Before my first semester at UNC Charlotte, I wanted to go to graduate school for counseling or clinical psychology. With that as my goal, I knew research would be very important and that UNC Charlotte had a lot of cool research going on. During Levine finalist programming, I talked with Dr. Bennett, a UNCC psychology professor, over Zoom, who my group had been paired with due to our major, and I asked her a lot of questions about research. She gave me some names of professors to reach out to, and so after accepting the scholarship I reached out to a professor in the psychology department. We talked about her research and my interests, and she was adamant about me talking to some faculty members in the public health department.
Things get a get a little long winded, but long story short, I talked to a public health professors, Dr. Cramer and Dr. Bowling who gave me research recommendations, and I ended up working with a Dr. Kaniuka, then a graduate student, on research about LGBTQ adults and mental health. Things worked out really smoothly because her research area was gender and sexual minority mental health. I didn’t have specific interests regarding research then, but overall, I wanted to focus on health, both physical and mental when it came to underrepresented and systemically oppressed groups; as a member of some of these groups, I wanted to do work that contributed positively to the health and well-being of members of my communities.
I started working with her my first semester at UNC Charlotte coding interviews and it was an interesting experience because it was qualitative research. I didn’t expect the research to be the way it actually was, it was a lot of learning how to interpret things and seeing themes and similarities in the things people said on the interview transcripts. I would look at certain sections of interview transcripts that were already written and apply themes to them from a codebook. One theme was minority stress, and another theme was hope for living. It was a very involved process that I enjoyed; I was involved in the process of taking the lived experiences of LGBTQ adults and translating that into research, something tangible that can be used to do much good. We finished coding and putting together everything the Fall of my second year, and I watched Dr. Kaniuka, then a graduate student (now PhD graduate) present some of the research we did when she was defending her dissertation. The experience was rewarding to watch knowing that I played a part in the research.
In the process of coding the interviews, there were different themes that came up and one of them was that individuals were bringing up pets as a reason for living despite other challenges going on in their life. I had the chance to explore that qualitatively in the Fall of my Sophomore year, and I wrote and submitted an abstract to present those findings. I will be doing a poster presentation of that research this year. I have grown so much in my two years at Charlotte not just academically, but as a researcher. I have the chance to ask questions I am curious about and explore them. I have so much support from everyone I do research with, and that has been a great help in getting this far in my academic and research career. I chose this program because there was an emphasis on exploring all your interests and making something good out of it, and I can say for sure that I have done that. I am glad that research is something encouraged in the Levine Scholars program, and that I had such an early experience in doing research. In addition to doing sexual and gender minority mental health research, I am a research assistant in Dr. Bennett’s lab, who I initially spoke to during Levine finalist week. The focus of the lab is stress, and I get do things such as measuring blood pressure and taking saliva samples to measure cortisol. Through that lab, I had the chance to present research at a conference on the health consequences of healthcare discrimination. Due to these experiences, I have grown so much, and I have more clear research interests in areas that I desire to explore more, and I will continue to do that over the next two years I am here.