Katie Ulrich, a predoctoral fellow at the Center for Energy and Environmental Research in the Human Sciences (CENHS) and a PhD student in the Department of Anthropology at Rice University, received a fellowship from the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP). This prestigious fellowship is highly competitive—only 2,000 recipients are selected from over 13,000 applicants. The NSF will fund Katie for three years as she continues to pursue her doctoral studies.
The National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP) is the country’s oldest fellowship program that directly supports graduate students in various STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields. Since 1952, the program has played a vital role in supporting talented future scholars. Currently, 42 Fellows have gone on to become Nobel laureates, and more than 450 have become members of the National Academy of Sciences. Past fellows include numerous Nobel Prize winners, U.S. Secretary of Energy, Steven Chu, Google founder, Sergey Brin and Freakonomics co-author, Steven Levitt.
Katie’s research focuses on petrochemical replacements made from sugarcane and other plant sources. She is working with scientists and industry actors in Brazil who are researching new biotechnologies to expand the scope and scale of sugar-based alternatives to petrochemicals. While much attention has been given to the issue of replacing petroleum-based fuels, less has been given to replacing petroleum-based materials. Her interlocutors, building on Brazil’s history with sugarcane ethanol, a fuel replacement, are now turning to potential replacements for the wide array of everyday materials and items that are also, but less obviously so, made with petrochemicals. From plastics to synthetic clothing, cosmetic fragrances to even toothpaste, Katie is researching how petrochemicals function as an invisible ingredient in many postindustrial material lives, and what it would mean to start replacing them with sugar-based alternatives. Her project is thus exploring various threads including ordinary materialities, the imaginaries of planetary transitions, substitutability and replaceability, the vitalities of scientific objects, and the enduring, uneven social and political relations enacted through the chemical compounds we call sugar.
Being a CENHS predoctoral fellow has had a significant impact on how I conceptualize my project and write about it in contexts like grant and fellowship applications,” Katie says. “Having the opportunity to work with graduate students and faculty outside of my department who are thinking about diverse but related topics around energy and the environment has made me better at communicating and understanding the stakes of my own research.”