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Dr. Gira Bhatt: Principal Investigator and Project Director, AT-CURA

October 1, 2013

Interviewer: Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Numbering: Issue 3.A, Idea: Women in Academia (Part Two)

Place of Publication: Langley, British Columbia, Canada

Title: In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Undergraduate Journal

Web Domain: http://www.in-sightjournal.com

Individual Publication Date: October 1, 2013

Issue Publication Date: January 1, 2014

Name of Publisher: In-Sight Publishing

Frequency: Three Times Per Year

Words: 2,018

ISSN 2369-6885

Dr. Gira Bhatt

1. What academic positions have you held? What academic positions do you currently hold?

My professional academic career began at the University of Mumbai, India. Briefly, I worked as a clinical psychologist at a children’s hospital. Later, I was a lecturer at an undergraduate institution affiliated with the University of Mumbai.  After completing my Ph.D. at Simon Fraser University, BC, Canada, I taught at Camosun College and University of Victoria, BC, Canada.
At present, I am a faculty member in the Psychology department of Kwantlen Polytechnic University, BC, Canada.  As well, I am the Principal Investigator and Project Director for Canadian government funded Community-University Research Alliance (CURA) project. CURA is a multidisciplinary, multi-institutional, multi-partnership project involving four academic institutions, seven researchers, and eleven community agencies.
Additionally, I am actively involved as the board member and the secretary of the International Relations Committee of the Canadian Psychological Association.

2. In brief, how was your youth? How did you come to this point? 

I was born and raised in Mumbai, India. My family tradition was guided by strong commitment to scholarship and spiritual pursuits. My father was a journalist, poet, writer, and later a Yoga teacher in retirement. My mother was gentle, but strong, and kept the family life stable and happy. I had strong extended family ties.  I recall being surrounded by numerous cousins and visiting relatives, which provided for many happy times. I loved school.  From a young age, I wanted to be an academic.

When I turned 16, I began questioning some of the traditions of life in India. I became an “atheist” much to the despair of my relatives, and surprise of my friends. However, my father provided me with a long list of books on philosophy and religions for study. The turning point was the study and practice of Yoga for over 8 years. Although practice of Yoga had been part of my family tradition, I needed to examine the philosophy of it, which appealed to my rational mind.  The secular roots of Yoga provided a strong ground I was seeking to keep my mind balanced and a perspective that went beyond the immediate.

Yoga and Psychology are intertwined. Therefore, it was natural to veer in the direction of Psychology.

3. When did Psychology interest you?

Actually, my entry into Psychology was accidental. As an undergraduate student in Mumbai, India, I wanted to major in English Literature because I loved the works of classic writers and poets including Shakespeare, Jane Austin, Bronte sisters, and others. However, my English department informed me that it did not have enough students to offer the major. On this basis, they advised me to sit in any class for the first two weeks, and wait for more students to come forward to declare English Literature as their major.  Of course, I was disappointed and a bit worried.

Anyway, I decided to go to a class. My friends told me about a hugely popular class taught by a popular professor. I always remember that class. There were 150 students in the classroom, no microphone, and the old professor was sitting in his chair talking very gently to a very captive audience. It was an Introductory Psychology class! There was no turning away from there! Two weeks later the English department approached me, much too late…

4. Where did you acquire your education?

I completed my Bachelor’s degree with honors in psychology and Master’s in Clinical psychology at the University of Mumbai. I then came to Canada and earned my second Master’s degree and Ph.D. in Social psychology. Yes, I switched from clinical to experimental field of psychology as I wanted to pursue basic research rather than practice in the field of psychological illnesses.

5. What kinds of research have you conducted up to the present?

I have three concurrent research tracks. One is focused  on Cross-Cultural Psychology examining the issue of self, identity, and acculturation. Second pertains to  Applied Social Psychology working with a network of academic scholars and community agencies targeting prevention of youth violence and gang involvement. Third is an overarching philosophical and historical examination of psychological knowledge.

6. If you currently conduct research, what form does it take?

Having worked within community-involved research for the last five years, I have decided to work only on collaborative research projects with community input, academic rigor, and a set of clear application-to-life goals.

7. You have conducted practical and applied research through AT-CURA along with researchers from your university as well as Simon Fraser University, University of Victoria, and Langara College.  What is AT-CURA? What is the purpose of AT-CURA?  Why do you consider unifying ‘community partners and academic experts’ through a common vision important?

Acting-Together: Community-University Research Alliance (AT-CURA) is a five-year long project (2009-2014) funded through Canadian government’s Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC). The goal of this $1 million project is to identify protective factors that may prevent youth from violence and criminal gang involvement. Importantly, unlike most traditional academic projects, academic research is but 1/3rd of the project. The other two major arms of the project are; ongoing training/education of all involved in the project including youth, and continual knowledge dissemination using both academic and popular media.

SSHRC’s mandate for CURA projects is that academic researchers must work alongside community partners at every step of the project from day one until the conclusion of the project.  I wholeheartedly embrace this ideal.

