The Graduate School launches training program for Leaders Advancing Socially Engaged Research (LASER)

Author: Nora Kenney

Associate Dean John Lubker joins LASER participants for a curling-themed team-building eventAssociate Dean John Lubker joins LASER participants for a curling-themed team-building event

This year, the Graduate School launched a new experiential training program focused on leadership skills and social responsibility. Leaders Advancing Socially Engaged Research, or LASER, 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 seventeen students completing individual LASER projects and hailing from each of the Graduate School’s four academic disciplines (engineering, humanities, social sciences, and science). 

The cohort kicked off the year with a cookout in August hosted by John Lubker, the Graduate School’s associate dean for academic affairs, who is spearheading LASER and designing its programming along with postdoctoral scholar Mark Bourgeois. “I was thrilled to host the inaugural cohort,” Lubker said. “I was very impressed with the passion and energy students are bringing to LASER, even in its earliest stages.” At Lubker’s, the group bonded over team-building activities and catering from J.W. Chen’s. Ensuing gatherings, which take place every three weeks in the Hesburgh Library, have featured topics such as self-awareness, values clarification, crucial conversations, and design thinking. In a few weeks, the group will meet to discuss emotional intelligence.

“These students really embody the Graduate School’s core conviction, Your Research Matters,” Lubker said. “They are challenging themselves to conceive of ways in which their research passions can improve conditions for their communities. As they develop as leaders and socially responsible researchers, I’m looking forward to watching their accomplishments unfold in the next year.”

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

Alex Brodersen (Psychology): 

For my project, I will expand and develop an undergraduate student research program in my lab. This involves creating a series of educational and instructional opportunities for students in a wide variety of social and bench science undergraduate majors to gain experience in the scientific research process. These currently include statistical education materials, information on the construction of surveys for use in psychological research, tutorials on programming in the statistical programming language R, and many other lessons that would be beneficial to an aspiring participant in a research-oriented field. Included in this process will be a module on ethics in conducting research and modules on transparency in data analysis, security of data containing personally identifiable information, and ethics in research with human subjects.

Shelby Brantley (Chemistry):

My practicum will entail serving as the president for the Society of Schmitt Fellows for the upcoming 2018-2019 academic year. The Society of Schmitt Fellows is focused primarily on facilitating collaboration between leaders from STEM fields. During my time as president, I will work to broaden the professional development events offered to Schmitt Fellows and I hope to create a workshop focused on identify and managing ethical implications of one’s research. Resume building and review workshops will take place in the fall semester and a professional development panel and ethics workshop will be implemented during the spring semester. 

Another aspect of my practicum is that I hope to serve as the chair of the Academic Affairs Committee for the Graduate Student Union. As chair, I will be tasked with serving on multiple university committees, such as the Academic Council and Advanced Studies Committee, the University Committee on Libraries, and the University Committee on Academic Technologies, to advocate for the needs of the general graduate student population. I hope to practice my leadership skills by effectively communicating concerns of the graduate students and learning to recognize underlying ethical concerns that may arise. 

Tianyuan “Abby” Cao (Chemistry):

My practicum involves taking on a leadership role in organizing the STEMentorship program with the Association of Women in Science at Notre Dame (AWIS-ND). I am going to work with other organizing committee members to improve this existing program. Briefly, this one-on-one mentoring program aims to build connections between female undergraduate and graduate students in STEM. As the leader, my main responsibilities will be focused on navigating the whole program, as well as organizing professional workshops, and social and networking events. Challenges remain in finding effective ways for match-ups, increasing the feasibility of the events, and bringing more women into the program. To accomplish this, I would like to develop a more comprehensive survey system for mentor and mentee match-up, add more events on specific topics that are selected by the program attendants, and try to integrate this program with other women leader programs (eg. WL-STEM) in order to expand the positive social impact within the whole community as much as possible. This experience will offer me many new leadership challenges and will be a unique and fun way for me to refine my leadership skills.

