A qualitative research lab for students to learn and make an impact

Maria de los Angeles Villareal made an unexpected discovery during her first year on the Forty Acres: qualitative research. Commonly used in the social sciences, qualitative research involves working with text (words, narratives, stories, even images) instead of numbers.

“I’d never been interested in research,” Villareal said. “I thought it was something you do in a lab, and that involved too many numbers and statistics. I thought research was irrelevant to me, as a social work student.”

Villareal’s perspective began to change last summer when she discovered best-selling author and social worker Brené Brown (BSW ’95), who in her viral TEDTalk “The power of vulnerability” explains how she used people’s stories for her research.  Around that same time, Villareal met Steve Hicks School professor Lauren Gulbas.

“While speaking with professor Gulbas I realized that she did qualitative research too. I learned about her project on Latinx adolescents and mental health, which is a topic I am very interested in,” Villareal said.

Last semester Villareal joined the Advanced Qualitative Research Lab, which Gulbas created  to give UT Austin undergraduates an opportunity to gain hands-on experience with this type of research.

“There are many lab spaces on campus where students can get research experience, but it is usually based on quantitative or traditional, hard-science models,” Gulbas said. “As a qualitative researcher, I work with text, and I wanted to open a space for undergraduates to learn how to do that.”

The informal lab is structured as a seminar class, with a syllabus, reading list and weekly meetings. Students learn the intricacies of qualitative research by working on specific projects under Gulbas’ supervision. Depending on the project, students may collect data from recorded interviews, conduct analysis with software specific for qualitative data, or brainstorm ways of presenting results in accessible formats that are useful for relevant communities.


Maria Villareal talks with professor Lauren Gulbas. Photo by Montinique Monroe

Social work student Maria de los Angeles Villareal talks with professor Lauren Gulbas during a lab session on February 15, 2020. Photo by Montinique Monroe.

The community engagement aspect of the lab is what attracted Villareal the most.

“I like it that the information we produce at the lab is not only for other scholars to read but for the families and the people that needed it the most,” Villareal said. “Social work research is much more than gathering data and publishing it. It’s about getting to know a population, and learning from them without assuming we know the solution to their problem. That’s exactly what we are doing at the lab, we are learning from the populations we work with to better help them.”

During the fall semester, Villareal worked on a project that seeks to understand the causes of suicide attempts among Latinx adolescents. Under Gulbas’ guidance, Villareal and her teammates read closely through summaries of interviews conducted with teenagers who had attempted suicide. Through this analysis, the students found common themes such as histories of domestic violence, the effects of having an  incarcerated parent, or the difficulties that Latinx members of the LGBTQ community face.

Gulbas said that working so closely with qualitative material on topics such as suicide can take a toll on researchers.

“In the  lab we talk about what it’s like to analyze data that it’s up close and personal with trauma, which is something that many times gets glossed over in research circles,” Gulbas said. “The students in the lab and I are writing an article on their experiences with this and what strategies can we implement to cope.”

Villareal said that despite the fact that reading through the interview summaries has been emotionally draining, she finds hope in the fact that the research will help Latinx adolescents. With her team, she is using the research findings to develop easy-to-read newsletters that create awareness about suicide and provide resources for families as well as health-care providers that serve the Latinx community.

“Before the lab, I hadn’t really thought about qualitative data, how interesting it could be, and how you can use it to address problems in society,” Villareal said. “I’m really happy about how we are trying to translate this high level academic language to  make it accessible to everyone, getting the information out to the people who need it.”

By Andrea Campetella. Posted February 19, 2020.