Episode 49: UMBC Social Science Alumni in Government, Business, & Non-Profit Careers
9:21PM Nov 13, 2023
Dr. Ian Anson
Dr. Felipe Filomeno
Dr. Delta Merner
Dr. Brent Gibbons
Dr. Brittany Gay
Hello and welcome to Retrieving the Social Sciences, a production of the Center for Social Science Scholarship. I'm your host, Ian Anson, Associate Professor of Political Science here at UMBC. On today's show, as always, we'll be hearing from UMBC faculty, students, visiting speakers, and community partners about the social science research they've been performing in recent times. Qualitative, quantitative, applied, empirical, normative. On Retrieving the Social Sciences, we bring the best of you UMBC's social science community to you.
One of the most interesting parts of being a professor is the conversations that I get to have with students. Our undergraduates here at UMBC are fantastically inquisitive. And they always ask me questions that change the way I think about long standing problems, issues in the scholarly literature, and even approaches to research. They always ask tough questions about the world and the social sciences, but perhaps the toughest question that I can ask them is really simple. So what are you planning to do after you graduate? Thankfully, the answer to this question is really easy for UMBC social science students, because our majors go o,n to a variety of fantastic careers in government, business, education, nonprofit organizations, and so many more realms. The scial sciences at UMBC prepares students to be critical analysts of human behavior, society and organizations. And it's no wonder that our thoughtful students are such good fits for jobs in Maryland, Washington, DC, and far, far beyond.
On this special episode of Retrieving the Social Sciences, we will hear a rebroadcast of a recent panel hosted by the Center for Social Science Scholarship that highlights the fantastic careers of three recent UMBC social science graduates. All three of these students ended up earning PhDs in various social science fields at UMBC, and all use their applied research knowledge to do high impact work in their fields. Dr. Delta Merner recently graduated with a PhD in Geography and Environmental Systems from UMBC, and currently serves as Lead Scientist for the Science Hub for Climate Litigation at the Union of Concerned Scientists. Dr. Brent J. Gibbons earned his PhD in Public Policy at UMBC and is a research Public Health Analyst at RTI International, an independent nonprofit research institute dedicated to improving the human condition. Dr. Brittany Gay earned a PhD in Applied Developmental Psychology at UMBC, and now works as Associate Director of Implementation Science at the Research to Policy Collaboration, a nonpartisan group that works to strengthen the use of research and policy through action-oriented collaboration between legislative officials and researchers. As you might already imagine, I'm really delighted to bring you a rebroadcast of this wonderful event, which was held in conjunction with CS3's celebration of its first five years. The panel which was moderated by Dr. Felipe Filomeno, CS3's associate director, was a great way to highlight all the impact that CS3 has had in bringing the social science disciplines together at UMBC. Let's listen in to hear about our recent students and their ongoing successes in the social sciences.
So my first question is, please describe your organization you work for and your role in the organization.
Yeah, wonderful. Well, thank you everyone, for being here. As we said, my name is Dr. Delta Merner. I work at the Union of Concerned Scientists, which I will call UCS. And UCS is a nonprofit. So we're a US based nonprofit. And we do work to put science into action to build a healthier, safer and more equitable society. So our organization was started back in 1969, by a number of grad students and professors at MIT, who were concerned with how science was influencing the war in Vietnam, this was kind of the peak of the war. And there was a lot of concern with government money going to fund science and military instead of looking at how science could be funded for environmental and social justice. So that was kind of the roots of the organization. It's grown in a lot of ways now. So we now have, I think, a little over a half a million members that are part of UCs and any scientist can be a part of it. We also have supporters. And we have about 25,000 scientists who are engaged, we have a network of scientists, that we help to get them more involved in how their science can influence action, through policy through litigation through other kind of how decisions are being made in society. We have a couple of different departments. So there's science and democracy. We have a group that works on nuclear weapons. We have food and agriculture department, we have energy and me of climate. And I personally work in the climate area of of UCS. So UCS started with climate, it's really focusing on climate impacts, which which makes a lot of sense, and then about sixty two years ago, they realized that, you know, climate policy wasn't moving forward. And a lot of that had to do with corporate influence that was preventing climate action from really happening. So they started a climate attribute, or sorry, a climate accountability group. And my job is nested within that climate accountability group. So I work with a handful of other scientists, but we also have organizers. We have communications folks, as well as expert matter individuals. I specifically run what is called the Science hub for climate litigation. And I'm the Lead Scientist there. And we do work to inform climate litigation. So seeing climate litigation as one tool in the toolbox for climate accountability, and understanding that now, social decisions are being made in the courts. And that's something in the latest IPCC, the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change. Their report mentioned that climate litigation is starting to shape climate governance. And we want to make sure that those decisions are being shaped by robust and meaningful science. So that is a piece of it. And we'll talk a lot more about what that actually looks like in the science that I do within that.
