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Masters Applied Research Projects 2023


In this year’s blog, two students describe their research. Emily Moore undertook research into food insecurity, asking how alternative food initiatives might better support low-income citizens, while Xiangruo Dai investigated gender and STEM subject choices among taught postgraduate and integrated masters students.

A preface by Professor Sarah Irwin, Director of the Centre for Research on Families, the Life Course and Generations (FLaG).

Every year we offer a range of Applied Research Projects to our masters students enabling them to undertake research in partnership with non-academic organizations and ensuring its policy and practice relevancies. Our students present their research findings to the partners and invited stakeholders. This is a great opportunity and is hugely valued by partners and students alike. In this year’s blog, two students describe their research. In collaboration with Leeds City Council, Emily Moore undertook research into food insecurity, asking how alternative food initiatives might better support low-income citizens. Through interviews across diverse Pay-As-You-Feel community cafes, Emily found that the wider policy goal of food independence was not straightforwardly shared by customers and volunteers in the cafes and that other vulnerabilities and support needs might be even more pressing including, in particular, the profound importance of supportive social relationships gained through the cafes. Emily’s research has influenced Leeds City Council’s thinking in this important area. Xiangruo Dai pursued research into gender and STEM subject choices across taught postgraduate and integrated masters students at University. This was in partnership with the UoL Physics Education Research Group which supports activities such as outreach to local schools, student engagement and employability. Xiangruo ran interviews with women and men studying physics and biological sciences with a focus on their pathways, motivations, experiences and expectations. The data on participants’ educational pathways and the ‘majority/minority’ sampling of contrasting disciplines enabled interesting insights into gendered dynamics. Xiangruo was encouraged by our partner to apply to attend a national physics education conference where he won the best research poster award as he explains below.

The emergence of alternative food provision for low-income people across Leeds, by Emily Moore

Following the COVID-19 pandemic and the soaring cost of living, hunger and food insecurity are increasingly characterising the experiences of low-income people across Leeds. Emergency food distribution services have proliferated to meet these immediate needs. Longer-term approaches, such as alternative food initiatives (AFIs) are being explored in policy and literature as sustainable and socially appropriate ways to help low-income people in Leeds achieve food resilience. This applied research project focused specifically on the role of community cafes, which operate Pay-As-You-Feel (PAYF) menus, in Leeds and whether these AFIs are effectively meeting the needs of low-income people in the city.

The project was conducted in collaboration with Leeds City Council to inform their development of a Food Security and Inclusive Growth Strategy. They were specifically interested in whether AFIs, which claim to provide a care-focused and people-centred approach to tackling hunger, would help reduce dependency on emergency food provision. This reduced reliance was hypothesised as helping an individual or family move towards a state of ‘food independence’, whereby they are no longer reliant on charitable food provision. In response, this applied project sought to answer the following three research questions:

  1. To what extent is ‘food independence’ an appropriate policy objective of central and local government given the financial and logistical constraints facing low-income people?
  2. Do alternative models of food provision offer appropriate mechanisms through which to achieve food justice?
  3. What benefits and risks do alternative models of food provision offer to low-income communities and organisations delivering them across Leeds?

To answer these questions, 22 semi-structured interviews were conducted with customers, members of staff and volunteers from 6 diverse community cafes across Leeds. Interviews were recorded, transcribed and then coded to identify themes in the data. Anonymised quotes from a range of interviewees were presented in the final piece of writing as evidence of key points, but also to ensure that the language and experiences of the interviewees were consistently foregrounded.

One of the most significant findings of this project was that the goal of ‘food independence’ somewhat contradicted the goals that customers, volunteers and members of staff had for their community cafes. Care, relationality and recognition of mutual vulnerability were central to the mission and vision of all community cafes. Workers in these spaces felt that moving towards ‘food independence’ was not necessarily an appropriate goal for their most vulnerable customers, who depended on deepening their social and emotional relationships within community cafes for survival. For others, ‘food independence’ may have been an appropriate goal, but it could not be achieved without first strengthening social relationships and thus embracing a level of emotional vulnerability, leading to the conclusion that the journey towards independence was never linear.

The benefits and risks of community cafes were also identified through this research. The main benefits were that the cafes provided safe and accessible spaces for low-income people to socialise and build community, in some cases safer than their own homes. They also provided important guidance and signposting towards additional, specialised support such as housing application assistance or language classes. However, a major risk was that workers in the cafes were often facing burnout resulting from the overwhelming demand for person-centred support and the limited supply available from their cafes. The workers felt they were ill-equipped to support so many vulnerable individuals with complex and diverse needs, meaning they could not provide the level of care they would like.

