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AU Lab Fosters Collaborative, Changemaking Research

Since 2019, PAPL has grown from fewer than 20 student applications that resulted in 10 active projects to 120 applications for 20 available spots on research collaborations.

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Students Silas Engel, left to right, Libby Wahlenmayer worked as student researchers on Public Affairs Lab projects. Saul Newman, second from right, oversees the program and professor Lara Schwartz worked with Engel on a research project.

In just three years, the Public Affairs and Policy Lab (PAPL)—an innovative program for undergraduates seeking to hone their research and analysis skills alongside faculty in the School of Public Affairs—has seen a 500 percent increase in applications. Since 2019, PAPL has grown from fewer than 20 student applications that resulted in 10 active projects to 120 applications for 20 available spots on research collaborations that have led to the publication of journal articles, the creation of teaching materials, and more.  

Saul Newman, associate dean for undergraduate education, says that PAPL—which has fostered research into such wide-ranging topics as tobacco addiction, climate change, political divisions, criminal justice reform, and domestic extremism—has seen meteoric growth, even after pandemic restrictions ended. “At first, I thought that maybe it was just COVID: Students were locked up at home during the summer, they couldn’t get out and it was a good way for them to stay engaged in research. But then fall came and, once again, interest really took off.”  

One recent project teamed SPA professor Aparna Soni with Libby Wahlenmayer, SIS-SPA/BA ’22, to study the relationship between cigarette and alcohol excise taxes and health care outcomes. The collaboration resulted in a new article, “Association between state unemployment rate and inpatient hospitalizations for tobacco use disorder,” published in Tobacco Prevention and Cessation, that found a direct correlation between economic downturns and severe tobacco addiction. 

According to the study, the rate of tobacco use disorder has nearly doubled over the last two decades, even as the overall number of smokers continues to decline across the United States. This severe dependence poses adverse and expensive health consequences, with patients usually requiring both pharmaceutical and behavioral treatment in inpatient settings.  

Soni and Wahlenmayer also found that an increase of just one percentage point in a state’s unemployment rate is associated with a 2.8 percent uptick in the incidence of tobacco use disorder. During recessions and times of economic distress such as the COVID pandemic, the authors urged, policymakers must be prepared for the higher costs associated with the pharmaceutical and behavioral treatment of tobacco use disorder patients. 

Aparna SoniSPA professor Aparna Soni partnered with Libby Wahlenmayer for a PAPL project.

“When we started this project, I thought that it would just be a [summerlong] collaboration,” Soni says. “Two years later, we are still connected and producing research that offers important insights and has critical policy implications. PAPL is a fantastic way to connect professors to students who are looking to acquire research skills and learn more about a particular field.” 

“PAPL helped me a lot to learn new skills and software,” says Wahlenmayer, who is interning with the US Department of Homeland Security after graduating in May with a pair of bachelor’s degrees in international studies and data science for political science. “When I had a research class that used the same software, I was very confident and able to help other students—all thanks to the skills and knowledge I acquired while working on the PAPL project.” 

PAPL’s annual calendar begins in September, when a three-month window opens for faculty members to submit project proposals. Students apply from November to January and the decisions are made in February. Students tackle the projects alongside faculty members over the summer; sometimes the work continues over the course of the following year. Each team receives $1,000 for the faculty member and $3,000 for the student. 

As SPA faculty research increasingly uses sophisticated statistical methods to analyze data, a growing number of SPA students in the PAPL program are using skills they have learned in SPA’s two new bachelor’s degree programs, the BS in data sciences for political science and the BS in data sciences for justice, law, and criminology—both of which graduated their first classes last year. “Those students are particularly well-suited for a lot of research that we’ve been doing,” he says. 

While almost all of the PAPL projects focus on academic research, one aims to develop a book and teacher guide. Lara Schwartz, professorial lecturer and director of the Center for Civil Discourse, and Silas Engel, CAS-SPA/BA ’23, are developing tools to equip students with the skills necessary to contribute to productive dialogue in college classrooms. The guide is a companion to Schwartz’s forthcoming book on civil discourse. 

Student Silas Engel and professor Lara Schwartz have worked together on a project for the Public Affairs and Policy Lab.Student Silas Engel and professor Lara Schwartz have worked together on a project for the Public Affairs and Policy Lab.

“A lot of the work that I do for this project involves analysis and thinking about some fundamental questions about free speech,” says Engel, a double major in computer science and political science. “I have gotten better at argumentative analysis, and I have improved my ability to analyze complex problems on a much deeper level.”  

“We often see our graduate students work with the faculty and I think it’s great that undergraduates now can get the same experience through PAPL,” Schwartz says. “The lab offers a unique one-to-one mentorship that helps students meet their goals, explore new opportunities in academia, and choose projects that truly interest them. And since all the work is done over the summer, there are no distractions of coursework.”  

As part of their collaboration, Engel is creating the classroom exercises, teaching materials, and pedagogical tools that will connect Schwartz’s book with the college curriculum, including AU courses in politics, writing, and computer science.  

“This is truly a partnership,” Schwartz says. “We are having very productive conversations about the text that is giving me an understanding of an undergraduate’s view on how these concepts work and how they relate to the student experience as I try to explain how speech can be both protected by the Constitution and harmful at the same time. Running these ideas by [Engel] and engaging him as a user of that kind of material is super important. This has been an enormously rewarding way to work.”