Prsni Patel grew up in Mumbai, a city of 18.5 million people – as if New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston and Phoenix were combined into one.
So, when she heard about the research of Josh Rottman, assistant professor of psychology & scientific and philosophical studies of mind, Patel suspected she might be able to provide a different perspective.
Since arriving at Franklin & Marshall College more than three years ago, Rottman has done a series of studies on how children and adults label people as "dirty" – both physically and metaphorically. What does "dirtiness" signal, and does that attitude change as we get older?
When that research was discussed in class, Patel wondered whether the answers from Indians would match those of Americans, especially considering India's history with a caste system.
Rottman secured funding, and Patel spent part of her summer break conducting parallel research with children in Mumbai. Patel, a junior psychology major, will present her preliminary findings, "Do Indians 'cast away' dirty individuals? Exploring biases against uncleanliness in Mumbai," at this month's autumn research fair.
To pursue her research, Patel first secured permission to have young children participate, then she changed some minor details to be sure the questions could be understood across cultures without compromising the validity of the answers.
Shown photos of people in dirty and clean T-shirts, the children were asked: Who do you trust more? Which adjectives would you pair with the "clean" child? With the "dirty" child? Who would you be friends with?
On her return to campus, Patel started entering data for analysis, learning how to write computer syntax so the program would organize the data appropriately.
During her sophomore year, Patel finished an independent study on how adolescents handle rejection. This year, as a junior, her independent study centers around emotional regulation.
Those opportunities, as well as the chance to initiate her own research project in Mumbai, fit her goals for choosing F&M. Instead of a college education that would tie her to one path of study, she said she "went with my gut," and opted for a small liberal arts college, where she could explore different majors and several fields of study.
Patel’s figuring out the population she wants to work with, as well as her specific area of interest, but her work at F&M enables her to sort out answers to those questions thoughtfully. It's an undergraduate atmosphere, she said, in which "professors are interested in hearing your thoughts and seeing how they can link them to their own work."