IIR Alumni Spotlight: Dr. Justin Lowry

IIR Alumni Spotlight: Dr. Justin Lowry

Dr. Justin P. Lowry is Associate Professor of Archaeology at SUNY Plattsburgh. After completing his PhD in Anthropology from the State University of New York (SUNY) at Albany in 2013 and before starting a tenure-track position at SUNY Plattsburgh in 2017, Dr. Lowry spent time at George Mason University teaching in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology and working as a Research Fellow and later as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Institute for Immigration Research (IIR).

Reflections on Time at the IIR

During his time as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the IIR from 2015-2017, Dr. Lowry was instrumental in establishing Immigration Data on Demand (iDod). The IIR’s iDod service allows academics, policy-makers, and the public to request objective data and analysis about immigrants and immigration to the United States. Dr. Lowry explains what it was like to establish the framework that continues to serve as the basis for iDod today: “Now there’s lots of ways of doing things [for iDod]. Then, there was no way of doing things. We were trying to figure out the best way to get iDod up and running, and we were making huge mistakes. On the fly, Jim [Witte] would be able to figure out if our numbers were right or not. And he was always right.” 

Dr. Lowry recalls fondly the collaboration and comradery among the team of himself, Dr. Witte and then Graduate Research Assistants Dr. Joshua Tuttle and Dr. Marissa Kiss: “We had created an office where everybody was contributing. At one point, I had an office where it was 3 desks back to back. It was me and Marissa and Josh just sitting there doing data analysis stuff, and it was perfect, because we could workshop everything out.” This collaboration, he explains, streamlined and improved the processes of mapping with ArcGIS and coding in SPSS. He explains: “My favorite part was trying to make things reasonable and make sense and get the right data out…Because if I could get the right number for a particular place, I could get the right number for any place.”

For Dr. Lowry, the experiences as a postdoctoral research fellow at the IIR were “one of the reasons why I got this job [at SUNY Plattsburgh]…it showed them that I had the chops to be able to contribute to anthropology in general.” He also identifies his hands-on experience with ArcGIS at the IIR as “foundational” for how he approached his subsequent teaching of GIS in the classroom and his confidence in utilizing GIS as a tool for interpretation, data processing, and analysis rather than just as a tool to display data. 

Advice for Students and Early Career Scholars

For students interested in building skills and pursuing research, Dr. Lowry acknowledges that things are “confusing until you actually do it.” As exemplified by his own experience of learning-by-doing at the IIR, Dr. Lowry advises students to not be daunted by the task of learning to do something new:

You just have to dive in and start failing over and over again…the process is not knowing how to do something and then doing it. It's not knowing how to do something and trying it, and then getting to understand what mistakes [you made along the way].

For undergraduates interested in learning ArcGIS and geospatial skills in particular, he advises: “Make a map on day one and print it out and put it on your fridge. Remind yourself every day that you can make maps; the difference is what you want to put in your map. It’s not whether or not you’re good at making maps. It’s whether or not you can make the map you want to make – it’s a preference thing, not a skill thing.” 

For graduate students and early career scholars, Dr. Lowry also passes along some words of advice from one of his own professors in graduate school: “He said, ‘You know, when I first graduated with my PhD, I wrote down a list of the 10 projects I wanted to do, and I still haven't finished that list.’ For Dr. Lowry this has served as a reminder that “it's not about doing the list you have. It's about doing the things that are worthwhile.” This is reflected in his own approach to research as well.

Current Research

Currently, Dr. Lowry’s research at SUNY Plattsburgh focuses primarily on trade networks in the development of early cities in Mexico and Nicaragua: 

I’m an archeologist, but I also take a cultural anthropological perspective. My goal in general in my work is to research all of the different ways that we can understand how people are interconnected. I view our disciplines as being inherently applied; having a public perspective – getting data out there and interacting with public stakeholders – is probably one of the more important things that we do.

This focus on public-facing research means that “I do a lot of research that might not be research.” By way of example, Dr. Lowry explains how in his work in Nicaragua, the indigenous people of the Yucatan “were very interested in having me develop research that was complementary to the existing research agendas at the Federal level. So, while my general research domain is trade networks in early States, I also do public stuff…I use as my toolset all the mapping stuff that we did at the IIR.”