The Experts Are In

SSRI Connection Bar offers research help to students, faculty

Gross Hall Dedication, Today
Consultants at the Connection Bar in Gross Hall offer research advice virtually and to in-person visitors. Photo: SSRI

It's difficult to say what most draws students to the second floor of Gross Hall -- the promise of free coffee, fresh chocolate chip cookies at 3 p.m. or top-notch research advice.

In the warm-hued space surrounding the Connection Bar, where comfy armchairs and workspace nooks abound, they can enjoy all three.

Modeled after Apple's Genius Bars, the Connection Bar offers tech support with a research twist to the Duke community. A team of advanced graduate students staffs the Bar 40 hours a week to offer guidance on every step of the research process, from designing an experiment, to conducting fieldwork, to analyzing and interpreting data.

It's just one of a number of places on campus offering students and faculty the opportunity to sharpen and expand their research toolkits. In the basement of Perkins library, the service desk at The Link provides training and rents out equipment like video recorders, iPads and webcams. Two floors up, Data and GIS Services runs boot camps and consulting on mapping, data visualization and processing. 

The Connection Bar is part of the Social Science Research Institute (SSRI), which recently expanded into a transformed Gross Hall alongside projects like the Duke Energy Initiative and the Duke Innovation and Entrepreneurship Initiative. 

Alexandra Cooper, associate director of education at SSRI, said the Connection Bar is already "setting the tone of this as a place where people come to interact."  

Throughout the day, a steady flow of help requests arrive -- both in person and virtually, through the Connection Bar's live chat service -- ranging from undergraduates in need of honors thesis help all the way up to professors. The Bar serves more than just social science researchers; Duke Medical doctors have come for software support and biologists for modeling questions. 

Not surprisingly, exam times mark the busiest spells of the year, but with drop-in hours until 6 p.m. on weekdays, "there's always somebody here to be available," Cooper said.

Consultants can tackle basic problems with statistical software like STATA, SAS and R, or more nuanced questions about the best way to gather and understand different types of data. Alison Koenka, a PhD student in the department of psychology and neuroscience, specializes in meta-analysis, a method of statistically combining outcomes from existing studies. If you're looking to work with ethnographic or historical data, you might be referred to Whitney Welsh, a post-doc in sociology.

The Connection Bar also offers workshops, sometimes in conjunction with Data and GIS Services, on the same topics their consultants address.  

While they're helping clients at the Bar, the graduate students working there are sharpening their own research acumen at the same time. "Some of my most important learning experiences this year, in terms of statistics and methods, have happened here," Koenka said.

Jonathan Morgan, a graduate student in sociology, grew skilled at maneuvering Qualtrics, an online survey-building tool, after another student came in with questions about the tool. He and Welsh are also teaming up to run a joint analysis, an effort that never would have happened if the two hadn't met as consultants.

"It can be really exciting. People come in here with cool ideas, and we get to help move them along," said Morgan.

Of course, the free coffee doesn't hurt, either.