SCOTT WILKINSON SPEAKS TO DATA ANALYSIS, RESEARCH CAREERS

Published: November 17th, 2018 – Written By: Grace Murray

On Nov. 16, College of William & Mary alumnus Scott Wilkinson visited the SSRMC and discussed the use of data to understand and predict human behavior. Wilkinson explained his use of data analytics and client-focused perspective and answered questions regarding real-world applications of big data. Wilkinson attended a lunch with students in research groups across campus, had a tour of the SSRMC facilities, and led a talk on data analytics.

In 2009, Wilkinson founded AlphaVu, of which he is still the president, to meet the need he saw in market research for greater commitment to messaging strategies using innovative data analysis techniques.

“Our company focuses on taking data, understanding the client’s perspective, and translating that data,” Wilkinson said. “That takes understanding the client’s world and not just the data. [When hiring,] I’m looking for someone who is willing to be doing anything at any time and willing to communicate with our clients about their data.”

Wilkinson graduated from William & Mary with a degree in Government and later received his MBA. Many students attending the event sought advice on applying their degrees to different industries. However, Wilkinson was reluctant to credit his success on following a single path; he encouraged students to follow their interests rather than committing to a route.

“I’d advise not to take much advice,” Wilkinson said. “My own route was very unpredictable. You’re going to take missteps. If you’re focused on what you love doing, you’ll be surprised at the opportunities available for you.”

Students in attendance appreciated his push to find careers highlighting passions.

“I think the biggest thing I took away from the talk was how much you can take your interests and shape them to what your career path is going to be.” Emily Saylor ’20 said. “Hearing Wilkinson talk about how he created his own type of consulting with the data analysis techniques that he had learned was very interesting.”

For those currently applying to jobs and internships, Wilkinson’s talk provided reassurance that data analytics skills are transferable to a workplace environment whether they’re learned within the classroom, during collaborative research experiences, or while already in a career.

“Mr. Wilkinson’s perspective on hiring people to use data analytics is refreshing, especially since he is so much more focused on what people are willing to teach themselves instead of what they already know.” Katie DeLuca ’20 said. “As a self-designed Data Science major, I am always excited to learn that leaders in the field of data aren’t just looking for toolkit of skills but also a drive to use analytics to learn something new.”

Wilkinson’s visit highlights William & Mary’s new data science program. An emphasis on data analytics teaches students how to code in addition to showing students the tools necessary to synthesize and distill data analyses and the possible applications throughout an entire career.

“Data analysis is something that I’ve been trying to grapple with and learn more about in my time at William & Mary.” Saylor said. “I think Mr. Wilkinson really just showed me how vast that field is and how you can take it in whatever direction you want. Statistics, coding, and data visualization can be really beneficial for innumerable different situations.”


SSRMC FACILITATES WATCH PARTY, TRIVIA GAME FOR MIDTERM ELECTION

Published: November 7th, 2018 – Written By: Grace Murray

On Nov. 6, the SSRMC held a watch party for the midterm election results. Students gathered for pizza and a trivia competition with content from the current election.

“The SSRMC really wanted an opportunity for students to see more of what we do but also to be able to make predictions using their scientific understanding of politics,” said Emma Butler, the SSRMC student director. “Students applied their outside knowledge of politics, voting patterns and behaviors of American citizens. It was a good opportunity for students of all backgrounds and partisan identities to enjoy our democracy.”

While politics may be a delicate subject for some, the watch party fostered non-partisan camaraderie in students’ appreciation for the statistics portions of the evening. Each attendee was asked to place their bets on who they thought would win specific races.

“Viewing election results is more exciting when you’re with people,” Patrick Wachter ’19 said. “You can bounce ideas and predictions off each other.”

Students from diverse backgrounds across campus attended, including several international students seeking to understand what United States politics look like on the home front.

“I think American politics has an impact on the entire world,” said Sebastian Lembacher, an exchange student from Austria. “I thought I’d get some insight and some opinions from Americans on the election. That’s something I’m really interested in because for Europe in general sometimes it’s hard to understand why things happen in the United States.”

The evening’s festivities culminated with a fast-paced game of trivia led by Jakob Stalnaker ’16. Four teams of students fought through six rounds of questions targeting knowledge of state and national candidates.

“I think [the trivia] was very interesting,” said Sabina Stroband, an exchange student from the Netherlands. “At my home university I specialize in North America so also during the presidential elections it was very important to me to watch it. Since I’m here, I could watch it in my bed, but it’s more fun to come and to sit with more people and learn something as well.”

