Nov. 1, 2016

How one student went from research avoider to Killam Laureate

Mentors help Social Work grad student Crystal Kwan become passionate about resilience in the senior population
Crystal Kwan, University of Calgary doctoral student and 2016 Killam Laureate, Social Work.

Crystal Kwan, University of Calgary doctoral student and 2016 Killam Laureate, Social Work.

Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

The Killam Trusts support top-ranked Canadian post-secondary students and professors who are making exceptional contributions to society. The pathfinding work of the nearly 7,000 Killam Laureates from Canada and around the world promote international understanding — fulfilling the Killam dream of a better world.


My story to becoming a Killam Laureate at the University of Calgary is a curious one. Research was never an area of interest for me, nor did I believe, an aptitude of mine. Fast-forward to today and my state of mind has transformed from one of disinterest and confusion to one of adventure and wonder.

With an interest in pursuing a master of social work degree, I was delighted to learn that the Faculty of Social Work offered a course-based master's with a specialization in International and Community Development. This was my ticket to a graduate degree without focusing on research. Still, I was required to complete a research course — I dreaded this. This course was a key turning point in my journey. It was during this course that my professors encouraged me to rethink my ideas of research and introduced me to methodologies such as participatory action research and social justice research. These methodologies entail working with underserved individuals, groups, and communities in a participatory way to both understand a certain phenomenon and to facilitate change based on that new knowledge.

Crystal Kwan, far right, in the Philippines with four participants.

Crystal Kwan, far right, in the Philippines with four participants.

Participatory methodologies change everything

Equipped with this new perspective, I decided to pursue a research-based international practicum. It was this experience that solidified my interests and curiosity within the world of research. Through the support of Dr. Christine Walsh (who is now my PhD supervisor) and other faculty members, I conducted a four-month research project in the Philippines, in collaboration with local elders in order to explore their perspectives of community organizing and leadership. To embark on such a project may seem overwhelming at first glance, especially for a novice like me. But Christine’s mentorship and enthusiasm towards research, in particular her expertise in participatory action and social justice research (including the use of multimedia methods, and arts based research) enabled me to see the project to unfold with care and thought. 

Christine taught me that research is and should be accessible to everyone. She taught me how to unpack and break down the research jargon in a way that I can understand, put into practice, and share with others.

This is merely a glimpse of some of the critical junctures that have influenced my transformation from an undergraduate student that wanted nothing to do with research, to a doctoral student who is passionate and engaged in research. I have just completed a seven-month field research study, during which I have been partnering with underserved and marginalized seniors in a disaster-prone community in the Philippines, to understand what contributes to their resilience, which is the ability to "build back better" after a disaster. 

Crystal Kwan teaches a participant how to use the camera to take photos and video as part of data collection.

Kwan teaches a participant how to use the camera to take photos and video for data collection.

Building toward stronger communities

In addition to interviews and focus groups, I used two multimedia methods — Photovoice and Videovoice — to collect the data. These methods are participatory in that the seniors were trained on the use of a camera and would express their perspectives through photography and videography. A short video of the findings was co-created between myself and the participants, and it was presented back to the local community (of which there were approximately 75 in attendance of local government officials and other seniors in the community) in order to raise awareness of the challenges seniors face living in a disaster-prone community and to start a conversation on how the local community can contribute to building seniors’ resilience to disasters.

Beyond the local community, the findings of the study are aimed at disaster management practitioners and policy-makers. It highlights that resilience is not innate and that there are mechanisms (e.g., employment opportunities for seniors, universal pension, seniors’ associations, and land tenure security) that can be changed or implemented to build a seniors’ resilience, thus linking disaster resilience to wider development initiatives. Further, the findings point to the need to recognize the diversity of seniors’ situations and contexts and that seniors themselves must be consulted and engaged throughout the development of policies, programs, and practices to ensure they are inclusive and appropriate. This international experience has further shown me that as a researcher who is an “outsider,” it is critical to build in the time to develop relationships with the seniors and the local community that is grounded on respect, mutuality, trust, and authenticity.

Killam Laureate logo.

Killam Laureate logo.

There is no special 'research gene'

It is my mentors (professors, community members, participants, students, and peers) that have propelled me to become engaged in this work and importantly to become a Killam Laureate. I am deeply grateful to them and for the honour of becoming a Killam Laureate. The award enables me to fully immerse myself in my research endeavours and to focus on generating knowledge and action in an area that is largely neglected: seniors’ resilience. Further, the Killam award has allowed me to internationalize my research experiences, which is important in an increasingly interconnected and globalized world. It also supports the next chapter of my journey. I will undertake a six-month PhD exchange program with our partner university, the Hong Kong Polytechnic University to explore seniors’ resilience in this context.

My story is an appeal to students who are unsure or have already rejected research as an area of future practice. As it illustrates, there is no special research characteristic or research gene, research is accessible to all — to you. Research plays a transformative role as well in our society. In an increasingly turbulent world, there is a need for more critical, innovative, creative, and diverse minds to generate new knowledge and action. I invite you to rethink the role of research in your future, as I was encouraged to do. Find the research question that excites you — that you can use to facilitate change. With the support of the UCalgary and the Eyes High impetus, the possibilities for research as a student are endless. Embracing these possibilities can lead to adventure and wonder and contribute to your journey as a life-long learner.

About the Killams

Established in 1965 by Izaak Walton Killam and his wife Dorothy J. Killam, the Killam Trusts fund scholarships to help build Canada's future by supporting advanced education and research at five Canadian universities and the Canada Council for the Arts. The Killam Trusts are one of the only private philanthropic trusts for higher education in Canada. 

Killam funds at the University of Calgary are used to support exceptional doctoral students, postdoctoral fellows and faculty members in several award categories in the five disciplines of Health Sciences, Natural Sciences, Engineering, Social Sciences and Humanities.