Centenary student wins award at regional sociology conference

SHREVEPORT, LA — Centenary senior Marissa Lally decided to step out of her comfort zone this spring. For the neuroscience major from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, that meant accepting the challenge to go beyond the classroom and outside of her major to research and submit a paper to a regional sociology conference, the 2021 Annual Southwestern Social Science Association (SSSA) conference. It was a good decision, as Lally’s submission was chosen for the SSSA’s Outstanding Undergraduate Paper Award.

“Marissa is a true liberal arts story,” said Dr. Michelle Wolkomir, her research advisor. “She is interested in studying behavioral neuroscience, but she also realized that she should learn to see patterns of behavior in society and understand them because it would help her see her neuroscience work in a different way. So she took some sociology and wrote a terrific research paper. I asked if she wanted to do a real study and work crazy hard outside of her major. She did. In doing so, she reflects the best of what we do at Centenary - work across disciplines to advance knowledge.”

Lally’s research project began in the spring semester of 2020 when she took Wolkomir’s Sex & Gender class. As part of the class, Lally wrote a term paper in which she discussed why women in Peggy Orenstein's Girls & Sex seem to exhibit traditionally gendered sexual experiences even with their increased participation in "hook-up culture." The paper developed into a more complex research project entitled, "Examining the Boundaries and Barriers to Sexual Agency among College Students."

“In light of other research opportunities cancelling due to COVID, Dr. Wolkomir suggested I collect my own data as a response to my term paper and I ended up taking her up on the suggestion,” explained Lally. “I collected my own qualitative data at Centenary over the summer and beginning of fall 2020 by interviewing 18 upperclass Centenary students and coding the transcripts of those interviews. An analysis of participants' discussion of their sexual experiences and discussions suggests masculinity is still conceptualized as dominant over femininity, just perhaps more subtly than realized. As a result, the participants may profess beliefs of gender equality such that women are able to respond more freely to men's actions and desires, but men's and women's sexual behaviors convey and reinforce masculine dominance, leading to the limitation of women's agency.”

The Southwestern Social Science Association (SSSA), founded in 1919, is the nation’s oldest interdisciplinary social science organization. Each year, the SSSA brings together over 1,000 professional scholars, graduate students, and undergraduates representing economics, history, international studies, political science, social work, sociology, women’s and gender studies, anthropology, and psychology. After a pause in 2020 due to COVID-19, the SSSA held its 100th annual conference in New Orleans in a hybrid format. Lally was able to travel to the conference to present her paper with support from Centenary’s Student Government Association.

Lally reports that her project was definitely more challenging to accomplish during this COVID year.

“I think the first and somewhat more obvious challenge is the fact that the last time I saw Dr. Wolkomir was March 2020 due to COVID’s ‘arrival’ at that time,” said Lally. “Editing and discussing a 30-page paper over Zoom and text was a feat. The other major challenge was the fact that this entire project took place in an academic field I had/have no experience with. A lot of times, I would feel out of my place to be writing literature like this or would feel super under-skilled to be able to convey everything I wanted to communicate. Thankfully, Dr. Wolkomir was not only understanding and validating of my emotions, but she was continuously supportive and encouraging. The biggest surprise to me was actually winning the paper award. I'm pretty sure my jaw literally dropped when my boyfriend Oliver and I read the email from the conference.”

After graduation, Lally wants to spend time further developing her research interests and experiences before attending graduate school to pursue a doctorate in neuroscience, psychology, or sociology.

“For this project specifically, I'm looking at possibly preparing the paper for publication with Dr. Wolkomir over the next few months,” explained Lally. “In terms of neuroscience, I am still assisting Dr. Jarret Richardson with his research at Centenary and hope to continue that over the summer. I also recently obtained a lab position assisting with vitamin D deficiency research at LSUS-Health for the next year or so, which I'm sure will help with this goal.”

Lally’s experience with exploring a new field and conducting serious research in it has pushed her to consider new options for graduate programs. She has been exploring programs in cultural neuroscience and socio-behavioral neuroscience that will allow her to combine her love of neuroscience with her newfound interest in sociology and gender. Lally has a long-term goal of being able to research and teach at a small liberal arts college like Centenary, where she hopes to “…perhaps end up doing for a student what Dr. Wolkomir did for me.”


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