Graduate School Launches 2019 LASER Training Cohort

Author: John Lubker

This August, the Graduate School welcomed the start of another cohort of Leaders Advancing Socially Engaged Research (LASER). This program is aimed at Notre Dame doctoral students in their 3rd or 4th years of study, and is intended to complement students’ individual research pursuits in their various fields. This year’s cohort consists of sixteen students completing individual LASER projects and hailing from each of the Graduate School’s four academic divisions (engineering, humanities, social sciences, and science). 

The cohort kicked off the year by celebrating the previous cohort successes at the LASER Symposium. LASER is led by John Lubker, the Graduate School’s associate dean for academic affairs.

“I was thrilled to see last year’s participants talk about their LASER projects at the symposium,” Lubker said. “I was very impressed with the passion and energy students are bringing to LASER, and I am even more excited to welcome the new cohort into the program.” LASER meetings, which take place every three weeks on campus, will feature topics such as self-awareness, values clarification, crucial conversations, and design thinking as well as bringing in guest speakers from the community.

Below, the 2018-2019 LASER participants describe their projects in their own words (edited for clarity): 

Steven Dabelow – Applied Computational Math and Statistics

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My project involves developing a collaboration network between the Department of Applied and Computational Mathematics and Statistics (ACMS) and doctors of medicine. What I, as a mathematician, may see as an optimal treatment schedule may actually not be optimal, or even feasible, in practice. For example, some models predict that to effectively kill off a cancerous tumor, we should administer drug treatment continuously (i.e. every second) over a period of over a month. This is a problem because many chemo drugs are toxic to patients, and constant administration could result in seriously harming them. In addition, cancer is known to adapt and mutate, meaning that a drug may become completely ineffective at killing cancerous cells if it is administered for too long. These treatment schedules usually also assume that everyone on this treatment schedule has the same type and characteristics of the disease, which is not generally true. It is likely that two patients who both have breast cancer, for example, will have to be treated completely differently from one another.

While we have some theoretical ways to address issues, it would be beneficial if doctors could provide researchers some advice on how they treat patients. Doctors know more about the patients and their individual needs before making a decision on how to treat them. If doctors could show us what they specifically look for in making their decisions, we could refine and enhance our own models to provide more accurate and more feasible recommended treatment schedules. These new schedules will, in return, provide doctors with alternative treatments, faster patient care, and minimized harmful side effects. According to Alberts’s Molecular Biology of the Cell, 1 in 5 of us will die from Cancer. My ultimate goal is to help make that 1 a 0. I believe that this network is the next step in our fight against this deadly disease.

Emily Donahoe – English

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In our politically polarized world, it seems more important than ever to help students develop deliberative habits of mind: the ability to see issues from multiple different perspectives and to dialogue with, disagree with, and learn from one another in productive ways. Practicing debate in the classroom can encourage the development of these important skills. But the practice also seems increasingly fraught. What if, as a few studies have suggested, asking students to engage with alternate perspectives makes them not more open-minded but instead more entrenched in their own beliefs? Or what if, on the other hand, they become so open-minded that they begin to believe all positions equally valid despite evidence to the contrary? How can we use debate to encourage productive rather than harmful habits of mind? These are the kinds of questions that animate my research and pedagogy, and also the questions I hope, as a LASER fellow, to help other teachers address. For my project, I will serve as a Graduate Associate at Notre Dame’s Kaneb Center for Teaching and Learning. In this capacity, I plan to create a series of teaching panels and workshops for Notre Dame graduate students and postdoctoral fellows that draw on my own research about rhetorical education in the early modern period—in particular on the uses of debate and deliberation as tools of instruction. Debate was a valuable, if sometimes contested, pedagogical tool in the period I study, and it continues to be so today. The workshops I am developing for the Kaneb Center are designed to introduce new teachers to the advantages and risks of bringing debate into their classroom; to cultivate strategies for helping students develop valuable deliberative habits; and to assist instructors at all levels as they navigate the difficulties of teaching in a post-truth world.

