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Chun, Saal awarded Guggenheim Fellowships

Professors receive awards to fund research on data analytics in new media, water on Earth, moon

Two faculty members, Alberto Saal, professor of earth, environmental and planetary science, and Wendy Chun, professor of modern culture and media and chair of the department, have been awarded Guggenheim Fellowships, the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation announced April 6.

The organization was founded by U.S. Senator Simon Guggenheim and his wife in 1925 in honor of their late son. The foundation offers the Guggenheim Fellowship to further the scholastic and artistic endeavors of researchers in any field of knowledge, according to its website.

The foundation typically awards about 200 fellowships to a pool of between 3,500 and 4,000 applicants annually. This year, 178 people were chosen for fellowships from a pool of over 3,000 applicants. In order to apply, applicants must submit a short essay about their research interests, create a proposal containing plans for the projects they wish to pursue and obtain letters of reference from colleagues and experts in their fields.

During the competitive selection process, the Guggenheim website states, applicants are first pooled with others from the same field and reviewed by experts in that field, all of whom are former Guggenheim fellows. The recommendations of these experts are then sent to a committee of selection, which determines the number of awards to be given in each field.

Saal received a bachelor’s of science degree and a PhD in geology from the Universidad Nacional de Córdoba and a PhD in oceanography from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology/Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

His research entails examining volatile elements in moon dust collected from the Apollo missions. This dust may indicate the existence of water both on the surface and within the Earth and moon at the time of their formation.

A French group disagrees with Saal’s hypothesis, arguing that water came to Earth and the moon at a much later date.

“I thought: One way to solve (the disagreement) in a civil way is to work together … and they said yes,” Saal said. The prospect of working with his French colleagues — and the financial capital he would need to do so — prompted Saal to apply for the Guggenheim Fellowship.

Using his fellowship, Saal plans to spend a year-long sabbatical in France trying to obtain concrete proof to support his hypothesis.

“I wanted funding that would give me some level of independence,” Saal said.

Chun, who has a bachelor’s degree in engineering and a PhD in English literature, works to tie these two fields together in order to analyze digital media.

Chun applied to the Guggenheim Fellowship in order to fund her sabbatical and follow in the footsteps of the many talented scholars and artists who have earned the honor before.

“You send out an application never expecting to receive the fellowship, so it was a surprise,” Chun said.

Chun intends to use the fellowship to start a project looking at the ways that race, class, gender and sexuality are re-emerging in data analytics. The project will reveal assumptions underlying supposedly neutral machine-learning algorithms that group individuals based on certain identifiers and will create strategies to disaggregate these assumptions.

“Usually (the fellowship) goes to someone who works on more traditional things such as film, radio and television, and my work is in the field of new media,” Chun said.  “I’m very grateful, and it’s a wonderful opportunity.”

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