Engaged Learning Undergraduate Research

Interview With Regina Nguyen (SMU Lyle School of Engineering)

Regina Nguyen

Regina Nguyen is a second year student majoring in Civil Engineering. She is involved in Asian Council, Gamma Phi Beta, and research!

During her first year of college, Nguyen was on the brink of leaving the engineering department and changing majors because she could not see herself doing the work she was learning about. After some discussion with her Intro to Civil Environmental Engineering professor, Dr. Smith-Colin, she proposed an incoming summer research opportunity. To Nguyen, this sounded much more different and interdisciplinary, so she decided to give it a try. During one of her class periods, Dr. Zarazaga gave a speech which further sparked Nguyen’s interest. She later reached out to Dr. Zarazaga and realized she works closely with Dr. Smith-Colin. In the end, both Dr. Smith-Colin and Dr. Zarazaga worked with Nguyen as her mentors throughout the research project.


Dr. Zarazaga and Dr. Smith-Colin provided Nguyen with the ideal independent structure that allowed her the freedom to work on her own but still feel supported. Because of their guidance, she knows the direction she is working toward and what deadlines she needs to meet. Nguyen finds the project to be fun and relaxed because her mentors give her the room to do what she needs to do when and wherever she needs to do it, but when she needs a helping hand, they are there for her.

Nguyen is also grateful to be working with graduate student Collin Yarbrough because he provided her with the necessary literature to review before beginning the project, and continues to give Nguyen oversight and assistance throughout her think sessions. She is grateful for the tools Yarbrough has given her throughout the research process.

Additionally, Nguyen collaborates with undergraduate student, Odran Fitzgerald, to share the project responsibilities. Both students have different fields of study but work on the same deliverables. After finding literature online and forming drafts, Fitzgerald and Nguyen provide each other feedback before handing it over to the mentors.


Nguyen partook in the 2021 Summer Research Intensive where she claims to have learned very valuable lessons. She enjoyed listening to weekly insightful workshops and learning about the various resources available on campus that she did not previously know of. She enjoyed having some structure in her research project and creating a three-minute thesis presentation which enabled her to lecture others about what she is passionate about. Nguyen got the opportunity to meet people and learn how to complete a literature review, which expanded her network and knowledge. Learning about other students’ work was an inspiring, educational experience for Nguyen. For example, learning about the various unique ways in which other students formatted their work allowed to her better format hers. Technical communication was another learning curve for her because analyzing how others explained and described things taught her how to rephrase things to make them easier to understand. Nguyen became confident in her presentation skills by the end of the research-intensive program.


Nguyen worked closely with a group in Garland, Texas to advocate for proper community cleanup. The team used CBPAR (Community-Based Participatory Action Research) to collaborate with all stakeholders and community members throughout their research. Any deliverable or product Nguyen makes (not physical deliverables, just outcome) is completely based on what the community wants fixed. Nguyen has been asking the community about their needs and applies it to her deliverable work.  She claims it is like consulting work, or a feedback loop. Nguyen first asks the community members about the situation and contamination. After the members’ responses, her role as a researcher is to then figure out how to help the citizens advocate for their specific community needs. She specifically utilizes CBPAR and Cleanup Garland to help communities communicate their concerns and risk. Her sub focus is to understand how community groups interact with these greater entities (the city for example) to see what gaps exist between them and determine how outside researchers confess interacting with these groups and make sure their needs are met. Nguyen stresses that infrastructure causes long-term and serious effects on daily life, so it is crucial that issues are resolved equitably and thoroughly.


Nguyen initially had an idea for a deliverable that would be the final product, but over the summer she realized it would not be a feasible solution because Cleanup Garland does not have the access to the necessary tools. Despite the unexpected outcome, it ended up pathing a path for a better route for Cleanup Garland. Nguyen would not have come to this conclusion if not for the trial and error, and her consistent communication with Cleanup Garland.


Ms. Lydia Allen, the Writing Center Director, and Dr. Adam Neal, the Assistant Director of Research, served as spectacular resources for Nguyen. Ms. Allen provided her with an organized template to better format her research report and helped her put together a successful paper. Dr. Neal helped Nguyen put together a quality three-minute presentation.


Short-term, Nguyen hopes to continue helping Cleanup Garland resolve their challenges and barriers. She would also like to stay involved with research throughout school. Long term, she hopes her experiences will properly prepare her for the field of academia (post phD). She also wishes to do more community-based work in the future.


Nguyen is currently in the prototyping stage of the project. One of their deliverables is a series of infographics for the community to distribute around each other so that everyone is more informed of the risks and how they can keep themselves safe. They are currently working on more of those infographics which they will then send out for feedback. They also have some mapping activities that they will be doing to consolidate all the community information and some of the sampling data from the past.

The team’s main goal is to help Cleanup Garland access resources that will enable them to continue advocating for themselves and making sure the citizens remain well-informed about the situation and how they can communicate to the rest of their community.


