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Grad students reach out to public

BY LUKE VOELZ | FEBRUARY 18, 2011 7:20 AM

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A handful of University of Iowa graduate students will attempt to demystify their research in the public’s eye today.

The 15 students are fellows from the Obermann Graduate Institute on Engagement and the Academy, and they will present topics ranging from journalism to neuroscience.

“We’re trying to make connections with the public on what some would consider more esoteric topics of knowledge,” said Graduate College Dean John Keller. “It can be easy with some courses but a little harder if you’re in something like art history.”

The institute was founded in 2006 through a joint effort between the Graduate College and the Obermann Center for Advanced Studies. Helping the public understand the often-complicated topics of graduate research is one of the institute’s main goals.

Brad Thomas, a third-year neuroscience Ph.D. student at the UI, has been interested in philosophical topics such as morality and free will and how they relate to the study of the brain. His goal today is to get people talking.

“I’m interested in engaging the public in dialogue about these philosophical topics and their relation to science,” he said. “Generally, these conversations are happening among neuroscientists, but we’re leaving the public out.”

Thomas plans to start the conversation with Twitter, presenting the statement “Because of brain science …?” And leaving the public to respond in 140 characters or less.

“A lot of the philosophical concepts we talk about are shaped by society,” Thomas said. “As scientists we can’t create the answers on our own. People are going to tell us what they mean.”

Robert Gutsche, a second-year journalism Ph.D. candidate, is working alongside English graduate student Raquel Baker at the Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism.

Gutsche, who cofounded the center — an independent, nonprofit and nonpartisan news service — said he hopes to teach students reporting and writing techniques as Baker teaches students the styles of narrative writing.

“We’re giving an opportunity to show students the power of journalism as well as narrative theory in writing,” he said.

These students will work on reporting about Chicago natives living in Iowa City’s Southeast Side.

“There’s such a stereotype that Chicago people coming to the Southeast Side are poor or deviant,” said Gutsche, whose research focuses on social stereotypes as spread through the media. “We’re going to let people who are coming here document their own stories.”

The presentation is one of the requirements for being in the Obermann Center for Advanced Studies, which seeks to provide support for students and faculty members working on intense or long-term research projects.

But Keller said it’s important for the graduate students to expand their projects beyond the research rooms and into the public.

“We’re trying to emphasize [students] thinking about how the public will view their work and the relevancy of graduate research toward the public,” he said.


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