“In research, being wrong is not a bad thing”: Erica Henderson, Fall 2013

Erica at the US Capitol.

I really enjoyed the opportunity to pursue my own research on transportation infrastructure in Nicaragua. This was a project I had kept in my mind ever since high school and had never expected that I would pursue.

A Research Interest Born in Boaco

In high school I spent time in Boaco, Nicaragua, in a rural area east of Managua, and it seemed to me that the roads explained everything in that small rural village:

  • why children dropped out of school;
  • why jobs were scarce;
  • why goods did not reach the market; and
  • why access to healthcare was so restricted.

So when the UCLA CAPPP Quarter in Washington Program presented me with the opportunity to pick my own research topic I was thrilled by the chance to pursue my interest further.

Lots of students use the Library of Congress and Georgetown University’s Lauinger Library, but In my case, the vast majority of my work on my project was in my apartment with my roommate.

We would bounce ideas back and forth, question each other, and push each other to refine our hypotheses. The amount that I was engaged intellectually as well as the friendships I developed with  my CAPPP peers were the most personally rewarding parts of doing the Quarter in Washington.

Boaco, Nicaragua

My Project Hits a  Roadblock

My research project was not easy.

At first data was not difficult to find. Academic research on transportation infrastructure development in China, Africa and the US was plentiful. However, when I had to turn in my rough draft during week six, our TA, Brad, asked me to find new data that was actually about Nicaragua.

For several months, I couldn’t find anything. It wasn’t until late November, a month before the final paper was due, that I finally located what I needed.

Crossroads: I Break Through My Fear of Networking

My internship with Caribbean-Central American Action was hosting their annual conference, which brought together leaders in government, policy and industry. It was at the conference that I stepped outside my comfort zone to network on behalf of my research.

I introduced myself to the Ambassador of Nicaragua as a student researcher and an intern at Caribbean Central-American Action. I also talked to a representative from the World Bank. Since I am typically shy about this sort of networking, it felt very empowering–in fact, asking for help from these professionals yielded key results for my project.

Through these contacts, I was able to get access to the exact data I needed.

Finding the Data–In Spanish

It was, however, a 500-page document in Spanish.

Honestly, I was just so excited to finally have the information that I eagerly started translating and collating data from the report.

After many hours of working with spreadsheets I finally managed to distinguish all of the roads in Nicaragua by departamento (the administrative unit into which the country is divided), and create tables.

What Happens When Your Hypothesis is Wrong?

The departamentos of Nicaragua
The departamentos of Nicaragua

Then I hit my next obstacle: With one week left before the final draft of our papers were due, I found that my hypothesis was not supported by the evidence.

Roads are, in fact, not an indicator of the level of development in Nicaragua.

I panicked–our research results presentations to the rest of the seminar were just days away. What would I say  if my hypothesis was wrong?

After talking to anyone who would listen about my dilemma, I realized by looking more deeply into my results, I could come to conclusions that were useful.

It turned out that the three poorest departamentos had both the most and the fewest roads in the country. I decided to find out why. I focused in on just these four areas and their particular social, economic and political characteristics to see what was unique about each one.

Yes, I had some stressful and very late nights. But my conclusions ended up being much more nuanced and detailed that I’d anticipated in the beginning. And when I gave my presentation to the class, I was confidant that my work was interesting.

When Being Wrong is Right

In the end I was glad that I was wrong.

It made me look more closely into something that I expected to be a trend in order to understand the unique context of development in each region.

It was a great learning experience and made me feel more like an International Development Studies major that I had during much of my time at UCLA.

Snow day at the UC Washington Center.
Snow day at the UC Washington Center.

I am very proud of my project and the process that I went through to complete it in DC.

The way that the CAPPP program gave me the opportunity to push myself intellectually was invaluable. I learned the hard way not to discount research in another language, a mistake I will be sure not to make twice.

I also learned that in research, being wrong is not a bad thing, because it may lead you to down a much more interesting path.