Blog interview over a hot lunch on a chilly morning

Brandon: Thanks for being interviewed today, Ailing. For today, we’re focusing on things that you do outside of courses that complement your interest. Can you tell me a little bit about what you’re doing outside of the IEDP at Penn?

Ailing: I am doing a research assistantship job. I do research on children’s social and emotional abilities in China. I observe some behavioral videos of children and find out children’s different reactions to each other. Then, we code their behaviors and find out the reliability of different coders. Besides that, I just hang out with friends, or sometimes I will give suggestions to the program where I previously worked.

Brandon: How did you get involved in the research that you’re doing?

Ailing: I wanted to be involved because I’m interested in the professor’s field. I used to promote children’s social emotional learning in China through several programs. We tried to do evaluations, but at the time, I found this very hard. I contacted this professor who’s doing research on social and emotional abilities of children. He focuses on elementary-school children. Since I also want to focus in this area, it was a match. When I connected with him, he mentioned that he has a lot of positions for students, so I joined the research team.

Brandon: How did you feel reaching out to this professor? I feel like a lot of us have this interest whenever we come into the IEDP; we think, “I want to do research.” But then maybe you don’t know some of these professors, and so you’re nervous to reach out. How did you feel reaching out to the professor, and how did you go about initiating contact?

Ailing: First, I browsed the GSE website to look at the professors. Sometimes you will catch main research points from the professors’ profiles. Then I asked a current student who’s in her second year, and she gave me some suggestions. I felt that the professor’s interests in the field match mine. So I just used these two kinds of methods. Also I’m taking the professor’s course to get to know him better and confirm that his research aligns with my interest.

Brandon: Did you reach out to the professor before you started the course, or did you start the course and then reached out to him?

Ailing: I started the course and then reached out to him because, through the course, I wanted to make an impression on him. Then he gets to know me, and we can make a connection. I also sent him my resumé to let him get to know me better.

Brandon: Could you say a little bit about the course? Who is the professor, what is the course, what you’re learning in the course, and how the research is different from what you’re learning in the course or how it adds a different dimension to the topic?

Ailing: I think this is a very interesting question because I just found the connection between my research and my course, actually. The course is Cultural Perspectives on Human Development with Dr. Xinyin Chen. In the course, we learn about the different areas of children’s development and their relationship with culture. For example, we look at how children’s aggression behaviors are different in different cultures. Just like in China, children show more internal aggression, and in America, children show more external regression. How they express that aggression leads to their behaviors. Then, the professor will introduce a lot of studies. If you are interested in that, you can just look at the passages afterwards. Sometimes, the course is just like an introduction and you get to know the topic, and then you further your understanding by yourself after class.

an external hard drive Ailing uses in her lab to analyze and code data

Ailing: Through the assignments, I learn about the field better because I am required to focus on one aspect of children’s development and dig into that aspect. For example, for the midterm paper we had to analyze research in children’s development. For this, I chose a passage focusing on behavior research. This is what just connected with my research assistantship outside of the class. If I had not done my research in the lab, I would not have understood as deeply how behavior research is conducted, how different people code different behavior, and how they analyze them with a given context. Through the research experiments, I get to know how to analyze different research better. I try to think about how if I develop those research skills, I can get over certain weaknesses in my skillset.

Brandon: It seems really interesting, especially as you said, “Oh, I just made this connection,” too; good timing for the question.

Ailing: When I wrote the essay, I just went “Ah! Here are some connections,” and I can build up my thinking better.

Brandon: What is something that you think you will be able to take from this research experience that you’re not really getting from courses or the experiences that you’re having structurally from the IEDP?

Ailing: The first one is on-the-ground research experience. Because sometimes, if you just want to do your own research, you may not know where to start. But now, actually, I’ve gotten to know the beginning of the process, such as how we observe children and how we analyze data. It will help me in the future if I want to do my own research. Secondly, I get to learn more about children’s development. When we talk about, for example, how children will show different reactions to each other, it’s just like a concept in your brain. But if you observe them in a real-life situation, you will find that, yes, children will often behave in this way. So, I get to learn these concepts better. And thirdly, I get to understand elementary-school students better. Previously, I thought I was more interested in adolescents, maybe high-school students. But now I find this younger children also very interesting, and I will explore this area more.

Brandon: You’re gaining these research skills, you’re learning more about child development in a more nuanced way, and then you’re also shifting your age of focus. Do you feel that this research experience has shifted or shaped your interest in development in any different way?

Ailing: Yes, I think development is just my destination, and there are lots of ways to achieve that. I do not refuse any possibilities such as non-profit organizations, international organizations, companies, the private sector, that kind of thing. I think development can be achieved in a lot of ways. As for me, I think this research experience has suggested that maybe I can do some research in my future job. In the past, I thought I would not do research to understand more about development. I thought I was more talented in design, in products, or in program management; now, I find that researching is also interesting and I can handle it. So, that’s very important. I found my own way to achieve development.

Brandon: That’s great. Do you have any advice for prospective students, or even current students in the IEDP, who are thinking about doing stuff outside of courses? Maybe speak from your own experience now that you’ve done this for a semester.

Ailing: I think, for development work, we should be open to different possibilities. Previously I thought, “Okay, I will focus on adolescent development through working with non-profits.” There are lots of interesting issues that you may not be familiar with, such as research or something else. You can just try it and find out whether you are interested in it. If you’re not interested, then it’s okay because you can just find other possibilities. I think it takes time. Sometimes it is a painstaking process because we are more confused than others in how we want to learn about development, but I think it’s worthwhile. This happened with one of my friends who is doing development work now in China. Previously she did nothing, and she couldn’t do this kind of thing. So, she just got an internship in this field. Her colleagues appreciated her work, and she felt very satisfied. Then, she found a position in this field, and now she’s very happy. So, I think just accept the possibilities.