Oct. 25, 2023
How I found my research: Paloma Rodriguez seeks to study the toughest challenges that underrepresented communities face
Rodriguez, a social work major, believes that “research is an always-evolving process. There will always be new questions and ways to help people.”
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Paloma Rodriguez is a junior majoring in social work at Virginia Commonwealth University. Over the summer, Rodriguez served as a fellow in the VCU GREAT program, which provides undergraduates with funded research training under the guidance of VCU faculty mentors conducting behavioral sciences research. Rodriguez, who grew up in Saltillo Coahuila, Mexico, and Harrisonburg, Virginia, developed the research question, “Does alcohol use and racial discrimination increase depression in Black and Latine females?”
“I chose this question because being on a college campus and experiencing things like racism and aggression, I wanted to be a part of the research to better our campuses and better educate other young women of color,” Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez, who transferred to VCU from Blue Ridge Community College last fall, shared with VCU News her latest research efforts and what she loves about the experience.
Tell us the focus of your research ... and why it is important/impactful for all of us.
Currently, I'm working with STAR Empower Youth Lab in the developmental psychology department. The lab is dedicated to understanding cultural processes and experiences and impacts on psychological, educational and health outcomes/disparities. Working with oppressed families and their children to better develop meaningful, collaborative, community-engaged research that promotes positive family and youth development has always been important to me. My research over the summer with the GREAT program let me expand into a demographic I would like to focus on: Latine and Black young adults and the factors that affect their mental health.
What inspired you to pursue this line of research?
When I transferred to VCU, I knew nothing about research. But in my first semester, I had the amazing opportunity to start working with the STAR Lab. Initially, I was drawn in not only by the purpose of the lab but also by the people I now call my mentors and lab family. Growing up as a poor Latine in a white area with a single mother who worked multiple jobs, I have always wanted to pursue a career where I can help other kids in similar situations and in a rarely fair system. Research has shown me the many stories of different people and encouraged me to find all the ways to better people's lives.
Tell us about a surprise in your research journey.
I think initially I was just genuinely surprised by how much I enjoy research overall. Working with the STAR Lab and starting with formatting a survey from the beginning to IRB (internal review board), recruiting and interviewing, I've felt engaged and excited to keep learning every step of the way.
Tell us about an obstacle or challenge you had to overcome in your work.
One of the major challenges I faced was the passing of my brother during my first semester here at VCU. Balancing grief and work and research dealing with race and discrimination in young children can take a toll on anyone's mental health. Fortunately, I have a strong lab family and others to support me. In working with STAR, one of the main challenges is asking children about their race and ethnicity and how they feel about it and getting a negative response. Some either love their skin color or wish their skin was light or white. So it's often heartbreaking to hear, especially as someone who has struggled with ethnic-racial identity, skin color, and discrimination – it's really hard to keep a brave face for them.
Is there a memorable partnership or lesson you've embraced along the way?
My mentors are Dr. Chelsea Williams, Dr. Arlenis Santana, Dr. Amy Adkins, all with the Department of Psychology, and Dr. Herb Hill with the provost’s office. All have been highly supportive, creating positive environments and being understanding with any questions we may have. They all were extremely helpful when developing my first research project and poster, which my colleagues and I will present at the Florida SEPA conference.
What do you find fulfilling about the research process?
What I find fulfilling is all the possibilities. Research is an always-evolving process. There will always be new questions and ways to help people. I want to be a part of something that creates preventative measures for some of the biggest problems underrepresented communities face.
What advice would you offer undergrads to kick-start their own research journeys?
Take that first step, take that work-study research position, or start your own research question and take the risk to find the answers. As an undergrad, I never thought I’d work in a research lab or have a professional research poster to add to a CV. Advocate for yourself, and be your own supporter, even if things seem like they can only get worse. Ground yourself in the present and do what you can then and now.
“How I found my research” is a new series featuring VCU student-researchers.
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