Florida State University

College of Social Sciences & Public Policy

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Undergraduate researchers move ahead despite pandemic restrictions

by Bill Wellock, University Communications, and COSSPP communications staff

Social Science Scholar Beatrice Dain was one of three COSSPP students to present their work at the President’s Showcase of Undergraduate Research Excellence, November 19.

The COVID-19 pandemic has added another hurdle to research projects, but Florida State University undergraduates have risen to the challenge.

More than 40 undergraduate students presented original research and creative work, November 19, at the 2020 President’s Showcase of Undergraduate Research Excellence. The annual showcase highlights research from IDEA Grant, Tech Fellow and iGEM award recipients completed under the mentorship of FSU faculty.

“As one of the nation’s Top 20 public universities, we believe that involving our students in academic engagement at the highest levels is critical to our mission,” FSU President John Thrasher said. “We value student success and transformational learning experiences, and undergraduate research is one way our students become more critical and capable thinkers.”

The showcase is typically held in person, but organizers moved to a virtual event this year. The event was divided into two sessions, and each session had several Zoom “rooms” to host research projects. The researchers behind each project took turns explaining their work to the attendees in the room.

When the COVID-19 pandemic reached the United States, students had already submitted applications for research grants and were laying the groundwork for their projects.

“They had to make huge changes to accommodate for COVID over this time,” said Latika Young, director of the Center for Undergraduate Research and Academic Engagement. “Many of them were planning to go abroad or travel domestically to do their research, and they all had to come up with contingency plans under the mentorship of their faculty mentors. They’ve all done a great job of making changes.”

Beatrice Dain, a senior majoring in international affairs and anthropology, was awarded the David B. Ford Undergraduate Researchand Creative Activity Award to research the work that the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) did to help Jews escape persecution in Europe in the 1930s and 1940s.

She planned to spend a month in New York City at the archives of the Center for Jewish History, but the pandemic stopped that plan. While the organization is digitizing the records she needs for further research, she is using available records, such as meeting minutes and testimonies of people helped by HIAS, and she presented what she has uncovered so far at the showcase.

As a freshman, Dain participated in FSU’s Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program (UROP), working with a doctoral student who was conducting research in Nicaragua on how to create an open online course that taught artisans to sell their goods internationally.

“That was really my first introduction to what I would call formal research, understanding how faculty and graduate students began their research and how they went forward with that,” said Dain, one of 18 students selected for the 2020 cohort of the college’s Social Science Scholars program.

She later studied in Guatemala, where she investigated the reasons people migrate from that country to the United States. It was her introduction to archival work. When she returned to Tallahassee, she looked for another opportunity to work with archives and started volunteering with the Institute on World War II and the Human Experience. The institute’s director, G. Kurt Piehler, approached her about doing an honors thesis related to World War II, and she settled on the idea of researching HIAS, which combined the topics of World War II, Latin America and immigration.

“I was extremely interested,” Dain said. “I’ve been wanting to do an honors thesis for quite a long time. It seemed like a really interesting project to blend all my interests together and really use all my skills at one time and on one project.”

Dain was one of the Student Stars profiled on the university’s website. You can read about her background, her academic achievements and her plans for the future here.

Two other COSSP undergraduates presented their work at the showcase.

Maeghan Kerins is a senior studying political science and Russian language and literature. Last summer, she was awarded the Winthrop-King Undergraduate Scholarship for study abroad. When she graduates in Spring 2020, she plans to pursue a master’s in slavic studies at Florida State, with the goal of being a translator. 

Her research, “Violence Against Women in the Soviet Prison System,” won the Scott & Ina McNichols Undergraduate Research Award at the showcase.

Literary analysis of Russian dissident authors allowed her to base her findings on firsthand accounts of women incarcerated in the Soviet Gulag. She found that women were forced to do the same labor as men, yet the frequency of sexual assault and abuse made the female experience significantly worse. 

Anna Lewis, a senior majoring in international affairs and minoring in environmental science and policy, previously worked with post-doctoral researcher Trina Merrick in the Department of Geography through UROP on learning how to use GIS software and high-resolution satellite imagery to map tropical forest canopies and distinguish differences in plant species.

The research she presented at the showcase, “Spatiotemporal Relationship of Liana Growth to Gaps/Trails on the Tropical Forest of Barro Colorado Island, Panama: Implications for CO2 Sequestration,” was supervised by Associate Professor of Geography Stephanie Pau.

Using high-resolution satellite imagery, her research project studied the rapid growth of the liana vine, which has the potential to choke and shade native trees, impacting the structure and function of tropical forests.

“I don’t think I can overstate how proud we are of the students, especially this year with all the changes they’ve had to make,” Young said. “Keeping up with all their classes and all the other things they’ve had to do and then doing these really monumental research and creative projects on top of all that is really astounding.”

Applications for next year’s research awards are due February 1, 2021, and are available at the Center for Undergraduate Research and Academic Engagement website.