Benjamin Gombash – Biology

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My LASER project is to develop a leadership training program for high school students enrolled in the Upward Bound program at the University of Notre Dame. I have tutored with the Upward Bound program for approximately two and a half years and, throughout that time, I have seen the tremendous impact that Upward Bound has on high school students. Upward Bound currently offers a wide range of opportunities to students including college visits, standardized test preparation, writing skills workshops, international travel, and general tutoring, among others. Recently, the staff involved with Upward Bound has discussed the need for a leadership training program. The program will target sophomore students and be the length of an academic year. There will be a mixture of sessions focusing on some of the theory behind leadership, practical skills for leaders, and an opportunity for students to apply these skills. The intent is that each cohort will be involved in training the following cohort and shaping future versions of the training program. This will give students who have completed the program an opportunity to practice some of their leadership skills while simultaneously demonstrating to the next cohort that high school students can take active leadership roles and use the skills that they will be learning at the time. I have been involved in various leadership training courses, programs, and retreats over the past fifteen years. I have also taken part in multiple teaching workshops during my time at the University of Notre Dame. I will be drawing on the entirety of my accumulated knowledge to develop a training program that is engaging and useful for the target audience, sophomores in high school.

Jelena Jankovic-Rankovic – Anthropology

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In an effort to build a vibrant community and provide academic support to graduate and undergraduate students whose work engages with migration, displacement, and migrant/refugee questions, I plan to organize a conference on the topic of “Ethics, Risks, and Opportunities in Refugee and Migration Studies.” Large-scale global migrations are not a unique phenomenon, nor are mass movements of refugees, yet migration remains perhaps one of the most significant contemporary challenges for countries across the world. While most refugees seek security and protection in neighboring countries or elsewhere in the immediate regions, some do move further afield in search of safety and protection. For instance, within the past several years, and particularly since 2015, there has been a significant influx of people from the Middle East and parts of Africa fleeing conflict and violence at home and arriving at European borders via irregular and often risky means. Once refugees leave their home countries, they generally face a range of difficulties, risks, and dangers as they pursue safety in their final destinations. To explore further the questions related to potential challenges and solutions to the real-life problems that refugees and migrants face in their lives, the conference will be organized on thematic streams of sessions inviting contributions from all disciplines on topics including migration, refugees, integration, ethics, acculturation, xenophobia, discrimination, as well as the wider impact of human mobility on sending, transit and receiving societies. The conference will provide a multidisciplinary forum for academic exchange amongst students whose research projects relate to the above-noted topics. It will also ensure a stirring and challenging learning environment and an open interdisciplinary platform to discuss migration/refugees studies, methodological challenges, and ethics in these fields. While presenting time is limited, presenters will be encouraged to make a version of their work available ahead of time to maximize audience feedback and encourage prolonged partnerships across disciplines.

Since organizing a conference is a demanding endeavor, I will find a co-organizer and faculty mentor to ensure its realization and success. In addition, I will establish three different teams: organizing committee, scientific committee, and marketing committee, that will need to work in a parallel but coordinated manner to ensure the success of the conference. Both a reasonable timeline and budget are essential in planning and designing a successful meeting. As the head of the conference, my responsibilities will include technical and organizational preparation of the conference, as well as the management and supervision of the committees. I will also take part in all phases of preparation, execution, ending, and evaluation. For the needs of harmonization of the work, I will organize regular meetings of three committees, which will be, at the same time, an opportunity to analyze the work that has been already done and to plan next steps. After the conference, I will take an active role in the evaluation and drawing of the final report of the event.

Asha Majumdar – Physics

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I am interested in increasing awareness and access to the healthcare system in the graduate student community as my LASER project. I plan to communicate between the university health services and the graduate students regarding their needs in the capacity of Healthcare Chair of Graduate Students Union. I will be arranging seminars, workshops, and surveys to execute my vision. 

Samantha Murray – Psychology

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For my LASER Project, I organized a series of Professional Development workshops for undergraduate students in Psychology. Over the course of seven meetings, a variety of professionals with a background in psychology were invited to discuss their unique career trajectories. Themes of these meetings included Non-Traditional Career Paths in PsychologyPursuing a Career in AcademiaDeciding to Take A Gap Year, and others. Graduate students with differing career paths were also invited to contribute diverse professional development experiences which led them to graduate school. In addition to the seven primary workshops, graduate students offered individual meeting times for undergraduates to brainstorm and hone in on their personal career interests. Students were also given the opportunity to practice an important professional skill by volunteering to present research articles on topics of interest. Overall, the students were exposed to a variety of careers within and around psychology, gained multiple professional resources for further information, and while in the process of learning about current research and harnessing research skills, were encouraged to reflect on their own professional development trajectory.

