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Undergrads get hands-on with diverse research projects

The Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program provides students a chance to do cutting-edge research.
MIT Political Science UROPs Joseff Kolman ‘17, Emma Frank ‘15, and John Halloran ‘15
MIT Political Science UROPs Joseff Kolman ‘17, Emma Frank ‘15, and John Halloran ‘15
Photo: Susan Young

There’s nothing like learning by doing. MIT’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) gives undergraduate students a chance to gain hands-on experience by doing cutting-edge research. 

UROP offerings from the Department of Political Science allow students to work with leading researchers on topical issues like voting and the United States budget. Recent projects include tracking and analyzing the factors that voters use to choose candidates, assessing the cost-effectiveness of potential budget cuts to U.S. defense and security programs, creating and analyzing a database about the underrepresentation of racial violence in the U.S., and expanding a global knowledge base of innovative sustainability practices. The research deepens students’ classroom learning and helps prepare them for careers in the public spheres.

Senior John Halloran, a political science major from East Northport, N.Y., who is also completing a concurrent master's degree, has two UROP projects under his belt. His thesis is on the role of presidential administrations in research and development funding. He also studies national security and conflict, examining questions like why ethnic tensions might fragment one rebel group but not another. 

Halloran’s latest UROP project, with Associate Professor Fotini Christia last spring, leveraged network theory to analyze communications patterns in the Arab Spring uprisings. “My role in the project was to create a database of protest events in Yemen during the Arab Spring so we could analyze communication patterns using cell phone data,” says Halloran. The research team paired the protest data with a second set of data on drone strikes so they could compare the way people call each other in response to the two different types of political events. “We have a range of theories on collective action and social mobilization in political science and the intent is to look for specific patterns in the data to see if there is any support for these theories.”

The project gave Halloran a better understanding of the behaviors he was studying and helped develop his research skills, he says. “I learned so much about both the topic of interest — the Arab Spring — and also the proper formatting of data,” says Halloran.

Joseff Kolman ‘17, from Savannah, Ga., completed a UROP project this summer with Assistant Professor Chris Warshaw that fit with Kolman’s interests in U.S. education policy and global energy policy. The project was part of the ongoing American Democracy project, which examines how public opinion affects state-level policy outcomes. Kolman helped track the correlations between public opinion and public policy on energy and environmental issues. He was part of a team that aggregated public opinion and policy data and integrated it into a database stretching from the 1930s to today.

The project gave Kolman a better understanding of how databases work, and how to grapple with them to glean insights. "During this UROP," he says, "the concept of a 'database of information' became much more tangible."

It also gave Kolman a glimpse into what working in the field of public policy could be like. "You gain new skills and deeper insights into your topic when conducting research as compared to just taking classes," he says.

Senior Emma Frank, a biology major and public policy minor from Norwalk, Conn., also worked this summer on a UROP project with Warshaw that was part of the American Democracy project. "I mostly focused on social and health policies and on finding qualitative ways to express changes in their implementation over time and in different states," she says. "I also worked a little on the public opinion side of the project, coding surveys to understand public opinion through time and in different states."

Like other UROP participants, Frank gained research experience and subject matter knowledge. "I learned a lot about persistence when it comes to research and how to find primary sources while making sure you don't get caught ‘going down the rabbit hole’ and over-complicating things," said Frank. “I also gained a very strong understanding of the fundamental social policies that began [after] the Great Depression and how they evolved over time into social security and other social benefits,” she explains. In addition, Frank says the project gave her insight into women's health policies.

Frank offers encouragement to undergraduates who are considering UROP projects: "Don't be afraid that you're not qualified or that you won't be able to do much,” she says. “UROPs are meant to be learning experiences."

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