Hannah Corman (Biological Sciences): 

As the Social Chair for the Women in Science Conference (WISC 2018) through the Association for Women in Science (AWIS) and the Outreach Chair of the Biology Graduate Student Organization (BGSO), outreach is a strong motivator for my professional development. My goal for my practicum is to encourage young women to pursue their interests in STEM fields and effectively communicate the experiences of women in academia. In my practicum, I will host a workshop for high school women in the South Bend area describing life in graduate school in STEM fields and careers in academia. I aim to have a positive influence on women in the local community and promote their interest in and continuation of STEM education.

Mauna Dasari (Biological Sciences): 

My practicum aims to address two major issues associated with the gender gap in STEM fields - retention and upward leadership mobility - through two separate but related mentorship programs. The first program is the Association of Women in Science's 2018-2019 STEMentorship program. Now in its fourth year, the STEMentorship program pairs undergraduate female STEM majors with female STEM graduate students based on complimentary career goals or experiences, background, and hobbies and facilitates workshops, social events, and a wealth of online resources to support the mentor-mentee relationship. With this iteration of the program, we hope to increase satisfaction with the match system as well as increase attendance at the workshops and social events by better targeting the needs of our participants. The second program is the much newer Women Leaders in STEM (WL-STEM) program. WL-STEM pairs female graduate students and postdoctoral fellows with female postdoctoral fellows, faculty, and staff across the University in a similar fashion to STEMentorship. WL-STEM had a successful pilot semester in Spring 2018, and will be expanded to include more talks and workshops that span the academic year of 2018-2019. By integrating these two complimentary programs, we hope to fortify the support network women in STEM need to not only feel welcome in STEM, but thrive. This practicum will be done in collaboration with LASER fellow Abby Cao.

Lailatul Fitriyah (Theology)

In light of my focus on societal context within my theological research, my practicum focuses on building a strong interreligious community on campus by fostering cooperation between graduate and undergraduate-based interreligious forums. As a starter, I have already been initiating and coordinating two campus-based interreligious forums that are directed towards graduate students since 2014. The first of these initiatives is called the Notre Dame Scriptural Reasoning Forum and gathers Jewish, Muslim, and Christian students and professors to discuss each of their own scriptures in a dialogical manner with the religious others. My other initiative is called the Notre Dame Feminist Theologies Forum that serves as a space to place Muslim and Christian feminist theologies into dialogue with each other. Going forward, my next goal is to build a network between graduate and undergraduate student communities in Notre Dame and affiliated campuses such as St. Mary’s College. I will do this by extending cooperation and organizing forums with undergraduate-based ecumenical and interreligious communities, such as Iron Sharpens Iron, Muslim Students Association, and Building Interreligious Student Community (BISC) of St. Mary’s College. I believe that the growth of a vibrant interreligious community at Notre Dame and its affiliated campuses is crucial to the University’s mission to be a pluralistic campus where differences are seen as a source of strength.     

Hernan Delgado (Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering) 

My interests consist of promoting science as a positive force among the non-scientific community. To do this, I plan to work simultaneously on two fronts. First, I would like to continue working with local high school students as an advisor in science projects. Victor Karwacinski, a student from Trinity high school who competed under my supervision in regional, state, and international science fairs this last semester, as well as the state and national Stockholm Junior Water Prize, has expressed interest in continuing to work with me to publish work that aims at understanding how plasma-liquid chemistry can drive applications, including wastewater treatment. I would like to continue to work with him and/or other high school students this year. My goal is to provide students with hands-on experience about how research works by working on real projects, and to encourage them to present their work at competitions where they can be recognized for their good work.

Second, I would like to work in promoting the “green” aspects of my research area: plasma-liquid interactions. I believe that one of the reasons why fundamental research in this area is popular, but practical engineering solutions are very underdeveloped, is the lack of understanding of the economics and scaling of plasma systems, as well as the positive environmental effects. Because of this, I wish to work in analyzing the economics of plasma-liquid systems with special emphasis on electricity consumption and the positive environmental effects.

