University of Houston student Matt Dickenson started asking questions about national security at an early age when he was confronted with the tragic reality of terrorism.
"I can still remember hearing the sonic boom of the Oklahoma City bombing from my kindergarten classroom. It was an enormous boom," said Dickenson, referring to the April 19, 1995 attack on the Alfred P. Murrah Building in downtown Oklahoma City. "I wondered, ‘What kind of person could do that?'"
Dickenson's questions as a youth evolved into more complex inquiries about the motivations behind terrorism and which counterterrorism measures enacted by governments prove to be effective. Earlier this year, he began researching the effects of leadership changes in terrorist groups on the number of attacks a group commits.
Findings from his research will be on display Thursday (Oct. 14) as part of Undergraduate Research Day, where more than 100 UH undergraduate researchers will present posters and projects on original research or creative work they have conducted within the last year. It is coordinated by the Office of Undergraduate Research and The Honors College.
The free event will feature the work of undergraduate students from various UH colleges and departments, including a food-sampling project and three-dimensional models built by technology and architecture students. It starts at 4 p.m. in the Rockwell Pavilion of the M.D. Anderson Library.
"It's an important opportunity to demonstrate that undergraduate students can conduct substantive research," Dickenson said. "It also gives undergrads a great chance to have this kind of experience so they can hit the ground running when they reach graduate school."
Karen Weber, director of the Office of Undergraduate Research, said students invest a significant amount of time and energy in their research projects.
"With this event, The Honors College and the Office of Undergraduate Research celebrate their accomplishments and help foster a research culture for undergraduates at the University of Houston," Weber said. "Given that undergraduate research has been shown to increase graduation rates and open the path to graduate and professional school, such a culture can do great things for the University of Houston's push for Tier One status."
The participants include students who were involved in the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship, or SURF, as well as any undergraduate student who conducted substantive research within the last year.
Dickenson, an Honors political science senior, spent the summer in California as a SURF participant, working on his research at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. At UH, he has been working on his research project with political science professor Ryan Kennedy.
He has been collecting records of leadership turnover in terrorist groups and combining that information with attack and casualty counts from the Global Terrorism Database.
"Striking at terrorist leaders tends to increase violence, rather than reduce it," Dickenson said in discussing his findings. "And these conclusions are applicable across a broad geographical area and ideological spectrum of groups. In other words, it is not just Islamist organizations that take revenge when a leader is martyred."
On that terrible day in 1995, Dickenson's mother explained to him what had made that thunderous noise as they drove home from school. Days later, his father took him to the site of the bombing, where he collected a piece of the destroyed building.
"I keep it on my desk as a reminder that even though research may sometimes seem distant from global events, it can have an impact on real life," Dickenson said. "The counter-terrorism policies that governments put into place have very real consequences that need to be studied."
Note to those wishing to cover the event: Undergraduate Research Day will be held Thursday, Oct. 14, in the Rockwell Pavilion, on the second floor of M.D. Anderson Library. The event starts at 4 p.m.