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SURA 2019 Student Blog

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Each summer since 1998, the Institute for Policy Research (IPR) has run the Summer Undergraduate Research Assistants (SURA) program, which gives undergraduate students first-hand experience in the conceptualization and conduct of policy-relevant social science research. This year, SURA students are sharing their research experience from their own perspective, and we will feature students discussing the research projects they are part of throughout the summer. 

Read student blog posts by:

Kaitlyn Rubinstein (WCAS 21) | Leo Sainati (SESP 21) | Mary Okematti (WCAS 21) | Caroline Werner (WCAS 20) | Bidemi Godo (WCAS 20) | Wesley Shirola (WCAS 21) | Eliana Buckner (WCAS 21)

Kaitlyn Rubinstein: Learning the Art and Science of Research

Kaitlyn Rubinstein
Kaitlyn Rubinstein is working with IPR sociologist Beth Redbird to study the constitutions of Tribal Nations.

I have been working for IPR sociologist Beth Redbird since she took me under her wing in April 2018. Currently, we are working on coding the constitutions of Tribal Nations for various factors, including membership, government structure and powers, and economic and civil rights. This data will be compared to the economic development of Tribal Nations over time to examine how economic success may affect the exclusivity of a community. Furthermore, this data will allow us to look at the constitutional changes over time, and collaborate with Professor Jean Clipperton of both the sociology and political science departments to analyze whether Tribal Nations moved towards governmental cultural fit over time.  In other words, as the federal government granted Tribal Nations greater legal sovereignty, do Tribal Nations change their constitutions to better reflect their culture?

Reading constitutions from hundreds of Tribal Nations, some as old as 1860 and others as recent as 2017, has proved to be fascinating.  Some constitutions strongly stated the inherent sovereignty of the Tribal Nation and distanced themselves from the U.S. government as much as possible, while others voted against amending their constitutions to remove the role of the Secretary of the Interior from their governments. Although typically Native American activists strongly identify with the Palestinian cause, one Tribal Nation expressed their identification with the Israeli cause and subsequent business relations with the nation.  Time and time again, one of the most important lessons in Native American and Indigenous Studies keeps proving itself to be true: no two Native American communities are the same, and it all depends on the tribe.

While working on this project, I have come to learn the importance of flexibility in social science research. Professor Redbird once told me that research is both an art and a science, and while methods courses may teach you the science, only experience will teach you the art. It has become apparent to me that the art of research is being able to be flexible to handle unexpected challenges that arise throughout the process. While the perfectionist in me desperately wants to craft a seamless plan from the beginning and execute it flawlessly, data is never so kind, and research is full of surprises. As a research assistant, I am learning how to roll with the punches—so to speak—and engage in research with more flexibility.

Kaitlyn Rubinstein, class of 2021, is from Mesa, Arizona, and is majoring in sociology and international studies, with a minor in legal studies. She looks forward to completing her own research for a senior thesis and plans to pursue a PhD in sociology and a career in academia.  Outside of research, Kaitlyn is involved with NU’s Community for Human Rights and the Native American and Indigenous Student Alliance.

Leo Sainati: Delving Into Early Math Research

 Leo sainti

Education is a powerful frame through which many disciplines can be studied. Specifically, I’ve framed my majors of social policy and international studies through the study and practice of education. I originally viewed these two academic paths as inherently divergent, but quickly found that rather than diverging, my interests converged in meaningful and important ways. Studying and practicing education, beyond its exploration of learning, curricula, and pedagogy, serve as a blueprint for understanding communication, interaction, and policy implications. 

This blueprint is especially meaningful in the targeted study of math continuity and coherence under education and social policy professor and IPR associate Cynthia Coburn. I work on the Development and Research in Early Math Education initiative  (DREME), which seeks to not only study early math education but also delves into the impacts of instructional policy on an individual level. In my work on COHERE, a project within DREME, I analyzed 60 teacher surveys from two school districts on topics ranging from the use of materials and strategies to feedback on school principals and coherence in math instruction. These teacher responses helped inform our team how district and school policies play out in the classroom and showed how pedagogical math initiatives can have better results in the classroom. Additionally, the results of these surveys will be presented to the respective school districts to share teacher feedback on district policy.

The most surprising takeaway from my research so far is the degree of disparity in individual perceptions, often in the same school. I was reading and cleaning transcripts of interviews with teachers and the responses to a question about resources for African-American student achievement caught my attention. Two teachers in the same grade at the same school had almost completely different responses to this question; one was taken aback by its novelty, but felt assured that the school had more than adequate resources to foster African-American student achievement. The other teacher was not the least bit surprised by the question and outlined the shortfalls in the school’s organization and culture around promoting student achievement. The idea that two people working directly next to each other could have completely different perceptions of their environment was fascinating, and had far-reaching implications for my interests in the functioning of governments and international organizations.