Ask questions! Nguyen would not have gotten into research if she had not asked questions. It also enables you to be confident you are doing things correctly and are heading down the right path!

Thank you, Regina Nguyen!

Engaged Learning Undergraduate Research

Interview With Maria Katsulos (SMU Dedman College of Humanites & Sciences)

Maria Katsulos

Maria Katsulos is a Senior from Plano, Texas. Katsulos is majoring in History and English (Creative Writing Specialization), and minoring in Art History, Classics, Women and Gender Studies, and French. Katsulos is Dr. Emma A. Wilson’s research assistant, a McNair Scholar, and a President’s Scholar!

Katsulos is a historian of gender and sexuality in the West, spanning ancient Rome to the Victorian era. She is also the editor-in-chief of Kairos, the creative and literary magazine at SMU.


The project has been in the works since Katsulos’ sophomore year. She was introduced to it by Dr. Emma Wilson after she took her digital humanities class. The class taught Katsulos how one can use computer programs to understand literature in a way that deepens our understanding. In the digital humanities class, Katsulos took a play from a lesser-known author, transcribed his play, and formatted it so that the computer could comprehend the stage directions. She was very intrigued by the playwright, which sparked further interest in both the author’s craft and his network, thus leading to the start of the project.


Katsulos has been working with both Emma Wilson and Jackie Lowrey throughout her project. Jackie’s role was to help Katsulos structure her research project, prepare her for the graduate school process, and connect her to various resources and scholarships. Dr. Wilson provides Katsulos with academic mentorship, edits her papers for publication, and helps her formulate research questions that have not yet been answered through certain perspectives.


Katsulos was the only English history major at the 2021 McNair Summer Research Institute. She had to translate an older version of English in a way that others would understand and embraced the opportunity to share information about her topic. She found a thrill in getting non-historians excited about history. As a future graduate student and beyond, she must learn to appropriately prepare for conferences by reading excerpts and creating PowerPoints for nonspecialists and others in her field. Furthermore, Katsulos aspires to teach someday, so lecturing and breaking down complicated concepts are also necessary skills for her to acquire. Katsulos found that the Research intensive allowed her to sharpen all these skills.


 Katsulos learned to be realistic about the amount of source material she needs to get through. While she is a fast reader – and loves to read – she still found her initial plan to be an overwhelming load. Roadblocks for her studies included hard-to-decipher fonts, unfamiliar historical and theatrical terminology, and time management challenges.

Katsulos also realized the importance of making connections with faculty members and students with similar interests but who bring different perspectives to her work. She feels that interdisciplinary learning is essential to academic growth, immersing ourselves in other perspectives, and broadening our knowledge.


Katsulos became interested in the Earl of Rochester after reviewing the various primary sources he wrote. Throughout Rochester’s time serving King Charles II, he wrote progressive, libertine-style poetry that sparked Katsulos’ interest in learning more about the Earl.

For her summer research project, Katsulos read several plays by playwright Nathaniel Lee. She analyzed these plays through lenses of gender and sexuality to see what she could learn about his networks of patronage. Katsulos used prosopography (the study of social networks and how people know each other) to investigate relationships between the playwright and his patrons (those who would pay him to write plays), and the relationship he had with his fellow playwrights (for instance, sometimes they would collaborate, and other times they would compete).


 Katsulos used Early English Books Online and the Interlibrary loan system, used for acquiring books that SMU does not own. Katsulos enjoyed this endless supply of accessible books! The Research Institute was another useful resource because the structure forced Katsulos to meet program-specific deadlines.


 Short-term, Katsulos wishes to complete graduate school applications and her 50-page history senior thesis. Long-term, she aspires to become a successful professor and mentor much like her own mentor, Dr. Wilson.


Katsulos is currently seeking conferences to which she will submit her presentation ; these applications will be funded by Engaged Learning. This process involves selecting multiple conferences, submitting her presentation to them, and waiting for the decisions. Thus far, Katsulos has the American Theater Association and the South-Central Renaissance Conference in mind. Once (hopefully!) accepted, she will deliver the presentation, answer questions from the audience, and receive feedback from graduate students and professors in her field. Katsulos looks forward to expanding her network throughout this process, but her main goal is to educate as many people as possible and “get [her] foot in the door for academia.”


Pick a topic you are passionate about because there will be a lot of reading involved, and make sure it is something you will still be passionate about at the end.

Thank you, Maria!

Engaged Learning Faculty Research

Interview with Dr. Andrew Davies (Dedman School of Law)


by Aya Bellaoui ’24

Dr. Davies is the Director of Research at the Deason Criminal Justice Reform Center in the Dedman School of Law. It was ultimately the creation of this Center that drew Dr. Davies to SMU. The university does not have a criminal justice department like other universities, but a gift from the Deason Foundation helped to establish the Center in 2016 to conduct innovative research and educational programs to address need for reforms in US criminal justice system. Davies’ background is in social science, not law, but his research prior to arriving at SMU was in regard to legal representation for accused people who cannot afford a lawyer.

