Matt Dickenson: SURFing in California

The SURF 2010 program, which began on June 1st, includes 43 undergraduates, representing nine different colleges and 18 different departments. Eighteen of the SURF participants are members of the Honors College. One of those SURF participants, Matt Dickenson, is working this summer at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory to answer questions about national security and why terrorist groups behave the way they do.

Dickenson first started asking questions about terrorism at a young age. Says Dickenson, “I can still remember hearing the sonic boom of the Oklahoma City bombing from my kindergarten classroom. ‘What kind of person could do that,’ I wondered.” Over time, Dickenson’s questions matured, but his interest remained piqued. As Dickenson’s questions became more coherent—asking about the motivations behind terrorism and what counterterrorism measures are effective—he began to work with his faculty mentor at the University of Houston, Dr. Ryan Kennedy.Matt Dickenson

In the project that Dickenson launched at that time, he collects records on leadership turnover in terrorist groups from around the world and combines this data with attack and casualty counts from the Global Terrorism Database. With this data, he explores the effects of leadership transition on the number of attacks a group commits, along with the number of casualties overall and per attack. 

Dickenson wants not only to understand the actions of terrorist groups, but also to “combine quantitative and qualitative approaches in a manner that reveals empirical facts without neglecting the reality that public policy--be it in the national security field or elsewhere--affects real people in very real, life-or-death ways.”

Like many other undergraduate researchers at UH, Dickenson will be participating in Undergraduate Research Day on October 14. The event, which celebrates the work of undergraduate researchers at the University of Houston, gives students the chance to present posters, papers, or projects based on original research or creative work that they have conducted within the last year. In his presentation, Dickenson plans to highlight the idea that “It is important for observers to note that the conclusions of my project--that striking at terrorist leaders tends to increase violence, rather than reduce it--are applicable across a broad geographical area and ideological spectrum of groups. In other words, it is not just Islamist organizations that take revenge when a leader is martyred.”