Megan Levis (Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering)

As I take on senior leadership roles within my bioengineering lab, my practicum project will focus on developing community building and outreach tools. Next year I will be mentoring undergraduate and novice graduate students, and so will have an important voice in setting the tone of our lab. There are three aspects of my practicum project. First, I will take a leadership role in establishing sustainable outreach to the community as part of our lab’s activities. In particular, I propose to mobilize our lab group to create a demonstration for our regional middle school girls at the Expanding Your Horizons Career Conference. A second important aspect of my project will be fostering a sense of camaraderie within the lab, especially among the incoming graduate students. While we spend hours working on our individual projects, we rarely enjoy each other’s company in a relaxed setting that encourages personal connection. Yet, the social and emotional support we receive from each other is critical to the happiness, productivity, and personal fulfillment of each student. Finally, among the seven graduate students in our lab, I am the only female. The third aspect of my project will be focused on building support and mentoring connections with the female undergraduate labmates. With LASER, I will inspire a strong community of engaged and supportive colleagues and mentees. Together, we will engage not solely with research and engineering, but with each other.

Amanda Nowak (Psychology) 

After talking to the undergraduates in my research lab, it has come to my attention that a global issue across campus is that undergraduates are unaware of the graduate school application process, what graduate school looks like, and potential careers requiring graduate degrees. After identifying this need, I am using my LASER leadership project to design a workshop series, similar to that of the Lunch and Learn, addressing 6 different related topics throughout the 2018-2019 academic year. Over the summer, I will take time to design each meeting. I will be in contact with several campus departments, graduate students, post-docs, etc. to determine who will be the best fit for each topic. Some potential topics include how to apply for graduate school, on campus opportunities to prepare for graduate school, how to determine the best fit for a school, what the day-to-day life for a graduate student looks like, the work-life balance in graduate school, and career options with graduate degrees. The idea is to have several speakers per session and end each session with a question-and-answer period. The end goal is to allow for students to make more informed decisions about their future schooling and careers.  

Augustine M. Reisenauer, O.P. (Theology) 

My leadership project combines my commitment to the promotion of integral human development, my interest in socially engaged research and learning, and my involvement in interreligious dialogue. I am serving as the instructor for the 2018 Common Good Initiative (CGI) in Jerusalem graduate immersion course. CGI–Jerusalem is a recurrent part of an ongoing series of interdisciplinary immersion courses offered to graduate students through the Notre Dame Center for Social Concerns. The twofold goal of these CGI courses is (1) to conduct critical investigations into the principle of the common good as appreciated in the Catholic social tradition, and (2) to cultivate concrete implementations of this principle into the students’ various fields of research and their professional and personal enterprises. In particular, CGI–Jerusalem focuses on how interreligious dialogue can serve as a positive contributor to the common good in the Holy Land today. In leading this course, I am responsible for designing its structure, selecting and instructing its cohort of students who come from a diverse range not only of graduate and professional programs at Notre Dame, but also of national, cultural, and religious backgrounds, coordinating and spearheading its immersion component during fall break, collaborating with on-site partners in the Holy Land, and taking care of its logistical, administrative, and academic concerns. For more information on the Common Good Initiative, including CGI–Jerusalem, please visit:

Nirupama Sensharma (Physics) 

Despite almost 85 years of scientific experience, scientists have not been able to communicate to the general public the benefits of shifting to Nuclear energy. Embracing Nuclear energy is the step that will take us closer to a safer and a greener environment. No carbon dioxide emissions, no accumulations of sulfur and a surprisingly low amount of waste produced, all indicate the need for a paradigm change in our attitude towards this better energy. In this regard, I have designed a website to introduce the general public to the basic applications of nuclear physics specifically focused on the health impacts of radiation, nuclear power generation and nuclear reactor safety. For my project, I plan to expand the reach of my website by collaborating with various departments at the University of Notre Dame and eventually develop a full-fledged outreach program of my own where my website can be used as an educating medium directed towards high school and undergraduate students.

