By Katharine Webster
Psychology major Pisey Hok knew almost nothing about research before he started working with Assoc. Prof. Jana Sladkova under an Emerging Scholars grant.
Now he’s helping Sladkova teach a class that’s also an interactive research project, “Diversity and Inclusion,” on how students can use photography to convey their feelings, experiences and attitudes about race and diversity.
“It’s a really good opportunity to learn more and work with a professor one-on-one,” says Hok, who was born in Cambodia, then moved to Lowell as a child. “When I was younger and people told me to go back to Asia, I laughed it off. But now I’m really interested in race, inequality, diversity and social justice — and in helping students tell their own stories through a racial or ethnic identity lens.”
The Emerging Scholars program, now in its sixth year, prepares undergraduates in the College of Fine Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences (FAHSS) for research careers while also providing valuable assistance to faculty members. Students apply for a $2,000 grant to work with a faculty member on a particular research project. The program, supported by the FAHSS dean's office and the office of the vice chancellor for research and innovation, accepts eight to 10 students each year.
This year’s scholars are researching the experiences of LGBTQ asylum-seekers, eye movements associated with learning, musical playgrounds made from recycled materials and the experiences of college students who are adopted, among other projects. Past Emerging Scholars have gone on to deliver original research papers at conferences, join Ph.D. programs and do applied research in their fields.
Hok, a transfer student who had just completed a required Research I class and was starting Research II when he began working with Sladkova last fall, says he was amazed to learn how much goes into designing, funding and carrying out even a small, qualitative research project.
Sladkova assigned him to research grants and draft inquiry letters about funding for “Diverity and Inclusion.” He also worked on formalizing the research design and winning approval from the Institutional Review Board, making posters to advertise the class and communicating with students who signed up.
This semester, Sladkova and Hok will teach students about PhotoVoice, a form of participatory research in which marginalized groups use photography and digital storytelling to convey their perspectives and experiences. Assoc. Prof. Wael Kamal, director of the digital media program, will teach photo techniques. “Diversity and Inclusion” will culminate with a public exhibit and discussion of the students’ work.
Emerging Scholars, supported by the Center for Women and Work, offers participants more than research experience. The scholars meet monthly with faculty to discuss research methods and challenges or to learn more about graduate school and research careers. They also present their projects publicly, both at a midyear event and at the annual Student Research Symposium.
History major Emily Yunes, another Emerging Scholar, is working with University Prof. Robert Forrant on a Lowell walking tour that will contrast the textile industry’s historical reliance on slave-picked cotton from the South with residents’ strong support for the anti-slavery movement, which took root among the “mill girls” and even some mill owners.
Yunes is digging into old newspapers, personal letters, church records and The Lowell Offering, a magazine written by and for the mill girls, who flocked to hear famous speakers like William Lloyd Garrison preach about the moral evils of slavery at Mechanics Hall and local churches.
“Everyone in Lowell seemed to have an opinion on it,” Yunes says.
Every two weeks, Forrant has Yunes research and write an essay on a minitopic, such as a location, person or event. Eventually, those essays will form the basis for a walking tour script, which they hope will become part of the Lowell National Historical Park’s offerings.
The project is giving Yunes exactly the kind of hands-on experience she needs for a career in educational outreach at a nonprofit such as AmeriCorps or the national park, she says.
“I’m really enjoying the experience of how you put together the research and tell that story through a walking tour. Professor Forrant has helped me find the resources I need to broaden the project, and he’s taught me a lot about writing and editing. And he’s done so many walking tours downtown that he has a great handle on how to set one up.”