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Current and Past Whiting Award Recipients

2017 | 2016 | 2015 | 20142013

Megan McDonie, PhD Candidate, Department of History

Title: Explosive Encounters: Volcanic Landscapes, Indigenous Knowledge, and Cultural Exchange in Early Modern Mesoamerica

My research investigates human-environmental interactions during Spain’s colonial project in Mesoamerica during the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries. I focus on volcanoes as sites of cultural and intellectual exchange among Nahuas, Kaqchikel Maya, and Spaniards. Nahuas and Kaqchikel Maya lived among volcanoes, which they considered as animate community members. Spaniards relied on their preconceived ideas about sacred mountains and indigenous guides as they became accustomed to this new terrain. Volcanoes offered places for rituals, provided fertile soil and water sources, and became the loci of empirical expeditions aimed at expanding knowledge of the natural and subterranean worlds. This project links ethnohistory and history of science to examine how the dynamics of conquest and colonization shaped perceptions of the natural environment. By privileging indigenous knowledge about the environment, this project expands the traditionally accepted geographic boundaries of early modern knowledge production and it emphasizes the importance of indigenous knowledge in natural histories.

Janet Purdy, PhD Candidate, Department of Art History

Title: Beyond the Façade: The Messages Behind Carved Swahili Doors

The Swahili are a complex aggregation of people who live along the strip of East African coastline that stretches from Somalia to Mozambique. Societal development correlates with the cumulative effect of eight centuries of interactions with trade partners around the Indian Ocean Rim and the African interior. Swahili visual culture has received little attention in historical scholarship. This project examines the relationship between material objects and the formation of Swahili culture and identity. It focuses on the role that symbols in woodcarvings and the definition of architectural space played in the lived experience of nineteenth century Zanzibar in Tanzania. A hallmark of Swahili woodcarving is the ornamental blend of imagery that reflects the centuries of diverse exchanges that have not yet been systematically examined. I argue that a comparative analysis and interpretation of design elements, iconography, and coded visual messages will unlock a better understanding of Swahili culture and syncretism. 

Lucy Harbor, MS Candidate, Department of Recreation, Park, and Tourism Managment

Title: Marketplace of the Maya Mystique: Emic Views on Appropriate and Appropriated Use of Indigenous Culture at Lake Atitlán, Guatemala

Through visual imagery such as archeological ruins and colorful ethnic clothing, tourism encourages travelers worldwide to seek out windows into the way the “exotic other” lives. In many cases, the people to whom cultural artifacts belong are excluded from the interpretation of and the economic benefits derived from tourism-related market integration. Yet scholars have identified ways that the commodification of culture has provided opportunities for the preservation—even revitalization—of indigenous identity. This ethnographic study will investigate the ways that the market-driven capitalist enterprise of tourism influences knowledge, institutions, and materiality in the Tz’utujil, Kaqchikel, and K’iche villages surrounding Lake Atitlán, Guatemala. Adapting Ostrom’s common-pool resource theory to the use of cultural resources, this research will identify and describe the institutions and the means through which local indigenous communities manage for the depletability and excludability of their cultural resources in the context of a growing tourism industry in their region.


Sarah Eissler, PhD Candidate, Department of Agricultural Economics, Sociology, and Education, Penn State

Title: Investigating Gender dimensions in Response to Climate Change: A Mixed methods Approach on Smallholder Cacao Farms in South Sulawesi, Indonesia

Abstract: Women are often excluded from climate change discourse; they are disproportionately impacted by climate change, yet they are often viewed as vulnerable beneficiaries rather than capable change agents. Women play a critical role in natural resource management and have a unique understanding of the natural resources around them. In Indonesia, women and men are both actively engaged in smallholder cacao production; however, women here are marginalized from participating in decision and policy-making. This project aims to investigate the gender dimensions of the impacts of climate change in smallholder cacao production in South Sulawesi, Indonesia. Utilizing a mixed-methodological approach, this project will capture the voices and knowledge of local cacao farmers and communities, particularly those of women, and bring this data to larger development projects implementing climate-smart agricultural (CSA) practices for the purpose of building household and farm resilience to climate change, as well as to the broader international development community.

