Meet Our Interviewees

Putting one’s project into layman terms is a deceivingly complicated task. The descriptions offered by the interviewed SURG recipients, however, offer a glimpse that goes beyond basic summarization. We asked Nathan Omprasadham to describe his project as he would to a middle schooler.

“In the world, we give out prizes for things… The books that win those prizes… a lot of people read them, a lot of people think about them because stories are important and because narratives are important… but God does not pick who wins these prizes, people do…”

Nathan Omprasadham

 Omprasadham examined the Gratiaen Prize, the most prestigious English literature prize in Sri Lanka, investigating the similarities between previous prize winners. In searching for patterns, he questioned what these similarities signify not only for the Gratiaen Prize as an institution, but also for Sri Lanka and “how Sri Lanka relates to the rest of the world.” 

Having previously served as an Undergraduate Research Assistant, Omprasadham’s excitement for continuing his scholarly work with the SURG is something he plans to take with him as he furthers his work in graduate school. 

“Getting paid to read is an incredible experience and made me want to do grad school,” said Omprasadham. He is grateful for the support he received from the school throughout his journey and is particularly grateful that Northwestern allocates funds to humanities research as well. 

Proposal Writing & Research Skills

SURG recipient Laurisa Sastoque’s description of her SURG research experience is honest: “tiring, informative, [and] intriguing.” Having conducted the majority of her research remotely in Bogota, Columbia, she had to learn to embrace the challenges posed by the virtual format. 

Throughout the different stages of her summer research, which traced the development and consequences of the stereotypes surrounding Colombian immigrants from the late 1970s to the 1990s, Sastoque maintained close communication with her mentors. The advice she received was not only valuable but also, at times, intermixed with amusing lifelong memories. In fact, Sastoque recalls most vividly her determination to meet with a distinguished professor, laughing as she described the “chaotic” backdrop of the particular meeting – a bustling hospital.

Even before finalizing her proposal, Sastoque sought advice from the Office of Undergraduate Research and her sponsor, which guided her through the revision process. She also served as a SURG mentor herself, which provided her access to a network where she could contact other recipients to discuss their experiences.

Despite the effort and determination required during the rigorous research process, Sastoque views her SURG experience as an opportunity to “…learn[ing] a lot of like what research is about, what research feels like.” 

Challenges and Obstacles

Katarina Stanisavljevic channeled creativity and introspection in her confrontation of challenges both directly related to and outside of her project’s scope.

“I think [the] creative process is something that allows you to kind of access something deeper within yourself to bring forward your own insight… it’s like you’re researching your own mind.”

Katarina Stanisavljevic

As an experienced shiatsu therapist and practitioner, Katarina Stanisavljevic dove head-first into East Asian religious traditions such as Buddhism and Daoism, studying their historical roots through an academic lens for the first time. She investigated what ancient teachers had set forth about such practices and their meanings with an approach heavily influenced by her outlook on creativity’s vital role in the research process.

“It’s like pure logic, breaking down every facet of phenomenal reality,” said Stanisavljevic, describing the experience of reading “Fundamental Treatise of the Middle Way,” a Buddhist text composed by Indian philosopher Nāgārjuna. 

Stanisavljevic encountered several obstacles along the way. Understanding these ancient texts proved immensely challenging in light of what she referred to as the “blind ambition” with which she began. She slowed down, breaking the material down chapter by chapter, in increments: “Once I started really getting into the material…I realized, oh, this is why people spend decades just reading one book, you know?” Later on, a bout of COVID-19 also presented both a frustrating obstacle, but was also an opportunity for her to apply her practice and research skills: “Some of the writing that was coming through felt even more clear and more true than before I got sick… it definitely shifted things in a totally unexpected way.”

Stanisavljevic advises not only prospective SURG applicants but all prospective researchers to confront their fears and uncertainties, as doing so will propel them into that place “where the real discovery happens.”

Expect the Unexpected

Mistakes and surprises can range from frustrating to exciting to downright terrifying, but sophomore Isabel Podolsky caught sight of their potential to provide new direction, and often something to laugh about.

Inspired by the joy she found in outdoor spaces during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Podolsky wanted to explore how people shape the spaces they inhabit and how these spaces, in turn, shape them. During her freshman year, she obtained an SURG to study the tensions between historical preservation and dynamic change in New York City’s Riverside Park.

Podolsky’s research involved reaching out and connecting with strangers for interviews. Podolsky emphasized that her work was greatly influenced by insights she gained from interviews. As her research progressed, the project evolved, just like the spaces she was studying. For Podolsky, the flexibility of SURG was important to her research experience, which allowed her the space to adapt to new information and explore other facets of her research topic. 

“I felt like I had pretty much full reign over my project, which was incredible. [I] definitely didn’t expect that I would have that so early in my college career, and I’m really grateful that I did.”

Isabel Podolsky

However, events that necessitate adaptation aren’t always comfortable. Even though Podolsky’s research focused on the outdoors, spending hours outdoors over a summer in New York was often tiresome, so Podolsky began to incorporate research and Zoom interviews more frequently. Also, Podolsky often had to adapt on the spot while conducting her interviews. She recounts one such experience: sitting in the nicest area of Riverside Park, Podolsky struggled to find an apt response to a woman’s proclamation that the park was full of hooligans. On another day, Podolsky saw what she thought was a dead body and had some trouble with the emergency text reporting system. Later in the day, her citi bike’s chain came off on her way home, and she had to bike home on the main road in platform sandals.

Though this instance may seem humorous, interactions with strangers of both the mundane and bewildering variety shaped Podolsky’s SURG experience, challenging and strengthening her ability to adapt to changes in her environment. In the process, she discovered that she was “becoming more interested in interpersonal dynamics” and plans to explore this further going forward.

Future Directions / Advice for Future Recipients

Rather than beginning with a hypothesis, Chen took an inductive approach to her research. She drew on survey data from undergraduate students from China who currently study or recently graduated from U.S. colleges and universities, curious about how female Chinese students’ intersectional identities give rise to the hyperconsciousness of self-identity, lasting feelings of insecurity, and the salient need for belongingness.

The level of enthusiasm she encountered from peers who shared an interest in her research topic was an unforeseen gift. Their willingness to contribute, discuss, and provide her with valuable information was a catalyst to a renewed outlook on research and its merits on an interpersonal level.

Chen advises future SURG recipients to do what her mentor encouraged her to do herself: reach out to anyone. “I thought I would primarily be working with my mentor, but it turned out that my mentor always encouraged me to talk to different people — including graduate students, faculty members, and advisors at the Office of [Undergraduate] Research.” 

These conversations not only assisted her in finishing her project but also solidified her desire to perform research in the future: 

“When I’m doing this research I feel like I’m constantly in conversation with other scholars, their studies, as well as existing theories, and I very much enjoy having these conversations.”

Zorina chen