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Wednesday, October 5, 2011

October 2011 Graduate Student of the Month: Ishani Banerji


Ishani Banerji 
Department of Psychology and Brain Sciences 

Ishani Banerji
IU graduate student Ishani Banerji is enamored with the academic lifestyle.

“To me it seems like the perfect life, which probably makes me a huge nerd,” Banerji said. “But my favorite part of America is academic campuses. I feel the most at home on academic campuses; they’re familiar to me, comfortable. I know what is expected of me, I know the culture and I love that to some extent everyone here is engaged in the pursuit of knowledge. I just love it.”

“[For my undergraduate degree,] I went to this tiny liberal arts college called Denison University [in Granville, Ohio] where you simply have to form relationships with the people on campus. The faculty was so supportive, they were always there for me and became like a second family. For me, I really loved that idea of having that relationship and being embedded in this network of people who all really, really care about education.”

“At Denison, I was able to do a lot of research as an undergraduate because there aren’t any grad students. So I knew I loved doing research and [when I was working on my master’s degree] at Wake Forest I got to do a lot more research, particularly cross-cultural research, which I had become interested in my senior year of college.” she said.

At the big social psychology conference in January the year Banerji was looking for a doctoral program to join, she met a lot of graduate students from the places she would be interviewing with later that semester.

“As I was applying to Ph.D. programs, IU wasn’t my top choice. I thought who wants to be in the Midwest surrounded by cornfields? Then at this conference, I met a lot of students who barely gave me the time of day. But the IU students—I mean, the entire department—came to my poster presentation. They were all there and making that effort to make me feel welcome and I hadn’t even decided where I was going to go yet.”

It was at this same conference where she first met her current advisor Dr. Eliot Smith.

“Until that point, I felt that there were two kinds of faculty; the super-brilliant, super-productive, big names in their fields, but kind of [arrogant], and the faculty who are understanding and friendly, but haven’t done as much with their careers. The faculty I had met who were well-known in the field were just not people who I could look up to socially and personally. Dr. Smith is brilliant, but is totally un-egotistical about it,” she said.

“That brought me to IU.”

“I struggled a lot [with the decision] because I had other highly-ranked options, but because of my experience at Denison, that kind of colored it. I knew I wanted a place where I would be comfortable because you don’t want to be in a Ph.D. program that is highly ranked, but then hate yourself every day for three or four or five or six or however many years you’re going to be there [because you don’t feel like you belong]. It’s not worth it.”

Banerji is currently at the start of her fourth year. She took her qualifying exams last year.

“The social psychology program within the psychology department is the only one that has exams, like actual exams, whereas all the other programs do papers. It’s a two-day exam with three or four questions to answer each day, and about four hours a day to do so. It’s a summer of reading as much as you can and memorizing as much as you can because you can’t bring anything into the room when you take the exam,” she said.

“All the more senior students will tell you that the faculty aren’t interested in setting you up to fail—they want you to succeed, you’re going to be fine. So look at it as an opportunity to read a lot, and learn a lot and really get embedded in the literature; that all sounds fine, but before you take the exam it’s still really, really scary. But now, post-exam, that’s exactly what I’m telling the students who are taking it this year.”

At IU, Banerji’s research has taken a lot of different lines. She studies group emotions, an interest she picked up from working with her advisor, but Banerji gives it a cross-cultural twist.

“[Group emotions are] the emotions you experience when you think of yourself as a member of a certain group. So the emotions you would feel as a woman, or as an American, as opposed to the emotions you feel just as yourself,” she said. “My first project, which has now become this monster of a project that has taken me three years to get done is looking at American, Chinese and Germans [participants]. I have collaborators in both of those countries—it was actually amazing how I found those collaborators because nobody in my department does cross-cultural work,” she said.

The German collaborator was a graduate student from the University of Hamburg that she met at the annual social psychology conference. The Chinese collaborator is a more round-about story.

“We had a speaker from the University of Chicago come to the department to give a talk. I met her over lunch and was talking to her about my project and how I really wanted to collect some data from Asia. She said she knew this professor who teaches in New Zealand who happened to be going to China to give some talks. She put me in touch with him and he found two students in China who were interested in collaborating with the project.”

“It’s wonderful to me that the faculty in my department are so supportive of students doing work with other people. Right now I’m collaborating with three of the four faculty members in my department, including my advisor. This year I’ll be at Santa Barbara to work with my advisor’s collaborator, Diane Mackie. Santa Barbara has a much more diverse population so some of the research I’m interested in doing—looking at some of these various racial differences, stereotypes and prejudices, I can do over there a little bit more easily than at IU,” she said.

“It feels great to know that you have multiple lines of research and that there are multiple people out there that you can turn to for feedback and advice and just work with,” Banerji said. For example, in another line of Banerji’s research, she is working with another of her advisor’s students, Dr. Charles Seger, who recently graduated and is currently teaching in the UK.

“There has been a lot of research that suggests that when you have contact with the members of an out-group, so say white people interacting with African-Americans, that your prejudice towards that out-group goes down and you have a more positive outlook. So, research in this area has come up with lots of different versions of this main idea of contact. What I became interested in is the idea of physical contact, but not with the people of the out-group, but with the products of the out-group,” she said. This resulted in Banerji teaming up with Dr. B J Rydell on a project involving turbans.

“In the first study I did, we gave people turbans and we either had them look at the turban, or look and touch the turban if they wanted to, or they got no exposure to the turban. Then we measured their prejudice towards Muslims.” They are now repeating this study with do-rags and measuring prejudice against African-Americans.

“For the turban study we found that seeing the turban had some prejudice-reducing effect, but it was touching the turban that really seemed to make a difference. We’re hoping to see the same thing with the do-rag,” she said.

“I’m also going to be doing a study with Charlie in the UK where we’re going to be giving people hummus either labeled Nigel’s Bean Dip or call it something in Arabic with Arabic writing all over it. We’ll ask the subjects to taste it and we’ll measure their attitudes towards Muslims.”

“So that is the basic idea—that a lot of the time, when you’re interacting with a different culture, it’s not with the people, it’s seeing CNN’s coverage of terrorists or going to an ethnic food restaurant,” she said. “It’s all exciting.”


Media Contacts:
Erika Lee, Director of Communications, The University Graduate School, ebigalee@indiana.edu
Ana Saraceno, The IU Graduate and Professional Student Organization, gpso@indiana.edu

The Graduate and Professional Student Organization and the University Graduate School would like to congratulate Ishani Banerji on receiving the GPSO/UGS Recognition Award. Students selected for this award were nominated by a faculty member from within their department, and selected by the GPSO and UGS for excellence in their graduate studies at Indiana University.