Annie Marcinek, MS Candidate, Department of Recreation, Park, and Tourism Management, Penn State

Title: Extracting From the Rainforest: Indigeneity and Ecotourism in the Ecuadorian Amazon

Abstract: Several indigenous communities in the Napo Province of the Ecuadorian Amazon have turned to ecotourism as an alternative, sustainable development strategy in the face of harmful extractive industries, namely oil. The literature suggest that new income proves insufficient for true sustainable development of indigenous communities. The purpose of this ethnographic field study is to better understand the interaction of indigenous knowledge and new forms of tourism-related knowledge within three projects located in the Napo Province of the Ecuadorian Amazon. Opportunities to participate in management, decision-making, and ideally, ownership of tourism projects are explored as a means to “extract” meaningful environmental, social, and economic benefits from ecotourism among local indigenous communities in this bio-diverse area of the planet.

Narmadha (Nari) Senanayake, PhD Candidate, Department of Geography, Penn State

Title: Cultivating Health in Landscapes of Uncertainty: Mystery Kidney Disease and the Return of Native Seed in Dry Zone Sri Lanka

Abstract: Since the first reports of a mysterious form of Chronic Kidney Disease (CKDu) emerged in the early 1990s, Sri Lanka’s dry zone has become the epicenter of an epidemic that is slowly crippling the island’s rice belt. While the disease’s etiology is the subject of scientific debate, narratives that link CKDu to the agrarian landscape captivate popular imagination and influence farmer’s cultivation practices, albeit in uneven, haphazard, and poorly understood ways. The proposed project examines: 1) How ideas about the environment and its links to disease are formed, reinforced, and circulated; 2) How farmer’s cultivation practices are changing in response to the problem of CKDu, particularly through the repatriation of native seeds and the return of indigenous cultivation techniques; and 3) How relationships between indigenous knowledge, health, and agricultural modernization in the dry zone have changed over time and shapes the dry zone’s positioning vis-à-vis the Sri Lankan state. Findings of this research will provide new insights into the drivers and consequences of agrarian transformation in dry zone Sri Lanka while also informing emerging scholarship within geography and the social sciences on indigenous knowledge and health and environment interactions.


Lindsay K. Butler-Trump, MS Candidate, Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders, Penn State

Title: Knowledge of Numerical Language Among Speakers of Yucatec Maya

Abstract: Language is the vehicle by which human cultures transmit knowledge. In this increasingly globalized world, indigenous languages and the associated cultural knowledge are at high risk of endangerment and extinction. In this study, I investigate the changing use of language across generations of speakers of Yucatec Maya in Mexico. I focus on the use of indigenous knowledge to talk about numerical concepts, such as ways of counting objects. There is evidence that numerical knowledge varies across cultures, and the question of how much of human cognition is universal and how much is culturally determined remains unanswered. Speakers of Yucatec Maya provide a unique perspective on this question because speakers may make use of a rich vocabulary for categorizing and counting objects in the natural world. The goal of this project is to describe some of the richness of indigenous numerical knowledge and examine its changing use across generations of speakers.

Bilikisu Elewonibi, PhD Candidate, Health Policy and Administration and Demography, Penn State

Title: Evaluation of a Breast Cancer Screening Program in Nigeria

Abstract: Low breast cancer screening levels have been cited as the biggest cause of breast cancer mortality in Nigeria. The Optimal Cancer Care Foundation (OCCF) is the only stand-alone breast cancer screening center in Lagos, Nigeria, providing subsidized screening to all women. The PEN-3 cultural model will be used to guide an evaluability assessment to determine if the OCCF program expectations are realistic and achievable in the context it operates, provide recommendations on areas for improvement, and understand perceptions about breast cancer prevention within a cultural framework. The study will use cultural and indigenous information from participant stakeholder interviews to develop a culturally grounded program and recommendations.

Kelli Herr, Undergraduate, Community, Environment and Development – International Development Option, Penn State

Title: The potential nutritional and social impact of leveraging indigenous knowledge and advancements in agricultural technology in Zambia

Abstract: Food insecurity and malnutrition are long-standing problems faced by the people of Zambia. Foreign aid agencies continue to try and alleviate such issues, but often fail to provide optimal results because they devalue the legitimacy of indigenous knowledge. By understanding the Zambian knowledge which has been orally passed down through numerous generations, the project aims to obtain information on the nutritional value of indigenous vegetables by engaging in personal conversations and observation. Through these conversations, the project aims to answer fundamental research questions. A goal of the project is to foster trusting relationships between the researchers and locals which can in turn provide innovators in the agricultural technology field an understanding of the Zambian point of view. The project aims to test the growth of indigenous vegetables, identified as highly nutritious by locals, in modern affordable greenhouse technologies with the intent of yielding year-round crops to promote health and food security.


