undergraduate research

The Richest Mine of Inspiration

The view outside my internship office: Home smoggy home.

The view outside my internship office: Home smoggy home.

It’s old news that inspiration can come from anywhere. J.K. Rowling says the spark for “Harry Potter” came from a dream – boring. Mary Shelley conjured “Frankenstein” from a “ghost story” challenge among friends – less boring. Inspiration can jump from a bizarre news story, a snippet of eavesdropped conversation, or a personal tragedy. But I’ve found the most reliable source of inspiration is just… talking.

Preferably to others, rather than myself (I’m not really going for a “Jekyll and Hyde” thing). And a lot of different others, from backgrounds I’m unlikely to encounter in my workshop classes and with viewpoints outside of my own personalized echo chamber. I’ve been fortunate this summer in my “exposure” to a wide variety of interesting people (plenty of them queer, I’ll admit – after all, I do have to stay on-topic). Part of this I’ve cultivated on purpose. I started volunteering at a radical collectivist bookshop in Bloomfield where I had hours-long discussions with some of the smartest freethinkers I’ve ever met. And last week, I began my internship at a New York non-profit for LGBT rights on a global scale; the dedication and perseverance of my activist colleagues has energized me daily. Other inspiring discussions caught me by surprise (turns out first-date conversation doesn’t have to be confined to “what’s your major” and “so this was fun”.)

Of course listening is a vital part of the kind of talking that inspires me. At work this week, an awesome visiting attorney specializing in LGBT asylum cases — think “if Idina Menzel was a lawyer” — never had to give the “compassion over money” speech for me to believe it. At the bookstore a couple weeks ago, I collaborated on a Tumblr meme with an anarchist trans girl who used to shoplift and is still part of a graffiti gang. Last weekend, I saw “Ghostbusters” with my best friend and had a capital-M Moment with the probable lady-couple next to us about how thousands of little queer girls are going to watch Kate McKinnon kicking butt and think “maybe this is me and maybe that’s okay.”

Everyone has a story to tell, sure, but not everyone has the resources or ability to tell it. I can only hope my project will do justice to a few of these often unheard voices. The funny thing is I was going to work something into this post about how odd it is that the word “inspiration” has such positive connotations even though I have definitely been inspired by things like breakups and mass shootings. But as inclined as I am toward cynicism in real life, I tend to lose track of that in my writing. I write to make a little more sense of the ugliness in the world, and to feel a little better about life. In fiction, at least, I’m good at happy endings.

Learn more about my project.

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Part 4: Gotta Keep It Ethical

Now that I have fully recovered from my authenticity debacle from a couple weeks ago, I’m now starting to write up basically the first official paper that will come out of this project: the IRB proposal.

The IRB (Institutional Review Board) is a group of people who look over proposed studies and make sure they are ethical enough for participants to participate in without being psychologically (or physically) harmed. (For a more thorough description, here’s the Wikipedia article on the IRB.)

Writing that your study is safe for participants to take isn’t enough, though. You have to write what your study is about, what implications your study has (so you’re not doing your study for no reason), where your participants come from (so you’re not just picking on a specific group for no reason), who your participants are, what risks and benefits are there for your participants, how you’ll keep your participants’ data confidential and anonymous, etc. It’s a tedious process, but the welfare of the participants is important, so it must be done.

You also have to provide all the materials you’re planning to use in your study. This includes consent forms, debriefing forms, all the questionnaires and your protocol script, which is a script of everything the experimenter(s) will say in the study, so I’m also writing up all of these.

Measures that have been through editing

Measures that have been through editing

The work has been pretty straightforward so far, but just thinking about turning in the IRB proposal makes me both super excited and nervous. I just have to submit it online, so that part is pretty remote and uneventful, but I’m still thinking about the 15 or so people reading my proposal. There’s nothing unethical at all about my study, so it really shouldn’t be that hard to get it approved, but it’s still tense. Maybe it’s because it’ll take them about a month to get back to me. I could do stuff in that time, like work on my thesis paper, but during that time, I’ll be like, “Gee, I hope everything is going okay over in the IRB!” (Whoops – unintentional rhyme.)

But evaluations like the IRB proposals are inevitable, and there’s no use in me freaking out about it. I mean I still will freak out, but I can at least freak out while working at the same time.

Finding Balance

Makal June 29It’s been about a month since I’ve begun my research for the Dietrich College Honors Fellowship Program, and I’m happy to say I’ve finally found what I believe is the perfect balance of work and play within my schedule.