As an academic researcher, I had remained rather painfully aware of the two solitudes created by the academic and the community.  Academics, especially social scientists, have carved out an ivory tower, which they parachute out of from time to time into an outside community to “collect data”. Next step is to remove any trace of the individual identity of the data contributor.  This “coded data” is taken back to the ivory tower where these data pieces are examined, analysed, chopped up, decorated with charts and tables to be served on the platter of research journals, conference presentations and books – that only a handful may actually read, understand, or find relevant. Although, there is great value in “knowledge for the sake of knowledge”, creation of academic knowledge accessible only to the academic elite is unfair and meaningless. On the other side of things, the community relies on ‘common-sense wisdom’ and works on the “application” side of knowledge without the support of the evidence-based research.

The divide between the academic and the community must be bridged, such that the context is created for the cross-fertilization of knowledge. Academic rigor and community wisdom, when amalgamated, allows for meaningful contributions by the individual and collective to create a better world.

8. If you had infinite funding and full academic freedom, what would you research? 

My research goal will be to move closer to the ideal possible world where groups of people from diverse cultures, nations, religions, traditions, and political ideologies live harmoniously. Yes, understating the dynamics of intergroup relations are important, especially as we are a ‘Global Village’ with increasing movements of millions of people across continents.  This expands with the world coming together and becoming connected through rapidly advancing e-technology. This is our future. Our next-door neighbors will be “different”.  Yet, they will be part of our shared world. If my research can make a small, humble contribution in helping build harmonious human connections, I would consider my life blessed.

9. Since you began studying Psychology, what do you consider the controversial topics? How do you examine the controversial topics?

As a social psychologist living in Canada, controversial topics to me are inter-cultural relations. Traversing the fine line between the freedom to practice one’s cultural traditions while integrating into mainstream life in Canada.  It can be a challenge. Some issues such as newcomers to Canada wearing head covers (Hijab, Turbans), face covers (Niqab), body covers (Burqa), and following tradition-specific gender norms are controversial. As well, “racial profiling” is problematic.
There is no one correct way to examine these topics. However, it is my understanding that top- down imposition of “laws” make for a greater divide and discontent within the society; whereas allowing everyone an opportunity to shape laws and policies create good will and receptivity to them. Therefore, my inclination would be to involve members of the groups who might be the targets of the controversy, the policy makers, and expert researchers to work collaboratively to come up with a win-win situation.

10. How would you describe your early philosophical framework? Did it change? If so, how did it change?

As noted earlier, growing up in India, cultural and spiritual traditions dictated my world view. My cultural value’s foundation has remained strong within me. As such I believed, and continue to believe in the inherent goodness of people, and that being able to help one and all without expecting rewards and recognition is a duty (“Dharma”), and that maintaining a larger perspective on life protects one from stresses of the here & now, and keeps one humble.

These basic values have not changed. Rather personal experiences strengthened my belief in the importance of human connections and making decisions based on the larger perspective on life.

11. What advice do you have for young Psychology students?

Make career decisions wisely. Once a goal is established, give your best to every task, no matter how small, how trivial. Never be a minimalist but go beyond what is required. Learn to be a team player.

12. Who most influenced you? Can you recommend any seminal books/articles?

From my Eastern roots, I would consider Patanjali, an ancient scholar from India’s sacred tradition as the one who influenced me deeply. His seminal work “Yoga Sutras”, a compilation of Sanskrit hymns, provides a rational and secular philosophy of human nature.

From the standpoint of my Western academic life, I would pick William James as my ideal. James- the great thinker, James- the wise scholar, James – the amazing writer is an enduring source of inspiration to me. His book “Principles of Psychology”, especially the chapter on the self and consciousness is probably the best psychological discourse I have ever come across.

13. What do you hope to achieve in the near and far future with AT-CURA?

AT-CURA research findings are gradually being disseminated and it is rewarding to see these being embraced by law enforcement agencies, policy makers, and service providers.  My vision for AT-CURA is to continue the good work that the project has initiated and inspired. Our academic-community collaboration is very strong today, and work needs to continue to keep it well-nurtured so it can keep growing stronger and larger. I envision that it will have a sustained existence at KPU so researchers and community partners maintain their ties and collaborate on evidence-based programs that will help our youth make right choices in life and keep our community healthy and thriving.

14. Where do you see Psychology going?

Psychology as a discipline has very unique historical foundations, and its rapid growth since the early 20th century has been non-linear and multidirectional. In light of this, concerns exist about the field “splitting” into too many branches. Psychology as a unitary discipline might be lost in future altogether. I am not sure if there is any trend to allow speculation about the disciplinary direction. I see one  constant though.  Given that human behavior remains dependent on its contexts – physical, social, cultural, political – which constantly keep changing, the discipline of psychology will never go out of business- although it may take on different garbs and labels.

License

Creative Commons Licence In-sight by Scott Douglas Jacobsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Copyright

© Scott Douglas Jacobsen and In-sight, 2012-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Scott Douglas Jacobsen and In-sight with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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