Through the Looking Glass: Research as a Criminal Justice Major
CU Denver student Michelle Vasquez-Loya shares her experience with research projects and offers up advice.Mar 1, 2024
Michelle Vasquez-Loya is a Criminal Justice major, both a EURēCA! and McNair scholar, and is working with Professor Melissa Tackett-Gibson. Here Michelle talks with EURēCA! Ambassador Jessica Valdez about taking an unbiased perspective when handling difficult topics, presenting what she loves even though she hates public speaking, and gaining the confidence to pursue her passions.
Jessica Valdez: Thank you for doing this interview! I'm looking forward to hearing about some of your experiences. First, what brought you to CU Denver?
Michelle Vasquez-Loya: I really love the campus here and I love that the class sizes are not as huge, so I feel like I've really been able to connect with students and my professors.
Jessica Valdez: Awesome. How did you choose your major?
Michelle Vasquez-Loya: I wanted to be a doctor and do internal medicine or work in ER. But then the more I thought about it, I realized that it wasn't my passion. I've always been really into activism and political issues, but I didn't want to be a lawyer. But I still wanted know what is going on in the justice system and how we can make changes for the better.
So, my freshman year I went into criminal justice thinking, we'll see how this is, if it doesn't work out for me, I'll be a doctor. And I really loved it. A lot of people have really big misconceptions of what it is to be a criminal justice major. Everyone either thinks that you want to be a police officer or go to the FBI. But in reality, there's so much more. It opened my eyes because there's so many ways I can use this in the future and routes I can go down.
Jessica Valdez: That's really amazing. And it sounds like you're enjoying your major, what do you hope to do after you graduate with your undergrad?
Michelle Vasquez-Loya: Definitely grad school, I want to get my PhD and teach. I really think being a professor is one of the coolest things because you're teaching, making connections with students, but there's also the research side. You're constantly working, doing what you love. I was a teacher straight out of high school teaching at a daycare for two years. I love teaching and helping kids grow and learn new things. I thought, ‘I love what it means to be a criminal justice major, why don't I just combine the two?’
Jessica Valdez: That's an awesome combination. And you're getting a lot of good experience too, with doing research already, how would you describe your research to someone not familiar with it?
Michelle Vasquez-Loya: For our true crime project, we wanted to look at the implications of true crime podcasting and listeners’ perspectives. We went into it not knowing what we were going to find, but ended up having such interesting findings when it comes to the ethical side of true crime media. The biggest thing is making people aware that this might be interesting to you, but there's a family that's suffering, that every time they open a streaming service, have to relive that traumatizing experience of losing a loved one.
We spent a lot of time on online forums and a big one was Reddit where we ran into some incel pages and from there I started looking through it. I wanted to understand the perspective of these individuals and get a feeling for why they landed on these spaces and why they feel so strongly about incel ideology and the best way to do that was to immerse myself in the subgroup and gather as much data as I could.
The incel project is a much larger issue that incorporates so many things like mental health, drug addiction, drug use, the way that people grew up, and internalized misogyny as a whole. I put myself in the very neutral position where the things that they say are horrible and there's a lot of violent acts that have been committed because of incel ideology, but there's a reason why they think like this, and why they feel like this is their only option.
Jessica Valdez: It's admirable that you are trying to understand why people feel that way. That's got to be difficult.
Michelle Vasquez-Loya: I feel an important part of research as a whole, but doing research in criminal justice is to put your own biases aside and put yourself in someone else's shoes, not condoning anything or trying to make excuses for them, but looking at both sides of the story.
Jessica Valdez: I agree for sure, so how did you find your research mentor?
Michelle Vasquez-Loya: I had a class with her, and she reached out to me since she knew I was interested in true crime podcasts. At first, I was a little nervous, because it's not something that I've ever done before, and I didn't know if I was a good fit for it. But I thought, ‘I'm only an undergraduate once. And maybe this will turn into something that I love,’ which it did, and I'm grateful for it.
Jessica Valdez: Awesome. What's your relationship like with your mentor?
Michelle Vasquez-Loya: It's great. I love her. She can be hard to reach sometimes between teaching, classes, and research, but she's super helpful and it has helped me to be more independent and gain confidence in myself because I would show something to her and she would say, ‘hey, you did it, that's great. You figured it out.’
Knowing and building that confidence that you're able to actually do a research project and you have the potential to take an idea or a hypothesis and turn it into something viable. My mentor really helped with that. And the support, I know the incel project is something a mentor might look at and be like, ‘Oh no, we're not doing that’ But she was all for it and she said, ‘if you think you can do it and have the confidence to go into something like this, you do it.’ She's always looking out for what's best for myself and my future.
Jessica Valdez: I'm glad that you got that encouragement. It's also really cool that your more recent project came out of doing the previous one too.
Michelle Vasquez-Loya: When I was starting my incel project, I was going to give up on it. I didn't think that there was any way that I could pull it off just because it's something so niche and different. In my head I thought, ‘let me leave this to the professionals, to the people who have been in the discipline for years because I don't think that I can get anything out of it.’ But I stuck with it because I knew I could and it was a genuine interest I had a lot of curiosity about it, and it ended up working out just fine. We're still in the beginning stages and there's still so much more that I can do with it. But we’re to the point where I couldn't be happier with myself and we’re sticking with the project.
Jessica Valdez: Absolutely, I know you've done several presentations, are you planning on doing any more?
Michelle Vasquez-Loya: Yes, definitely! The Research and Creative Activities Symposium (RaCAS) and then we're going to the American Society of Criminology. It's kind of nerve wracking, but I'm excited. I like to talk about what I'm doing, even if it's a little hard to grasp at first.
Jessica Valdez: Do you enjoy presenting generally?
Michelle Vasquez-Loya: I hate public speaking, but when it comes to presenting research projects, I'm all for it. I could talk about it for two hours.
Jessica Valdez: Do you have any tips for people who are just starting to present or are planning their first presentations?
Michelle Vasquez-Loya: Be confident in yourself and in what you know. You worked on the project for months. You went through all the data, through all your research, you know what you're doing and what you're talking about. It's knowing and trusting in yourself that you'll be able to translate months of work into a 10-minute presentation, which is really difficult. It's something that I still struggle with because I can talk about it for hours, but that's not realistic when you're at a conference.
Also, don’t take it too seriously, don't work yourself up to the point where you feel like your research isn't something that is worth presenting. So just be confident and everything will be fine. Once you do a couple, you’ll start to realize how fun it can be to present when you're talking about something that you love or have an interest in.
Jessica Valdez: So, last question, do you have any other general advice for student researchers?
Michelle Vasquez-Loya: I think my biggest advice is don't lose your curiosity or be afraid to be curious. Anything can be research! If you see something in the world, online, walking down the street, that has the potential to turn into a project.
Don’t feel discouraged or like you can't do it. It's a process and that's one of the biggest things about research. Just because something didn't work out at first doesn't mean it won't work out later. It's a long process that you have to stick with, but if you really like your topic and what you're doing, then it's going to be worth it. You're going to have something to be really proud of at the end.
Jessica Valdez: That is great advice and I'm glad to hear that. Thank you again.
Interested in also sharing what you’re passionate about? Take your curiosities to the next level by presenting at the annual Research and Creative Activities Symposium (RaCAS) on April 26, 2024. Abstracts to register to present are due March 29, 2024.
Want to learn more about other students’ research and creative activities? View last year’s virtual Showcase here!