulbright research investigated migrant women’s encounters with immigration enforcement agents. Mexico will be her host country for her Fulbright program.

O'Leary participates in several non-profit community-based groups, including the Coalición de Derechos Humanos and Fundación México. 

As well, O'Leary was co-principal investigator on a project researching how medical examiners and other officials develop protocols for identifying, counting and examining human remains of presumed undocumented border crossers in 44 counties along the U.S.-Mexico border.

David Pietz

David Pietz is a professor of Chinese history and the director of the global studies program in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences. He also holds the UNESCO Chair in Environmental History, as well as being a recipient of both the Carnegie and Guggenheim Fellowships to study conservation in China. 

Pietz came to the university in 2014 after teaching at Washington State University for 12 years. He is a professor of modern Chinese history, global studies and environmental history and enjoys biking and reading historical fiction in his free time. 

Pietz’s area of research focuses on the history of water in China and received the Fulbright to study rivers in China before the program was suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“This current project that was funded by the Fulbright in part is a history of the extinction of the baiji dolphin, and that case study is meant to explore the long-term questions of attitudes toward animals in China, the history of conservation or ideas about conservation in China and the introduction of conservation biology in China,” Pietz said. 

In researching for his most recent book over the next couple of years, Pietz will explore the connection between the biological and cultural significance of China’s Yangtze River throughout history. 

“Receiving a Fulbright is one of the most important endorsements of the value of your work, so having the support and the endorsement of a Fulbright Award is just extraordinarily meaningful to us as individual researchers and the community of research that we belong to,” Pietz said. “Not only is the award given to me, but it's also an endorsement of the importance of environmental history in China.” 


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