Summer Collaborative Research Fellows Build Skills and Community for Public Impact

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Composite of Summer Collaborative Research Fellows headshots

When I started my PhD program in sociology at Stanford, the thing I cared most about was using my research to have a positive impact in the world. I did find some pockets of support and opportunity, however I mostly struggled to see how I could meaningfully design my research to meet communities’ needs while being a successful doctoral student. I wished I had a team, the tools, and a community of colleagues to help. That’s what makes me love working with PhD students through our Summer Collaborative Research Fellowship. Together, we support fellows to develop those skills, build that community, and validate everyone’s experiences and aspirations, slowly working to debunk the myth of “either/or”: either you can have meaningful community engagements and public impact or you can be a legitimate scholar. 

Summer Fellowship

We launched the Summer Collaborative Research Fellowship in 2020 with fifteen inaugural fellows. This year, seventeen fellows joined from departments across the social sciences, as well as education, engineering, computer science, and even applied physics. 

A core feature of the fellowship is to support team-based, collaborative science. Each fellow is offered a stipend to work on problem-focused research within existing labs across campus. These include, for example, Stanford Social Media Lab where Angela Lee is working with nonprofit partner MyDigitalTat2 to help teach youth how to develop healthy relationships with media and information technology. Her colleague in the Department of Communication, another 2021 summer fellow, Ryan Moore, is partnering with MediaWise to address similar issues at the other end of the age spectrum: with seniors. Another fellow, Ayodele Dada, a Knight-Hennessey scholar, is working with psychology professors Greg Walton and Carol Dweck to explore interventions with community and educational partners in Nigeria, where Dada is from. Their group hopes to address gender disparities in education, specifically in the north which has the largest number of out-of-school children in a single African country. Most of them are girls.

Fellows also benefit from meeting weekly and mentoring with our team, guest speakers, and other fellows that focuses on:

  • Skills training, especially in project management. This includes managing a research project with clear lines of responsibility and timelines, as well as how to project manage with a partner when coming from different backgrounds and experiences.
  • Building partnerships with communities, nonprofits, government, and social enterprises. We help fellows think about how to identify and sustain working partnerships, including learning from others’ experience about how to show up in those partnerships with humility, respect, and clarity on what their research can offer to the solutions landscape. 
  • Engaging and communicating research with diverse audiences. Some exercises invited fellows to develop clarity on their pathway from science to impact, including getting really specific about the people they want to influence: what are their priors and motivations for integrating scientific insights into their practice and policies. Guest speaker Matt Vassar emphasized the value of listening to others first and foremost as a way to better understand the issues and perspectives of the stakeholders they want to engage (something our Associate Director Shelley Correll has also emphasized). 
  • Exploring different career pathways. A highlight is the roster of guest speakers we are able to bring in to meet with the fellows. This year we were delighted to welcome three leaders in our final session on “Pathways Forward” who themselves have taken different paths with their social science PhDs: Althea D. Anderson, program officer in the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation's Gender Equity and Governance Program; Diana Fletschner, chief program officer and former director of research, evaluation, and learning at Landesa, an international nonprofit dedicated to gender equitable land rights; and Pascaline Dupas, economics professor and associate director of Stanford Impact Labs, who is a pioneer in evidence-informed practice and has helped to establish a culture of impact-driven research in development economics. They offered perspectives on the benefits, demands, and drawbacks to different careers, within and beyond academia.

Learning with and from a community of colleagues 

Peer learning and community building is one of the biggest assets of the program. This year we had fellows who brought experience across a host of health, youth, and education related causes: Gina Li is exploring the impacts of expanding Medicaid for the population of individuals already enrolled in Medicare; Colin Peterson is working with the Nurse Family Partnership as part of the Early Childhood Development LabNicky Sullivan is partnering with the nonprofit Embrace Race on how white parents can effectively talk to their children about race to combat racism; Miroslav Suzara is supporting local school districts on learning opportunities and reopening in the time of the pandemic; and Ayush Kanodia is co-creating educational platforms with ed-tech enterprises in China and India. There was even a former school teacher among us: GSE doctoral student Carrie Townley-Flores, who is a core contributor to the Educational Opportunity Project with Sean Reardon, professor and member of Stanford Impact Labs' faculty advisory board. Even while some fellows' research was quite different from others', Civil and Environmental Engineering PhD student Ryan Triolo said there was a feeling that his peers understood and faced similar challenges, and that "there was a great sense of community and everyone's research was important work!”

Reinforcing training and support in the Stanford Impact Labs community

Several summer fellows were working with faculty who are participants in other Stanford Impact Labs programming. Sociology student Iris Zhang, for example, is working with Professor Jackie Hwang on housing policy and equity, including renter relief programs. Professor Hwang was an Impact Lab Design Fellow in the first year of the program and has since launched the Changing Cities Research Lab, of which Zhang is a core research member. Mansheej Paul (applied physics) and Apporva Lal (political science) are working with RegLab and the Immigration Policy Lab, both recipients of Start-Up Impact Lab funding from Stanford Impact Labs. Jan Voelkel, another doctoral student in Sociology and summer fellow, works closely with the Polarization and Social Change Lab led by Professor Robb Willer. This fall their lab is welcoming Max Hui Bai as one of Stanford Impact Labs' inaugural postdoctoral fellows

As we expand our community, especially with the formal launch of our Affiliate Network, we are excited to continue our work training and supporting doctoral students, who have the potential to make critical contributions to the impact labs we invest in. For Voelkel, who has been a productive scholar with the Polarization and Social Change Lab publishing on topics related to polarization, moral framing, and democracy, “the fellowship really opened my eyes for important questions in the research process and motivated me to think about the impact of research from a totally new perspective.”

In their own words

We surveyed our fellows at the end of the program and here’s a bit more of what they told us:

  • “Hearing about research and motivations from not just the invited speakers but also fellow PhD students was very inspiring and made me want to continue to push to make my own research have as much of an immediate and beneficial impact as possible.” -Isabella “Belle” Douglas
  • “This fellowship definitely got me thinking about the ways that orienting my work explicitly for its potential impacts forces me to clarify my research questions, motivations, and assumptions in ways that can even improve my work from a traditional academic perspective.” -Nick Sherefkin
  • And advice to future fellows: “Be humble and open-minded. You're going to learn super valuable things from the speakers and your peers in this program!” -Sophie Allen

I am of course excited to see how all of our fellows, past and future, use their research skills in ways that can make a real contribution to tackling the social problems around us. I’ll also be eagerly watching to see how they continue to support and learn from one another. For me, it’s incredibly rewarding to help grow this community I wish I had had as a PhD student. Sometimes it’s like reaching back and giving my graduate student self a big hug of encouragement, reminding me that there are still incredible ways to put research to work for society.