Ford symposium showcases student-faculty research

Linda Liu ’19, who participated in one of the 19 projects that made up this summer’s Ford Scholars Program, directs singers as part of her research into the diversity of choirs. Courtesy of Karl Rabe/Vassar College.

Researching topics from profit gaps in female-owned businesses in Ghana to diversity in choral music repertoires, students in this past summer’s Ford Scholars Program were engaged in a host of fascinating projects. On Sept. 17, the 2018 Ford Scholars, who worked alongside Vassar professors on 19 projects, presented their research at the Ford Scholars Research Symposium in the Thompson Memorial Library.

Associate Professor and Director of Africana Studies Quincy Mills, the Ford Scholars program director, described the intent of the 30-year-old initiative: “The Ford Scholars Program at Vassar College fosters student and faculty collaboration on research projects in the humanities and social sciences. The program encourages intensive academic mentoring relationships between faculty and undergraduate students, toward students imagining future lives in the professoriate.”

Every year, the symposium affords the Ford Scholars a chance to practice formally presenting research. As Associate Professor of Education and Ford Scholars mentor Erin McCloskey described, “I think what makes the symposium here interesting and challenging is that usually at professional conferences, everyone…is already interested in that field, so it’s great when I go because you’re learning about all different kinds of research.” The symposium also provided an occasion to receive commentary from peers and professors alike.

“Presenting at the symposium was a great experience, as it allowed me to discuss my research in a semi-formal setting,” said April Lonchar ’19. “I always love hearing thoughts and questions from people who are new to the project.”

The symposium showcased the variety in this year’s Ford research topics, ranging from waste systems to how people with autism learn outside of the classroom to the global transmission of the smallpox vaccine in the 19th century.

As Lonchar elaborated, “Our research project centers around the bargaining behavior of garment-making micro-entrepreneurs in Hohoe, Ghana … Our survey included a bargaining exercise to purchase a shirt from each micro-entrepreneur and looked at whether the household income of the garment-maker influenced what bargaining price they settled on.”

Students expressed how the Ford program allowed them to explore their academic passions while also gaining practical research experience in their respective fields. For example, as Linda Liu ’19 expressed, her dual dedications in education and music greatly informed her summer project, enhancing both passions in a way she had not engaged with them before.

“The program gave me the opportunity to critically analyze excluding practices within choir and to develop methods towards creating a more inclusive environment within choir,” Liu said.

Liu also appreciated the personal insights her research produced. She explained, “Listening to music from Chinese and Chinese-American composers, as well as performances from Chinese choirs, granted me a sense of belonging within the choral arts that I had missed while growing up.”

Speaking to the practical applications of the knowledge gained over the summer, Lonchar elucidated, “The Ford Scholars Program is very special in that it gives a glimpse into the day-to-day of research. My image of what research consists of has completely changed after this experience … Seeing a project through over the summer makes writing my thesis this year feel much more manageable.”

A key component of the Ford Scholars Program is fostering relationships between professors and students. Professors act as mentors throughout the research process and lead students as they investigate their topics. McCloskey assumed this role for two students assisting with research on the way people with autism learn outside of the classroom.

“This research was just at the beginning stages,” McCloskey explained, “and so my role was to give [student researchers] a little background information on how we had gotten to this point and trying to catch them up a little bit on some of the research that has been done historically in the field.”

Elaborating on her research methods and the way in which she collaborated with the Ford Scholars, McCloskey continued, “I taught them first about taking field notes and all of the prior research…and we talked about talking to participants in the field and different ways of noticing learning… which may be oral responses when we are looking at people who don’t use oral language to communicate.”

The Ford Scholars Program allows participating students them to delve deeper into topics of interest and to experience research first-hand, which may lead them to gauge what fields or areas of research they want to pursue in the future.

As Lonchar reflected, “One of my goals in doing the Ford Scholars Program was to find out whether I enjoyed doing research. I found that I do, which makes me more optimistic for graduate school as a possibility for my future.”

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