Wachter and Leah Roemer ’19 edged out the competition as the winning team. They credit their success to simply staying politically aware and regularly engaging with news.

“I really like political trivia and I didn’t realize it would pay off in this way,” Leah Roemer ’19 said. “I don’t think of myself as a political junkie, but it made me think of how often I read about politics. Probably 45 minutes each day. My family has an iMessage group chat where we just send pictures of our dog and political articles. That keeps me knowledgeable.”

While trivia was an entertaining way of engaging with the election, many attendees stayed after the game had finished to continue discussing predictions and reactions. The implications of each race resonated throughout the room.

“This is obviously a really important and key election,” Roemer said. “It’s cool that we’re young for it and seniors in college. This is going to decide our future, so I wanted to do more than just watch it on my computer in my room.”


Research Prepares, Informs Students for Career Opportunities

Published: November 5th, 2018 – Written By: Grace Murray

On Oct. 22, the SSRMC held a forum gathering questions from current students on how to best communicate research experience when looking for jobs and internships. Led by Professor Jaime Settle, Co-Director of the SSRMC, and Emma Butler, Student Director of the SSRMC, those present discussed the importance of developing skills in communicating experience beyond William & Mary.

At the end of this forum, students wrote out questions which were sent to recent alumni of SSRMC affiliate labs. In the following weeks, alumni from varying career paths responded with reflections on their undergraduate research experience and advice for current students.

Jonah Abraham, Class of 2017, is a former member of the SNAPP Lab and received a Master of Business Analytics from the Mason School of Business in 2018. Abraham is now working in strategy analytics at Deloitte.

“W&M, especially in the liberal arts department, focused on writing and clear communication which is absolutely helpful. A lot of what I do on a day to day is communicating,” Abraham said. “I might be programming but being able to distill that is key. William & Mary is all about communicating clearly, even in the business school. Another kind of big thing at William & Mary is that it helped me focus my analytical skills. This is really vital.”

A benefit of William & Mary’s focus on the liberal arts is the push to blend the qualitative and quantitative sides of subjects. As Abraham makes clear, this allows students to not only have the skills to code but to explain and analyze code as well.

“The fact that you’re able to synthesize complex ideas from academic papers is a really valuable skill. You’re adding value with your ideas, but you have presentation skills and writing and communication skills,” Abraham said. “If you’re going to do research, presenting your research is absolutely vital. That’s really impressive and it shows you have presentational skills and you’re confident in using them. That’s what a lot of your job ends up being. If you can’t get your ideas across you might as well not have done it.”

Alyssa Harrison, Class of 2017, is a research assistant at a law firm in D.C. During her time at William & Mary, Harrison was involved in a variety of clubs across subjects, including University Advancement, Economics Club and the International Relations Club. Harrison credits her close relationships with professors in the government and economics departments as key players during her job search.

“Sometimes there’s a different between saving the world and working on the microscale,” Harrison said. “I didn’t realize the importance of that until senior year and I was trying to narrow what I was interested in the long term. In preparing for my post-college plans, I needed to think ‘what steps can I take to [prepare] for grad school, what can I do’.”

Harrison emphasized how important it was to communicate with professors while still at William & Mary as well.

“If I could offer one single piece of advice, it would be to encourage people to reach out to people that do really cool things. One of the bet parts of the William & Mary education is our faculty that believe very strongly in our undergraduate research,” Harrison said. “There’s a lot of value in reaching out to people that inspire you and to ask questions and ask for advice. I would also say take classes that are hard. It is really good to push yourself out of your comfort zone. Failure doesn’t define you and learning how to struggle teaches you a lot about critically important situations.”

Shannon Caietti, Class of 2017, was a member of the SNAPP Lab, the Vice Chair of Honor Council and an Orientation Area Director through First Year Experience. She is now working as a paralegal with the Brookings Institution.

“[Undergraduate research] gave me exposure to what I can do outside of college in the world of academia,” Caietti said. “I developed a basic skill set in doing research with literary databases, programming languages, and presentation platforms that has made me a marketable candidate for jobs. [This] instilled confidence in me to explore and become familiar with more complex technology in my workplace. You don’t just [use research] skills in an academic or research driven environment.”

Whether undergraduate students are looking to enter the consulting world, academia, or law, research lends transferrable experiences for all. The SSRMC is always eager to link students with potential labs or professors – don’t hesitate to reach out!


Welcome back to the SSRMC!

