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Wednesday, October 20, 2021

UC Davis Institute for Social Science holds inaugural conference series

Guest lecturers, faculty discuss relevance of social science research

The UC Davis Institute for Social Science inaugural conference series will host its final event this Friday on “Social Networks in Decision Making.”

The conference will include talks from guest lecturers and faculty in a wide range of departments, including philosophy, psychology, anthropology, veterinary medicine, economics, business, computer science and sociology.

Joe Dumit is the first director of the ISS, which officially launched in October 2014.

“My job is to help imagine how we can foster interdisciplinary research among faculty; support intellectual exchanges through lectures, conferences, and workshops; support graduate student research and enhance undergraduate education,” Dumit said in an email interview.

One of the ISS’s biggest projects is the three-day conference series showcasing the broad scope of social science research. This year’s event took place on three consecutive Fridays and will conclude this week.

“[There are] so many ways in which social sciences on a day-to-day basis really speaks to who we are as people and society,” said ISS Assistant Director Victoria Austin. “People in the general public or even people in the university don’t think about how important that is….We wanted to have a conference that would…talk about the social sciences in the broadest way possible, to…give a wide audience a perspective on what’s happening in social sciences research.”

With this in mind, the ISS executive committee put together the conference series and found lecturers in a wide range of departments to talk about research under major themes. UC Davis political science Professor Bradford Jones played a major role in putting together the second conference of the series.

“The overall theme has to do with the issue of big data and technological change as it comes to analysis, and so our overriding principle was to try to bring together people from multiple disciplines to give presentations about statistical models of networks or big data, which would include Facebook data, Twitter feed data, things like that,” Jones said. “On the panel that I put together, we have people from nutrition sciences, communication, political science, from history, from philosophy, from statistics –- and so the principle of ISS is to try to build a multidisciplinary community from otherwise atomized departments.”

The UC Davis ISS was first established in an effort to increase interdisciplinary research on-campus.

“Faculty tend to be in their own departments and focus mostly on their research in their own departments, but there’s a trend in social sciences, and even with research across campus, of being more interdisciplinary,” Austin said.

Austin commented that similar institutes exist at other universities and interdisciplinary research is necessary to stay competitive.

“The big research grants are tending to be for projects that have an interdisciplinary bent,” Austin said. “A lot of times the big government agencies or the other big funders who are supporting research want to see an interdisciplinary approach to problems, with the understanding that a bunch of different people coming together with their different areas of expertise can maybe solve a big problem in a way that any single person can’t.”

From a social science perspective, where there might be considerable overlap between research interests, an interdisciplinary approach makes sense. One of the major goals of the ISS is to create opportunities for sharing knowledge.

“One benefit is you might learn something new,” Jones said. “Secondly, you may meet individuals in other departments, who are working on research questions that are similar to what you’re working on but are thinking about them in a different way, maybe applying different methodologies to study them, that without this institute I would probably never have even encountered.”

The ISS supports faculty and graduate student research and has given out thousands of dollars in grants and event co-sponsorship. Starting this fall, the institute plans to offer proseminars for graduate students with a focus on methods of approaching social science. Future plans could include a greater focus on reaching out to undergraduates.

“One of the missions of ISS is to not only facilitate community among faculty, but also among graduate students and undergraduates as well,” Jones said. “We’re still in our infancy, so we don’t really know exactly what we’re going to be, but we do know that bringing together students from other disciplines is one of the hallmark goals of it.”

Increasing access to undergraduate research opportunities is one of the ways in which the ISS plans to foster a multidisciplinary community among undergraduates, with the goal of encouraging students to go to graduate school.

“For undergraduates we have helped support the ASPIRE program to offer hands-on lab experience and mentoring in cutting-edge research environments, something we are planning on expanding in coming years,” Dumit said, in an email interview. “We are also in the beginning stages of launching a ‘Data Studies’ program to help Liberal Arts majors take their critical skills and apply it to the world of data, learning how to question, analyze and present data research for use in business and administrative environments.”

Austin pointed out that with the wide range of disciplines available for study at UC Davis, it is possible for undergraduate students to create their own interdisciplinary experience.

“I think that one of the great things about being an undergraduate at UC Davis is…how amazingly interdisciplinary it [already] is,” Austin said. “There are 100 majors on campus and you could, if you wanted to, major in human ecology and English, or you can do design and statistics. So I feel like the university is already well set up for undergraduates to do an interdisciplinary curriculum if they want to.”

The conference series has attracted faculty, students and members of the community. Jones said there were many undergraduate students in attendance at the first conference and that the lecturers did a good job of making their talks accessible and emphasizing the relevance of their research.

The ISS holds monthly noontime lectures which everyone is welcome to attend. For more information, visit socialscience.ucdavis.edu.

Graphic by Jennifer Wu.

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