Not everyone has been to Waban House or Cheever House, two large, stately houses located a few minutes off campus. Those who have, however, have gotten a glimpse of some groundbreaking research. These houses are home to the Wellesley Centers for Women (WCW), a single organization formed with the merging of Wellesley’s Center for Research on Women and Stone Center for Developmental Studies in 1994. WCW scholars pursue projects related to all aspects of social sciences, but focus on issues relating to girls, women and family communities.
“Our work covers many issues that impact or inform girls, women’s and families’ lives,” said Donna Tambascio, deputy director for communications at WCW. “Education and childcare, economic security, mental health, gender-based violence and youth and adolescent development, for example. Plus we have some action programs. We have a varied amount of work that grows out of the lives of women and girls and families and communities.”
WCW employs between 35 and 50 Wellesley College students each semester. Many of these students work under other researchers in data collection and data science, while others have jobs that fall under the umbrellas of administration or communications. Five of these students do research as part of a student-focused grant, the Class of 1967 Internship Program.
“Over the course of the internship, each student is gaining hands-on social science research experience under the supervision and mentorship of a WCW research scientist,” said Tambascio. “The named internships, which were established by generous gifts from Wellesley College alumnae and friends of the Centers, are awarded each spring to Wellesley College students who seek to make a difference in the world through research and action.”
While the work done at WCW is focused on social sciences, not all student interns or student research assistants are sociology or psychology majors. Indeed, the interdisciplinary makeup of the research assistants was noted by multiple members of staff.
“We’ve had students who have been neuroscience majors or econ majors. Across disciplines, actually,” said Tambascio. “We’ve had students who’ve gone on to start their own NGOs, they’ve gone into research, they’ve gone into law school.”
“[Students] have different strengths. Somebody might be a writer, a person who loves to write, and somebody might love the data and the number-crunching. I like that diversity,” said Dr. Linda Charmaraman, a senior researcher at WCW. “Having students from different disciplines is always nice.”
WCW generally has many projects going on at any given time. Charmaraman’s project is a study on the ways in which cell phone use, social media use and gaming affect the lives of middle schoolers. The study is unique because most studies like this have focused on high school students and young adults, not middle schoolers.
“We’re trying…to look and see what happens when people start using social media, and that seems to be around the late elementary [and] early middle school stage,” Charmaraman said. “What are the effects of that happening?”
Charmaraman’s project involves surveying students in local middle schools and explores various aspects of the relationships between middle school students and social media and gaming, including technology’s impact on their relationship with their parents, their relationship with healthy eating and more. The study also hopes to get a general sense of which online activities middle-schoolers participate in most frequently, such as comparing the amount of time they spend texting to the amount of time they spend on apps like Instagram. The study is in its first of three years.
She noted that one of the most difficult parts of her study involves working with parents who feel their children have been exposed to difficult topics. But she embraces that discomfort, saying it can be a bridge to having important, difficult conversations.
“A lot of parents are not ready to have their kids exposed to some questions that they’ve never heard of before, or they’ve never considered before,” she said. “A lot of them…will say, ‘Why did you ask my kid about sexual orientation? They don’t need to be asked about that, they don’t need to be thinking about that.’ Or, especially with white parents, ‘Why did you ask my kid about race? Why do they need to be asked? Now they have all these questions.’ And in a way, I’m really glad they’re talking about it at home. That’s the whole point; home is where you’re supposed to learn these things.”
Charmaraman added that she does adjust questions by grade based on parent feedback, saving questions about things like sex and sexuality for older students.
Stephanie Cobas ’21, an intern who is part of the Class of 1967 Internship Program, discussed her path to becoming an intern working with Dr. Charmaraman.
“I signed up because there were a lot of events happening on campus, like a lot of flyers, a lot of emails, and I thought, might as well try,” she said. “I saw a lot of good projects, and I really liked Dr. Linda’s.”
Cobas transcribes and conducts interviews with middle school students for the project. Interviewing middle schoolers can be difficult, though. According to Cobas, they have a tendency to be “quiet” and freeze up during interviews.
She notes being surprised by how much seemingly unrelated factors — whether a subject had a dog, for example, or an older sibling — could affect the results of her interviews.
“That just changes their entire interaction with [social media and technology],” she said. “It’s interesting and surprising to see how one thing affects everything.”
Overall, WCW and Wellesley seem to have a functioning symbiotic relationship. Wellesley students help with the center’s important research, and in turn, enjoy the benefits of being part of a research team and doing data analysis.
“It’s really helped me figure out that I like research,” said Cobas. “It’s fun talking to people in real life, figuring out the right kinds of questions, and wrapping up the data.”