It's great to be here. So I graduated in 2013, with, as Dr. Felipe said, public policy degree and I've worked in both private university, and now I'm in a nonprofit. And so I'll describe, you know, my research and the nonprofit. But we'll also kind of describe my role. So I ended up focusing on early behavioral health policy. It was an interest that I developed early on, there was a lot of need for research in that area. And there were mentors at the School of Public Policy. And so I've kind of continued throughout my career to focus on this area. And the group that I now work at has a really strong department in behavioral health policy. And so that's what led me to work at RTI, the Research Triangle Institute or RTI International. It's a very large nonprofit. It was founded in 1959. So it was, I think, the first company in the Research Triangle area, which includes lots of other research organizations there and it's kind of the Duke and NC State and UNC area that triangle. Researchers for RtI are all over the world. It's an international organization, it has about 6000 staff, and this is across over 250 disciplines. So the research agenda of the nonprofit as a whole covers a wide array of of focus areas, and they produce basic science all the way to like Policy and Practice Research, implementation science. And so really the whole continuum. So my role I'm in the health practice area, it's the largest group at RTI. There's a lot of federal money for Health Research. And so we work in contracts. So federal contracts, most of my work is with domestic research. But we also have grants and foundation work. So I work with a future build trust that I'm directing a research project on. We have two NIH grants looking at the opioid and overdose crisis, and work with the CDC. So there's really a lot of flexibility being at a nonprofit institution that and solely focuses on research. I think one of the benefits of being at a group like RTI is it's looked at as an independent kind of nonpartisan research institute. And so we can provide research to, to really inform policy and practice from that nonpartisan lens. And so my role at RTI, I'm a Research Leader. I'm in the Health Economics program. But I'm a little bit of a an outsider in my program, because I have more of a focus on policy and health services research, but often using economics tools, but what you'll find in outfits like RTI or Nordic or Mathematica, these different research institutes is it's they're really multidisciplinary. So that's one of the things that I've really enjoyed is we'll have multidisciplinary teams, including economists, implementation scientists, epidemiologists, working together to solve problems. I'm also involved in getting funding. So that's part of the work as well, working on proposals and looking for requests for research. And finally, I'm involved in mentoring junior staff. So I'll end there, but I'm excited to talk more about my work. Thank you.
Awesome. So I am an Early Career Scholar. I graduated just a couple years ago with my PhD. So hopefully this will give you a different side of what you can do with research and PhDs if that's what you're interested in. So I have dual roles as Dr. Felipe. hadn't mentioned. I'll start with talking through my first role, which is the Associate Director of implementation science with the evidence to impact collaborative at Penn State University, which is a mouthful. So with the research translation platform, we have a bunch of different initiatives that at the end of the day, our goal is to increase policymakers use of research evidence in the work that they're doing. Whether that's constituent outreach, or writing legislation, or just kind of getting the word out, we aim to make their decisions a little more informed, or at least providing the information if they choose to use it. So within the research translation platform, we have initiatives such as results first, which we recently acquired from the Pew family impact seminars recently acquired from Purdue, and also the research to policy collaboration. So as as an associate director of implementation science, I provide insights on how we implement several of those programs, figuring out, where is our capacity, where do we need to bolster it? What best practices can we incorporate and bolster to improve the impact of the work that we're doing for those initiatives. My other role is the lead Policy Associate within the research to policy collaboration. And there, I lead a team of policy associates in helping to bridge the research and policymaking communities. So right now, we're working a lot with Federal Congress, doing needs assessments of policymakers to identify their evidence needs. And then we go and we work with a group of researchers to help bolster their capacity to understand the policymaking process and the policymakers where they're at without lobbying, which means it's a lot of education for policymakers and researchers. So it's a lot of boots on the ground capacity building, providing technical assistance to both groups, and just kind of liaising between the two. So it's a lot of leveraging research skills in a very practical way.
