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Power of Mentorship

Dr. James Garand and LSU Honors alumna Claire Evans on their research & collaboration

If there’s one thing LSU Honors College students agree on, it’s this: the earlier you start working on your Honors Thesis, the better. 

Recent LSU Honors graduate Claire Evans makes a great case for that advice.

Evans graduated summa cum laude with College Honors this past May, receiving a BA in Political Science and a BA in International Studies. Her Honors Thesis, “Voting in Latin America: Understanding Turnout Decisions”, received one of six Outstanding Thesis Awards handed out at this year’s Honors College graduation ceremony.

In her thesis, Evans pioneered an analysis of survey data in order to determine—and overturn assumptions about—voter turnout in Latin American countries. She also presented her research at multiple conferences during her undergraduate career.

Professor James Garand, Evans’ thesis director, recalls her experience when she first presented her research at a conference—the Southern Political Science Association Annual Meeting—in January 2013. 

Garand described how conference participants repeatedly congratulated Evans on her presentation of a coauthored paper and then asked her what year she was in her PhD program. They were dumbfounded, Garand explained, that she was a junior-year undergraduate student. “People remember that,” Garand said.

Evans’ promising academic career began her sophomore year, when she took an HNRS 2000 course—an introductory course designed for first-year Honors students—with Dr. Garand. During the course, Evans approached Dr. Garand to discuss the possibility of her one day pursuing a PhD in Political Science.

“When a student confronts me early on about potentially pursuing graduate work, I’m thinking we have five semesters of preparation to make her as strong a candidate for graduate school as possible and to get her career started,” Garand said.

Dr. Garand immediately set up a three-tiered plan of attack. First, he and Evans considered graduate courses she might be able to take, particularly in the area of research methodology. Thanks to their planning, Evans was able to take four research methodology courses, one of them a graduate level course, during her time at LSU.

Dr. Garand and Evans next established a long-term research agenda that would culminate in the Honors Thesis. They began by brainstorming focus areas and questions that were mutually beneficial the research interests of each. Evans was interested in exploring Latin American politics, and while this was not Dr. Garand’s primary area of study, he had some experience with the topic. 

“[Latin American politics] is not my main area,” Garand said. “However, ironically, my most cited paper is on voter turnout in Latin American countries. Claire was interested in that so we embarked on a research agenda to study why some people turned out to vote in Latin American countries and why some did not.”

Using funding from the LSU College of Humanities and Social Science’s ASPIRE program—an undergraduate research mentorship program—Evans worked with Dr. Garand over the summer and began pursuing her research.

The third part of the plan, according to Dr. Garand, was to get Evans involved in professional activities such as presenting papers at conference, developing a professional network, and even possibly submitting papers for publication.

Evans coauthored two papers with Dr. Garand over her three years of thesis work, both of which she presented at the Southern Political Science Association meetings, one in January 2013 and one in January 2014. After the 2013 conference, Evans received advice on her research, which launched the transformation of her personal project into a strong Honors Thesis.

“We ended up taking recommendations from the conference,” Evans said. “I took the project and basically doubled it. I doubled my survey respondent size, and I went from covering one election year to four election years. So that’s how my thesis morphed into being a three-year project.”

In April 2014, Evans presented her independent research at the Midwest Political Science Meeting in Chicago.

Claire Evans poster
Claire Evans presents her research at LSU's Discover Research Day

This latest conference presentation earned Evans considerable attention from Michelle Dion, a Canadian political scientist who is in charge of organizing a conference titled Visions in Methodology, which is supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation. The conference is designed to mentor women in being strong political methodologists, and is attended by assistant professors with a few graduate students permitted each year. Dion, impressed with Evans’ presentation, invited Evans to participate as the first undergraduate admitted to the conference.

Thus, Evans leaves LSU with an impressive list of accomplishments already under her belt:  an exceptional and awarded Honors Thesis, three conference-presented papers, four graduate research methods courses, and an exclusive invitation to present at a conference in her field. 

Furthermore, Evans will continue her studies this fall at Vanderbilt University, where she has been accepted into their highly competitive Political Science PhD program. She says her end goal is to be a professor.

As for the faculty-student mentorship, Dr. Garand said that they are doing more research to expand the project and have added a third author to the original paper. They hope their findings will ultimately make a big splash in the world of Latin American political science research. “I’m anticipating that I’ll work with Claire for the next several years on projects,” Garand said.

For Evans, the Honors Thesis program opened countless doors for her to explore her potential.

“I think that one of the greatest things the Honors College has to offer is the thesis program,” Evans said. “You feel so accomplished after you’re done with it. You work on it for so long, and it’s great to really build relationships with professors. It makes the college experience more fulfilling.”

 

Story by Jacqueline DeRobertis, LSU Honors College

For more information, contact the Honors College at 225-578-0083.