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Preparing the Next Generation of Policy-Minded Scholars

Former graduate RAs apply interdisciplinary lessons from IPR to their research, careers

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Three of IPR's most recent graduate RAs shared takeaways from their time as part of the Institute’s community. They spoke about learning how to tackle social policy challenges armed with research methods, skills in interdisciplinary collaboration, and a commitment to policy relevanceall learned at IPR.

Mollie McQullian

Former IPR graduate research assistant Mollie McQuillan (standing), who worked with scholars in various disciplines while at the Institute, teaches an undergraduate class on gender identity, minority stress, and policy in 2018.

Currently, more than 30 Northwestern PhD students from across the University are selected to work with faculty researchers at the Institute for Policy Research (IPR) as graduate research assistants (RAs) each year. Of the nearly 700 graduate students IPR has trained across its five decades, many have gone on to land positions in academia, government, and research in the United States and abroad. 

“From the day it opened its doors, IPR committed itself to training some of the brightest and most policy inquisitive graduate students around,” said IPR Director Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, who also leads Northwestern’s Multidisciplinary Program in Education Sciences.

Three of IPR's most recent graduate RAs shared takeaways from their time as part of the Institute’s community. They spoke about learning how to tackle social policy challenges armed with research methods, skills in interdisciplinary collaboration, and a commitment to policy relevanceall learned at IPR.

Learning to Talk Across Disciplines: Mollie McQuillan

Gender, health, and education researcher Mollie McQuillan spoke about the different research methods she learned from IPR faculty members. But perhaps more importantly, “I also learned how to talk across disciplines and connect research that’s aimed at similar kinds of applied problems,” she said.

Mollie McQuillian

McQuillan, who defended her dissertation in July in human development and social policy, will start as assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s School of Education in Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis this September.

Her research looks at school policies related to gender-expansive youth—young people who do not conform to ideals of masculinity or femininity. She also studied transgender youth’s social relationships and whether gender-related stress was linked to higher levels of inflammation. While at Northwestern, McQuillan was a National Academy of Education/Spencer Foundation Dissertation Fellow and was awarded a Northwestern Presidential Fellowship.

During her time at IPR, she had the opportunity to work as an RA for faculty in different domains, including IPR developmental psychobiologist Emma Adam, IPR education researcher James Rosenbaum,and professor of medical social sciences and IPR associate Brian Mustanski. Schanzenbach chaired her dissertation committee and IPR anthropologist Thomas McDade and education professor and IPR associate James Spillane sat on it.

In addition to her work as an RA, she singled out IPR’s signature Fay Lomax Cook Monday Colloquia and its Distinguished Public Policy Lectures as especially important to her growth as an interdisciplinary researcher committed to policy-related work—and even to her success in finding a job.

“Seeing professors and assistant professors grapple with questions they don’t hear in their own discipline . . . was useful to me on the job market,” McQuillan said. “People ask you questions that you are not necessarily trained to answer, and I’ve seen how that leads some people to new research questions that are interesting.”

Building on an Interdisciplinary Foundation: Jess Meyer

Sociologist Jess Meyer’s doctoral research focused on the question, “How do social inequality, family experience, and health connect across the lifecourse?” She went on to analyze gender and socioeconomic differences in sleep for her dissertation.

Jess Meyer

Meyer recently began her postdoctoral fellowship in the Biosocial Training Program at the Carolina Population Center, located at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, after completing her PhD in sociology at Northwestern in March.

As an IPR graduate RA, she worked with IPR political scientist James Druckman and McDade. Meyer’s ties to IPR faculty, like McQuillan’s, extended further; she worked on a collaborative research project with IPR social demographer Christine Percheski and on Time-Sharing Experiments for the Social Sciences (TESS), led by Druckman and then-IPR sociologist Jeremy Freese, who has since moved to Stanford. Freese chaired her dissertation committee, and Percheski and McDade also sat on it.

“I gained a more detailed understanding of survey instruments and experiments through work with TESS,” Meyer said. “I developed a more nuanced understanding of gendered family dynamics and social inequality in my work with Christine Percheski. Through my research with Thomas McDade, I gained deeper insight into how social experience can affect biological processes, and, ultimately, health.”

The Biosocial Training Program at Carolina Population Center is an interdisciplinary program that brings together scholars to advance understanding of how biological and social factors affect health. Meyer feels IPR prepared her well for her new position.

“My work with the Biosocial Training Program builds on the interdisciplinary foundation IPR helped me cultivate,” she said. “Being connected to IPR provided a platform for strengthening my connections to scholars across a variety of fields . . . and helped me develop strategies to communicate effectively with an interdisciplinary audience and collaborate with scholars in different disciplines.”

Emphasizing the Policy Relevance of Research: Matthew Lacombe


Matthew Lacombe

Political scientist Matthew Lacombe, like McQuillan and Meyer, found the interdisciplinary collaboration, discussion, and questioning at IPR’s Monday colloquia to have strongly influenced him as a young scholar.

“The emphasis on policy relevance of IPR, combined with [its] interdisciplinary nature, encourages folks to figure out how to describe what they’re doing in ways that are digestible to people who are in other fields,” Lacombe said. He is starting his career as an assistant professor at Barnard College, Columbia University this fall.

Lacombe’s dissertation research uncovers how the National Rifle Association built its political power over time by shaping its members’ political behavior through creating a social identity around guns and a gun-centric political ideology. This research has received national media attention.

“My early career has gone better as a result of my ability to engage with the public and with journalists than it would if I just stuck solely to the political science arena,” he said.

Lacombe, who graduated with his PhD in political science in June, worked as a graduate RA with Druckman and IPR political scientist Daniel Galvin, who also served as his dissertation advisor. IPR sociologist Anthony Chen and political scientist and IPR associate Benjamin Page were on his committee.

Although his work with Galvin differed from his own research, it demonstrated new quantitative methods and taught him how to gather, organize, and analyze disparate historical information.

“The challenge is that you have to identify sources of information and figure out the most efficient way to take that information . . . and get it into a spreadsheet that can be analyzed statistically,” Lacombe said. “Working with Dan helped me see how that type of data collection could be done.”


Published: August 21, 2019.