Note: Grace Adcox is a researcher in the ROCCA Lab.
Established in January 2019, the Research on Conflict and Collective Action (ROCCA) Lab has already made its mark in social science research at Vanderbilt. Led by Dr. Emily Hencken Ritter, a second-year Associate Professor of Political Science and current Director of Graduate Studies in the department, the ROCCA lab promises undergraduates the opportunity to develop a variety of valuable research skills over the course of their tenure in the lab.
In fitting with the aspirations of the Immersion Vanderbilt program, Dr. Ritter envisioned ROCCA as a nexus of cooperative research between undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty members. ROCCA received a College of Arts and Sciences Immersion Scholar Grant after Dr. Ritter developed a four year Immersion sequence for the students in the lab. Students in the lab begin with courses in general research skills while they are paired with two faculty research teams. This allows students to experience different methods of research and project types. As they progress through the Immersion Pathway, students can refine their interests and help lead teams in which they have the most experience, culminating with an Immersion project to be completed as a senior.
ROCCA’s mission statement states that members of the lab seek to “collaboratively produce evidence-based social science research on conflict and collective action problems, thereby inspiring public solutions to global questions.” Collaborative projects in the ROCCA lab enable students to develop strong connections to eight faculty mentors in the Political Science Department, as well as a team of dedicated graduate students.
Undergraduate researchers just starting out in the lab can enroll in the directed course section of ROCCA, a skill development class taught by Dr. Ritter and guest lecturers. These instructors lead workshops on topics ranging from the production of literature reviews to the analysis of quantitative data. Veteran student researchers who have already taken the class have the opportunity to pursue ROCCA research for independent study credit. These returning students also have the opportunity to present research outside the lab at research fairs.
For students like Ankit Patel, a member of the class of 2022, ROCCA offers an opportunity to learn about the challenges of research. He recognized, through his participation in the total research process alongside his faculty mentor, that “not all progress will be shown through perfectly wrapped up results.”
These research teams approach a broad spectrum of topics in international relations and political science more generally. Current research projects in the lab include: The Evolution of International Organizations, Diplomacy and Change in the International System, Reducing Prejudice toward Refugees, Learning from Nuclear Proliferation, Small Arms Trade Networks and Political Violence, and Violence Against Journalists in Mexico, among other projects.
This extensive spectrum creates a research environment in which not only political science, but also computer science, language studies, sociology, human and organizational development, and a wide variety of other disciplines are represented. Unlike many of the niche labs on campus that focus on narrow research questions, this broad and interdisciplinary collaboration generated wide campus appeal in the first semester of ROCCA’s operation.
With 40 undergraduate researchers and around a dozen faculty and graduate students, ROCCA is already one of the largest labs on campus, and certainly one of Vanderbilt’s strongest social science labs. “Being involved in social science research gives a person a much more discerning eye for any information that they get,” claims Dr. Ritter. “Whether that is medical information from their doctor, fake news from a politician, or any of the generalized statistics that we hear in our daily lives, basic social science skills allow us to better process the information we get from around us.
In a contentious global climate, wrought with misinformation and quick judgments, the research produced by the ROCCA lab will be a strong asset to Vanderbilt University and the broader community. Beyond the scope of the research itself, ROCCA promises to train critical researchers who will influence the world with their innovative policies and solutions.