Megan E. Wilhelm

Megan E. WilhelmMegan E. Wilhelm, who joined Sigma Xi in 2010, is a sociology doctoral student. She is studying educational settings in the hope that her findings can be used to produce more equitable learning environments for all students. 

Tell us about your educational background, including your doctoral research.

I graduated from Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, in 2010 with a BA in psychology and classics. I received high honors for my thesis entitled “The Effect of the Asperger’s and ADHD Labels on Peer Attitudes.” I taught first grade in New Haven, Connecticut, for two years as a Teach For America corps member, an experience that inspired me to pursue a doctoral degree in social science.

During the 2012–2013 academic year, I received a Fulbright Research Grant from the U.S. Department of State and Institute of International Education for the purpose of conducting social psychology research about contact in school environments between different ethnic groups in conflict on the island of Cyprus.

I am currently working toward a doctoral degree in sociology with a focus on social psychology and stratification at the University of Maryland—College Park. My long-term research goal is to study stereotypes and bias in different educational settings and, by extension, to determine what can be done to reduce their negative effects.

What is the focus of your current research?

My research focuses on stereotypes, bias, and intergroup contact in schools with an emphasis on the ways that these processes influence educational inequality. As the U.S. student population is becoming increasingly diverse, the teacher population is remaining racially and ethnically homogeneous. My general research question is: how does the lack of teacher diversity in U.S. public schools affect teacher-student interactions? Currently, I am studying how school diversity matters for teachers’ views on problems in schools (such as low student achievement or lack of resources) and whether the racial and ethnic composition of the student body influences teacher perceptions of the root causes of these problems.

One broader goal of my research is to cultivate a clearer understanding of what school environments best help students learn and develop. Another goal is to illuminate ways in which policymakers, administrators, and educators can respond to issues of educational inequality through programs and interventions that facilitate productive, positive student-teacher interactions in schools. The results of this research could provide valuable information to strengthen the case for nationwide initiatives to recruit and retain more diverse teachers.

Tell us about something we might see in our daily lives that directly correlates to your Megan E. Wilhelmwork.

My work is focused on interactions between groups that differ in race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, gender, etc., and the effect of school environments on this intergroup contact. If you follow the current media conversations about education reform in the U.S., you will find that issues of academic inequality, school desegregation, and teacher diversity are popular topics, all of which are related to contact between different groups in the U.S. education system.

Give us an example of how multidisciplinary research directly contributed to your work.

During my two years as a Teach For America corps member, I was exposed to education research regarding the achievement gap in the U.S. and how it impacts the academic and social horizons of students with different racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Many educators and education researchers have investigated how stereotypes perpetuate the disparity in academic achievement in the U.S. My exposure to education research in addition to my experiences as a teacher gave rise to several of my research questions about when, how, and why stereotypes manifest, particularly in academic environments, and how students and teachers respond to these stereotypes.

What are your thoughts on the future of STEM education?

The lack of diversity among those pursuing STEM careers is beginning to capture the attention of many scientists and researchers, and my hope for the future of STEM education is that women and members of underrepresented racial and ethnic groups will be equally able to share in and contribute to the success of STEM fields. I believe that the current inequality can be addressed in part by school curricula that encourage all students to explore STEM opportunities as well as a concerted effort to change the stereotypes that can inhibit women and members of other underrepresented groups from pursuing careers in STEM fields.

What has the honor of induction into Sigma Xi meant to you?

Being inducted into Sigma Xi in 2010 will always be connected to my memories of completing my honors thesis in psychology that same year. Independently conducting an experimental study for the first time was quite the experience, and being recognized by my professors and Sigma Xi as a promising researcher made it all the more meaningful. I appreciate that the members of Sigma Xi represent a variety of different disciplines, and I am proud to belong to a Society that values multidisciplinary research and endeavors to encourage young researchers.

What books are you currently reading for pleasure?

Memorial: A Version of Homer’s Iliad by Alice Oswald and Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do by Claude M. Steele.

When you’re not working on your research, what do you do in your free time?

Whenever I have the opportunity, I love to travel. Over the past five years, I have traveled to 14 countries, and I am excited to explore more in the future. I also love getting lost in bookstores for hours at a time, baking cupcakes, and planning social events for my colleagues and friends.

What’s your favorite movie?

Forrest Gump—I laugh, I cry, it’s wonderful.

What is your favorite motto?

You must be the change you wish to see in the world.
–Mahatma Gandhi

What advice would you give a young researcher just starting out in your field?

Take advantage of every opportunity you are presented with and use each new experience as a chance to discover what inspires and challenges you as a researcher. Don’t be afraid of failure or the unknown and try to live the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) school motto in all of your endeavors: Work hard. Be nice.

What advances do you see in your field of research over the next 100 years?

I see social psychology research having more of an impact on shaping public and social policy. I think that a great deal of the research in my field has the potential to make meaningful contributions toward reducing inequality and improving intergroup relations, both domestically and globally. As we learn more about human interaction, we become better equipped to determine what actionable steps can be taken to create positive and productive intergroup relations.

Do you have a particular teacher or professor who inspired your love of science? Why?

Dr. Irene Lopez, one of my professors in the Psychology Department at Kenyon College was, and continues to be, a tremendously inspiring teacher and mentor who helped me discover my passion for the field of social psychology. She challenged me to ask deeper questions, thoughtfully consider new perspectives, and relentlessly strive for more research opportunities. Four years later, I still consider her one of my most valuable sounding boards. I deeply appreciate her reminders to pause every now and again to celebrate achievements and to always remember the human element in scientific research.