Rising Researcher: Ashley Carey

With the surge of protests against systemic racism coupled with the height of the pandemic in the spring of 2020, Ashley Carey noticed an increasing number of educators participating in antiracist book studies as a part of their professional development. As a former educator and current doctoral student in the Leadership in Education Ph.D. program who has worked with Asst. Prof. Jack Schneider in examining racial segregation and integration in K-12 public schools in Massachusetts, Carey decided to conduct research on the efficacy of these book studies.

We recently sat down with Carey to discuss her work:

Can you tell me about your educational and professional background that led to your journey to UMass Lowell as a doctoral student?

In 2012, I graduated from UMass Lowell with my Bachelor of Fine Arts and went on to teach high school art (drawing and digital photography) in a predominantly Latinx school district. I observed that many of the educational policies designed to help my students, like high stakes standardized testing, were actually negatively impacting their schooling experience.

This experience really sparked my interest in educational policy and I realized the changes I was interested in making couldn’t be made from inside the classroom. So, I made the choice to leave after five years to pursue a doctoral degree.

As a doctoral student, you conduct research for your dissertation. Can you tell me more about your research project and how you became interested in the topic?

During the spring of 2020, as protests in response to anti-Black murders and isolation during the pandemic grew, a lot of white educators I spoke with mentioned that they were participating in antiracist book studies. Book studies include any group of people who are reading a common text and meeting to discuss that text. As a former educator, a white person, and aspiring researcher interested in issues pertaining to racial and social equity in education, this budding phenomenon caught my attention. I started looking into the literature on book studies as antiracist professional development for educators and learned that not a lot of research exists on this topic. So, while it seems really hopeful that educators are actively participating in antiracist book studies, we actually don’t understand if book studies are a suitable means for educator antiracist learning or if antiracist book studies can catalyze deeper change (e.g. in the classroom).

How did you conduct your research? Can you share your preliminary findings?

For this project, we observed a local school district’s antiracist book study sessions. This group of educators voluntarily met over Zoom every other week to discuss a common text they were reading. We observed these sessions with two research questions in mind: 1.) How and to what extent do educators in an antiracist book study engage with conversations about racism? and 2.) How can we use this information to conduct further study of this phenomenon of antiracist teacher reading groups?

One early observation from this project is that participants seemed to block each other’s progress toward discussing racism. We use a traffic metaphor to describe these moments: “red lights,” where conversation diverts from or avoids race and “green lights,” where talk about race is more likely to continue toward a more direct consideration of race that helps educators progress in their own racial identity.

I think there’s an assumption that if there are multiple people who want to learn more about and better understand racism, then it might be helpful to meet in a group. What we know from research is that in predominantly white groups, it is often not helpful because there’s a social pressure to avoid talking about race at all costs.

Can you provide examples of a “red light” and a “green light?”

As an example of a red light, there was one point in the book study where one of the educators had brought up the fact that in their district, a lot of the students enrolled in Advanced Placement (AP) classes were white students and that there was a racial disparity in enrollment. Then, another educator reframed the situation as “socioeconomic class issue” suggesting that someone from a lower income might not have the advocacy skills or money to fund test prepping. The idea that one educator started a conversation about race and racial disparity while another reframed it as a socioeconomic issue moved the group away from discussing the direct issue of racism.

In terms of green lights, I can remember a moment where the facilitator showed statistics of demographics of students in their school compared to another regional school. The concrete numbers spurred conversations about differences between the schools and provided a green light opportunity for the participants to engage in a discussion about race, selective admissions and the schools in their community.

What might be the impact of your findings and how might we apply this information to future professional development opportunities?

This study is an important early attempt to understand the strengths and challenges of book studies as an antiracist learning opportunity for educators, especially for our nation’s overwhelmingly white teaching force. In a group setting, educators are not learning solitarily. If the presumed theory of change is that group discussion will enhance and promote antiracist learning, then it is critical to examine how group discussion functions towards that goal. The results from this pilot study can help inform larger future studies on this new addition to the educational landscape. 

Ultimately, my larger goal for this strand of work is to help educators who want to do antiracist work make the most of group sessions by working to avoid “red lights” and promote “green lights” in their book studies. And, to add to the conversation around how professional development opportunities can be harnessed to create meaningful systemic change. 

I know you conducted your observations virtually as the book studies occurred during the pandemic. What types of challenges did you face in this setting and what skills have you learned?

In some ways social interactions take on a different life over Zoom. Do people have screens on or off? Are folks engaged and leaning intently toward their camera? Are there flashes of light across their faces signaling that maybe they are distracted by something else on their computer screen? How do folks react to what their colleagues are saying? There’s a lot of interesting things going on in our little Zoom boxes!  

As researchers we also had to make decisions about when to turn our own cameras on or off. You don’t want to be a little phantom square creeping on the screen, but you also want to be careful not to intrude on the thing you are trying to observe. For me, most of the qualitative research I’ve done has been conducting interviews and focus groups. This was totally different for me because you can’t as questions; you just have to sit, listen and take in as much as you can in this strict observation approach.

