Carson Scholars present findings from summer research projects

by University Communications,

When Jen Allaway ’15 read an article about how few women work in the video game industry, she wanted to know why.

She’s played video games for as long as she can remember, and she hopes to make her own one day. Allaway wanted to better understand if the number of women working in video games contributed to the content of the games themselves.

Yet, when she searched for more information on the subject, she came up empty handed.

“It was a crystallizing moment,” says Allaway, a sociology major. “When I couldn’t find any empirical studies on the topic, I set out to make my own.”

Allaway is one of seven Willamette University students who shared results of their research projects in the Hatfield Library Nov.14.

The research — which explores everything from the neuroscience of beauty to the structure and characteristics of a particular star — was made possible through the Carson Undergraduate Research Grant Program.

On average, 10 or more grants of up to $3,000 are awarded each year to Willamette sophomores and juniors, who undertake scholarly, creative or professional research projects during the summer.

The latest Carson presentations featured Allaway ’15, Dylan Angell ’14, Dana Crosby ’14, Christian Oldham ’14, James Volz ’14, Theresa Barosh ’14 and Noor Amr ’15.

“The Carson grant is amazing,” Allaway says. “It basically gave me a career straight out in my dream industry. I couldn’t be more happy with the results of my research; it highlighted some problematic things in the industry.”

From video games to beauty

Based on 34 interviews and 344 surveys of people working in the video game industry, Allaway says she learned more about why the field is dominated by men.

For instance, among those surveyed, 60 percent of the women reported experiencing harassment to some degree.

“I knew the number would be high, but I didn’t think I would get that result,” Allaway says. “Still, there is progress on the rise. Money is being spent on gender-inclusive game designs. I’m very optimistic for change.”

Crosby, too, enjoyed the research process. For her own project, she sought to learn what the brain looks like, and why, when distinguishing something aesthetically pleasing.

She learned such universal properties as symmetry and contrast dictate whether artworks are considered beautiful. Yet, there is much about the brain’s interpretation of beauty that cannot be explained.

“Despite the availability of technology that can look into a working brain — the magnetism of art, of creativity, of what constitutes beauty or even just aesthetic allure — is still mysterious and unexplainable,” says Crosby, a neuroscience major and art minor.

Named after former College of Liberal Arts Dean Julie Carson, the grant program was created in 1988 through a gift from Bill Long ’59, a lifetime trustee for Willamette. The first scholars were chosen the following year.

Monique Bourque, director of the office of Student Academic Grants and Awards, believes that the strength of the program is its capacity to allow students both to explore a range of projects and to prepare for a variety of professional and academic trajectories.

During its 25-year history, Bourque says one scholar’s project turned into a first novel. Another’s helped her prepare for a prestigious graduate program in journalism program that led to working with Michael Pollan, and a third credits the program with setting him on a path to being a university professor.

“Many of these alums have told me that they are immensely grateful to the program for launching them on their careers,” Bourque says.

The next deadline for Carson Grant proposals is Feb. 18. Learn more on the Student Academic Grants and Awards website.