Absolutely. Abortion generates strong emotions that reverberate across the country, especially in the aftermath of last summer’s Supreme Court decision to strike down Roe v. Wade.
Pick a safer research topic?
Not a chance.
Michaela Krawczyk and Emily Rhoades understood the strong passion generated by researching abortion access. It was, Krawczyk says, a compelling reason to do it.
“It is so interesting and important,” the Luddy School of Informatics, Computing and Engineering senior majoring in informatics says. “It’s such a divisive subject, but it’s also so common. Almost one in four women will have an abortion. That’s a fascinating tension.”
Their “Abortion Storytelling in Online Communities” findings -- developed through mentoring by Katie Siek, Luddy School professor and chair of informatics, and Anne Kavalerchik, IU informatics and sociology Ph.D. student -- earned them first place in the Undergraduate Technology, Engineering & Math category of the American Association for the Advancement of Science2023 E-Poster Competition. One of six finalists in the category, they received $500, a one-year AAAS membership that includes a digital subscription to the journal, Science, name and poster title printed and published in Science, and a recognition certificate. The total prize value is up to $565.
Krawczyk presented their poster at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington D.C. on March 3 as part of the AAAS annual meeting.
“To win a national competition and present at this very competitive conference is an amazing accomplishment,” Siek says.
Krawczyk and Rhoades, a Grinnell College junior computer science major focused on gender, women and sexuality studies, combined on the project as part of last summer’s ProHealth Summer Research Experience for Undergraduates’ eight-week intensive program.
The goal is to reduce the stigma regarding abortion, spark conversation on the topic and encourage people to share their stories. Future research could include sending abortion stories to targeted audiences.
Siek praises the courage to address the abortion issue and the open mindedness to ensure that “everyone’s voice would be heard.”
The American Association for the Advancement of Science focuses on advancing science, engineering and innovation throughout the world. It seeks to inspire the global scientific community by celebrating scientific excellence and science-informed decisions and actions. It promotes a robust research system, fosters diversity, builds trust and showcases progress.
The team’s project centers on the way people use social media to share their abortion stories, specifically first-person abortion narratives on Twitter. Rhoades analyzed 1,783 abortion-related tweets between 2015 and 2022. Krawczyk designed an abortion storytelling workshop hosted over Slack. Participants completed 10 activities and two surveys.
Their research showed a huge online presence of abortion narratives. They investigated the timing of the tweets and recorded the responses. They found most tweets were a response to current abortion issues.
“Posting spikes came a day or two after a major policy announcement,” Krawczyk says.
Their conclusion -- to make an impact, story-telling postings should come before an event and not after. The more consistently these stories are told, the better the chances of changing policies and decisions.
“The collaboration of everyone involved, the difficulty to find opportunities and to seize those opportunities to do intradisciplinary research is challenging for a host of reasons,” Kavalerchik says. “It’s hard to find the audience and hard to combine different methodologies and theories from these different backgrounds. That they were able to do that as undergraduates in an eight-week program is extraordinary.”
Reaching the finals, Kavalerchik adds, reflects an impressive combination of work, commitment and “fearlessness.”
“It’s also scientific curiosity,” she says. “They really wanted to explore this important aspect of reproductive rights through a novel approach.”
Krawczyk, a Cox Research Scholar, worked with Siek for over a year before finding the right research topic. Krawczyk wanted a project that combined her interests in informatics, gender studies, user experience and media.
“I wanted something that I’m passionate about, which is increasing abortion access. I knew this was the perfect intersection of my interests.”
Adds Siek: “She kept coming back to this topic. She wanted to know how powerful stories can change people’s perspectives. We didn’t have those stories, so clearly, we had to start there, find the stories and measure that power.”
Siek says it was a matter of giving Krawczyk “the resources, make sure she’s using the right processes and letting her go.
“It's been an ideal undergraduate mentoring experience.”
Research accelerated during the 2022 summer REU program, which is funded by the National Science Foundation. It featured eight students, three from Indiana University and the rest from around the country. That’s when Rhoades joined. Her work with Kavalerchik included learning Python, a high-level computer programming language, as well as data collection, cleaning and analysis.
“I was impressed with how well they both took on learning new methodology,” Kavalerchik says.
After the summer program, Siek encouraged Krawczyk and Rhoades to enter the poster in competitions. The AAASE entry included sending a five-minute presentation video. Judges called it “outstanding.” They said, “The methods used were creative and visually interesting.”
At the finals, Siek says Krawczyk got push back from computer science and engineering groups that didn’t understand informatics role in combining social and computer skills to solve problems.
“I’m thankful Michaela got the chance to face that,” Siek says. “She’s this great mix of social science and technology.”
Krawczyk and Rhoades also have applied for the National Center for Women in IT award, which has a $10,000 first-place prize.
This project has made a big impact on Krawczyk, who is deciding on whether to start her career after spring graduation or pursue a Ph.D. in Informatics.
“This is the first research project where I’m way ahead of the quota hours. There’s no lack of motivation.
“Even when I’m struggling with data analysis, reading these stories and knowing I facilitated these conversations is very rewarding.”