Published: September 9th, 2018 – Written By: Grace Murray

As the fall semester takes off, and the City of Williamsburg recovers from Hurricane Florence, we are excited to see you soon in the SSRMC. With a packed schedule ahead, there is ample opportunity to learn more about student research and get involved with our learning opportunities. Here’s a look at events to come!

Originally scheduled for Thursday, September 13th, and with a new date to be announced, Professor Holmes will be giving a talk on his new book – Face-to-Face Diplomacy: Social Neuroscience and International Relations. Professor Holmes’ book studies the continuing importance of face-to-face interactions in international relations. More on his book can be found here.

The SSRMC’s open house took place on Friday, September 14th. All SSRMC affiliated students should contact our director, Emma Butler, in order to confirm that they are all set with paperwork for the new school year.

“We kicked off the year with an excellent presentation by Professor Cantu,” Student Director Emma Butler said. “We have several events coming up in the next few months that should be good. I’m excited to meet some really interesting political scientists and data scientists, and the opportunities of getting to hear from speakers that we wouldn’t otherwise have if the SSRMC wasn’t here.”

Professor Settle will be acting as sole director this semester as Professor Holmes fully enjoys his sabbatical. Emma Butler will be taking over as Student Director and Hayden Le will be taking over the behind-the-scenes work as our Technical Director. Caroline Fagan and Grace Murray will continue as Omnibus Director and Science Writer, respectively.

“The Omnibus applications this year were due September 21st,” Fagan said. “This year is going to be fun because we have an in-person component, which we did not have last year. [Students] will have the experience of participating in a lab experiment.”

Looking ahead, the Omnibus Project will launch this October. If you interested in learning more about the project, check out our website for more information! We are also thrilled to host Scott Wilkinson this November – he will speak on applications of data science in the political space.

The SSRMC will host Data Science Consultants this semester. Stop by for assistance in data science classes, or to speak about the consultants’ experience.

“The biggest part of the job is helping people get over the mental block that coding is something they can’t do,” said Le, a Data Science Consultant and our Technical Director. “[Coding] is a syntax people aren’t used to, but when you get over the shock of learning a new language, you can start to articulate yourself better in that language.”

It is sure to be a busy semester, and we are eager to help you through it at the SSRMC. Stay on the lookout for more events by liking us on Facebook and following us on Twitter.

 


ALUMNUS PRESENTS WEBSCRAPING, API WORKSHOP

Published: December 15th, 2017 – Written By: Grace Murray

On Thursday, Nov. 30, Justin de Benedictis-Kessner, a member of the College’s Class of 2011, guided students and faculty through a tutorial on webscraping and data analysis in R, a statistical computing software and language.

de Benedictis-Kessner received his PhD from MIT in June 2017 and is now working for the Boston Area Research Institute, an organization that partners with Harvard and Northeastern to promote advanced interuniversity research. In the light of his post-graduate success, de Benedictis-Kessner credits his time at the College for planting the seeds of academic interest which have led him to return.

“[Professor] Rapoport got me really interested in research in political science and taught me that playing around with data that has not been explored yet can be really rewarding and fun. You can learn new skills, and it also can be part of your career,” de Benedictis-Kessner said. “I ended up going to grad school and realizing that a lot of underexplored data sources are on the internet. So I thought it would be good to show some of the ways that I’ve gathered data for my research and also the way that a lot of different companies are gathering data or interacting with humans. It could be a fun skill for undergrads to pick up at a much earlier stage than I was able.”

Graduating with a B.A. in Government and Psychology, and as a member of Phi Beta Kappa, de Benedictis-Kessner wrote an Honors Thesis for the government department on “The Tea Party In American Politics.” His work evaluated social and political movements in an attempt to understand the placement of the Tea Party movement and its function. de Benedictis-Kessner still focuses on American politics and political behavior, but with an increasingly data-focused and empirical lens. In 2014 he co-authored an article with Professor Rapoport further analyzing the impact of third parties and their candidates.

The chart of de Benedictis-Kessner’s research displays the evolution of his outlook towards research methods. His time at MIT, and the extremely challenging methods classes he took, have given him an appreciation for the opportunities made available through data analytics.

“I think there has been an arms race in terms of quantitative methods and I definitely opted-in to that. It was really tough, but that was the rewarding part of it. Some of the training you come out of grad school with is great for a variety of purposes. For research, yes, but also if you want to get a job [outside academia]. That’s pretty cool to say you came out of grad school with marketable skills for a variety of career paths.”

Many of the students attending the workshop hoped to take away knowledge which would set them up similarly for the career options which de Benedictis-Kessner has obtained.

