beyond the lab
Using skills from dance to data science, Emory undergraduates conduct original research across the humanities
It’s not all about labs and microscopes. Increasingly, Emory students are pursuing undergraduate research in the humanities to gain a deeper understanding of the human condition as they prepare to set out on career pathways that range from medicine, business and law to nonprofits, teaching and public policy.
The work allows them to pursue big questions about ethics, beliefs, language and behavior — the very things that make us human — in an increasingly complex world.
“Studying the things that are fundamental to the human experience does not mean studying abstract ideas. To be able to do the work they want to do, and to do it well, our students know they need to think about their careers in human terms,” says Erin Tarver, co-chair of the undergraduate research program at Emory’s Oxford College and an assistant professor of philosophy who has written about how sports fandom shapes identity.
As a leading research institution, Emory provides the resources that help students make connections between the areas they’re studying. That in turn empowers them to ask interdisciplinary questions, creating better thinkers and leaders, says Cora MacBeth, Emory College’s assistant dean for undergraduate research.
“There is recognition that our access to these unique research opportunities is what sets Emory, and our students, apart,” she says.
A sampling of humanities research projects Emory students have pursued this year is as wide-ranging as the human experience itself: fresh insights on activism in Atlanta during the AIDS crisis; how college students sort themselves into friendships; new theories on the lack of minority representation on the highest court in the land; and future doctors who are tackling cultural issues to better inform their understanding of patient needs.
“Undergraduate research across the arts and sciences offers our students the chance to understand how what they learn in the classroom can have an impact on the world,” says Michael A. Elliott, dean of Emory College of Arts and Sciences and Charles Howard Candler Professor of English. “These opportunities give students a chance to hone competencies in communication, organization and analysis that will serve them well regardless of the path they choose after Emory.”
The liberal arts in action
Emory senior Laura Briggs is double majoring in chemistry and dance, and their honors thesis is a choreographed dance inspired by “Cat’s Cradle.” Their thesis explores the personal nature of belief and religion.
Emory senior Laura Briggs has been conducting the sort of in-depth research required to earn an honors thesis since high school. Back then, Briggs earned a research fellowship at the University of Kentucky to study a fungus behind opportunistic infections faced by people with HIV.
After arriving at Emory, Briggs continued the intensive work in the Weinert Lab, studying the underlying chemical mechanisms of plant pathogens.
Briggs’ honors thesis connects to the real world not in chemistry but their other major: dance and movement studies. Briggs is choreographing a performance inspired by Kurt Vonnegut’s satirical science fiction novel, “Cat’s Cradle.”
“Dance is fundamentally about immediate impact and a response from someone else,” says Briggs, who plans to dance professionally before later pursuing a PhD in chemistry.
“Conducting dance research developed the communication and collaboration skills that translate to the chemistry lab,” Briggs adds. “Now I know I cannot do scientific research without thinking of the people affected.”
Bringing data science to human friendships
Isabel Goddard is an Emory senior majoring in quantitative sciences with an emphasis on anthropology. She is using both disciplines to find out how college students make friends.
Emory senior Isabel Goddard had an eye on the job market when she decided to major in quantitative sciences with an emphasis on anthropology. Emory’s unique data science program offered her a chance to study people while sharpening the data skills to assess her observations.
At the intersection of those disciplines emerged a deceptively simple research question: How do college students make friends?
Goddard began wondering about that as a first-year student, when she discovered that she was the only person in her residence hall to request a random roommate assignment.
She went on to live in Casa Emory, the Spanish/Portuguese residence hall, join the Delta Delta Delta sorority and play cello in campus orchestra and chamber groups. She studied abroad in Argentina, Spain and Denmark.
Yet not a single other student overlapped with her in any of the activities.
“I think that there is a perception that students arrive at university hoping to befriend others from vastly different backgrounds to themselves. What I found, however, is that this is very rarely actually the case,” Goddard says.
