Samuel Bruce ’13, who goes by his middle name David, will travel the world next year to study the ways different coastal cities, from Europe to South America, are responding to the danger of rising sea levels and other disasters such as hurricanes and tsunamis.
Bruce is one of 40 students around the country to receive a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship, which gives graduating seniors $25,000 and the mandate to pursue a subject or issue that fascinates them. Fellows are urged not to return to the United States for 12 months.
“The Thomas J. Watson Fellowship offers college graduates of ‘unusual promise’ a year of independent, purposeful exploration and travel — in international settings new to them — to enhance their capacity for resourcefulness, imagination, openness, and leadership and to foster their humane and effective participation in the world community,” the Watson website states. Watson fellows create their own projects and determine where and how they will execute them.
Bruce will be seeking out engineers, architects, city officials and everyday people to interview. He will then synthesize and explore his findings through art. Bruce discovered his artistic leaning at Bowdoin; and while he’s majoring in both economics and environmental studies, he’s also minoring in visual arts. “My goal is to discover what these cities at risk of climate-influenced natural disasters are doing, and to document that visually, by diagramming, sketching and painting,” he said.
“[Making art] will be a way of understanding what I see myself,” he explained. “It’s also a way to get people to see it and understand it instead of having to flip through 500 pages of documents,” on flood mitigation or other environmental legislation, for example.
Bruce will begin his journey in the low-lying Netherlands, specifically in Rotterdam and Amsterdam. “They have been thinking about water issues for 600 years or more,” he said. “They’re at the forefront of this work.”
Following a three- to four-month stay in the Netherlands, Bruce said he will likely travel to Buenos Aires, Calcutta, Mumbai, Shanghai, Bangkok, and possibly Singapore.
Bruce said he plans to create portraits of people affected by climate change, make diagrams of mechanical devices such as floodgates, and capture landscapes and cityscapes. A painting of a city could show people what might be lost to future flooding. “Amsterdam is a cultural artifact, an amazing city,” he said. “Drawing it is a way of showing what’s at stake.”
Growing up in London fostered his interest in cities and urban design, Bruce said, while both his high school (Milton Academy) and college educations sparked his interest in the environment. In particular, he has appreciated his Bowdoin classes on architecture and urban planning taught by Jill Pearlman, senior lecturer in environmental studies.
Last summer, Bruce was the first-ever recipient of the Cooke fellowship, established by Chester W. Cooke III ’57 to support students pursuing environmental studies. Bruce used the grant to intern at UrbanLab, a Chicago-based architecture firm that works on ecological projects that help foster a more resilient and resourceful society.
Bruce said the Watson Foundation intends for the year of travel to be a time of self-discovery. And he hopes his wanderings will give him the space and time to decide what to do next. “It’ll be something related to climate in the future,” he said. “It’s one of the most important problems we have to solve.”