Substantial Difference

For a surprisingly large percentage of Maxwell undergraduates, research – original, hands-on, primary-source, thesis-quality research – is part of the program.

By Renée Gearhart Levy

Original academic research has long been the cornerstone of graduate study. But research has grown to become an important, sometimes required component of the undergraduate experience, too. That's particularly true in the Maxwell School's social science and interdisciplinary programs.

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"One of the things that we believe about the social sciences is that they give students the skills that will help them in any job they want to do," says Carol Faulkner, associate dean for academic affairs. "One of those essential skills is research methods. The more we can get students involved in research, whether that's abstract scholarly research or applied projects, they are gaining skills that will translate to other arenas of their life."

While only two departments require a substantial research project to complete a bachelor's degree – History and International Relations – all provide an option to graduate with distinction by completing a one- or two-semester research project, leading to a thesis (ranging from 35 to 75 pages), reviewed by a faculty advisor or small committee. Other students conduct research on social issues through the Citizenship and Civic Engagement program, which results in an action plan project that students create and implement. Some majors (economics, especially) have research methods built into upper-division coursework.

The School sponsors a year-end undergraduate poster session and awards ceremony. One department, History, publishes an undergrad research journal; another, Anthropology, supports an undergraduate research website. And there is occasional (but still rare) funding to help support undergraduate research.

Many students are also enrolled in Syracuse University's Renée Crown Honors Program, where degrees include a capstone research project.

"It would be difficult to graduate from the Maxwell School without some undergraduate research experience," says Faulkner. "Whether it's through an internship opportunity, a distinction thesis, an honors capstone, or methods courses, there are multiple ways students learn through research."

Following are five such students . . .

Nuclear Ills

"Tobi" Dare is researching connections between uranium mining and public health in Africa.

Undergraduate researcher Oloruntobi DareOloruntobi Dare at work in her favorite on-campus quiet space, Syracuse University's famous Carnegie Library reading room

News reports about nuclear weaponry seldom focus on the uranium necessary for their creation. Senior Oloruntobi "Tobi" Dare is studying uranium mining in Africa and the potential threats to public health as her international relations capstone project.

"It got me to start thinking about Africa's place in the nuclear age."
Oloruntobi "Tobi" Dare

According to Dare, countries in Africa account for 16 percent of the world's uranium reserves. "Many critics believe Africa is such a viable market for uranium mining because of less stringent policy frameworks," she says. "I believe that African countries in particular don't have as much bargaining power in the establishment of regulation, due to the power imbalance between Africa and the Western world. I am looking for the reason for these gaps."

A native of Nigeria, Dare has lived in America since age five. Although she attended a science and technology high school, the Gates Millennium Scholar was attracted to Maxwell's strong international relations program. Her project, Uranium Mining: Public Health and Mechanisms of Accountability in Africa, marries her interests in international relations, biology, and public health.

"The radioactivity of uranium has a long history of being correlated to cancers and lung conditions," she says. Additional public health threats include water contamination from open-pit mining.

The idea for the project was sparked in the course War and Peace in a Nuclear Age, taught by IR professor Francine D'Amico. "It got me to start thinking about Africa's place in the nuclear age," says Dare, who, in a previous course, had explored petrocapitalism and the extractive economy in Africa.

Oloruntobi “Tobi” Dare
Senior from Bowie, Maryland
Major: International Relations
“Uranium Mining: Public Health and Mechanisms of Accountability in Africa”

Dare, a member of the Maxwell Model UN team who plans to pursue graduate school in global health policy, is currently looking at multinational corporations, independent states, and the public health sector. She's trying to assess the systems and regulations in place when companies enter Africa to do uranium mining, and who or what body is looking at potential risks.

Those are big questions with a lot of moving parts. Dare is studying international standards of regulation and looking at international bodies that influence uranium mining. She is also studying government ministries in South Africa, Namibia, and Niger, trying to determine the people and entities that oversee mining activities. She's using Australia, which has a long history of uranium mining and stringent regulations and exposure minimums, as her control.

She posits that the laxity of regulation is a result of colonial forms of power. "Trade and economic networks have been framed in Africa after hundreds of years [and] this has led to exploitation," Dare says. "I'm trying to determine if that's actually the case and, if so, what can be done."

Persecuted in Russia

Nathan Shearn researches American-based efforts to assist LGBTQ victims from half a world away.

Undergraduate researcher Nathan Shearns Nathan Shearn in the Department of Anthropology seminar room

Voices4Chechnya was a rally and march in New York City organized to pressure the Trump administration to grant humanitarian parole visas to LGBTQ individuals from Chechnya, who continue to be the target of an ongoing genocide in the region. Voices4Chechnya was held in October and Nathan Shearn was there tak-ing part and conducting research.

