Mackenzie Harms, master’s and doctoral candidate in Industrial and Organizational psychology (I/O psychology) at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, had an unconventional start in the research world but has since contributed to valuable findings in her field. Harms is currently a graduate research assistant on the L.E.A.D.I.R study, led by START principle investigator Dr. Gina Ligon.
Harms began her early career as the Visual Coordinator for the popular clothing store J. Crew in Chicago. Graduate school was on the horizon and her original plan was to attain a doctorate in English and become a professor. During her time at J. Crew, Harms became interested in something different: consumer psychology.
“I became interested in the idea that visuals, merchandising, and displays could be tailored to meet the needs of different client bases,” Harms said, “For instance, some stores had a younger, urban client and the New York looks worked well there, while others were traditional or classic, and the same items had to be styled differently to speak to those clients.”
Around this same time, Harms was participating in a seminar taught by a professor who studied gang activity in the economically disadvantaged areas of Chicago, Harms’ hometown.
“What interested me about his research was that he concluded that gangs operate the same way a traditional business might,” Harms said. “Due to the social and economic climate in these neighborhoods, gangs appear as a desirable option for safety and income to those individuals who join them.”
When the time came to apply to graduate programs Harms found I/O psychology, which encompassed both of her interests, and decided to pursue studies in that field. After her first year in graduate school she earned the opportunity to interview for a graduate research assistant position with the L.E.A.D.I.R. study under the direction of Dr. Ligon. She was selected and has worked with Ligon for the past two and a half years.
“The opportunity to work with Gina was one of the best, most rewarding things that could have happened to me in graduate school, because it has opened up so many doors,” Harms said.
Ligon has acted as a mentor to Harms and the pair have worked together on several projects, including some with the United States Strategic Command, where Harms was able to gain a security clearance.
Harms’ most recently worked on the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant: Branding, Leadership Culture and Lethal Attraction report where she helped identify areas where the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) was extremely successful and/or unique, relative to competing organizations within the Al Qaeda network. The team then analyzed their findings to assess the durability of ISIL.
“Working on this project with START has clarified how important it is for academics to work alongside the intelligence and national security community,” Harms said. “There is no greater key to satisfaction than feeling the work you do is important and has a lasting, positive impact not only for yourself, but for others.”