Renowned anthropologist earns Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Research and Creativity

Susan Brownell

Susan Brownell, associate professor of anthropology at UMSL, will receive the Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Research and Creativity on Sept. 16 during the State of the University Address. (Photo by August Jennewein)

After traveling to China for a year of language studies and representing Beijing University in the 1986 Chinese National College Games as a heptathlete and relay runner, Susan Brownell applied her determination and intellect to become an internationally recognized anthropological expert of sports culture. Her colleagues describe her as a “pioneer” and “bona fide trailblazer” who is known for synthesizing multiple fields.

In her role as a professor of anthropology at University of Missouri–St. Louis, Brownell has contributed a wealth of research and knowledge to the social sciences. She has authored the books “Training the Body for China: Sports in the Moral Order of the People’s Republic” and “Beijing’s Games: What the Olympics Mean to China,” which both serve as required reading for various prestigious Chinese studies programs.

“The arc of Susan’s career has been an unusual one in many ways,” said William W. Kelly, professor of anthropology and Japanese studies at Yale University in a nomination letter. “She has had certain steady interests that have informed much of her work, yet she has continually moved in novel topical and thematic directions and experimented with different modes of expressing what she knows.”

Brownell’s depth of knowledge, originality and academic service have earned her the 2015 Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Research and Creativity. She will be presented with a plaque and a $1,000 honorarium during the annual State of the University Address on Sept. 16 in the J.C. Penney Building at UMSL.

As a board member of the Advisory Council of the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, Brownell has proven herself to be exceptional in scholarly pursuits, yet one of her greatest strengths is making the theoretical and erudite relatable to daily life.

“The most important aspect of Brownell’s research is that it is highly relevant to people’s lives and cultures,” Michael B. Cosmopoulos, The Hellenic Government-Karakas Foundation Chair of Greek Studies at UMSL, said in a nomination letter. “She does not dwell on the trivial and narrow aspects of culture. Instead, she tackles large, meaningful and important issues, which she methodically and systematically analyzes to reach a deeper understanding of the workings of our society.”

Brownell has garnered regular media attention with her critical insights. From August 2007 to August 2008, approximately 100 media outlets from 20 countries interviewed her regarding Chinese sports and the Beijing Olympic games. NBC Nightly News, BBC News and NPR are just a few of the notable networks. Most recently, she appeared on CBS News’ “60 Minutes” to discuss the evolution of the Chinese sports system.

But even after a deluge of professional recognition and cementing herself as a world-class academic, Brownell retains a focus on service and making personal connections.

“Unlike most ‘star’ academics, Susan Brownell remains modest and personable,” said Niko Besnier, professor of cultural anthropology at the University of Amsterdam. “Energetic and unpretentious, she has demonstrated leadership and mentoring skills and all the poise, creativity, and attentiveness needed to lead expanding academic departments.”

Despite having every complex tool and resource available to her, Brownell relies on the most straightforward investigative technique: conversation.

“My research method is talking to people face to face,” she said in an interview. “If you want to understand another human being, you need to talk to them and observe their daily life.”

Brownell received her PhD from the University of California, Santa Barbara, in 1990. She joined UMSL in 1994.

“Since becoming part of UMSL’s faculty, I’ve been fortunate to work with several excellent researchers,” Brownell said. “Among those who have served as my mentors, supporters and models are anthropologist Michael Cosmopoulos, political scientist Joyce Mushaben and criminologist Richard Wright. I’m tremendously grateful for all of the support they’ve given over the years.”

In 2007 and 2008 she was a Fulbright Senior Researcher at the Beijing Sport University, researching the Beijing Olympic Games. She has taught as a visiting professor at Yale University, Fudan University in China, the Communications University of China and Heidelberg University in Germany.

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