Lessons in loving and learning: how my undergraduate research project taught me more than proper vegetable handling.

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to present my undergraduate research at Purdue’s poster symposium.  It was a beautiful day that served as the culmination of months of effort.  The symposium also challenged me to perservere with this research.

My topic, “Communication food safety information through English as a Second Language curricula,” was born of a desire to combine two things that are very important to me:  food and the Spanish language.

Hispanic parents, like all parents, want to provide the best nutrition for their families, but they might not have the resources or know-how to do so.  Accessing information proves to be a challenge, since most governmental or university documents are written for those with more advanced literacy.  So my project focused on reaching Hispanic food preparers where they are– ESL classes.  The information isn’t complicated; the bigger question is how we can meet Latinos within their culture.

I met a few bumps on the road to the poster symposium.  One of the most daunting tasks of research was attaining Institutional Review Board (IRB) approval.  Because I was performing my research with human subjects, this board had to make sure I wasn’t harming the subjects in any way.  Let me tell you, getting IRB approval can be a very long process.  I practiced patience and perservered.  It did eventually go through, and I was able to begin the study.

My undergraduate research combined my passions in an effort to bring the good, true, and beautiful of life to families in need. Making this happen required overcoming beaurocracy (and procrastination). In the end though, this project isn’t about me.  It’s about those who deserve to know how to keep their families safe. Vegetable safety isn’t going to revolutionize the world, but it might make a difference for one family.

I think of myself as a loving person.  Truly loving these communities happens when we can reach them with truth.  Before this project, I often envisioned research as a cold-hearted approach to find hard facts and information.  Through my work, I realized that research should always serve a higher purpose and lead to understanding that brings goodness to people’s lives.

Certainly, this has been a culminating experience, and I learned more about washing produce than I ever imagined possible.  But more importantly, this project challenged me to apply learning to how I love and loving to how I learn.  Don’t tell Dr. Tucker, but I think that’s been the most exciting part of the project.

Live from the Labyrinth

My first day at the office, Abigail informed me that I wasn’t getting involved in a straight-line process; rather, it more resembled a labyrinth.  She said you just have to jump in and see where it leads.  I chuckled but didn’t take her too seriously. 

This summer, I have become part of a multi-year project that looks at communicating food safety messages to underserved audiences. It’s been a month since I joined the office, and I can confirm that Ag Comm research is indeed a maze that may not have a nice, clean “END HERE” point.

I come from a more scientific background where there is always an answer if one looks hard enough and ask the right questions.  The social sciences, however, don’t seem to have the same strategy.  With people, even asking the right questions is hard; when one starts searching for the answers, it gets downright messy.

In the past month, I have read interviews and focus groups, researched news topics, looked at peer-reviewed literature, took trips to the library, went back to the library, and brainstormed with Dr. Tucker, Abigail, and Abby Maurer.  The more we research, more blank spaces and question marks seem to come up.  We backtrack and try another path.

On the other hand, it’s exciting to be involved in this search.  One of the main reasons I came into the Ag Comm program was to work with people—not organic compounds, small organisms, or soil monoliths.  My days are filled with people, and the conversations are fascinating—especially morning conversations with Dr. Tucker and Abigail about spelling quirks, Andy Griffith trivia, and crime shows. 

Better yet, I have the opportunity to read people’s stories—people who truly want the best for their families.  From interviews, we can figure out how to make a message that fits their culture and their needs. 

Deep down, I think I might be a social science person, after all.  I love the labyrinth, the less-than-linear approach to research and life.  Check back throughout the summer for updates “live from the labyrinth.”

~Lisa Schluttenhofer, Ag Comm Senior and Summer Research Assistant