Since beginning my freshman year at CMU, I have worked as a part time employee and the Carnegie Mellon University Store. Though research is my full time job for the summer, I couldn’t quite part ways with my beloved bookstore. So, in addition to my research, for the past couple of weeks I have been working at the store a couple hours a day, not only to make some extra cash (gotta pay those bills $$$$), but also in an effort to give myself some balance. Prior to starting back up at the bookstore, I was spending most of my days just doing research. Though this was quite informative, it could be frustrating at times. And, because I had no other obligations, I would just continue working through this frustration at times when it would have been best for my sanity to just stop and take a step back. However, now that I’m “back to the old grind,” I am better able to balance the time I spend on my research with other things.

What has been most helpful to my balance this summer, however, both in terms of time and physically, has been my newest obsession – hot yoga. My wonderful housemates turned me onto hot yoga over this past year, but I never had the time (or frankly, the commitment) to go on a regular basis. Fortunately, once the summer came around, it seemed as though I had nothing but time. I signed up for a three-month pass, and though it was tough on my bank account, it’s been the best decision I’ve made in recent history. Going to yoga every day has bettered me physically and mentally, and given me yet another activity to balance my research with.

Getting Started: Background Research

It’s been two weeks since I’ve returned to Pittsburgh, and I am already knee-deep into my research. If you haven’t had a chance to read about my project, I will be examining the return migration of Korean-Chinese women to South Korea as migrant brides.

A little background information: The Korean-Chinese are Chinese nationals of Korean descent, and one of the 55 officially recognized ethnic minority groups in China. A large majority of the Korean-Chinese community resides in a province called Yanbian in Northeast China. In recent years, Korean-Chinese women from Yanbian have been migrating to South Korea in large numbers, mostly through international marriages to South Korean men in rural regions. I am interested in understanding the migration experience of Korean-Chinese women, and, in particular, I want to explore how they negotiate notions of kinship, gender and ethnicity to create a more flexible sense of belonging and citizenship.

I am really excited to be spending this summer researching the return migration of Korean-Chinese women, and I am very grateful to the Dietrich Honors Fellowship program for providing me an opportunity to pursue this project. I first became interested in the topic last semester, when I was taking a course called “Trafficking in Persons” with my wonderful adviser, Judith Schachter. Though I ended up writing my final paper for the course on Korean-Chinese marriage migration to South Korea, I felt that I did not have enough room to explore all the complexities of the topic. I believe this summer will give me the time and space necessary to develop my ideas further and make the necessary connections between the overarching themes. This research project is one of personal interest to me, because of its connections to my background as a female immigrant from South Korea. Throughout my life, I have also had to negotiate multiple cultural and national identities, fluctuating between life in South Korea and the United States. I believe that gaining an understanding of the Korean-Chinese women’s migration experience will provide me with an opportunity to reflect on and come to terms with my own experiences as an immigrant in the United States.

So what exactly does my research entail? A large portion of my research will be based on fieldwork, which will involve participant observation and in-depth interviews with Korean-Chinese women in Seoul, South Korea and Yanbian, China. I will travel to Korea in August to conduct research there for a month, and spend my fall semester in China through a study abroad program. During the final month of my study abroad program, I will have an opportunity to travel to Yanbian and conduct independent research. Because I will not be able to conduct firsthand research until the end of summer, my current goal is to read as much existing literature as possible. I’ve been spending a lot of time browsing through the East Asian Collection at the University of Pittsburgh’s Hillman Library, which I’ve found to be an amazing resource. I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the amount of sources they had available on the topic, in both Korean and English. I’ve also been revisiting some of the older sources I had gathered last semester while I was taking Judith’s course.

As I learn more about the topic, I am becoming increasingly aware of its intricacy. So many different socioeconomic and cultural factors, such as South Korea’s rapidly aging demographic, rural gender imbalance, Korean ethnic nationalism and transnational economic inequalities, are entangled with one another to influence the lives of Korean-Chinese migrant brides. These factors are further complicated by the Korean-Chinese migrant women’s sense of agency, kinship relations and distinct cultural and ethnic identity. While I realize that the focus of my research will need to be more narrowed down in the future, the trajectory of my research will depend heavily on the findings of my fieldwork. So for now, I am trying to keep an open mind and absorb as much information as possible.

