From anxiety to confidence: Undergraduates show off their work as they wrap up summer research projects

By Alice Yin, FIMS Communications Staff

September 9, 2021

As the summer wraps up, so too do a number of FIMS research projects undertaken through the Undergraduate Summer Research Internship (USRI) program. This year FIMS fielded 11 research teams staffed by 14 graduate and undergraduate students and 15 researchers, tackling a wide array of subjects.

The projects and resultant findings were varied, but one thing many of the student researchers had in common was an openness to learning how to conduct research at a higher level, and maybe also some nerves about meeting expectations.

Proshat Nouri-Behrouz
4th Year MPI Student

Jacquelyn Burkell
FIMS Professor

"Prior to joining the research project, I was concerned with how I could be both a positive and productive asset to the team as an undergraduate student," admits Proshat Nouri-Behrouz, a fourth-year MPI student, who joined a research team led by FIMS associate professor Jacquie Burkell. "The mentorship I received from both Dr. Burkell and the MA students [on the research team] allowed me to approach the project with a greater level of confidence."

As part of the team for Ten 'Thorny' Data Collection Practices of Research, Nouri-Behrouz studied various ethical dilemmas which may arise in the data collection process while conducting research. "We are looking at the use of social media data for research purposes - specifically the practice of harvesting social media posts, often without notice or consent from those who created them," she explains.

She spent the summer identifying and reviewing published research that used 'thorny' data collection, such as the use of online forum posts where the author's consent was not obtained, and then developed a set of scenarios regarding this type of data that can be used in interviews with social media participants and research ethics board members in the future.

Nouri-Behrouz says that the project encouraged her to apply the critical thinking skills she learned as a FIMS student to her role as a researcher. "Although many theoretical concepts are translated to students within the classroom, the USRI provides a platform for students to explore an academic pursuit in greater depth."

She says she would "absolutely recommend" the USRI program to other students interested in gaining a more in-depth understanding of their discipline.

Sarah Wallace
4th Year MIT Student

Ajit Pyati
FIMS Professor

Sarah Wallace, a fourth-year MIT student, also initially felt anxious going into her research project on pandemic mental health in academia, led by FIMS associate professor Ajit Pyati.

"I was mainly doubting my own abilities and feeling a bit of imposter syndrome going into what seemed like such a scary, intimidating field of academia. However, everyone at Western and in FIMS has been incredibly helpful and supportive of my journey."

Wallace's project, How the Coronavirus Pandemic has Affected the Mental Health of University Faculty, found that the COVID-19 pandemic has amplified the ongoing mental health epidemic in academia.

"The topic of mental health in academia is a very taboo subject - there aren't many studies on it due to the stigma attached. I worked with Dr. Pyati and Western Libraries to find articles written before and during the pandemic on the topic, as well as look at other post-secondary institutions to see how they were helping their faculty," Wallace explains. "While finding the research was difficult, the project felt incredibly rewarding."

"I would definitely recommend the USRI program. It changes your worldview and you definitely grow as an individual throughout the process."

Luke Stark
FIMS Professor

The addition of undergraduate students to research projects not only helps the students, it also benefits the faculty members leading them. Assistant professor Luke Stark is "enormously impressed" by the quality of Western undergrads.

Professor Stark's project, AI and You: How Artificial Intelligence Impacts the Western Community, is part of a broader, ongoing exploration of the governance of artificial intelligence systems, and is supported by a Western Interdisciplinary Development grant. Under the USRI program, Professor Stark hired a student based in the Faculty of Arts & Humanities. Philosophy student Nathalie DiBernardino spent the summer working on a synthetic review of literature on algorithmic harms, and creating an infographic detailing the ways various algorithmic harms can impact Western students.

"Despite coming up frequently in discussions of the impacts of AI systems, 'harm' as described in much current work is a surprisingly fuzzy concept," says Stark. "We've been working on synthesizing the various current work on algorithmic harms with conceptual tools from philosophy to lay out a rough taxonomy of algorithmic harms. Our hope is that this taxonomy will help other scholars and technologist determine what form of algorithmic governance is best suited to address a particular type of harm as it plays out in the real world."

Being able to bring in students from other academic disciplines has been really valuable to Stark. "I'm thankful for FIMS' support of it - because she's in philosophy, Nathalie brings a different set of disciplinary perspectives to questions than I do."

"That said, FIMS undergrads are also spectacular, and we're looking forward to involving more of them in the interdisciplinary development initiatives over the next year."

First launched in 2020, the USRI program allows undergraduate students to gain first-hand experience in conducting research under the direction of a faculty mentor. The program is made available through a partnership between Western Research, Student Experience, and Western Libraries. To see the results of the USRI internships from all faculties and schools at Western this year, visit the Undergraduate Summer Research Internship Showcase.