HNRS 361 Multidisciplinary research and creative projects seminar challenges and inspires participants
March 14, 2019
Honors College Dean Zofia Burr describes Honors 410 as “an advanced Honors 110,” where students still work on their own individual projects in a classroom of students pursuing other types of projects from a range of different disciplines.
The main difference between the two courses is that students who take the Multidisciplinary Seminar have more experience in their fields than those in Honors 110, a course titled “Principles of Research and Inquiry” that is usually taken during an Honors College student’s first semester.
For Dean Burr, the Multidisciplinary Seminar represents the types of dialogues she hopes people will have in their everyday lives.
The way the world works now, we’re not very encouraged to get out of our own lanes and understand each other . . . [but] you really need to bring together people who think very differently to address the hardest problems.
Dean Zofia Burr
Dean Burr believes in the wider importance of the interdisciplinary, collaborative space that the thesis preparation course nurtures. “For research, for solving problems, you really need to bring together people who think very differently to address the hardest problems.” Both she and Richard Todd Stafford, who co-teaches the class, emphasize that many significant civic and professional problems require this kind of collaboration.
For students arriving in Fall 2019, the Honors College curriculum is being redesigned. These changes will mostly affect students arriving for their first semesters in Fall 2019; however, current students will want to know about changes in some course numbers. For instance, Honors 410 will be renumbered to fit the requirements that students coming to Mason in the fall will be required to fulfill. So, students will no longer find Honors 410 Thesis Proposal: Multidisciplinary Research and Creative Projects Seminar and Honors 411 Thesis: Multidisciplinary Research and Creative Projects Seminar in the Fall 2019 schedule. Instead, there will be an Honors 361 called “Multidisciplinary Practicum: Multidisciplinary Research and Creative Projects Seminar” available that offers the same experience.
Dean Burr emphasizes that the curriculum adjustments will optimize the Honors College experience.
“There’ll be more options for the challenge-driven opportunities to do service-learning, but it’ll all be in keeping with the multidisciplinary, research-driven approach that we’ve had throughout,” explains Dean Burr. “We’re trying to—with the upper division [courses]—support more of the multidisciplinary problem solving that [students] are already doing,” said Dean Burr.
Dean Burr and Professor Stafford enjoy the chance to see students learn to communicate across disciplinary, methodological, and professional boundaries. “I like the opportunity to really think about things from different perspectives,” said Dean Burr. “I find it very enriching, creatively and intellectually.”
Kelly Mai, a sophomore, began her research for Honors 410 while still a freshman in Honors 110. Over the summer of 2018, Mai continued her work by enrolling in the summer section of Honors 410. Ultimately, Mai finished her research in Honors 411, a course that has been offered concurrently with Honors 410 for continuing students, in Fall 2018. Her experience refining and developing this project reflect the kind of opportunities for ongoing development that the recent Honors College curriculum redesign is intended to foster and encourage.
“It was an ever-evolving question,” said Mai, explaining how she had to narrow her scope to make her research more manageable.
Mai tackled a controversial topic through her research project, titled “Balancing Patent and Patient: An Ethical Issue of Medical Accessibility.”
“[I looked] at the economic, ethical implications of a strong patent protection system for pharmaceuticals in the developing world,” explained Mai.
Mai, a Philosophy major, noted how patent protection for life-saving medicines exposes a troubling question for the overlap of economics and ethics.
“There’s this underlying question of whether you can place a price on human suffering, and that’s where you can pull in realms of ethics,” said Mai.
Mai used case studies from countries like India and Brazil to inform her study, and her research offers a new perspective to use when examining this issue—structural injustice.
“[Structural injustice] is this idea that there are relationships between high-income countries and low-income countries that are perpetuating poverty in the lack of medical accessibility,” Mai said of how she applied this concept from ethics and political philosophy.
Mai paired structural injustice and rule utilitarianism—the theory that an action is ethical if it maximizes the good—to inform her research. This work has also informed her further study of ethics during a Study Abroad trip at Oxford University in Spring 2019.
Mai describes the Multidisciplinary Seminar as an opportunity to become a more disciplined researcher, mentioning that it was especially helpful in her efforts to develop a clear, concise, and answerable research question.
