Four years ago Marsha Sowell, a senior political science major in UNT's Honors College, had never heard of the National Science Foundation or the Ronald E. McNair Post-Baccalaureate Achievement Program. She didn't know about research grants. She barely knew about college. But she thought maybe she wanted to be a lawyer and she knew she'd have to go to college to become one.

Marth Sowell

Marsha Sowell

In a few days she'll graduate with honors as a UNT McNair Scholar. Earlier this year she was named a 2010 recipient of the National Science Foundation's Graduate Research Fellowship, for her research regarding the impact of human rights reporting on civil conflict intensity. This means she'll earn an annual $30,000 stipend for three years and an additional $10,500 each year as a cost of education allowance. Later this summer she leaves for Penn State University where she'll continue her research and begin working toward her doctoral degree.

Her research shows that ordinary people can potentially save lives

Sowell investigates whether or not reports on human rights violations in specific countries lead to decreased intensity of civil conflicts.

"I look at whether international organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch are effective when they send out reports on human rights abuses, to see whether these reports have an impact on the state in question," Sowell explains.

"Usually when a state is involved in civil conflict, there are numerous human rights violations going on, so I'm looking at whether reporting has an impact on the conflict.

"I'm finding that human rights reporting causes states to issue threats of sanctions and resolutions against the state in violation, which in turn reduces conflict intensity. As a result, the reporting indirectly reduces conflict intensity, which means fewer human right violations – and people's lives being saved," Sowell says. "So by getting out the word about where violations are happening, individuals in these organizations can actually help to decrease conflict intensity, which translates to fewer human rights violations associated with intense conflict."

She believes her research can help policy-makers understand the connection between human rights violations and conflict. She hopes that one day, research like hers can be used to predict and forecast events like genocide before it reaches the full-blown scale, so other nations can step in and persuade violating states to change.

Why UNT was Sowell's No. 1 choice

Sowell's reasons for choosing UNT were simple: she needed a university with lots of options, where she could really interact with faculty, but that wasn't too expensive.

"I had to go somewhere affordable, with a low cost of living because my family couldn't help me financially," says Sowell, who will be the first in her family to earn a college degree. "I wasn't 100 percent sure what I wanted to study and I thought a big university would have a lot of things to try.  

UNT's low student to faculty ratio really appealed to Sowell because it meant she would have the opportunity to know her faculty members.

"UNT was the only university I applied to," she says.

Sowell's path to success

Sowell enrolled in UNT's Honors College where she learned about research, the research process, research grants and the Ronald E. McNair Program. The McNair Program is a federally-funded program that prepares undergraduates who are the first in their families to attend college, are from economically marginalized families or are members of groups that are traditionally underrepresented in graduate education to pursue doctoral study. McNair Scholars are paired with UNT faculty mentors to conduct research, present their research findings at professional conferences and undergo intense preparation for graduate school.

By the next semester she had changed her mind about becoming a lawyer. She became a McNair scholar and needed to chose a research topic and find a mentor.

An introductory political science course that touched on human rights reporting conducted by international organizations and the impact those reports may have on states involved in human rights violations, got Sowell's attention.

"Then I learned about the Rwandan genocide and that really disturbed me, to learn how horrible it was and to know that all these other states could have taken action to prevent it and didn't," Sowell says. "It really sparked my interest."

She learned that Dr. James Meernik, professor of political science, had conducted research into human rights violations and she asked him to mentor her.

"I could see right away that Marsha had great potential because of her native intelligence and her willingness to work extremely hard and for long hours to succeed," Meernik says. "She is also great at absorbing, synthesizing and analyzing material.  And it helps that she is an exceptional writer."

Sowell worked with Meernik and two other students – Rosa Aloisi and Angela D. Nichols – to co-author a chapter in Peace and Conflict 2010, published by the University of Maryland. The chapter is "The Impact of Tribunals and Truth Commissions on Post-Conflict Peace Building."

Sowell thinks it was the fact that she's already a published researcher that drew the NSF's attention – something she says would not have happened without Meernik's generosity.

"He was asked to write a chapter and asked me and a couple of graduate students to work with him and together we got it done," she says. "And we don't appear as a footnote saying, 'thanks for helping with this.' We're all listed as co-authors."

How UNT helped Sowell achieve

Sowell says that her success would not have been possible without UNT's Honors College, the McNair program and UNT's accessible and dynamic faculty.

"The Honors College is where I learned about research," she says. "None of this would have happened without them."

Sowell says the McNair program was like a nurturing family for undergraduate researchers.

"They help you with basically anything you need – it's like a home away from home," she says.

But faculty, she says, has been the key.

"Faculty at UNT are so open," she says. "It's always easy to get in contact with the faculty and most of them are really willing to help students and have students help them."

Sowell's plans for her future

Meernik has inspired Sowell to follow in his footsteps – she strives to be a dynamic teacher and a patient researcher who one day can help other students like her.

"I want to be like my mentor, able to help a student with their research and be the person at professional conferences to hold their hand and encourage them," she says. "And it's going to take a lot of practice, but I want to be an engaging teacher, too. Those are some pretty big goals, but I think I can meet them."

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Watch a video of Marsha Sowell talking about her NSF fellowship, how UNT has impacted her undergraduate education and how higher education is impacting her family.

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