I was very intimidated when I first started being involved with research. I knew almost nothing about the research process, and I could not imagine having anything of value to contribute working alongside researchers who have been working for five, ten, twenty, or more years. But here’s the secret: that’s how everyone feels. No one expects you to know what you’re doing right at the start, so everyone – whether it’s supervisors or graduate students - are willing to help. Of course, even with all of this help there are many unpredictable challenges, but by facing those challenges you’ll develop the problem solving skills necessary to grow as a researcher.
When I came to university, I had no idea what I was going to do. Like many first years, I was thinking maybe medicine, despite the fact that I faint at the sight of blood. However, I soon found that every day after intro psychology, taught by Dr. Jan Gelech, I would go home and look up articles or topics related to what we were learning in class. It was a class where I would learn one thing and have ten more questions: I knew I had found the discipline for me.
When I learned the skills necessary to do research, I was able to start figuring out the answers to my questions through my own research. However, don’t think that doing your own research is the same as typing a question into Google and waiting for the answer. It’s a rigorous process of reading what previous scientists have done, designing a study that would add to the existing studies, getting ethical approval, collecting your data, analyzing your data, and then writing it up in a way that communicates what you found clearly to other people. It is, quite simply, a long process and a lot of work, but extremely rewarding.
My name is Kari Duerksen, and I just completed my last year of my Bachelor of Science in Psychology, Honours. Throughout this degree, I have had the privilege of being supervised by Dr. Karen Lawson, Dr. Lorin Elias, and Dr. Jan Gelech, and I have had the opportunity to experience three very different types of research projects.
Note: Kari Duerksen's research is on the frontier of a number of controversial topics. Please be advised.
1. Honours Thesis
In the last year of a Psychology Honours degree, each student performs a research project from start to finish under the mentorship of a faculty supervisor, in my case Dr. Karen Lawson. This is a great opportunity for students to take ownership of a research project and delve into an area that they are passionate about. For me, this was how attitudes toward women and attitudes toward abortion are related.
In this project, I used a mixed methods approach by incorporating both quantitative and qualitative research. Quantitative research allowed for a large number of participants but only fixed answer choices, and qualitative research allowed for only a small number of participants but rich data because of open-ended questions.
The results of these two studies suggest that people who hold restrictive attitudes toward abortion hold positive attitudes toward women who choose abortion by constructing these women as pitiful, ignorant, and acting against their true nature. Along with this, people who hold restrictive attitudes toward abortion believe it would be beneficial to women to restrict abortion access in order to save them from emotional and physical trauma. These beliefs relate closely to a psychological concept called “benevolent sexism,” which on its face appears to view women positively, but underneath works to restrict women to traditional gender roles.
This project was a great opportunity not only because it was a topic that fascinates me and I believe to be very important, but also because I was in charge of each step of the research process (with a lot of wise advice from my supervisor, of course).
2. Undergraduate Student Research Assistantship (USRA)
There is a program at the University of Saskatchewan called the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) Undergraduate Student Research Assistantship (USRA), which awards selected students a scholarship to work in an NSERC-funded research lab on campus over the summer. I have had two of these scholarships under the supervision of Dr. Lorin Elias, which led to my research of lateral biases in everyday life.
This research is widespread, but I have focused specifically on looking at different aspects of posing biases. Posing bias is the phenomenon that people tend to show more of their left cheek when wanting to appear more emotional, and more of their right cheek when wanting to appear less emotional. I have looked at how posing bias relates to artwork of different religions that emphasize different amounts of emotionality (e.g. Buddhism which emphasizes a calming of emotions, and Christianity which emphasizes a heightening of emotions).
My research findings suggest religious artworks differ in their posing biases, with depictions of Jesus being more often showing his left cheek, and depictions of Buddha more often showing him facing directly forward. This study involved going into art archives to collect approximately 400 images of artwork of Jesus and Buddha, and then coding each for posing direction. Now, I’m looking at how posing bias is related to political orientation, and I’ve also looked at how cradling direction is related to perceived maternal depression.
My experience as an USRA recipient was an invaluable part of developing as a researcher; it was the first time that I was part of a lab, meaning I received a lot of mentorship from graduate students, and it led to my first publication. Overall, USRAs are a great opportunity to immerse yourself in research in a supportive environment to see if it’s something you are interested in.
3. Research Assistant
This summer, I’m assisting the professor who sparked my interest in psychology, Dr. Jan Gelech, to prepare her dissertation for publication in academic journals. This is a unique experience because I was not involved in the beginning of the study, but am now helping to summarize and break apart the 400 page dissertation into chunks of 30 pages for publishing in academic journals.
The data for this research was drawn from in-depth interviews with same-sex attracted Christian men. The research outlines the life journey each man followed in order to resolve the conflict that can occur when a Christian man experiences same-sex attraction, and finds similar patterns in the men’s journeys as well as a multiplicity of outcomes and final resolutions, each of which are presented as equally valid ways of resolving crisis.
This project has been a great experience because I get to help out on the same project that got me interested in psychology in the first place and become familiar with higher-level academic writing in my discipline. Working on this project has familiarized me with an area of research I would have otherwise been mostly unaware of.
Opportunity Does Not Come Knocking - Seek it Out for Yourself!
For undergraduate students interested in research, I would encourage you to seek out opportunities. It’s very rare to be offered a research opportunity out of the blue, so it starts with taking initiative yourself. The best way to do this is to look at your department’s webpage and see what professors are researching. What interests you? What makes you ask questions? Another way is to look up the research of a professor whose class you really enjoyed. Even if you think their research might not be what interests you the most, working with someone you get along with and who is passionate about what they do might inspire you to become interested in their area. Whichever route you choose, send a formal e-mail to the professor you think you would like to work with. Let them know you are interested in their research and are wondering if there are opportunities to get involved.
The opportunities may not come right away, but with diligence in your coursework and an openness to a variety of research areas, opportunities may soon follow. Best of luck!
Kari Duerksen's next step in research is a Master’s program in Clinical Psychology at the University of Victoria.