“Your professors really know how to guide you,” Mai said. “[This course] has helped me really grow to think critically and ask better questions.”
Mai hopes to craft research that speaks to a broad range of communities with varying perspectives. To facilitate this, Mai reflects on how multiple disciplines can inform our understanding of her question.
Although she brings evidence produced by scholars of economics to bear on her work, Mai argues that, if scholars want to provide guidance about how to shape this industry, “there should be more ethics.”
“I would just hope that [my research] would remind people to look at more disciplines when looking at a grand issue,” said Mai.
Erin Cervelli, a sophomore Dance major, also tackled a question dealing with health and transformed her Honors 110 project. She is currently developing a research proposal that she plans to submit to the Office for Student Scholarship, Creative Activities, and Research (OSCAR) Undergraduate Research Scholars Program (URSP), so that she can be funded to conduct interviews for her research.
Cervelli’s research focused on the menstrual education of women, examining the relationships women have with their menstrual cycles.
The dancer found research inspiration from her life experiences. When Cervelli did not find much research answering the questions she had posed, she decided that the best approach would be to conduct her own interviews.
“I was looking at how women are educated about menstrual experiences and how that affects their […] periods, but I found that there wasn’t a connection between those two things, so I had to find it myself,” said Cervelli.
Cervelli credited the interdisciplinary experience of the course for helping her develop a strong proposal.
“Having to explain my research to people in different disciplines than me made me have to see what I didn’t understand as well and see how I can communicate that to other people,” Cervelli said. Cervelli goes further, stating that she also found inspiration from the research methods used in the research conducted by her Honors 410 peers Madison Gaines and Tharuna Kalaivanan.
Sophomore Tharuna Kalaivanan focused on identity issues among first-generation Asian Americans in her research titled “Negotiating Identity: Exploring the Ways First-Generation Asian Americans Navigate Identity in the Workplace.”
Kalaivanan, a Psychology major, developed the idea for the topic after taking an Honors 130 section with Honors College professor Dr. Blake Silver. Inspired by her work in Honors 130 and by her social scientific research in Dr. Silver’s Honors 330 Social Science Research Lab, Kalaivanan decided to begin investigating how first-generation college students approach life and their identities after college.
“For a lot of these students, school has been a large part of their life, and so they kind of build their identity off of that,” Kalaivanan explained. “When they’re leaving the institution of school or university, how does that play into their identity?”
Kalaivanan’s experience in this course inspired her to pursue the research even further. Though Kalaivanan initially did not find a lot of material to work with, she was able to establish a broader scope during her search of the literature. She then used these broader scholarly conversations to inform the work she did.
Kalaivanan echoed her peers and Dean Burr when explaining the value of the Multidisciplinary Seminar.
“With a diverse group in [Honors] 410, there’s people from different backgrounds that are not necessarily familiar with your research or what kind of viewpoint you’re coming from, so it’s really a good chance for you to communicate your research to other people who are outside of your disciplinary [area],” said Kalaivanan.
Kalaivanan hopes that her research encourages leaders in the workplace to accept all aspects of everyone’s cultural makeup.
“Yes, you can hire a diverse group of people, but are you really accepting them as who they are or their culture?” Kalaivanan questioned, noting how nondominant cultures can be suppressed in the workplace.
Another student who tackled the issue of conflicting identities is sophomore Madison Gaines with her research titled “Illuminating Biracial Identity at the Juncture of Social Science and Poetry.”
Gaines, a Creative Writing major, used her research to explore her own identity as a biracial person through poetry. Her project creates a unique presentation of what it means to have a multiracial identity through its combination of social science and the arts.
Gaines developed the idea for her project while taking a course on social injustice with Dr. Silver.
“At the end of the class, we had to do an autoethnography, so writing about your own injustice in your own life, and kind of delving into those,” Gaines said, explaining how she used her final project to analyze her biracial identity.
Dr. Silver’s project allowed students to express their thoughts in any form they found meaningful, and Gaines used her creative writing background to present hers through poetry.
“I had a collection of poems that looked at myself and my biracial experience and what that means for me,” said Gaines.
