Over the course of eight weeks this past summer, a diverse group of 15 undergraduate students from across the country lived on Vanderbilt’s campus and participated in coursework, mentoring, career panels, research assistantships, poster creation and independent research projects as the first cohort in the new Accountability, Behavior, and Conflict in Democratic Politics program.
It was the first of a three-year, National Science Foundation–funded Research Experiences for Undergraduates program. The social science–based program, developed and facilitated by Vanderbilt, is the only one of its kind nationally.
“We had students who studied support for Black reparations, the effects of mass incarceration in different countries around the world including the U.S., militarization and armed conflict, and the effects of Fox News programming on perceptions of religious differences,” said Associate Professor of Political Science Emily Hencken Ritter, co-director of the REU. “They were working on topics they were interested in but had never thought about them in a scientific manner before.”
The overarching goal of the REU is to expose undergraduate students to research careers in the social sciences to which they might not have otherwise been exposed.
Hosted by the Department of Political Science, the REU is co-directed by Ritter, Sharece Thrower, associate professor of political science, and Elizabeth J. Zechmeister, Cornelius Vanderbilt Professor of Political Science, director of LAPOP and associate provost in the Office of Research and Innovation.
The REU was also supported by teaching assistants and political science doctoral students Jennifer Barnes, MA’22, and Alec Tripp, MA’23, and faculty mentors John Sides, William R. Kenan, Jr. Chair and professor of political science, Jonathan Hiskey, associate chair and professor of political science, and Larry Bartels, May Werthan Shayne Chair of Public Policy and Social Science.
“The political science department has been actively thinking of ways to help broaden the pipeline into Ph.D. programs and research careers, especially for marginalized groups,” Thrower said. “I participated in a similar program when I was an undergraduate, which heavily influenced my decision to go to graduate school. So I jumped at the chance to be a part of this potentially formative experience for a new cohort of students. We’ve also been impressed by how much our faculty colleagues have supported us in building and running the program.”
The first cohort of the Accountability, Behavior, and Conflict in Democratic Politics program, an NSF-funded research experience for undergraduate students, spent eight weeks at Vanderbilt University participating in coursework, mentoring, career panels, research assistantships, poster creation and independent research projects.
(Photos by Anne Rayner)
The REU selected the program’s first participants from among 150 applicants, with the goal of bringing in students who have interest in the process of political science research but have limited research opportunities at their own institutions. “Almost all the participants came from very small liberal arts colleges or teaching-based colleges, where they’re getting great educations, but they’re not learning about the processes of social science research,” Hencken Ritter said.
The selection process was rooted in social science research. “We wanted to give everybody who qualified a chance to be a part of the program and to ensure that we didn’t end up drawing all of one demographic. It ended up for a really great mix of students,” Hencken Ritter said. “Because of the kind of student we wanted to bring in, the participants were in a setting where they weren’t tokenized, which gave everybody a space to connect in a way that I think is unusual.”
The nature of the on-campus program, akin to a domestic study abroad program, also provided a unique opportunity for students and mentors to engage more deeply. Programming consisted of graduate-level training in research design and inference seminars, professionalism and research communication training, and statistics and career mentorship. Participants had the opportunity to hear from current doctoral students, nonprofit and survey research organizations, think tanks, and research- and teaching-centered academic professionals in panel discussions and to enjoy dinner with faculty members to deepen relationships and professional networks.
“While working with the Vanderbilt political science faculty on my research project to understand how one media type can influence a viewer’s perception of the severity of certain issues, I discovered my passion for research that I previously lacked the opportunity to foster,” said Caitlyn Cullen, an undergraduate at the University of Louisiana at Monroe. “My favorite aspects of the program were working alongside like-minded students and with my amazing mentor, Dr. Bartels, who helped guide me through the completion of my project. The experience has changed how I view the field of political science and allowed me to explore the different career paths I can take following my graduation this spring!”
Independent research projects were presented at the conclusion of the program and touched on contemporary issues facing our world today. The co-directors put together a swath of data sets that students could review and work within, responding to questions they developed.
As a part of the Accountability, Behavior, and Conflict in Democratic Politics program, students presented their research. Students studied support for Black reparations, militarization and armed conflict, and more. (Photos by Emily Ritter)
The program’s conclusion is not the end of the story. In late August, eight participants will attend and present their research at the American Political Science Association meeting in Los Angeles, and other participants will attend the 2024 National Conference of Black Political Scientists.
“We are thrilled to have launched this REU program at Vanderbilt, where research immersion is a core pedagogical pillar,” Zechmeister said. “We look forward to staying in touch with our REU’s inaugural class as they transfer what they gained this summer into new opportunities. And, at the same time, we are already putting plans in place to repeat this success in the years to come.”
In addition to the NSF, the REU received support from the Vanderbilt Graduate School, the LAPOP lab, the Research on Conflict and Collective Action lab, the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions and the Department of Political Science. The REU was able to host a larger inaugural class of students thanks to Vanderbilt’s Leadership Alliance Summer Academy.