The Secretary's Research Awards

Smithsonian Congress of Scholars

The Smithsonian Secretary awards up to ten annual prizes recognizing excellence in recent research by the Institution’s employees.

Process and Scope

A committee of jurors named by the Smithsonian Congress of Scholars will review nominations and forward its recommendations to the Secretary who will select the final award recipients. The awards will be presented by the Secretary in the Fall.  Prize winners will each be awarded $2,000 in research funds to be placed in 402 accounts for their use.

Any Smithsonian staff member may place a colleague’s name into nomination or may self-nominate. The array of awards will be pan-Smithsonian, reflecting the wide diversity of research at the Institution across disciplinary areas with differing standards and goals. Peer-reviewed scholarship on any topic that covers the span of the Smithsonian’s activities is eligible. Interdisciplinary and collaborative research is encouraged, as is publication in electronic as well as print or video formats. In the sciences, subject areas may include, among others, astronomy, earth sciences, human sciences, and biology; in the humanities, history and culture, art history, social sciences, and conservation reports. Excellence as judged by peers, internal or external, will be the overarching standard and interdisciplinary research is especially encouraged.

The selection committee will have considerable latitude and flexibility to recommend prize awards, depending upon the number and quality of nominations each year.

Prize Categories

Following are some recommended categories and guidelines for submitting nominations:

Two or more prizes may be awarded annually for best scholarly books. Books published in the past three years may be placed in nomination (i.e., for the 2012 awards, books published in 2009, 2010, and 2011 will be considered). They may remain in contention for three years. Books must make an original and useful contribution to knowledge about the subject discussed. They may be judged on the basis of quality of research, originality, grace and clarity of writing, and usefulness of the research to the scholarly field and society. Books may include single-author exhibition catalogues. Two copies of each book, a copy of the author’s (or authors’ if there are more than one) curriculum vitae, and two letters attesting to the significance of each book should be submitted. Book reviews may be added to the nomination packet as desired.

Multiple prizes may be awarded for best scholarly articles in peer-reviewed publications or for single essays in book-length publications in a variety of areas. Articles or essays must have been published within the last two years (i.e., for the 2012 prize, articles published in 2010 and 2011 are eligible). They will be judged on quality of research, originality, grace and clarity of writing, and usefulness of the research to the scholarly field and society. A copy of each article or essay, a copy of the author’s (or authors’) curriculum vitae, and two letters attesting to the significance of each article should be submitted.

The selection committee may also recommend prizes for the best multi-author exhibition catalogue or best symposium proceedings publication organized and edited by a Smithsonian employee (or employees). Catalogues published within the last two years (i.e., for the 2012 prize, essays published in 2010 and 2011) are eligible. They will be judged on quality of research, originality, grace and clarity of writing, and usefulness of research to the scholarly field and society. Two copies of each catalogue, a copy of the editor’s (or editors’) curriculum vitae, and two letters attesting to the significance of each catalogue should be submitted.

he committee may upon occasion award a prize for the best exhibition without published catalogue in the past calendar year. The exhibition demonstrates original new scholarship and a new perception of a given area of study, through clear explanation of research, selection and grouping of objects, explanatory wall texts, and installation strategies. This is not a prize for education or outreach but for an innovative assemblage and display of important new research. The nomination must include a written overview of the exhibition, photos (or photocopies) of the spaces, a map showing the layout of the exhibition and explanation of the installation strategy, and copies of any accompanying brochures or fliers. Exhibition reviews and two letters attesting to the impact of the show on scholarly understanding must also be submitted.

The committee may choose to award one or more prizes for the best documentary recordings (sound recordings with liner notes) or video/film productions. Recordings or productions issued within the last two years may be considered (i.e., for the 2012 prize, essays published in 2010 and 2011). They will be judged on research, originality, clarity of presentation, and usefulness of research to the scholarly field and society. In addition to a copy of (or access to) the recording or production, two letters attesting to the significance of each nominated production should be submitted.

One or more prizes may be awarded for the best online site(s) offering original research and analysis to the scholarly world and the public. As with all of the other prize categories, the content of the site must be peer reviewed in some fashion. The research offered on the web site must be original and make a distinct new contribution to the field. Sites completed within the past two years are eligible (i.e., for the 2012 award, sites completed in 2010 and 2011 are eligible). Two letters from scholars attesting to the significance of the site should be submitted.

For further information contact the SCOS Chair.

