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Undergraduate research shines at annual symposium

The Grinnell College Dean’s Office Student Research, Scholarship and Creative Activity Symposium took place this week, showcasing Grinnellian research and scholarly pursuit through poster sessions, moderated panels, paper presentation and performance art. According to the Dean’s Office, the event aims to celebrate students who have “engaged in deep research or scholarly work as a means of both personal discovery and educational enhancement” and give them a platform to present their work.

Panel titles included “Global Health,” “US History from Past to Present,” and “The Human Figure in Art History.” While some students presented projects and papers they had written for classes, others showcased independent research they pursued through MAPs or grants. Farah Omer ’19 falls under the second category: during a panel entitled “Religion in a Global Age,” Omer presented a project that’s been in the works for the last two years.

“Confronting Hate: Muslim Americans Fight Against Islamaphobia” grew out of a summer Mentored Advanced Project (MAP) that Omer started after her second year at Grinnell. However, she’d been doing research with the Digital Humanities project for some time: Professor Caleb Elfenbein, religious studies, hired her to build a data set mapping instances of Islamaphobia in the United States for the website “Mapping Islamaphobia.” Omer then began work on a companion website that aimed to tell the stories of the people behind the data sets. Omer’s MAP, in tandem with a Grinnell grant she won for summer research, was an offshoot of the original project through which Omer was able to explore her interests in the project more deeply.

Omer said she felt passionately about her work on the website. Because the website is meant for public consumption, and highlights stories of struggle and hope of individuals affected by Islamaphobia, Omer said it represents a type of meaningful and responsible scholarship: “As a student who is interested in going into academia,” Omer said, “this type of scholarship is the best example I can have of the type of thing scholarship can make possible for others. It’s scholarship that takes time and it is analytical, but at the same time it has a public face and a public component and is for a larger audience.”

Omer’s participation in the symposium helped her to remember the importance of the work she was doing. “When you spend a long time on a project you have an intimate knowledge of it, and it gets difficult to step back and see what the story I am trying to tell is. The symposium was a way to step back. … It helped me refresh my mind of what were the central questions of the project, what I was trying to do and why it was important. Having to explain it to someone else reinforces it and makes you recommit to the project.”

Dylan Welch ’19, who presented a paper entitled “Reclassifying Islamist Organizations: A Multidimensional Typology of Political Islam,” felt similarly about the value of presenting research. He lauded the importance of making research consumable for people not necessarily knowledgeable in the topic area. Welch’s research, which aims to “clear up the muddy waters of discourse” on political Islam, came out of a spring and summer MAP with Professor Danielle Lussier, political science. Welch’s research culminated in his co-authorship of a book chapter with Dr. Lussier. He felt his research was important for news-conscious Grinnellians who hear about Islamist organizations but don’t necessarily know the nuances of their politics and objectives.

Welch found the symposium to be a nice finale to research on which he had worked hard. “I had friends come who knew how hard I had worked on it and finally got to hear me talk about it, and my mom came. I liked sharing it with Grinnell, and being able to talk about it when I’m not in the middle of it. It was like a celebration of a finished project.”

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