Afterwards, Dr. Silver approached her about submitting a proposal to the Office of Student Scholarship, Creative Activities, and Research (OSCAR) to do further work. With her proposal accepted, Gaines continued her research on the biracial/multiracial identity through Honors 410 in tandem with the UNIV 495 OSCAR Undergraduate Research Scholars Program coursework. Dean Burr notes that many Honors College students elect to take on this challenging, yet rewarding, combination.
Gaines combined multiple social science and poetic lenses to create her research, conducting interviews with people who identified as biracial and using their voices as inspiration for the poetry.
The poet appreciated the support she received from her Multidisciplinary Seminar peers and instructors in tackling such a creative research project. While Honors 110 does not generally include an option to undertake a creative project, since it focuses on developing research skills, the Multidisciplinary Seminar supports students who seek to pursue creative projects. Past students have worked on novels, plays, and even original musical scores.
“They let me read some of my poems in class, and I got feedback on [them],” Gaines said, adding that this was helpful in creating effective poetry for her research.
Gaines hopes that her research encourages other social scientists to see the value in incorporating the fine arts with their work.
“If they do those artistic methods, then they’re going to reach a greater audience that way,” explained Gaines. “I want the biracial identity to be known, and the multiracial identity to be known, and the only way that that can happen is if I write poetry about, because that’s what I do best.”
Gaines described hearing and writing about others’ experiences as biracial individuals as “cathartic.”
“Knowing that you’re not alone in an identity is the most helpful thing you can ever experience,” explained Gaines.
This research was recently covered by George Mason News, and Gaines was interviewed by the Honors College about the process of creating this collection. She performed her poetry at Epicure Cafe in Fairfax last semester and will present her research at the Cultural Studies Association’s annual conference in New Orleans, Louisiana this May.
Another student who used her Multidisciplinary Seminar experience to explore a timely issue is senior Kristin Gleichauf.
Gleichauf examined how ecowomanism, which focuses on women of color and their activism for the environment, could be used to inform our understanding of the water crisis in Flint, Michigan.
While taking a course on “environmental justice,” Gleichauf, an Integrative Studies major with a Social Justice and Human Rights concentration, saw a gap in discussions about the connection between gender and the environment. She learned about the term “ecowomanism” from her research in another class and began thinking about how it could be applicable to fill this gap.
Though she entered the Multidisciplinary Seminar with a broad idea of what she wanted to study, Gleichauf credited her professors for encouraging her to fill this significant gap in the discourse. Gleichauf used “ecowomanism” as the driving force of her research.
“[Women of color] were the ones who were most affected by this [crisis],” Gleichauf said. “Their wants and needs need to be put forth, and the government should follow [them]. It shouldn’t be the other way around.”
Gleichauf hopes that government officials making policy changes for Flint, Michigan listen to the women in the city who are being directly affected by the issue. She also hopes her research can help prevent future crises like the one that occurred in Flint, Michigan.
Gleichauf also reflected on the complexities of being an effective scholarly ally through her research.
“I’m dealing with issues that [emerge for people] with identities that I don’t have,” Gleichauf said, emphasizing the importance of adding to this conversation while remaining respectful to the identities impacted by the issue.
Honors College Senior Sara Huzar took the Multidisciplinary Research and Creative Projects seminar in the summer of 2018, investigating how “fake news” articles published in the Ukraine in 2014 framed questions of cultural identity. She was particularly interested in understanding whether these articles tended to aggravate pre-existing ethnic tensions.
Honors College senior Sara Huzar investigated the intersections of media and cultural identity with her project titled “The Presence of Ethnic Otherization Indicators in Fake News Articles in Ukraine.” The History and Global Affairs double major developed this idea after interning for a semester at the State Department in Kyiv, Ukraine.
“While I was there, I got really interested in [the] Ukrainian national identity, particularly how modern Ukrainians understand their national identity and history,” said Huzar.
Huzar’s research examined how fake news impacts the cultural identity of Ukraine and whether the media has been used to inflame or intensify ethnic tensions within the country.
“Ukraine is its own country, but it shares a lot of its historical and cultural past with Russia,” explained Huzar. “Now that Russia [is] annexing parts of its territory and justifying it by saying that those territories have always been Russian—that cultural history has become painful to some Ukrainians.”
