Blending passion with research at Penn State Lehigh Valley

Two students pose with arm around each other

Nicholas Pappas (right) attended the Council of Commonwealth Student Governments in January at the HUB-Robeson Center.

Credit: John Savant

Nicholas Pappas comes from a family of civil servants, including some who served in the New York City Police Department. He has always had an interest in the judicial system and a passion for police work.

Pappas, a criminal justice major with a psychology minor, has been at Penn State Lehigh Valley since fall 2014. He is finishing his degree at Penn State Berks and intends to graduate next May.

His time at the Lehigh Valley campus is defined by the strong interpersonal relationships he established with his professors.

“My experience at Penn State Lehigh Valley was nothing but positive. My professors were very approachable. They never dismissed you; they are supportive and motivational,” said Pappas.

One of his professors, Jennifer Parker, associate professor of sociology, noticed his passion for law enforcement and approached him about doing a research project to submit to the Undergraduate Research Symposium. In December of last year with Parker serving as his faculty mentor, they started collaborating together on the topic and came up with the methodology for the project. This project originally stemmed from an assignment in STAT 200 that Parker taught and Pappas was enrolled in during the summer of 2015. 

Pappas’s project, titled “Quality of Life Behind Bars: Racialization in the 21st Century,” explored the impact race had on three dependent variables related to quality of life. He researched this by reviewing data from 1,687 prisons from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, Census of State and Federal Adult Correctional Facilities, from the year 2000. The dependent variables included:

•  Health and Disease: confirmed cases of HIV, AIDS, tuberculosis and hepatitis C.

•  Social Control: including administrative segregation, protective custody and disciplinary action.

•  Labor: labor within the prison and work assignments outside the prison.

After spending more than 150 hours researching and analyzing the data, Pappas concluded that while each inmate’s experience is personal and individually measured, there did appear to be a correlation between race and quality of life in prison relating to these three variables.

In prisons where the majority of inmates were black or Hispanic, for example, Pappas and Parker found there were more confirmed cases of certain diseases and more inmates placed in segregation, suggesting a lower quality of life than that of inmates in a white-majority prison.

“We have long known about the racial injustice that underscores mass incarceration in the United States where a disproportionate number of African-American and Hispanic men are imprisoned and the school-to-prison pipeline is a publicly acknowledged social problem. What we know less about is the quality of life behind bars and the extent to which it varies by race,” said Parker. “What Nick has studied is pioneering.”

“In order to understand this phenomenon, you need to look at it from the inside out, rather than from the outside in. Just because you are a certain demographic doesn’t mean it should shape your experience in the prison system,” Pappas said.

After presenting his research at the Penn State Lehigh Valley Undergraduate Research Symposium, Pappas advanced to the sixth annual Regional Undergraduate Research Symposium where seven Commonwealth Campuses came together to showcase high-quality undergraduate student-faculty collaborative research on April 21.

Pappas won first place for the Arts, Humanities, Business and Social and Behavioral Sciences category. This achievement was just as rewarding for Parker as it was for Pappas himself.

“Having a student, like Nick, who wants to study something they are passionate about is where the real creative and quality intellectual research comes from; the kind that makes a difference,” said Parker. “The most important thing is for the student to have the opportunity to engage in research that is meaningful to them. Winning is just a bonus.”

“I learned so much from Dr. Parker,” Pappas said. “This project helped me use what I learned in class and apply it to something real. I really appreciate everything she has done. She has been a great mentor.”

Parker presented Pappas with the Alexandra Downing Outstanding Student in Sociology Award at the Penn State Lehigh Valley Student award ceremony in May.

Pappas’ research experience and coursework will shape the kind of police officer he will one day become, as he is currently an NYPD candidate.

“There are many avenues you can take once you are in the police department, such as counter terrorism or research. This research project was a great experience for me and shows my dedication to this field,” said Pappas.

Pappas is currently interning with The American Public Safety Training Institute, where he is working on designing various criminology and psychology courses.


Dennille Schuler

Public Relations Specialist
Penn State Lehigh Valley

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