Thank you for taking the time to share your work. Before we end this interview, I know you mentioned that you began your studies as a mother to an infant. What type of advice would you give to other moms interested in continuing their education and/or conducting research?

For me, the most important thing has been reframing the relationship between my studies and my family by focusing on what my family is gaining rather than losing by my pursuit of a Ph.D. For example, rather than saying “I’m missing out on family time or failing to fulfill household chores because I’m spending time reading, writing, or working,” I’m careful to remind myself that my daughter is gaining quality time with her grandparents, and she is getting to witness a true partnership when she watches my partner sharing in those household chores. I think for other moms considering an advanced degree, I would urge them to focus on what they are gaining rather than losing or giving up.

Rising Researcher: Alexander Clinton

When Alexander Clinton began studying prejudice and stereotypes as an undergraduate psychology major, he noticed that a majority of research focused on negative empathy when trying to reduce prejudice toward marginalized groups. He wondered if there were any studies that utilized the alternative (positivity) as an intervention. Unable to find sufficient data to answer this question, Clinton is now conducting research as a graduate student in the Applied Psychology and Prevention Science (APPS) program at UMass Lowell to fill the gap.

Negative empathy, as described by Clinton, is an approach whereby people are told why prejudice is bad. When faced with stories of negative historical events or the types of oppression faced by marginalized groups, one might assume that these recounts may change negative perceptions and attitudes. However, Clinton is suggesting the opposite.

“Research has found that telling people about negative events can lead them to feel more negative overall and associate a group with more negativity, and as a result, increase their levels of prejudice for a marginalized group. My current projects attempt to address this problem by trying to foster feelings of positive empathy in the hopes that by associating a marginalized group with more positivity, we may form more positive perceptions,” says Clinton.

Clinton recently published an article entitled “Using Positive Empathy Interventions to Reduce Stigma Toward People Who Inject Drugs” that details his attempts at using positivity as an intervention. In his study, Clinton presented an experimental group of participants with a scenario in which a stranger sits next to the participant and starts a conversation. The stranger compliments the participant and explains that they just started a new job. The stranger also discloses that they are a person who injects drugs and how challenging it was to find employment despite their training and experience in their field. The experimental group also received prompts designed to prime them with positive empathy, such as:

What would you say to the stranger to make him feel better about his current situation? What kind of positive impact do you think your comments will have on the stranger? How can you make a positive impact on other people like the stranger in the future?

All participants answered a questionnaire at the end of the study and the research team determined that those in the experimental group had a lower average stigma score than those groups that did not receive the positive empathy intervention.

Clinton hopes to expand his research in the future by testing long-term effects of these interventions. Rather than simply testing for immediate outcomes, Clinton wants to see if new, positive associations over a course of a longer period of time will result in lasting effects. He also hopes to work with his faculty advisor, Psychology Assoc. Prof. Michelle Haynes-Baratz, an expert in workplace diversity, stereotyping and discrimination, to study how these interventions may be applied to groups that commonly experience bias at work, such as women or people of color.

In addition to his independent research, Clinton also works as a Graduate Student Assistant in the Pediatric Injury Research Lab led by Psychology Asst. Prof. Jiabin Shen, supporting projects related to attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) injury prevention and conducting literature reviews for traumatic brain injury (TBI) research.

Next semester, Clinton is also signed up for a practicum with Dr. Robin Toof and the Center for Community Research and Engagement where he is slated work with partner organizations tackling substance abuse. In this field placement, Clinton will engage in quantitative and qualitative data analysis, interviewing, creation of data visualizations and reports, and more.

Being involved in such a diverse set of projects, Clinton is making the most out of his experiences: “Any experience is a good experience. In picking up new topics and researching new things, you start to be able to build different and better skills in your toolbox. You start to be able to help yourself synthesize new knowledge and read research from different fields to learn and grow. All these skills are transferrable to my own research topics,” says Clinton.

Just one year into his studies, Clinton is looking forward to continuing his coursework and hopefully transforming his scholarly work into true impact. “I like the applied nature of the program (APPS) where you can apply research to some tangible, real-world program or service. Being able to work within places, businesses, communities, and organizations is right up my ally,” says Clinton.

Rising Researcher: SaiLavanyaa Sundar

Dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM), a heart disease in which the wall of the left ventricle becomes much thinner than that of a normal heart, decreases the blood that is pumped from the heart to other organs and eventually leads to heart failure. DCM affects one in 250 individuals and is known to be the number one cause for heart transplantation in the United States.

“I was interested in conducting research in this area because DCM affects so many people, and the disease often goes unnoticed,” says SaiLavanyaa Sundar, doctoral student in Biomedical Engineering and Biotechnology.

Sundar is currently studying protein interactions at the molecular level in order to help understand the molecular mechanisms that may lead to DCM. Cardiac muscles consist of several proteins that interact in a systematic manner to result in contractions that pump blood from the heart to the rest of the body. Previous research has shown that mutations in the proteins, tropomyosin and troponin, lead to alterations in muscle contractility which leads to DCM or other types of cardiomyophathies.