“College involves a few hours of class every day, while the majority of your time is spent with friends, developing your social network,” she explains. “So, at the end of the day, college is as much as, if not more, about the social learning and growing that takes places as much as it is about academic development.”
In Goddard’s investigatory interviews, she found students repeatedly mentioned Greek Life when asked how they found friends. She gathered input from dozens of sorority and fraternity members with anonymous surveys and lengthy, in-person interviews.
Her resulting honors thesis, completed as an Undergraduate Humanities Honors Fellow at the Fox Center for Humanistic Inquiry, revealed gender differences in shaping college relationships — findings likely to be published.
And that’s before Goddard began refining her research by modeling a fraternity and sorority network for further comparison. Each constellation will offer a more tangible analysis to help answer questions about whether college relationships create a stronger network later for jobs.
“Isabel has empirical evidence showing how the framework of Greek organizations helps those who are in the habit of looking only for their similars,” says Xochitl Marsilli-Vargas, an assistant professor of Spanish and cultural anthropologist by training who co-advised Goddard. “This is something people are doing, even though they are not thinking about it, that has implications in the broader world.”
Learning the art of listening
Emory senior Sam Rao’s plan to become a psychiatrist was influenced by his research on how openly individuals will share their mental health issues with their doctors, comparing norms in Argentina with the United States.
Marsilli-Vargas, who has long researched how the language of institutional psychoanalysis became part of everyday life in Argentina, also advised senior Sam Rao on his research.
The son of two doctors, Rao grew up listening to stories about whether they had been able to connect with their patients. So even though he didn’t know what kind of doctor he wanted to be, he knew the job would require him to sharpen his listening skills.
After studying with Marsilli-Vargas, Rao was curious about how the cultural norms for people in Argentina to openly share their mental health issues would compare to more medicalized treatment of mental health in the U.S. In search of answers, he traveled to Buenos Aires last year to observe multi-family psychotherapy sessions.
The sessions provided real-world examples of treatment in action as part of a broader examination of psychoanalysis as a cultural phenomenon for his honors thesis, also completed as a Fox Center undergraduate fellow.
Beyond piquing Rao’s interest in becoming a psychiatrist, the work also exposed to him to new, first-hand experiences. His most vivid memory was watching a woman’s reaction when a psychotherapist told her he had no words to make her feel better after her daughter died in a car crash.
“The acknowledgment that this person felt sad, it was enough for her,” Rao says. “As a doctor, I will need to know how the body works and what medications do, but also about the people experiencing that. You’re dealing with people. They have a backstory. You can’t ignore that in treatment.”
Reframing the conversation
Emory junior Andy Paul found himself questioning whose stories were missing from national media coverage of the AIDS crisis in the 1980 and 1990s, bringing his research question to the Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library.
As technological advancements increasingly influence the world, humanities research also offers a window into understanding the human dimension of major changes.
For instance, junior Andy Paul thought he knew all about the theatrical protests, such as staging “die ins” in the streets, that proved to be a turning point for activism and LGBT visibility during the height of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s and early 1990s.
After inquiry-based courses at Oxford College, he decided to engage in a deeper exploration as part of the Oxford Research Scholars Program his second year.
Paul discovered a gap in coverage of AIDS activism in Atlanta. Reading through items in the HIV/AIDS Crisis collection at the Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library revealed an older sort of activism in the birthplace of the civil rights movement. In Atlanta, activism also focused on lobbying and forming non-profits such as Sister Love, an organization focused on supporting women with HIV.
“The national media coverage was focused on white gay men while Atlanta had more people doing work for their specific communities being affected,” says Paul. “So the question wasn’t about what kinds of AIDS activism were going on in Atlanta. The question, which I now ask about everything, is ‘Whose story is missing from what I think I know?’”
New insights on the human experience
Senior philosophy major Mawuko Kpodo plans to attend law school on her way to becoming a legal public scholar. Her thesis explores racism within the Supreme Court and why justice means something different to black women.