Huzar pursued a quantitative approach to her research using theories drawn from an ethnographic study by George Mason Professor Karina Korostelina, who investigated ethnic conflict in the region. Huzar categorized the articles in her archive, using a scale she developed based on the indicators of ethnic conflict that Korostelina had identified.
Huzar explained that she found the experience beneficial because it helped her maintain accountability for her individual research goals and deadlines. The summer Multidisciplinary Seminar was valuable to her because it provided a collaborative work environment in which she had opportunities to talk through her work.
“Bouncing ideas off of my classmates and having to explain and defend my methodology helped me see areas of weakness in my methods and take steps to improve them,” said Huzar. “My final product was much stronger as a result.”
Huzar appreciates her Multidisciplinary Seminar professor Richard Todd Stafford for supporting her growth as a researcher well into the fall semester. Stafford helped Huzar with her poster, suggested some data visualization resources, and encouraged her to continue working on her presentation for the National Collegiate Honors Council conference in Boston, where she presented in November 2018.
Huzar reflects positively on her innovative approach to her research, which taught her to examine current issues in Ukraine from a different perspective. She is eager to expand this research for herself and for the world.
“I hope to continue working on how culture and identity issues affect security and politics,” said Huzar. “I think that research in that area has strong implications for how to make diplomatic engagement and peacebuilding initiatives more effective.”
Honors College Senior Alexander Mertz first took the Multidisciplinary Seminar over Summer 2018, and then continued working an additional semester in Fall 2018. His project involved historical research with a mentor he had previously worked with on an OSCAR-funded project. The work he did in Summer 2018 ultimately resulted in a project titled “Liudprand of Cremona’s Political Theory.” The Mathematics major studied how Bishop Liudprand of Cremona’s writings show the transition of government and politics in western Europe.
“I had conducted research on the relationship between bishops and emperors in the fourth century, right after Constantine converted to Christianity,” said Mertz, explaining that he wanted to examine this relationship from another time period. His research advisor introduced him to Liudprand of Cremona from the tenth century.
Liudprand proved to be a complex subject for Mertz to analyze.
“Liudprand’s writings are not monolithic,” Mertz said. “His attitudes about the Byzantine Empire and about the hierarchy between the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor change from his early writings to the later ones.”
These findings influenced Mertz to look for details about Liudprand’s life that might help illuminate these shifts. Mertz ultimately chose to explore the combination of religious and political strife present at the Synod of Rome in 963 CE[z1] .
“A group of bishops and Emperor Otto the Great deposed the pope of Rome and appointed his replacement,” explained Mertz. “This synod was unprecedented and occurs in the midst of Liudprand’s writings, […] and I argue that it is instrumental in changing Liudprand’s views.”
Mertz found that Liudprand also played a key role in the synod as he was the only person who wrote of the proceedings and its aftermath.
Mertz credits his Multidisciplinary Seminar professors and classmates for helping him develop a “concise thesis” that helps him explain and make sense of Liudprand’s changing views.
“I had a lot of trouble in the early stages of the project with finding an interesting aspect of Liudprand’s life and writings to research, but this course sequence really helped me figure that out,” said Mertz.
Examining a complex, everchanging figure like Liudprand reinforced for Mertz the importance of putting different perspectives in context.
“To really understand Liudprand, I needed to focus on his religion, his politics, the economic situation between East and West, the concept of honor and respect, and more,” said Mertz, adding, “As my research went on, I realized that I needed to look at a series of events in his life, which involved numerous lenses and frameworks, until things finally ‘clicked.’”
Now, Mertz is already looking for ways to expand even further on this research.
Mertz attended an event at Dumbarton Oaks, a research library with a focus on Byzantine studies. There, he heard a guest speaker who helped him identify some new paths for future research in this area. Mertz is also considering using his research on Liudprand for a graduate thesis. Whether Liudprand remains a figure of his studies or not, Mertz values the experience he has had researching this bishop.
“I think this project has refined my research skills,” said Mertz, who also appreciates the greater understanding he gained of Medieval Europe and Byzantium.
Mertz will present his research this April at Longwood University’s annual medieval history conference “Meeting in the Middle: Forging Medieval Identity.” He is eager to be immersed in medieval scholarship.
“I’m hoping to discuss [my research] with some medieval historians who can help me with their expertise,” said Mertz.