Prior to working in Albany, Dr. Davies was a Research Associate at the New York State Defenders Association. He has received degrees from Oxford University (BA Modern history, 2002; MSc Criminology, 2004) and the University at Albany School of Criminal Justice (MA, 2006, PhD 2012). He has also received large national grants on access to counsel and quality legal representation from the National Institute of Justice, the Bureau of Justice Statistics, and the National Science Foundation.

The Deason Criminal Justice Reform Center had hired its Director, Pamela R. Metzger, who then hired Dr. Davies as Director of Research at the center. Professor Metzger states that “Dr. Davies is among the nation’s top criminal justice researchers. He is a pioneer in the growing field of multi-site, data-driven, and evidence-based indigent defense research. He brings with him the substantial experience of nearly a decade of work in the field.”

What previous research have you done and what have you found?

Much of Dr. Davies’ research is centered around indigent defense service. It is mostly regarding whether people have access to defense representation, and if the quality of that service is good or bad. To initiate the process of providing representation for supposed criminals, Dr. Davies wrote the article, “Gideon in the Desert,” which examined the difficulties facing defendants in rural Texas accessing indigent defense services. Access to counsel for criminal defendants is an ongoing challenge in rural localities, notwithstanding the mandates of Sixth Amendment jurisprudence. He and his co-author analyzed Texas as a 254-county study (every county in Texas organizes its own defense). They evaluated every county and identified the patterns. One finding revealed that in rural counties, significantly fewer defendants were using indigent defense resources; about 39% of those prosecuted for a misdemeanor in Texas urban counties received these resources, but only about 25% in rural counties would.

In addition to these statistics, they obtained data from various policy documents and 46 interviews with rural county officials. The biggest finding was that indigent defense resources are delivered in two ways: The assigned counsel system (a judge meets the defendant in court and picks the lawyer for them), and the more modern version which goes through the public defender’s office where all the lawyers perform criminal defense work for the poor. The latter is more professional and formal. In rural counties, it is significantly less likely for a defendant to get representation, but if a rural county has a public defenders office, indigent defendants were significantly more likely to be represented. That closed the gap with the urban counties. Rates of representation in rural counties could match that of urban counties if they incorporate public defenders offices.

What are your goals?

Dr. Davies and his research team will be reviewing the data and analyzing it to further flesh out and test their findings. Long term, they wish to prove the value of indigent defense representation in the state of Texas. The main concern is that there are financially unstable defendants being put through the judicial system without appropriate representation and are prosecuted unfairly. This can lead to serious, but avoidable, consequences. There may be people that plead guilty even though they are innocent simply because they are not represented. When you are charged for something and don’t have anyone to help you find evidence, you may give in to the deal/charge presented to you by law enforcement personnel. The number of people who agree to these deals, just so they can return home, is shockingly high. The alternative is an undetermined period spent in jail. This results in a criminal record which prevents one from being able to work at certain places and disqualifies you from various benefits.

Dr. Davies is hoping to make clear recommendations to Texas to support the creation of indigent defense resources across the state, particularly in rural areas where people are not receiving proper representation. As a large-scale approach, his team must figure out the financial angle—because if prisons hold fewer people, they have to make budget cuts which lead to worse living conditions in the prison, and even limit the necessities. Overall, the pitch is to improve defense services and guarantee more equitable justice.

What resources have you needed to further your work? Have those resources been accessible?

The team received a grant from the Texas Bar Foundation, which lasted one year and funded the collection of the data. They have only worked to collect all the data, but they have not yet analyzed it. That is this coming year’s objective.

Have you faced any challenges? What are you doing to overcome them?

Knowing how to approach this research was a challenge at first. They found it difficult to conceptualize what they’re looking at and how they were going to do it. Developing the pieces for that was also a demanding task. For example, they needed to know who they were going to interview, and what type of questions they needed to ask. The interviews ended up being a total of 400,000 words, which is difficult to get through. They struggled to summarize everything since interviews are unstructured. To boil it down, they used a software program called NVivo, which acts as color-varied highlighters on steroids. They were able to create a list of texts to highlight, which the software would then categorize. They successfully developed one single list and had all researchers categorize the text once again. They then used statistics to compare whether each research member is categorizing the data the same way.

Having a consistent system where multiple people are working on the data can be beneficial as the entire group could better come to an agreement and be on the same page. The struggle is getting a team with a massive load of unstructured information to come to a consensus interpretation of what the information means. Fortunately, Thematic Analysis assisted the team in consolidating the information. It is easy to conduct research so long as every team member performs it the same way.

Thank you, Dr. Davies!