The World Is Our Laboratory

The World Is Our Laboratory

UNT Diving Eagle
April 22, 2024

UNT scholars are making a global impact with their research.


Not all research takes place in a lab among test tubes and beakers. Sometimes research must happen in the field, and that can take researchers far afield from the rainforests of Kenya to archives throughout Europe. As a Tier One public research university also designated as a Hispanic- and Minority-Serving Institution, the University of North Texas takes pride in the partnerships and research collaborations built with universities and organizations worldwide. 

In 2023, UNT scholars traveled to 70 countries around the world to conduct research. Through globally minded programs in sustainable tourism, peace studies and biocultural conservation, as well as scholarly collaborations in disciplines ranging from art and music history to family science, UNT faculty and student researchers are contributing to the global understanding within their respective fields.

Sustainable Tourism

 Location: Mexico

Researcher: Birendra KC, associate professor in the College of Merchandising, Hospitality and Tourism

Whether it be excursions to coffee farms in Costa Rica, wildlife observation tours in Kenya or Airbnb-like micro entrepreneurship opportunities in Nepal, UNT’s international sustainable tourism program considers sustainability from multiple perspectives. In addition to exploring how tourism can promote environmental consciousness, the program also searches for ways to protect the local culture, all through establishing a sustainable business model that can turn a profit.

“When business practices violate nature and diminish natural resources, they’ll eventually deteriorate over time,” says KC. “At some point, you won’t be able to conduct any business because people have lost their connection with nature and the environment. So how do we make these businesses think more sustainably and do businesses more sustainably?”

It’s a question KC’s research is working to solve in the Gulf of California, which was added to UNESCO’s List of World Heritage in Danger sites due to the near extinction of the vaquita, a species of porpoise endemic to the northern gulf. Overfishing and illegal fishing operations have decimated the vaquita population, with about 10 individuals remaining, according to the World Wildlife Fund.

He says one of the biggest challenges is finding solutions that benefit all stakeholders, from conservation officers and nongovernmental environmental organizations to tourism businesses and local communities.

“We need to include these stakeholders to improve the entrepreneurship opportunities and various sustainable tourism businesses so all can have a better outcome.”

Age of Revolutions Music

 Location: France

Researcher: Rebecca Geoffroy-Schwinden, associate professor in the College of Music

The Age of Revolution from the late-18th to mid-19th centuries was a formative time for our current global society. During this time, several revolutionary wars and social movements took place across Europe and the Americas. Music historian Geoffroy-Schwinden is studying how these changes impacted people’s relationship to music on an individual and societal level.

“People became possessive of their music in new ways, music became a kind of property,” says Geoffroy-Schwinden. “The emergence of capitalism was about owning things and exchanging them, so my research interest is in how music fits into that particular context, but also how music was used to announce those changes.”

Her current projects, funded by the U.S. National Endowment for the Humanities, are specifically about music as women’s possessions during the Age of Revolutions and the role music played in their everyday lives. Geoffroy-Schwinden’s work takes her all over — from France to Delaware as she tracked the Du Pont family’s move to the United States after the French Revolution.

“When you do archival research on people during this period, people were always moving and so the materials are all over the world,” she says. “The collection I’m looking at has hundreds of thousands of documents and music is not always self-evident. You might pull out a couple music scores, but then once you start reading letters, diaries and sketchbooks, you start finding music everywhere.”

She says immersing herself in the archives is the only way to fully understand the ways that music impacted people’s lives, like the story of a family in Nantes, France, who owned a plantation in current-day Haiti. Plantation records, correspondences and ship logs combined to tell the story of the family helping bring the plantation manager’s children to France to learn, take music lessons and take in a concert series sponsored by the family.

“You really end up in this ecosystem of archival documents that inform one another, and if you were just looking at one thing, you wouldn’t be able to understand this really complex story about how global those cosmopolitan musical practices were.”

Post-Conflict Peace

 Location: Colombia

Researcher: James Meernik, professor in the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences

Colombia’s 2016 Peace Accord brought an end to 50 years of civil war between the country’s military and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia–People’s Army (FARC-EP). Meernik, who teaches political science and is the director of the Castleberry Peace Institute at UNT, is researching the Accord’s ambitious plan to build enduring peace by demobilizing and reintegrating tens of thousands of former combatants into communities across Colombia.

“The reintegration process is fraught from a social and psychological perspective for both the former combatants and their victims,” he says. “It’s also an economic issue trying to make sure they have the wherewithal to be able to support themselves and not become a burden on the state or turn back to a life of crime.”

Meernik’s research includes surveying former combatants about the process to evaluate its effectiveness and opportunities for improvement.

At the same time, he also is researching the current administration’s plan for Paz Total (Total Peace) with political science professor Jacqueline DeMeritt. The plan seeks to establish ceasefires and terms for permanent disarmament with various cartels and other criminal organizations simultaneously, rather than coming to agreements with one group at a time, which then leaves a power vacuum in that group’s territory that other organizations battle to fill. Meernik and DeMeritt recently earned a $93,000 Grants for Rapid Research Response award from the U.S. National Science Foundation to interview the leaders of the major armed organizations in Colombia who are residing in a maximum-security prison. Those interviews will be conducted by their Colombian partners and then analyzed by Meernik and DeMeritt.