Wonderful, thank you all. Research usually starts with identifying a problem that needs to be solved. So I'm curious about the problems and questions that you address in your work. And we'll start with Brittany.
Yeah, um, so the biggest question that our work addresses is how can we make evidence useful, instead of just being kind of academics reading things from other academics? So we really want to kind of shorten the gap between I think, like, it's in the literature somewhere, it takes like 10 years or so for evidence to actually get to policymakers, and until legislation, so understanding best practices to support policymakers use of evidence, and also support researchers engagement and that, so it's a mix of like, community mobilization, and just education.
Yeah, so as I mentioned, you know, my focus areas behavioral health, largely, I'm looking at behavioral health systems. So the treatments, the services, the insurance, that also have policies underlying them. So what policies are underlying the behavioral health systems that help address the needs in communities and individuals. And so this is, you know, mental health and substance use. And we do have a lot of those needs. For sure. Some of the questions, I'll give you some examples that we're currently tackling, in one project, heal prevention, basically, programs that can help prevent misuse of opioids in the beginning. So at the start of the continuum, as well as a project that looks at community level interventions, where you take data and use evidence based practices, from that data that informs what programs to put in place. I've also looked in my career at parity, the legislation that requires that behavioral health is covered at the same levels as medical and surgical. And so recently, I looked at in Medicare policy, there was a change to cover behavioral health, the same levels, and whether that led to increased access, and essentially better outcomes. And finally, like we we generally, in the Health Economics program, we often support evaluations and questions around essentially effectiveness and cost effectiveness of new programs that are being developed.
Yeah, my training at UMBC was also interdisciplinary, which we've talked about a little bit, but today, I'll focus on on the social science piece of it. One thing that I do think is important is my training. Being able being literate in both physical science and social sciences has been a huge asset to the work that I do. And I often am working on multidisciplinary teams. So there's few projects that are purely Social Science, but some of them are. And I'll talk about just a few of the projects that I've been working on over the last year. So similarly to what Dr. Gay was saying, you know, there's a lot of work that happens so that science can more easily be communicated to policy and so that it can effectively foreign policy. And the work that I do, as I mentioned earlier, is really how research can inform litigation. And again, this is understanding that litigation is a space where important decisions are being made that are impacting our lives. And we want to make sure that science is being communicated well in those spaces. So that's just to give you kind of the overview of where this research sits. So for the work that I do, we're really looking at accountability for climate change. In the social science space, I've done a lot of work around kind of power and knowledge of the major fossil fuel companies. So understanding when they knew about climate change and how they responded. So looking kind of back into archival records and other pieces, kind of understanding what really happened and how that then often relates to the when we understood what was happening with the physical science at the same time. But there's a pure kind of social science aspect to that. We also ask a lot of questions about what the impacts of climate change are, and how people are impacted by that. And there's inherently social science questions that are a huge component of understanding any climate impacts. We do a lot on more recently trying to think about how to think about and how to measure compound risk, through different risk analysis and different risk measures, again, incredibly interdisciplinary, are really relying on the social science for a lot of those pieces. I also do a lot of work on kind of what is happening with litigation itself. So I've done research that looks at conducts a comparative analysis of litigation across different countries to say how it's actually impacting policy, if it's actually impacting policy, if it's impacting decisions at all. So we have a paper that's coming out on that. And sometimes it's on specific components. So we've got a research paper that looks at net zero. So kind of one specific area within climate change within litigation, and how that compares across countries and across different kinds of practice within litigation. And then finally, a big chunk of the work that I do is to study kind of what else needs to be studied. So last year, we did interviews with litigators and legal scholars to talk about what science they need to inform their work, what they use what they wish they use, better understanding maybe what they're having a hard time understanding, and then helping to translate that to the scientific community as well. So we did a policy brief that really outlined all those findings. But we also published a paper that kind of set a research agenda for what engagement looks like in this space. And that includes for physical scientists and social scientists as well.
