Oct. 27, 2021

Adam Murry asks undergrads: What are you hoping to accomplish in the real world?

Winner of Killam Undergraduate Mentorship Award encourages students to ask and answer their own research questions
Adam Murry
Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

The winner of this year’s Killam Award for undergraduate mentorship was supposed to take over the family roofing business in Los Angeles. But Dr. Adam Murry, PhD, (Apache, Irish, Ukrainian), assistant professor of Indigenous psychology in the Faculty of Arts, had other ideas. He’s been teaching at the University of Calgary since 2017.

Murry says going to school instead of up a ladder wasn’t easy: “For some folks, there’s no question they were going to go to college or graduate school. There’s a whole bubble around the value of education that assumes the benefit of going to school which everyone just takes for granted.”

That wasn’t the case with him: “To me, [studying] was an existential need. But I got a lot of pushback around pursuing formal education. People asked, ‘What are you trying to be?’ ‘Do you think you’re better than us?’ ” This experience taught him the need to justify what he was doing in tangible, concrete ways.

Idea to a design to an analysis to an interpretation

It’s a lesson he applies to his research today. “In the research world, you have to ask why you’re doing this. What are you hoping to accomplish in the real world,” he says. “And when I started teaching research, I kept hearing students say, ‘I’m not a research person, my brain doesn’t think in numbers.’ I ask, ‘How do you know?’ They’re trying to compare themselves to something foreign without any practice.

“In my classes, we don’t focus on the introduction sections of the research literature. We skip the intro and look straight at the methods and the results. And by the end of the semester, they conduct a whole research project from beginning to end. Not with a focus on the literature review, but a focus on the skill of taking an idea to a design to an analysis to an interpretation. By letting people answer their own research questions, they can ask about things that they want to know about, including themselves.”

Approach to mentoring rooted in putting people first

They also examine a wide range of issues that affect Indigenous well-being — from mental health to interactions with the police; and from Indigenous allyship to studying best practices in Indigenous mentorship. Yet, despite the accolades he receives for his mentorship, Murry says it wasn’t as if he decided one day, “I’m going to mentor this person.” Instead, he says his philosophy has roots in a household ethic of prioritizing people above all else.

“I’ve had a lot of good people in my life. Some of them arrived at times that were critical in influencing my direction. They weren’t necessarily trying to give me advice. Often, they were travelling along the same path,” he says. “I just try to be that person. You can offer advice to 10 people, and maybe for most it’s not for them. But for a couple of them, it will be just what they need.”

Works hard for students

That’s what Alvan Yuan, a former student, says: “Dr. Murry makes elaborate efforts in investing in the growth of undergraduate researchers who worked for him. For instance, he has submitted multiple manuscripts for peer review and publications with undergraduate researchers as co-authors, myself included.”

Another, Miranda Harbourne, says, “His course content and objectives provided me significant knowledge in psychological research methodologies, both in theory and in practice … [He] also inspired me to see the purpose and the power that psychological research can have on outcomes for the betterment of the human experience.”

“I don’t want people who are superficially engaged,” says Murry. “If I think what we’re doing really matters, I want to tell my students why I think it matters. If it doesn’t, let’s do something else.

"I also want it to matter for my students in a selfish way, that is, in a way that’s good for them, because it will make the project better. I want someone riding on the bus home wondering how they can make the project better. I tell folks I want them to be personally invested because it’s good for them. And it’s good for me because they’ll be involved more and have smarter ideas.

Emphasis on responsive research

“You can produce a paper about other people’s ideas but contribute very little to anything on the ground,” he says. “The research we’re doing is responsive to the needs of the people we work with. I don’t go into a program or onto a reserve, knocking on doors, saying I study this thing, can I study it on you? People I know are doing amazing things. Sometimes those things involve research. Sometimes they ask me to contribute in different ways.”

Outside of his mentorship relationships, Murry also studies mentorship in a more formal sense as well. Together with the Alberta Indigenous Mentorship in Health Innovation (AIM-HI) and Indigenous Primary Health Care and Policy Research (IPHCPR) networks, he is working to establish an Indigenous model of mentorship that reflects Indigenous Ways of Doing. Both networks are funded by the Canadian Institute for Health Research to increase the number of Indigenous health-care workers and improve Indigenous health research capacities.

Indigenous model of mentorship

He’s also conducting a three-part Indigenous allyship study that will identify appropriate ways for non-Indigenous peoples to ally with Indigenous Peoples. And he has worked with the Portland [Oregon, where he completed his PhD] Committee on Community Engaged Policing to develop a community assessment of experiences with the police that will recommend changes to the mayor’s office.

His approach has earned him high praise. “Dr. Murry’s leadership in Indigenous mentorship, his careful and thoughtful engagement of students in research, and his unique mentorship practices that always put the student’s ambitions first are deserving of recognition,” says Dr. Richard Sigurdson, dean of the Faculty of Arts.

“He is an exceptional mentor for whom authenticity of the research experience and deep student engagement are intricately linked with the quality of outcomes for students themselves, both in educational and professional settings, but also, importantly, for the communities they serve.”