I’m very grateful to Professor Coburn and the COHERE team for providing me a glimpse into their research and allowing me to meaningfully engage in their analysis of math instruction and district policy. This exposure to a type of analysis that is both broad and specific in its study of individual teachers and schools within a school district is an invaluable experience, and one that I hope to carry through to my future endeavors in both education and international relations. 

Leo Sainati is a rising junior from Reston, Virginia, studying social policy and international studies with a concentration in Middle East studies. In the fall, he will be studying in Amman, Jordan, where he hopes to improve his Arabic and pursue more teaching opportunities. Outside of school, he enjoys listening to music, playing soccer, and coffee.

Mary Okematti: Examining Racial and Gender Bias in Preschoolers

 mary okematti 

This summer I am working on a project in IPR psychologist Sandra Waxman’s Infant and Child Development Center (ICDC), examining the early emergence of race and gender bias in preschool children. This project aims to understand the development of social stereotypes and racial identity among Black and White preschool aged children. We are particularly interested in how children coordinate multiple social categories (my professor is both White and female) and how the salience of those categories differ according to context. I have always been interested in the thought processes of infants. I believe that infants are much smarter than adults give them credit for, and I joined ICDC to learn more about how they process information presented to them.

It is important to understand how negative biases develop to work toward better prevention, as these biases are instrumental when it comes to the shaping of cultural mindsets in society. This influences the way that systems are formed and how those systems affect others. These biases are malleable when held by infants and young children, but they are resistant to lasting change inadults. I was surprised to learn that when children are as young as 4 to 6 years old they may have to be explicitly taught to change their biases.

Working on this research project has shown me the importance of language, not only in research, but also in everyday communication. The words we choose shape the way that others perceive what we are saying, which in turn affects the way we respond. Especially in a research environment, it is important to use neutral wording to get the most indicative response. 

Mary Okematti is a rising junior on the premed track in the Weinberg College of Arts and Science majoring in cognitive science. Along with being a research assistant at the Infant and Child Development Center, she is also a Peer Guided Study Group Facilitator and a Peer Health Exchange Volunteer. She is also a part of the Black Mentorship Program and the African Student Association. She hopes to become an obstetrician gynecologist or go into pediatrics.


Caroline Werner: Researching Economic Inequality


I am working in the NU Two-Generation Lab, helping research professor and IPR associate Teresa Eckrich Sommer and the rest of the research team analyze the impact of two-generation programs on parent and child education, employment, psychological well-being, and other outcomes. This project is relevant in the world today because children are the leaders of the future. Two-generation programs facilitate children’s educational achievement and propel their parents further towards their own goals. As economic inequality increases in the United States, we have to find innovative ways to combat poverty and to provide people with opportunities to rise economically and with the tools to take advantage of those opportunities. Our lab’s work focuses on combining career training and education opportunities with a supportive, resource-rich network that enables participants to access those opportunities.

What has surprised me most during my research was discovering how dynamic research projects are. Social science research—and research in all disciplines—must be adaptable. If researchers encounter a problem or notice something isn’t working, they must think of ways to fix it. I have witnessed Dr. Sommer and the research team think creatively about data collection and analysis to fit the needs of the study and the families involved and come up with innovative solutions to identified issues. The research process does not follow a linear path, marching along step-by-step; rather, it is more circuitous. Research is successful if researchers are willing to make adjustments. I’ve also learned how applicable the skills and knowledge gained through my participation in this project are to other areas of my life. For example, the need to accommodate change is an important lesson and one that will help me be successful this summer and beyond.

Caroline Werner is a rising senior at Northwestern studying social policy and political science. She is from Cleveland, Ohio. She was interested in doing research this summer to get more acquainted with the process of social science research in general and with quantitative research in particular because her previous experience has been in qualitative research. She also wanted to get involved in research to contribute to the process that lays the groundwork for social policies based on research. She is passionate about applying research findings to the real world, especially through social policies, and critically examining the impact of policies on the people they were designed to benefit.

Bidemi Godo: Exploring Parent-Child Interactions 


My love for children and curiosity about how they develop have always made me want to find out more about the factors that affect their development. This is why this summer I am working with psychologist and IPR associate Amélie Petitclerc to explore the intergenerational continuity and discontinuity of antisocial behavior problems. We are working with parents who were incarcerated when they were teens to learn about their protective parenting styles. We are studying this by looking at how parents interact with their kids through a variety of activities, which then enables us to identify different parent and child behaviors and allows us to learn about the quality of their interaction. With the knowledge we acquire from these interactions, we can learn how to better raise children and which parenting styles are best, particularly in the context of family risk for behavioral problems.   

