History is happening today

Online undergradate research program expands into humanities

October 4, 2022

When The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, with support from EdPlus, launched the Online Undergraduate Research Scholars (OURS) program in 2021, it began with a focus on the natural sciences.

However, Ara Austin, director of online engagement and strategic initiatives designed the pilot program to soon expand into the social sciences and humanities divisions. Students seated in a library at tables on which large containers are sprawled. Next to them are shelves of neatly stacked archival materials. The students are sorting through papers from the containers. Online history students visited the Tempe campus for an experience hosted by the OURS program, an undergraduate research opportunity that differentiates ASU from other institutions. Photo by Erica May Download Full Image

This summer, the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies embraced that invitation to expand and hosted the first OURS program in the humanities.  

“We invited online students to come to campus the first week of school,” said Peter Van Cleave, a clinical assistant professor of history and the director of online programs in the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies. “We're taking them into the archives, which is for historians, our lab. That is where we go for research. That is where we go for evidence.” 

ASU Online history students from across the United States arrived at the Tempe campus for an in-person, one-of-a-kind research experience that complements a required class assignment for History 495, methods of historical inquiry. 

The hybrid experience allowed students to spend a week of their research seminar inside the archives at the Arizona Historical Society and Hayden Library, where the faculty, archivists and historians taught them how to source information from what was left behind in diaries, photos, bills of sale, letters and more.  

“All of these things we use to triangulate, to get at what life was like in these past historical moments,” said Matthew Casey-Pariseault, a clinical assistant professor and the associate director of program innovations and strategic initiatives at the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies.

“They get to look through the collections as they've been preserved from the historical record. They get to see them in their context and learn from the archivists and the collectors who've brought these collections to us. Then they can recreate that history by writing a research paper about it.”  

The OURS program is a unique and valuable experience that sets ASU apart from all other online institutions in the country, Van Cleave says. While it may not be feasible for all online students to participate in an in-person or hybrid OURS program, due to a majority of the online students being working adults, having families or simply living outside of Arizona, it’s crucial that the opportunity is still presented.  

“As much as things have been digitized, I think one of the things these students are taking away from this experience is there's so much history that is out there that has to be found in person, in the archives,” Van Cleave said.  

Since the students have all done historical work before, this opportunity is more about having an experience, says Casey-Pariseult.

“Having that dusty smell, and seeing the notes that someone wrote in the margin ... Touching someone's physical belongings from 100, 200 years ago — that experience is something you can't recreate with a digitized primary source,” he said.

Preparing learners for future opportunities

Out of the six students who participated, a majority were from out of state and working adults with families. But all of them made sacrifices to be there. So why did they all say yes? Because they all wanted something more. 

Whether it was a hands-on experience, the camaraderie of meeting classmates and professors face to face or the feeling of stepping onto campus as a Sun Devil. 

Rachel Welshans, from Tucson, Arizona, had never conducted hands-on research before.

“I got the email laying out the opportunity, ‘Hey, we're doing this in-person study thing. Would you like to come out and do it?’ and I jumped at it right away,” she said. “It seemed like an opportunity that was too good to pass up, to actually be able to be in archives, meet archivists, do real historical research like historians are supposed to do.”

Classmate Laura Caster, from South Carolina, felt similarly.

“It was an easy decision for me. I really wanted an opportunity to be able to engage in this kind of research. My long-term goal is to eventually go to graduate school, and I would love to get a PhD, so I really need this kind of experience,” she said. “While being an online student is a great way for me to go to school, this aspect of scholarship definitely was missing for me. So this opportunity has kind of closed the gap.” 

However, for history student Sally Velez, it was a split decision. Her family had just moved to Virginia two months prior, and her children were set to start new schools around the week of the OURS experience. She recalled talking with her husband and saying she wished she could do it, but their lives were so busy. He encouraged her to sign up anyway.

"We’re going to figure it out," he told her.  

“It really fell together for me,” she said. “Not everyone with a family has the ability to do this. Some don't have family willing to fly cross country to come take care of kids. But if they do have that village, it doesn't hurt to ask.”  

Alfe Ramirez just started at ASU as a history major. She said that at other institutions, “it kind of feels like online students are more of an afterthought and we're not really a part of the whole student body.” But at ASU, it’s different.  

“It made me feel valued as an online student,” Ramirez said. “I felt really seen, and I'm really excited to be at ASU.”  

Directors of the experience, Van Cleave and Casey-Pariseault, were with the students at every turn. They spent time together on the Valley Metro Rail, visiting the Heard Museum, eating meals together and, of course, in the archives.  

“We always feel close to our students, even in an online space, but it's that extra interpersonal interaction this week that has made it really special so far,” Casey-Pariseault said.  

Preserving history

Jennifer Merry, archivist and historian at The Arizona Historical Society, says she would welcome more visitors into the archive to research Arizona.

“It's such an understudied topic, and I love talking to students that are interested in history because students are just kind of wide-eyed and want to know more.”  

Each student picked their own topic and worked with the archivists to locate primary source materials. 

“The class itself is researching Arizona history. I am trying to specifically look into the history of botany and some of the plants in Arizona. I am really enjoying it. I've already learned so much,” said Alisha Downs from Kansas.

Helen Le, from Nevada, chose to study the Grand Canyon and how its development has impacted the state.

“It's really cool because you get to actually experience really old papers,” Le said. “It’s a different perspective of how old history really is. When you're looking at it, you're like, ‘Oh my God, this paper is so fragile. I don't want to break it.'"

