Dispatches: Undergraduate Researchers in the Field

Typically every spring, a select group of Harvard College students receive travel grants from the Weatherhead Center to support their thesis field research on topics related to international affairs. With the onset of the pandemic and accompanying travel restrictions, this past spring was different. Instead, we selected twenty exceptional undergraduates whose research we could still support in other ways, from helping revise research methods to planning projects that don’t require travel. 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. Four Undergraduate Associates write of their experiences last summer:

Chihiro Ishikawa

Chihiro IshikawaWilliams/Lodge International Government and Public Affairs Fellow; Departments of Sociology and East Asian Studies, Harvard College. Research interests: Feminism; gender; contemporary East Asia; social media; social movements; and contemporary Japan.

When I first learned that my research would have to be conducted online, I pictured myself cooped up in my room holding Zoom interviews with my participants. I imagined holding a cup of coffee in one hand and my iPhone in the other, recording voices of the faces I saw on screen, envisioning what this time must be like for them, disclosing their experiences to a stranger online. This would be vastly different from the summer I had envisioned, an ethnographic research experience at the heart of Seoul—connecting with local people, learning about the history and culture in living, breathing form, and involving myself closely with organizations I would work with. With the breakout of COVID-19 and the transition of all interviews to online, I worried about the emotional distance that would incur with the alienating medium of online socializing and linguistic barrier—I cannot speak Korean. 

Stock photo of people sitting on the subway looking at their phones in Tokyo, JapanMy intuitive fear of emotional disconnect was an ironic contrast to the hypothesis I make in my study, which explores the potential of anonymous online sites serving as “safe space” for feminists in conservative East Asian societies. In my thesis, I compare the tactical repertoires in social networking service usage and anonymity utilized by Japanese and Korean feminist NGOs for mobilization under the #MeToo movement. I argue that for societies such as Japan and Korea, where issues of gender and noticeable antifeminist sentiment persist, feminists would prefer to mobilize anonymously on online platforms to protect their own and others’ identities. Highly visible modes of civic engagement such as participating in protests may not be effective, as individuals may find anonymity more comforting than calls for action. 

To the activist, high visibility can incur high risk. Therefore, online anonymity can be significant for targeted activists to protect their identities, especially under repressive regimes or totalitarian states. The case of physically and digitally anonymous Hong Kong protestors or the usage of the instant messaging app Telegram in Russia and Iran, for example, show how privacy and safety are linked to activism. In Korea and Japan, coming out as feminist can be especially dangerous. Anonymity can thus provide protection and be a crucial resource for feminists in conservative societies.

My fears of emotional disconnect with my own participants turned out to be unfounded. With the support of my kind translator, I have established a remarkable level of emotional intimacy over Zoom. Every time my participants raised their voices in joy, I felt a fuzzy rush of relief. I am realizing however, that my one-hour online interviews may be incomparable to the scale of advocacy strategies needed for activism, which demands solid forms of trust, long-lasting commitment, and effective modes of sharing feelings in safe and secure spaces with multiple people. As I continue to collect and analyze data, I hope to reflect upon my own experience navigating the online space. When I next conduct an interview, I will be aware that as much as this experience is theirs, it is also my own.

Andrew Mammel

Andrew MammelDepartment of History, Harvard College. Research interests: Native American studies; infrastructure and energy; twentieth-century United States; and Japanese language.

Spending long days in the archives, traveling across borders, conducting live interviews: when I first conceptualized my thesis last year, these were the things I thought I’d be doing. When I flew back home to Montana in March, to find out days later that my summer internship in Washington, DC had been cancelled, I realized that my thesis research plans would likewise be upended.

My mom suggested I go work on the family farm for the summer. Realizing that I might not have the chance again, I decided to go. I packed up my bags and drove south to Powell, Wyoming. Although Powell technically occupies a desert, an early twentieth-century irrigation project there dammed the Shoshone River, and through a series of canals and ditches, turned Powell into a green oasis—at least in the summertime anyway.

