Each year, the Woodrow Wilson Undergraduate Fellowship Program awards grants of up to $10,000 to incoming freshmen and up to $7,500 to rising sophomores for original, independent research projects in the humanities, natural sciences, and social sciences. Students use the grants to pay for equipment, travel, and other research expenses associated with large-scale projects conducted over the course of their undergraduate careers.
Here’s what a few of the fellows have been up to lately:
Senior economics major Akshay Oberoi, a native of Bombay, India, has spent the last few summers returning to his homeland to study the country’s exploding film industry, known as Bollywood Cinema.
Bollywood is a huge economic engine for India—exporting roughly 1,000 Hindi films each year to the Middle East, China, and the United States. Oberoi says Bollywood today is the world’s largest film industry—and that films have become India’s leading export.
Unlike in the United States, though, where the industry supports the work of hundreds of movie stars, Bollywood is dominated by a few top actors and actresses—including one of Oberoi’s cousins, Vivek Oberoi, the “Brad Pitt” of India.
After spending several summers in Bombay interviewing people about their love for the films, Oberoi says he “became interested in why Bollywood is so hugely popular, especially among the poor. People will spend 40 rupee (about 90 cents) a month just to see a movie—and in India, for many people, that is a lot of money,” he notes.
Oberoi found that among many of India’s destitute, Bollywood stars become almost god-like, with people erecting wax statues of them and praying to them in their homes.
Bollywood films tend to feature musicals and dancing. They usually involve at least a little romance—although kissing and other steamy scenes are considered taboo. “For the poor, this is their main form of entertainment,” Oberoi says. “They use this as a way to get relief from their daily lives and struggles.... And there are a few actors who have come up from professions like driving a bus or a rickshaw. I think it gives people hope.”
Oberoi’s project will result in an hour-long documentary, shot in Bombay and the United States, which explores Bollywood’s social impact. “This has allowed me to combine my two passions—economics and film making,” he says.
Senior Marina Volfson also has spent time researching a subject that touches her family tree: the experience of Soviet Jewish immigrants in America.
Volfson, a history of science major, is examining the role language plays in the re-creation or redefinition of a cultural identity. Specifically, she is looking at the experiences of Soviet Jewish immigrants as they integrate into American life.
Volfson’s own family emigrated to the United States from Belarus when she was 5 years old. Like everyone in her family, she spoke Russian, but not Hebrew or Yiddish.
Her parents came from a generation of Russian Jews who under Soviet rule were culturally aware of their ethnicity but had no formal training in Judaism. “The synagogues were closed down, there were no Jewish day schools, no one spoke Hebrew or Yiddish,” Volfson says. “They had a notion of their Jewish identity. But it was a biological notion. It was not based on culture or religious practices.”
At first, Volfson wasn’t looking specifically at language. But after spending a semester in Paris, she began thinking about the isolating or integrating role that language could play in a person’s life.
Through Kenneth Moss, an assistant professor of history at the Krieger School, she was able to consult with noted political scholar Zvi Gitelman, of the University of Michigan, about her project.
“In speaking the languages, Hebrew and Yiddish, you are passing down the cultural identity,” Volfson says. “So maybe if the Soviet Jewish immigrants can reconnect with those languages, they can reconnect with their Jewish identity. Language could be the crossroads or the bridge for the Soviet Jews to identify with the newer American concept of being Jewish.”
Senior KeriAnn White has turned her love for everything glossy into a four-year study of the more serious side of beauty: business.
White, an art history major, admits she was obsessed with makeup during her high school years. But then an allergic reaction to soy products prompted her to begin investigating what Americans put on their faces.
This inquiry led to an interest in dermatology and the nation’s burgeoning beauty business. “I’ve always had a passion for these things,” says White. “But I also am interested in the moral judgment associated with beauty...I want to look at why people do certain things” in the name of beauty.
For example, she says, as late as 1938, American women had only two lipstick shades to choose from: Lady, a pale pink, or Hussy, a brighter red. “Essentially women had to decide who they identified with.... the demure woman or the hussy.” White says. “The hussy won out, hands down.”
At the same time, women were suffering from serious health ills associated with applying lead-based paints—white—to their faces to make their skin appear fairer. “Women were literally dropping over dead from this,” White says, “and still, they wouldn’t admit they were using the products.”
White says she sees similarities today in the nation’s multi-billion-dollar beauty industry. “We’ll still do almost anything for beauty,” she says, noting, for example, that Americans currently spend nearly $357 million a year on Botox treatments.
During the spring semester, White is traveling in the United States and abroad to complete a cultural comparison of beauty. She’ll look at the biological basis of beauty, examining factors such as facial symmetry, as well as cultural issues surrounding beauty. After graduation, she is considering a career in dermatology.