SSRC GRAs place in Graduate Student Research Symposium

Published by Emile Creel on

By Bethany Deuel

Two graduate research assistants at the SSRC received awards for their presentations at the 19th annual Mississippi State University (MSU) Graduate Student Research Symposium (GSRS) held virtually on February 27th.

Robert Kolbila received the third-place award in the Arts and Humanities category, and Taylor Ray took the first-place prize for Physics, Mathematics, and Computational Sciences/Engineering. Both students received cash prizes for their oral presentations.

Portrait of Robert Kolbila

Originally from Ghana, Kolbila worked for development-focused non-profits for 10 years before coming to MSU to pursue a doctoral degree in sociology. He now assists faculty members Kathleen Ragsdale and Mary Read-Wahidi in the Gender Impacts Lab, where his work centers around conducting field-level surveys, data analysis, and participating in sharing results based on research for two USAID-funded Feed the Future Innovation Labs, including the Soybean Innovation Lab and the Innovation Lab for Fish.

Kolbila’s presentation, “Exploring household-level hunger among 3,394 smallholder farmers in Ghana’s Northern Region across four hunger seasons,” was the result of several studies done over four years to explore seasonal food insecurity among small-scale farmers and their families. In many rural farming communities across sub-Saharan Africa, seasonal food insecurity – which is locally known as a “hunger season” – follows a specific pattern.

“June usually sees greater food insecurity than May in Northern Ghana,” Kolbila said. “However, responses to food security questions in June of 2016 showed surprisingly low hunger rates compared to our June 2018 survey.”

These predominately Muslim communities were celebrating the Holy Month of Ramadan in June of 2016 and were not in June of 2018 because Ramadan follows the lunar calendar and shifts annually. In Northern Ghana, families may ration food differently, even during peak hunger months, in anticipation of Ramadan feasting, where they will hold a nightly feast to break the fast.

“Hopefully, more effort will be invested into better understanding some of the factors that influence household hunger rates and how informal ‘safety nets’ like Ramadan help mitigate food insecurity,” Kolbila said.

Ray, a master’s student in computer science, has worked for the Data Science for the Social Sciences Laboratory (DS3) since last August. There she works under Sujan Anreddy to apply her specializations of artificial intelligence and data science, most recently through a project analyzing social media data related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Similarly, Ray’s symposium presentation centered around positive and negative sentiments surrounding COVID-19 on social media. Titled “Using Sentiment Analysis Techniques to Discover Emotions Conveyed on Twitter and Reddit” the presentation included many of Ray’s preliminary findings for what will become her master’s thesis.

Ray hopes that her audience gained not only a better understanding of the significance of this field of study but also a new perspective on the real experiences people are having with the pandemic.

“We could really get an idea on how people have been coping with the pandemic and if how we think people have been handling it is how it actually is,” said Ray, of Memphis. “That was the major goal, more than just ‘here’s some data from Twitter and Reddit.’ It was a little bigger than just that.”

Ray also sees meaning in her work as she overcomes her fears and accomplishes success in a traditionally male-dominated field.

“It tends to have a reputation of being very male-dominated and that can, at times, be incredibly intimidating when you’re in a 50-person class, and you’re one of three other women …it’s incredibly great to know I can represent that small minority in computer science and computer-related fields,” Ray said.

Kolbila and Ray share their appreciation for the experience and growth that participating in the GSRS proved to be, awards aside. Through learning how to consolidate information into a compact presentation, engage audience members from all areas of study, and field unexpected discussion questions, both students were able to sharpen their communication skills. For Kolbila, placing in his category was also a source of encouragement for future endeavors.

“I think for me it’s a signal that you’re doing something right, and you need to continue to improve on it.”

More information on the GSRS can be found at