Q & A: Bonita London
Bonita London, professor of psychology, shares insight into her research and her new role as associate dean for research for the College of Arts and Sciences (CAS)
TELL US ABOUT YOUR RESEARCH
My Social Processes of Identity, Coping and Engagement (SPICE) lab is a basic and applied science research lab that utilizes diverse research methods to understand a core question with broad implications: how, why, and when do our social identities impact our life experiences?
With a focus on historically marginalized groups, our research recognizes that historic inequalities, messages of marginalization, and experiences of identity-based exclusion can have damaging, far-reaching, and long-lasting effects on nearly every aspect of students’ lives. Our work shows that a fundamental concern among underrepresented students is the sense that they don’t belong, are not valued, and therefore cannot succeed in certain academic spaces. Yet, the power of access, opportunities and community can create feelings of empowerment and belonging that motivate success for students.
To answer the question of “when” are our social identities relevant, we study students as early as middle school age (when they are just beginning to be aware of expectations of success versus barriers to achievement). We conduct intensive longitudinal studies during and through key academic and social transition periods, such as the transition to college or to graduate school. We also study students as they move into the workforce and encounter a new set of professional challenges. Because experiences of marginalization in educational settings can be both transient (e.g., occurring today but not tomorrow), yet accumulating, and because the outcomes associated with marginalization can touch multiple areas of one’s life (academic success, social and family relationships, health), my lab uses a variety of research methodologies to capture “how” students navigate their lives. We use longitudinal, experience sampling methods (short, repeated surveys completed in naturalistic settings over a period of time), in-depth qualitative interviews, and experimental studies. Our intensive, longitudinal research approach allows us to have a clear picture of how students navigate their changing world, relationships and professional experiences over time.
Currently, my lab has more than five active federally funded grants in collaboration with colleagues around the University and across multiple institutions. With Professor Mónica Bugallo, we explore how growth mindset beliefs, science identity, and learning efficacy predict middle and high school students’ career goals. We also explore how identity-safe learning environments and peer mentoring programs support the needs of undergraduate Women in Science and Engineering (WISE), and graduate WISE women in two NSF-funded projects. In collaboration with the Center for Inclusive Education (CIE), my lab leads a longitudinal study of the mentoring relationships between STEM faculty and graduate student mentees from underrepresented groups. In a multi-institution collaboration across eight colleges and universities supporting underrepresented scholars through the NSF-funded Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation (LSAMP), we explore how the ecosystem of institutions impact the academic and social well-being of students over time. In all of these grants, we partner with colleagues who are implementing programmatic interventions for students, while my research team studies how and why those interventions are effective.
HOW CAN ACADEMIA IMPROVE STUDENT WELL-BEING?
Our academic institutions are an important source of academic and social support for all students. Yet in a highly charged and often divisive social world, students from underrepresented groups may carry the weight of being the target of social stereotypes and biased expectations from others, and may experience subtle or overt forms of exclusion, hostility, and threat from a variety of sources and directions. As a community, we need to acknowledge the challenges faced by our students, recognize how systemic structures may exacerbate those challenges, and work toward real solutions for addressing barriers to academic success and psychosocial well-being. Our institutional approach to student success and well-being should consider individual student needs, community and social climate, classroom culture and access to opportunities.
For example, ensuring that students have representation and a voice in the leadership and direction of University policies helps to ensure equity in access to opportunities for students who have been historically marginalized. Further, systematically educating our University community on culturally inclusive language and practices can foster identity-safe environments for students. Highlighting and celebrating diverse SBU scholars allows students to identify with the University and see themselves acknowledged, valued and represented.
WHAT ARE YOUR GOALS AS ASSOCIATE DEAN FOR RESEARCH?
My ultimate goal is to make external funding opportunities more accessible, attractive, and useful in growing faculty research and scholarship across all CAS departments.
In recent years, Dean Nicole Sampson and her leadership team led the College of Arts and Sciences through an intensive self-study process that brought together the CAS community to identify resource needs and challenges, areas of synergy and collaboration, and new opportunities for growth and innovation. This process uncovered three main “Grand Challenge Areas” — areas that highlight the expertise and innovations of CAS faculty and scholars — that ultimately served as the basis for the College’s Shared Vision for the next decade.
This Shared Vision will serve as an important roadmap for me as Associate Dean for Research, as I hope to leverage its ideas and new directions to bring faculty research groups together to pursue new research and funding opportunities. Our CAS Research team works closely with the Office of the Vice President for Research and University Advancement to help identify diverse funding opportunities that connect to our individual faculty expertise as well as to our broader CAS Shared Vision. We disseminate those funding opportunities to the CAS community through the Dean’s weekly newsletter and through direct outreach to our faculty.
I’m also excited to be working with my CAS colleagues as we begin to create new opportunities to support individual faculty principal investigators (PI), as well as new interdisciplinary teams who may be seeking funding for novel ideas that cross-cut diverse departments. We are developing faculty research mentor networks, mini research workshops, and better access to grant and research writing support services. I also hope to share my scholarly expertise in student engagement and belonging, diversity and inclusion, and broadening participation in the workforce where it might be helpful to PIs seeking research funding for new student-focused programs.