Looking specifically at tropomyosin and troponin, Sundar identified a hydrophobic pocket, a binding site, where specific compounds could be added to counteract the mutations that cause DCM, whereby restoring normal heart function. Working with partners at Boston University, Sundar uses molecular dynamic simulations to screen different naturally identified compounds, such as those derived from plants, to find those that not only have a strong binding affinity to the pocket, but also the ability to affect muscle contractility. So far, a compound commonly found in mulberry trees shows promise.

Sundar continues to screen compounds and to test them in vitro, meaning her project is still very much in its beginning mechanistic stages. Having been recently awarded an American Heart Association Predoctoral Fellowship worth more than $62,000 over two years, Sundar is grateful to continue her research. With her findings, Sundar hopes to eventually work with partners at Yale University to test the promising compounds in real cells in engineered heart tissue.

Ultimately, by focusing on the molecular scale for diseases such as DCM, Sundar hopes for a future culture shift towards disease prevention rather than treatment. “Right now, most medicine is targeting the symptoms rather than the cause of the disease. What we are trying to do is dial into the molecular level and alter those interactions before the disease progresses. If we can identify the mutations at early stages, then potential drugs could be used as molecular interventions to stop the disease in the first place,” says Sundar.

And though these are lofty goals, Sundar has already shown great success and promise toward contributing to the cause. At such an early stage in her education and career, Sundar has gained invaluable experience working with Prof. Jeffrey Moore in the Department of Biological Science on his project studying hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, has published five papers (two of which she was the first author), and has won multiple UMass Lowell awards including the Graduate Winner in the 2021 Student Research and Community Engagement Symposium, 2020 Outstanding Graduate Student Award in the Department of Biological Sciences, and the 2019 Stephen R. Williams Award for Excellence in Graduate Research.

“The awards and recognition that I have earned at the university level and even at the national level have been a huge boost and validation of my research. Also, as an international student, the support I have received from the members of the Moore Lab and the UMass Lowell community has helped me survive halfway across the globe away from my family,” says Sundar.

Rising Researcher: Ericka Boudreau

As an undergraduate student, Ericka Boudreau found herself in southwestern Oregon collecting samples of sandstone. Boudreau traveled with Asst. Prof. Richard Gaschnig in the Department of Environmental, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences to conduct research on the origins and potential movement of rocks along the west coast in North America.

Currently, there is a controversial theory that these rocks were naturally transported thousands of kilometers from south to north between 100 and 50 million years ago in the Mesozoic era. The research team is looking for evidence of this movement (from southern California to southwestern Oregon) through geochemistry, analyzing key element ratios and isotopes in order to find a match in geochemical data to that of other terrains.

In doing so, the team’s study may shed light on what Earth may have looked like millions of years ago. Stemming from evidence of the existence of the supercontinent Pangea, geologists are still piecing together how the supercontinent fragmented into the current continental landmasses. “Our work is based on being able to reconstruct the past, examine what the Earth looks like in the present, and perhaps predict what it may look like in the future,” says Boudreau.

During the three-day hike, the team collected 31 samples of rocks including sandstone, conglomerate and shale, which were eventually shipped back to UMass Lowell for study. In the lab, Boudreau helped prepare the samples for analysis by washing and pulverizing the rocks to look like fine-grain sand. Then, they ran them through a water table to remove clay-sized particles and also through a chemical called iodomethane to concentrate the heavy minerals that contained the information they were looking for. Eventually, a small fraction of the minerals were observed under a microscope and processed through specialized instruments for a set of data including ages and trace elements.

Boudreau, who received her Bachelor of Science in Environmental Science at UMass Lowell, is currently completing her master’s in Environmental Studies with an Environmental Geoscience concentration and analyzing all the data for her thesis. Much of the work involves reading the findings from previous research to make connections to her own collected samples. Boudreau is specifically looking at five minerals (zircon, monazite, titanite, garnet and rutile) and comparing her data with that of others to support a place of origin. For example, rutile is a mineral that records thermal events and metamorphism, so when analyzing her own dataset, she can research metamorphic events that happened during the age bracket of the rocks she collected in order to match a location.

As just one example of a type of analysis among many, Boudreau is grateful to be working with Gaschnig who has access to a large amount of data including multiple types of analyses for each mineral. Boudreau was also able to fund additional data after being awarded the Stephen G. Pollock Student Research Grant by the Northeast Section of the Geological Society of America.

Boudreau enjoys playing this detective work in the lab, but also finds joy in being in the environment. When Boudreau signed up to support Gaschnig in his study, she never thought she would have the opportunity to travel for such hands-on experience.

“Being out in the field, it was exciting to see macroscopic events in person. At one of the sites, you could see these different sedimentary layers that were all folded into a big arc so you could tell a big piece of land crashed into that area at one time and folded these rocks. It was cool to see these ancient processes in real life,” says Boudreau.

As Boudreau lives out her passions, she is grateful for her family, friends and community for supporting her journey. Being a mother of two, Boudreau credits her network for helping her balance her schoolwork, research and personal life. And with no plans to stop, sights set on gaining experience in industry and enrolling in a Ph.D program in the future, Boudreau is also looking forward to sharing her love of geology with her kids by taking them to Iceland to see the volcanoes someday.