As a member of the LGBTQ community himself, Shearn considers his participation personal. But it was also a research trip enabled by Syracuse University's new Young Research Fellows Program (YRFP), offered via the Renée Crown Honors Program. Shearn, who was selected last year as one of the program's nine inaugural fellows, received a $4,000 stipend to support a two-year undergraduate research project he is conducting in anthropology.

Shearn's research examines how the gay rights movement in America changed over time and, in turn, how ideas and progress have been mobilized, focusing specifically on a Russian-speaking LGBTQ community in the New York City area.

"Many of these migrants are refugees and asylum seekers who are afraid of returning to their home countries out of fear of imprisonment, physical harm, or psychological abuse," says Shearn. "Getting papers to stay in the United States is crucial. For some, it literally means the difference between life and death."

A junior with a double major in anthropology and Russian language, Shearn plans to combine the research project with his honors capstone project next year. "It will culminate in a large research paper, but I would like to also possibly integrate photography, art, and video," he says.

Nathan Shearn
Junior from Amherst, New York
Majors: Anthropology/Russian
“Queer Activism and the Politics of Becoming”

The YRFP stipend will allow Shearn to make further ethnographic and archival research trips to New York City. In addition to attending the rally, an experience he wrote about for the online student publication SU Globalists, he was able to meet with the co-president of the sponsoring organization, RUSA, an activist support group for Russian-speaking LGBTQ individuals. Next he plans a research visit to the LGBT Archives, to learn more about the gay liberation movements from the 1970s onward.

Shearn, who hopes to pursue graduate study in anthropology, says the YRFP is allowing him to experience what it's like to take on a big research project. "I feel like this is giving me a taste of what grad school might be like so I'm grateful to have been chosen for this opportunity."

Worker's Rights

Jennith Lucas is untangling the history of how sheltered workshops hire the disabled and then treat those workers.

Undergraduate researcher Jennith Lucas Jennith Lucas at work in Hendricks Chapel's Nobel Room

For decades, "sheltered workshops" have provided employment for disabled workers, offering vocational training and work opportunities, often at subminimum wages. That began to change in the late 1960s and early '70s, when the workshops attracted backlash over treatment of their workers, and the workers started to organize for better pay and treatment.

"Initially, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled that blind workers weren't able to organize because there was a rehabilitative relationship, that the workers were essentially clients even though they conducted themselves as employees," explains senior Jennith Lucas, majoring in sociology and citizenship and civic engagement, with a minor in disability studies.

"Understanding who's a 'worker' is still being figured out today."
Jennith Lucas

In 1976, in a case involving the well-known social service agency, Chicago Lighthouse, the NLRB ruled in favor of visually impaired workers, a determination that was subsequently upheld in cases in Cincinnati and Houston. Lucas is using those cases as the basis of research for her sociology distinction and honors capstone thesis. "I'm taking an historical look at what happened, but also trying to understand the classification struggle. Understanding who's a 'worker' is still being figured out today," she says.

Lucas herself is visually impaired. She's also a nontraditional student, coming to SU from Anchorage, Alaska, at age 25 with two young children. As a disabled student, she says her research methods aren't much different than the norm, but she's slower and requires text in an accessible format. "If there's a book on the subject that I'd like to read that isn't accessible, I have to get it converted to an electronic format, and that can take time," she says.

Jennith Lucas
Senior from Anchorage, Alaska
Majors: Sociology/Citizenship and Civic Engagement
“Blind Industrial Workers and the Struggle to Organize”

She became interested in her topic while doing an interview project for her sociology Qualitative Methods course. "I interviewed people who had gone through the business leaders program at the National Industries for the Blind, and through that, I became more interested in blind workers within the system," says Lucas, who plans to pursue graduate school in disability studies.

Funding from the Maxwell School's Tenth Decade Project allowed Lucas to travel to Chicago to learn more about the Lighthouse and its employment and training programs. She is also using newspapers, case briefs, writings by organizers, and texts about organizing from the archives of the Braille Monitor, a publication of the National Federation of the Blind; and is conducting her own in-depth interviews.

Despite the Americans with Disabilities Act, Lucas says there hasn't been substantial change in the number of disabled people who are employed. "Part of this is getting at how disability and labor are constructed together," she says, "how we understand somebody's ability to work and whether they can find employment at all."

The Story Behind Moses

Tammy Hong explores historical context for the career of sculptor Ivan Mestrovic.

