Paths to Research: Faculty Mentoring from Your First Term to Your Final Project

By Sarah Koros (religious studies and sociology majors, philosophy minor, Certificate in Jewish Studies)

My path to research started in the classroom. In the Israeli Nationality Room in the Cathedral of Learning, to be exact.

In my first term at Pitt, I sat in that classroom as Brock Bahler, visiting assistant professor in the Department of Religious Studies, assigned our class to write a final research paper for his course, The Guide to the Perplexed. When assigned to write a research paper, I have always tailored the assignment to my own interests, allowing me to design my own thematic concentration through research. For this assignment—with both excitement and anxiety—I produced an essay on the medieval Jewish philosopher Maimonides' contributions to modern Judaism.

Dr. Bahler returned the essay a few weeks later and recommended that I submit an abstract to present this work at the Eastern International Regional Conference for the American Academy of Religion (EIRAAR), which Pitt was hosting that year. I was grateful for my professor's encouragement and, with other faculty support, I was invited to present at the EIRAAR in the spring.

First Steps into Research as a First-Year Student

I consider that spring to be my first entry-point into the world of research. Presenting alongside graduate students and professors, I was amazed at the diversity of scholarship taking place. After that spring, I could not stop thinking about my next project. What did I want to explore? What could I contribute to the conversation?

The next fall, I was sitting in Social Theory–– a required course for the sociology major. Again, a research paper assignment and a supportive teacher led me to a meaningful research experience: Though I had read Karl Marx many times before, this professor brought Marx to life. Suddenly, when I was reading Marx's works, I saw a man who was trying to figure everything out just like me. When we were assigned to write a research paper, I chose to research Marx's perspectives on religion, knowing from previous readings that religious Marxists existed despite Marx's specific denouncement of religion.

Through projects like this, I realized that sociology and religious studies were the perfect fit for me. By applying sociology's contemporary philosophy and methodology to religious studies, I could try to understand how everyday people cope with the uncertainty of life's most challenging questions.

Delving Deeper through the Office of Undergraduate Research

Yet, even after I submitted the paper for class, I felt unsatisfied—there was still so much that I wanted to discover. I looked for resources at Pitt that could support my continued research and discovered the Office of Undergraduate Research (OUR). Soon after, I applied to and received the Summer Undergraduate Research Award (SURA), and asked Dr. Bahler to be my research advisor. 

This award meant that I could devote my summer to reading Marx, his contemporaries, and modern perspectives on Marx and spirituality. Through a long process of reading, collating notes, talking with my advisor, drinking coffee, and thinking, I was able to finish a thesis paper by the end of the summer. I'm continuing this project now under a fall research grant as well as in my Religious Studies Capstone course.

My involvement in research has grown in other ways too: Through the OUR, I was able to publish my work in the Forbes & Fifth undergraduate research journal, and I pass what I’ve learned on to new students getting started in research as an Undergraduate Mentor.

Being able to immerse myself in this learning environment made me realize just how much I love research. Any career path that I pursue must in some way encourage independent research. My immediate plan is to research around the world. I'd love to travel using a Fulbright Scholarship or other grants and learn about spirituality in leftist circles.

The availability of research grants, materials, experts, and other connections at Pitt has been invaluable in my academic growth. But what has impacted my research path the most is the dedicated faculty mentors who have helped me find this path. Many faculty members have been so incredibly supportive. The Department of Religious Studies is filled to the brim with fantastic professors––people like Dr. Brock Bahler, Dr. Ben Gordon, Dr. Rebecca Denova, Dr. Rachel Kranson, and many others–– who are also wonderful mentors. Pointing me toward goals and opportunities I didn't even know were options, Pitt's faculty offered me individualized mentorship among the massive institutional resources.