Pioneer scholar Angel, from Shanghai, China, became passionate about mental health and social justice issues when she was a boarding student at high school in California. Her roommate had mental health problems, and Angel didn’t understand enough about such issues to be able to help. Her feeling of powerlessness inspired her to want to learn more and to be an advocate for people who are stigmatized by their illness.
When Angel applied to the Pioneer Research Program, she listed psychology, history and education as three of her choices. Finding herself in a research concentration focused on medical technologies was a surprise, and like many Pioneer scholars in similar circumstances, Angel decided it was an opportunity to explore something entirely new and potentially interesting. When it came time to choose a research topic, she worked with her professor to develop a creative subject that combined a concentration on a particular medical technology with her interest in social justice.
Angel’s paper, which was included in the 2020 Pioneer Research Journal, looked at MRI and fMRI technology and its impact on people who suffer from schizophrenia and their families. She learned that because schizophrenia is not well understood, it is often accompanied by social stigma, and that families of people with schizophrenia tend to be very involved in activist organizations. Her research took her to primary sources such as activist websites, blogs, and newspaper articles. She found that the results of the new technologies, which demonstrated visually that schizophrenia is accompanied by changes in the brain, inspired mixed reactions. Physicians, for instance, were wary of categorizing brains as healthy or diseased. Families of stigmatized patients more often welcomed results that made it possible to identify schizophrenia as a physical brain disease rather than a mental illness.
However, Angel did not stop with a description of her findings. As a conclusion to her paper, hoping to inspire further research, she posed the important question of whether families welcomed the new technologies in part because actual sources of social justice had failed them.
Angel said she learned as much from the writing process as from the research. Her professor had established a careful timetable for completing parts of the paper, and Angel found that she had to learn how to abandon her usual perfectionism to meet her deadlines. She realized that no portion of the paper had to be perfect the first time. “It’s always okay to come back and improve” a part, or revise the outline when research uncovers new resources that require a change in focus. She found Pioneer resources such as the research seminar and the Writing Center to be very helpful, and enjoyed the interaction with her international cohort, who brought very different perspectives to group discussions.
Pioneer’s interdisciplinary approach also encouraged Angel’s decision to focus on liberal arts. She is now a student at Haverford College in Pennsylvania, where she is thinking of majoring in psychology and sociology and going on to graduate school and perhaps a future in academics.