Undergraduate Research

Gunja Sarkar ’23

OUR Featured Researcher: Gunja Sarkar ’23

Gunja Sarkar
Photo credit: Tanya Rosen-Jones '97

Gunja Sarkar (she/her) is majoring in history and computer science.  She conducts research under the mentorship of Professor of History Renee Romano. Her project is titled “Digital Technology in Historical Research.”

Please describe your project:

This thesis examines how the role of digital technology in the historical research process has changed over time. There’s two parts to my thesis: the first looks at how “everyday” digital technology has affected the historical research process and the second part considers how “digital historians” are intentionally incorporating advanced computer science techniques into their methodologies to do historical research in different ways. The first part includes how historians find and use sources using digital tools – think Google, JSTOR, online archives, and more. The second part looks more at digital history projects – both ones that present historical research digitally and projects that create software for historians to use to derive historical knowledge in new ways, like using text mining, data visualization, or advanced algorithmic modeling.

A brief summary (the elevator speech) of your research project:

My thesis explores how digital technology has shaped the historical research process over time. This means both considering how historians today use digital technologies like Google and JSTOR in their work and how digital historians are intentionally using advanced computer science techniques to do historical research differently.

Why is your research important?

Computer science has gained prominence as both an industry and an academic field, and now other disciplines are looking at how computer science can be integrated to doing learning, researching, and teaching differently. All disciplines have their existing methodologies, but it is important to consider how all new technologies, not just computers, can change the kinds of research we do and how we know what we know. 

What does the process of doing your research look like?

It’s a history project, so it’s a lot of reading and writing, usually on my own! I did also interview Oberlin College history faculty and survey history students in addition to attending the AHA Annual Meeting to gather information from people’s lived experiences as well.

What knowledge has your research contributed to your field?

While computer science has not “revolutionized” the historical field, it does offer us new ways to ask and answer different types of historical questions, in addition to making different kinds of historical arguments. Further, while digital techniques present new challenges to the historical discipline, they are often concerns historians have experience dealing with.

In what ways have you showcased your research thus far?

I submitted and defended my Honors thesis in April and will be presenting it in May. I also got to attend the American Historical Association Annual Meeting in January and interview historians for my research project there.

How did you get involved in research? What drove you to seek out research experiences in college? 

I decided on my two majors pretty early on while at Oberlin. During my junior year, I was finishing up both majors and became interested in how I could find ways to combine the two and came across the field of digital history. Oberlin doesn’t (yet) offer any digital history classes, so I realized the best way to explore the field would be to do my own research project.

What is your favorite aspect of the research process? 

This is going to sound really nerdy, but I really just love learning about a topic that I find engaging and new. Also, because digital history is at the intersection of my two majors, it is really lovely to find new ideas and concepts that just perfectly apply to both fields. I also love getting to talk to other people about my research and sharing new things I’ve found.

How has working with your mentor impacted the development of your research project? How has it impacted you as a researcher?

Working with my mentor has been very effective in terms of getting me to grow both as a researcher and as a person. She’s always pushing me to think both about how I can push the edges of my current understanding and expand my knowledge base, but also about how to present those ideas effectively, concisely, and coherently. Working with my mentor has also been super helpful to have someone to reframe my ideas and guide me in directions that could be helpful, as well as having someone to keep me accountable!

How has the research you’ve conducted contributed to your professional or academic development?  

I’ve been thinking about graduate school for quite some time, but could never really figure out if I wanted to go and if I did go, what my particular research interest would be. Doing my research project has helped me understand what going to graduate school would look like, what areas of research I’m most likely to enjoy pursuing, what kinds of programs would be best for me, and instilled confidence in me about my abilities as a researcher. Doing research is a great way to both get experience in advanced topics and get a chance to experience what an academic career might feel like.

What advice would you give to a younger student wanting to get involved in research in your field? 

 Focus on developing interdisciplinary skills. It always helps to have the technical background to approach problems in different ways. Also, you will never manage to read everything, but start somewhere!