Diana Yuh 1
When I am not burying myself in the giant pile of articles and books, I find myself busy preparing for my trip to Korea and China. I finally purchased tickets for my flights this week (woo-hoo!), and the fact that I will be abroad for an entire semester is really starting to hit me. With the trip coming up so soon, I’ve been trying to reflect on my role as a researcher and to be more thoughtful about my methodology. My dual identity as both an insider and an outsider will put me in a unique position throughout my research process. In the sense that I was born, raised and educated in South Korea for 11 years, I could be considered an insider, but the nine years that I’ve spent in the United States also gives me the perspective of an outsider. I hope that I can balance these two identities to be more perceptive and sensitive to South Korean culture, but also to maintain objectivity as a researcher. I have to admit, I am feeling a bit nervous about doing fieldwork, but more than anything, I am excited to immerse myself in the field and listen to the stories of Korean-Chinese marriage migrants. I hope that my research will contribute meaningfully by genuinely representing and amplifying their voices, which too often go unnoticed.

Part 3: A Methodological Breakup

Authenticity and Intrinsic Motiv Differences

I’ve debated whether or not I should even make a blog post about this issue, but I’ve decided that it would be more beneficial to make a post not only because it would make later posts clearer but also because it demonstrates a way to handle the hurdle I’m encountering, which is bound to come up in any major project. Also, I believe it’s important to acknowledge my struggles as well as my progress.

To put it simply, I can’t study authenticity anymore, and I have to focus on a different topic: intrinsic motivation.

I started my project thinking that I would study how people can make more authentic sacrifices in their relationships, or, in other words, to make a sacrifice for their partner because they truly want to. So the old construct I had was authenticity: the degree to which you are true to yourself and how that shows through your actions, thoughts, beliefs, etc. The construct I must work with now is intrinsic motivation: the degree to which you do an activity because you truly enjoy doing that activity and get pleasure out of it. While I explain these constructs separately, they are definitely related and feed off of each other. It just happened that the way I first framed my study, authenticity seemed to be the more appropriate construct to study, so I went with authenticity as my primary focus instead of intrinsic motivation.

As I furthered my research and started getting into making measures about authenticity, my adviser noticed that the authenticity literature was messier than we anticipated. It was hard to find past work on authenticity that matched up with what I wanted for my project, and the past work did not do a good job of clearly defining authenticity in general. My adviser then suggested to focus on just intrinsic motivation because its past literature was cleaner, and it would be easier for me to measure and to work with.

It was hard accepting this change of focus. I don’t want to say that my background research on authenticity was for nothing, but frankly, I can’t use the information I’ve found on authenticity anymore, and now I have to do more research on intrinsic motivation. That being said, I’m fine (and rather relieved) now with this change (or sacrifice, if you will). I think everyone has gone through letting go of something you’ve been invested in from the beginning and knowing how hard that can be. But if I didn’t decide to move on, my project would probably have even more issues and cause me more grief later. So, sorry authenticity, it was nice to have known you, but I’m afraid our relationship was not meant to be!

Anyway, once I get my intrinsic motivation research up to speed, I’ll be back to making measures, and hopefully I will get a better picture of what my procedure will be in a week or two.

A Tale of Too Many Tabs

I am a planner. I plan my daily activities, my meals, I even plan out my time to relax. I like organization, structure and clear-cut goals. However, since starting my summer research, every time I open my laptop I am reminded of just how unstructured my life currently is.

I use my laptop for almost everything, from taking notes to watching Netflix. Despite this, I do my best to keep it organized, with everything in its correct folder, and everything not in use closed down. At any given time, I usually have three apps running — messaging, music, and Google Chrome — with a maximum of two tabs open at a time on Chrome. I’m not sure if you can tell from the attached photo, but there are nine — I repeat, nine — tabs open on my laptop currently, all having some connection to my research. To me, this is a nightmare. To me, these nine open tabs not only represent my research, but they represent just how unstructured this process is going to be.

Sophia Makal 1

And that’s another thing: This is my research. Not a research study run by the lab that I work in, not a research project my group is working on for a class, but my own, personal research idea and question. I am in charge of this study, how it will grow and progress and whether or not it will succeed. Once again, this is a nightmare to me. I have never had this much uncertainty in my school work, and it scares me. However, I have also never had this much control, and that is what excites me most about this opportunity.

