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Two Stony Brook doctoral candidates are among the winners of the 2020 Mellon/American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) Dissertation Completion Fellowships. The prestigious fellowships support a year of research and writing to help advanced graduate students in the humanities and social sciences in the last year of PhD dissertation writing and are awarded to 65 students each year.

Gonzalo Romero Sommer
Gonzalo Romero Sommer

Stony Brook’s honorees are Gonzalo Romero Sommer, Department of History, and Megan Hines, Art History and Criticism program. They become just the fourth and fifth Stony Brook students to win the award in the past 10 years. The Mellon/ACLS Dissertation Completion Fellowship is considered one of the premier awards for arts, humanities and social sciences.

Romero Sommer’s project, titled Alternating Currents: Electrical Power and Shifting Political Power in Peru, examines efforts at state formation and nation-building by analyzing the process of electrification in the central Peruvian Andes from the Great Depression through the Cold War, particularly the Mantaro hydroelectric system, completed in 1973. Although a technological success, the electrical grid physically unified large parts of the country and simultaneously highlighted divisions in Peru’s political class, paradoxically underscoring the political weakness of the very state that built it.

“The link between Peruvian geography and economic development has always interested me,” said Romero Sommer, who, thanks to his father’s job as a diplomat, experienced growing up in several countries, including Peru, Chile, Argentina, Portugal, Sweden and Canada. “My grandfather was a noted geographer, economist and historian in Peru, and therefore it was a topic always discussed by my family. As my dissertation project came together, this family link was not lost on me.”

Romero Sommer considers himself fortunate to receive the fellowship in these difficult times and says the award will allow him to focus solely on writing and completing his dissertation.

“Gonzalo is the type of creative student drawn to our thematically based, conceptually grounded History graduate program at Stony Brook,” said Paul Gootenberg, Romero Sommer’s advisor and distinguished professor and chair of the Department of History. “He’s a determined interdisciplinary thinker whose work deeply matters; he reflects what we’re doing best in the History Department. I’m proud to work personally with him.”

“A PhD program is a long and difficult process that has many ups and downs,” described Romero Sommer. “To receive such a grant means validation from a very prestigious academic organization, which signals that one is on the right path.“

Looking ahead, he hopes to find a faculty position in history or social science in a university somewhere in the Americas.

Megan Hines
Megan Hines

Hines’ project, Art and Biotech: Bay Area Networks, 1965-1985, considers artists who examined the logic and ethics of biotech and the ability to engineer life using new media, including video, audio and digital computing.

“I’ve been interested in art history and the history of science and technology since I started going to museums in Washington, D.C. as a kid,” said Hines, who grew up in a Virginia suburb of the city. “My favorites were the National Museum of Natural History and The Phillips Collection, a small museum of modern and contemporary art. The Phillips has a painting by El Greco, The Repentant St. Peter, 1600-05, that knocks me out every time I see it. Seeing how that collection made connections across different moments in history encouraged me to study modern and contemporary art as an undergrad.”

Hines said her dissertation grew out of her parallel interests in art history, media studies, and the history of science and technology.

“When I started my PhD at Stony Brook, I saw the histories of art, science and technology intersecting in the development of biotechnologies, and decided to pursue that as my dissertation research,” she explained.

She said the Mellon/ACLS fellowship will allow her to continue her research and write the final chapter of her dissertation. She also plans to visit the Judy Malloy Papers at Duke University Library and the materials of the now-defunct Cetus Corporation, one of the first biotech companies, at Stanford University Special Collections as part of her research. Malloy is an artist, poet, and an early creator of online interactive and collaborative fiction.

“It’s really satisfying getting confirmation that others see my research to be as important and relevant as I do,” said Hines. “Writing a dissertation is exciting but can also be lonely and sometimes feels like shouting into a void, so it’s been encouraging getting positive feedback.” 

Following graduation, Hines plans to find a faculty position that combines research and teaching.

“I’ve found that teaching has played a crucial part in the development of my research and that I enjoy incorporating my research into my teaching, so for me they complement each other,” she said.        

“Being awarded the Mellon is an enormous affirmation that a scholar is making a real contribution, particularly at a challenging time like the present when we all sense that the research and thought that make up our shared culture is at risk,” said Katy Siegel, Hines’ advisor and professor in the College of Arts and Sciences, specializing in Postwar and Contemporary European and American Art, Material and Social Histories, Curatorial Studies. “Megan works at the intersection of the arts, the humanities, and the sciences, and this kind of scholarship is a necessity, not a luxury, for civic society.”

Hines encourages anyone interested in applying for fellowships to find ones that will support their interests and goals, and not to worry about the prestige factor.

“Talk to people who have won the fellowship in previous years,” she said. “They are the best source of information about the application process and what benefits the fellowship actually provides. Finally, give yourself plenty of time to work on the application and get as much feedback on it as you can.”

Formed in 1919, ACLS is a nonprofit federation of 75 scholarly organizations. In addition to stewarding and representing its member organizations, ACLS employs its endowment to support scholarship in the humanities and social sciences and to advocate for the centrality of the humanities in today’s world.

— Robert Emproto

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