Faculty Honor Five Undergraduate Students With Faculty Scholar Awards

The 2017 Faculty Scholars: Caroline Fernelius, Gabrielle Stewart and Karen Xu. Not pictured are Lauren Bunce and John Lu. Photo by Megan Mendenhall/Duke Photography
The 2017 Faculty Scholars: Caroline Fernelius, Gabrielle Stewart and Karen Xu. Not pictured are Lauren Bunce and John Lu. Photo by Megan Mendenhall/Duke Photography

Through three years of study at Duke, the key lesson Gabrielle Stewart has learned is “to listen for silence.” She’s used that skill to do remarkable detective work on centuries-old items in the Rubenstein Library special collections that broke history’s silence and now allows us to know something about the people who made the items and how they were used.

One effort led librarians to rewrite the catalog for a 17th century Saxony manuscript. Originally believed to be a guestbook, Stewart’s research found that it instead served as a Stammbuch, a type of autograph book where the owner collects witticisms and other thoughts from colleagues and people he meets during travels.  It was, in practice, a “dynamic networking device for graduating university students” in early modern society,” Stewart said. 

In doing so, Stewart “discovered a collectivity of contributors whose voices had been obscured with the passage of time and [gave] them a new platform to share what they had to say.”

Her efforts in independent study impressed Duke faculty members, who named her one of the 2017 Faculty Scholars. Stewart shared the honor with Lauren Bunce, a Gender, Sexuality and Feminist Studies major, and John Lu, a Chemistry major.

Presented annually to juniors who have conducted independent research and show potential for innovative scholarship and a potential career in academe, the Faculty Scholars Award is the highest honor presented by Duke faculty to undergraduate students.

“I say this every year: This is one of my favorite events of the year,” said Carlos Rojas, chair of the Faculty Scholars committee that made the selections. “It’s always inspiring and humbling to see what these students have done in the way of independent research after only two and a half years.”

Honorable mentions went to Caroline Fernelius (English) and Karen Xu (Biomedical Engineering).

Stewart has been mentored by classical studies professor Clare Woods.  Under Woods and others, Stewart was a regular visitor to Special Collections. This year, with Professor William Johnson, Stewart is exploring the archives of the American Society of Papyrologists.  She intends to write an institutional history, which will be included on the society’s website.

The other Faculty Scholars were also engaged in exceptional and imaginative studies. Lu took an initial interest in the study of neglected tropical diseases (NTD) and ended up assessing international strategies for eradicating these diseases and offering recommendations for more effective distribution of medications and vaccines.

NTDs include 18 different diseases that primarily affect the poor and those without access to medical care, and because of climate change, they’re growing in their reach. Lu worked with a non-governmental health care organization in Tanzania to study disease prevalence, the efficacy of mass drug administration and the reasons for re-emergence of some of these NTDs. His work has combined the fields of economics, biology, chemistry, public policy and global health.

“I remain motivated by the stories that people living with NTDs have shared with me during my research experiences abroad,” Lu said.  “Those stories have been a gift.  But it comes with the responsibility of sharing that knowledge with people back home through op-eds and political activism.  This has imbued my desire to be an academic with a higher purpose.”

Back at Duke, he started the first house course on NTDs and started doing research in a Duke lab on Epstein-Barr Virus. He said his goal is to set up a lab to study parasitic diseases and potential therapies.

Coming to Duke with an interest in exploring the concept of freedom, Bunce’s research started when Writing 101 teacher Matthew Whitt wrote the phrase “epistemology of ignorance” on one of her response papers.  This ignited an ongoing conversation between Whitt and Bunce about how ignorance and distorted truths promote gender inequality and other forms of oppression.

“This concept shifted the scope of my academic questions from the individual’s access to opportunity to various social groups’ access to what counts as true,” Bunce said. “Suddenly I had a framework that could explain social inequality and humanity’s inability to ‘fix it.’”

Bunce brings that focus to other courses, making connections between several of them and in at least once case writing an extra research paper so she could continue her explorations.  With English Professor Thomas Ferraro, Bunce conducted an independent study of female characters in Henry James novels, exploring how they define social norms by diverging from them.

In a class on “Interpreting Bodies” with Professor Elizabeth Grosz, Bunce examined interactions between students and Duke writing consultants that was later presented both to the Duke writing consultants and to a regional writing center conference. Her study of how both consultants and students read the other’s body as “texts” and how that affects how they communicate with each other. Her goal was to help consultants promote more authentic interactions that improved communications in the sessions.-

Rojas praised the two honorable mention recipients for their studies and said the nominations this year in general were “high-quality and involved work across multiple fields.”

Fernelius studied the revision practices of American poet Wallace Stevens. The genesis of the research is her interest in the production of art in the United States, a country with contradictory impulses toward art and where the most lasting works, as with Stevens, both represent tradition and subvert it. Since that project, Fernelius has also conducted studies on Walt Whitman and Kate Chopin.

Since her freshman year, Xu has worked in Pratt Professor Brad Hoffman’s biomedical lab studying the process by which the cell converts mechanical cues into biochemically detectable signals during cell migration. This process plays a critical role in cancer pathogenesis and wound healing. That experience led to a summer research stint at Washington University followed by a return to Hoffman’s lab.

Pratt’s Hoffman said Xu showed an initiative of the type that “you hope to see in graduate students. To see Karen do it at the beginning of her junior year is exceptional.”