These findings were presented to members of the Leeds City Council financial inclusion team. The presentation and following discussion highlighted potential inconsistencies with local and national governments’ linear approach to achieving food independence. This led to interesting reflections on how appropriate the concept of a ‘food independence ladder’ was. The team also valued seeing the direct quotes from community café customers and workers and expressed their interest in using the evidence and analysis of my research project to support their ongoing work around sustainable and inclusive economic growth in the city.

Who Finishes in the Marathon of Science? Experiences and Motivations of Postgraduate Students in Physics and Biology, by Xiangruo Dai

The persistent and widespread gender gap in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Maths) education and careers has led to an abundance of theories seeking to explain the phenomenon. Despite this, most studies have focused on secondary and undergraduate students, leaving postgraduate education under-researched. My project aimed to determine the presence and extent of gender gaps amongst postgraduates through the lens of two overarching theories to determine their applicability beyond the undergraduate level: Science Capital Theory and Pipeline Theory.

In partnership with the Physics Education Research Group (PERG) in the School of Physics and Astronomy (University of Leeds), my applied research project investigated the following three research questions:

1) “To what extent is childhood science capital important for male and female students in choosing and persevering in STEM?”

2) “What are the most significant factors that encourage students towards postgraduate study in physics and biology?”

3) “Do male and female students in physics and biology postgraduate programmes have differing experiences when studying STEM?”

My research design was qualitative, with data gathered through a series of semi-structured interviews with postgraduate students from both the Faculty of Biological Sciences and the School of Physics and Astronomy. I compared physics to biological science because the former is majority-male and the latter majority-female, allowing me to examine differences and similarities in the experiences of minority-gender respondents.

In my analysis, I focused on three main areas. Firstly, a very marked difference across the data related to students’ accounts of their motivations and pathways to studying sciences at postgraduate level. I characterised 3 groupings as follows: the “Early Resolvers” were committed to their chosen subject from an early age and had always expected to pursue it come what may;  “Uncertain in University” students made the choice to study STEM after much uncertainty, and “Career Drivers” studied STEM with career benefits in mind. Although women and men were spread quite evenly within these categories, there were proportionately fewer female Early Resolvers in my sample, potentially suggesting a wider gendered dynamic at play where young women are more likely than young men to be stalled in pursuing their science studies to masters level. My second main area of analysis related to science students’ identities and it showed that females were more reflective about questions of gender in pursuing their studies than were males, regardless of their status as a minority or majority gender. For example, females in both physics and biology (as minority and majority gender respectively) brought up gendered interactions and experiences through their education, while males in both subjects rarely brought up gender or attributed importance to it. Finally, Science Capital Theory appeared to be more relevant for undergraduate motivations but was less applicable for postgraduate motivations and experiences, whereas Pipeline Theory was applicable for postgraduate motivations but not experiences. What this means is that motivations to study a first degree were influenced by childhood experiences and environments suggesting that participants’ early exposure to science influenced their education to the undergraduate level but no further. On the other hand, gendered “dropping out” experiences at the postgraduate level happen before enrolment; someone who is likely to quit science has already done so by matriculation into a masters programme.

Considering the findings, it is important to increase STEM outreach beyond the core “Early Resolvers” and emphasise the relevance and applicability of STEM degrees. While science outreach programmes do try to “onboard” those who might not traditionally be STEM-oriented, further emphasising the use of STEM degrees beyond STEM could make its efforts even more successful.

In the summer I was able to share the findings of my project with the relevant stakeholders from PERG. During the preparation process, I quickly learned that there’s a big difference between knowing your results and communicating those results effectively - an important skill for a researcher from any field, but not one that’s widely taught in the classroom! Fortunately, the group from PERG was friendly and their feedback helped me improve my presentation skills and inspired me to consider other findings in a new light. Furthermore, the partners also recommended I apply to ViCEPHEC, an annual national joint chemistry and physics education conference. This was my first national-level conference where I was pleased to present a poster on my Applied Project and I even won the Lillian McDermott Award in Physics Education Research from the Institute of Physics Higher Education group.  I was provided with funding to attend the conference and it was a fantastic opportunity for networking, communicating, and learning from peers in the field.

In conclusion, the entire research project from start to finish was challenging but immensely rewarding because of the skills I gained through the opportunities to share my findings. It was an integral part of my growth as a student, science communicator, and researcher, and I would recommend the Applied Research Project to any masters student seeking the same.