Campus & Community

Program allows gifted scholars to kick back and … work

5 min read

Abena Dove Osseo-Asare studies African medicinal plants, including their fate at the hands of modern science and global patent systems.

Ceren Belge investigates honor killings in Turkey and Israel and the informal spheres of law that exist within some nations.

Harris Mylonas is a student of assimilation, with a particular interest in the making of co-nationals, minorities, and refugees within the Balkans.

Elizabeth Levy Paluck is an expert on intergroup prejudices in Rwanda, and how they are affected by mass media. She spent this summer in Sudan, pursuing similar work.

These four young social scientists are among 10 scholars sponsored this year by the Harvard Academy for International and Area Studies, an affiliate of the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs.

The Academy Scholars Program provides two years of uninterrupted study and writing at the University. (Some scholars, like Osseo-Asare and Mylonas, choose to split the two years.) The slots are hotly competitive. This year, 250 applications rolled in.

The academy, headquartered in an old Victorian house on Cambridge Street, was founded in 1986 on the initiative of Harvard economist (and then-dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences) Henry Rosovsky, who is now the Lewis P. and Linda L. Geyser University Professor emeritus.

Rosovsky and others feared that without grounding in the real world the social sciences might be, in the words of the Academy Web site, “left to the freefall of pure theory.”

So in its 22 years, the academy has been a champion of combining the social sciences with the real worlds of “area studies,” a term for a scholarly immersion in the language, culture, and traditions of other societies.

Since 1986, the academy has provided academic shelter to nearly 100 promising scholars — about 10 scholars for every two-year cycle — in law, political science, psychology, history, economics, sociology, and anthropology. Most academy scholars have been newly minted Ph.D.s or junior faculty at prestigious universities. All are students of cultures and regions outside the West.

“It takes courage to step outside your own culture,” said academy executive officer (and scholar of French culture) Laurence H. Winnie. The scholars, he said, “are really plugged into these worlds.”

The young researchers have worked in a range of languages, from Greek and Mandarin to Arabic and Twi (the main language of Ghana, where Osseo-Asare has done much of her work on African science). And many have lived “a year or two or three or seven in other countries,” including “some dangerous places,” said Winnie.

Meanwhile, the scholars “bring a very immediate kind of reality,” he said. “They’re here to assist Harvard in its intellectual enterprise.”

One-time academy chairman Jorge I. Domínguez, who is also Harvard’s vice provost for International Affairs, called the decades-old scholars program a “precursor” to the present Harvard push to encourage study abroad. “It was an early affirmation of the value of work in other countries,” he said, “and now the rest of the University is catching up to it.”

Other Harvard venues embrace area studies, said Timothy J. Colton, a senior scholar at the academy and the Morris and Anna Feldberg Professor of Government and Russian Studies. Those include the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, where he teaches, and the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies, as well as the Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies. “But here,” Colton said of area studies at the academy, “it’s privileged.”

Mylonas, a recent Yale Ph.D. on leave from George Washington University, would agree.

In his neat white-walled office on Cambridge Street, the Greece-born political scientist displayed two vivid signs of privilege: time for culture and time to write. There was a wall of calendar listings — “I integrate wherever I am,” he said — and a computer screen lined with text. (Mylonas is turning his dissertation into a book.)

Academy scholars take from Harvard — a stipend, money for travel and research — and they also give back, said Mylonas. They are resources for Harvard students still immersed in degree work. And their scholarship is so new and their time abroad so recent, he said, that they “bring a fresh understanding of what’s going on in the world.”

Osseo-Asare ’98, Ph.D. 2005 — a historian of science on leave from the University of California, Berkeley — is using part of her second year as an academy scholar to finish a book. It’s on plant-based traditional African remedies, the African scientists investigating them, and the potential the remedies have for awakening pharmaceutical markets on the continent.

The program “is a real gift,” she said — no teaching obligations, “absolute freedom, (and) all the support we need to write and create what we’ve come to do.”

Osseo-Asare’s book will explore five traditional medicines — from Ghana, South Africa, and Madagascar — that address leukemia, malaria, cardiac health, impotence, and appetite disorders. She’s also a champion of scholars using digital audio and video in their research — a fieldwork approach she is now employing in a parallel study of science policy in Ghana.

The Harvard Academy supports young scholars whose work may only later bear practical fruit, said Osseo-Asare.

Its mission also acknowledges that the academic world sometimes sidesteps the scientific achievements of non-Western cultures.

That’s a blindness that never affected her, said Osseo-Asare, whose father — born in Ghana — is a professor of metals science at Penn State. Two of his close academic friends are a mathematician from Rwanda and a chemist from Nigeria.

It’s a cultural blindness that the Harvard Academy is addressing too. Without such fixes, said Osseo-Asare, “There’s a whole class of people missing from the literature.”