If you go to the UMBC research website you will see research, "Public Research for Public Good" and you can hear this resonate across all their statements here. After we identify a research problem, a question, we need to collect and analyze data to find an answer or a solution. And I'm curious, what does that look like for you?
Yeah, so that looks really different, depending on the research question, but there's a lot of rich areas for for data. So as I said, In the beginning, I do a lot of archival and document research. And it's kind of going back on corporate documents, the archives, what's there sometimes it's going through previous litigation and seeing disclosure, getting documents that way, understanding the pieces and doing the research that way, for some of the vulnerability and risk analysis work that we do. It's much more economic and demographic information that gets used for that. Sometimes we're combining that with the modeling that we're doing. For the comparative analysis, that is research that happened just from those documents. So that's document analysis, or looking at kind of either briefs and submissions of litigation, or the court findings, depending where we are in the cases, and doing direct comparisons of that. And then finally, for the last piece that I talked about kind of understanding what research needs to happen. That's interviews. So I conducted interviews. And this year, hopefully, we'll be adding surveys to that as well, so that we can do both surveys and interviews to get a larger group, especially as this field grows. So four years ago, when I started working in climate litigation, you know, there were a handful of cases that we were really interested in. In the last year alone, there's been 190 additional cases that have been filed across the globe. So it's growing pretty rapidly. There's now over 2000 cases, really around 100 that we work on in some meaningful way. So it's growing rapidly. So interviews get harder as those those numbers increase.
So as Delta mentioned, I mean, there's a range of data sources and it really depends on the study and what data sources will best address the research questions, but it also depends on the amount of funding and the time that you have to do the work. So in some cases, we work for the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation. And they often want things done very quickly, they actually report some of their findings to the White House. And so it really depends on the needs and priorities of the clients that you're working for. Generally, you know, in my group, we're using economics tools. So we're using econometric, but more commonly in evaluation, there's mixed methods that that's being used. So you're actually integrating the qualitative and the quantitative together. But generally, in my work, I'm often thinking about causal inference. So trying to attribute cause to, you know, a policy or a programs effect.
I think that's a really good segue, I am a mixed methodologist, I was trained in both qualitative and quantitative though I do have a bias towards the qualitative aspect. So it's a nice, nice flipside of that. I'll focus primarily on the types of data that we get through implementation of the research to policy collaboration, which involves survey, quantitative and observational data. And also some qualitative as well, but we use them all differently, because you should always choose the method that best aligns with what it is that you're trying to answer, as everyone else's has emphasized. So being on the implementation side, I'm usually involved in data collection, and also helping the analytics team interpret the data, providing some insights about like, well, here's my perception of how things are or what this means in this context. Because I'm the people, the person who works with the people the most, that we're collecting data from, I just omit myself from the analysis part just to reduce any bias that could be introduced into analyzing those data. So being trained and qualitative, I'm the one usually talking to policymakers. I met with someone in Congress yesterday, and talking to them about like, what evidence do you not have access to what evidence do you need? What do you not understand about what you are getting? And what do you not like about it, things like that. But I also do focus groups with the researchers that we've talked to seeing how we might be able to better suit their needs in terms of policy engagement, because they're really trying to meet everyone where they're at, which is really hard when you're working with a lot of different people. So periodically checking in with them and seeing like, well, what are your needs? And how are the strategies that we're that we're using, adjusting what it is that you need, so that we can work to optimize and adapt the implementation of the model that we're doing. We are also doing an impact analysis of the research to policy collaboration model. It's something that we've done in the past that was published in PNAS and then also American psychologist, so if l are interested in more than welcome, I can pass those links along. But basically, it's a dual model, behavior change model where we're trying to get researchers more engaged, we're trying to get policymakers more engaged. And that involves some sort of a collection. And then, yeah, I guess, a little bit of everything.
