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Public Affairs and Policy Lab

Engaging undergraduate students with faculty research.

Apply to Get Paid to Conduct Research With Faculty

The new Public Affairs and Policy Lab is a program for undergraduate students, particularly first-year students, who are seeking advanced research experiences in collaboration with an SPA professor.

Every Fall semester SPA faculty will be invited to provide a 300-word description of a research project they are working on and a 200-word description of what an undergraduate research assistant could do to advance the project.

In December and January, first-year SPA students will be invited to review the proposed faculty projects. Students are encouraged to meet with the faculty whose projects they are interested in and submit an application together with a reference from the faculty member directing the research project.  

The Dean’s Office will review the applications including the faculty project descriptions, the student applications and the letters of reference. The Dean’s Office will award faculty student teams. Each team would get $1,000 for the faculty member and $3,000 for the student.

The student will conduct research for the faculty member over the summer up to 20 hours a week. Students will write a research brief of their work, due at the end of September. Student awardees will be encouraged to engage in an independent study research project with their paired faculty member that might result in a published research project for which the student would get formal recognition in the publication. Students would write another research brief of their work.

If a student does an independent research project and is then admitted to the SPA Honors program for their third year they will be allowed to count their project toward an SPA Honors Colloquium.

Kemo Grant

Research ·

Students Gain New Insights Through Public Affairs and Policy Lab

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Faculty Projects

Lynn Addington, Department of Justice, Law & Criminology

This project will focus on school regulations of students’ dress and appearance. It builds on previous research that finds enforcement of subjective rules (such as dress code violations and disruptive behavior) against girls, particularly girls of color, results in disproportionate rates of suspension and expulsion. Students who are suspended or expelled are at risk for negative school experiences as well as greater contact with the juvenile justice system. This project seeks to identify cases that receive news coverage and analyze these reports as well as reader comments. The news stories and comments will be reviewed using a critical and intersectional framework in order to consider the stories and counter-stories told in relation to these incidents. This project also will utilize qualitative techniques including critical discourse analysis to examine social, historical and power dynamics embedded in reader comments. Findings will be considered in a larger policy context of addressing school discipline disparities.

How could an undergraduate research assistant contribute to this project?
The goal of this project is to provide opportunities for the undergraduate research assistant to engage in as much of the research process as possible. As such, tasks may include: assisting with honing research questions, conducting necessary literature reviews, identifying relevant news articles, coding the news stories and reader comments, analyzing the qualitative data, and writing up the findings. Additional tasks may include considering how to present the findings obtained (i.e., traditional academic outlets, presentations, infographics). Specific tasks will depend on time and student interests.

TaLisa Carter, Department of Justice, Law, & Criminology

Perceptions of justice have real-world implications. Individual beliefs about the criminal justice system, criminal justice professionals and broader concepts regarding justice manifest into law, policy, informal social interactions and everyday practices. Scholarship firmly establishes the differences in criminal justice experiences and outcomes for people based on their racial/ethnic identity. However, far less examine the role skin color plays in issues of justice. This project examines the relationship between perceptions of justice and colorism. Original quantitative and qualitative data will be collected. 
The first phase of the study involves the development, approval and distribution of an electronic survey to capture quantitative data on perceptions of justice. The second phase of the study is qualitative. Using a semi-structured interview guide, the study will examine life events that shape understandings of justice, identity and the intersection of those concepts. 

How could an undergraduate research assistant contribute to this project?As a result of their work on this project, an undergraduate research assistant will build/strengthen a wide variety of research skills that can be applied within the criminal justice system and other social science disciplines. Duties of the research assistant will depend on the phase of the project at that time and may include the following: 

  • Reviewing literature on relevant topics
  • Assisting in the development of data collection instruments
  • Understanding the research design and approval process
  • Training on how to collect, store and analyze quantitative and qualitative data using statistical software programs such as STATA, and NVivo according to human-subject protocols. 
  • The assistant will have the opportunity to build/strengthen univariate, bivariate and basic regression statistical techniques. 
  • Working with the faculty member in preparing reports, manuscripts, and presentations that are appropriate for a range of audiences including academics and the general public. Depending on progress, the assistant may have the opportunity for authorship on a peer-reviewed publication. 

