Religion, science, & women’s studies converge in outstanding undergraduate research

Jeena Kar, an exceptional example of the future of religious studies.
Jeena Kar, an exceptional example of the future of religious studies.

Religion and science. The company line is that the two are locked in some inexorable conflict, some primeval wrestling match that has no bloodless resolution. But what if, in one person, the two could reside simultaneously? What if that person was a student and planned to take her degree in religious studies and merge that with her pre-med background? What if she took religion & science and intermeshed her background in both to address contemporary women’s issues?

Meet Jeena Kar.

Kar is graduating this May (2015) and is a shining example of the types of students that can, and should, be religion majors with #UFreligion. The Orlando-based senior said she was not always a religion major. “I was pre-med and psychology,” said Kar, “and then I took ‘Introduction to Islam’ with Dr. Østebø.”

Talking with her TA during that course — PhD candidate Kerri Blumenthal — she was encouraged to switch to become a religion major. She did, combining religion courses with her pre-med preparations, and never looked back. Kar said, “being a religion major was hands down the best decision I made as an undergrad.”

“That’s the beauty of a liberal arts education,” she said, “to be interdisciplinary is to better understand the world.” 

Kar explains her project at the University Scholars poster presentation.
Kar explains her project at the University Scholars poster presentation.

This Spring, Kar participated in the University Scholars Program. The program introduces undergraduate students at the University of Florida to the exciting world of academic research.  In the program, students work one-on-one with UF faculty on selected research projects. Through this initiative, students will take away an understanding of and appreciation for the scholarly method. A competition is held each spring within participating colleges for the University Scholars awards that includes a $1750 stipend.

For her project, Kar worked with religion professor Dr. Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons who teaches Islamic studies, women & religion, and African-American religious traditions. Kar’s paper addressed the oppression of women in some Muslim cultures and if an embrace of Islamic Mysticism would be a useful tool in advancing women’s rights in the Muslim world.  

“Jeena is very concerned about women and how they are viewed in the various religious traditions, especially within Islam,” said Dr. Simmons, “and like a scientist, she wants not only to know why, but also what are the possible solutions to the problems she finds within her tradition’s treatment of women.”

Simmons said, “Of course the status of Muslim women in Muslim majority States is of grave concern to many in the world,” and so the project was not only academically rigorous, but relevant. “Her combining the struggle for Muslim women’s Rights with Sufism is an idea that has not been flushed out very much in the literature or in the practice of Muslim Feminism,” said Simmons, but Kar “brings her scientific mind into her research and writing as a religion major” and her studies benefit because of it.

Furthermore, Simmons intimated that Kar’s research is so original and thought-provoking that they will be pursuing publication of the paper in an academic journal. 

As part of the University Scholars Program the undergraduate must not only undertake a full research project under the guidance of a faculty member but also present their work as part of a poster session. Kar said that the poster session was intimidating as a religion major.

The University Scholar’s Program tends to feature STEM research (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) and so Kar felt “like a fish out of water.”

Even so, sh said, “I fielded questions, outlined my paper, and found it was really effortless to share my research, my project.” In the end, “being a scientist and a religion major I found I could change people’s mind about humanities research and what it’s like.”

To that end, Kar encouraged every undergraduate student to compete in a research project such as the University Scholars Program and she was grateful for the opportunity that her mentors in the Religion Department at UF provided her. 

She reflected on the experience and said, “one thing I’ve seen in combining science and religion is that everything is so intertwined.”

Kar & Dr. Simmons at the poster presentation
Kar & Dr. Simmons at the poster presentation

“We have these disciplines and boundaries between religion and healthcare, healthcare and feminism,” she said, “but when you research in one area you find that you have to be interdisciplinary to really understand what is going on in any one field. Religion helps us understand so much about the way the world works.”

Dr. Manuel Vásquez, Professor and Chair of the Religion Department, said of Kar’s work, “she demonstrates the exciting and timely things that our undergraduate major does.” He said, “the strength of a department is measured not only by excellence in graduate education, but by the rigorous training of undergraduate students around the critical issues of our age.  Jeena’s thesis on women and Islam is an outstanding example of that training.”

Kar’s combination of inquiry into religious realms with a scientific mind has prepared her well for what’s to come. For now, she will take a gap year and continue to serve at cancer rehabilitation centers with her art and “henna crowns project.”

As fascinating as this one religion major is, this story is about more than Kar. It is the story of religion majors at UF and other religion schools. In the end, these undergraduates are not just students, but the dawn of the religious studies discipline’s future. From this vantage point, that future looks bright. 

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