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Erin Stewart works on her research in the Keystone Lobby.

Confessions of a Research Rookie

Friday, June 9, 2023

Media Contact: Stephen Howard | Manager of Communications | 405-744-4363 |

Erin Stewart wasn’t exactly sure what she had signed herself up for when she was selected for Oklahoma State University’s Freshman Research Scholars (FRS) program. 

Perhaps the most prestigious and demanding organization an OSU freshman can join, the FRS promises to challenge and inspire students by introducing them to the research process alongside the most innovative professors on campus. 

Stewart was up for a challenge and she loved technology and innovation, but she wondered what exactly they meant by the words “research process.”

“I’ll be honest,” Stewart said. “I thought I was just going to be learning the foundations of writing a research paper. I didn't think I was actually writing a research paper.”

She wrote a research paper, alright. And according to her Spears School of Business mentors, Dr. Andy Luse and Dr. Jim Burkman, she knocked it out of the park.

“She's the best Freshman Research Scholar I've had,” Luse said. “As a freshman, to be able to figure this all out … Her ability to find the literature is better than most of our first-year Ph.D. students.”

In the fall of 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic was about 6 months old, and classes at OSU and around the country were conducted virtually. Burkman, a Spears Business professor of professional practice who loves to study the interactions between technology and people, wondered why some people turn on their webcam during virtual meetings while others keep it off? Did it have to do with looks or confidence? Vanity? Narcissism? All of the above?

It puzzled him enough to bring it up to Luse, an associate professor at Spears Business and Burkman’s partner-in-research for over a decade. The two assumed that an individual’s decision to turn their webcam on or off revolved around looks — good-looking people keep their webcam on, they figured — but they wondered if there might be something deeper. They decided to file the project away until the right student researcher came along. They didn’t have to wait long.

Stewart grew up in Austin, Texas, which is the perfect place for a technology junkie. She joined her school’s robotics team in seventh grade and took coding classes in high school. She arrived at OSU as an 18-year-old ready to major in management science and information systems (MSIS) and marketing. She also pledged with Gamma Phi Beta sorority and joined the Spears Business Data Analytics Club. Stewart was an engaged student that Luse and Burkman had their eye on, and they wondered if she might bring a new perspective to their research topic.

After agreeing to the year-long project, Stewart quickly challenged their initial premise that good-looking people are simply more inclined to leave their cameras on. It wasn’t that cut and dry, she proposed, and the trio put together a research project to measure the impact of self-perceived facial attractiveness on webcam use during virtual meetings.

The research project, which had to be conducted virtually due to the pandemic, centered on three intersecting areas — video conferencing, body image and gender. 

Luse and Burkman were there to guide her through the research process, but it was on Stewart to complete each checklist item ahead of their weekly Zoom meetings. She read countless journal articles on self-perception and relational schema. The “Looking-Glass Self” model was of particular importance. It’s the process where people base their sense of self on how they believe others view them. Stewart also theorized that personality traits like openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism could be at play.

With Luse’s help, Stewart used her MSIS classmates as survey participants. A total of 93 subjects across a range of backgrounds were asked dozens of questions around how they felt about their physical appearance and how they perceived others felt about them.

“It was all pretty terrifying,” said Stewart, now a junior who looks back on her freshman experience with awe. “I was a little bit overwhelmed, but it was just because I had never done anything like that before. I didn't know how to research and read through other people's articles, develop our own scale or interpret other people's scales from their research projects. I really needed Dr. Luse to dumb it down for me at times. I learned so much from him being my mentor through the whole thing that, now, looking back I feel like I can do a little more research by myself.”

Just like Stewart supposed, the results showed that gender plays a big factor in webcam use. Men are more positively affected by their own self-perceptions, especially among friends, while women are more likely to be affected by their perceptions of how others will judge them, regardless of the audience. 

Stewart was able to illustrate the real-world implications of webcam use, as well. Research shows that it increases the richness and productivity of virtual meetings, so providing an atmosphere where people feel comfortable to display their webcam can make the difference on a sales call, or help a student connect with a professor during an online class. 

After countless rounds of edits and revisions, Stewart’s paper was published in late 2022 in the Journal of Computer Information Systems, which explores research on topics ranging from business intelligence, analytics, support systems, data mining, ethics and everything in between. 

The research helped Stewart shape her future as well.

“The paper definitely showed me that tech is what I'm passionate about,” Stewart said. “I want to go to law school to be a data privacy attorney. Data privacy isn’t nearly as big of a field here in the United States as it is in Europe, so I might go to the U.K. for law school.”

Regardless of her next step, Luse and Burkman are proud of Stewart and gratified that they played a part in helping her reach her potential. 

“It's all about the ongoing ‘Power of Personal’ relationship that we strike,” said Burkman, referencing the Spears Business motto. “We need to make those relationships with our students, make them feel comfortable enough to where they can express what they want to get out of their OSU experience. And then, our job and our desire is to help them achieve those goals. I'm part of their experience. How can I better that experience? The equation is that simple.”

Story By: Stephen Howard | Engage@Spears Magazine

Photos By: Piper Reese

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