Julie Chamberlain receives 2016 Cosmos Scholars Award from the Cosmos Club Foundation

What is your area of interest within American Studies? Were you always interested in the field?

When I came into GW’s American Studies department, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect because my MA and BA are in religion. But I had the sense (partly because I’d seen the work of my now advisors) that it would push me in new and exciting directions. I also wasn’t quite sure that I wanted religion to be the explicit focus of my research, so an AMST program allowed for a little bit of wiggle room. So far, I’m really glad I took the leap because it’s fun to put these fields in conversation with one another. For example, my dissertation sits at the intersection of American religion and politics, U.S. media and cultural studies, and transnationalism—fields that an AMST department has allowed and encouraged me to bring together.

Can you explain what the Cosmos Scholars Grant is and how it will support your work?

The Cosmos Scholars Grant is awarded by the Cosmos Club, a D.C.-based social club and organization founded in 1878 that, among other things, promotes intellectual exchange by awarding research grants to graduate students in the D.C. area. My proposal was titled “’A Saint for Our Times': Mother Teresa, U.S. Healthcare, and the Humanitarian Ethic,” and I’ll use the funding to facilitate further research on the first chapter of my dissertation, part of which examines the way that Americans turned to Mother Teresa to reassess standard “Western” engagement with medical care, end-of-life issues, and notions of death and disability. I’ll likely travel to Los Angeles and Colorado Springs to follow up on some research leads. This particular research will contribute my broader dissertation, which explores the influence of prominent “global” religious icons—including Mother Teresa, the Dalai Lama, and Desmond Tutu—on U.S. culture and politics since the 1970s. One of my main claims is that the popularity of these figures points to a significant expansion of Americans’ thinking about moral and religious authority in the late and post-Cold War period. I’m particularly interested in how these figures came to embody compassion for U.S. audiences and the way that their appeals relied on narratives and visual representations of suffering in the global South. 

What made you decide to apply, and what was the application process like? What are you most excited for?

Graduate students are often told to apply for as many grants as possible, given that our funds are limited. So, that is certainly part of it. Second, I like that Cosmos Club grants aren’t tied to any particular archive or topic, which allows for a bit more freedom when crafting an ideal research trip. The hardest part of putting together an application like this is describing your whole dissertation project and your specific research plans in one page. You’re forced to make hard decisions about what information is the most valuable. It can actually be a very productive exercise. What I’m really looking forward to is getting the chance to following up on some of the exciting research leads that I’ve found, with the expectation that it will lead to a more truly national and transnational dissertation. There’s also a chance that I’ll get to share my research at a Cosmos Club event, which would be really fun and a much different experience than an academic conference.  

What advice would you give to a student considering applying for a grant of this sort? 

I’m definitely in need of more advice than I can give! But one thing that I think helped (which I’ve learned from others) is to be very specific when describing your plans for the money, especially when funding is not tied to a particular archive. The other thing for an open grant like this, which I’m working on, is being able to describe your interventions into different scholarly fields in the broadest possible way, while at the same time making specific and concrete arguments. That’s hard, but there are resources out there that can help students navigate the expectations of grant proposals. I also think you also have to understand what the main goal of the organization is, and then frame your project around those goals. I’ve applied for a few things where I think I totally missed the mark and highlighted the wrong parts of my research.  

What would you like to do after your time at GW?

Hopefully, the stars will align and I’ll get a dream gig teaching at a university and being able to continue my research. That’s what I’m working for. However, because times are tough for humanities PhDs—and because I’m just generally open to new experiences—I’ll keep my eye on other job opportunities as well. What I’m trying to do now is to establish an appropriate relationship to my work. When I become too anxious about the “afterlife” of graduate school and the tough job market, I tend not to enjoy my research or my time in D.C. at the present moment. This goes against my more general orientation to life, so I try to manage it. Though I’m not always successful at it, it’s certainly encouraging to have the support of an organization like the Cosmos Club, for which I’m grateful. I only wish that humanities students and scholars everywhere didn’t have to rely so much on outside sources to sustain their research and to make a successful career in academia more plausible.