After a year in Alaska, RB Smith ’20 receives Marshall Scholarship to study in the U.K.

By Kim Catley

As RB Smith ’20 neared the end of his senior year at Williams, his post-graduation plans came into focus. The biology and Arabic studies double major had a Fulbright award and was set to study traditional Bedouin land grazing practices in Jordan. The project would combine his interests in ecology and evolutionary biology with his Arabic language studies.

“But Covid threw a wrench in that,” Smith says, “as it did for everyone, for everything.”

Headshot photo of RB Smith
Photo by Duncan McCarthy.

Instead, Smith ended up in Nome, Alaska, after taking a podcasting course at Williams with a visiting professor from the University of Alaska, Anchorage. The professor heard about an opening at the Nome Nugget—a small, weekly newspaper in northwest Alaska—and forwarded the position to Smith. For nearly a year, he worked as one of the paper’s only reporters, covering Covid, climate change and other environmental issues.

Smith’s Fulbright was delayed six months, then a year. He decided to stay in Alaska and landed a botany internship with the National Park Service. For five months during the summer season, he conducted vegetation surveys in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park.

When his Fulbright was postponed again, to fall 2022, Smith turned his attention to graduate school. He had always planned to study in the United Kingdom and decided to apply for a Marshall Scholarship. The highly competitive scholarship is awarded to up to 50 American students annually and funds graduate-level study in any field of study at a U.K. institution.

He began preparing his research and academic plan over the summer and applied in August to be sponsored by Williams College. In September, he was selected by Williams, and the college continued to offer assistance as he moved through further rounds of applications and interviews.

“Throughout the whole process, the fellowships office, and the Williams community more broadly, were extremely supportive,” he says. “I did three mock interviews and got amazing feedback. Williams alums who had received the Marshall Scholarship reached out, and we had one-on-one conversations. It felt like a team effort.”

On Dec. 13, the 2021 Marshall Scholars were announced—and Smith made the list.

While he’s still finalizing plans for which university and program of study to pursue, he’s already reached out to faculty members at the University of Oxford about translating his Fulbright project into a master’s thesis. He hopes to conduct a social and ecological study of traditional arranged land management practices in rural Jordan. He wants to interview herders to better understand how the land is managed and conduct vegetation surveys to evaluate how the ecosystem responds.

“The idea is that maybe this traditional, communal system allows for a more resilient ecosystem, which is really important in the face of desertification and climate change in the region,” he says.

Adds Smith: “The desert doesn’t scream biodiversity the way the Amazon or Great Barrier Reef does. But so many people rely on herding and farming in arid and semi-arid environments, and those environments are becoming more and more inhospitable with climate change.”

Smith is also interested in the link between scientists and the local communities they study—a focus born out of his time in Alaska. He watched as some scientists came to the region to extract data or observations, sometimes in coordination with the Alaska Natives who lived there. When they left, they didn’t share their findings or the impact on the region, ultimately breeding distrust among the local community. On the flip side, scientists who made a concerted effort to cooperate with local communities often had better results.

After completing his master’s degree, he’s considering a doctoral program in conservation science with the aim of improving the relationship between scientists and local communities.

“Because of the larger Native population in Alaska, there’s a heightened awareness of the importance of co-production of knowledge,” Smith says. “Indigenous communities are scientists and have a lot of knowledge about the natural world that academic scientists might not be privy to. Cooperation on an equal footing between communities and scientific institutions is important, both ethically and for the production of valuable knowledge.”