Todd Eisenstadt, Department of Government

Stephen MacAvoy (chair, environmental studies) and I are writing a textbook: Making Climate Change Cool: Science, Policy, and a New Politics of Shared Sacrifice (Oxford, 2020).  As part of the text, we are drafting 6,000-8,000 word case studies to give students role-playing opportunities (they write talking points and then defend a pre-assigned position).  Some are being published in the printed textbook, and some will be published in an online supplement.  The one on divestiture and stranded oil will focus on US universities which have divested (Syracuse and Smith, for example), and some environmentally friendly institutions which have nonetheless chosen not to (most US universities, including AU).  It will discuss the emissions savings, the background of divestiture movements (the anti-apartheid movement of 1980s), and also consider possible consequences (albeit highly unlikely) of "stranded oil" (any fossil fuel assets not extracted).  The focus will be on challenges and achievements of this movement, where it is headed, and whether it can play an important role in mitigating climate change (or at least raise awareness and pressure politicians and diplomats).

How could an undergraduate research assistant contribute to this project?I have written two of these with MA students.  In one case the student was able to write it solo (and receive the full authorship credit), and in another, I am co-authoring with the student.  I provide an outline and the text chapter the study should relate to, and the student researches, interviews, and drafts.  I identified Lillian Frame in my Complex Problems Climate class as a possible author or co-author, and she is very interested and said she will have the time over the summer to do this work.  I expect to meet with her several times and revise and edit drafts.  But I also expect that if she can do it without me having to contribute content, it will be a strong writing sample for her going forward, but that either way (that is, even if I must co-author and involve myself in content gathering), it will be great training for in learning how to do research, as I will discuss every step in the process with her and have her do as much as she can.

Lewis Faulk, Department of Public Administration & Policy 

The research tasks will focus on preparing and fielding a large nationally representative survey of nonprofit organizations operating in the US. The research will focus on evaluating organizations' responses to changes in their local communities and on strategies to overcome declining donor and volunteer engagement in the US.

How could an undergraduate research assistant contribute to this project?
Research assistants will contribute by confirming contact information for the survey sample, helping prepare survey materials, and helping collect and input the data from the completed surveys (online and mail). Tasks may also include developing individualized reports for respondents on the survey's findings to help inform their own operations and strategies.

Andrew FloresDepartment of Government

Historically, the mainstream LGBT movement and community have been exclusive of LGBT people from racial and ethnic diverse backgrounds. Some of the exclusions continue today, and efforts to be inclusive, even symbolic ones like the addition of black and brown stripes to the rainbow flag, have been met with criticism from some LGBT people. At the same time, people of color and LGBT people tend to hold very similar political viewpoints when it comes to partisanship and many social and economic issues. This apparent unity may obscure the real political differences among LGBT people, especially along race, gender, and religion. This multimethod project examines large-N survey data of adults in the United States following the 2020 presidential election, which is designed to oversample underrepresented populations that traditional surveys tend to have too few respondents to draw statistical inferences such as Asian Americans, LGBT people, and Muslims. The survey, among other topics, will examine the tensions LGBT people of color face among multiple communities where they may perceive themselves as excluded and stigmatized. Qualitative in-depth interviews will further examine these potential tensions. The result will present a more complex politics of LGBT people and their political behaviors and beliefs, furthering a thesis that dominant and traditional US politics flattens real distinctions that exist among multiple populations that have been marginalized.