He hopes to survey currently imprisoned members of those criminal organizations to better understand how they work, how to demobilize them and how to stop them from recruiting more young people. It would be a step toward understanding another critical piece in the complicated puzzle of lasting peace.

“There’s a lot we’re learning from the peace building and reconciliation taking place in Colombia,” says Meernik. “It’s a very difficult and time-consuming process, but it needs to take place if you’re going to bring people back together again.”

Family Strengths

 Location: Romania and Albania

Researcher: Julie Leventhal, principal lecturer in the Honors College

As she prepared to travel to Romania in spring 2022 for her research into human trafficking as a Fulbright Scholar, Leventhal wanted to get acclimated to her new surroundings by diving into research on Romanian families. Once she realized there wasn’t much available, Leventhal seized the opportunity to dive into her next international research project.

Over the last year and a half, Leventhal has interviewed more than 40 families to learn more about the influence the Orthodox church has on their day-to-day lives and how they responded to the fall of communism in 1989, with many parents leaving their children to be raised by grandparents while they found work abroad to send money back home.

“Romania is an Orthodox country, very religiously based,” says Leventhal. “A lot of families say, ‘We are religious because all of our generations before were religious.’ It still very much controls a lot of their life, so even getting in to do family services, you’d have to go through the church.”

Anticipating similar findings when interviewing families from Albania, Leventhal was surprised to learn that religion was far less influential compared to Romania and that many responded to the end of communism by relocating their entire family, leading to pockets of intergenerational Albanian communities developing in other countries.

Leventhal hopes to expand her research into surrounding countries in the near future and says that understanding how families are impacted by external influences like religion and political upheaval is key to being able to provide services to all families more effectively.

“I’m fascinated with the Balkans in Eastern Europe, specifically formerly communist countries,” says Leventhal. “In my field of family science, we have to understand family dynamics and what potential barriers are going to exist to know how best to help them or how we can give them access to resources.”


 Location: Kenya

Researcher: Andrew Gregory, assistant professor in the College of Science

“What do mice in Europe, butterflies in Kenya and birds in Chile have in common?” asks Gregory. “A researcher in Texas.”

From conservation corridors across Europe to the effects of climate change and invasive species in the Subantarctic region of Chile, Gregory has his own worldwide research footprint.

One of his current projects involves monitoring the overall health and biodiversity of the Kakamega rainforest in eastern Kenya. Over a million people rely on that forest for survival for everything from wood used to warm their homes and cook their food, to medicinal plants, to finer rare woods that can be harvested and sold.

“The area we’re studying is about 50 miles from where we think humans evolved,” says Gregory. “So, we’re looking at a landscape that has provided subsistence for people for as long as there have been people, and now it’s starting to fail to be able to do that.”

According to Gregory, the overall size of the forest has been reduced by approximately 30% during the last two to three decades and 60% of what’s left is highly degraded. He’s working with Kenya’s Forest Service, Wildlife Service, Wildlife Research Training Institute and an organization called ECO2LIBRIUM to study the efficacy of different conservation and forest management programs to find ways for people to continue to symbiotically live off the forest.

“The people of Kenya are reliant upon the forest, so biodiversity conservation there also is about saving people and improving people’s lives.”

Arab Art History

 Location: Middle East

Researcher: Nada Shabout, Regents Professor in the College of Visual Arts and Design

The inspiration for Shabout’s research first struck her back when she was a student. While she was studying architecture and art history she noticed her courses rarely, if ever, looked at art from the Middle East, or even the wider Islamic world.

“Where are the artists I know, that I saw hanging in my parents’ house and my friends’ houses,” wondered Shabout. “The art from around the city in Baghdad or other cities in the region, why aren’t they in books of art history?”

She recalls learning from texts that may have started in ancient Egypt or included a chapter on non-Western art that lumped Latin America, Africa, the Middle East and everything else together. Focusing so heavily on Western art not only gives the impression that art from other regions is less important, but it also only provides part of the global story that art history has to tell.

“We understand the importance of art and aesthetics not only as a way of beautifying, but also as a way of explaining our past,” says Shabout. “It is what we leave behind that will explain us as people and civilization and cultures. This is how we understand Pompeii.”

Now one of the world’s leading modern Arab art scholars and the author of a prime text used in its teaching, she hopes her research helps fill that gap for future art history students, specifically when it comes to art lost or destroyed during conflicts like the Iran-Iraq War and the Gulf War in the late ’80s and early ’90s. She still has books and resources published by the former Ministry of Culture, many of which were destroyed locally when the U.S. and their allies invaded Iraq in 2003.

“There were two decades of lost art meaning there are people in three generations that don’t have access to those resources,” says Shabout. “Think of young Iraqi artists who do not know their heritage and do not know who those artists are. In another decade, it would be like those artists had never existed if no one writes about them.”