Discussions on the art and craft of research

Month: December 2018

Library Helps Expand Use of GIS to the Social Sciences

While use of the Geographic Information Systems (GIS) Lab at Connecticut College is focused primarily in the field of Environmental Studies, it could also be useful to students and researchers across the social sciences. So I was excited recently when working with Joseline Urbina ’19 on her Honors Thesis in the Government department when it became clear that she could use GIS for her project. What follows is Joseline’s own brief summary of her project and how GIS was leveraged to further her research. Many thanks to Joseline for agreeing to share this preview of her work in progress. And many thanks to Professor Beverly Chomiak for supporting this kind of research.

Joseline Urbina ’19

Government Major

For my honors thesis in the Government Department, I am conducting an exploratory case study of Ayanna Pressley’s 2018 Campaign for the Democratic Primary nomination in Massachusetts’ 7th Congressional District. Throughout my research, I will examine the strategies used during the election, the campaign, and the transition period to study how Pressley won against a ten-term incumbent to become Massachusetts’ first African American Congresswoman, and what does the win suggest for the future of politics.

One portion of my thesis required me to study the geographical boundaries of the district in which Pressley won. However, after searching online (e.g. Google Image search), I was unable to find a map of the Precincts and Wards that are in the district. So I enlisted the support of our research librarians. During one of my research consultations with the librarians, I learned that it would be possible to create the map I was looking for using the Geographic Information Systems (GIS) lab in the Olin Science Center on campus.

So with the help of Andrew Lopez, I contacted all of the towns in the 7th Congressional district in order to collect the GIS shapefiles we’d need to make the map. Once the shapefiles were collected, we contacted Professor Beverley Chomiak, Senior Lecturer in Geology and Environmental Sciences, who also runs the GIS lab, to ask for her assistance in putting a map together.

This map shows all precincts in the 7th Congressional District color coded with percentages of votes received by each candidate in the September 4, 2018 Democratic primary.

This map shows all precincts in the 7th Congressional District color coded with percentages of votes received by each candidate in the September 4, 2018 Democratic primary.

Professor Chomiak worked around the clock to assemble the map from the less-than-ideal files we had collected. Once the Wards and Precincts were assembled for the 7th District, the voting results were layered into the map and color-coded to exhibit where each candidate received the most votes during the Primary Election.

These maps have enabled me to visually analyze the election results in a new way, and they have also highlighted the significance of gerrymandering in the district, which expanded my research. As I continue with my thesis, I plan to continue to use GIS where possible, as it proved extremely helpful in increasing my data and analysis.


Book Exhibit in Shain Library Captures the Attention of Human Rights Advocate

There is a small rotating exhibit of books on display in Shain Library related to a current event or theme on campus. One recent exhibit on Guns in America caught the attention of the international human rights and peace advocate, Binalakshmi “Bina” Nepram, who is a visiting scholar in residence at Connecticut College.

Nepram — who was recently awarded the prestigious Anna Politkovskaya Award, established in 2006 to remember the Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who was killed for her reporting on the Russian conflict in Chechnya — has been researching arms proliferation around the India-Burma border for the past 15 years. Her work is all over the internet and a quick scan of Google Scholar indicates that she’s been publishing for at least that long. So I was surprised at her 2nd campus-wide dialogue series on global gun violence (October 26, 2018) to learn that the guns exhibit in Shain Library actually caught her attention.

Local New London peace advocate and author Frida Berrigan joined Bina Nepram in the Walter Commons for a discussion on gun violence (26 Oct. 2018).

Local New London peace advocate and author Frida Berrigan joined Bina Nepram in the Walter Commons for a discussion on gun violence (October 26, 2018).

Nepram told me that she “loved those books,” that she “devoured them,” and that they were “stunning!” To understand why, let’s consider where she is coming from.

I first saw Bina Nepram speak on June 26, 2018, at the Eastern Connecticut One Book, One Region kickoff event for this year’s selection, Exit West by Mohsin Hamid. She took a very simple approach to introducing the book by placing it in the real world context of the global migration crisis currently underway. Within the first few minutes of her talk, I estimate that about half of the approximately 100 people in attendance burst into tears, myself included. Of the talk, Bina later told me that she was very nervous, because she had “never commented on another author’s work in that way before.”

Because Nepram is an established international scholar, who has given a Ted Talk no less, I think she means she was nervous because she was not used to commenting on novels. But she handled Exit West with an incredible attention to detail as she read the real world trauma of migrants into select passages from the book. “I love books,” she says. And more importantly for the sake of this blog, she considers libraries the living rooms of America; a place where one can be oneself and feel safe and secure. She knows, because when she first arrived in the US for reasons of personal safety, she was able to get her bearings at the New York Public Library.

Faculty, staff, and students at the 2nd dialogue on gun violence.

Faculty, staff, and students at the 2nd dialogue on gun violence.

Her transition to mostly-rural southeastern Connecticut at the beginning of the year was more complicated. Let’s just say American hospitality wasn’t the welcome party she was expecting. In India, she says everyone would invite you over for tea or whatever. Even the King, she says, sometimes disguises himself in order to test the hospitality of his subjects. During her first few months in Connecticut, she says it felt like no one said anything to her. She was isolated and alone, she felt imprisoned, and she wondered what she was doing here.

Then she was in Shain Library, her big American living room on campus, and she noticed the display of books on guns in America, and she had a Eureka moment. Look at all of these books organized according to a theme, she thought! Then she checked the majority of them out and began reading about the history of guns and violence in the United States. At her 2nd campus-wide dialogue series on global gun violence, she mentioned that she researches guns and violence in part because they are very scary to her and they represent a real threat to her and her family.  Importantly, she reads about guns in order to understand them and overcome her fear.

Binalakshmi Nepram checking out the New Books display in Shain Library.

Binalakshmi Nepram checking out the New Books display in Shain Library. The current exhibit on the AIDS Quilt is visible in the background.

Her discovery of books about guns in Shain Library happened in the summer of 2018, a time riddled with multiple mass shootings in the United States. To name only several, there was the Douglass High School shooting in Parkland, Florida (Feb. 14), the Santa Fe High School shooting in New Mexico (May 18), and the Thousand Oaks, California shooting (Nov. 7). The Tree of Life Synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (Oct. 27) happened within 24 hours of the 2nd campus-wide dialogue series on global gun violence that Bina led with the support of Frida Berrigan.

Bina and I met recently to talk about her experiences. She is a wonderful and powerful speaker, but she is also really enthusiastic and incredibly humble. She told me the books about guns exhibit in Shain library helped her understand why she is here in Connecticut. “Why is America the world’s leading international arms dealer,” she asked me rhetorically. Gun making started right here in Norwich, Connecticut, she said, as an artisanal craft industry to fight against the British. Nepram began speaking about the life of Sarah Winchester, heiress of The Winchester Repeating Arms Company, which was one of the biggest gun makers in the world. A lot of their rifles were used in the US Civil War, and they were established in nearby New Haven.

“Books!” Bina says. “They are like strange animals.” Whoever created that exhibit, she told me, must really understand these issues. Nepram really liked the variety of sub-topics, with books on women and guns, for example. But one thing that really stood out to her was the inclusion of children’s books. She says there are always children’s books in the exhibits and she loves that. Her daughter visited recently, and of course they read children’s books together in Shain Library.



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