Past Awards

Kathleen Ash-Milby and David W. Penney
Co-edited exhibition catalog: Kay WalkingStick: An American Artist;

This catalogue, developed for the exhibition of the same name, is the first major retrospective of the artistic career of Kay WalkingStick. A citizen of the Cherokee Nation born 1935, WalkingStick is widely regarded as one of the most significant Native American artists of the 20th century, yet critical writing about her prior to this effort was limited to academic journals and slim exhibition publications.  Illustrated with more than 200 of her most notable paintings, drawings, small sculptures, notebooks, and the diptychs for which she is best known, the book includes essays by leading scholars, historians, and the artist herself.

Stephen Cairns
Article: "Stylasteridae (Cnidaria: Hydrozoa: Anthoathecata) of the New Caledonian Region" Mémoire du Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle 28: 1-361

Stylasteridae include about 350 species, occurring to depths of 2 miles. They often have brightly colored skeletons, including red, orange, violet, brown, and even green. Nevertheless, few researchers have challenged themselves to study/understand such animals. In this volume Cairns describes 98 species pertaining to 19 genera, of which 52 species (or nearly 17% of all known species of the family) and 2 genera were new to science. Cairns discusses functional morphology, commensalism with other invertebrates, and proposes an identification key to all known extant Stylasterid genera followed by keys to New Caledonian species.


Lee Glazer
Exhibition without a published catalogue: Peacock Room Remix: Darren Waterston's Filthy Lucre

The fulcrum for this 18-month exhibition was Filthy Lucre, an immersive installation by contemporary painter Darren Waterston that reimagined the Peacock Room as a decadent ruin, collapsing under the weight of its own creative excess. Organized as a conversation and a confrontation – between a historic masterpiece and a contemporary reimaging – Remix allows visitors to go beyond the intricate decorative harmonies of Whistler's famous interior and consider the lifespan of a work of art, how it necessarily relates to economic and social exigencies, and how beauty can, nevertheless, endure as a genuine value in artistic production.


Jefferson Hall
Edited volume: Managing Watersheds for Ecosystem Services in the Steepland Neotropics

This publication, available as a PDF and as an interactive E-book published by the Inter-American Development bank, grew out of a 2014 international symposium organized by Dr. Hall and collaborators on tropical land management. The volume includes recent research and practices related to watershed management in the Panama canal region, presents a road map for improving watershed management, and provides selected case studies to illustrate examples of where advances are being made. Dr. Hall’s research is designed not only to be published in scientific journals; it is also presented in a practical way and can be applied by policy makers and members of the public.


RDK Herman
Article: "Traditional Knowledge in a Time of Crisis: Climate Change, Culture and Communication,”  Sustainability Science January 2016

The article argues that climate change is a cultural issue. Dr. Herman proposes “indigeneity” as embracing the holistic knowledge and wisdom found in traditional cultures while also utilizing the advances in science and other areas of human endeavor to bring about a new cultural discourse that helps reshape human behavior into a more sustainable direction. Herman emphasizes the role of communication and storytelling, giving an example of the story of Polynesian voyage and the five values of the voyaging canoe. 

Carlos Jaramillo
Co-authored article: "Middle Miocene Closure of the Central American Seaway" Science 348, 226-229

Previous research at STRI, cited in numerous scholarly publications, placed the closure of the Central American Seaway at 3-4 million years ago. Dr. Jaramillo’s research challenges this paradigm, pushing back the rise of the Isthmus of Panama to about 15 million years. This has implications across disciplines including evolutionary biology, ecology, paleontology, geology and climatology, and has reignited a healthy debate both within and outside of the Smithsonian.


Paul F. Johnston
Book: Shipwrecked in Paradise: Cleopatra’s Barge in Hawai‘i,

College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2015

From 1995-1999, Dr. Johnston led a research team that located, surveyed, and excavated the wrecked ship of Hawaiian monarch Kamehameha II in Hawai‘i’s Hanalei Bay, Kaua‘i. Built in 1816 for a shipping magnate in Salem, Massachusetts, America’s first ocean-going yacht Cleopatra’s Barge became the royal yacht of the Hawaiian king in 1820. Only four years later it was lost on Kaua‘i. Johnston’s team recovered over 1,200 lots of objects, many of which he discusses and illustrates in the book featuring the only extant artifacts from the brief reign of Kamehameha II.


Ramiro Matos and José Barreiro
Co-edited book: The Great Inka Road: Engineering an Empire;

Dedicated to the Qhapaq ñan, or Inka Road, the book (associated with exhibition of the same name which opened at NMAI-DC June, 2015 and is still on view) includes essays with meticulous descriptions and interpretations of the road including its function to the Inka estate, Inka civil engineering as a pioneer in the construction of roads in the Americas, water management in a region characterized by seasonal torrential rains, aesthetics and the harmony of the road with the Andean landscape, and the history of the network system from pre-Inka cultures until current times. The book includes the most accurate Inka road system maps produced to date.


