Ford scholars dive into humanities research

Ford Scholar Matthew Au '19 and co-workers pose at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he traveled with his mentor to interview a professor for their project.

Because most students leave Vassar for the summer, they may be unaware of some programs and activities taking place on campus while they’re away. One notable example, The Ford Scholars Program, was founded in 1988 with a grant from the Ford Foundation and aims to pair professors and students to give students research experience in their chosen field.

As Ford Scholar Kaitlin Prado ’19 [Disclaimer: Prado is a reporter for The Miscellany News] described in an emailed statement, “For the students it’s often about being introduced to focused research in their prospective field for the first time, and for the professor it’s a chance to continue projects that largely get put on hold during the rush of each semester.”

In February, an email goes out to the student body inviting students to apply. The potential scholars can see a list of proposed projects that professors are working on and can apply to two, listing them in order of preference. Then an interview process with the professor takes place to determine if the student fits the project, and the chosen students begin work after school ends.

According to Ford Scholar Matthew Au ’19, the projects span multiple disciplines and departments, and they range from a minimum of four weeks to the entire summer; most are generally around eight weeks long.

No two projects are similar, and they vary in terms of professor involvement as well. Stephanie Coons ’19, while her project was relatively independent in nature, still met consistently with her mentor, Associate Professor of Economics Benjamin Ho. Coons, who researched the degree of partisanship of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), described their working relationship, stating, “A lot of [the inspiration] would come from him and either I would add to it or figure out how to make it work in practice.” They would then regroup to discuss what worked and how to move on from there.

Coons and her mentor used existing research to help her structure her own project, referencing a previous study in which two researchers looked at the Congressional Record, the official transcription of all congressional sessions. They found the words that Democrats and Republicans used most often, and noted how many of those words specific newspapers used in order to measure the partisanship in each paper. They applied this same idea to NGOs using CharityNavigator, a database of charities that conveniently provides mission statements for each organization.

The question Coons and Ho wanted to answer was as follows: “Given a mission statement, what is the probability that it’s conservative?” They coded a program that generated this probability and applied it.

It worked well, although they had nothing with which to compare this data. As Coons explained, “People haven’t really studied or researched this.” Therefore, it was difficult to verify her work objectively; they had to work based solely on subjective logic and took steps back to decide whether the data they had actually made sense.

As the work was complicated, her professor gave her advice, such as to look into certain theories and incorporate it into their investigation.

However, not all professors worked as closely with their scholars. For example, Au worked on Season 2 of Associate Professor of Philosophy Barry Lam’s podcast, called Hi-Phi Nation. Au’s main responsibilities included transcribing hours of tapes, something that could be done mostly independent of his mentor.

Au elaborated, “My work was taking generated audio transcription that [Professor Lam] ran through a software and taking that giant block of mangled text and labeling it, correcting some grammar and time stamping it.”

He also added speakers’ names and found sections he thought Lam could use for future episodes. He then summarized what the audio included and how it could fit into the story. Sometimes, if his mentor needed interviews, Au would find the contact information and send out an invitation for an interview that Lam would later conduct.

Au’s work also sometimes involved travel, including a trip to Boston to interview an MIT professor. There Au learned about finding the perfect room for a podcast, how to ask interview questions and how to cut and split audio. He explained that if they had to remove random noises or filler words like “um,” the resulting absence of audio could not sound natural. Therefore, they recorded the “room tone” before and after the interview, 10 seconds of what the room sounded like when no one spoke. He marveled at how something so simple that people never thought about played such a large role in podcasting. Like Au, some scholars occasionally leave Vassar’s campus for their projects. For example, Gabriela Mandeville ’19, who worked with Professor of Hispanic Studies and Environmental Studies Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert, traveled with her mentor to Cuba and other nearby Caribbean islands to research native parrots and macaws. Mandeville described her project in an email. “The research we conducted will serve as the foundation for Professor Lizabeth’s newest book, an environmental biography of the parrots and macaws of the Caribbean.”

They focused on Cuba, St. Lucia and Dominica, conducting interviews and observing the animals there. They performed the rest of the research once they returned. Mandeville enjoyed this interesting project, adding, “Many of [the macaws] are considered to be ‘hypothetical,’ which means that there isn’t any scientific evidence to support their existence (eg. fossils, skins, bones).”

Although the projects varied greatly among disciplines and topics, each was relevant to the students’ courses of study as well as contemporary issues. Prado also found her research with Assistant Professor of Political Science Taneisha Means extremely timely. As Prado described, “[Our research] focused on the surveying of black state-level justices and questions of what representation can do and has done for the bench.”

Her work included creating a survey instrument, drafting an interview form, transcribing interviews and beginning a database of judges and their contact information. While some might view this as busywork, Prado disagrees.

“It never felt like I was just another [research assistant] performing menial tasks. From the very first days of our work I felt like a collaborator— that not only did she value my contributions, but that they were welcome, and it made the whole program that much richer.”

Students are chosen to participate in Ford projects based on how well their skills and interests fit what the professor and the project itself demand.

Coons chose her project because she had always been interested in the classes that Professor Ho taught, and she knew that his project would be a perfect match for her previous experience. Since the project continues to uncover more paths that they are keen to explore, Ho and Coons will continue their work this semester, with Coons serving as Ho’s research assistant.

Au decided to apply because, after working with a YouTube channel during his sophomore year, he wanted to experience how other forms of entertainment worked.

Mandeville, a pre-med student, stated, “The project proposal was an amazing mix of environmental science, sociology, history and biology. I was completely fascinated by it.”

Prado had taken a political science class with her professor, and wanted to get more involved with the subject during summer, fearing, “When would I ever get a chance at undergraduate humanities-based research again?” She also works for her mentor as a research assistant, performing normal assistant tasks for her professor’s classes as well as continuing the research from the summer.

The scholars lived in Noyes or in the Town Houses over the summer. While this separated them, there were still opportunities to interact.

Au stated, “I think the Office of Res Life makes a really good effort to try to get [the scholars] to hang out, so we have bi-weekly barbeques in the Bridge.”

This initiative also brought the Ford Scholars into contact with other students at Vassar, for example URSI participants or people who were working at other on-campus jobs. Au also expressed that it was a good way to meet and talk to other professors who attended the barbeques as well.

A symposium of the different projects took place on Thursday, Sept. 21, in which all participants presented their projects. All 20 scholars completed highly interesting work with their professors; write-ups of each can be found here.

Scholars seem to have loved their research and want to continue it, which was exactly why the Ford Scholarship Program was created. As Mandeville concluded, “I felt so inspired by the end of my summer by the success stories I heard and from having been a part of such a monumental piece of research.”

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