Re-search into Me-search
By Eden Hennessey
As grad students, we are largely influenced by the academic world around us. In this context, success is contingent upon productivity; that is, the data we collect, adequate sample sizes, conference presentations, and scholarly publications. By the time we enter graduate school, many of us have been in the educational system for decades, so it is not surprising that we define success within the confines of this environment.
But what if someone told you that success could be defined differently? What if you had an option to communicate your research in a format different than a journal article or academic paper? What if you could disseminate your research in an impactful way without a single citation? This fall, someone told me just that. As the Wilfrid Laurier University Graduate Researcher of the Year (2014/15), I was presented with an opportunity to bring my research to life through the visual medium of photography. While this proposition might seem like torture to some graduate students, to me this was an opportunity to utilize some of my creative skills to transform my research from data into imagery. Until my undergraduate degree, I was set on a life of artistry, so this felt a bit like putting on a comfortable, old pair of shoes.
Regardless of my comfort with creative outlets, turning one’s research program into a series of eight images is a difficult task. To start, I took a research grant and broke it up into sections that told a story. Each image would represent a piece of the story and together, the pieces would deliver a narrative. Next, I literally went back to the drawing board and sketched out stick figures and ideas, constantly getting feedback from colleagues and family members. Then, it was time to consult with the professional photographer, Hilary Gauld, and to find models, which in this case were real women in science from Laurier and the Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario, community. My PhD research examines whether female confronters of sexism in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) perceive and incur different social costs than women in other disciplines.
As you might imagine, it was a challenge to find models; indeed, sexism in STEM is a controversial and timely subject that not everyone wishes to discuss or represent. However, several women did express interest and contributed with enthusiasm because they felt that bringing attention to the larger issue was worth the risk they may face for participating. So, in the month of August, I traded in my lab for a photography studio, SPSS for Photoshop, and the costs of research participants for canvases. The end result was an exhibition of my dissertation called #DistractinglySexist: Confronting Sexism in Canada’s Tech Triangle.
This exhibition was on display at the Laurier Library for six weeks, and received extensive feedback from the Laurier community, and media coverage by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, the Laurier student publication The Cord, and the Canadian Association of University Teachers. At the exhibition launch, one attendee stated, “Thank you for valuing what is invisible and unspoken and making us see it.” A student attendee said, “I’m so happy my school is showing this!” Thus, this feedback illustrates that it is possible to communicate your research in a non-traditional medium and still yield a high-impact.
The exhibition, while impactful, was in a sense, the least important outcome of this project. More important was the fact that I got to incorporate my other interests and strengths into my research to mobilize knowledge. In sum, use your strengths and personality to make your research more novel; it’s not about leaving behind one identity and assuming another, but integrating the two so that you can create a voice and a niche that’s only yours.