Undergraduate researcher Tammy Hong Tammy Hong with Mestrovic materials in Syracuse University Special Collections

For Tammy Hong, researching the campus sculpture of Moses by Ivan Mestrovic was originally an assignment for a Syracuse University art history class. As she began researching, Hong discovered the sculpture was initially designed to be part of a Jewish memorial in New York City that was never built; she found sketches and images of models at SU Art Galleries and records of Mestrovic's career in the University's archives.

"Rodin proclaimed Mestrovic the next big thing."
Tammy Hong

It turns out Mestrovic, an SU professor in the 1940s and '50s who founded the University's sculpture program, had enjoyed an illustrious career in his native Yugoslavia (present-day Croatia) before immigrating to America at the end of World War II. His first wife, who died in 1942, and much of her Jewish family were victims of the Holocaust. "As I was researching, I just kept getting deeper and deeper beyond the sculpture garden at SU," she says.

As a senior, Hong has revisited Mestrovic as the focus of her two-semester distinction research project in history. It will serve also as distinction research in art history and as her capstone project for SU's honors program. The art history major is also specially structured to allow Hong to take studio art classes.

Thanks to the University's holdings, Hong has been able to work with a variety of sources, ranging from sketches, images of preliminary models of sculptures, correspondence, and exhibition catalogs. She is drawing fundamental connections between the studio materials and written sources that, she suspects, have rarely been made before. "Mestrovic and his sculptures," she says, "is not a topic that has been widely discussed."

Tammy Hong
Senior from Guangzhou, China
Majors: History/Art History and Art
“Mestrovic’s Moses: Public Remembrance in the United States Post-World War II”

Eventually, Hong hopes to combine her interest in fine arts and history with a career as a museum curator. For now, she's fascinated by Mestrovic. "In Europe, he was very well known. He worked with Rodin, who proclaimed Mestrovic the next big thing," says Hong. "Mestrovic actually had a one-man show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art while he was alive, which had never been done before. But now, nobody knows who he is."

In 1955, Mestrovic left SU to join the faculty of Notre Dame University. With funding from the Wortman Elman Fund in the Department of History, Hong plans to travel to Notre Dame to visit their archives, which have the remainder of Mestrovic's papers.

"Information on Eastern European art is lacking, relative to Western European art," Hong says. "There's real potential to pursue this research even further as a master's or doctoral student."

Ready for the Worst

Jordan Young studied how municipalities prepare citizens to react to emergencies; then his CCE action plan turned those lessons toward campus.

Undergraduate researcher Jordan Young Jordan Young in his favoirte on-campus study space (the office of his mother, Maxwell staff member Kelli Anne Young)

A CPR readiness class organized for fellow students by Jordan Young was not only an attempt to better prepare the campus for medical emergencies. It was an outcome of his research on citizen disaster and emergency preparedness.

The class attracted 59 participants. "I got much larger participation than I expected," Young says. "Civic engagement does matter."

The project was part of Young's major in citizenship and civic engagement (CCE); he's also majoring in political science and economics. CCE is designed to help students understand social activism, public affairs, and political change. It culminates with research in an area of individual interest, but that's not all. Students then design and implement an "action plan" to improve social, economic, or political conditions.

It's what attracted Young to CCE: an emphasis on engagement. "It wasn't just about learning material. By the end you were going to do something that mattered," he says.

Young began with an interest in emergency and disaster management, ultimately considering the ways municipalities might prepare citizens for hurricanes, earthquakes, et cetera. He reasoned that, in addition to professional emergency-response staff, citizens should know better in-the-moment methods of answering emergency needs. How do cities do that?

He spent the spring semester of his junior year conducting research using Syracuse University Library's Summon search engine, which provided access to peer-reviewed articles on the topic; and he conducted interviews with local officials and first responders, such as the City of Syracuse's deputy fire chief and SU's director of emergency management.

Jordan Young
Senior from Liverpool, New York
Majors: Citizenship and Civic Engagement/Economics/Political Science
“Emergency Preparedness and CPR Training”

But his action plan? "I knew I wouldn't be able to create a complete disaster plan for the City of Syracuse as a college senior, but one way to help mitigate disasters and create a more resilient community is to get more people comfortable doing bystander CPR," he says.

Earlier this semester, with the assistance of the director of SU's ambulance service, Young held his CPR training class. He says his action plan project made the "engagement" portion of his education very clear. "Not only did I learn a lot through all the research that led up to it, but maybe one of the people in the class somewhere down the road will end up saving someone's life," he says. "That could be worth a lot more in the long run than any research paper I could have written."

This article appeared in the winter 2018 print edition of Maxwell Perspective © 2018 Maxwell School of Syracuse University. To request a copy, e-mail