How could an undergraduate research assistant contribute to this project?
The undergraduate research assistant will facilitate in this project in a variety of activities. The research assistant will assist in reviewing the literature, largely from sociology, that documents the experiences of LGBT people of color, with a focus to political behavior. The research assistant will also facilitate in qualitative data collection by working with the principal investigator to create a semi-structured survey and a sampling strategy. The research assistant will facilitate in authoring the human subjects review approval. Time permitting, the research assistant will then assist in data collection by recruiting participants and conducting interviews (if trained; if not, then the principal investigator will provide materials for best practices in engaging in in-depth interviews). The research assistant will help with anonymizing the data and transcribing interviews conducted. Given the research assistant’s level of interest in and degree of engagement with the research process, the principal investigator is open to a collaboration that goes beyond the summer, especially if the research assistant seeks to co-author papers based on the data collected.

Robert Johnson, Department of Justice, Law & Criminology

I am presently analyzing a host of death house narratives. These narratives include death row inmate blogs, poetry and other creative writing by death row inmates, and interviews I've conducted with death row prisoners and officers assigned to death row and the death watch (the period leading up to executions) variables on fatal overdoses will be estimated using count regression models.

How could an undergraduate research assistant contribute to this project?
An undergraduate research assistant could help me to (1) organize the materials I have collected to date (2)find additional materials (death row blogs are updated regularly) (3) help me develop and test a content coding system.

Adrienne LeBas, Department of Government

This is a project on party development in Kenya, which examines individual candidates’ electoral success and party-switching behavior. The student research assistant would be working with Professor Adrienne LeBas and Ph.D. student Kyle Gray, both of the Department of Government, who are collaborators on this project. One of the most interesting aspects of this project is looking at how parliamentary candidates’ electoral fates are affected by constituency-level features, such as ethnic diversity, levels of development, and urbanization. We also hypothesize that the success of particular kinds of candidates may result in higher levels of vote fragmentation and violence at the constituency level in subsequent elections. 

To give more background on the project, we focus on what is termed an “authoritarian diaspora,” in which waves of politicians defect from the Kenya African National Union (KANU), the former authoritarian ruling party, in the wake of democratization. KANU has faded into obsolescence as a party over the past 15 years, but most notable politicians in Kenya – including every individual who has held the presidency – trace their roots to KANU.  Defectors did not coordinate their actions: some formed their own parties, others joined existing parties; still others rejoined the party after defection. Further, throughout the multiparty period, Kenyan parties have split, renamed themselves, formed alliances, defected from alliances, and otherwise stunted the development of stable partisan identities. 

This project, the first of its kind, will allow us to answer several important questions about politics in post-authoritarian democratic and hybrid regimes. What is the fate of defectors? Are they punished by voters, or are they rewarded? What effect does the survival of these “diasporans” have on democracy in Kenya? LeBas and Gray have already started on this project, but we would benefit from help with data collection, management, and analysis. 

How could an undergraduate research assistant contribute to this project?
We draw on an original dataset of over 9500 candidate - election years, which charts the electoral fortunes of National Assembly candidates from 1992 to the 2017 elections. We are also compiling data on election violence, pre-1992 authoritarian elections, and other constituency-level characteristics. 

We are most interested in students who want to get their hands dirty with data collection and analysis. We would welcome those with interest or experience with geospatial data analysis, as we need help thinking through how to deal with changing constituency boundaries. We also want to think about how contagion might work: if violence occurs in one constituency, might it affect its neighbors? RAs with interest or experience with data visualization might also be a great fit: visually describing the flows of politicians between parties and constituencies would be of great value to the project.

In addition to these tasks, the research assistant would work on our existing event data on incidents of political violence. This would involve cleaning and geocoding the data, merging this data with our larger election database, and devising strategies for looking at change over time.  

This is a great training opportunity as well. Based on interest, the RA could learn about advanced regression methodologies, including both survival and geospatial analysis, or about party politics and electoral behavior. 

Jan Leighley, Department of Government

The project seeks to build a comprehensive data collection of state election laws from 1972 to the present, including a system by which data can be systematically collected on an annual basis.  The data will be made available (in stages) on a public GitHub site, where researchers will be able to access the data and also contribute to its maintenance/updating.  Professor Leighley and Professor Ryan Moore, who is working as data scientist on the project, will be writing several papers--one on methods, one on research labs, another on measurement--based using the data before it is distributed to the scholarly community.

