Marcus Scholars' Research Addresses Pressing Issues of the World

For her fellowship, History major Kayla Ratliff, pictured above, studied homosexuality in 19th-century Japan. Photo by Sreang Hok.

by Matt Itelson

A new donor-funded College of Liberal & Creative Arts research program provided opportunities for 15 undergraduates this year to dig deep into the world’s most debated, pressing issues: politics, race, mental health, veterans, climate change, bullying, sexuality, and more. Working closely with faculty mentors throughout the entire year, students sharpened investigative skills and creative talents and helped build an understanding of a range of issues.

“I was struck by both the sophisticated content of your research projects and the incredible poise you all showed in presenting your topics. Congratulations on completing these under very unusual circumstances — another reflection of your talents and determination.”
-President Lynn Mahoney to the student research fellows & assistants

The student research fellowships and assistantships are made possible through the George and Judy Marcus Funds for Excellence in the Liberal Arts, established by alumni George and Judy Marcus with a $25-million donation in 2018. Marcus scholars have already been successful. The Council on Undergraduate Research’s annual Posters on the Hill conference accepted International Relations major Mikayla Cordero’s project on the rise of left-wing nationalism in Ireland. Cordero was among 60 students selected from 350 applications nationwide.

“You represent the very best of SF State,” SF State President Lynn Mahoney said at a May 26 video conference where fellows and assistants presented their work. “I was struck by both the sophisticated content of your research projects and the incredible poise you all showed in presenting your topics. Congratulations on completing these under very unusual circumstances — another reflection of your talents and determination.”

Understanding student veterans

Early in her research on student veterans, Marcus Undergraduate Research Fellow Janelle Scarritt discovered significant inaccuracies in sociology, psychology, and anthropology publications on the topic. Interviewing student veterans at SF State enabled her to discover fresh perspectives on their capacities and challenges.

“This experience has shown me what it takes to pursue undergraduate research and that I am capable of doing it,” Scarritt said.

Anthropology Assistant Professor Martha Lincoln was Scarritt’s faculty mentor. She compared the one-on-one mentorship with students afforded by the program to undergraduate research experiences at small liberal arts colleges. 

“It’s just incredibly rewarding to see students pursue intellectual goals that have personal significance to them,” Lincoln said.

“The Value of a Life”

For Jamila Hayes’ Marcus Undergraduate Research Fellowship, she directed “The Value of a Life,” a documentary about the divergent life paths she and her brother have taken. Hayes is thriving — she just graduated this month — but her brother has fallen victim to addiction, incarceration, and mental illness. She said the film was her first opportunity to express her feelings about her brother.

“The reality of our world is that if you are Black you will be treated worse than your white counterparts,” said Hayes, a Cinema major. “If you are Black, homeless and a drug addict, you are treated even worse and with even less respect. As a society, we need to work harder to stop perpetuating harmful ideologies that have such a negative impact on communities of people. I hope that my film will be a part of causing that change and that it will allow people to start having these conversations.”

As a faculty mentor, School of Cinema Director Celine Parreñas Shimizu challenged Hayes to situate the film’s approach. In preparation, Shimizu assigned readings of scholarly articles on prison systems and aesthetics. In the end, Shimizu herself gained valuable insight from Hayes.

“I learned about the powerful personal understanding Jamila’s courageous filmmaking achieves about enduring pain, trauma, and abuse and the hope that comes from love, affection, and intimacy,” Shimizu said.

Presidential mathematics

Five students served as Marcus Research Assistants, helping faculty members’ scholarly pursuits. Elizabeth Wedel, with Political Science Assistant Professor Rebecca Eissler, explored how modern U.S. presidents establish agendas. Wedel, who will enter her senior year this fall, helped research and write case studies. She focused on instances of presidents coming into conflict with Congress and the Supreme Court.

“My research on presidential agenda setting relies quite heavily on quantitative, mathematical analysis, so my goal for our partnership was to identify and research some historical cases to illustrate the theoretical dynamics at play,” Eissler says. “She brought a curiosity and fresh perspective to the selection of cases for us to research, which gave the project a greater clarity and understandability.”

Although the COVID-19 pandemic affected students’ ability to conduct field research this spring, they were able to complete their projects. Hayes, for example, had to abandon plans to spend one day in San Francisco filming with her brother. Instead, she interviewed him in her apartment and used footage from one of their childhood homes.

Overall, the Marcus fellowship has given Hayes advice to pass along to next year’s cohort.

“When things become chaotic and confusing, remember what the purpose of your proposal was about,” she said. “Sometimes it’s helpful to go back to the basics in order to better understand where to go next.”

Students, and faculty win Marcus-funded research awards for 2020-21

Marcus Research Fellowship winners 

  • “A Price on Pride: Understanding the Commoditization of the Queer Identity in San Francisco.” Student: Maximilian DeNembo (School of Design). Mentor: Hsiao-Yun Chu.

  • “Defining Rurality: An Exploration of the Rural-Urban Connection in Different Parts of the United States.” Student: Fiona DeWitt (Political Science Department). Mentor: Rebecca Eissler.

  • “Explorations of Gesticulation-Based Upper Limb Appliances.” Student: Levi Gilbert (School of Design). Mentor: Silvan Linn.

  • “Everyday HEROs: Public Health Research during COVID-19 Shelter-in-Place.” Student: Gurjot Gill (Anthropology Department). Mentor: Peter Biella.

  • “Objectivity and Epistemic Commitment: Polanyi’s Critique of Reductionism.” Student: Aydin Jang (Philosophy Department). Mentor: Arizoo Islami.

  • “Korean American Cinema (the 1990s – Present): Confronting History and Myths in the Diaspora.” Student: B. Kim (School of Cinema). Mentor: Scott Boswell.

  • “Attainability of Official CSU Intended Outcomes: A Student Experience-Based Study.” Student: Ysenia Martinez (School of Design). Mentor: Tara Lockhart.

  • “Decline of the Latino Media in the San Francisco Bay Area.” Student: Adriana Morga Oregel (Journalism Department). Mentor: Laura Moorhead.

  • “The Semiotics of Power: Linguistic Structures of Neoliberal Hegemony.” Student: Mikey Pagan (School of Humanities and Liberal Studies). Mentor: Teresa Pratt.

Marcus Undergraduate Research Assistantship winners

Three of the projects include two student assistantships.

  • “A New Critical Edition of ‘Romeo and Juliet’: A Digital Humanities Project.” Mentor: Kurt Daw (School of Theatre and Dance).

  • “Shakespeare’s ‘Lear’: A VR/Live Performance Hybrid.” Mentor: Elizabeth Hunter (School of Theatre and Dance).

  • “Lexical Variation and Sociolinguistic Style in a Bay Area High School.” Mentor: Teresa Pratt (English Language and Literature Department).

  • “The Unpublished Works of Elizabeth Anscombe.” Student: Ivan Manriquez Jr. Mentor: Jeremy Reid (Philosophy Department).

  • “From the Left or the Right? Anti-Semitism in Germany Since 2002.” Mentor: Scott Siegel (International Relations Department).

For more information about donating to the College of Liberal and Creative Arts, contact:

Soo Kim ( She/Her/Hers )
Senior Director of Development (Creative Arts)
College of Liberal and Creative Arts
(415) 338-7113
Bonnie Feinberg ( She/Her/Hers )
Senior Director of Development (Humanities)
College of Liberal & Creative Arts
(415) 338-6363