- Columbia University
- United States of America
About Neely McKee
Research at the Columbia University Sabin Center for Climate Change Law in Summer and Fall 2020 and Vrije Universiteit Brussel in Summer 2022. Columbia Class of 2023, BA candidate studying urban history.
I am working in Ghana this summer through a GLiA program. The experience has been great, and I have quickly realized how variable NGO field work can be. I have been able to experience the city of Accra, coasts of Gomoa and Cape Coast, and rural communities in the Lake Volta regions. We quickly realized how field work can constantly change where you are needed as well as what occupations you need to fill on a day-to-day basis. After meeting with staff here at World Vision, my project changed to better suit my past experience and qualifications. I am going to work alongside NGO staff engaging with local communities in the Volta region and advocating for the rights of children in both educational and health contexts. This includes engaging with children and their guardians to assess community needs, and I now have the opportunity to meet with community leaders such as the district assembly and chief.
As I am starting to work on my community engagement project here in Ghana, my position in such a new environment has made me feel insecure when communicating with people who have been tackling the same issues for decades. However, I have been able to set aside those insecurities by remembering how I am here to learn and engage with both the communities we are working with and the staff as well. I began to recognize how I have a lot to learn but also have my own experiences and knowledge that I can contribute. I was invited to participate in an annual staff retreat where dozens of workers from all over Ghana came together. By putting aside my insecurities around my lack of experience compared to other workers, I was able to engage with experts on health, education, child advocacy, etc. Everyone was very welcoming and excited to discuss their work and experience and help us learn more about the work they do.
My project last summer focused on obstacles immigrant-origin students faced in New York City. My research analysis and literature review included child advocacy but was focused on racialization and sense of belonging. The work I am doing this summer still centers around education and child advocacy, but it also allows me to explore more work dealing with human rights. I have been using colleagues as a tool because they have been able to help me bridge my past experience and knowledge to the work I am doing now.
Hi Victor! It's great to read about your research, it sounds really important. You bring up a really good point regarding working with people who have already been doing this work for so long - I like how you mention how this is an opportunity for you to learn and contribute as much as you are able. Good luck with everything, hope your summer is off to a good start!
This summer, I have learned a lot about how to communicate data/findings and collaborate with other researchers in an effective way. Beyond working with GIS or gaining other technical experience, I have learned how to work with people in a team setting, constructively share research findings and methods, and critically navigate geography I am a foreigner to. For my project, I am mainly working with Elsa, a PhD student at the university, who has been incredibly helpful. While she is only a couple of years older than me, it is great to see someone working in the field and enjoying what they do. Elsa is always there to answer minor GIS questions, but also offers advice regarding grad school and future plans. It has been incredibly enjoyable to see her success and willingness to help others in an environment I am completely new to. While my time in Brussels will only be six weeks, it has been great to really get to know (and work with!) Elsa and the other members of the geography department.
My project this summer involves working at the DLR (German Aerospace Center) in Berlin; through my work here, I am executing a scientific outreach plan to emphasize the importance of space research, and all the ways to get involved. Last summer, I worked purely in a laboratory setting, conducting astrobiology research regarding biosignatures (signs of life on other planets). This summer, I bring with me all of the things I learned and can put them into practice. I will be involved in a field expedition in Vulcano, Italy, where I will work with other researchers, and present findings from my last summer to university students. Additionally, I will be documenting the day-to-day on social media, to reach a broader audience.
There is a feeling of wanting to do something totally new and innovative in the scientific community. As researchers, I think the only way to avoid saying something that has already been said is to actively communicate with other researchers in the field. Through exposure to the European astrobiology community, I discovered a project that was very similar to a separate project proposal I was writing. To get around the issue of saying something that has been said, I had to come up with a proposal to fill in gaps and supplement the work that is already being done. Research should go beyond insecurities; if we can communicate, we can make better use of resources and broaden our understanding of the world, instead of hyper-focusing on one aspect of a field.
Hi Ava! Wow, that sounds really interesting, it's nice to hear how you are communicating your findings and working on outside projects in addition to fieldwork. Regarding the pressure of finding new/innovative conclusions, I think you make an important point about communication and working with others. One's pride should not get in the way of advancing our knowledge/research as a whole.
Given the official six week timeline, I have had to work to narrow my project—this has been one of the main challenges of my time this summer. There is only so much you can do in six weeks no matter how enthusiastic or persistent you are! Here, I have made sure to not only limit the scope of my research but also work with other researchers to use existing data sets or sources for my final project. Additionally, another interesting challenge I encountered was how Belgian sources collected or quantified race. Belgium does not officially collected ethnicity-based data, making some of the analysis I was originally planning to do more difficult. It is incredibly interesting to see how other countries perceive racial or ethnic identity in contrast to the US. Speaking with other researchers at the university, they explained how the absence of this data made certain projects quite complicated as they have to either collect original data or look at other statistics that could influence one’s racial identity (eg languages spoken at home, immigration status, etc). Given what data is collected, many projects I’ve seen instead focus on immigration rates to certain areas and the establishment of distinct enclaves within the city for various communities.
In many ways has my time this summer at VUB has introduced me to new fields of interest. Many projects within the department focus on greenspace and mobility, which has motivated me to look more into this for my own project. It has been great to see how others work can both inspire and challenge your own. Further, even just walking around or exploring Brussels has influenced my research questions as parts of the city—like certain neighborhoods or park spaces—pique my interest. It has been great to see how my time here has influenced my own work and curiosity.
What does a typical day of your research/community engagement look like? Aside from a narrative description, upload a photo, video and/or other media submission!
