Majoring in curiosity
4 stories that show how research can boost your education—no matter what you study
Trina Moyles (Bachelor of Arts, ’10) was watching for wisps of grey smoke from her fire tower perch the day she got the news that every author longs for: her first book had a publisher.
After a decade in international development and freelance journalism—work that took her from Central America to the Caribbean to East Africa—Trina spent the past year closer to home writing Women Who Dig. A product of her conversations with female farmers in eight countries over three continents, the book chronicles the everyday lives and challenges faced by women who sow the seeds that feed their families, their communities and the world.
“I’m soaring over these boreal treetops today,” Trina wrote one sunny July afternoon in a blog post she titled “Signing a book contract from the sky.” Entranced by the prospect of a summer of solitude, the Anthropology alumna was spending the season as a lookout observer keeping watch over the sea of emerald green spruces, poplars, birches and pines two hours north of her hometown, Peace River.
But the happy news of a book deal may never have arrived, says Trina, if not for the skills she honed during her two independent research projects as a student: one studying perceptions of childbirth across different cultures and another that looked at the darker side of international development.
“Those research experiences were really the only thing I had in my toolkit to guide me through the process of writing a book,” she says. “Doing research taught me how to organize and synthesize a lot of information, think critically about it and communicate it in different ways. Those gems are also the things that made this project feel possible.”
Did you plan to do research? No
When you got involved: Fourth year
Where it’s taken you so far: A book deal with the University of Regina Press to publish Women Who Dig in 2018
Best advice: Find the time to study something you love. It was challenging, but worth it.
About Trina's research project: During trips to rural Guatemala in my early 20s, I learned about the role of midwives—one that went beyond delivering babies, and was connected to women’s empowerment and decision making.
In my third year at MacEwan, I approached Cynthia Zutter (one of my anthropology profs at the time), and proposed an independent study to look at cross-cultural perception and practices of childbirth. Working with Cynthia and two other profs—one from Anthropology and one from the Faculty of Nursing—I did a literature review that compared the typical North American childbirth experience with traditional Inuit childbirth practices in the Canadian Arctic, and childbirth practices in parts of Guatemala and Mexico. The goal was to look at the perceived role of autonomy that women experience when having babies.
While the transferrable skills that Trina found so helpful are pretty much universal in students who do research at MacEwan, the definition of research itself isn’t, according to Dr. Cynthia Zutter, the university’s vice-provost, who oversees the university's Office of Research Services.
So how does Cynthia define research?
“I don’t,” she says. “Here, research is inclusive. And that’s exactly what makes it so rich and interesting.”
At MacEwan the research umbrella is big enough to cover creative and scholarly activity, and can include almost anything you can think of—class projects, business case competitions, studies on everything from bugs to drugs, short stories, book cover designs, art installations or music compositions.
Even combinations of more than one of those things count—like when Fine Art student Natalia Beattie teamed up with Music student Geoff Li to create a multimedia art exhibit that shared three stories of surviving cancer. The collaboration used photography, first-person narratives and an unsettling audio scape.
“I wanted to do something bigger, something raw,” says Natalia. “Geoff’s sound design pushed you toward the pictures of these women from shoulder to hip, holding emblems of their journeys through cancer—a cross-stitched heart, a bandana, a photo on the beach. There’s a disturbing hum in the room that stops as you approach the X on the floor in front of the women’s photos. It’s like the whole world kind of melts around you. You hear the women’s stories and it feels like you almost step into their shoes.”
When did you get involved in creative activity? Second year
What you studied: Music, Fine Art and how to combine them
Biggest take-away: This brought everything I learned in my program together in a way that made it all coherent. Art and music are more than entertainment. They’re things to think about.
Best advice: Projects like this make you grow. Don’t be afraid to do something big. Collaborating with someone outside your program can give you an experience that is rewarding in a completely different way.
Listen to Natalia and Geoff talk about the friendships they made, their struggles to hold back tears and how mixing media can make a work stronger than any one singular idea in this month’s Clock Radio podcast.
Was their project “research” in the traditional sense? No. Did it inspire creativity? Teach transferable skills? Change the way the pair looked at the world? Definitely.
Research is changing the way that Courtney Lacoursiere sees the world too—literally. Stumbling into research just a few months into her degree has taken her to some unexpected places. “Some European places,” laughs the third-year Bachelor of Commerce student over Skype from her dorm room in Switzerland.
Studying abroad is just one of many things Courtney says happened because she was unhappy with a project she submitted as part of Associate Professor Albena Pergelova’s first-year introductory marketing course.
“For me, it wasn’t about getting a 4.0 GPA, it was about making a difference,” says Courtney. “It was exciting to think that I could actually change a business if I tried hard enough.”
Did you plan to do research? No
When you got involved: First year
What you studied: Marketing online courses
Where it’s taken you so far: Switzerland
Biggest takeaway: A job!
About Courtney’s research project: Courtney works with an Edmonton not-for-profit, Onlea, that produces mobile-friendly courses. She met weekly with Onlea’s marketing department, did what felt like endless literature reviews and interviewed financial groups, legal firms, restaurants and other enterprises. All of this led her to suggest the company consider moving away from massive open online courses (MOOCs) to small private online courses (SPOCs). Courtney is continuing her research this year in Switzerland, looking at Onlea’s international potential.