My father is a psychologist who told me on multiple occasions when I was growing up that I have control issues. Well, Dad, you were right! I do like to be in control, and now all of my wildest, “control freak” dreams are coming true. I have only been working on my research for about two weeks now, but already I have a plethora of ideas for how to shape and mold this project. For example, in a meeting with my faculty adviser last week, we, in under 30 minutes, were able to add an entire new dimension to my study, broadening not only the procedure and methods, but more importantly its possible effects. I left this meeting feeling empowered and excited, feelings I seldom get from doing school work. It is feelings like these that help me to move past my fears of uncertainty and disorder, and continue to work toward something that I am truly passionate about.

As I head into this summer, I am both scared and excited. However, more than anything, I am thankful. Thankful to my faculty adviser for agreeing to work with me to try to find answers to a research question that I am passionate about; thankful to Dietrich College and the heads of the Honors Fellowship for allowing me to take part in this wonderful program; and thankful to myself for never growing out of my “control freak” phase.

Daily Rituals

Naomi_1As I begin my thesis, I also begin to think about process. I think about committing myself to sitting down to write every day, an action as essential to the day as is my morning routine of grinding the measured amount of coffee beans and brewing espresso on my stovetop moka pot, as pushing myself for that outdoor run.

There is a book titled “Daily Rituals: How Artists Work” that describes the daily habits and work regiments of sculptors, composers, writers, filmmakers and other creators. The section on composer Igor Stravinsky describes how he would wake up at 8:00 a.m. to exercise, and then work on his music without a break from 9:00 a.m. until 1:00 p.m. in solitude with all windows closed. These four hours were often all he could dedicate to his creations in the day, and he would sit down to work each day regardless of inspiration. In a section on Leo Tolstoy, he also describes writing every day from morning until dinner so as not to get out of the habit of daily writing.

Daily writing is essential to almost every writer. It requires diligence and focus, but also the power of schedule. During the school year, I am conscious of my wish to create a time for daily writing outside of classroom assignments. However, in midst of exams and homework and my appreciation of eight hours of sleep, I end up writing in bursts – a few consecutive days here, a few days there, and then perhaps radio silence for weeks.

This summer, I will form the habit of writing or researching for my writing every day. I look forward to acquiring a new daily ritual, and seeing what form my daily writing will take.

Part 2: Asking the Right Questions

Since I’ve started studying research design, I’ve never had to think in so much detail about asking questions. You would think you just put the questions you want to ask, but noooooo, there’s much more to it than that.

For my research, the basic question I want to explore is: what can lead to more authentic or genuine actions for people in relationships? So far, I think that affectionate touch between couple members can promote more authentic behaviors, such as sacrifices made for the partner. But it’s not enough to just ask whether A (touch) leads to B (authenticity); I need to also see how A leads to B. This link between A and B is called a mediator, and it basically explains the reason why A makes B occur.

To get all of the data I need for each part of this process, I will need to manipulate touch (so participants will either touch each other or not), have participants do a task where they have an opportunity to sacrifice for their partner and then ask them how authentic they felt about making that sacrifice. I would similarly do this with the mediator, but my issue is that I don’t know what my mediator(s) should be yet…

Wu Touch Mapping2

Mapping out what the mediator(s) can be

My adviser suggested that I map out what happens in this process to help brainstorm what kind(s) of mediator(s) I should look at. The main ones I’m interested in I’ve circled, so I’m thinking that touch leads to more authenticity because the touch receiver has higher security, empathy, commitment and responsiveness to their partner’s needs. All of these contribute to how salient one’s partner’s needs are to the person receiving the touch.

More specifically, I’m hypothesizing that when you receive touch from your partner, you feel more secure because touch conveys that the touch-provider (your partner) is there for you when you need them. You may also feel more empathetic because there is a physical connection between you and your partner, which makes you think of your partner more and can promote understanding. Touch can also lead to more commitment because now that you know your partner is there for you, you would feel more committed to your relationship at that moment. Responsiveness would also go up because touch would increase how attentive you are to your partner’s needs. Overall, your partner’s touch would make them and their needs more salient to you because touch is a physical indicator that you partner is there and cares for you, thus touch would make you more likely to reciprocate their feelings.

This is just my current, rambling train of thought, though, and I’m going to talk this over more with my adviser to sort out the kinks. Then I’m going to have to do more research (see, you do have to do background research forever!) about how people have measured these mediators, and then write out my questionnaires.

