IST student awarded Erickson Discovery Grant to further Tumblr research

Megan Gent
July 01, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – Courtney Smith, a rising junior studying security and risk analysis, recently received a 2020 Erickson Discovery Grant to further her research on parasocial relationships between 18- to 25-year-old Tumblr bloggers and celebrities.

The Erickson Discovery Grant Program, established at Penn State to support undergraduate student engagement in original research, scholarship and creative work under the direct supervision of a faculty member, awards roughly 70 applicants $3,500 each summer.

Courtney Smith

Courtney Smith

IMAGE: Provided

As an active Tumblr user since 2014, Smith quickly noticed the one-sided relationships many fellow users create with celebrities on the site, whether they’re with real-life public figures or fictional characters. Through fan-fictional stories, gifs, edits and mood boards, these users become fixated on specific celebrities — and Smith wants to know why.

“The problem is that they build these relationships off of surface-level things they see from the celebrity or that the celebrity presents to them, although they don't really know what [the celebrity] is like because they don't know them behind the screen,” Smith said.

Though Smith’s research is currently in preliminary phases, she plans to release a survey on Tumblr to begin gathering this data once the Institutional Review Board approves its ethical standing.

Smith contributes a lot of her success to her mentor, Lynette Yarger, associate professor of information sciences and technology and assistant dean for equity and inclusion at Schreyer Honors College.

"[During my freshman year] I asked [Dr. Yarger] what her research was, and she gave me a lot of pointers about research, how to navigate Penn State, and what I should be doing to help better myself,” said Smith. “She’s been really helpful with this, as well as also writing these amazing recommendation letters for me and getting me in contact with people that can really help me in the long run.”

Smith also credits Yarger with helping her to apply for the Erickson Discovery Grant.

“[Dr. Yarger] was giving me a lot of pointers, especially on my actual grant proposal, because I'd never written a grant proposal before,” said Smith. “I'd never gotten a grant before, so it was all very new to me.”

At Penn State, Smith is involved with the Millennium Scholars Program, through which future leaders in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields commit to increasing the diversity of professionals in their industries. She is also a scholar at the iSchool Inclusion Institute (i3), an undergraduate research and leadership development program through the University of Pittsburgh that prepares underrepresented students for graduate study and careers in the information sciences. Smith presented a separate i3 research project at the virtual iConference earlier this year.

It was through these programs that Smith realized she wanted to get more involved in research and set the goal to eventually obtain a doctoral degree.

“I wasn't too keen on going to graduate school,” Smith said. “I would say that Dr. Yarger’s research and her teaching me about things I should be doing really made me interested, as well as my summer research program at i3 in Pittsburgh — which ultimately led me to wanting to do more of my own research.”

Smith plans to put most of the funding she receives from the Erickson Discovery Grant toward compensation for subjects’ participation as she continues to advance her research — which, she said, was recently selected to be presented at the 2020 National Diversity in STEM Conference (SACNAS).

With all of the recognition that her undergraduate work has received, Smith said she is excited for the future of her research.

“I think [my research] will really help me improve the skills that I have as well as my own confidence of getting into a good Ph.D. program, and [will give] me that edge to get into the programs that I want in the schools that I want,” she concluded.

Last Updated June 28, 2021