Kirby Lam ’23 and Saomai Nguyen ’23: Summer Suitemates and Researchers in Asian American Studies

Kirby Lam SURP

This summer Kirby Lam ’23 and Saomai Nguyen ’23 are suitemates in Sontag Hall, living on campus while conducting research as part of the Summer Undergraduate Research Program (SURP). SURP provides a multi-week fellowship opportunity that either connects students with Pomona College faculty research programs or facilitates student research projects. Lam and Nguyen are each doing analysis in the field of Asian American studies, one from the angle of psychological science and the other as an American studies major.

Asian Americans in Gender Norm Evaluations

Through his summer research, Lam is working with Professor of Psychological Sciences and Asian American Studies Sharon Goto to bring together his psychological sciences major and Asian American studies minor. His project “‘You Don't Belong Here’: Prejudice against Asian Americans in EEG Gender Norm Discrepancy Evaluations” will serve as a precursor to his senior thesis, which will incorporate neurological data collected through electroencephalogram (EEG) studies in a lab setting.

His research consists of having participants read statements about people breaking gender norms and then noting whether the rating of appropriateness the participants assign the statements changes depending on the race of the people breaking those gender norms. Specifically, Lam is using Asian American and white last names to see if there are differences between using those names.

For example, two statements that participants might read are “Mr. Smith wore his suit” (a norm-adherent statement) and “Mr. Smith put on his dress” (a more norm-discrepant statement). After reading the statements, the participant rates the level of appropriateness within U.S. society.

Lam will look at whether the ratings of appropriateness differ depending on the last name and also whether the reaction time is different.

For his thesis, he will work with the EEG data, which will allow him to look at the electrical signals that are detected by electrodes attached to the scalp. He is trying to see whether there are differences within a time window—around 400 milliseconds—that is indicative of higher cognitive processes.

“I’ve always been interested in Asian American issues and psychology,” says Lam. As he took Asian American studies courses in college, he became “more and more interested in thinking about race, discrimination, prejudice and structural racism and seeing how we could bring that type of lens to psychology. Historically, psychology has been pretty exclusive in its subject samples,” he says.

Asian American Farms and Gardens

Saomai Nguyen, an American studies major and Asian American studies minor, is also conducting research this summer in preparation for their senior thesis. Their project is a student-designed one, rather than assisting a faculty member in their research, allowing them flexibility to shape what they study.

Currently, Nguyen is investigating Asian American ways of cultivating land through farms, gardens and home gardens. Specifically, they are interested in immigrant and refugee ways of relating to the land that might function within but also resist against white settler colonial capitalism.

As a previous fellow for EnviroLab Asia, Nguyen had the opportunity to visit a farmers’ market on Kaua‘i. It struck them that many of the farmers there are Native Hawaiian and Asian American immigrants, and it made them start to wonder how Asian Americans can have a responsibility to Indigenous people.

“As settlers on Indigenous land, are there ways that we can relate to or interact with land that that could cause less harm or be more of an allyship or in solidarity with Indigenous ways of understanding and cultivating the land?” Nguyen asks.

Nguyen is reading extensively and reaching out to local and grassroots organizations to gain frameworks and theories. They would also like to conduct oral histories with Asian Americans who have gardens and hold informal conversations about what prompted them to begin these gardens.

For a lot of these individuals, Nguyen says, “it’s not about what you can get from the land, what you can extract. It’s about, ‘I garden because it’s good for my health.’ It’s also about back home, you would do this and that to help the land grow more and then applying that to this context. And I think that’s a very different perspective from the mainstream agricultural industry in the U.S.”