For some Pioneer scholars, research topics are waiting in their own backyards

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Isa (chemistry, 2020), a Pioneer scholar from the United States, traces her interest in chemistry to the memory of her grandfather putting toothpaste on her mosquito bites to stop the itch. When she later learned in school that this home remedy works because of a chemical reaction–the basic toothpaste neutralizing acidic mosquito saliva–she knew she wanted to learn more. Still, despite her love of the subject, she found herself stumped while choosing a topic for her Pioneer research paper. As it turns out, a topic was waiting for her close to home. On a drive with her mother, Isa noticed the trash floating in the Potomac River near her house. She began to wonder how all this pollution would affect fish populations, which in turn affect the osprey population. Suddenly, she had her research question. 

Isa’s experience is quite common among Pioneer scholars. While many Pioneer scholars set their sights on global or international problems, some of the most productive and inspired research comes from scholars who draw from personal experience and explore issues in their surrounding communities. Take Ethan (psychology, 2020), a Pioneer scholar from the United States. Inspired by his upbringing in an immigrant community in Austin, Texas, Ethan decided to explore the effects of language brokering––children serving as translators for their parents––and family conflict. Kynnedy (computer science, 2020, 2021), another Pioneer scholar from the United States, is deeply informed by her personal experience of racial injustice when doing research. “It’s something that impacts me on a day to day basis as a Black person and as a woman,” she explains. “I’ll unfortunately always have to worry about my safety. So every time I see a cool piece of technology, I go into my problem solver mindset.” Currently, she is interested in adapting augmented reality glasses for police officers which she hopes can de-escalate traffic stops and other community interactions, particularly for people of color. She hopes to explore this topic in her 2021 research paper at Pioneer. 

Sydney (education/psychology, 2019), a Pioneer scholar from Vietnam, found inspiration in her own family––specifically, by comparing the academic achievements of her siblings. She reflected on the fact that while she and her brother were both high achievers in second grade, earning several school awards, her sister didn’t meet the same benchmarks at the same age. Her sister’s personality was different, too; Sydney describes her as “outdoorsy” and “artistic.” She wondered if this difference in personality might have been the reason for the difference in academic achievement. Her research paper, “The Role of Homework in the Interaction Between Personal Attributes and Academic Achievement,” explores this question. “I think my creativity is shown in my ability to look around in my community and see a problem and try to do research on it,” Sydney says. 

Nabaa (engineering, 2020), a Pioneer scholar from the United States, agrees that having a personal connection to research is both motivating and inspiring.  “When you establish a connection to what you’re doing, it makes your work so much more meaningful and easier to execute,” she says. In Nabaa’s case, she observed older relatives struggling to remember medication dosage and timing. Her research paper proposes a device that sorts medication and provides it to patients at the proper time. Nabaa says that because she had observed firsthand that there was a need for such a device, she never doubted the importance of her research and was all the more passionate to continue her work. 

Pioneer believes that young scholars should investigate problems that matter to them. Many times, the key to finding a personally relevant research question is looking close to home. Through keen observation of their surroundings, Pioneer scholars find research topics hiding in plain sight in their own backyards.

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