When I first started my project, I definitely focused most of my time on updating myself on current research in general, but I have now expanded my project to meeting with people with scholarly or personal background in the Marshall Islands. In the latter part of the summer, I will be helping my mentor go through a collection of items from the Marshall Islands to help create a community exhibit.
Hi Anna! Its so great to hear about your project, I hope its going well it sounds fascinating! Good luck with your exhibit, I think that's a nice way to both highlight your work and engage with local efforts/community members - it will be interesting to see what you choose to showcase.
During my time in Brussels, I usually wake up, head to the office at the university on the bus or train and get started on work by 9:30. At VUB, I both help out with a specific research team’s project focused on greenspace access and mobility in Brussels and work on my own independent project. My coworkers and I usually get lunch at the school’s cafeteria around noon (where I attempt to try local Belgian food) and then continue working into the afternoon. Sometimes I attend talks or meetings within the geography department during that time. I then head back home via bus or train and spend my evenings going on bike rides/walks to explore the city, meeting up with a friend from Columbia who is also in Brussels for the summer, or getting dinner with coworkers. In Brussels, there seems to be a large bar/”terrace” culture of people sitting outside bars or restaurants in the evenings - there are always a lot of people around taking advantage of the 10pm sunsets.
Given my research’s urban geography focus, I try to use my commute or free time to really get a sense of the city. As a newcomer to Brussels, it is incredibly interesting to see how its residents enjoy its local environment and how its urban infrastructure promotes mobility around the city. Even just taking the train a couple of stops or going on a walk can be both a fun new experience and chance to further deepen my research. Here I attached some photos from my time in Brussels. One shows the boat canal tour I went on two weeks ago with the geography department, and another humorously depicts some dogs sniffing a peeing dog statue near my airbnb (Brussels is noted for having a main “peeing boy” statue famous among tourists, and a small dog one constructed in inspiration to the confusion of some local dogs),
For the first half of my undergraduate career, my pursuits have largely been unified by the central thread of a fascination with genetics. This summer, I’m making the transition from exploring genetics as a researcher- to serving those who are vulnerable in the genetics field.
Last summer, I conducted two types of research. As a part of the Laidlaw program, I conducted qualitative bioethics research on precision medicine research, a field that promises to combine genetic, environment, and lifestyle data in personalizing healthcare. Outside of Laidlaw, I conducted basic biology research on CRISPR genome engineering technologies in the Sternberg Lab.
This summer, my goal is to serve the rare genetic disease community through two simultaneous projects- one in-person and one virtual. First, I will be developing virtual support groups for the parents of youth with sickle cell disease (a rare genetic blood condition) through the Cambridge-based non-profit called NextStep. I was inspired to create these support groups through my past experience leading a NextStep program called STRIVE, which mentors youth with sickle cell. In STRIVE, we occasionally host programs called “sickle cell panels” where our program mentees learn from and pose questions to older folks also living with sickle cell. Youth have always remarked how eye-opening these panels have been, so the basic idea was: why not allow the parents of these youth also connect, share resources, and offer support to one another?
In tandem, I will be in-person volunteering at the Terence Cardinal Cooke (TCC) Healthcare Center in NYC. The TCC offers both long-term and short-term care in the form of a traditional nursing home, sub-acute rehabilitation program, specialty hospital for youth, and, most famously, a dedicated care unit for those with Huntington’s disease (a rare genetic neurodegenerative brain disorder). The latter is where I will be spending the bulk of my time, where I hope to get a better sense of what it is like working in hospice care and, more specifically, caring for those with a rare neurodegenerative disease.
As different as my aforementioned research might appear from my more service-oriented work this summer, one transferable skill (or tool) that I’ll be taking with me is the ability to navigate an inter-disciplinary, highly collaborative setting. Last summer, whether my colleagues specialized in anthropology, data science, or molecular biophysics, drawing on diverse talents, while clearly communicating what our high-level goals were, allowed me to move research projects forward in a quicker, more organized fashion. This summer, I will similarly find myself in multi-disciplinary, collaborative settings filled with recreational therapists, physicians, and non-profit program directors. It will be really important to continue leveraging diverse expertise to further my project goals!
Hello, I really enjoyed reading about your work! It sounds incredibly interesting and engaging with both medical research and community advocacy. I'm actually from Cambridge and would love to learn more about NextStep!
Seeing as my project mainly consists of mapping Brussels or using local geography-based data, it is interesting to examine a researcher’s personal impact upon their own conclusions. Here, how can maps—which may seem (on a surface level) quite unbiased or simple—actually reflect larger issues or biases given their creation or framing? While my data, at least in its earlier stages, is less ethnographic or qualitative, I must focus on how to respectively interact with a community I am completely new to. As I am at a university working with researchers both from the Brussels area and also very new to it, it is important to consider the relationship between academia and the communities it intends to serve. Here, I am interested to see to what degree this dynamic is different from previous work in New York. Interestingly, last night, I went to a cafe with some of my coworkers and one of them mentioned how she hosted an outreach event there for her PhD research. As I am so used to hearing about online surveys or data collection, it was nice to hear about how events like that can engage with the local community in less formal and potentially more accessible ways.
Given my position as an American visiting Brussels for only six weeks, I think it is important to consider my own newness to the subject matter. As I hone in on my research and potential public-facing parts of my project, I am not sure to what degree I should include myself or my position—this is an interesting question for a project like Laidlaw which can be so flexible. As I continue to immerse myself in the Brussels area and examine its built environment for my project, I am excited to see how much my own position both challenges or enhances my own conclusions as I coming from an entirely different perspective.