So Courtney went to talk to Albena, who offered to mentor her in an independent research project that would extend the research she did with Edmonton not-for-profit Onlea. Courtney had to get special permission to take a fourth-year independent study course during her second year. That research led to a part-time job with the company, an opportunity to discuss her work with experts at an academic conference and more contacts than she can count.
“This has changed my university experience in a huge way,” she says.
And Courtney isn’t finished yet. She is researching Onlea’s international potential while studying in Switzerland, and hopes to submit the work for publication in the next year or two.
Publishing was exactly what Jamie Malbeuf and her classmates Scott Archer, Taylor Merkley and Amanda Seymour-Skinner had on their minds when they went to see the Bachelor of Communication Studies (BCS) chair, Lucille Mazo.
“We were really proud of a research paper we did as part of our Advanced Research Methods class that uncovered gender bias in former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s speeches, and wanted to ask about journal recommendations,” says Jamie.
Did you plan to do research? No
When you got involved: Third year
What you studied: Former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s speeches, masculinity and hockey in Canadian films
Where it’s taken you so far: It’s about to take me to Greece!
Best advice: I think it's opened me up a lot and made me more of a well-rounded person.
About Jaime’s research project: Jamie worked in a team with three other BCS students on a research project that looked at the 59 speeches Stephen Harper delivered in 2015. In the process of mining those speeches for trends and themes, they quickly noticed a gender bias. There was a disparity in the number of times women were mentioned as compared to men, and when women were mentioned, it was often in a different context—mostly for their marital connection with men who were the focus of the speech. Men, it turns out, were also acknowledged more often and with a broader range of titles and honorifics (salutations, honorary and academic titles).
While getting published is one way of spreading the word—there are several journals and publications right here at MacEwan, including the MacEwan University Student eJournal (MUSe), Earth Common Journal and the Bolo Tie Collective—Lucille had a different idea.
She suggested the students present at a conference, so the group did their homework, found the International Conference on Communication and Mass Media in Athens, Greece, and submitted their research. Once it was accepted, they started applying for grants and scholarships.
“We hadn’t even considered going to a conference, but we just found out that we got a big scholarship and will be going to Athens in May,” says Jamie. “My flight and conference fees are being paid for and that really helps. I don’t think I would have been able to have this experience otherwise.”
Funding is something that many students don’t realize exists, says Cynthia.
“The amount of funding and access to faculty support that undergraduate students get here are things that they just wouldn’t get in the same way at other universities where the focus is on graduate students,” says Cynthia. “That funding allows students to do their research, scholarly and creative work—and present and publish it. It’s part of what makes MacEwan unique.”
SO YOU WANT TO DO RESEARCH
How and when to get started
You might have noticed that every student featured in this story answered the question "Did you plan to do research?" with a no.
That makes sense, says Cynthia, because most students get involved in projects outside of their regular classroom work during their third or fourth year, once they have a clear idea of what they want to study and what they’re passionate about.
From there, it’s usually as simple as starting a conversation.
“If you heard your prof say something that intrigued you or have an idea about something you want to study, go talk to them about it,” says Cynthia. “Faculty members aren’t just experts who stand at the front of the classroom, give exams and mark them. They’re also engaged in all kinds of research, creative and scholarly activity—and they’re always looking for students to work with them.”
Not sure how to approach your prof? Here’s some advice.
If you think you might want to get involved in research or a creative project, Cynthia says the beginning of the Winter semester is a good time to talk about plans for the summer because many funding opportunities have application deadlines in March. Learn more about funding available to students.
That funding also creates paid opportunities for students. Jamie, for example, is working as a research assistant on a project with Sony Raj, assistant professor in the Bachelor of Communication Studies program. Sony, Jamie and two other students are co-authoring a book about crossroads in Canadian cinema—its six chapters cover everything from culture in Canadian cinema to masculinity in Canadian hockey film—that they plan to submit to a publisher later this year.
“It’s a flexible job that I can do on my own time, opens a lot of doors and helps pay for my education—that’s really nice as a student.” says Jamie.
That’s not to say that research—in whatever form it takes—isn’t a lot of work and a challenge to fit into your schedule. But it's work that all five students featured in this story agree is well worth it.
“I can’t believe I’m saying this now, because there are definitely times when it felt like such a slog, but research is tremendously satisfying—and fun,” says Trina. “There are so many things happening when you’re in school that adding a research project can seem daunting, but starting with an idea you find interesting, working through all the steps, producing something and sharing it was probably the biggest learning experience I had in my time as an undergrad. It’s just so worthwhile.”
The skills Trina took away from her research experiences are sure to come in handy again next summer when she once again climbs the ladder that leads to her solitary perch 100-plus feet above the trees. In her spare time—between searching for smoke, tracking weather reports, tending her garden, cleaning her cabin, washing her clothes by hand, and doing all of her own baking and cooking—she plans to begin writing her second book. And not too long after she finishes that second four-month stint as a lookout observer, Trina expects to hold the first copy of Women Who Dig in her hands.
“I think the way I feel about the book is the way a lot of other writers and researchers feel about their work,” says Trina. “It’s not necessarily what I thought it was going to be from the outset, but it’s something beautiful that gives me a lot of satisfaction.”
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More fascinating research stories:
- Quantifying disaster: Economics profs report first findings in total cost of Fort McMurray wildfires
- How early childhood educators turned a problem with princesses into endless possibilities
- Unravelling translations of the “first Inuit novel”