Great. So for everyone here taking a research methods class or writing a capstone research paper for Global Studies. This is the purpose by for you to be able to do this kind of work eventually. So you collected the data, analyze the data arrived at some findings. What do you do with that? Right? They are not supposed to just stay in your desk. Right? So what happens?
Yeah, so with the randomized controlled trial, that we're doing that all eventually, because of the time that it takes, it's usually just going to be published and explained to other academics and conferences and whatnot. To understand some of the best practices that I've been discussing, we do different rapid cycle learning tests, where we test different messages that are based in theory and see which message best performs for the outcome that we're hoping for. And then we use that the results from that to optimize the implementation of the model. So we take those results pretty immediately and use them to incorporate into a subgroup of our population gets the optimized version of what we're implementing. So that's really quick. And it involves a lot of collaboration, clean analytics, evaluation and implementation, lots of team meetings, and then also the data that we receive from the rapid cycle learning and also the focus groups and just things that we hear from folks throughout implementation that we use to help inform whether we're implementing with equity in mind. Equitable implementation is something that's been rightfully so more of a priority in the past few years. So we can see like, who isn't engaging, it's just as important as who is engaging, and thinking if there's any correlates between specific strategies that we're doing, and if we might be able to modify those if it could be disengaging or hindering someone's involvement.
For for us, I mean, I think generally this is a big challenge. And we're all kind of it seems like working in the space where we're trying to influence policy or, you know, affect change, possibly through litigation. And, and I think, you know, often as researchers, we don't necessarily have, we don't always have those tools. And so you know, we, we look for manuscripts, you know, when we start academic research, but really, you know, policymakers, decision makers aren't going to be reading those. And so we we try to supplement any reports with the logs, or, obviously, presentations, but if there's any media pickup, that's always great to kind of get the word out there. But really, we want to get research in the eyes of, of these decision makers, practitioners, policymakers, sometimes it's immediately clear how we can because we're working for a client like state, or the federal government where we have direct access. In other cases, I've actually done work where it's, it's the work has gone into a report to Congress.This was a study that looked at pain alternatives and Medicare, to opioids. And so in some cases, you know, you can actually have your reports get seen by legislators, but I think, you know, in in kind of gauging this audience, you want to be really brief and clear with the evidence that you're showing, and include different kinds of evidence. So I think they're, they're looking for, you know, how will this impact the population that I'm serving? How will this impact what we're what will this cost? What, what will this do for my budget? So how will this impact my budget? And then how can I implement this? Well, so these are all the kinds of things that we're thinking of getting in front of decision makers and policy makers.
So I feel like I UCS I'm really lucky because we the organization works in a way such that we have about a third of our organization is scientists, a third are campaigners and a third are communication experts. And for me, in order to get science out there, you need to do more than just publish it in a journal, right? It just, it can just sit in the journal. And then you need those other experts to be thinking about how the research can move. So as we're doing research, which it's critical that we're doing independent and rigorous research, and even in our funding structures, we don't take any corporate money, we don't have government grant money, we do a lot to make sure that we're ensuring kind of independence in the work that we're doing, and rigor. So that one of the top goals is always to have it published and the work that I've worked on, we've always had journal articles, so that we're going through that peer reviewed process, and you have kind of those aspects to it. But we also also think about all the other products and outcomes from that work. And we think about that from the beginning. You know, as was mentioned, when we have journal articles, we tend to also write reports that are more accessible. And we think about who needs to be reading those reports, what that might look like, and how we can can tailor that language for them how we can have graphs that are assessable, how we can explain the methodologies in meaningful ways that you know, that reach those audiences will do depending on the pieces, sometimes you have to think about different geographic breakdown. So maybe our, the, what we published was for a whole region, because that's what we wanted to do for the journal article. But then we'll take kind of a state breakdown or a different regional breakdown or ecosystem breakdown of that same data and have that in reports for constituencies who can look at that. So whether that state policy briefs or it's a national park, that kind of goes over borders, and it's more useful to understand it in different boundaries, right. So thinking about how you actually implement it, who's implementing kind of outcomes from that, and how you need the results to be broken down for that to be meaningful. We also, it's important that we get it in front of the decision makers, which folks have already talked about. So there's that piece and you have to have that network of decision makers in the building that constantly so that you know what they're looking for, you can give them the information as they need it. And you're there and available for them to ask questions to, which is a huge part of it. There's also the social media and the traditional media piece of it, which I wasn't expecting kind of coming into this work, how much media work I would do. And I feel like I spend, you know, maybe 10% of my time talking to media, which was something that I was not prepared for and didn't ever expect. But that's, I think, a really key part of science communication. And I think what a lot of this boils down to is communicating science and communicating science to different audiences in meaningful ways. So I feel lucky that I guess, because we've got a team that's working on different pieces. We can take opportunities when they come up when they are presented to us to be able to communicate our science in different venue. So, last week I spoke to about 100 Brazilian judges and just talked to them about scientific findings from a couple of reports that we had a little bit of a more scope for the region that they were looking at, and just answered questions for them so that they had a scientist in front of them that they could ask questions to. I've done sometimes it's about getting it into briefs, like was already talked about in policy briefs into litigation pieces, and then it's a lot of podcasts and blogs and, and, and other communication pieces.
