Just like anything in life, research does not always follow predetermined directions. So how do you get through the twists and turns, the long nights spent with your nose buried in books and eyes glued to a screen, the endless hours of combing through archives? Well, good old-fashioned coffee and rest breaks are what graduate student Nicholas Kolenda swears by. (He also recommends you always check the footnotes!)

Nicholas, who is pursuing an MA in International and Regional Studies (MIRS) with a focus on Middle Eastern and North African Studies (MENAS), provided insight into his research at the virtual II Graduate Student Lightning Talks on Friday, March 26. The event provided space for current MIRS students to give speedy and stimulating talks on topics related to their studies: from theses, to study-abroad experiences, to labors in learning languages.

The second in four students, Nicholas delivered, “‘Hubb al-Waṭan min al- Īmān; Love of the Homeland is a Part of the Faith’: Investigating the late 19th Century, Proto-Nationalist, Anti-Sectarian, Beiruti Christian Bourgeoisie with Research Reflections.” The title, he explained, is “based on a hadith which is considered to be weak or spurious, first used in the modern context by the Egyptian writer al-Tahtawi.” Originally, he had been studying patterns in Christian discourse when his research led him into the territory of political economy. While Nicholas himself was surprised about this new direction for his thesis, his peers, including Katherine Downs, fellow CMENAS Master’s student, were not. In their shared classes she had observed his training in political science and critical analysis.

Mai Ze Vang, of Southeast Asian Studies and Public Policy, spoke about her experiences in Thai-language classes. Japanese studies’ Kyle laChance presented “Deus ex Anime - The Catholic Church in Anime.” Makarem Eljamel, in a dual-degree program at CMENAS and Urban Planning, laid out her interdisciplinary thesis work in “From Medina to Eir: Lineages of Urban Redevelopment in Downtown Haifa.”

As scientists and thesis writers will tell you, research starts with inquiry. Mekarem wanted to answer: “How do planning decisions impact planning development?” Specifically, her question related to the urban-planning decisions made in downtown Haifa (now a port city in Israel) during the British mandate of the 20th century. Mekarem’s thesis is mainly “housed” in the School of Architecture and Urban Planning, a requirement for which she was grateful since she needed more faculty direction and support in that discipline.

Like her peers, Mekarem ended her lightning talk with apt advice on the logistics of writing a thesis at U-M. She recommends coming in with a good idea of what you want to pursue, who you want to work with, and what archives you need to access. On top of that, keep funding options in mind and sign up for relevant newsletters (you never know what opportunities lie on the pages of the center newsletters sitting in your inbox!).

Mekarem and Nicholas both plan to continue their education and expand upon their theses by pursuing PhDs in their respective fields of urban planning and political science. These two scholars will surely make good use of the skills acquired while doing research in a global pandemic, which made access to archives and necessary documents fairly difficult. In Nicholas’s words, you find “interesting ways to work with what you’ve got.” Perhaps the coffee and rest breaks will accompany their doctoral work as well, and the two will use additional tips and tricks to expect the unexpected in the world of research.