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King Center graduate student researchers pause, then persist in the face of COVID-19 pandemic

Students transition to remote technologies to pursue their inquiries as the pandemic and other global crises continue.

When the first COVID-19 shut-down orders were put in place in early 2020, Kimberly Higuera ’20 MPP ’22 PhD had just been awarded research funding from the Stanford King Center on Global Development to do an exploratory study on how financial remittances from immigrants in the United States to family members in Mexico affect the social dynamics of both remitters and recipients.

At first, she wasn’t too worried about the travel bans, assuming the public-health crisis would subside in a few weeks or months.

“It seems so funny to me now,” she remembers. “I was like, ‘Can we push back the funding until July?’ I thought we’d be in person again. Of course, that didn’t happen.”

Kimberly Higuera
Kimberly Higuera

Instead, Higuera, like everyone else around the world, had to rethink…everything. She is among several King Center-funded graduate students who have had to adapt their research questions and processes to account for the ongoing pandemic, in most cases by shifting to remote technologies.

“At least I saved a lot on air fare,” jokes Higuera, a sociology PhD candidate who has been conducting her qualitative interviews with people over Zoom, WhatsApp, and the phone.

But, beyond learning how to be flexible in the face of unforeseen events, students say the real-world implications of the pandemic and other global crises have driven home the importance of the questions they’re asking. The remittances Higuera is studying, for instance, are worth more to the Mexican economy than oil exports or tourism and dropped precipitously at the start of the pandemic, causing Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador to ask immigrants living in the United States not to stop sending money. By the end of 2020, remittances had reached an all-time high (In November, Lopez Obrador thanked remitters in a special event in New York).

“I was worried there would be less people sending money,” Higuera remembers. “But when remittances rebounded, I was like, ‘How are people doing this?’”

To answer her questions, Higuera had to make major changes to her methodology. Instead of traveling to cities and states with large populations of remitters, she recruited participants for her qualitative interviews of remitters and the people they remit to on Facebook and Twitter, starting with people she knew from growing up in southern California. For her survey of several hundred people, she has hired Qualtrics in the U.S. and Ice Research in Mexico (she originally planned to do that work in-person in partnership with the Mexican Migration Project).

Higuera says conducting her interviews remotely has been an adjustment.

“I’m used to being able to gauge body language,” she says.

She also normally takes care to make sure interviews are private, something she can’t do over the phone or video conferencing technology. In some ways, however, her remoteness has given her a glimpse into family dynamics she otherwise might not see. On one call, she could hear a woman’s husband in the background asking whom his wife was speaking with.

“‘Her husband said, ‘I don’t like you talking about money,’” she remembers. “And all that’s in the data.”

For other students, the pandemic was not the only life-altering event affecting their research.

Jiwon Kim
Jiwon Kim

Jiwon Kim ’22 PhD, a political science PhD candidate, was about to buy a plane ticket to Myanmar for her in-person pilot study into how ethnic identity and ethnic conflict impact vote choice in Myanmar when the shut-down orders took effect in March 2020.

Kim had first traveled to Myanmar as an undergraduate student in 2015, when the country held democratic elections after half a century of military rule. Suddenly, the work she’d been planning for so long seemed impossible to complete.

“I was a little lost,” she says.

Like Higuera, Kim initially held out hope that the public-health crisis would end soon.

“To be honest, I thought if I waited three months, something would improve,” she recalls. “I was still waiting for things to open again.”

When things didn’t get better, however, Kim went back to the drawing board, finding inspiration in a King Center workshop about how to use WhatsApp for rapid-response research. Eventually, she shifted gears to a phone survey. Then, in February of this year, Myanmar’s military took over the government in a coup.

Her immediate thoughts were for the safety of the Myanmar people, whose protests were met with violence by the military.

“The world is bigger than my research,” she explains. “I realized the fact that I’m not going to be able to do my phone survey is not the problem. There are much more serious things going on. This country I had so much hope for was going in a downward spiral.”

Although Kim knows she may have to rethink her research again—or even relocate it—her current plan is to use Facebook to conduct a confidential survey to determine whether the protests against the coup are causing people to think beyond their own ethnic groups or to retreat further within them. What she finds could have broad implications for how people view societies with high ethnic diversity.

“Instead of assuming that ethnic identity will prevail in determining political patterns and choices, we can start to think about what brings people together,” she says.

Kim says a recent interview she conducted with someone in Myanmar made her realize just how important these issues are, even—or perhaps especially—in times of crisis.

When she asked the person to gauge their interest in politics, “They said, ‘That question doesn’t make sense. In Myanmar, everything is politics,’” Kim says.

“That really captured how the current situation is totally shaping people’s lives,” she says. “Their lives cannot be fathomed outside of politics. It’s humbling as a researcher to know that what I’m trying to study can’t be contained in theories or only in papers and books. It’s still going on.”

Reka Zempleni
Réka Zempléni

Réka Zempléni ’22 PhD also had research planned in Myanmar that was upended by the pandemic and the coup. After months of waiting, she and a co-researcher from Columbia University have decided to relocate to India their (now online) study of whether a psychological intervention—a focus on people’s ability to improve their skills over time—can help early-stage entrepreneurs.

“We learned our partner organization had closed down, so we realized, it’s just not going to happen [in Myanmar],” she explains.

Zempléni, a PhD candidate in economics, has two other King Center-funded research projects that were impacted—although less so—by the pandemic: a behavioral study into the high degree of optimism and high rate of failure among entrepreneurs in Colombia with Andrés Felipe Rodríguez ’24 PhD; and an inquiry in India into how personality tests can best be used to support entrepreneurs in developing countries. Both are now fully online.

In Colombia, Zempléni says the pandemic has made nearly everything about her research slower and harder, including approvals from the Institutional Review Board, identifying a large enough sample size for their now fully online survey, and getting responses from survey participants. She and Rodríguez also had planned to have the entrepreneurs they were studying participate in a business model competition that would have required them to speak to people in person about their ideas. That has become an online simulation of decision-making in the startup world.

Nevertheless, they are now in the final stages of data collection.

“It’s been quite a process,” she says.

Zempléni says her experience as a researcher during the pandemic “has made me realize that, even as someone who is fortunate enough to have all the resources of Stanford, there are things beyond our control.”

“It all comes down to being resilient and not giving up, no matter how many challenges come along,” she says.