Honors College senior Tristan Moon did not stray from his Chemistry discipline for his Multidisciplinary Seminar research. In his project titled “Non-covalent interactions of n-alkylbenzenes at infinite dilution with silica nano particles during hydrolysis of triethyl orthosilicate (TEOS),” Moon applied new instrumental techniques to examine silica nanoparticle behavior too tiny for a microscope.
This research stems from the work of one of Moon’s research advisors, who encouraged him to pursue this project.
“It utilizes an instrumental method that [the advisor] previously developed and wanted me to look into applying to a different type of chemical reaction,” explained Moon. The Chemistry major then pursued an extensive literature review on determining how to make this new method practical. Moon found inspiration from the techniques that his classmates used for their own research.
However, Moon acknowledges a major difficulty with his research process: determining how to best communicate his findings.
“It involved understanding not only how to share this with other individuals in my field who were experts, but also people who had nothing to do with my research and knew nothing about the concepts or the instruments,” said Moon.
The diverse audience that Moon needed to best convey his research to was present in his Multidisciplinary Seminar. Explaining his research to his peers across varying disciplines made him better understand his own work on a fundamental level.
“[The seminar] gave me the opportunity to practice my presentations, draft my posters, and overall ensure I could deliver a well-polished explanation of my research,” said Moon.
“This research suggests that the process of forming these nanoparticles could be even further finetuned to a very precise degree of control,” said Moon. The Chemistry major hopes to continue this research to improve the technology’s credibility in examining nanoparticles as he believes it is “something that is extremely important in the world of nanoparticle formation.”
For Moon, working on this research introduced him to the new, important concept in chemistry called “nanotechnology” and made him reconsider his studies post-graduation.
“Through this opportunity, I was able to gain a fundamental understanding in some of the concepts and processes used to create and characterize nanoparticles, and I quite enjoyed it,” said Moon. The research had such an impact on Moon that he is now considering studying this topic in graduate school.
Saru Kalva merged the unlikely combination of philosophy and computer science in her Multidisciplinary Seminar research, titled “Developing Machines in the Human Image:
A Computational Perspective of Understanding and the Symbol Grounding Problem.” Kalva’s interests in computer science and philosophy pushed her to find ways that the two disciplines overlap.
Kalva, a sophomore Computer Science major, searched for intersecting questions and opinions in the two fields, eventually landing on the topic of artificial intelligence.
“Both philosophers and [those in computer science] are interested in the human mind,” said Kalva, noting how philosophy tries to understand the human mind while computer science attempts to replicate it. “I thought it would be interesting to study that same question from two different perspectives.”
Through her research, Kalva, who minors in Philosophy, realized that the two disciplines had distinct understandings of how the brain works.
“The [computer science] angle on describing the human mind is that our brain is like a computer. When we think, we’re basically just computing things in our head,” explained Kalva. She noted how the philosophical angle emphasizes the influence of experiences in communication, stating, “When I say the color ‘red,’ it’s not just a symbol for something; there’s experiences that I have with that color that aren’t just computable.”
Kalva examined what these two viewpoints imply about the human mind and how various disciplines can come together to answer this question despite their differing approaches. She is thankful that the Multidisciplinary Seminar gave her the opportunity to explore this intersection.
Kalva enjoyed the freedom that the Multidisciplinary Seminar provided in developing her topic. Dean Burr and Professor Stafford’s collective mentorship helped to improve the scope of her research.
“Dean Burr and Professor Stafford asked me a lot of questions [that pushed me to] develop these blurry ideas I had [about artificial intelligence],” said Kalva.
Kalva appreciates the skills she gained in explaining her research to a multitude of disciplines.
“You have to learn how to communicate something that is very specific to you,” said Kalva. “When you talk to someone else, you have to [explain] the broader picture [and] significance.”
Kalva believes that examining her topic with a broader scope helped to assure that she was asking interesting questions. She explained that sharing her research with her peers led to inquiries for her work that she had not previously considered.
Now, Kalva is even more curious about the study of the human mind. While she is not sure whether she will find a concrete answer for why our minds work in the ways that they do, Kalva enjoyed combining her interests in philosophy and computer science to add to the discussion of our humanity.
Original reporting by Zaria Talley