Graduate Student of the Month - Laura O'Brien
Laura is an MA Candidate in the department of political science at Memorial. Originally from New Brunswick, she completed her BA in political science and English literature at St. Thomas University before moving to the Newfoundland last September (2016). In addition to her thesis work, Laura is currently completing a project funded through the Harris Centre-MMSB Waste Management Applied Research Fund, which looks at the growing concern of textile waste in Newfoundland and Labrador through a feminist framework of care. Laura loves theory, dogs, and talking.
How and why did you decide to attend Memorial for your graduate degree?
The panic of figuring out what to do after completing my undergraduate degree began in my third and fourth years, so I started looking at graduate programs in political science across Canada. I grew up in Saint John, New Brunswick, and went to university in Fredericton, so I knew I wanted to live in another province and have some new experiences. I was in St. John’s visiting friends during my fourth year and decided to look into graduate studies at MUN, and found that the political science department matched my research interests quite well. It was a quick decision after this discovery – I loved both St. John’s and Memorial and started my application soon after getting home from that trip.
What drew you to explore political science originally?
I was always quite interested in politics generally and have been fortunate to have had a great group of likeminded friends, so political discussion has been a fairly constant feature to my social life. I decided to major in political science after the first few courses I took at STU and got a lot out of gaining a critical institutional understanding of politics and studying works, especially from the Marxist tradition, that resonated with my understanding of things.
The decision to continue studying political science at the graduate level was largely influenced by a summer job I held at a non-profit social planning agency in Saint John. Working in the realm of poverty reduction with so many agencies and individuals that do palpably good social justice work on a daily basis was a great exposure to the practical application of how I understood what I was studying; a daily resistance to neoliberal policies and the unjust function of so many systems became extremely tangible.
Can you tell us a bit about your current research?
My current research is concerned with the intersections between labour and value as they pertain to care work. This is quite theoretically driven, and applies a synthesized framework of feminist political economy and theories of care and care ethics to complex policy areas that represent general failures of neoliberal policymaking. The two case studies that I’m dealing with are childcare and waste management in Newfoundland and Labrador; both involve a lot of invisible, caring labour that current approaches to policymaking cannot account for. The impetus to proactively deal with the problematics in both case studies is driven by the enormous, universal consequences—social, economic, and ecological—that result from the historical lack of critical effort across all levels of governance.
The element of care is a very fascinating and essential consideration that I hope to bring to the fore of policy understandings in these areas. Care work is so ubiquitous, but is rendered invisible by neoliberal function, leaving it an absent consideration in the formation of policy. My research is a sort of test to see if the intervention of care, theoretically, can adequately account for what other approaches miss, particularly in terms of labour, and to conceptualize what an emancipatory policy future could look like.
In a related capacity, my current research project under the Harris Centre-MMSB Waste Management Applied Research Fund applies a care framework to the problem of textile waste locally. I am exploring the problems of overconsumption that facilitate a textile waste problem and the socioeconomic and cultural factors that play into this. The aim of the project is to provide a study of this contemporary issue in the context of Newfoundland and Labrador and to develop a feasibility strategy for a textile recycling program in the province. The element of care informs public education models that could, ultimately, inspire a shift in the way we conceive of clothing consumption and of waste more generally.
A supervisor can be key to the success of any grad student. What does your supervisor Sarah Martin bring to her role as your advisor and mentor?
I consider myself incredibly fortunate to have Dr. Martin as my supervisor and experience new moments of gratitude on a near constant basis of our working together. I was lucky to take her political economy class last fall and quickly came to find that we had similar interests and approaches to study, so the opportunity to work under her supervision was very exciting.
Dr. Martin is supportive, compassionate, and patient, and has stressed a focus on my growth as a scholar from the beginning. Her mentorship has led me to explorations of areas that I would have previously considered outside of my realm, and her encouragement has made me confident in my work, and has helped me grow both personally and academically. I would definitely be quite lost without Dr. Martin’s caring approach to supervision and mentorship.
Have you attended any conferences/delivered any papers this year? Can you give details?
Throughout the past year, I got to work with a great group of my colleagues to plan the departmental conference, Changing Political Landscapes. The process of organizing, planning, and executing the conference was so enjoyable – we received submissions from undergraduate, Master’s, and PhD students across multiple disciplines, all of whom presented fascinating and important papers. This was the inaugural CPL and I think it will prove to be an important event for the university every year going forth, giving a fantastic venue for these interdisciplinary conversations.
In addition to the planning elements, I delivered a paper on the Feminism and Gender panel that explored the dimensions of gendered representation in Canadian politics. The central focus looked at the dismal numbers of women in elected positions over time, the factors that contribute to the exclusion of women from politics (and the government’s reluctance to address them), and the expectations of care that are placed on female legislators. The opportunity to deliver this paper was a great foray into academic conferences, and I’m looking forward to presenting my thesis research at APPSA in Moncton this fall.
Are you involved in any organizations on-campus or off? If so, can you explain and detail such involvement?
On campus, I have tried to become quite involved in the life of my department. In addition to the Changing Political Landscapes planning, I have also worked with the production of Mapping Politics, the department’s student journal, and helped to facilitate the formation of a political science graduate society.
Outside of my department, I was lucky to have a research assistantship with the Harris Centre this past year, working with the team developing a community based, semester-long interdisciplinary undergraduate program. This was a really fantastic experience – I got to know a lot of people, both within the university and in the broader community, that are bent on public engagement, and was able to see the early formation of a super exciting new program.
What do you like most about being a graduate student at Memorial?
I am a big fan of the freedom and greater sense of responsibility that comes along with being a graduate student – getting to explore a lot of great scholarship and set the course of my own education with so much flexibility has been fantastic. Living in a city as wonderful as St. John’s plays into the experience, too.
What do you hope to do after completing your graduate degree?
I’m currently looking forward to the thesis writing process over the next year and taking a little bit of time to work and see what my next step might be. Ultimately, I can definitely see myself pursuing my research through a PhD focused in political economy. I’ve also considered different law programs. I am quite excited to see how the course of the next few years plays out and where I might end up next.