How could an undergraduate research assistant contribute to this project?
Students will use Lexis/Nexis to collect data; gather relevant data bases; maintain up-to-date bibliographic records; respond to coding/documenting issues raised by "external" research teams working with us to verify the utility of the data site and validity of the data measures.

Alan Levine, Department of Government

I am seeking a research assistant to help me complete a manuscript entitled The Idea of America in European Political Thought: 1492 - 9/11. My book is about America as a symbol, one of the most powerful symbols of the modern world. Beginning with the “discovery” of America and spanning the 500 years until today, my project identifies four major periods of interpreting America: 1) the Spanish Renaissance theorists who first tried to explain this strange New World; 2) Enlightenment thinkers' attempts to explain America as the home of natural man; 3) the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century reactions to the political experiment that is the United States; and 4) the twentieth century view of America as the epitome of technology. We see that America has stood for two pairs of polar opposites: the essence of nature and the essence of technology as well as both the origins and the endpoint of the world; the Indians are said to represent the world’s beginning and the United States is perceived as the epitome of modernity and thus the world’s future. Despite these polar differences, my study also highlights surprising consistencies that European thinkers ascribe to America. For example, the Indians are variously described as innocent, naïve, child-like, simple, vulgar, shallow, and lacking depth and higher spirituality. These are essentially the same charges that European elites level at the United States today. My book argues that the fact that ways of life as opposite as the Indians’ and the United States’ are described in fundamentally the same terms indicates a problem in the substantive nature of the representations. It argues that European thinkers’ battle over America is largely a proxy war over their own hopes, fears, and anxieties for European civilization, the Enlightenment, liberalism, and modernity itself. 

How could an undergraduate research assistant contribute to this project?
I will ask a summer research assistant to: 1) read some of my writing to get caught up on the project; 2) in coordination with me, choose some part(s) of the project with which I need research assistance to work on; and 3) research it. Research will consist primarily in finding texts and the careful analyzation of texts and arguments. Much of it will be library work, at AU, other area universities, or public collections such as the Library of Congress. This might mean finding and reading primary and secondary sources, summarizing arguments, finding relevant quotations, checking references, etc. I have done most of this already and will be asking an assistant to flesh out points, hunt down leads, and double check. No specific background or knowledge is necessary, but familiarity with the history of Western philosophy (or, at least, Western history) and reading knowledge in a Western language in addition to English are plusses. I seek someone for 20 hours per week during the summer. During the following academic year, we will continue to work on this project through an Independent Study with the goal of publishing a journal article, for which you would receive formal recognition.

Paul Manuel, Department of Government

This project seeks to better understand how the Portuguese have managed to build their own distinctive community in Massachusetts.  Building on both the state political culture and social capital literature, this project asks how the immigrant Portuguese community has adapted to life in Massachusetts. More specifically, it wonders which strategies both Portuguese-American community leaders and elected officials have used in order to help their ethnic group assimilate into the larger fabric of Massachusetts society, all the while maintaining their cultural and religious distinctiveness; and, what this case may teach us about how new immigrant groups engage the larger American society. In addition, my colleague Daniela Melo (Boston University) and I have designed the 2019 Portuguese in Massachusetts Civic Life Survey (the survey was granted an exemption by the Institutional Review Board at American University). We designed this survey to get a sense of how ordinary Portuguese and Portuguese American citizens engage their communities in Massachusetts.  The survey was launched in November of 2019, and will remain open for the next three months.

How could an undergraduate research assistant contribute to this project?
An undergraduate research assistant would perform several important tasks:

  1. Demographic research on the Portuguese in Massachusetts (where they live, how they organize, how they engage society);
  2. Assisting with a review of both the state political culture and the social capital literature;
  3. Research on the legislative work of the Portuguese-American legislators in the Massachusetts State House, with a focus on their strategies  to help their ethnic group assimilate into the larger fabric of Massachusetts society;
  4. Research on Portuguese language instruction in Massachusetts public schools (legislation mandating the instruction, revenue sources, locations where it is taught);
  5. Assistance with the Portuguese in Massachusetts Civic Life Survey, including help with the preparation of the final survey report;
  6. Provide assistance with the preparation of project-related reports, manuscripts, and presentations; and,
  7. Prepare tables, graphs, fact sheets, and written reports summarizing research results.

