Dispatches: Undergraduate Researchers in the Field

Last spring, sixteen Harvard College students received travel grants from the Weatherhead Center to support their thesis field research on topics related to international affairs. Since their return in September, the Weatherhead Center has encouraged these Undergraduate Associates to take advantage of the Center’s research community by connecting with graduate students, faculty, postdocs, and visiting scholars. Early in the spring semester on February 7–8, 2019, the students will present their research in a conference that is open to the Harvard community. Four Undergraduate Associates write of their experiences in the field last summer:

Molly Leavens

Image of Molly LeavensRogers Family Research Fellow. Concentration in Environmental Science and Public Policy, Harvard College. Research interests: Global food systems; smallholder agricultural systems; and the cacao/chocolate industry.

The farmer shimmied her body under the barbed-wire fence, but when I went to follow, the fence slashed a gaping hole through the back pockets of my pants and into my skin. Without saying a word, the farmer ran to a nearby plant, chewed the leaves, and vigorously rubbed her now-green saliva into my fresh wound before dropping to her knees and beginning to pray. The jungle rain turned to a downpour and as my pants slowly became soaked with rain, blood, and green saliva, I wondered how on earth my thesis research had led me here.  

I spent six weeks in Indonesia this summer studying different models of private-sector sustainability in the chocolate supply chain. The industry's most pressing social concerns are desperately low wages, poor working conditions, and child labor for smallholder cacao farmers. Environmentally, cacao is a leading cause of tropical deforestation while paradoxically having the potential to promote conservation. 

Image of Molly Leavens helping a farmer with the cacao harvest in South SulawesiI am interested in how chocolate companies—both the huge multinational corporations and tiny craft makers—are working to address these social and environmental issues. There is academic literature on the effectiveness of some certification schemes, but private companies are conducting most of the research on their own sustainability projects, which inherently threatens objectivity. Additionally, there is not currently a framework for when a large or small company might be better suited to intervene. 

I interviewed stakeholders throughout the Indonesian cacao supply chain, from small chocolate companies to agronomic research centers to NGOs, but the highlight of my trip was staying with a farmer in a rural cooperative. It was here that I was helping with the cacao harvest and encountered the barbed-wire fence. I was one of the first foreigners to visit the community so I experienced unbelievable hospitality and got an incredibly intimate perspective on the daily lives of farmers from pruning and weeding to family meals and frequent prayers (Indonesia is a predominantly Muslim country).

I visited a group of Rainforest Alliance Certified farms, which means they should have been intercropping their cacao with other trees. I was confused then why I did not see this process happening. When I asked a few farmers, they responded that they did indeed intercrop. I pointed at the field directly in front of us, which had rows of only cacao trees in direct sunlight and was a far cry from any ecologist’s definition of intercropping, and inquired, “What about there?” 

“Yes, that is intercropping,” responded the farmers. More confused than ever, I replied, “But I only see cacao trees?” They then proudly showed me two small banana and papaya trees on the edge of the plot. And one scraggly tree—no wider than a decimeter—in the middle without any leaves and probably dead? That was an “intercrop” too. 

This example is not to argue against certification schemes, a nuanced analysis of which will likely fill an entire thesis chapter, but rather demonstrate the value of visiting a location and speaking directly with the subjects of a research project.

Image of Molly Leavens jumping

I encountered challenges, which is expected from any off-the-beaten path adventure. My time in Indonesia was met with a visa renewal debacle, the worst flight and transportation delays I have ever experienced, food poisoning, and even a week in the hospital caring for the sick mother of the only woman in the village who spoke English. And my humbleness for life has hit hardest since returning to the US—within a period of two months, each of the four islands I visited have been struck by a natural disaster (a tsunami, an earthquake, and several volcanic eruptions), which together have killed thousands of residents. 

When I stood in the pouring jungle rain and my pants slowly became soaked with rain, blood, and green saliva....I wondered how I had gotten myself there, but I had no idea it was really just the beginning. My thesis research thus far has been intellectually fascinating and ruthlessly demanding and I cannot wait to see what else it has in store. 

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Wonik Son

Image of Wonik SonWilliams/Lodge International Government and Public Affairs Fellow. Department of History, Harvard College. Research interests: Postwar transnational and economic history; visuality, gaze, and disability; international organizations; and history of images.

This summer, I undertook a six-week research trip to the World Health Organization (WHO) and UN/League of Nations archives in Geneva, Switzerland, to study the perception of disability in the global imagination, informed by the images of postwar UN humanitarian images. I focused on the WHO's vast files on collaborating photographers and public relations, which revealed an archival record of the UN system's coordination with local organizations and (sometimes mildly unscrupulous) third parties in disseminating, drafting, and producing official information for the UN. 