Kira Hydock, Undergraduate, Veterinary and Biomedical Sciences, Penn State

Title: Culture and Animal Husbandry: An Investigation into the Traditional Methods and Cultural Constraints of Goat Production and Management Among the People of the Muhanga District of Rwanda

Abstract: Goat production is one of the branches of animal husbandry that is economically important in both Africa and the West. However, in Africa, the goat is not only an economically important commodity, but it also holds a great cultural significance as well. For example, goat ownership in Rwanda symbolizes wealth and heightened social status. There have been several studies conducted concerning goat production in Rwanda, but very few have focused on combining the cultural production methods with a scientifically based approach as a means of increasing goat production. This study aims to capture current indigenous goat herding practices and assess possible combinations of traditional and scientific approaches to goat herding in attempts to maximize goat production, particularly among the goat herders of the Muhanga District of Rwanda.

Katie Tavenner, PhD Candidate, Rural Sociology and Women’s Studies, Penn State

Title: Co-Management Regimes in Protected Areas of South Africa: Implications for Gender Equity in the Forest Food Security Nexus

Abstract: The democratization of biodiversity management in South Africa has been steadily increasing since the end of Apartheid in 1994, yet the challenge of reconciling complex and often conflicting relationships between poverty, inequitable access to resources, and the protection of biodiversity continues in the country’s protected areas system. This research explores the social and power relations between conservation authorities and the livelihood needs of rural people at the Dwesa-Cwebe Nature Reserve. How the current co-management regime is shaping resident people’s relationship with the environment and rural livelihood practices – particularly with regards to forest dependency, access to resources, and agro-ecological practices is examined. A feminist political ecology framework is used in conjunction with the forest-food security nexus to understand how gender issues are implicated in co-management planning and decision-making.

Lan Xue, PhD Candidate, Department of Recreation, Park and Tourism Management, Penn State

Title: Rural Tourism and Reconstruction of Rural Identity in China

Abstract: The overall purpose of this study is to explore how rural identity shapes and is shaped by the development of rural tourism in China. By using Chongdu Valley in China as a case study site, this study will uncover the dynamic interaction between residents’ rural identity and rural tourism development, including: (a) how residents’ rural identity has set the stage and influenced tourism development, and (b) how their individual and collective identities have changed along with tourism development. Secondary (i.e., on-site archival research) and primary (i.e., participant observation, individual interviews, focus group discussions, and a survey) data collection methods will be used to address the study purpose. The results will contribute to the study of indigenous knowledge as well as the broader field of tourism studies by showcasing the role of rural tourism in changing rural cultures and traditions in the increasingly urbanized world.


Svitlana Iarmolenko, PhD Candidate, Department of Recreation, Park and Tourism Management, Penn State

Title: Immigration experiences of Ukrainian-Americans as a basis for culturally grounded narratives

Abstract: According to 2010 census data, immigrants comprise approximately 13% of the US population, and this percentage is expected to increase. Despite this growth in immigration, the US government has devoted its efforts to immigration enforcement rather than social programs and services that help immigrants cope with issues such as cultural shock and resulting psychological disorders. Moreover, each immigrant group is different due to contexts of exit and reception, so no one-size-fits-all approach to social programming is acceptable. This study focuses on Ukrainian immigrants, a sizable ethnic group in the U.S. Low English proficiency and economic struggles of the fourth wave of Ukrainian immigrants pose significant challenges to successful adjustment. We propose documenting the knowledge and strategies accumulated by this group to create culturally grounded narratives that can be used in creating tailored products and services that evoke a sense of nostalgia and support identity continuity, thus improving Ukrainian immigrants’ well-being.

Vincent Ricciardi, MS Candidate, Department of Geography, Penn State

Title: Incorporating Indigenous Knowledge into Development: The Intersection of Informal Seed Systems and Marketized Crops

Abstract: Informal seed systems (ISS) depend on social capital for transactions of open pollinated seed in subsistence agricultural communities, in contrast to formal seed systems based on closed pollinated seed and currency exchange tied to larger markets. These systems have been categorized as vital to food security and in situ (on farm) agrobiodiversity conservation but are increasingly at risk to market-oriented development. This study seeks to investigate ISS in three regions of Ghana (Tamale, Upper West, and Upper East) to explore ethnically Wa and Dagomba farmers’ indigenous knowledge, rationales, opportunities, and constraints of seed saving and trading. Using mixed methods, including Participatory Rural Appraisal and Geographic Information Science (GIS) to render trade and knowledge exchange networks, this research aims towards better understanding the vulnerabilities of ISS. This research will provide recommendations to local and government organizations to promote enduring food security in the region by positive interaction with local knowledge systems.