Clare O’Hare – Political Science

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Fail and fail better: failing better is really only possible if change occurs. As a graduate student, I often hear from faculty that one of the hardest things about a PhD is dealing with what seems like failures but, can and should be viewed as stepping stones, moments to reassess a project, or even as an opportunity to prune back on what would be an otherwise impossible project. Even with that message ringing in my ears, I have created very few – perhaps no – opportunities to talk with other graduate students about the mistakes I have made, and am making, in my PhD program. As part of the LASER program I hope to create opportunities for graduate students to discuss so-called roadblocks, to share experiences. and to create an environment where graduate students can find solutions to research hurdles. I envisage this project facilitating the graduate community to recognize the experience that we have, individually and collectively, in overcoming challenges. I hope that this will allow us to re-imagine so-called failure into something more positive – an opportunity to share what we have learned and to identify how these kinds of incidents can be, if not avoided, dealt with before they become real problems. I have spoken to many graduate students across a variety of disciplines who confirmed to me that this kind of outlet would be immensely valuable. Finally, I hope that this project will be part of a long-term engagement between and for graduate students, one that fosters a supportive environment whereby we as researchers develop resilience through engagement with colleagues.

Agust Olafsson – Chemistry

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Science policy is an intentionally broad term that encompasses the complex interactions between public policy and the conduct of the scientific research enterprise. As a young professional I began working in the science policy field as a regulatory specialist, developing an understanding of the strengths and deficiencies of our system. I quickly became curious about how rules and regulations, often with significant nuance, balanced the lines of social responsibility, ethical research, and industrial efficacy. In my opinion scientific research cannot be separated from its impact on society, leading to my belief that good science should drive fact-based policy and that societal needs should drive practical scientific inquiry. As I have continued to pursue my interests, I have come to understand that making an impact in science policy requires leadership that bridges the scientific and public communities, leading me to participate in the LASER program at Notre Dame. As a LASER fellow, I will develop my leadership skills by serving as an officer in the Science Policy Initiative at Notre Dame (SPI@ND). In this role, I will facilitate a dialogue on campus by both hosting and participating in SPI@ND club meetings on campus, which are intended to educate any interested students on how they can get involved in science policy and the types of roles and responsibilities science policy professionals hold. Additionally, I will coordinate with speakers who will give short seminars at these monthly meetings, sharing their experiences making an impact through science policy in our communities of Notre Dame and South Bend. I will also have the responsibilities of writing grants in order to fund our organization and projects that will allow us to better serve our mission and promote an understanding of the value of science to the community and vice-versa. Finally, I intend to work with the other SPI@ND officers in order to bring one of the American Chemical Society’s science policy fellows to Notre Dame in order to hold a workshop on engaging with science policy issues at the national level.

Jake Olsen – Chemistry

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My LASER project focuses on the mentorship of undergraduate students in the Camden research group. The first steps into scientific research can seem overwhelming, with a multitude of new skills and information beyond the normal course work. I believe it’s important for students new to the world of research to have a current graduate student researcher help them along their journey not only through research, but onwards to their next steps in life. To maximize their potential, it’s important to have resources beyond research time and group meetings to fill in the cracks. Rounding out the rest of the complementary skills that go along with technical research techniques is an investment in their professional career that will propel them to new heights. To accomplish this, I will provide a multitude of professional development style workshops to improve research and science communication skills. Such workshops will include research perspective, problem solving, data analysis, data organization and presentation, oral presentations, and decisions past undergraduate. The aim is that through a concerted effort to grow the undergraduate students will allow them to become the best versions of themselves and be well equipped to make an informed decision on through the next course of their professional career.