Andrew Mammel enjoying the view of the mountains on the family farmMy family comprises nearly a third of the town. Whenever there’s a family reunion, it makes the front-page news in the Powell Tribune. My family owns shops and hair salons and construction companies, but at our core we are a farming family. We grow sugar beets, barley, and beans, and occasionally we farm sunflowers, radish seed, and corn.

My job this summer was all about water. As if it were a ritual, every morning we would wake up at 6 a.m., walk down the field and “set” each row. Flanking the field on one side is a concrete ditch, and at each crop row sits one or two metal siphon tubes. To set it, we submersed the tube in the ditch with one hand, covered the hole with the other, and quickly yanked it onto its proper row. It’s mesmerizing to watch the water flow from the ditch, up into the tubes, then cascade down the rows until it reaches the end ditch. For anyone in my family, this process is instinctual. My uncle likes to brag that he can set two at a time with just one hand—even after two months of daily practice, I still can’t claim that feat.

The hot sun and cloudless skies, the ominous snake rattles (we’ve had our fair share of rattlesnake encounters), and the barren landscape didn’t make for easy work, yet my daily physical demands made the cerebral efforts of my thesis research far easier to appreciate. At the heart of my research, like my summer job, is water. It’s also about race.

The farm in Powell, my great-grandparents’ homestead, was once occupied by the Newe tribe (Shoshone). The irrigation project that still feeds our fields is called the Shoshone project. Just as water can make crops flourish and turn a desert green, it can be a weapon of destruction. The use of water and irrigation projects to weaken Indigenous sovereignty was commonplace in the US and Canada throughout the twentieth century, and often still is today. A far less examined history is the resistance to that weapon. Native peoples have long understood the impacts of water projects and have strategically resisted or participated in them. My thesis focuses on the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes’ resistance to hydro-development in northwest Montana and southern British Columbia.

Siphon tubes line the ditch on the family farm

Gone are my days of hard labor. This fall, I’m living with four other friends from Harvard in Red Lodge, Montana. Now I get to enjoy the beautiful mountain views while I Zoom into class. My time on the farm, however, has impressed upon me the importance of water and the beauty of the natural world. It has also left me with a newfound respect for labor, an element that will feature prominently in my research. Perhaps most importantly, as I continue to study the racist and paternalist history of this region, I hope to bring empathy to my research. The inequities wrought by that past are still with us today. I hope my research will highlight the paternalist history of environmental management in both the US and Canada, and showcase the long and impressive struggle Native American and First Nations people have waged for greater self-determination.

Raphaëlle Soffe

Raphaelle SoffeWilliams/Lodge International Government and Public Affairs Fellow; Committee on Degrees in Social Studies, Harvard College. Research interests: The relationship between loss of public services in the UK and the Brexit referendum.

Last fall, a friend asked me why my senior thesis topic motivated me. I replied that Brexit was one of the most serious social and economic crises to face the United Kingdom in over a decade. Clearly, foresight was not my strong suit. 

Six months later and the COVID-19 virus raged across six continents, taking lives and destabilizing livelihoods. Brexit was a blip compared to the carnage of a global pandemic. It was difficult to focus on thesis work as ambulance sirens became routine and concerns for the health of loved ones only grew. Yet, in the midst of it all, I soon found purpose in the data scavenging, occasional meeting with my thesis advisor, and the mountain of literature I had to work my way through. 
My senior thesis project investigates the role that austerity-induced local service cuts under the Cameron Conservative government, particularly in transport and education, played on the United Kingdom Independence Party’s (UKIP) electoral support and on the Brexit vote. Literature already exists that shows welfare austerity as having a direct causal effect on far-right support and I hope to expand this literature by asking whether an effect existed because of anything from state school funding cuts to potholes. 