Finding missing pieces also drove the research of Mawuko Kpodo. The senior philosophy major, who always wanted to be an attorney, wondered why no black women had been elevated to the U.S. Supreme Court.
When a professor couldn’t tell her how many white men versus black women had been law clerks for the nation’s highest court – a common feeder pool for judgeships – she sought the data on her own.
As she switched majors from political science to anthropology to philosophy, Kpodo began to examine the issue from different disciplines. Her conclusion: Black women understand their identity from a different history than the Supreme Court’s reliance on precedence.
In a nation where slavery and misogyny were legal, black women and the court therefore occupy oppositional histories. To Kpodo, that means the question should be focused on the Court and whether it can change its very identity to understand why justice means something different to black women.
Kpodo’s thesis as a Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellow explores the tension by citing a scene where Annalise Keating, a lead character from the popular TV show “How To Get Away With Murder,” talks about racism being built into the nation’s DNA during a closing argument before the Supreme Court.
“It’s a TV show that explains how the court thinks, namely by its past,” says Kpodo, who was also an Oxford Research Scholar. “Yet the very use of precedent is incomplete when it means the Court brings a very problematic past to today’s questions.”
Such provocative research is often the focus of doctoral research, which Kpodo plans to explore in her pursuit of a philosophy PhD. She also wants to attend law school, on her way to becoming a legal public scholar.
Mellon Mays coordinator Dianne Stewart, an associate professor of religion and interim chair of African American Studies, sees such humanities research as achieving more than honing thinking, writing and interpretation skills to a deeper level.
That work creates empathy, a skill that cannot be understated in our interconnected world.
“When you’re reading a book or watching a movie, if you can identify with the protagonist, you can understand how they confront challenges,” she says. “Examining the way human beings solve problems and create meaning – especially in the midst of suffering, struggle, contradictions and disappointments – humanistic inquiry supports that empathetic engagement with others.”
“All students need to develop empathy, and the opportunity to think critically and creatively about the human condition builds students’ intellectual and social competencies and prepares them for professional success in any arena,” she adds.
Putting medicine in context
Future pediatrician Samantha Korn is using her English honors thesis to examine literary depictions of children with illnesses, offering criticism where children are shown as little more than their diagnoses and emphasizing the need for empathy in health care.
Reams of research support the benefits of emotionally attuned physicians, making empathy an important skill for the medical school path shared by many Emory students.
Having a compassionate relationship with her future patients is especially important to Samantha Korn, who plans to become a pediatrician. She developed some of those skills as a volunteer at the Ronald McDonald House and at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.
It was at the hospital, though, that she realized many of the young patients essentially lived at the facility as they confronted chronic illnesses.
Korn, who is also a Fox Center undergraduate fellow, began wondering how the children saw themselves and how other children viewed them. Her curiosity led her to an English honors thesis that offers a critical analysis of how chronically ill patients are portrayed in children’s and young adult literature.
Examining “House of Robots,” co-written by best-selling author James Patterson, and the popular novel “The Fault in Our Stars” by John Green, Korn uncovered worrisome narratives that depict a child’s illness only in how it affects others and portray children as little more than their diagnoses.
She also was critical of gender stereotypes, of sick female characters needing to be rescued. The Patterson book, for instance, gives a young girl a rare autoimmune disease that is almost exclusively found in boys.
“I want to acknowledge these issues because a health care professional needs to be aware of them before they know they need to remedy them,” Korn says. “I think it helps me understand how patients see the world, so I can hear them and make sure to put them first. That’s especially important in treating children, but it should be for any patient.”
English professor Laura Otis, who advised Korn, says that because humanities research is essentially a deep study of how language, culture and people change over time, it translates to any field. She should know. Before becoming an English professor and winning a 2000 MacArthur Genius Grant, she was a neuroscientist.
“A research institution can take an intellectually curious person and help them succeed,” she says. “But the liberal arts focus at Emory can guide that curiosity to anywhere they want to go.”
About this story: Writing by April Hunt. Photos and video by Emory/Photo Video.