Our first interview is with our very own Ari Fahimi, Aleph’s Editor-in-Chief. Ari is a third-year double majoring in Chinese and Middle Eastern Studies.
We will be talking about Ari’s path to conducting research, finding a research topic, and his love for Aleph.
Can you walk us through your research journey?
Ari: So when I first came to UCLA, I actually did not know what I wanted to do, and didn’t know how to get started in research. To get started, I first took the class University Studies 10A, which was not directly related to research but did teach me about how to connect with professors. For example, this class taught me that to build relationships with my professors, I should frequently go to their office hours and that most professors actually quite enjoy students who frequently attend them. I also learned that a sense of awkwardness is also a common experience when first getting to know a professor. Go to their office hours despite this feeling! It will always get better once you get to know them more.
I also became a bit more interested in the idea of research because I got to meet someone from the Undergraduate Research Center in University Studies 10A, who told me about some of their programs. Because of this, I later participated in a program called Research Revealed back before it was a class, and that’s where I actually learned about the specific programs available at UCLA for undergraduate research. I ended up making use of a lot of tips from these two classes when connecting with my current research advisor, Professor David Schaberg. I took a Fiat Lux seminar with him on the Zhuangzi, a foundational text for Daoism, and eventually had the opportunity to do a 199 (upper division) research contract with him on the origins of writing in China. This quarter I am actually in the Undergraduate Research Scholars Program (URSP) to conduct another individual study with Professor Schaberg on the Zuozhuan which will culminate in a 40-60 page paper in the spring.
It seems like the connection you formed with Professor Schaberg really helped you in your journey of research. How did you establish a relationship with him?
Ari: As I mentioned earlier, I first took a Fiat Lux with Professor Schaberg in the spring of my freshman year on the Zhuangzi. At that time, I was also planning to go to Beijing for the summer, and so I got to know him better by talking about my plans with him. At the end of one our meetings he told me in passing that if I wanted to, he would be willing to be my mentor for an independent study. When I came back from China, I got back in contact with him, and brought back up this offer. Even though I did not know what exactly I wanted to pursue, he was more than willing to work with me. Eventually, I was able to enroll in an Asian 199 contract course with him. After this project ended, I kept in contact with him which has led to me participating in URSP under his guidance.
Have you ever had any challenges when working with professors?
Ari: I would say professors and students are kind of on different wavelengths sometimes. Professors are of course very knowledgeable and they are more used to working with graduate students, especially at a large public research institution like UCLA, so if you are an undergraduate student, sometimes they may not realize where you are lacking in background knowledge or where you may need more assistance in conducting research. This isn’t to say they don’t know how to help; they definitely do, but it is imperative for you to communicate clearly what you hope to gain and not to pretend like you are able to do more than you feel you can out of fear of disappointing your mentor.
In addition to this, the elephant in the room is that COVID has made doing research more difficult for everyone. Access to library resources is no longer as straightforward. I have been making use of online resources a lot since COVID, such as Hathitrust and ctext.org, however. Hathitrust is an emergency online source for accessing books when libraries are closed, such as now, and ctext is a website that allows for free access to a variety of ancient Chinese texts. One last thing to mention here in terms of difficulties is citations–all I have to say to this is use Zotero. It will make your life infinitely easier by allowing you to automatically generate citations.
That is quite a journey! If you were to give us one piece of advice about making connections with professors, what would it be?
Ari: Besides showing interest in the field of study and consistently following up with professors, I would say the biggest piece of advice is ask your professors for advice! I asked Professor Schaberg for advice about going abroad to China, and I think that really allowed me to both hear his academic advice as well as his personal experiences.
How do you specify your research topic?
Ari: If you do not know what topic to pick, try to think of a class that you liked. It could be within your major or not. Then, within that class, find a topic that you really liked. Then, within that topic, try to find something that is inconclusive and you would like to know more about, and approach the professor with this. This will help you to narrow down your research topics.
However, you can also go to a professor and say that you are interested in a certain topic, but do not know much about it. They can then help you to narrow down the topic to help you develop your research project. Just make sure you know their interests at least a little bit and that you have interest within their area of expertise as well!
Why do you find value in research as an undergraduate?
Ari: My first answer is that I feel I am contributing to the mission of a research institution as well as creating new knowledge that can potentially spark conversations. More directly related to my own experience, however, is that I find doing research to be a personally enriching experience. The research that I am doing right now will not yield a definitive answer. Nothing is conclusive; there is always more room for interpretation. Yet this allows me to shed a black and white view of the world and realize how unfathomably nuanced everything is. Of course, doing research as an undergrad can also help you in post-undergrad research by giving you a solid foundation in both the content of your research (if it is related to your post-undergrad ambitions) as well as the research process. Furthermore, you get to contribute to academic discourse as an undergraduate!
Have you had any struggles with your research?
Ari: Life has so many distractions, and if you aren’t careful, these become reasons to procrastinate! It is best to make a routine to ensure you stay on track, especially in a situation like the one we are currently all in.
Also, make sure that you understand your original research thesis may not be the same once you start doing the research itself. Being fluid and adapting to new developments will save you from some of the biggest headaches of doing research.
What are your plans for post undergrad?
Ari: I am interested in the ancient and modern world and the connections between them. I might study how the Far East, Central Asia, and the Near East interacted with each other in antiquity. Most of the time, these spheres of the world are perceived as not intersecting and as existing in their own bubbles. This is far from the truth. There are very real connections between everything in our world, and this is not any less the case with the cultures of Asia. I recently have gravitated more towards contemporary studies on Sino-Iranian relations however, and how Iran and China interact with the modern Middle East and Central Asia. In any scenario, I plan to attend grad school!
Why did you get involved with Aleph?
Ari: I wanted to get involved with research, and it seemed a great place to start without feeling immediately overwhelmed. When new members come to Aleph, we train them and then give them the reins. They have the capabilities to work on something that is substantial and we trust them to do so. Before joining, I wondered how a journal could run on such a model, but let me assure you, it works.
What do you hope to accomplish this year with Aleph?
Ari: After everything went online, I found it necessary to be more organized in order to keep track of my own work. I hope this year we can accomplish a similar thing with Aleph. We have started an Aleph Instagram, and have begun to utilize our Facebook more, and we are also more active in updating our official website. We are also starting a lot of new initiatives during this time, such as this blog, which we hope will continue to make a positive impact for the following years even after this whole COVID situation comes to a close.
What do you like most about Aleph?
Ari: We have an internal discussion about the research papers! I find it very enriching to discuss the ins and outs of each paper, and I love hearing the thoughts of each of our staff members on these pieces. Our members also get the chance to develop team building skills through our collaborative process, which enables us to receive a submission and to refine it into its best form. I must admit what I really most love about Aleph though is its ability to spark conversations. It is my hope that each year, our pieces can be just as, if not more, thought-provoking as years prior.