Scholar Athletes Win Watson Fellowships to Explore Better Care for the Dying, How Girls Get Into STEM

2019 Watson Fellows

Watson Fellows Ky Roland '19 (l) and Natalie Connell '19 (r) will follow their passions around the world.

When Natalie Connell '19 saw her aunt battle brain cancer, suffering through grueling treatment before her painful death, she wondered: Isn't there a more humane way to die?

Ky Roland '19 remembers looking around the classroom of her high-level, middle-school math course and wondering: Why aren't there more girls in here?

They plan to spend the next year seeking answers and better outcomes.

The two Davidson College biology majors -- both athletes -- have won prestigious Thomas J. Watson Fellowships that will send them for a year abroad after they graduate in May.

Connell will travel to hospitals, homes and hospice settings in Ecuador, The Netherlands, Jordan, India and Vietnam to see how different cultures treat end-of-life care.

Roland will spend time in a range of high-poverty to middle-income communities and schools in Trinidad, Norway and Jordan. She hopes to learn how cultural perceptions and socioeconomic factors encourage or discourage girls from science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) studies. Globally, women represent less than a third of STEM professionals.

"I want to be a role model for girls to believe in their math and science abilities and empower them to turn their abilities into passion-filled careers," Roland said.

Connell, who volunteered at the Serenity House hospice center in Mooresville while her mother cared for her dying aunt in Pennsylvania, said she wants to help people who are sick and elderly have greater control over their end-of-life options.

"When I think about my aunt, I think she could have enjoyed so much more of her life if she had less aggressive treatment and more palliative care to make her comfortable," Connell said. "I want to learn how people in other countries and cultures and religions might do things differently."

Every year, the Thomas J. Watson Foundation selects 40 graduating students from its 40 partner colleges to receive fellowships. Students are chosen based on characteristics such as leadership, imagination, courage, integrity and resourcefulness. Each gets a one-year, $30,000 stipend to cover travel and living expenses and must spend the entire year abroad.

History of Winners

Roland and Connell are Davidson's 84th and 85th students to win the fellowship in its 51-year history, said Davidson Biology Professor Malcolm Campbell, who has mentored many students through the process.

"These are strong, confident women who project empathy, determination and drive," Campbell said. "It doesn't take you long to realize how exceptional they are."

"We're really proud of our fellows, they represent the best of Davidson," said Byron McCrae, vice president for student life and dean of students. "They are bright, committed students who are truly invested in making the world a better place."

Connell, a native of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, played midfield for the Davidson women's soccer team. She said being an athlete helps her manage her time and stay focused, and that serving as a team captain expanded her problem-solving skills.

She sees a medical career in geriatric and palliative care as a strong possibility. After learning she won the Watson Fellowship, she headed to Asheville, North Carolina, where she met her family and friends to run in a marathon.

Roland, from Farmington Hills, Michigan, is a forward on the Davidson women's basketball team. She says working through sports challenges such as intense workouts, injuries and rigorous competition keep her balanced and on track.

She was in class when she scrolled through the Watson Fellowship announcement and discovered she'd won. After receiving countless congratulations from her teachers and classmates, she headed to basketball practice for more congratulations from her coaches and teammates.

Roland hopes to pursue a career in biomedical research, possibly focused on cancer and immunology, to seek better treatment and potential cures for serious illnesses and disease.

"When I first came to Davidson I thought I wanted to be a veterinarian," Roland said. "The more time I spent here, the more that shifted into wanting to help people and find new ways to alleviate their suffering and pain."


  • March 21, 2019