Applied research: Now there’s an idea

Well, I’ve been fairly MIA due to being out of town attending and presenting at a couple of different conferences back to back. Ironically, conferences are the hardest place for me to blog because there is never free Wi-Fi at the conference. I think this is a shame and should change in the future. Conferences are meant for communication, and so communicate we must.

First, I went to the Society for Personality and Social Psychology (SPSP) annual conference and second, the Science of Research on Discrimination and Health conference at the National Institute of Health (NIH). Both were wonderful conferences but very different. SPSP is the big annual conference in my field. I got to see a lot of exciting research going on in my field, including some newer studies examining the effects of priming religious concepts (exposing individuals to religious concept words) on brain activity. Pretty cool stuff. Additionally, it set me up to start collaborations with some researchers I have been dying to work with. Networking win.

The second conference was a little different than my normal pace of life. It was a conference specifically designed to gather together researchers from all different fields (physicians, social psychologists, epidemiologists, sociologists, etc.) to study how discrimination (mostly racial and ethnic) affects various health outcomes and health related variables. It was amazing. I was in the company of a very pleasant crowd of individuals who were passionate about their research. In fact, I was a minority as a white individual at the conference. Many African Americans and Latino/Latina individuals were well-represented as they presented their research on discrimination and health. It was truly encouraging to see.

I missed out on some of it due to some flight delays, but I made it for my poster presentation and for about 50% of the conference. My specific poster focused on how negative attitudes toward African Americans predicts lack of support for universal health care, even when statistically controlling for variables like political ideology, right-wing authoritarianism, race, and gender. The same results replicate in another sample with attitudes toward the poor. My theory: individuals who have negative or more negative attitudes toward historically disadvantaged individuals show less support for universal health care. Now I’m curious as to why this is the case. My guess is that they have different views on what universal health care might look like. Future data hopefully to give insight into this question.

The data were well-received. Several people loved my poster and commented that I needed to get it out to the media (if only!) But one researcher in particular struck me. His name is Wornie Reed, a sociologist at Virginia Tech. He really liked my poster and told me that I was saying what nobody was actually coming out to say. We had a wonderful chat about modern racism and how it often occurs at the institutional level. In other words, systems are set up to discriminate against minorities, even if that is not their intent. Then we had an engaging but challenging talk about intent and its role in racism. Does it matter if you intend to discriminate against minorities, even if that “lack of intent” leaves them with inadequate resources? Tell me your thoughts.

Dr. Reed has been heavily involved in advancing the rights of Black individuals for decades. He was there in the 1970’s, serving as a political activist for black rights. Since then, he has gone on to have a very prolific career. After hearing his stories and experiences, I came to respect him deeply in a short amount of time. I will never forget our chat together, about the rights of black individuals and how research like I’m doing, if the word gets out, could help change the pattern of institutional racism. I rarely think on a given day about how my research could eventually change lives. But it can, and the people at this conference got that.

It was one of those simple moments that brought a big “AH-HA!” with it. I was in the midst of applied research and I thought, “This makes sense.” It was a sudden realization that I have gifts, talents, and abilities, and I must do my best to be actively involved in my community with my research. So that’s my new goal – to make my research count. And to always be passionate, remembering that I study what is associated with and causes discrimination. And by knowing, we can change. It’s crazy how you forget the purpose of your job sometimes, but it’s incredible when you remember.


About Megan Johnson Shen

I am a social psychologist graduating with my Ph.D. from Baylor University this May and moving to NYC this summer to start a new job as a postdoctoral researcher at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in the Cancer Prevention and Control Department. I love the brain, human behavior, and anything to do with understanding them better. I love research and a good dinner party. Fine wine and cheese - I'm there. Interesting experimental data? I'll probably show for that too. View all posts by Megan Johnson Shen

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