Now it's time for Campus Connections, the part of the podcast where we connect today's featured content to other work happening on your UMBC's campus. Today, I've enlisted our production assistant,Jean, to tell us a bit about the work that CS3 is doing to support current undergraduate students as they prepare for careers in the social sciences just like the ones we heard about today. Jean, would you mind telling us a bit about the GRANTED program and the Data Science Scholars Program at UMBC?
Hi, Dr. Anson. I'm excited to talk about both the GRANTED award program and Data Science Scholars Program, two great CS3 initiatives. The Growing Research Access for Nationally Transformative Equity and Diversity, or GRANTED program, of the National Science Foundation is a project which develops best practices for a regional pipeline program to establish internships in research administration for students of seven minority serving institutions in Maryland and Delaware through a series of covenings and a final symposium. The covenings. or essentially big meetups, bring together student interns, research leaders, administrators, and campus professionals from across the region to talk about ways to promote research administration to students as a career opportunity. In their final symposium, participants and student interns finalize best practices for developing the regional research administration internship program. What's really neat is that the student interns aren't just tagging along, they're actually included as co- researchers for presentations and workshops at conferences and papers for research administration journals. So not only are they figuring out ways to make the research administration scene even better, but these students are also getting a hands on taste of it all as a potential career path. Another cool program is the Data Science Scholars Program. This program established through a collaboration between UC Berkeley, UMBC, and Mills College is generously funded by the National Science Foundation. In this program, students delve into thematic areas derived from various NSF projects. These range from the NSF iHeart Project, investigating climate change-induced sea level rise, to the NSF information augmentation project exploring the realm of audio deep fakes. The DSS program is open to undergraduate scholars across diverse disciplines, including the social sciences, offering a comprehensive exploration of data and its societal impact. Moreover, students benefit from faculty mentorship, participation in special events, and networking opportunities with data science students from partner universities in California. As part of the program students also serve as teaching fellows for foundational data science courses, adding a practical dimension to their learning experience. It's a fantastic way to engage with real world data challenges, and foster collaboration among aspiring data scientists. And that's it for this week's Campus Connection.
Thanks, Jean, for helping our audience learn more about the initiatives currently offered by CS3. I'm so excited to see what we can do for our students in the years to come as these programs continue to grow. And thanks to you for listening today. Stay tuned for our next episode, which also happens to be our 50th. We're really excited to celebrate this milestone with you, and we hope that until then, as always, you keep questioning.
Retrieving the Social Sciences is a production of the UMBC Center for Social Science Scholarship. Our director is Dr. Christine Mallinson, our associate director is Dr. Felipe Filomeno, and our undergraduate production assistant is Jean Kim. Our theme music was composed and recorded by D'Juan Moreland. Find out more about CS3 at email@example.com and make sure to follow us on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube, where you can find full video recordings of recent CS3 sponsored events. Until next time, keep questioning.