My thesis explores the United Nations and World Health Organization's enormous archives of photographs, films, posters, and other visual sources, disseminated to the public, to help contextualize the postwar construction of "the disabled" as a distinct category in need of special global attention.

UN image of disabled children

How did—and does—the UN perpetuate or problematize the same images of the disabled as objects of pity? Who populates the "disabled" world of the UN's images? Where are they from and what types of people and ethnicities are presented as the "faces" of this question? The United Nations' visual legacy as the world's most prominent arbiter of the narratives of global humanitarian crises merits greater analysis.

Last year, through the History Department's digital history course, I explored the UN’s and WHO's online photo libraries on disability, scraping archival data on where archived photographs were taken, the names of photographers, and dates photographs were taken. The resulting visualizations were published in the Joint Center for History and Economics UN History Project, as part of a new section on “Images of Disability” I created. They showcase a "disabled world" focused almost exclusively on South and Southeast Asia or Latin America. At the WHO archives this summer, I looked at reference binders with photographs of the "handicapped"—from children in rehab hospitals to victims of polio—a pool from which the WHO could take as needed to accompany articles in its own World Health magazine. The archival files reaffirmed that there is a larger history to tell about the roles of individual photographers, contracted by the UN and WHO, in creating the organization's narratives of marginalized communities. These photographers were often not official UN employees—many were contracted by the UN, and are still active in independent projects, from fashion to street photography. 

Image of archives where Wonik Son visitedWhile I went to the archives intending to look primarily at photographers, I discovered an interesting trove of materials on the WHO's relationship with a US public relations firm. This came by virtue of a quirk in the WHO archives in Geneva—they have no centralized catalog available for public access, and all requests for files or search terms must be sent to the archivists by email. This creates a highly curated experience, where the archive often plays a large role in determining the narratives one can see. 

The PR firm's conflicting visions with the WHO seem to have brought significant tension. The firm handles PR for the WHO much as it would do for a corporation, where exclusivity serves as the goal of publicity: to present a “company” as the sole authority in a specific market category. There seems to be an internal debate on the role of the UN system within the larger global web of political entities and interests in the 1990s. Is the WHO the definitive authority on global health matters? Does it have a monopoly on the creation of images and perception of humanitarian needs?

My research over the summer allowed me the opportunity to think more conceptually about the thesis project, especially the topic's position within existing scholarship and schools in transnational global history. Between searching the depths of the WHO’s card catalog system and nearly being locked in the WHO archive overnight—when the librarian failed to check the researchers’ desks prior to heading home—my experience in Geneva was eventful, exciting, and eye opening.

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Sierra Nota

Image of Sierra NotaWilliams/Lodge International Government and Public Affairs Fellow. Department of History and the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures, Harvard College. Research interests: Late imperial and early Soviet Russian history; cartography and borders; digital history; urban planning history; transit and railway history; Siberia; and Ukraine in the Soviet period.

This last summer, I went to Siberia. More specifically, I journeyed up from China, through Mongolia, over to Vladivostok by Korea, and then traversed the length of Russia all the way to Saint Petersburg to conduct independent archival research. I returned with invaluable research experience and the beginnings of a fascinating case study for my senior thesis. After nearly two months traveling Russia by railway and collecting material in archives, I am pleased to be home with a wealth of great material to use for my project.

Graphic of Sierra Nota's map route across Asia

This investigation was several years in the making. My fascination with Siberian urban development began as a research assistant, when I was studying administrative maps of eighteenth-century towns. I gradually became intrigued by the idea of remote Russian cities—in the late seventeenth century, people had to travel several days, even weeks, just to get to the adjacent town 300–400 miles away. These places were beautiful, culturally rich, fully functioning cities before electricity or railways came to them. My summer was planned as an archival study of Siberian urban planning surrounding the construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway, case studying its main Siberian hub, Irkutsk, comparatively. 

My investigation began at this city, and the state archive of the Irkutsk Oblast became my new home. I was in the archive in Irkutsk for around a month, and overall it went very well. The archivists were friendly and willing to explain if there was any issue, and the whole process of working there went smoothly. This was a pleasant surprise because I was warned that this archive was in disrepair by a historian who worked there a decade ago, and I found none of the horrors which he described. I collected a little over half of my primary source archival documents there. 

Image of Sierra Nota with her backpack on ready to board trainWhile in Irkutsk, I also visited Olkhon Island on Lake Baikal—the world’s oldest and largest lake and a place of great cultural and literary significance for Russians. Despite a bout of food poisoning and being completely cut off from Internet and cell phone, I had several amazing conversations about the particularly fascinating internationalism of Siberian Russia. One couple I made friends with, for example, were Finnish-born residents of Mongolia who often conducted business in Russia. We piled in old military jeeps together and waded in the pure—but horrifically freezing—water of the storied lake. These types of interactions continued as I left Irkutsk.

