“What do I really have to share?” was Larissa Kowalski’s first reaction to the request to share her experiences as a UFV student research assistant. While she did add that she had “had some amazing experiences and opportunities”, it was easy to see the extent of her accomplishments and valuable experiences.
Larissa came to UFV in 2013 and graduated in 2018 with a Bachelor degree in Sociology with a concentration in Social Research and extended minor in Psychology. Following her BA, she went straight into her master’s degree in Sociology at the University of Western Ontario, completing in 2020.
During her time at UFV, Larissa worked as a student research assistant in two different areas. The first was with the Centre for Education and Research on Aging (CERA). “In CERA, I had the wonderful opportunity to work with Dr. Lesley Jessiman. Leading up to that experience, I had taken a few of Lesley’s courses and I appreciated her pedagogical approach, so I was really excited for the opportunity. I’d always had an interest on the social aspects of aging. During this time, I was also working part-time at a non-profit that provided support services for older adults. I remember being in Lesley’s classroom (Adulthood and Aging) and realizing I could do research on this. It was almost a perfect fit.” With this experience, Larissa also had the opportunity to attend and present at her first research conference.
“Larissa’s research focus has always been how to improve the social, mental, and physical well-being of our older adult populations,” Dr. Jessiman highlights. “Larissa consistently reflects on ways to improve the generational gaps that exist in our society and to identify means of eliminating ageist stereotypes. It is very reassuring to know that we have a young researcher so driven and focused on research with such important real-world implications.”
The Centre for Public Safety and Criminal Justice Research offered the next project for Larissa, working alongside Dr. Martha Dow and addressing firefighter’s responses to the opioid crisis. “It was a tremendous opportunity and (Martha) is an incredible mentor”, Larissa recalls. “From that perspective, it was interesting to watch firefighters discuss responding to overdose calls and administering naloxone, with the understanding that many first responders who signed up for firefighting probably never anticipated they would have to respond to such calls. That was a really illuminating research project to be a part of.” Through this opportunity, Larissa was a named author on the Naloxone study. “Having exposure to manuscript preparation that early on in my career was a wonderful opportunity”.
While both opportunities were “something I’d recommend to anyone”, Larissa also confesses “I appreciate the focus of psychology but I am a sociologist at heart.” Larissa visited and presented at high schools in the Fraser Valley sharing her passion for sociology. The goal was for students to learn about career paths that are perhaps less direct than what they have previously been exposed to. “Often, (children and youth) are socialized into very gendered professions that they believe, or are convinced, they are supposed to go to post-secondary for. They often times are not aware of the wide array of career opportunities that are available to them. To go into high schools, talk to students, and be able to tell them ‘hey, there’s somewhere for you that you may not be aware of’ was very rewarding.”
As a first-generation university student, Larissa also mentioned “that going into graduate studies, I felt well prepared given that I already had that exposure to research, but also that I had a really great support network in my back pocket with Lesley and Martha, as well as several other key mentors.”
Larissa is now working as a Lead Researcher at UFV with the Community Health and Social Innovation (CHASI) Hub. She notes, “my research opportunities at UFV have effectively prepared me (for this position). It’s been incredible to use and apply my sociological lens paired with my background in psychology to a host of interdisciplinary projects that we’re currently under-taking at CHASI.”
For Larissa, becoming a student research assistant highlighted the fascinating work UFV faculty are engaged in, noting “to join in and be a part of that is pretty spectacular” and suggests to other students contemplating getting involved, that “it’s one of the most incredible opportunities you will probably have in the early stage of your career. Being exposed to research and the hands-on nature, you feel like you’re out there making a difference.”