“I’m a data science major, and I want to try and learn web-scraping to get data off the internet,” said Daniel Tay, a senior and a former member of SNaPP lab attending the workshop. “A lot of data is available online but people just don’t know how to access it. I just started the data science major this semester but I’m really excited by the prospects of data analysis and what we can do to learn that.”

Not only will a knowledge of webscraping and data analysis set undergraduates up well in the long run, but students will also be able to undertake more challenging and relevant research while still at the College.

“More and more, when students want to do research, they want to use stuff you can find online, and it is enormously beneficial if you can get that in an automated way rather than going item by item,” Professor Maurits van der Veen said. “Any type of automated webscraping is going to make it easier for students to do their own research projects rather than relying on someone else to gather the data. The more students can develop their own data sets and their own data, the more interesting their research can be.”

Undergraduate research certainly played a role in de Benedictis-Kessner’s experience, and he has advice for students hoping to move in an empirically-driven research direction.:

“Definitely start asking faculty members if they can help advise you on research projects early on, and start thinking of ideas that test hypotheses as early as you can,” de Benedictis-Kessner said. “That’s the process of research that’s really exciting and that’s what it’s all about. The data gathering that we [talked] about today is just one piece of that. If you don’t have an interesting research question, getting all of the data in the world will not help you. What’s more useful is to consider ‘what’s a unique data source?’ that you can use to test some political phenomenon that you want to know about.”

Though data analytics are frequently depicted as meticulous and difficult, there are numerous options available to William & Mary students. The data science track, new this year, allows students to learn both programming skills while simultaneously developing research design skills and grappling with the ethics of data science . Additionally, the SSRMC offers numerous tutorials and modules for students interested in expanding their knowledge outside the classroom.

“Watch tutorials,” Professor van der Veen said. “Lots of students are intimidated but there’s not that much to actually be intimidated about. If you watch or read a tutorial online, you’ll notice pretty quickly that you don’t actually need to know that much to do this kind of data collection yourself.”

Many of the tutorials needed to get started are already provided on our website. The SSRMC’s modules cover the basics of R, webscraping, experimental design, and more. The staff of the SSRMC is currently in the midst of a campaign to raise funds to create more modules as part of a Methods Mastery Series. These modules would increase access to data science tutorials and guidelines, thereby increasing the use of methods such as de Benedictis-Kessners. If you’re interested in donating, please check out our funding page in order to further the success of students interested in programming and empirical methods.

The slides from de Benedictis-Kessner’s presentation, and more information regarding his career and studies, are available on his website.


ROUNDTABLE DEBATE EVALUATES SOCIAL SCIENCES’ EVIDENCE

Published: November 12th, 2017 – Written By: Grace Murray

On Wednesday, Nov. 8, the SSRMC hosted a roundtable debate discussing the use of evidence within the social sciences. Arguing in defense of their preferred form of research, Professors Kaplow and McKinney evaluated, and debated, their use of evidence in their research in front of a packed house.

Professor McKinney’s work centers on a philosophical restructuring of the debate on reproductive rights. She characterizes this as a hermeneutical approach, or an interpretational method of evaluation. Professor Kaplow researches nuclear weapons’ impact on diplomacy and ways to predict future policy change, such as which states are most likely to acquire and retain nuclear weapons. This depends on empirical evaluation and an assessment of statistical significance.

Professor Holmes, acting as debate moderator, opened up by asking both academics to expand on how they conceptualize evidence.

“The way I like to think about evidence is very contextual. Evidence is anything that is useful in persuading somebody in the legitimacy of an idea,” Professor McKinney said. “That means a couple of different things; it means both that this is highly dependent on the ideas you’re trying to propose and that it’s highly culturally contingent. When we think about evidence we always have to think about what is the aim and what is the audience.”

On the empirical side, Professor Kaplow characterizes his work as understanding the function of the world. He likened it to the job of a car mechanic; although most people understand a bit about how a car works, the mechanic sees how it all works together and can attempt to predict or resolve any issues.

“It’s nice to have the opportunity to think more about what we mean when we say evidence and how we use it. Sometimes we don’t interrogate how we’re doing research,” Professor Kaplow said. “I conceptualize evidence in a couple of ways: first, I’m concerned that the evidence represents the theoretical construct that I’m trying to interrogate…Another way is in terms of probabilities. We don’t conceive of our theories in a deterministic way. We want to look for some bigger trend or bigger picture.”