Laura Ortiz Mercado – English

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Graduate students, especially those belonging to underrepresented communities, face countless of challenges that affect their persistence efforts in their respective academic programs. According to statistics published by The Chronicle of Higher Education, an alarming 50% of doctoral students across the country leave graduate school without finishing. While many institutions are actively working towards developing different methods and strategies to help their students successfully complete their programs, there still seems to be a disconnection between the administration and the graduate student body. That is to say, a high number of graduate students believe that the institutional priority is the undergraduate persistence efforts, not the graduate student body. Through this project, I intend to address some of the challenges faced by fellow graduate students at Notre Dame in order to improve our quality of life and our persistence efforts. Some of the most commonly mentioned variables that seem to impact students’ decision to leave their academic programs before completion are: the faculty and administrative support they receive, challenges of self-motivation, and peer support. Being a first-generation Latina graduate student, I can vouch for how crucial these elements are for underrepresented students in an institution like the University of Notre Dame. As such, I will be focusing primarily on creating a community of scholars who share a determination to help each other overcome the different obstacles we encounter at each stage of our respective programs. Specifically, I will bring together graduate students recipients of the Kinesis-Fernández Richards Fellowship and the Dean’s Fellowship – these are US students who belong to an underrepresented community and/or who are first-generations of scholars – to participate in this initiative and create a network of support while we strive to complete our graduate programs. My goal is to foment a sense of community and belonging among all underrepresented fellows, promoting a noncompetitive and well-balance space where we can give and receive peer support while also exploring different techniques and methods with which to improve our graduate experience here at Notre Dame.

Kimberly Peh – Political Science

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I seek to establish an organization for women in the field of Arts and Letters with the goal of creating a space for both intellectual exchanges and conversations about gender dynamics in academia. Such an organization would potentially be beneficial because it offers the chance for inter-disciplinary collaboration and for discussions on issues that may be unique to women. It is commonly noted that women experience the world differently than men; hence, having such opportunities or networks to seek advice from peers and others who have gathered more experience could help with navigating the otherwise less discussed issues. Certainly, a potential pitfall of such a network lies in deepening the gender gap that is found to be prevalent in certain metrics within some disciplines. For instance, in terms of citations, the group might begin citing similar works, and in particular, works of women with which we might become more familiar. In that case, rather than promoting greater inclusion within academia, the group might end up creating a new silo within the broader community. Moreover, because gender dynamics concern the interaction of both men and women, creating an organization just for the latter might not help with allowing either to better understand how to create a more inviting space for each other. As such, the eventual involvement of male colleagues could be advantageous. However, to begin with the project, the initial steps would involve putting together the needs of women in the field and finding out how the group would prefer the events to be held or that the organization be run so that it can first and foremost be a comfortable space for women to network and have conversations about navigating academia.

Matt Rhodes – Chemistry

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The Notre Dame’s diversity website states, ‘The University of Notre Dame promotes a spirit of diversity and inclusion.’ In the Notre Dame spirit of inclusion, we should truly ‘respect the dignity of every person, build a Notre Dame community in which all can flourish, and live in solidarity with all, particularly the most vulnerable.’ Notre Dame’s principles on diversity are powerful and communicate a significant goal that everyone to strive to reach. Towards this effort, I am starting a weeklong event, beginning April 27th, 2020, celebrating diversity here on campus.

I am setting up a diversity week to help bring visibility to various underrepresented groups on campus. In the spirit of inclusion, I will collaborate with other campus organizations in order to include representation of women, people of color, and LGBT groups. I am also recruiting as many on-campus groups as possible to participate to have a full week of events where groups can be noticed. Diversity week will include a temporary exhibit on campus displaying overcoming oppression, aptly named ‘Take Down Oppression Like a Champion Today,’ as well as various events representing each of the groups. I will coordinate events such as a meditation group, diversity in STEM lunch and learn, international coffee hour, and a sticker designing contest for positive messages of inclusion. Any ideas or help brought on from collaborative groups or individuals is always encouraged. It is easy to feel alone during graduate school, especially when you belong to an underrepresented group. I truly believe this will better the lives of students on campus. I hope it blossoms into a tradition, just like many others that the university holds dearly.

