Mellon Foundation to help endow interdisciplinary fellowships

Washington University has received a $1 million grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to endow the “Modeling Interdisciplinary Inquiry” postdoctoral program in Arts & Sciences, announced Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton. The $1 million matching grant was awarded shortly after the University fulfilled its own $2 million commitment to endow the program this fall, more than one year ahead of schedule.

“Modeling Interdisciplinary Inquiry” began in 2000 with support from The Mellon Foundation, and, thanks to its matching grant, the program will now enjoy a permanent place in the University’s teaching and research mission.

The program — now in its ninth year and directed by Steven Zwicker, Ph.D., the Stanley Elkin Professor in the Humanities and professor of English, both in Arts & Sciences — ensures a steady flow of outstanding young academics to the University with an unusual range of original and provocative scholarship that seeks to bridge knowledge among humanities disciplines and between the humanities and the social sciences.

“The success of the fellowship program is a testament both to the quality and merit of Washington University’s strong program supporting interdisciplinary studies,” Wrighton said. “Thanks to the generous endowment provided by The Mellon Foundation, the University will be able to provide opportunities for Mellon fellows for years to come.”

“Modeling Interdisciplinary Inquiry” helps foster the development of both interdisciplinary scholarship and teaching. It funds at least two postdoctoral fellows in Arts & Sciences each year with fellowships that span four semesters, three of which are spent in residence at the University participating in teaching and research while one semester is devoted solely to research. A senior faculty member serves as a mentor for the fellows’ teaching and research endeavors.

The fellowships help scholars in the humanities and social sciences focus on research while also fulfilling teaching duties — facilitating their development as teachers and scholars from their graduate education to their first tenure-track appointments.

While most scholars in the sciences spend time in a postdoctoral programs — which offer training to scholars in the first stages of their teaching and research careers — after receiving their doctorates, such fellowships have traditionally not been as prevalent in the humanities and social sciences. This makes the existence of the “Modeling Interdisciplinary Inquiry” program all the more valuable.

“The Mellon ‘Modeling Interdisciplinary Inquiry’ grant makes a significant contribution to our University and the intellectual growth of outstanding young scholars,” said Edward S. Macias, Ph.D., executive vice chancellor, dean of Arts & Sciences and the Barbara and David Thomas Distinguished Professor in Arts & Sciences.

“I am especially grateful for the leadership professor Steven Zwicker has brought to this project,” Macias said. “His capable stewardship of the initial grant from the foundation led to their suggesting he submit a proposal for an endowment. Without professor Zwicker, this valuable program would not exist.”

The program promotes interdisciplinary research within the humanities and social sciences, and even in areas traditionally thought of as outside of such disciplines, such as medicine, science, business and law.

The interdisciplinary focus of the program is exemplified by its steering committee, which is made up of faculty from across the humanities and the social sciences.

“This kind of collegial collaboration — collaboration that already exists and is so productive in the sciences — becomes an important addition to the traditional model of the single and often isolated scholar,” Zwicker said.

“The faculty in the humanities and social sciences see this postdoctoral program as an important initiative and an exciting opportunity both for the University and for new scholars trained in and wishing to advance the conversation, the collegiality and the modes of inquiry within and across disciplines,” Zwicker said. “Such advancement has become essential to the growth of the University and the intellectual development of its faculty and students.”

One of the University’s current postdoctoral fellows, Deborah I. Levine, Ph.D., whose research focuses on the evolution of medicine and understandings of nutrition before and after the turn of the 20th century, credits the interdisciplinary focus of “Modeling Interdisciplinary Inquiry” for allowing her the flexibility to incorporate the study of history, technology and medicine into her research.

“The program gives scholars freedom they would not otherwise have,” Levine said.

The Andrew W. Mellon postdoctoral fellows for the 2007-08 school year are Levine, Mayanthi L. Fernando, Ph.D, and Matthew Gill, Ph.D.

Fernando earned a doctorate in anthropology from the University of Chicago in 2006. Fernando’s research centers on Islam, secularism and the politics of difference in France. She is teaching a class titled “The Politics of Secularism.”

Gill earned a doctorate in sociology in 2006 from the London School of Economics and Political Science, and his research revolves around the ethics and process that drive accountants to make particular professional decisions. Gill is teaching a senior class seminar titled “Economic Life in Modern Social and Cultural Theory.”

Levine completed a doctorate in the history of science at Harvard University in 2007 and is teaching a class titled “From Leeches to Lasers: Medicine and Health in the United States.”

Many past Mellon fellows have moved on to positions at esteemed institutions of higher education, such as Richard C. Keller, Ph.D., (2000-01) an assistant professor of medical history and bioethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison; Nicholas S. Sammond, Ph.D., (2000-03) an assistant professor of cinema studies at the University of Toronto; David Ciepley, Ph.D., (2002-04) a lecturer in political philosophy, policy and law at the University of Virginia; Sloane Mahone, D.Phil., (2002-04) a lecturer in the history of medicine at the Welcome Institute and Oxford University; and Dana E. Katz, Ph.D., (2003-05) a visiting assistant professor in art history and the humanities at Reed College.

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation supports a wide range of initiatives to strengthen selective private research universities in the United States, with particular emphasis on the humanities and the “humanistic” social sciences.

Its philosophy is to build, strengthen and sustain such institutions and their core capacities. With approximately $6 billion in assets, it currently makes grants available in five core program areas: higher education, museums and art conservation, performing arts, conservation and the environment, and public affairs.

For more information about the “Modeling Interdisciplinary Inquiry” program, please visit