Raphaelle Soffe gazes at whiteboard drawings of her theory on protest progress

Initially I had intended to spend the summer of 2020 traveling across England, with Lincolnshire and Yorkshire as primary destinations, to interview local residents. I would then use these interviews to generate hypotheses and then run data analyses to see whether I could support them. This mix of qualitative and quantitative analyses soon became primarily the latter as COVID-19-related complications kept me stationed in Cambridge, Massachusetts. 
Based on models I had previously developed under Alberto Alesina, I designed and began to run regressions to test whether local service cuts had any kind of political effect—early results suggest that not only did they have an effect, the effect was statistically significant.  
However, the summer continued to be full of challenges. In a shocking and unexpected turn of events, my prospective thesis advisor Alberto Alesina passed away. His work was just at the cusp of the literature I so deeply sought to expand, and I struggled at first to find someone who could match his expertise on the topic of austerity. I will be forever appreciative of how other professors rallied around me and I quickly found a formal advisor and two informal advisors to support me. Yet what must be noted is that in many ways, Alesina continues to guide me, with his words of wisdom ringing in my head as I write this thesis and continue on the path of exploration. 

Raphaelle Soffe poses on her bike at the Charles River in Boston
Even though Brexit barely mustered a headline during the pandemic peak, the tools and insights I interacted with as I developed an expertise in my thesis topic broadened my understanding of the outside world. From shouting at the television when I heard the mischaracterization of data to observing how Brexit trickled back into the discourse through trade disputes related to COVID-19, I was suddenly equipped with a more quantitative-heavy mindset. However, I believe the most important lesson from this period of tremendous uncertainty is that no matter how complex, no regression can truly predict the challenges the next day will bring. 

Francesco Rolando

Francesco RolandoHartley Rogers Family Research Fellow; Committee on Degrees in Social Studies, Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology, Harvard College. Research interests: Healthcare and migration in Europe; global inequalities and systems of movement; welfare and nation states; and medical anthropology.

Every morning between May and August 2020, I rode an old bicycle past the buildings which crowd Turin’s ample boulevards. I crossed neighborhoods as the early sun tinged the silent architecture of ages past with a golden hue, and then slalomed through marketgoers in Porta Palazzo, the largest open market in Europe and one of the beating hearts of Turin as an intercultural city. Now the main urban center in the Piedmont region, Turin was the first capital of the Kingdom of Italy and later one of the industrial poles during the Italian “economic miracle.” 

Turin’s landscape and social texture have been shaped by internal migration first and international migration in the last few decades. This setting offered a perfect backdrop to investigate my research question: What is the role of healthcare in creating boundaries between citizens and noncitizens?

An empty Piazza Castello after a rainstorm

I grew up in the north of Piedmont, in the Italian Alps visible in the distance. Doing research so close by felt like a homecoming, dampened only by my participants’ incredulity when I tried to explain that my weird accent was just an unintended consequence of my college years. 

I spent most of my time at Camminare Insieme (“Walking Together”), a volunteer organization which offers free medical care to those who encounter barriers when trying to access the Italian national healthcare system. I joined the volunteers and employees trying to restart and reshape Camminare Insieme’s operations after the COVID-19 pandemic forced them to shut their doors. From there, I explored the network of public and private charitable organizations attempting to guarantee the constitutional right to health to the foreigners residing in the city. I struggled alongside my participants in making sense of the juridical and bureaucratic labyrinth that, like a Kafkian entity, seems to separate the noncitizen from what is theirs by right. My research allowed me to observe the role of healthcare in defining the “migrant” as a temporary presence even beyond the narratives of crisis produced at the southern borders of fortress Europe.

Moving beyond the political hyperbole of the “migration crisis” was always one of my goals. And yet, the summer was characterized by yet another crisis in the form of a public health emergency: the COVID-19 pandemic. Because public actors (including the national and regional governments) had to focus on the health of the public, the line between citizens and foreigners was renegotiated through multiple laws, regulations, and projects. This is what I hoped to record and analyze through my ethnography, and what I am now turning into a senior thesis. 


  1. Tokyo, Japan. Credit: Liam Burnett-Blue, Unsplash
  2. Andrew Mammel enjoys mountain views in the Shoshone National Forest. Credit: Daniel Abdulah
  3. Siphon tubes line the ditch on the family’s sugar beet farm in Powell. Credit: Daniel Abdulah
  4. Raphaëlle Soffe develops a theory on protest progress. Credit: Satish Wasti
  5. Raphaëlle Soffe bikes on the Charles River in Cambridge. Credit: Satish Wasti
  6. Piazza Castello after a storm. Used with permission from Francesco Rolando