Daniel Piazza and Calvin Mitchell
Exhibition with catalogue: Freedom Just Around the Corner: Black America from Civil War to Civil Rights;

This exhibition, which ran at the National Postal Museum February 2015 to February 2016, was the museum’s first major exhibition devoted entirely to African American History. Piazza and Mitchell wrestled with a number of questions such as: How should black American history be told through material or visual culture? What stories should be told? The exhibit highlighted letters carried by enslaved Americans, mail sent by and to leaders of the civil rights movement, and original artwork commissioned by the USPS for postage stamps honoring black heritage. One reviewer noted that the exhibit set a new standard for how philately can narrate the Black past. 


James Ulak
Exhibition catalog: Sōtatsu

Tawaraya Sōtatsu, one of the most innovative and imaginative artists of the 17th century, faded into near obscurity for almost two hundred years following his death, but today is seen as one of the most revered painters in the history of Japanese art. His remarkable story is recounted in Sōtatsu, a comprehensive book featuring insightful essays by leading scholars from the United States and Japan. The artist’s life and craft are illuminated in this volume through a close examination of his contemporaries, his evolution as a master painter, and his increasing stature in Japan and the West, thanks in part to the efforts of collector Charles Lang Freer.



The awards ceremony took place Wednesday, Sept. 14, in the Warner Bros. Theater at the National Museum of American History. The presentation of the awards was followed by the third annual Bruce “Will” Morrison Memorial Lecture. This year’s lecture, “Indigenous Ice Dictionaries: Sustaining Endangered Knowledge About Our Changing World,” was given by National Museum of Natural History curator Dr. Igor Krupnik.

The prizes include a $2,000 award added to the prize winner’s research account. The work submitted by the recipients of the Secretary’s Research Prizes underwent peer review and the finalists were recommended by a committee representing research areas across the spectrum of Smithsonian scholarship.

These pan-Institutional prizes recognize excellence in recent research by the Institution’s employees and carry a $2,000 award to each prize winner’s research account. 

Drs. Pierre Comizzoli and David Wildt of the National Zoological Park for their jointly authored article “Retention of Structure and Function of the Cat Germinal Vesicle After Air-¬-drying and Storage at Suprazero Temperature.”

Dr. Carole Baldwin of the National Museum of Natural History for her article “The Phylogenetic Significance of Colour Patterns in Marine Teleost Larvae.”

Dr. Debra Diamond of the Freer Sackler Gallery for her exhibition/catalogue “Yoga: The Art of Transformation.”

• Dr. Bart Hacker of the National Museum of American History for his article “White Man’s War, Coloured Man’s Labour: Working for the British Army on the Western Front.”

• Dr. Igor Krupnik of the National Museum of Natural History for his book “Yupik Transitions: Change and Survival at Bering Strait, 1900–1960.”

• Dr. Joanna Marsh of the American Art Museum for her exhibit with no publication “The Singing and the Silence: Birds in Contemporary Art.”

• Dr. Karen Milbourne of the National Museum of African Art for her book “Earth Matters: Land as Material and Metaphor in the Arts of Africa”

• Dr. Nicholas Pyenson and Ms. Holly Little of the National Museum of Natural History; Mr. Vincent Rossi and Mr. Adam Metallo of the Office of the Chief Information Officer for their article and scholarly website “Repeated Mass Strandings of Miocene Marine Mammals from Atacama Region of Chile Point to Sudden Death at Sea.”

• Dr. Dennis Stanford of the National Museum of Natural History for his co-authored book “Across Atlantic Ice: The Origin of America’s Clovis Culture.” 

• Dr. Edward Tong of the Smithsonian Astrophysics Observatory for his article “Microwave-¬-Operated Hot-Electron-Bolometric Power Detector for Terahertz Radiation.”

The work of the recipients of the Secretary’s Research Prizes underwent peer review and the finalists were recommended by a committee representing research areas across the spectrum of Smithsonian scholarship. This year’s committee included Mary Augusta Thomas (SIL), Joyce Bedi (NMAH), Dave Johnson (NMNH), Jessica Johnson (MCI) and Emily Kaplan (NMAI). 

The awards ceremony was held Monday, 08 February 2016, in the Rasmuson Theater of the National Museum of the American Indian Mall Museum. The presentation of the awards was followed by the second annual Bruce "Will" Morrison (former Director in the Office of Grants and Fellowships (now OFI)) memorial lecture, by Dr. Eleanor Harvey SAAM Senior Curator "“American Cosmos, or Dusting for Humboldt’s Fingerprints across the Smithsonian.”