Next, I had short stays with long train rides through Vladivostok, Krasnoyarsk, and Novosibirsk. In these cities, I visited only libraries and museums, and collected broad sources on city planning and local history that I could use as comparative points to Irkutsk. I wish I could have done archival research in these places, as I had originally intended, but I was severely time constrained. In between each of these cities, I often had to stay on a train for four whole days as I cut across the Russian countryside, which put a severe damper on my time. 

Finally, I spent the last two weeks of my trip at the GARF archive in Moscow, a massive government archive with a ton of sources collected from throughout the former Soviet Union and Russian Empire. I was incredibly busy here, as there were way too many interesting documents given my short time period, but I collected as many as I reasonably could. 

Overall, I had an amazing and intense trip, and I am more excited about the prospects of original historical research than I was when I began. 

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Rohan Shah

Image of Rohan ShahRogers Family Research Fellow. Committee on Degrees in Social Studies, Harvard College. Research interests: Development economics; urbanism in the Global South; postcolonialism; and economic theory.

This past summer, I visited the informal settlement of Mathare in Nairobi, Kenya, to study the impact of prepaid water dispensers, or “water ATMs,” on the informal water vending market in Nairobi. Ostensibly, water ATMs solve the problem of high water prices and unregulated water quality by cutting out the middlemen of informal water vendors. Users have a card that can be preloaded with cash. A swipe of this card at the water ATM releases water into the user's container. The per-liter price of water from the water ATM was reported to be 100 times cheaper than the price from informal vendors, who are pejoratively referred to as “water cartels.” Furthermore, since users pay electronically at the point of use, the public utility company Nairobi Water hopes this will reduce the amount of non-revenue water used.

Image of a surveyor asking questions to resident in Mathare

The ATM technology was presented in the popular media as a cause for optimism, demonstrating the power of technological innovation to improve the lives of the most vulnerable. It was this potential for meaningful impact that drew me to the site. Were the ATMs having their desired impact on water prices in Mathare? To that end, I ran a household survey about water use. By collaborating with a local team, I was able to collect 650 responses from residents who lived close to the ATMs. Whilst it was certainly a challenge acquiring such a large sample size, it has allowed me to confidently argue that the ATMs have reduced water prices in some neighborhoods of Mathare. 

Image of a water ATMBut this is not true everywhere that the ATMs were set up. In many parts of Mathare, people continue paying the same price of water as they did before the ATMs were installed. Paradoxically, many respondents reported using the ATMs and still paying the original price! To better understand this phenomenon, I had to dive deeper. I needed fine-grained, qualitative data to understand how the original prices persisted and why. I began conducting numerous open-ended visits to Mathare, interviewing local leaders and water bureaucrats, and shadowed an employee of Nairobi Water. What has begun to emerge is a nuanced story of the complexities of policy implementation and the adaptability of local stakeholders.At present, I’m trying to synthesize the stories of this fascinating community into insights that can speak to the rich academic discourse on technology and development, and the politics of water provision. This process of consolidation and reflection has been difficult but rewarding. However, I anticipate still bigger challenges ahead. Namely, I think that integrating the quantitative and qualitative methods will be difficult because writing in the social sciences tends to exclusively use one or the other. I hope my thesis will challenge this tendency by demonstrating that mixed methods can shed unique insight on social phenomena.

Conducting research in Kenya was an incredible experience. Like everywhere else in the world, the city has its own rhythms, bureaucratic morasses, and idiosyncrasies. But the people of the city navigate this with staggering patience and savvy, and without losing their warmth, entrepreneurialism, and optimism. 

When I finish writing, I hope to share my findings with some of the Kenyan philanthropists and stakeholders I had the opportunity to meet, in hopes that my research can improve future implantation and innovation in the provision of water to Nairobi’s poorest.

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1. Helping a farmer with the cacao harvest in South Sulawesi. Used with permission from Molly Leavens

2. Atop Mount Bromo at sunrise, during the end of Ramadan holidays. Used with permission from Molly Leavens

3. School for Handicapped, Washington, DC, January 1, 1979, Photo # 64719. Credit: UN Photo 

4. World Health Organization building. Credit: Wonik Son

5. Sierra Nota's train route across Asia, from China to Russia. Used with permission from Sierra Nota

6. Getting ready to board a twenty-four-hour train ride from Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia to Irkutsk, Russia with all her possessions in a backpack. Used with permission from Sierra Nota

7. One of the surveyors, Thuo 'Biggie', asks a resident questions about water use. Credit: Rohan Shah

8. One of the water ATMs. Credit: Rohan Shah