By Katharine Webster
Spanish major Samuel Myers spent three weeks last summer in Oaxaca, Mexico, studying Zapotec, one of the most common indigenous languages in the state.
He was fascinated by attempts to preserve and revitalize the language, so he also did independent research. He compared the federal government’s attempts to document indigenous languages with the work of a nonprofit in Oaxaca and efforts by the indigenous communities themselves, especially through community radio.
His conclusion: While efforts from all sides are helpful, true language revitalization can only come from the hearts and mouths of its speakers.
“Language is an important part of one’s identity and culture,” Myers said at this spring’s Student Research and Community Engagement Symposium. “The government is trying to document and preserve the indigenous languages, but living languages are always changing to reflect the changing culture in which the speakers live.”
Myers’ research exemplifies the original work showcased by students at the 20th annual symposium. Like many other students, Myers did research in the community itself, while also drawing on primary sources and academic studies. His adviser was Maria Matz, associate professor in the Department of World Languages and Cultures.
Julie Nash, vice provost for student success, says that in solving real-world problems, both community engagement and research are important — and UMass Lowell excels at combining the two.
“We don’t want to do research in a vacuum without understanding the impact it has on the community we’re in, and we don’t want to work in the community without being informed about its issues,” she said in her opening remarks.
Nash praised Vice Chancellor for Research and Innovation Julie Chen for embracing student research and community engagement in the College of Fine Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences (FAHSS), alongside more traditional research in science and engineering.
“When Julie Chen, herself an accomplished engineer, was hired to oversee research at UMass Lowell, she quickly championed the idea that we are a comprehensive university and that our strength lies in the celebration of the multidisciplinary areas represented on this campus,” Nash said. “Many of these projects are interdisciplinary, an approach that is needed to tackle the complex challenges of modern life.”
Projects That Cross Boundaries
Those interdisciplinary and community-engaged projects included both group and individual efforts. English majors Charlotte Moore and Paktra Lynch teamed up with the SayDaNar community development center and Prof. Sue Kim, co-director of the Center for Asian American Studies, to create class materials for Burmese refugees studying English and citizenship.
Evan Dingle, an English major with a sociology minor, analyzed efforts to encourage small-scale farming of amaranth, a highly nutritious grain, in developing countries as a way of improving infant nutrition and mortality. His primary adviser was from a different college: Assoc. Prof. Leland Ackerson in the College of Health Sciences.
The arts came into play in the EcoSonic Playground, musical playground structures created with mostly recycled materials. Emerging Scholar and music major Tyler McMillan worked with Asst. Prof. Elissa Johnson-Green to create lesson plans to help children in underserved communities build their own musical playground structures while learning about science, math and environmental sustainability. McMillan was one of two undergraduates in the FAHSS competition to win a $250 award for his poster presentation.
The other winner was psychology major and biology minor Selena Tran, who studied the behavior of Western lowland gorillas at the Franklin Park Zoo. She was advised by psychology lecturer Mary Duell.
Science and Business
Students majoring in the sciences, health sciences, engineering and business were also well-represented, and many also took an interdisciplinary approach, including Braeden McKee, an environmental studies major with a concentration in Spanish who worked on a Zika virus project with Matz and Lori Weeden, lecturer in environmental science.
McKee looked at the political, environmental, ethical and medical issues surrounding attempts to control Zika in Puerto Rico and Brazil by spraying for mosquitoes with potent pesticides that also kill honeybees—and that may contribute to birth defects in humans.
“There’s a rush to blast everything with pesticides without weighing the environmental and health consequences,” McKee said. “But protests by farmers and medical personnel in Puerto Rico prevented the spraying of a common organophosphate.”
Business analytics students taking a graduate class with Asst. Prof. Asil Oztekin applied their learning to a wide range of projects. One team of students took home an award for using data analytics to search for patterns in missed medical appointments.
Another group looked at how various political, social and geographic measures correlate with the performance of a country’s women athletes at the Summer Olympics. Business analytics major Christine Vaudo ’17, who is just starting on her master’s degree through the bachelor’s-to-master’s program, said that women athletes from countries with better sanitation and more women legislators were more likely to win medals.
Vaudo and her fellow researchers were so inspired by their results and by the symposium itself that they plan to continue their research.
“It was amazing to see the other projects and the months and years of research that had gone into them,” she said. “It was so impressive and inspiring.”