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School of Arts and Sciences

Collaboration is Key to Psychology Professor Sam Sommers' Research on Race and Ethnicity

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Doctoral Student Sarah Gaither and a Team of Undergraduates Focus on Biracial Perceptions and Identity Flexibility

By Anna Burgess

(L to R) Professor Sam Sommers, Sidney May (A15), and Sarah Gaither (Ph.D. student) observe participants in the lab for one of their social interaction studies

Photo: Alonso Nichols

( L to R): Professor Sam Sommers, Sidney May (A15), Sarah Gaither (Ph.D. student) and Kelly Manser (A13) review data from one of their experiments

Photo: Alonso Nichols

"As a society, the way we think about questions of race and ethnicity tends to be over-simplified," Professor Sam Sommers explains. "We like to be able to put people into categories. But what about the people who don't fit into these categories?"

For Sommers, a Tufts professor and social psychologist, and director of Tufts' Diversity & Intergroup Relations Lab, this is not a rhetorical question--it's a research question. He and 5th-year Ph.D. candidate Sarah Gaither, along with an undergraduate student research team, are trying to find some answers within this topic. Sommers has been studying diversity and its effect on group interactions for ten years, and he started working with Gaither a few years ago. "She's interested in these same kinds of issues," he says, "but from the perspective of multiracial people."

Gaither explains that the projects she and Sommers are working on right now all focus on biracial perceptions and identity flexibility. "Growing up in a biracial family has made me extremely interested in interracial and intergroup relations more generally," she says, "but in particular it has made me want to learn more about how biracial individuals are perceived and treated by others." Gaither, who is the recipient of a prestigious National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, is working with Sommers on several different studies, some focusing on biracial children and others on biracial college students. In terms of how student researchers factor in, Gaither says, "All of these studies involve training undergraduate research assistants on how to run the studies, since without them, I would not be able to be nearly as productive as I am."

And working in the research lab benefits the students as well. Sommers says that every semester, between ten and fifteen students work in the lab, "doing everything from pre-study stuff to actual collection of data." Research Assistant Kwabena Boaten-Adusei (A14) says that he plans to be a therapist and not a researcher. As he puts it, "A few semesters in the lab and I've begun to better understand the whats and whys behind psychological research."

Working with professors and graduate students is a great experience," says RA Jessica Fenton (A 14) "because you feel as though you're contributing to something that may make a difference in the lives of people." Fenton chose her psychology major after taking a social psychology course, and plans on developing a senior thesis related to the field.

Sidney May (A15), another RA in the lab, cites a personal interest in the research being done, in addition to an academic interest. "Being mixed race myself, this area really interests me," she says. "These findings directly pertain to me and in many ways I'm learning new things about myself."

As for the findings themselves, the research team is very enthusiastic about what they're learning. Gaither discusses one finding: "Both biracial Black/White and Asian/White children are more flexible in learning from teachers from different racial backgrounds than children from mono-racial backgrounds, demonstrating a possible learning advantage." She says of another, recently finished study, "We have found that [priming a flexible racial identity] in multiracial people leads toward more flexible thinking and higher rates of problem solving, which highlights a clear benefit that may stem from being reminded about one's racial background if you are multiracial." Gaither explains that there is very little research looking at biracial populations, so publishing their findings means adding significantly to the current literature.

Sommers adds that he and Gaither plan to continue publishing their findings, as they've already published a few papers--and they'll definitely continue conducting research. "Overall," he says, "one of the best parts of being at Tufts is the research opportunities." According to Sommers, sharing these opportunities with undergraduates only adds to the positive experience.

"If there's a downside," he says, "it's that students come and go too quickly."