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My summer experiences with qualitative research: building understanding and enacting change

My name is Roya and this summer, as an intern supported by Stanford’s Mentoring Undergraduates in Interdisciplinary Research (MUIR) program, I conducted a research project exploring the intersection of marine policy and patterns of subsistence use along the California Coastline, and how management of such resources can have unintended consequences on our marine ecosystems. As a rising sophomore, I felt deeply lucky to have worked closely with my mentors and fellow team members at Hopkins Marine Station on this project. I was able to appreciate the value of qualitative, social science research in addressing complex sustainability problems, a critical connection I was unaware of as a student devoted to the natural sciences.

My main focus on this project was conducting semi-structured interviews with local Bay Area recreational and subsistence fishermen, and analyzing the resulting transcripts through thematic coding. Alongside these efforts, my partner and I took a deep dive researching and formulating a literature review in an effort to craft a valuation framework of nature tailored specifically to our California Coastline to help inform our interviews. I remember when my mentor first explained that we would be using social media to help gather candidates for our interviews. Surprised at first, I was a bit skeptical of the ability of our recently-created Instagram account with a lone profile picture and bio description of the project to attract the attention of potential interviewees (Figure 1). However, to my surprise, after mass-messaging various fishing clubs and recreational users, we were able to build our profile and conduct exciting and productive interviews. I had never imagined using the power of social media as a method within scientific research, however interacting with users through their media platforms offered an organic and personal way to gain their unbiased insight on current issues surrounding marine resource management and their experiences interacting with our coastline. 

Figure 1. Framework for identifying and characterizing the Ocean's contribution to human well-being across the California Coast (adapted from Allision et al., 2020 and Weeratunge et al., 2014)

Through our semi-structured interviews, I realized the importance of communication skills not only when sharing results with the team, but also in engaging interview subjects. Our ability to pique the curiosity of interviewees and encourage the conversation would directly impact the quality of the data we collected and our ability to produce meaningful results. I had learned that at times we must deviate from our strictly-structured question sheet, and explore the unique thoughts and perspectives each interviewee had to offer. This was challenging at times, as we had specific information we had to gather, but after analyzing all the interview transcripts, we stepped back and admired the diverse and insightful array of themes and data we had collected, realizing that we reached, and even surpassed, our goals. This showed me that at times during research, when it can feel as though you are stuck on trivial issues, resilience and patience will guide you towards meaningful outcomes even if you are unable to recognize them while buried in scientific papers or software manuals.

Growing up, I had a passionate and boundless love for nature. Being an only child, nature was my companion, and my experiences outdoors are an integral part of my identity. As I integrate my love for the planet into my studies and research, I am continuously humbled by how small we are in relation to this magnificent world, yet disappointed by the magnitude of harm we pose to the health and well-being of our planet. Research opportunities such as this one have helped me find purpose while trying to solve daunting issues, and have helped me identify an empathetic network of like-minded mentors and fellow researchers, determined to shed light on humanity’s role within protecting what we call “home.” My professor, and one of my mentors on this project, Larry Crowder, told me something I will never forget. He told me that if you want to help save the oceans you aren’t going to talk to the fish. You are going to talk to the humans that engage with and form policies that directly impact the delicate ecosystem they live in. You are going to talk to that fisherman who has spent hundreds of hours out on the water, taking note of changes in weather and animal migration patterns, and who aims to protect what they believe is sacred. Qualitative research has given me just that. It has given me the ability to give purpose to my studies in biology or chemistry. It offers has helped me build the bridge between the quantitative understanding I've developed in the classroom and the work needed to enact real change. Humans are the reason we have faced environmental crisis, and they are the only species that can get us out of it. Through this project, I have been able to give voice to those humans that want to be part of this beautiful solution to protect our home.


-Weeratunge, N., Béné, C., Siriwardane, R., Charles, A., Johnson, D., Allison, E.H., Nayak, P.K. and Badjeck, M.C., 2014. Small‐scale fisheries through the wellbeing lens. Fish and Fisheries, 15(2), pp.255-279.

-Allison, E.H., Kurien, J., Otta, Y., Dedi, A., Bavinck, J.M., Cisneros-Montemayor, A., Fabinyi, M., Jentoft, S., Lau, S., Mallory, T.G. and OluKoju, A., 2020. The Human Relationship with our Ocean Planet.

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