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Katrina Gobetz (in the Czech Republic) beside a boulder filled with the fossil shells of extinct nautiloids.

by Katrina Gobetz '94

In the mid-1800s Charles Darwin had the good fortune, rare in his time, to journey to South America. There he made observations of living creatures which, after 22 years of speculation, produced his revolutionary ideas about the history of the planet.

Today, with increased ease of communication and transportation making the world smaller, opportunities abound for research abroad.

Colgate is one of 50 private colleges and universities participating in the Thomas J. Watson Fellowship Program which seeks individuals with a consuming interest in their field of study and enables them to study and travel abroad for a year following graduation. Fellows have the freedom to develop independent projects while immersed in other cultures.

Early in the fall of 1993 I was among many Colgate students writing proposals for postgraduate fellowships. A geology concentrator, I intended to specialize in paleontology. To me the study of fossils and the evolution of life forms is vital in interpreting the influence of changing environmental conditions on a species, and vice versa.

As a senior I studied a fossil reef in Alaska with Professor Connie Soja and became interested in nautiloids, extinct ancestors of the octopus, squid and chambered nautilus. Nautiloids are thought to have lived inside shells, since the shell is the only part that is preserved as a fossil. The shells range in size from microscopic to over 10 meters long. The nautiloids I study lived when coral reefs flourished -- about 400 million years ago when oceans covered more of planet Earth.


The stunning chalk cliffs of Dover, England are a famous geological landmark.

I conceived the Watson year as a chance to visit famous fossil sites and museums in Europe and England. My research centered on the evolution of the coral reef. Europe had an inland sea fringed with primitive reefs. I wanted to look at what is left of those reefs -- no longer under water but exposed in cliff walls, quarries and remote places in the woods -- and compare earlier reefs with later ones to see changes in structure and in the organisms that lived on the reefs.

By the end of my year abroad I had been to eight countries. I had sent home most of my clothes to make room for rock samples. I had moved from places when I could no longer afford to live there, and I had learned to get around in strange cities, introduce myself to museum directors (in English or not in English) and find digging sites from extremely vague directions. When I met other Watson Fellows at a recent reunion, I was impressed at the authority with which they spoke of the research they had lived.

At the start of my Watson year I arrived on the island of Gotland off the coast of Sweden in the Baltic Sea. I had arranged to stay at a geologic field station, but transportation was a problem. The solution was a Rent-a-Wreck establishment. There followed what I think will prove some of the greatest days of my life. I set out almost every morning, with a road map and some notes, to look for fossils. Gotland is a Swedish paradise full of Viking graves and climbing roses, and I soon developed fieldwork methods and confidence in my ability to deal knowledgeably with the fossils I found.

After a short stay in Denmark, winter found me in northern Germany where I visited museums and libraries. I had German roommates who taught me much about life in their country. At Christmas time the city squares were lit up with festive street markets that lent a joyous atmosphere to the otherwise gray, dreary city.


Renaissance-style townhouses stand along the River Elbe in the city of Hamburg, Germany.

One of the best aspects of a Watson Fellowship is the freedom to move on when a place becomes tiresome. In a sunny village in the south of France I joined other students at an aquarium where I studied the living descendants of nautiloids to learn about their behavior. One night, flashlight in hand, I entered the dark aquarium to observe cuttlefish when they were most active. I was amazed to see a male and female gliding past one another in a sort of underwater ballet. Cuttlefish are related to the octopus and are very common in European waters.

In springtime I went hunting for fossils in southeast England with the eccentric but kindly owners of a guest house and saw more reef exposures along the gusty beaches of Cornwall. Long hikes became a habit, especially when I visited the countryside of Belgium and sought reefs in rock pits along the highways.

I wound up the Watson year in eastern Europe. I had not thought much of visiting Poland and the Czech Republic but found them deeply interesting. I joined cheerful Czech professors on excursions in Prague and later saw part of the beauty of the Polish countryside in the Holy Cross Mountains.

It is possible to spend a Watson year in one country or in 30. The individual's interests (and budget planning) determine the course the year will take. Even if the Watson year does not yield career-making revelations as Darwin's travels did, most Watson Fellows find the experience one that helps them discover their true interests and goals in life.

I encourage Colgate students to apply for a Watson Fellowship. As Darwin found, doing research in a foreign country lets one realize "how many truly kind-hearted people there are." Darwin wrote that his travels taught him "good-humored patience, freedom from selfishness, the habit of acting for himself, and of making the best of every occurrence." Most Watson Fellows would probably agree with him.

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Established in 1968 by the Thomas J. Watson Foundation, the Watson Fellowships provide grants of $15,000 to each recipient (Fellows accompanied by a spouse or dependent are eligible for $21,000). Fellows are required to maintain contact with the Foundation during their year abroad, and must submit a final evaluation of their experience and an accounting of fellowship funds.