Stacy Sivinski (English)

For my Leadership and Social Engagement practicum, I plan to assemble an illustrated collection of Appalachian fairy tales that highlights the region’s dynamic storytelling practices. Since I am from Appalachia, it has long been a goal of mine to complete a project that reflects the emphasis my home community places on orality and collaborative narration. Appalachia’s history is tightly interwoven with oral traditions that continue to assume a prominent role in its regional culture. The craft of storytelling can be especially noticed in the sheer number of cassettes, DVDs, and CDs housed in archives throughout Appalachia that contain hours upon hours of ghost stories, ballads, home remedies, and folktales. For decades, individuals interested in cultivating a chronicle of Appalachia’s storytelling practices have contributed to this ever-growing assortment of recordings; however, due to the current format, which is relatively inaccessible, they remain neglected by the larger public. 

I would thus like to use my time in the LASER program to transfer these thought-provoking tales into a written collection that can be more easily distributed and potentially foster a deeper appreciation of Appalachian heritage, both within and without the region. This process will involve collecting orally performed fairy tales from several different Appalachian archives, creating and employing a transcription methodology that manages to convey the orality of these stories without falling into stereotypical depictions of dialect, and working with a variety of local artisans to illustrate the texts. It is my hope that by adapting these tales into a new medium, I will be able to share them with a wider audience in a way that still conveys Appalachia’s deep-rooted ties to community narratives while also encouraging a recognition of the region’s cultural richness. 

Pamela Bilo Thomas (Computer Science and Engineering)

Pamela Bilo Thomas is a 3rd year PhD student in the Computer Science department, advised by Dr. Nitesh Chawla. Her research interests include healthcare applications for data mining and machine learning. She is studying chronic disease progression and has analyzed heart failure and diabetes patients. Additionally, she has also worked in disease prediction to rank diagnoses that are likely to occur in a patient’s medical future. Through LASER, she hopes to work with doctors, patients, and the community to understand and develop patient-tailored intervention strategies to prevent the onset of chronic disease. She is looking forward to understanding the social and economic costs of disease to enrich her research and improve community health along the way.

Ann Marie Thornburg (Anthropology) 

I am an anthropologist-in-training who studies how peoples’ practices and relationships are managed and governed, and by whom. I am interested in doing a LASER project that employs ethnography at the site of a local management or improvement project in order to observe the interactional and intercultural dynamics of those brought together by the project. Specifically, I will be looking for points of harmony, and also points of friction. Ultimately, my hope is to develop a set of best practices for anthropologists working in such contexts (whether as researchers, consultants, etc.), and a set of recommendations for those working on the project for collaborating most effectively.

Ian Van Dyke (History)

My project seeks to connect Notre Dame graduate historians to community institutions in South Bend and beyond to communicate their work and research to a wider, non-academic audience through a lecture and discussion series. This program will bring together graduate historians from a wide range of subfields, but special emphasis will be placed on topics of contemporary social, cultural, ethical, or political concern. While historians are often wary of pubic-facing intellectual work, I believe our discipline is well suited to engage issues of pressing importance in society today—we tell stories about the past, but our work can also help us understand the present. My project will not only showcase the great work being done by Notre Dame graduate historians; it will help graduate students hone their public speaking skills and learn how to “translate” their research for a non-specialist audience. Beyond this, my project also will present a meaningful opportunity to engage with the wider community in a way that utilizes historians’ very own unique set of skills.

Casey Stefanski (Biological Sciences) 

My project aims to instruct high school students’ about what biological research entails, including laboratory techniques and how these are used in the lab to ask scientific questions. I hope to inspire students to pursue research, while at the same time teaching them common laboratory techniques to ensure their success in the lab. I want to take these students from their textbooks to show them real world application.  

Jessica Zinna (Chemistry)

This year, my lab is in charge of organizing and running the annual Turkey Run Conference on Analytical Chemistry. This historical student-run conference has been running since 1970, and involves the collaboration of five universities in the surrounding area. The conference is designed to bring together students from different universities in an effort to increase collaboration and facilitate scientific debate. As part of my practicum, I will be planning the entire conference, from booking the venue to organizing speakers and poster presentations. It is my goal to focus on fostering a discussion on ethics in STEM fields and proper research methods as part of my LASER project.