Karen O'Connor, Department of Government

Preliminary research examining individual testifiers before the Senate Finance Committee and the House Ways and Means Committee from the 110th to 115th Congresses ( O’Connor 2020 SPSA meeting) reveals members rarely hear from women experts.  To date, I have collected data on 10,000 committee hearings examining only participation by women.  By adding data on racial and ethnic minorities, I plan to develop a CONGRESSIONAL RECORD REPRESENTATION INDEX to rate the Senate’s Finance and Judiciary Committees as well as the comparable House Ways and Means and Judiciary Committees.  Several senators and the House Historian have voiced their support of this original work.  I also plan to record committee hearing type.  Eventually I would like to expand this to all committees.

How could an undergraduate research assistant contribute to this project? 
An undergraduate assistant would be responsible for collecting data on the race and ethnicity of testifiers.  This will require some deep diving research searches given that race and ethnicity are rarely apparent in existing Senate and House documents and records.  The student will also be responsible for preparing synopses of academic articles on representation.  It is work that can be done from any location and it will provide a student with a rich understanding of an important component of the law making process.

Aparna Soni, Department of Public Administration & Policy

Medical studies have found that smoking increases the risk of lung cancer and coronary heart disease. Studies also show that excessive alcohol consumption can lead to liver disease, heart disease, depression, and anxiety. Nearly all states tax cigarette and alcohol sales (“sin taxes”) to reduce consumption of these goods. Tax rates vary widely by state and over time; for example, cigarette taxes range from $0.17 per pack in Missouri to $4.50 per pack in the District of Columbia. A large literature shows that cigarette and alcohol taxes do reduce consumption. However, there has been little research on the downstream effects of these taxes on individuals’ health outcomes. A few studies have examined the impact of cigarette taxes on smoking during pregnancy and infant birth outcomes, but we know little about sin taxes’ long-term health effects for teens and adults. 

This project will use county-level hospital and cancer registry data, as well as individual-level survey data, to study the effects of sin taxes on health outcomes. We will exploit variation in tax rates across states and over time to estimate causal effects. The final products of this research will be three academic papers. The first paper will study the impacts of cigarette taxes on early- and late-stage lung cancer diagnoses. The second paper will leverage county-level hospital data to study the effects of alcohol taxes on emergency department visits and inpatient hospitalizations related to liver disease and heart disease. In the third paper, we will use individual survey data to study how alcohol taxes affect individuals’ mental health outcomes. This research will fill important gaps in our knowledge of the relationship between sin taxes and long-term health outcomes for teenagers and adults. Our findings will inform policymakers the effectiveness of sin taxes as a policy tool to improve health outcomes. 

How could an undergraduate research assistant contribute to this project?
This project offers the Research Assistant an opportunity to engage in multidisciplinary research cutting across the fields of policy, economics, and medicine. The Research Assistant will learn how to read and summarize academic papers, utilize online databases to gather data on state policies, and create data visualizations. Specific tasks include: 

  1. Conduct a review of the existing policy literature on the effects of cigarette and alcohol taxes on 1) consumption of cigarettes and alcohol and 2) health outcomes.
  2. Gather data on state cigarette and alcohol taxes from the Tax Foundation.
  3. Download and clean data on county-level emergency department visits and inpatient hospitalizations from the Healthcare Cost and Utilization Project. Use ICD-9 codes to identify which hospital events were related to liver disease and heart disease.
  4. Study the medical literature and identify potential mechanisms through which smoking and excessive drinking may affect health.
  5. Use Microsoft Excel and other software to create figures and maps displaying trends and relationships between sin taxes and health outcomes.