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What’s your major, Richa Gautam?

Photo by Karl Rabe

Richa Gautam, class of 2016

Hometown: Munger, Bihar, India

What’s your major?

I came to Vassar thinking of majoring in psychology.  My dad teaches chemistry, but he had these psychology books—he liked them for “light” reading.  When I was in eighth grade, I read them, and I thought, wow, this sounds so much more interesting than learning about the various bones in your body.  So I told my dad that I didn’t want to be a traditional doctor, and we had a huge fight-ish over that.  But then basically we agreed that if I got into this one international high school that offered classes in psychology—with full aid--I could pursue that further.  And if I didn’t get in, then I would go the med school route. But I did get into that school. [United World College--Mahindra College in Pune]

My freshman year at Vassar, I took Intro to Greek.  I didn’t even know that people still studied it! I thought, why? It’s a dead language. But I wanted to try new things, and I discovered that it has a lot of similarities to Sanskrit, which I had taken for five years at home, so it was easy for me.  And then I continued because I found it interesting, and the department has interesting courses, not just language but cultural studies.  Also there is a certain attraction for me when other people are, like, this is so hard! 

How did you learn about Vassar?

In my high school, I learned about the American liberal arts system and about various colleges and universities in the U.S.   Vassar had a reputation for not taking many students from my high school. Since I like taking challenges, I decided I was going to apply to Vassar and see if they would take me. But it wasn’t just because of the challenge--I also researched the college.  I applied early decision, and I got in, with full financial aid.

What are your favorite courses in each of your majors?

In Greek and Roman studies, I took a class that was absolutely frustrating at the time.  It was called “Myth.”  Professor Dozier teaches it from time to time. And at the end of every class, he would go back to the same point—but do we know what the truth is?  Knowing the truth—is that ever even possible?  And that really frustrated me because I thought, if nobody knows the truth, is the truth important?  If nobody is ever going to find it, according to you, let’s skip that question, and let’s talk instead about why people see different truths.  So that class was frustrating, but in a very nice way.  I don’t think we’ll ever reach an agreement on this, Professor Dozier and I, but at the same time, I now understand why some people adopt that skeptical perspective.

In psychology, my favorite classes have been the research classes I’ve taken. I’m doing a thesis this year, and I’m also taking a research methods class, and it’s definitely a lot of work.  It’s one of the hardest courses that majors have to take, but it’s fulfilling because at the end, you have something to show for it.

What is your research about?

I’m working on two projects. My senior thesis is on prejudicial humor in online spaces. Using an anonymous twitter handle, I am investigating how prejudicial humor—specifically fat jokes—affects readers. Does it make them more likely to disparage people who are overweight? Does it make them more likely to be sexist if it’s targeted specifically towards women? The second project looks at the effects of dopamine on PTSD in rats. So we kill a few dopamine cells in a part of the amygdala that has been shown to be connected with fear and anxiety, and then we expose our subjects to an aggressive rat that had previously defeated them to see if there is any change. But the problem in our experiment is that the rats we designated as the subjects were more aggressive than the other rats, so we got no defeats. So now we are trying social isolation, which is also a stressor.  We’ll see how that goes.

What are you hoping to do when you graduate?

I want to go into research, and I want to study prejudice.  Isn’t that the root of all of these conflicts we are having?  People are prejudiced, and I want to learn why. There are different theories—your environment, how you’re brought up.  But even in similar environments and similar upbringings, there are some people who are more racist or more sexist than other people.  Then there is a new theory that attributes these differences to something in your mid-brain that leads to what they call social dominance orientation. There is a lot of new research in this area.  I am hoping to work for the next two years in a research lab and then go to graduate school. 

What is the value of a liberal arts education?

Taking so many courses in different fields—Greek and Roman studies, women’s studies--opened my mind.  I used to think, science shows this, and therefore this is what it means.  But if you conduct research with a bit of an open mind, you come to realize that there can be certain biases even in how you formulate your questions, especially in psychology.  There are certain biases in the way we explore the world, and if you restrict yourself to a certain discipline, you may never recognize that.