Farther afield

Building safer houses in Ecuador. Research on capuchin monkeys in Costa Rica. Helping empower girls in The Gambia. And this is just the beginning for the Johnson Scholars Program.

On Aug. 5, 1949, a magnitude-6.8 earthquake struck near Ambato, Ecuador, resulting in more than 5,000 casualties and leaving many thousands more homeless. In the rural town of Pelileo, 12 miles outside Ambato, almost no homes were left standing.

In the intervening years, construction of rural homes has not improved significantly. “Houses generally in rural Ecuador are self-built, which has unfortunately opened the floodgates to unstable and unsafe homes,” says Erik McAdams ’14, a civil engineering major who spent last summer traveling to rural areas in Ecuador to analyze construction. Because Ecuador is positioned on the ridge of two tectonic plates, he says, quakes are inevitable, so this problem isn’t going away.

McAdams is one of seven Johnson Leadership Fellows who pursued independent research or internships last year, funded by a stipend from the Johnson Scholars Program. McAdams brought his work back home with him: To study structural integrity and pinpoint weaknesses in materials, he hauled concrete and rebar back to Santa Clara for lab testing. The research will, he hopes, help him better understand a key root of poverty from an engineer’s perspective. In turn, he will be able to offer potential design improvements to help rural residents with inadequate housing.

Named for donors Rupert and Maryellie Johnson and introduced last year, the program selects 10 exemplary incoming SCU freshmen each year and awards them full tuition, room, and board; these comprehensive merit awards are renewable annually for up to four years. After the second year, students in the program can then apply for a one-time summer stipend to fund a self-defined leadership experience, such as an internship, independent research, or cultural immersion travel.


Another member of the first cohort of Johnson Leadership Fellows is anthropology major Allison McNamara ’15, who conducted her summer research project at La Suerte Biological Field Station in northeastern Costa Rica. That meant rising at 4 or 5 a.m. most days to spend hours observing the behavior of capuchin monkeys in the wild. Juvenile monkeys have a much larger repertoire of how they use their tails, using them more often for grasping and supporting their body weight. McNamara focused on the differences in tail use between juveniles and adults—a comparison that hasn’t been studied extensively. “Some people conclude that monkeys have a semiprehensile tail because adults don’t completely support their weight by their tails,” McNamara says. In a co-written paper she hopes to submit for publication later this year, she argues that theory is incorrect. “They can do it. And they have. We’ve seen it and collected data on it. But it’s just not as common.”

The aspiring field primatologist and rain forest conservationist adds that it’s important to examine these details because they allow anthropologists to better understand primate movement capabilities, interpret fossils, and understand the evolution of the primate juvenile period. McNamara also presented her research at the American Association of Physical Anthropology conference in Calgary, Canada, in April.


Service learning: Denise Castillo Chavez ’14 volunteered with Starfish International, a nonprofit dedicated to educating girls in The Gambia. The curriculum focuses on instilling service to others so these young women can give back to their home communities. Photo by David D. Fox

Six weeks in The Gambia, West Africa, empowering girls and women through teaching comprised a summer project for Denise Castillo Chavez ’14. Working with Starfish International, a nonprofit dedicated to educating Gambian girls with a focus of instilling service to others throughout the curriculum, Chavez led classes for girls and young women from local villages. Subjects ranged from English and mathematics to goal-setting and photography—all with the intention of providing a safe learning space where these young women will be able to give back to their home communities.

The organization hopes to build a state-of-the-art academy, eventually offering educational opportunities from preschool through graduate school. “Perhaps the biggest thing that I have taken away is knowing that I am now part of a movement—a movement grounded in everyday accomplishments, along with tremendous plans for the future,” Chavez says.

As future Johnson Leadership Fellows explore similar rich and varied research opportunities, they’ll join a growing and impressive roster of young scholars, with opportunities that range from genetic analysis to the Northern California Innocence Project, maybe here in the Bay Area or in Beijing. As the cohort brings academic skills to bear on their research, McAdams counsels that the work itself is only the beginning: “The nonacademic aspects of my trip were often the most challenging,” he says, “but they taught me the most about myself.”

Learn more about the Johnson Scholars Program and the 2013 Johnson Leadership Fellows, and follow updates on their research and activities at scu.edu/johnsonscholars.

post-image Strong point: One of the few rural homes to survive the devastating 1949 earthquake, this adobe house near Ambato, Ecuador, has meter-thick walls reinforced with skinny strands of bamboo. Photo by Erik McAdams
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