History is fragile. 

“We do have to be very careful with these materials. Some of this paper is a hundred or more years old; paper does become fragile,” Merry said.  

“I think it teaches you to respect the material, and it also has taught us that not everything can be digitized for preservation purposes. So I think I have found a lot of benefit from it. I think my classmates have too,” Downs said. 

While some believe that the future of archives is all digital, the Arizona Historical Society would disagree. Digital assets in some ways have less longevity than properly storing papers. Technology changes rapidly while paper, properly stored, can last more than a lifetime. 

“To be able to have the opportunity to hold real history in my hand and to read letters, personal letters from back in the middle 1800s to the early 1900s, it just felt very profound. I feel extremely grateful to be a part of it,” Rameriez said.

Meghan Finnerty

Multimedia Developer, The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences

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Geography mostly shapes human genetic variation

October 4, 2022

ASU researchers travel to Kenya to better understand how geography, cultural factors impact human genetic variation

Genes, particular sequences of DNA, determine most of the characteristics that identify species worldwide. In humans, knowing why people differ from person to person has been a main question that scientists have asked. Investigating genetic variation within populations allows us to understand human evolution, migration patterns and even disease prevention and treatment. 

Recently, a team of interdisciplinary researchers from Arizona State University investigated patterns of genetic variation in northern Kenya.

Associate Professor Melissa Wilson, Regents Professor Anne Stone, and former PhD student Angela Travella Oill and undergraduate student Emma Howell from the School of Life Sciences, joined Associate Professor Sarah Mathew and Carla Handley, a visiting scholar from the School of Human Evolution and Social Change. 

The study was a multi-year collaborative effort briefly interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the delay turned into an opportunity to expand on the communication channels already established over the course of the study to engage in additional outreach campaigns to raise awareness about COVID-19 among communities in the study area. 

Their journey began in 2016. Mathew and Handley collected saliva samples and demographic information from 572 individuals in four neighboring regions: Tukana, Samburu, Wsa Borana and Rendile. 

DNA was extracted from the saliva samples and after all data was gathered, Wilson and Stone supervised the sequencing, genotyping and analysis of the DNA samples, performed by recent graduate Oill, the first author of the study.

For the researchers, it was important to spread the word about the goals and methods of the study and share the results with the Kenyan community. The team worked with Jacob Sahertian, director of academic media for the ASU School of Life Sciences VisLab, to create graphics for an information campaign. 

“I did additional research on the region through documentaries and studies to gather ideas for how best to communicate the information they requested,” Sahertian said. 

He drew inspiration from photos from the region provided by the research team as well as additional sources, mirroring local signage and clothing styles to lend a personal touch to the campaign. 

Then, in 2018, after data collection and analysis, Oill had the opportunity to travel to Kenya to share preliminary findings using the newly created visuals.

“People were glad we came and talked with them about the project. They thought the preliminary results were interesting," she said.

“Some people said that they now have a better understanding of why we collected spit from them. People also expressed their excitement about wanting to know what else we find from their DNA."

The results of the study, published earlier this year in the American Journal of Biological Anthropology, suggest that geographic distance, not culture, mainly shapes genetic variation within and among human groups in Northern Kenya. Because most people marry those who live nearby and don’t go far when they relocate, genes stay local, and thus genetic variation mostly depends on geographic location.

“The ethnolinguistic groups that have more intermarriage between them also have shown evidence of more genetic relatedness between them,” Wilson said. 

Overall, the results highlight the importance of geography, even on a local scale, in shaping observed patterns of genetic variation in human populations. 

“The history of people as told by genes is not the same as the history told by culture,” Mathew said. “This to me is one of the most interesting implications of these findings. The different stories these two pathways of transmission tell about humans hold the key to understanding the unique evolutionary trajectory of our species.”

When research activities were interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, it was an opportunity for the investigators to leverage their ongoing relationships with the communities and help with the local COVID-19 response. They focused on creating and distributing educational campaigns in collaboration with the VisLab and with local research assistants in Kenya. Sahertian created visuals describing COVID-19 transmission and prevention strategies, but in a unique way catered for the Kenyan communities:

“We wanted to represent elements of their culture and day-to-day life. … (For example), people don’t carry rulers everywhere; they are herders, so we used a cow to represent distance. That is an easy visual representation,” Sahertian said.

The resulting graphics were printed on cloth, making them easier to fold, roll and travel from place to place with greater durability. 

In addition to the visuals, and in order to reinforce this message, audio recordings in the local languages were spread via WhatsApp. Moreover, researchers worked with local women to make and distribute around 1,000 masks.

Altogether, the work done in northern Kenya is essential in understanding key aspects of genetic variation. Sharing research findings with study communities through outreach campaigns, not only on aspects of genetic research but also in regards to improving their health, is essential as we keep navigating the negative effects of COVID-19. 

Now the team is undertaking a follow-up study to evaluate attitudes toward participating in genetics research and examine how dissemination changes these attitudes. They hope this new study will help develop community-informed best practices for genetics research in rural, non-literate populations.

Wilson is affiliated with the School of Life Sciences and Biodesign Center for Mechanisms of Evolution. Mathew and Stone are affiliated with the School of Human Evolution and Social Change and the Institute of Human Origins. All contributors are affiliated with the Center for Evolution and Medicine.

Top photo courtesy Sara Mathew

Anaissa Ruiz-Tejada

Graduate Science Writer , School of Life Sciences