Wellesley Senior Will Travel the World, Investigating Dentistry Across Cultures

April 14, 2015
Nevatha Mathialagan '15 wins Watson Fellowship

A year to travel the world in pursuit of a dream project: This is the opportunity that the prestigious Thomas Watson Fellowship provides to approximately 50 graduating college students annually. This year, Nevatha Mathialagan ’15 will be traveling the world next year to study how different cultures approach oral health.

The Thomas J. Watson Foundation was established in 1961, in honor of the late Thomas J. Watson, the founder of IBM. The Fellowship program began in 1968 and since then has been awarded to more than 2,700 individuals. Watson awardees come from select private liberal arts colleges and universities across the United States. According to the foundation, the purpose of the fellowship is to offer recent college graduates a rare window of time before starting their careers to engage their passions on a world scale. Fellows pursue original projects outside of the United States for a year, projects which evolve depending on their experiences.

Mathialagan is a pre-dental student who majors in cultural anthropology. “One of the things I like most about anthropology is that it can be interdisciplinary,” she said. “After shadowing multiple dentists during junior year, I realized that there was much more to oral health than just doing fillings or pulling out teeth… When I tried to find literature on the topic, I saw that many of the qualitative studies on oral health were conducted in the context of an epidemiological study rather than an anthropological study.” Mathialagan wanted to try such an approach for herself, and applied for the Watson Fellowship.

During the course of her Watson year, Mathialagan will travel to Switzerland, Hong Kong, Nepal, South Africa, and Peru to explore and analyze oral health infrastructures.  She is particularly interested in understanding how globalization shapes and influences dentistry in local communities. Each of the countries she has selected, with the exception of Switzerland, has strong alternative health practices. She looks forward to learning more about oral health, spending lots of time writing field notes, and trying new foods in each country she visits.