UTRA grants create valuable research opportunities at Watson

Undergraduate Research and Teaching Awards (UTRAs) support Brown students collaborating with Brown faculty on research projects and are integral to research being conducted at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs.

During the spring 2023 semester, the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs offered $10,000 in funding for Karen T. Romer Undergraduate Research and Teaching Awards (UTRAs) to support three faculty-led research projects during the 2022-2023 academic year. Faculty who received these funds included Rob Blair, Dr. Adam Levine and Daniel Jordan Smith

Junior International and Public Affairs (IAPA) and Economics concentrator Ahad Bashir worked with Levine, the Center for Human Rights and Humanitarian Studies director and his research associate Alexandria Nylen on a project studying how military and civilian actors interact during humanitarian emergencies. Sophomore IAPA concentrators Jadyn Ligoo and Keyona Tartt worked with Professor of International Relations and Anthropology Daniel Smith, studying demographic processes among the Igbo-speaking people of southern Nigeria.

Nylen directly supervised Bashir's work studying the governmental response to the COVID-19 pandemic. She said that the project he worked on was "a case overview of the U.S. emergency response framework in terms of how the government responds to pandemic emergencies." Nylen said that having Bashir help with research was essential in creating "the bandwidth to make the research project as impactful as possible." 

Bashir said initially, he did background research studying the existing framework for a pandemic response, including the patchwork of state laws that affected government response. He later conducted qualitative interviews with military and civilian public health officials about the government's response to the pandemic. 

Bashir said complaints from civilian and military personnel about over-reliance on the National Guard to manage the response were a common thread he found in the interviews. "The term Swiss Army knife showed up in a lot of the responses," said Bashir.

Nylen agreed that one of the key findings was that "over-reliance on National Guard [during the pandemic] led to burnout among the staff and the members of the National Guard who kept getting called back to duty." "It put a lot of stress on the National Guard," she said, "because they were being used to fill preexisting capacity gaps where the system was already strained." 

"Nearly every country on the planet used their military in some fashion to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, including the United States," Levine said. "This research has helped us to better understand the situations in which military support was warranted and those in which better-resourced civilian agencies would have served the nation better," he said.

[Jadyn Ligoo and Keyona Tartt's] work opened up a world that didn't exist when I did my dissertation research.

Daniel Jordan Smith Professor of International Relations and Anthropology
Daniel Jordan Smith

Smith, a professor of International Relations and Anthropology, said his UTRA research project drew in part upon research he did 30 years ago for his dissertation. With the updated research that Ligoo and Tartt assisted with, he plans to publish a book looking at "how gender, marriage, parenthood and kinship are changing in the face of wider, long-term social changes" in Nigeria. 

The central question Smith sought to address 30 years ago was why social and economic changes that usually predict a decline in fertility did not appear to hold true among the Igbo-speaking people in southern Nigeria. Smith explained, "There's this long-standing narrative that modernization and development lead to fertility decline. Factors such as women's education and participation in the labor force urbanization and exposure to modernity all tend to lead to fertility decline. But in southern Nigeria, fertility decline has been much slower in unfolding than demographers predicted." 

Smith praised Ligoo and Tartt's research and the new vistas it opened in his research. "What they did, which was totally new to me, in addition to doing typical secondary literature reviews, was go into the digital world and find things like videos, Nigerian music, blogs, podcasts and online forums for dating. These are things that I wasn't familiar with, and their work opened up a world that didn't exist when I did my dissertation research."