Michael Rotolo – Sociology

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My research examines how young people in America develop their moral worldviews and how those views relate to religion, politics, occupational aspirations, and conceptions of “the good life.” For my LASER project, I am working in collaboration with a local church to help them better understand the lives of young people today and design ways to engage them. For the past year, I have conducted surveys, interviews, and focus groups with young people at the church and in the larger South Bend community. Having received a grant from Lilly Endowment Inc., I now lead a team in carrying out projects related to our findings. In the summer of 2019, I led a 10-day young adult pilgrimage to Scotland to visit and learn about historic religious sites and have in-depth discussion about religion today. Throughout the year, I will oversee monthly social outings for young adults, interactive public art projects in the South Bend community designed to engage pedestrians in moral and spiritual reflection, a Sustainability Committee devoted to auditing and renovating the church to make it more sustainable, and experimentation with new liturgical styles and elements in worship services. As a result of these projects, we hope to engage and benefit not only those in the church, but also anyone broadly interested in better understanding young people and religion today.

Claire Scott-Bacon – Psychology

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There is a substantial literature on the construct referred to as psychopathy, wherein traits typically expressed may include impulsiveness, lack of empathy, interpersonal manipulation, and antisocial behavior. Most researchers have investigated and quantified individual differences in the psychopathic construct utilizing self-report assessment tools. However, the majority of self-report assessment tools used in clinical settings were developed to investigate psychopathic traits and behavior expression in men. As a result, studies utilizing these and similar measures to assess psychopathic traits in women often result in lower scores compared to scores of men. Current empirical evidence indicates there are notable sex differences in psychopathy with regard to personality traits and behavior expression. As for resulting scores provided by some of these self-report assessment tools, they appear to provide misleading information about antecedents, precise expression, and behavior in women. Therefore, I am proposing to investigate and analyze the scaling of latent variables in four of the most popular self-report measures – the Short Dark Triad: Psychopathy (SD3: Psychopathy), the Dark Triad Dirty Dozen III (DTDD3: Psychopathy), the Levenson Self-Report Psychopathy Scale (LSRP: Primary and Secondary Psychopathy), and the Triarchic Psychopathy Measure (TriPM). Utilizing two independent samples, I will first determine whether there are statistically significant sex differences in these self-report measures. Second, I will conduct exploratory factor analyses to compare the structure of psychopathy in men and women. Third, utilizing Item Response Theory (IRT) modeling to identify differential item functioning (DIF), I will investigate the ability of items on these popular psychopathy scales to gather information and to differentiate latent variables of women. 

John Templeton – Computer Science

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As a current member of the Graduate Student Board for the Computer Science and Engineering Department, I am tasked with promoting both the social and professional engagement and development of graduate CSE students. Organized boards similar to this occur in different engineering departments however since engineering is a very multidisciplinary construct, I propose the creation of a multidisciplinary board encompassing graduate students from each engineering department here at the University of Notre Dame. This board would be charged with the same general tasks as individual engineering boards, however on a broader scale. This would include, but not be limited to, professional and social development, community outreach, undergraduate engagement, mentorship programs, and more. I would like to have one representative from each department (AME, CBE, CEES, CSE, and EE) on this board to make sure each department has a voice in the community as well as having some club liaisons (i.e. SWE, NSBE, etc.). This group would also have the potential for expansion as the initiative grows as to make for an all-inclusive experience. This initiative would work closely with the Notre Dame College of Engineering’s resources to ensure the Ph.D. students in engineering have more ways to engage not only with each other, but also Alumni, Industry, Academia, and the University as a whole.

Michelle Wang – Biology

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I am organizing the “What to do with your PhD” event designed to help graduate students analyze career opportunities available after graduation. Inspiration for this event stemmed from my own experience, or lack thereof, when I graduated from my undergraduate studies. While I attained a vast amount of new knowledge and was excited to apply it to research, I never developed myself professionally for the job market ahead. The event is planned to benefit graduate students regardless how far they have progressed within the program. The event is composed of a keynote speaker and three different panels (industry, government, or academia) highlighting the common workforces in which graduate students are interested in pursuing following completion of their degree. Panelists are chosen with diversity in mind, to ensure that perspectives from women and minority groups are included. For those in their early stages, there are career maps and surveys to help graduate students identify specific job descriptions tailored to their interests. Graduate students finishing up their program can benefit from career perspectives outside of what our own professors can provide. In addition to the panel session, students will have the opportunity to speak with panelists one-on-one to clarify or ask any questions that may not have been brought up in the full panel.  Finally, there will be a dedicated space for on-campus resources for graduate students to train them towards their career paths. The goal of the event is to help graduate students understand the amount of flexibility in job positions they have with their degree, and what information and skillsets are necessary for that job set.