STANFORD, Calif. – Most Stanford students go home over the Thanksgiving break to spend the holiday with family and get a break from school. Stanford senior Chierika Ukogu, a member of the women’s rowing team, instead chose to fly to Senegal to work on her thesis.
“I missed spending Thanksgiving with my family, but with my lab work and rowing practices this was really the only available time period to make this trip,” said Ukogu. “It was an amazing experience and I am very happy I got to go.”
Ukogu spent just under a week in Dakar, the capital and largest city in Senegal. She made the trip in order to see firsthand its conditions and environment so that she can better interpret the results of the labwork she had been working on. Her thesis was developed out of a project she was currently working on in her labs at Stanford.
A human biology major, Ukogu has been working in the lab at the Center for Infant Studies at Stanford under the direction of Dr. Anne Fernald since the summer after her sophomore year. During that time, the center began working with Tostan, a non-profit organization in Senegal that focuses on helping rural communities take charge of their own futures.
“Tostan has a cool model,” said Ukogu. “They work through diffusion and get people to have a personal stake in what is going on with their community. Changing human behavior is difficult, but if the people have a stake in that change, I think that is the only way it can happen.”
The project that Tostan began working on with Stanford was trying to improve how parents set up the early environment for their children and how they interact with them. Stanford began conducting studies of its own in California but also started to analyze observations and collect data from rural communities in Senegal.
“What we found over our longitudinal studies is that the early language environment, how much you talk to your children and the way that you talk to your children, influences their development and how well they do in school and in testing,” said Ukogu.
Stanford had been working on the project locally, studying both English and Spanish speaking families to see if any differences existed. The lab was thinking about expanding to Latin America when Tostan reached out to the lab about monitoring the efficacy of their program.
Once Fernald agreed to the project with Tostan, the Center for Infant Studies started receiving the first set of videos. They were 15-minute observations of a mother and her child with some toys. The mother and child were told to act as they normally do.
“The parents here are constantly talking to the children about the toys, but in that first set of videos the moms were just sitting there, not talking or even looking at their children,” said Ukogu.
That first summer Ukogu and her fellow students came up with a way to code the videos to find out how many times the mother and child made eye contact, if there was any eye contact at all, if they talked to each other, as a way to quantify the data.
Three years later the project is still ongoing, but out of the project came a thesis idea for Ukogu. Her parents, Frances and Joseph Ukogu, are both from the southern part of Nigeria. Chierika has developed an interest in infant learning from an African context because of her trips to Nigeria with her parents.
“I decided for my thesis to take a subset of the data we have for these naturalistic observations and look at it more from a qualitative point of view as opposed to the quantitative data we have been going over. I want to see if the mother is asking questions or giving demands and if the context of those is the same as it is here.”
While in Senegal, she was able to spend a lot of time with the 10 members of Tostan that provide most of the subset data she receives for her thesis. They are the individuals who go out into the field and collect questionnaires and take video observations.
“It was really great to meet them,” said Ukogu. “A couple of them had come to our lab before I met them but it was really great for me to get a better sense of the culture to guide my own project. I had been to Nigeria before, but Senegal was totally different. A lot of the assumptions I had were wrong and no book could have told me what I got to see by actually going there.”
Ukogu helped out the members of Tostan by giving them some training on a tablet so that they could collect data easier instead of writing everything down with a pencil and paper as they had done before. While she was there she was also able to conduct a little research of her own through observations.
“I paid attention to whether mothers were talking to their children while standing in line and observed at the beach that mothers would let their children go off and walk around on their own,” said Ukogu. “It was an awesome takeaway to get a sense of the culture.”
It is not the first time that Ukogu has been interested in helping improve conditions in Africa. When she was a junior in high school she started a non-profit called Flip Flops for Africa. She collected over 10,000 pairs and hand delivered them with her family to Ukpor, Nigeria, where her parents are from. While the experiences working with non-profits have been great for Ukogu, she plans on going to medical school to become a doctor after she finishes her undergraduate years at Stanford.
“I am interested in helping children, so these experiences have been great for me,” said Ukogu. “I don’t think I will continue with this type of research after I graduate but I do see myself doing research in the future. I am interested in the process.”
As for missing out on Thanksgiving dinner, Ukogu does plan to go to Ike’s Place on campus to get a turkey sandwich and make up for it. However, her trip to Senegal showed her there are many things to be thankful for.
“Overall, it made me feel like I am closer to the project than before,” said Ukogu. “I would have loved to go out into the field and conduct research with them but the timing didn’t work out to when they were going. It really revitalized my spirit for the project, though. It is always hard to balance school work and practice and sometimes you want to push something to the side but this trip made me appreciate all of these opportunities I have.”