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From barbershops to the Supreme Court: Student researchers at SIEPR cut their teeth in the real world

Jun 16 2019
Along with undergraduate RA opportunities, SIEPR has a predoctoral research fellows program for students considering doctoral degrees. Pictured from left to right are predocs Anais Galdin, Morgan Foy, Felipe Kup and Helen Kissel.
 
Photo by Elena Cryst

For Javarcia Ivory, ’19, it was doing fieldwork at barbershops that helped nail his pursuit of medicine and economic policy research.

For Nicolas Peña Brown,’20, it was the journey from presenting an analysis to the U.S. Office of Health Policy last year to earning a coveted internship at the U.S. Supreme Court this coming summer.

And for Lindsey Uniat, a predoctoral research fellow, it was co-authoring a research article on paid family leave that is gaining the attention of lawmakers.

These are just a few paths that student researchers at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research (SIEPR) took to explore the labyrinth of institutions and issues that shape our world while sharing in SIEPR’s research mission of improving policy to improve lives.

Research for real people

Ivory and other undergraduate research assistants were dispatched by SIEPR senior fellow Marcella Alsan to barbershops and flea markets in Oakland, CA to recruit African-American patients for a study on the effects of diversity in medicine. The field work and subsequent data-related tasks — Ivory’s first hands-on experience with economics — made an indelible impression.

As if on cue, an elderly black woman confronted Ivory at a barbershop and demanded to see a printed brochure explaining what he was up to. She was skeptical of the veracity of the research project Ivory said he was working on.

You know what happened in Tuskegee, she said — more as an admonishment than a question.

Ivory knew.

Years ago, as a young African American growing up in Mississippi, Ivory had heard his grandfather make references to the Tuskegee experiment, the infamous government study that withheld treatment for syphilis patients for decades until a whistleblower went to the media in 1972.

Then, as a sophomore, Ivory heard from his pre-major advisor, Jeremy Bulow, a SIEPR senior fellow, about an opportunity to work as an undergraduate research assistant for Alsan, the Stanford scholar who revealed how the Tuskegee experiment had sown lasting effects, including increases in medical mistrust and mortality among African-American men.

“I got a taste of the distrust, right there at the barbershop,” Ivory said. The import of the research he was working on was resonating in real-time for him.

“It has been an influential part of my Stanford career,” Ivory said of his research assistance experience. “It impacted the things I’m interested in, the classes I take, and it propelled my decision to go into medicine.”

Ivory continues with his master’s degree in epidemiology at Stanford this fall and hopes to pursue a multidisciplinary career like Alsan. Alsan, an associate professor of medicine at the Stanford School of Medicine who won this year’s Arrow Award from the International Health Economics Association for the Tuskegee research, will soon join the faculty at Harvard, where she got her PhD in economics.

Research for real policies

Peña Brown, who is wrapping up his junior year, credits his research experience at SIEPR for deepening his interest in public policy — a major that incorporates economics tools with policy analysis.

When he was a freshman, he was the first undergraduate research assistant hired to work on a pension research project at SIEPR. He continues to work on related research today — in between his coursework and lacrosse practices — and has evolved from data collection to using statistical tools.

It was eye-opening for Peña Brown, first to discover how difficult it was to gather accurate, pension data from local and state agencies, and then to see how the subsequent research led to policy reports on how pension liabilities affect government budgets.

Joe Nation, director of the Pension Tracker project, wrote a letter of recommendation for Peña Brown for the fellowship at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which in turn, led to the student’s opportunity to give a presentation of a policy analysis before the Office of Health Policy.

“I’ve had unbelievable opportunities here at SIEPR,” said Peña Brown, whose interest in health policy stems from disparities he saw while growing up in the Dominican Republic. And he is grateful to SIEPR’s Trione Director, Mark Duggan, who not only wrote the recommendation for his upcoming Supreme Court internship but also recently agreed to be his major advisor next year.

Duggan, who has expanded the undergraduate and predoctoral research opportunities at SIEPR since he became the institute’s director in 2015, happily made the endorsements.

“Every time one of our students gets inspired to work on policy-oriented research, it bolsters the new generation of thought leaders who can help bring about positive change in the future,” Duggan said.

In addition to undergraduate research assistant positions, SIEPR has a predoctoral research fellows program that provides mentorships and an academic bridge for students considering doctoral degrees.

Morgan Foy, a member of SIEPR’s inaugural group of predoctoral research fellows, will soon be a doctoral candidate at the University of California-Berkeley, after two years of working on projects with Alsan.

“Now I could hit the ground running,” Foy said. “I doubt I would have gotten into Haas without this experience.”

In fact, Foy was still “testing the waters” when he applied for the predoctoral program, unsure of whether economic research was in his future.

Until his stint at SIEPR, Foy, who double-majored in economics and journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, had never had a research job. Now, he’s played instrumental roles in two major studies from the ground floor all the way to their completion last year. The studies — one on how deportation fears have deterred legal, Hispanic citizens from getting social benefits and another on how increasing diversity among doctors can help improve health outcomes — have been influential and widely circulated.

“I got to see a whole different side of research, not just data analysis,” Foy said, referring to Alsan’s study of diversity in medicine, including days spent helping at the medical clinic in Oakland, CA. “It solidified that I wanted to get a PhD — understanding the whole research process, from getting the data to working on the data, and how to structure research questions.”

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