Volume 20 - 2011
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Human Rights

Student's Research



By Michelle Hale

Marsha Sowell

Marsha Sowell earned a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship to continue her research on the reporting of human rights violations and the intensity of civil conflict.

Photo by: Michael Clements

When Marsha Sowell was a political science undergraduate at UNT, she learned about the hundreds of thousands of people murdered in the Rwandan genocide. She couldn't understand why other countries had not intervened to stop the killing, so when she became a McNair Scholar and needed a research topic, she decided to study human rights.

Her research led to the award of a $120,000 National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, which will allow her to continue researching and work toward a doctoral degree.

She hopes that one day her research can be used to predict events like genocide, so other nations can step in and persuade the perpetrators to change.

Mentors Required

The Ronald E. McNair Post­baccalaureate Achievement Program, which prepares first-generation, low-income or under-represented college juniors and seniors for graduate school, requires its scholars to be mentored by faculty researchers.

Sowell knew that political science professor James Meernik, who is now acting dean of the graduate school, had conducted research into human rights violations, so she asked him to mentor her.

She began investigating why international human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch report heavily on some countries and not at all on others.

She spent hours collecting and analyzing data, looking for trends and writing about her findings.

When Meernik was asked to write a chapter about tribunals and truth commissions and their impact on post-conflict peace building for the book Peace and Conflict 2010, he asked Sowell and two other students to help him.

"Together, we got it done," Sowell says. "And we don't appear as a footnote saying, 'Thanks for helping with this.' We're all listed as co-authors."

She thinks the fact that she is already a published researcher drew the NSF's attention — something she says would not have happened without Meernik's help.

Making A Difference

After taking an international conflict class, Sowell shifted her research focus to determine if reports on human rights violations in specific countries lead to decreased intensity of civil conflicts.

"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," she says.

She is finding out that it does have an effect.

"The practice of human rights reporting causes states to issue threats of sanctions and resolutions against the state in violation, which in turn reduces conflict intensity. The reporting indirectly reduces conflict intensity, which means fewer human rights violations — and people's lives being saved," Sowell says.

"By getting out the word about where violations are happening, individuals in Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch and other organizations like those 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.

First Generation

Sowell, who graduated from UNT in spring 2010 with a political science degree, was the first in her family to earn a college degree. She came to UNT in 2007.

"I had to go somewhere affordable, with a low cost of living because my family couldn't help me financially," she says. "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 appealed to her because it meant she would have the opportunity to know her faculty members.

"I really knew nothing about graduate school or research then," Sowell says.

She first took research courses as a student in the Honors College, and then conducted research as a McNair Scholar, traveling to present her findings at conferences in California and New York, New Orleans, Chicago and St. Louis.

"To be an undergraduate at these conferences presenting research is rare," Sowell says. "It was an honor and definitely a learning experience."

Graduate School

Now, with her NSF fellowship, she has completed her first semester at Penn State University, where she's continuing to research human rights and the reporting of human rights violations.

"Without human rights reporting, we wouldn't know what's going on in places like Sudan and Rwanda," she says. "I'm interested in finding out if the reporting is biased or unbiased and what kind of impact bias might have on what is reported."

She's also continuing to add the element of conflict intensity to her research.

"There are lots of questions surrounding these issues that haven't been answered," she says, "and as a researcher, I intend to find the answers."

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Web page last updated or revised: January 11, 2011
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