I have had the opportunity to witness many parent-child interactions, and the most surprising part has been seeing how much those interactions vary. There are unlimited ways that parents interact with their kids, and the most fascinating thing has been watching these relationships. As someone who mostly has experience in a wet-lab setting, working on a social science project has given me the opportunity to explore another sector of research. I have been able to witness the research process from the start, and I have also been able to learn about the flexibility of the field. There is so much undiscovered knowledge, and it is exciting to know that our current research might spark the next project.

Bidemi Godo is a rising senior from Chicago studying psychology on the pre-med track. As an aspiring pediatrician, she is interested in learning about how children develop and the factors that affect that development. On campus, she spends her free time involved with Northwestern’s Community Ensemble, Afrothunda Dance Troupe, and African Students Association.

Wesley Shirola: Understanding Chronic Stress 

 Shirola SURA

I have been working with anthropologist and IPR associate Katherine Amato on the BrainMAPD Microbes Project, a collaboration with IPR psychologist Robin Nusslock, since my first year at Northwestern. The project investigates the relationship between chronic stress and low-grade inflammation and the potential impact it may have on the neural circuitry involved in threat- and reward-related behavior. Because the gut microbiome is known to interact with both the host immune system and the nervous system, we are interested in understanding whether changes in the gut microbiome as a result of chronic stress might be driving inflammation, and ultimately, behavior.

I have been spending the summer processing samples in the lab where I am about to begin describing the microbiome. I have also been working more closely with Dr. Nusslock to organize and analyze the other data for the study he has collected, exploring how chronic stress may contribute to the emergence of coping behaviors, such as addiction and eating disorders.

This project has the potential to completely upend our current understanding of various mental health and behavioral issues. With my research mentors, I am currently trying to determine how the American Psychological Association, the FDA, and other organizations should approach treating eating disorders and addiction, as well as how we can utilize positive psychology to spread awareness of these disorders to prevent them from developing in the first place. Perhaps the microbiome offers a new opportunity for education and intervention, and this cutting-edge aspect is precisely why this project is highly relevant in the world today.

Wesley Shirola is a junior majoring in psychology. His current professional goal is to obtain a JD and an MPH to revolutionize the ailing U.S. healthcare system, prevent the outbreak of the world’s next pandemic, and promote better global health. His research interests include examining the mechanisms by which the gut microbiome, the immune system, and the nervous system interact to find a cure for neurological tremors.

Eliana Buckner: Studying the Impact of Healthcare 

 Elaina Buckner

I have been working with IPR economist Matthew Notowidigdo since March 2019. My main project has been analyzing Medicaid plans for low-income families in South Carolina through data collection and visualization. States are more frequently outsourcing their Medicaid plans to private companies, called Managed Care Organizations (MCOs). This model differs from the typical fee-for-service model, in which the government directly reimburses healthcare providers for each service they provide to Medicaid patients. The models bring up important questions about how they incentivize insurance companies to provide quality care to patients.

This summer, I have been conducting statistical analysis to understand the relationship between patient enrollment and quality ratings for MCO plans on a national level. We hypothesized that the highest-rated plans would have the most patients enrolled, but after analyzing preliminary data, we had to scrap that and look at the data differently. I’ve been reminded over and over throughout the summer that research requires flexibility and a willingness to adapt. Our inaccurate hypothesis was a humbling reminder that the world is difficult to simplify with a mathematical model, and things don’t always work the way we might expect. In South Carolina, factors other than quality ratings could affect enrollment, such as MCOs offering perks like cash rewards for healthy behavior, free cellphones, or a summer camp with an NFL star.

I also had the opportunity to assist on another paper, featured in the Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, which studied the impact of Medicaid on the use of hospital services. Using Stata and R, I designed heat maps by applying statistical results to empty templates. The resulting maps of the United States demonstrate how some Medicaid expansion states experienced larger increases in hospital utilization than others. Balancing my time between the two assignments taught me about the non-linear nature of research, since it’s common to have multiple projects at once. 

Working on these projects has helped me explore how the tools of economics can be used to analyze policy issues in daily life. I was excited to apply skills from my econometrics course directly to a real healthcare question, even when the analysis didn’t go smoothly. We’re currently in a national conversation about what we want our healthcare system to look like, which draws on medicine, public policy, and economic principles. What kind of model can encourage positive patient outcomes, financial well-being, and healthy corporate competition? I’m grateful for the opportunity to work with Professor Notowidigdo and to learn how to ask and answer these kinds of meaningful questions with him.

Eliana Buckner is a rising junior from Raleigh, North Carolina. She is studying economics and math in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. She hopes to pursue a career in public policy analysis and is considering graduate school. In her free time, Ellie enjoys teaching swimming and reading on Northwestern’s Lakefill.

Published: August 22, 2019.