We are honored to have EWU McNair Alumna Dr. Laura Zamudio-Orozco, PhD, Assistant Professor of Mathematics and McNair Program Coordinator at Heritage University, joining us for our "Social Justice in Research" Plenary Session on June 2, at 9 am (register for free here). Dr. Zamudio-Orozco will join 3 other EWU McNair alumni in this panel preceding the EWU Online Symposium, a collaboration between McNair and CSTEM. She earned her PhD in Mathematics Education from Florida International University in the fall of 2019 and worked as an student advisor for EWU McNair in Winter and Spring 2020. Below is an interview with Dr. Zamudio-Orozco about what she's doing now and some of her thoughts on social justice and research.
Our Interview with Dr. Laura Zamudio-Orozco:
What does “Social Justice in Research” mean to you?
For me, social justice in research means that I can bring my experiences as a first-generation Latina and those of my community to investigate unjust issues we have faced and continue to face in education. For so long, I questioned the tracking of students in K-12 education and why so many of my friends were placed in different tracks, which led them to believe they could not succeed in certain classes and often limited their choices after high school. I also questioned why so many students felt disconnected from certain disciplines, especially mathematics, and how that disconnect was part of the teaching and learning practices employed by teachers. My research now is centered on bringing answers to these questions by creating and adopting new pedagogy in the field of mathematics; a pedagogy that attends to student access, achievement, identity, and issues of power that are necessary to empower students to use mathematics as a tool to investigate, understand, and respond to social justice issues in our communities.
What do you see as the purpose of academic research in this current moment?
This is a hard question because I think back to my understanding of academic research before graduate school, and it was difficult for me to connect theory to my lived experiences. With that being said, in this current moment, I see research as a tool to work with our multiple communities to highlight social injustices and issues that we are facing and also to highlight the strength and knowledge in our communities. This can take many forms; I think back to a recent conversation with a Heritage University McNair Scholar as we questioned the chemical makeup of pesticides invading our communities and how it affects the lives of farmworkers who spend innumerable hours working in the orchards. Now the question becomes, how do we take action as academic researchers to share this information with our communities and to work together to bring solutions to such problems? First, we must do our part to be in proximity to our communities to inform the research questions we ask, the methodologies we utilize, how we analyze data, and most importantly (I think) how we communicate the results to our communities as a means of developing solutions together.
How did your undergraduate research experience prepare you for the next steps you have taken?
Sometimes I sit in disbelief when I reflect on my graduate school experience and see my diploma because I did not fully understand what graduate school was until I became a McNair Scholar at the end of my sophomore year. I remember sitting in the car with one of my closest friends, Jereny, and talking about wanting to implement pedagogy that reflected students’ lived experiences in the field of mathematics because I was not seeing it my classes at the time. She asked, “Have you ever considered doing a small research study on this pedagogy you talk about and going to graduate school?” The next day I was in a meeting with Dr. Christina Torres García, McNair Director at EWU, and I walked out ready to apply to the McNair Scholars Program. The following summer, I led my own research with the support of mathematics faculty and my McNair family. Working with students at the Martin Luther King Jr. Outreach Center and creating and solving fractions problems was such a beautiful experience. We all felt connected to the teaching and we were having long mathematical discussions about sharing items equally and how that would look based on our individual experiences. Through this experience, I was able to think back to my own K-12 education and reflected on how much more engaged I would have been if I had teachers who used my experiences and identities to enrich the field of mathematics. My reflection then led into my journey as a full-time graduate student; it shaped the research questions I was posing, the methods for my data collection, analysis, and it made my think creatively about how I was going to distribute the knowledge I was gaining in my communities.
What advice would you give to an undergraduate researcher?
Let your experiences and those of your communities drive your questions, methods, and how you distribute your findings.
Talk to others about your experiences with your research mentors. This can be a great strategy to break down what you enjoy about the mentoring relationship and to get support from outside mentors if you are experiencing an unhealthy mentoring relationship. Always advocate for yourself and find mentors who will join you in that journey because it is something that we can always improve as we navigate new spaces.
Take advantage of the opportunities presented by mentors at EWU. This is something I wish I would have taken more advantage of as an undergraduate. This does not mean that you have to take all the opportunities because I want you to take care of your overall health, but I do think it is important to listen to those who are advocating for you and listen to their advice when they present you with new opportunities that support your goals.
What advice would you give to an undergraduate faculty research mentor?
Give students the freedom to share their experiences to enrich the research questions, methods, analyses, and findings when they join a research team and/or when they conduct independent research projects.
Provide students with opportunities to ask about your experiences in academia and be open to sharing your journey knowing that everyone has a unique journey.
Support students by sharing opportunities, cheering for them during their research presentations, asking about their personal health, and by always advocating for them.
Consistently work to understand the power dynamics that exist in your mentor-mentee relationships and strive to reshape that relationship by envisioning students as leaders and knowledgeable research partners. By reshaping our relationships, it allows students to feel more comfortable asking questions and sharing concerns, taking initiative in research projects and conversations, and contributing their experiential knowledge.