This year, Inside IES Research is featuring a diverse group of IES-funded education researchers and fellows that are making significant contributions to education research, policy, and practice. In recognition of Hispanic Heritage Month, we interviewed Michael P. Mesa, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow at the Children's Learning Institute at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston. His research focuses on examining factors that can maximize children’s academic and behavioral development, particularly in the context of small-group instruction. We recently caught up with Dr. Mesa to learn more about his career, the experiences that have shaped it, and his view of the role of diversity and inclusion in education research.
How did you begin your career journey as an education researcher?
I became interested in education research while working as an undergraduate research assistant at the Center for Children and Families at Florida International University. I worked on IES-funded research studies focused on behavioral interventions, such as the Summer Preparatory Program for children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. As part of the primary intervention, I used applied behavior analysis (ABA) in the context of a summer camp. I found supporting the behavioral development of children rewarding and the process of conducting research to be interesting. Over time, I was given opportunities to become more and more involved in the research side of the behavioral interventions.
At the same time, I was also a professional tutor and found that many of the students referred to tutoring for academic support also had behavioral difficulties. I wound up using the same strategies that worked in the behavioral intervention while tutoring students. For example, I was liberal with my use of labeled praise and consistent with my expectations and feedback and found that using ABA helped students stay engaged and motivated during the tutoring session. These experiences supporting students with academic and behavioral difficulties in research and applied settings inspired me to pursue my doctorate at the College of Education at Florida State University. Here I became interested in strategies that can be used to maximize learning and development, particularly in the context of targeted small-group instruction. For my dissertation, I explored the role of classroom management strategies in the context of small-group literacy interventions for children at risk for reading difficulties.
What are you researching now?
Currently I am investigating the role that group composition and peers play in maximizing student learning in the context of targeted, small-group interventions. My research suggests that the language skills of peers is related to their own language development in this context, such that students benefit from interacting with and being exposed to peers with more developed language skills.
What do you see as the greatest research needs or recommendations to improve the relevance of education research for diverse communities of students and families?
As researchers, I think it is important to focus on research questions with practical implications that meet the needs of students and teachers in real world classrooms or education settings. The development of and participation in researcher–practitioner partnerships is one path towards assuring that we are aware of the needs of the teachers and students we are serving and that our research is relevant for diverse communities. I believe these partnerships should include active participation from diverse stakeholders in various stages of research, including project development, implementation, analysis, and dissemination. Within the context of these partnerships, researchers can solicit research questions of importance and interest to teachers and other stakeholders.
I also believe that one of the ways we can improve the relevance of education research for diverse communities is by increasing the diversity of the research workforce. This means attracting individuals with diverse backgrounds and lived experiences, who will bring fresh and relevant ideas to the field. During my graduate studies, I was part of a department and organizations with colleagues and faculty from diverse backgrounds. For example, I served various roles in an IES-funded Pathways training program, Partners United for Research Pathways Oriented to Social Justice in Education (PURPOSE), focused on increasing the diversity of individuals in education research. As a Hispanic and first-generation graduate student, I found being part of these diverse research teams helped make me feel welcome in the field of education research and supported the development of my professional identity. I also observed that many of the research projects developed by these diverse individuals aimed to support marginalized students that are typically understudied.
What advice would you give to emerging scholars that are pursuing a career in education research?
Protect your writing time and create a writing routine—find a consistent time and place to write for your primary research task and don’t schedule over it. I would encourage emerging scholars to treat their writing time like a meeting, class, or job that they can’t miss. This may require saying ‘no’ to requests from others in order to prioritize writing. Research requires sustained effort and I have found that protecting my writing has supported me in making continuous progress on my manuscripts and projects.
My next recommendation aligns with my research in the area of peer effects that has found that the skills of one’s peers are related to one’s own skill development. I would encourage early researchers to find colleagues and peers with common goals or interests, particularly peers who are at more advanced stages in their career journey, and to find ways to collaborate and work with them. Throughout my career journey, a constant theme is that I have been part of a supportive village of researchers, and that others have provided opportunities for me to become involved in their projects. I have also found it beneficial to have at least one accountability partner within my village of researchers. An accountability partner is somebody with whom you share your goals and your plans to meet these goals. During times of success, your accountability partner is somebody that you can celebrate with. During times of stress, your accountability partner is somebody that can help with reflection, problem solving, and encouragement. Participating in recurring meetings with a writing group is a way to combine these pieces of advice.
This year, Inside IES Research is publishing a series of interviews (see here, here, and here) showcasing a diverse group of IES-funded education researchers and fellows that are making significant contributions to education research, policy, and practice. As part of our Hispanic Heritage Month blog series, we are focusing on Hispanic researchers and fellows, as well as researchers that focus on the education of Hispanic students.
Michael P. Mesa, PhD is a postdoctoral researcher at the Children's Learning Institute at the University of Texas Health Science Center. He received his bachelor’s degree in Psychology with a minor in Statistics from Florida International University. Dr. Mesa earned his MS and PhD from the Educational Psychology and Learning Systems program at Florida State University, where he also earned certificates in Measurement and Statistics and College Teaching and completed the nationally recognized Preparing Future Faculty program.
This blog was produced by Katie Taylor (Katherine.Taylor@ed.gov), postdoctoral training program officer at the National Center for Special Education Research and Katina Stapleton (Katina.Stapleton@ed.gov), co-chair of the IES Diversity Council.