Embracing Vibrant Research Opportunities in the Humanities

By Catherine Gannon (English literature and French majors)

From the moment I heard about First Experiences in Research (FE-R) during a Pitt Start presentation, I knew I wanted to be involved.

When I was in high school, I wanted to pursue pre-med with a double major in biology and English, so I attended a lot of info sessions at Pitt about how to get involved in natural science research. At that very first Pitt Start, the FE-R mentors and Office of Undergraduate Research, Scholarship, and Creative Activity (OUR) staff helped me understand that research in the humanities is just as vibrant on Pitt’s campus as research in the natural sciences.

I knew of humanities research before starting at Pitt, but I didn’t know that Pitt would have so many options for humanities research. The OUR introduced me to research in English literature, studio arts, foreign languages, art history, music, and more. Those opportunities really spoke to my interest in the humanities (I declared majors in English literature and French at the end of my first year), and I decided to pursue research in that area. 

Exploring New Interests 

I was offered a research position assisting Lenore Thomas, Associate Professor and Advisor in the Department of Studio Arts, in creating artwork for an exhibition in the Strip District. At first, I was uncertain: I had envisioned myself doing literary research and I have never formally pursued studio arts. But the idea of working on an art exhibition sounded like too good of an opportunity to pass up!

I turned out to be really well suited to the project! I really love to draw, design, and I’m an extremely visual person. Our exhibition, entitled “BUFF,” consisted of a combination of art photography and mixed-media art techniques, using screen printing, drawing, collaging, and even sewing to add bright colors and unique patterns to photographs taken by renowned Pittsburgh photographer Ivette Spradlin. 

No two days were the same when I went to work with Lenore, but I was really involved with the creation of the art pieces and planning for the exhibition right from the beginning. One day I might do color tests of the screen printing inks, the next I might help Lenore with screen printing, the next would find me using hot candle wax to make a print more translucent for collaging, and the next would involve using Photoshop to create and cut out different shapes and patterns that would be made into screens for screen printing.

Experiencing the Unexpected

While a lot of my tasks were to prepare Lenore to create her final pieces, I also did work on the final pieces themselves by helping Lenore sew on some of the pictures, assisting her when she screen printed on the final pieces, and hanging the pieces in the gallery space. One thing I loved about my research was that people were able to see my hard work, time, and efforts reflected in the pieces shown in the gallery, which really was a surreal experience for me to have in my first year of college. (Honestly, it’s something I never imagined I would get the chance to do in my life!) This may sound corny, but when the gallery opened, I was so excited that I could go through and point out to my mom and my friends exactly what I had contributed to the work hanging in a real art gallery.

Connecting With a Faculty Mentor

I think one of the most amazing parts of FE-R for me was that I was able to develop such a strong, positive relationship with my mentor, Lenore. I didn’t come in to the project with an extensive studio arts background, but I felt completely comfortable communicating with her and asking her questions about the work were doing. Lenore always made me feel included in the project by asking for my feedback on her ideas and giving me work that was crucial to the project’s success. Lenore is such a talented and encouraging person, and I am so grateful I got the chance to work so closely with her.

Finding Your Passion

I really ended up loving doing research outside of my major because it gave me an amazing creative outlet and helped me discover my talents and interests in studio arts, which I never would had the opportunity to truly discover without pushing myself outside of my comfort zone. And, through this experience and through the mentorship of Lenore, I may have found a new passion to pursue: I am considering pursuing a minor in studio arts.