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One summer, eight countries: Northwestern junior wins grant to circle globe

  • Catherine Althaus, Northwestern junior, in Asturias, Spain, in the summer of 2012.
Catherine Althaus, Northwestern junior, in Asturias, Spain, in the summer…
February 19, 2013|By Erin Vogel @eringejuice | For RedEye

Northwestern University junior Catherine Althaus didn't apply for her first passport until about a year ago, but the 21-year-old biological anthropology major will be putting it to good use in a few months when she travels to eight countries this summer.

Althaus will visit England, France, Spain, Israel, Australia, New Zealand, Chile and Peru over a span of just 10 weeks thanks to a $9,000 travel study award she won from Northwestern and the Chicago chapter of the Circumnavigators Club Foundation, an international organization.

The foundation finances research trips for college juniors, who under the stipulations of the award must visit at least five different countries (excluding the U.S. and Canada) on at least three different continents. The winner also is required to travel alone and is responsible for organizing all of the logistics of the trip such as booking airfare and setting up overland transportation when traveling within each country.

"I know it will be a whirlwind adventure, but it will be the adventure of a lifetime," Althaus said. "I really want to experience other cultures and interact with local individuals to really gain perspective, and become more of a global citizen rather than just an American student."

The first anthropology student to receive the award, Althaus will visit museums all over the world to examine how each one balances the concerns of the surrounding culture with the curation of human specimens. She first became interested in this topic of study during a fall internship with The Field Museum, where she performed image analysis of CT scans of Peruvian mummies to create 3D image reconstructions.

"There's great cultural diversity in the treatment of human remains throughout the world," said Althaus, who is originally from Madison, Wis. "I'm really interested in more of the policy side of the issue, and how museums attempt or do not attempt to take the values of the surrounding community into consideration when crafting and implementing their policies."

Althaus said the anthropology department at The Field Museum was instrumental in helping her establish a list of contacts in the countries she will be visiting.

Erin Waxenbaum, one of Althaus' advisers and anthropology professors, said her project is unique compared with the projects of previous winners.

"This will be an amazing opportunity for Catherine, and I know she will bring back fantastic data and insight," Waxenbaum said. "This project will serve as just a steppingstone to many additional successes in her future."

Althaus said her parents and extended family have been extremely supportive as she prepares for the trip. She'll keep them involved with her travels by taking a lot of pictures and writing a blog she will be required to update twice a week. She is most excited to make the trek to Israel, where three institutions in Jerusalem have agreed to assist her with her research. Althaus said she is looking forward to exploring the historical city, a place she probably would have never had the chance to visit if she hadn't won the grant.

She will be leaving the week after she finishes finals and will return a couple days before she has to return to Evanston to lead a freshman orientation trip. Following her return she has to write and present a 50-page paper on her travels and research to the Circumnavigators Club. The paper will double as her senior thesis, allowing her to graduate with honors in anthropology.

Althaus is still not sure what she wants to do after graduation, but said she would love to spend her 20s and possibly the rest of her life traveling the world and doing research. Eventually she would like to attend grad school to become a museum curator or a college professor.

But for now, she is just hoping to walk away from her experience this summer with a greater understanding of the different cultures she will encounter during her trip-- especially since she has only been out of the country once before, when she studied abroad in Spain last year. Although she will be busy with research during most of her trip, she hopes she will still have time to sightsee and explore for herself once her work in each city is complete.

Erin Vogel is a RedEye special contributor.

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