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Mellon fellowships will aid Cornell professors' research on welfare reform and Roman burial practices

Two humanists at Cornell will expand their skills as researchers with some help from a major fellowship program. One will study statistical analysis for his work on burial practices in ancient Rome; the other will study law for a long-term project on welfare reform.

Eric Rebillard, professor of classics and history, and Anna Marie Smith, professor of government, were recently awarded Mellon New Directions Fellowships for 2008-09 from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

The fellowships, totaling $502,000, support one year and two summers of research for scholars seeking to develop competence in new disciplines. The fellows' academic departments each receive $10,000 to help defray administrative costs.

"The program was established in 2001," said Brett de Bary, director of the Society for the Humanities, which administers the Mellon competition at Cornell. "This year's fellows illustrate particularly well the immense promise of, and urgent need to support, new types of interdisciplinary work."

Rebillard, who came to Cornell in 2004, will use his fellowship to further his investigations of Roman burial practices by studying general statistics and spatial analysis.

"I have been excavating a Roman necropolis in Italy from 1999 to 2003 and just completed the publication last summer," he said. "And when I was looking to compare the results of my excavation with existing data, I was always confronted with long catalogues of hundreds of tombs -- but no synthesis and no attempt at looking for patterns of funerary behavior. That's when I got the idea of doing this kind of statistical analysis."

Rebillard's goal is to challenge previous social and religious assumptions and expand our knowledge of Roman daily life beyond the practices of the elite.

"These tombs are all non-elite tombs, and it is only relatively recently that they are not destroyed during excavation and that we have the scientific means of analyzing human remains and all of the objects buried with them," he said.

The necropolis he excavated contained the remains of 250 people, representing only part of his data. "I hope to be able to collect data for 10,000 burials from the first three centuries in Italy," he said.

He will pursue his statistical studies at Cornell and spend summer 2009 at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor in an intensive course on the use of spatial analysis in epidemiology.

"The department of statistical science is very strong at Cornell, and there are several other departments around campus that teach statistics, in particular social statistics [in the ILR School] and biological statistics and computational biology [in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences]," he said.

Smith will study advanced constitutional law, family law and international human rights law at Columbia University School of Law and its Center for the Study of Law and Culture, co-directed by Kendall Thomas, Katherine Franke and Elizabeth Povinelli, a former Cornell professor of anthropology.

Smith has worked for a decade on a broad-ranging study of mid-1990s welfare reform. She is interested in social justice and legal issues that apply to low-income mothers and to lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgendered people.

"I mostly approached it from a political theory perspective so far," said Smith, who joined the Cornell faculty in 1994. "I thought I was really at the limits of my ability as a self-taught legal commentator and really couldn't go any further without legal training."

Smith has prepared for upper-level electives by auditing a first-year constitutional law course with Trevor Morrison at Cornell Law School.

"There are a few other political theorists who have done this, who have some training in law and in political philosophy, and it's an extremely helpful complement," Smith said.

Smith was grateful for de Bary's help during the application process. "She was tireless in her assistance, she read drafts and encouraged me to apply in the first place," she said.

Smith and Rebillard are the fourth and fifth recipients of Mellon New Directions fellowships at Cornell since 2002. Shawkat Toorawa, associate professor of Near Eastern studies, received a fellowship in 2006 to study.

"His project was to reconceptualize the history of Arabic literature by focusing on diasporic Arabic literary traditions in Africa, India, Malaysia and Indonesia," de Bary said.

The other fellowship recipients were Annette Richards, music, and Delia Graff, philosophy, both in 2002.

"Cornell's excellent record in gaining these awards reflects the highly inter-disciplinary nature of our humanities community, for which we are well-known nationally," de Bary said.

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