From April 21-23, 2022, hundreds of academic social scientists gathered in San Antonio, Texas for the centennial conference of the Southwestern Social Science Association (SSSA). Five Randolph-Macon College students were among the presenters: Grace Bakeman ’24, Jami Reese Darling ’22, Grace Holderman ’23, Matthew Montgomery ’22, and Mackenzie Phillips ’23 each presented research that they completed during summer 2022 as part of the Schapiro Undergraduate Research Fellowships (SURF) Program. The students were accompanied by two faculty members, Dr. Lauren Bell (political science) and Dr. James Doering (music), who presented a collaborative paper on music at the U.S. Supreme Court at the conference.
SURF Research, but Make It National
Darling, who had never attended an academic conference, found a supportive environment. “It was so awesome to see the close network within the academic world. The way that everyone cares about and wants to contribute to the work of their colleagues is phenomenal,” she said.
Bell, who has been mentoring SURF students since she arrived at the College in 1999, often encourages her students to submit to the SSSA’s annual meeting for exactly that reason. “The Southwest meeting is a small, supportive gathering of scholars each year. They welcome undergraduates and treat them well, which makes it an ideal first conference for students,” said Bell, who added that the SSSA’s 1996 meeting was the first conference at which she presented her own work as a graduate student.
The conference brings together several discipline-specific groups under one umbrella and offers opportunities for interdisciplinary work to be presented. For example, Bakeman, a music and business double-major from Mechanicsville, Virginia, presented her research into concert culture during the 1918 and 2020 pandemics on an interdisciplinary panel.
The other four students presented their work on political science panels. Darling, a political science and psychology double-major from Laurens, South Carolina, shared her study of the impact of demographic traits of federal prosecutors on the likelihood that defendants were sentenced to death. Holderman, a biology and political science double-major from Roanoke, Virginia, explored poll accuracy in the 2016 and 2020 U.S. presidential elections; the discussant for her panel was a leading expert on polling and presidential elections. Montgomery, a political science and communication studies double-major from Centreville, Virginia, presented his paper “Nature or Nurture: A Qualitative and Quantitative Examination of Partisan Behavior in the Virginia General Assembly.” Phillips, a double-major in environmental studies and political science, reported on the results of an experiment aimed at determining whether brief interventions can change people’s minds about the importance of climate change.
“No one could believe that these were undergraduate students,” Bell reports. “Their work fit seamlessly into panels featuring graduate students and senior faculty members from across the country. The students represented themselves and Randolph-Macon extraordinarily well, and RMC was praised by several scholars throughout the course of the conference for the work we are doing to prepare our students.”
For Montgomery, presenting at the conference was an opportunity not only to share his own research, but to learn more about the questions that scholars in political science are working on. “I feel very fortunate for the opportunity to present the findings of my SURF project together with such renowned scholars. I will be forever grateful for this experience,” he said.
Phillips agrees: “I feel so lucky that I was able to complete my own original research as an undergraduate at RMC. It allowed me to go to a phenomenal city that I had never been to and present my research at a professional conference alongside PhDs.”