Austen Lee is in her 5th year of a combined BA Honours in English and Creative Writing. She received a stipend from the Undergraduate Research Initiative in the summer of 2017, and is currently wrapping up her research project on depictions of humor and coping in film. I sat down with her to discuss her research, her findings, and what it’s like to do research in the humanities.

How did you get involved in the Undergraduate Research Initiative?

I’m an English student, but I’m also interested in Film Studies. I learned about the URI when I was entering my 5th year, and thought it would be a cool opportunity to try and get some greater research experience outside what’s possible in a typical university course before I finished my degree. I had taken a couple film courses with Dr. Jaimie Baron, and I really admired her work and teaching style, so kind of on a whim I asked her if she was interested in working with me. She said yes, so I spent about a month writing a proposal, and sent it in.

Describe your research question and methodology to someone without any background in your field.

I had taken a course on film comedy with Dr. Baron in my 4th year, and my research idea grew out of that. I’d noticed this trend in films about cancer where they tended to be comedies, which seemed incongruous, and I wanted to explore why that might be. I decided I would look at what I call “cancer comedies,” to try and understand how they work. I watched a range of films, some of them funnier than others, and then compared how they used humor to address illness, or not. I also wondered if the ways in which we represent cancer and humor together might tell us something about how humor can work as a coping mechanism. Dr. Baron and I thought that watching films about topics that are difficult to confront or witness, may actually help us engage with those topics.

What were the outcomes of your research? Did anything stand out to you?

Overall, the highlight for me was having the opportunity to work closely with a professor. If you’re aspiring to be a graduate student, it’s really valuable to talk to somebody who’s been through that. Things like the URI stipend also allow students to spend a long time on academic work, without the distraction of having to find a summer job.

As for the outcomes of my research, it all really came down to balance. In almost all of the films, I noticed a trend where there was an oscillation between moments of comedy and moments of tragedy. It’s those points that I’m most interested in—especially moments where tragedy actually becomes funny—and what that says about how we confront devastating things in life, like cancer and terminal illness. In so many of the films, there was this repeated struggle between moments of comedy and moments of tragedy that was necessary to the story. This is important because as a film viewer, in order to stay engaged with the content, you need comic relief. In the end, it seems that moments of comedy can actually allow us to confront intense tragedy more effectively.

How does your research fit in with the larger fields of film studies and psychology?

Humour tends to be under-researched, especially in film studies, which is something we talked about in Dr. Baron’s class. Sometimes, comedy gets swept under the rug as something unimportant, or as a flippant genre of film that’s just for fun; it’s not always considered something that one would critically break down. This project resists that, by delving into film comedy and trying to understand the subtle ways in which humor functions. Of course, there’s a wealth of philosophy written about everything, and there was a lot to work with when it came to humor, but not always in a context that was relevant to me. For example, Freud wrote extensively about wit, but I am more interested in the role of humor as a coping mechanism.

What advice would you give to someone in their first year of University and who’s interested in research? What do you wish you’d known when you first started?

A couple weeks ago at the U of A Open House, I volunteered with the URI at a breakfast for high school students in AP and IB courses, who were interested in pursuing research in the future. It was really fun to talk to them, and hear what their aspirations were. There’s definitely a lot of people out there who are interested in research. For me, I wish I had been like those students, who had thought about it sooner. One other URI Stipend recipient, who volunteered with me at the breakfast, was only in her second year, and I thought that was amazing. I’m glad I did end up stumbling upon it, but I also wish I’d taken steps sooner to get more involved in undergraduate research.

I would encourage anybody to start thinking about it, even if you aren’t someone who’s interested in going to graduate school. It’s enriching to delve into something, and pursue research in an area that you’re passionate about, even if it’s just for a summer. I think stuff like this interview we’re doing—telling people that the opportunity exists—is really important, because there are a lot of brilliant people who just don't know about it. I’d say to keep your eyes and ears open for opportunities to pursue research, and then just give it a shot.

The URI is competitive, because it’s across all faculties, but you never know what can happen. And even if you don’t get a grant one year, you can edit your proposal and resubmit it. The staff at URI will even look at your proposal with you and give you feedback. I took advantage of that, and it was really helpful.

A lot of people associate research with sciences and hard data. What was it like pursuing research in the humanities? What sort of differences or challenges did you experience?

I feel like, in some cases, people who are only exposed to research in the sciences struggle to understand how research in the humanities works. When I was talking to some of the students at the Open House, I told them I was doing arts-based research, and they just looked at me and asked, “How? How do you even do that? How do you research a film?”

When you’re doing research in the humanities, you have to believe that representation has importance, and that the ways in which we represent our world will always be relevant to the world itself. To give an example, I don’t know if you can call a Seth Rogan film “art”, but the idea is that we can look at art, and find meaningful connections that help explain our experience. That’s why I believe humanities research will always be relevant. Arts-based research is also unique because it can be very personal. In that way, it’s different from working with data and numbers, although I’m sure that can be personal, too.

My biggest challenge with this project was probably finding motivation to consistently write, and pushing myself through moments where I was having writer’s block, feeling unmotivated, or overwhelmed. Making deadlines for yourself, and holding yourself to your goals, is always a challenge. But ultimately, I think doing independent research can teach you a lot about yourself.

Is there anything else you’d like to share about your experience in research that we haven’t covered so far?

I was really surprised by the scope of research that was happening within the URI. There were a few student mixers where we got to meet other stipend recipients, and the breadth of research from different areas was so exciting. It was cool to be a part of that, and to exchange stories and ideas with all kinds of different people from across faculties. I think that’s what’s special about the URI, that it makes possible such a huge range of discovery for students from every faculty.

Victoria deJong is a 4th year Political Science student and a Research Analyst for the University of Alberta Students’ Union. This interview is the second in a series of interviews with past and current participants in the Undergraduate Research Initiative. Questions, comments, and concerns about this article can be directed to