Side note: You know how sometimes you fill out questionnaires and it seems like the questions are asking you the same thing multiple times? That’s on purpose. That’s just how researchers make sure that they’re measuring the correct construct, or concept. In my case, I would want to ask multiple questions along the lines of “How true to yourself were you while doing this task?” to make sure that I’m measuring authenticity as completely as possible. So now you know, so don’t be too weirded out if you see this kind of thing in questionnaires.

Part 1: Background Research for Daaaaaays

So for the past week that I’ve been back on campus, I’ve been trying to eat everything Au Bon Pain has to offer… and starting to work on my fellowship of course.

Wu - Au Bon Pain.jpeg

(Not sponsored by Au Bon Pain)

First thing to do on the summer fellowship checklist: more background research. I did search for some preliminary background literature when writing up my application, but now that I don’t have a hard deadline, I can take more time to go into all of the background research out there.

There are three topics I have been looking up for my project (in the context of romantic relationships): authenticity, willingness to sacrifice and affectionate touch. While my research project focuses on all three topics together, I have to see what researchers have contributed in each of these topics separately. Looking up past literature basically involves me reading a ton of articles and taking notes on their main points. This is as tedious as it sounds (especially when you get a 75-page PDF, while the average article length is 10 pages), but hey, I certainly learn a lot.

“Authenticity” generally means the degree to which you express your true self in what you do. Researchers have found that the more authentic you are, the more satisfied you are in your relationships because you are more open to others about who you are and are not afraid of hiding anything. On the other hand, people low in authenticity, who would rather hide their true selves from others and/or may not acknowledge who they truly are, are often dissatisfied in their relationships. This is because they feel stressed and conflicted that they are not showing others who they really are and are scared about others finding out about their true selves. That being said, forcing yourself to be authentic isn’t good either because even the manner in which you’re authentic has to be authentic, not just because someone told you so or you should feel like you should be authentic. I could go on about authenticity for days, but only so much can be said in one blog post.

Willingness to sacrifice is how willing you are to forego your own self-interests for your someone else’s interest. People do this all the time: from something as small as going to a restaurant your partner likes that you may not like to something as substantial as moving across the country for your partner’s job. (The term sacrifice makes it seem like a much bigger deal than what it can be, so on questionnaires, most researchers just say how willing you are to make a “change.”) While the more willing you are to sacrifice, the more satisfied you are in your relationship, the same is true in the other direction: higher satisfaction in your relationship can lead to being more willing to sacrifice for your partner. Willingness to sacrifice also contributes to a higher level of commitment, which also feeds back into relationship satisfaction. People can differ in why one is willing to sacrifice. You could sacrifice because you really want the best for your partner, or you only make sacrifices because that’s what people in relationships are supposed to do. This has to do with authenticity because authentically making a sacrifice can either be super good or super bad for the relationship. If you don’t really want to make a sacrifice but you do anyway, it can lead to inauthenticity. Hopefully I’ll be able to learn more about the relationship between authenticity and willingness to sacrifice in my research project.

Affectionate touch is exactly what it sounds like: touching others in a way that show you love and care for them. Touch has been shown to be not only great for relationships but also great for your health. Touch can reduce stress psychologically and physiologically, establish intimacy, increase trust, improve security, promote interdependence and closeness, etc. The Relationships Lab I work in has been doing work with affectionate touch for the past few years, and we’ve found that just imagining touch is good enough to reduce stress, promote security and encourage exploration (trying new things). In relation to authenticity and willingness to sacrifice, because touch can increase closeness, this may increase people’s awareness of their partner’s needs and increase motivation to attend to those needs. Being more attentive to partner’s needs can lead to a higher level of willingness to sacrifice and also to more authenticity because the person feels genuine about sacrificing for their partner. Again, hopefully I can see the specifics of this process in my thesis project.

So now that I have researched what have been done in the past (and will continue–researching past literature never ends), I now have to see how I can use this past information to guide me with the current research. As a sort of preview, the next thing I have to do is gather and create materials for my actual study!

On a completely different note, I found a cool article on attachment styles and pets, which has nothing to do with authenticity, sacrifice or touch, but it somehow popped up in my search results. This article is particularly interesting because you normally only hear about attachment styles with respect to other people, so it’s interesting how this concept applies to people’s relationships with their pets. Also, I have always wanted pets and never got to have any (my ideal pets are a Pembroke Welsh corgi and a Russian blue cat, but I will take care of anything), so any mention of a pet will get my immediate attention. Anyway, if just studying people gets boring, I know that I can study pets and people instead.