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This summer I had an invaluable experience as a participant in the Penn Undergraduate Research Mentoring Program. I worked as a research assistant for Dr. Melissa Wilde, a professor of Sociology, on a project titled “Race, Class and Gender in the American Religious Field, circa 1930.” Dr. Wilde has examined why religious groups in America are divided on issues of sex and gender by meticulously reviewing 32 groups’ journals from 1929-33, the period when many groups officially declared their support or disapproval of legalizing contraception.
Dr. Wilde has found that there is a strong connection between beliefs concerning birth control and support or disapproval of eugenics, the social gospel, and race suicide. In general, groups that believed in eugenics and race suicide (the idea that the White Anglo-Saxon-Protestant population was in danger of being out-populated by Eastern European immigrants, especially Catholics and Jews) were supportive of legalizing birth control, as this would help stop what they viewed as the rampant overpopulating of the lower classes. Groups that believed in the social gospel (the need for the Church to be involved in social reform) generally supported contraception, as these groups believed contraception was a form of social reform.
Each of the 32 religious groups were coded according to their support level of contraception and the other key words, such as eugenics, race suicide, social gospel, evolution, and women’s suffrage. My primary assignment this summer was to double check the accuracy of each code. As part of this assignment, I created a methodological appendix, writing a footnote explaining each code. I also aided in Dr. Wilde’s preparations for the American Sociological Association’s annual conference and helped with many other miscellaneous tasks.
Through my participation in PURM, I was exposed to the incredible complex nature of research. This was my first real experience with research and I was surprised to discover the enormous number of people, documents, resources, and hours that contribute to one published article or book. Though the finished product is neat and organized, the actual research process involves many intricacies, errors, and roadblocks that need to be dealt with. I found this project to be incredibly rewarding and interesting, but it was also frustrating at times when, for example, I needed to triple check, revise, or entirely re-do sections of the project. I learned that these frustrations are part of the process, and in general, the rewards involved in research far outweigh these frustrations.
I greatly enjoyed my summer participating in PURM. I received a tremendous amount of daily support and instruction from my mentor, which I greatly appreciated. I have expanded my research skills and believe this experience has given me great preparation for my future endeavors in research, both at the undergraduate and graduate level.