Our fourth faculty spotlight features Professor Lahra Smith, who is an assistant professor in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service.
How did you become involved in research?
I had never considered research. I do not think I even knew what it meant to conduct “research”. But then I was accepted as a Ronald E. McNair Graduate Opportunity Scholar for underrepresented groups (low-income, first-generation and/or racial minorities) one summer. The experience of working one-on-one with a faculty mentor, and in a cohort of students also doing different kinds of independent research, opened my eyes to a whole world of innovative and unique research. I studied the impact of economic development programs on women in Zimbabwe, prior to my study abroad program in Zimbabwe. I realized I very much enjoyed the process of research and began to conceptualize what it meant to be a researcher. That led to a senior thesis, graduate school and a life of research.
Why do you think that undergraduate research is valuable, both for the student conducting the research and to the institution as a whole?
The purpose of a university is generating new insights into the human condition, and then teaching that to our students. By getting our undergraduate students involved in the work of research, we are most directly connecting those two spheres. Many students do not even know what their professors do outside of the classroom, and they often have no idea what kind of work goes into developing the knowledge they read in books and journal articles. Student research enables students to be part of the work that many professors love– their own research. It also makes them more critical consumers of new knowledge. And hopefully it also excites and inspires a new groups of future researchers.
What is your favorite part about the research process?
I love fieldwork. I study African politics, so as much as I can do some research here at Georgetown, that is fine. But I love nothing more than sitting in a family courtyard or kitchen in rural Ethiopia, talking with someone about what they see as main political problems and what social and political tools they use to solve those problems. I find the ingenuity and energy which citizens bring to improving their lives humanizing and reassuring to me as both a scholar and a citizen myself. I have learned about what it means to be a citizen from people I have interviewed in East Africa.
What is the most challenging part of the research process?
Well, getting to the “field” is itself challenging. It takes a relatively lot of time, money and energy to get to the people I want to talk to. And because I study politics, sometimes governments restrict access to people and/or data or citizens themselves are reluctant to talk about sensitive political issues. All those factors can make the kind of research I do more difficult.
Describe your current research in one sentence.
I am currently conducting research on how citizens are taught about newly revised or rewritten constitutions in Africa, especially how high school teachers see their role as teachers of citizenship.
What is your advice for undergraduates who are interested in pursuing research at Georgetown?
I often encourage students to seek out professors who work on topics and in fields that interest them. Introduce yourself, learn more about their work, and try to work with them. Sometimes it might take a few semesters to be able to find a research project, but persistence pays off. In some ways, that mimics the research process itself. Patience and a passion for generating new knowledge are keys to success in the realm of independent research.