In addition to discussing the use of data within their respective disciplines, the professors acknowledged the shortcomings and inherent difficulties they both experience. Professor Kaplow emphasized the lack of comprehensive data sets, and the fact that parts of his research are only working with fragments of information available.

“All of us who are doing empirical political science, especially using datasets that are out there in the world being used over and over again, are struggling with the fact that this data has problems,” Kaplow said. “So whenever you set out to use it, you need to understand how those problems are going to bias your findings. That’s our protection against using bad data. I don’t think we should stop doing science as we wait for data to get better.”

Professor McKinney emphasized another area in which data abuse occurs by pointing out potential shortcomings in the peer review process.

“What you’ll discover in the process of peer review is confirmation that there is no golden standard for the production of knowledge,” Professor McKinney said. “We’re actually deeply within knowledge communities that have standards and ways of keeping the gates up letting things in that are within it and excluding things that are without it.”

A crowded room of students witnessed their amicable debate and had the chance to ask their own questions after the discussion slowed down. Ranging from the impact of the 2016 election on statistical evidence to the importance of peer review, the discussion fluctuated between disciplines.

“I’m interested in international affairs and how you can use data to predict,” freshman Danielle Batterman said. “I think it was really interesting how different people use data for different reasons, and how they define it differently. I feel like that can influence how people perceive different datasets and different findings.”

Students present had varying levels of research experience, but all had the opportunity to learn as there were such diverse areas of research represented. Students in statistically based labs were newly exposed to Professor McKinney’s logically evaluative approach, while students in more theory-heavy classes learned more about Professor Kaplow’s use of empirical data.

“The approach that we take in STAIR lab is a lot of text analysis so we take a pretty data driven approach,” junior Ryan Semsil said. “But then Professor McKinney’s approach is just something that we don’t consider more or less but it’s something that is valid and really important. Even though we do a really data driven approach, there are different approaches with equal merit.”

The debate was called a draw, as both professors were judged to have defended their perspectives thoroughly and thoughtfully. The exchange fostered a broad conception of evidence and highlighted the ability of students to find research that draws their interest. The drastic differences in the professors’ conceptions of evidence and application thereof share a glimpse of the variety of forms that data may assume, while underlining that both are crucial to the social sciences.


SSRMC OPEN HOUSE WELCOMES, INFORMS STUDENTS

Published: November 5th, 2017 – Written By: Grace Murray

On Friday, Oct. 27, Professor Amy Oakes’ Research Methods students flooded the SSRMC. Throughout the afternoon, staff members from the SSRMC and lab members from PPIR, SNAPP, and ITPIR spoke with students to outline the research and career opportunities open to them.

Students who visited during the SSRMC’s open house

“[I learned about] all the different opportunities the international relations, government, and public policy programs offer and how you can do so many different types of research here at William & Mary and within the government department,” freshman Anna Fridley said. “Also, [I learned] how to apply to the different programs and how to get credit for it as well. It was a really cool opportunity. I’m excited William & Mary has all these things and how students have gotten published.”

In addition to becoming familiar with the SSRMC facility itself, the open house served to inform students of the plethora of academic and professional choices at their fingertips. The  social sciences contribute a heavy portion of research on campus; the government research labs available within the SSRMC offer intense application of real skills. William & Mary ranks seventh for undergraduate research in public universities across the nation. The research groups affiliated with the SSRMC help contribute to this accolade.
“I didn’t realize that [research groups] were all under one giant umbrella. There are a lot of research opportunities that are funded that I had no idea existed,” Hannah Richmond said. That’s cool and a little scary at the same time because you feel like you want to get involved in so much. I think that was the biggest thing that I learned.”

Students learning about ITPIR

Research within the SSRMC moves at quick pace, but students are closely guided by professors to facilitate growth. This not only fosters important academic relationships, but also allows students to realize what they are capable of accomplishing. Speaking directly with lab members showed Professor Settle and Professor Holmes’ impact on their students’ time and course of study.

“I got to speak to the students about the layout of PPIR, specifically about the kinds of assignments you do, the workload, and the like,” junior Nora Logsdon said. “I also tried to allay any anxieties they might have about taking on an independent research project by emphasizing how helpful and supportive Professor Holmes is throughout the process.  Hopefully I was able to convey what a valuable experience it is, and maybe convince some of them to become a part of this lab.”

Although the open house only lasted the afternoon, opportunities to access the SSRMC never end. From stopping by to talk to lab students to actually joining a lab, growing comfortable with undergraduate research opens up the future for William & Mary students.