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Unexpected Results

April 30, 2013

Grace Levin

By Sharon Pound

Each year, thousands of bright and talented students arrive at UT with immeasurable promise, but they are sometimes a little unclear about where to devote their creative energy. For many upperclassmen, an undergraduate research experience helps them discover and define their passion. Grace Levin is a shining example.

As an “undecided” freshman, Levin took a class taught by Micheline van Riemsdijk, assistant professor of geography. Impressed by Levin’s performance, van Riemsdijk persuaded her to sign up for an undergraduate research experience the next semester, even though she would “only” be a sophomore.

Levin’s first foray into the realm of research involved conducting literature searches and fact-finding about the recruitment practices of human resource managers in the information technology industry in Bangalore, India.

Concurrently, she developed her own independent project using many of the same research methods to write a paper on microfinance.

“I didn’t start college intending to conduct research in the geography department,” Levin said. “But working on a major project revealed many facets that appealed to my interests.”

Grace Levin presents her project at EURēCA in 2012.

Grace Levin presents her project at EURēCA in 2012.

Levin’s first paper, “Critique of Microcredit as a Development Model,” was published in the University of Tennessee’s Pursuit Undergraduate Research Journal, and won a division award at UT’s Exhibition of Undergraduate Research and Creative Achievement (EURēCA) in 2012. The paper detailed her investigation of the 2010 microfinance crisis in Andhra Pradesh, India, during which a large number of Indian farmers committed suicide. The crisis was attributed to pressure by lending institutions to repay exploitive loans.

“This work showed me that we are connected in ways not previously understood,” said Levin, referring to a common sentiment in the United States that we live in a bubble, seemingly untouched by the impact of unstable loaning practices in developing countries.

Levin is now a junior Honors student double-majoring in global studies and sustainability with minors in geography and French. Her most recent project involved a month-long trip to Oslo, Norway, supporting van Riemsdijk’s investigation into stakeholder involvement in skilled migration policymaking.

Initially, the project focused on the recruitment and retention of international skilled workers in the information technology industry.

While in Oslo, they set up shop at the Institute for Labor and Social Research and gathered empirical data by speaking with officials and executives familiar with the issue of skilled migration. As the project progressed, Levin assisted by developing probing interview questions and conducting interviews. She also was responsible for contacting and arranging interviews with human resources managers in Kongsberg, a city located fifty-four miles southwest of Oslo.

“Throughout this project, I kept getting affirmations that I could do this,” Levin said.

Living with a group of Norwegian students and observing a culturally different work environment greatly enhanced Levin’s research experience, which was made possible by UT’s Undergraduate Research Summer Internship program and the Ready for the World Initiative.

Faculty mentor Micheline van Riemsdijk.

Faculty mentor Micheline van Riemsdijk.

After returning home and analyzing the data, it became clear that the information technology industry in Norway is not as internationally diverse as van Riemsdijk and her team expected. Consequently, the study is being expanded to include the oil and gas industry. The analysis indicated that independent consultants play a key role by establishing connections between local actors and international companies. They also discovered that immigration organizations provide valuable cultural capital to newcomers by organizing events that teach about local and national culture.

For her involvement, Levin said the project has given her confidence, sharpened her communications skills, and helped shape career plans that have shifted from “undecided” to a near-certain focus on sustainability.

An active, service-oriented individual, Levin has discovered her personal concern lies with the apathy of society toward making smart decisions that could sustain our planet and quality of life.

“I want to help people live better lifestyles without telling them what to do,” she said. “A sustainable planet is an investment, a worthy goal.”

As she winds up her junior year, Levin is contemplating her next steps. Although she can’t pinpoint exactly what her future holds, she has definitely been bitten by the research bug.

“I don’t think I could simply work with theory,” Levin said. “If I go to graduate school, the opportunity to be involved in research will be a deciding factor.”