The purpose of the Undergraduate (and Graduate) Research Lab(s) at the Center for Advancing Correctional Excellence (ACE!) at George Mason University is to provide interested students access to a variety of research opportunities. In the Lab, our students work in collaboration with graduate students and faculty to understand the research process. There is no limit to what undergrads can do. We involve them in all phases of research from project development, to data collection/analysis, and even to preparing research for presentation at conferences or publication in academic journals. Our promise to students is that by the conclusion their time in the Lab, they will acquire at least two research skills to add to their resume. However, in most cases students leave with countless, valuable skills and an unparalleled experience unlike most other undergraduate programs.
Within the research Labs, we use a nested mentoring model – where graduate students learn from a faculty member. As they advance in the program, they work with and train newer and less experienced graduate and undergraduate students. In some cases –undergraduate students (who have been at ACE! for a while) train and mentor newer undergraduate students!
The research Labs transform students into scholars. It is incredibly rewarding to witness students grow, learn, develop a passion for, and contribute to research of consequence. This blog post includes a collection of excerpts from students who work within and learn from the research Labs at ACE!.
Lessons and Gratitude from Lab Mentors and Mentees
Taylor Hartwell (doctoral student, lab co-director and mentor): Following graduation, I plan to pursue a tenure-track assistant professor position at a teaching-oriented institution, where I can prioritize teaching and mentoring, and develop a similar research lab like Dr. Rudes’ that allows students to work on research. The Criminology, Law & Society doctoral program at George Mason University is designed to prepare students for research-oriented academic jobs, so I am continuously grateful for my experience in the Lab as it is one of the only opportunities for doctoral students to gain valuable, hands-on teaching and mentoring experience under the tutelage of a faculty member. Throughout my years co-directing the Labs, I mentored numerous students in a variety of capacities – including data collection in prisons, coding qualitative interview data in Atlas.ti, and at conference presentations. This experience not only makes me a better graduate student and researcher, but also significantly prepares me for the work that I plan to do as a future professor.
Lindsay Smith (doctoral student and lab mentor): With intentions of becoming a university professor, being afforded the opportunity to mentor students as a graduate student is enlightening. In this role, personal growth is imminent. That said, developing the ability to effectively teach research methodologies, collaborate on publications, and translate scholarship passionately broadened my professional repertoire as a graduate student mentor. However, the real reward is felt when undergraduate research assistants get excited about data collection, are inquisitive about the implications of our research, and aspire to attend graduate school. This reciprocation produces an environment that allows productive criminological scholarship to flourish. Additionally, it is a wonderful incubator for positive mentoring that inspires future generations.
Bryce McCune (undergraduate research assistant, criminology, law, and society major): I worked as an Undergraduate Research Assistant at ACE! for almost all of my undergraduate career. I loved getting the chance to gain hands-on research experience working on a variety of projects. I came to ACE! the summer after my freshman year, as a research assistant working on the Changing the Hole Mind: Living and Working in Solitary Confinement During Reform project. Dr. Danielle Rudes supervised this project, and my work over the summer was generously funded by GMU’s Office of Student Scholarship, Creative Activities, & Research (OSCAR). That summer, my research partner and I developed our own project to work on in four Pennsylvania state prisons. We studied coping mechanisms of carceral residents, and we are still working on our paper - Accessing a W(hole) New Life: Carceral Resident Pathways to Coping While Living in Solitary Confinement. After that summer concluded, I continued to volunteer at ACE!, and most recently, I have been working on the I.M. Stepping Up project (funded by Arnold Ventures), which considers the National Stepping Up Initiative that works to reduce the use of jail for individuals with mental health and substance abuse disorders. My work at ACE! introduced me to the world of corrections research and reform. Without this experience, I would not have figured out what exactly what I wanted to do with my career! I am thrilled to announce that I was recently accepted into Mason’s doctoral criminology, law, and society program. I look forward to continuing my corrections research and reform efforts with Dr. Rudes as a doctoral student this fall!
Khanh Nguyen (undergraduate research assistant, psychology major): I worked at ACE! since January 2019. During that time, I productively grown as a researcher, student, and as a person. Using part of Taylor’s MA thesis data, I am writing an undergraduate thesis, Environment and Relationships in Restricted Housing Units: Examining Institutional Differences, in GMU’s Psychology Honors Program. My study examines how environmental settings and relationships between correctional officers and carceral residents impact those residing in restricted housing units (RHUs). I hope to inform carceral institutions with suggestions to improve RHU environments and relationships through presentations and publications of my research. Conducting this project solidified my curiosities regarding, and propelled my dedication toward working to improve, the criminal justice system. In April 2021, I will present my project at the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences annual conference. With my objective to attend graduate school and obtain a Doctor of Psychology degree, such presentations will aid my public speaking skills and understanding of research in academia. Throughout my time at ACE!, my curriculum vitae has significantly improved in both its format and via additions of gained experiences and skills, including qualitative data analysis, in-depth literature searches and reviews, and coding interview transcriptions. I also received helpful guidance for completing graduate school applications. With Lindsay and Taylor’s assistance, my personal statement improved with stronger self-expression, incorporation of my research experience, and demonstration of my strengths. I was accepted into my first-choice graduate program!!! My experience at ACE! shaped me into a more educated and open-minded individual. My time in the Lab presented me with many learning and networking opportunities, and I have thoroughly enjoyed my time at ACE!.
The Lab Opens Doors, Builds Bridges, and Creates a Pathway Toward Dreams
While you may be thinking a Lab like this is only possible at research intensive institutions with adequate support and doctoral students…please stop right there! Every faculty can create a Lab, and at any institutional level with just three things:
- a faculty member with a heart and mind dedicated to undergraduate students’ growth and development;
- an active research agenda that includes some tasks that undergraduates can assist with (and trust us, they are capable of almost anything), and
- at least two students of varying levels of skills/expertise (the higher skilled student will be mentored by the faculty and the lower skilled student will be mentored by their peer with more skills).
See the following resources for more information on the nested mentoring model: