Marisa Ross, MPA, Ph.D. in Neuroscience


Columbus, Ohio

Undergraduate degree

Bachelor of science, biology; bachelor of arts, psychology; minor, biochemistry, Duquesne University, 2016

Professional/research interests

My dissertation work focuses on studying the impact of early life experience of interpersonal violence and chronic post-traumatic stress disorder on functional neural network organization and downstream effects on learning and behavior.


• NTP Travel Award, 2018
• Summa Cum Laude, Duquesne University 2016
• University Honors Fellow, Duquesne University

Expected graduation date

December 2021

Why the Neuroscience and Public Policy program?

In the summer of 2013, I had an internship with the Run the Race Club, an organization for inner-city families in Columbus, Ohio. I spent the summer getting to know the families we served and listening to their stories, and I was shocked at how complex and stigmatized chronic poverty was in my community.

Importantly, spending time with the families at Run the Race exposed me to the deeply embedded cycle of chronic stress and trauma that was so salient in their everyday lives. I wanted to use my privileged position as a college student receiving a science education to attempt to shed light on and rectify these issues, and the Neuroscience and Public Policy (NPP) program at UW–Madison was the perfect place for me to do just that.

At UW–Madison, not only could I conduct cutting-edge research in the neuroscience of trauma and poverty, but I could also learn the skills to translate that research into conversations with policymakers to create concrete policies that help ameliorate the damage done by exposure to trauma.

Why the La Follette School and UW–Madison?

I was initially drawn to the Neuroscience Training Program (NTP) due to the interdisciplinary nature of the program and the wide variety of innovative research that NTP trainers were performing. Then I discovered the Neuroscience and Public Policy program and was struck by how perfectly the program seemed to fit my interests and how unique of an opportunity it would be to receive training in both neuroscience and public affairs.

Even as an out-of-state student, I was aware of the La Follette School’s glowing reputation and the high quality of public administration research conducted here, so I was particularly interested in learning from some true experts. I was also further excited about the NPP after speaking on the phone with the director (Dr. Mike Koenigs) and communicating via email with current students. Their testimonies about the goals of the program and their experiences in the program made the NPP all the more appealing to me.

Career goals

I hope to work in transitional science and science policy. Specifically, I would like to work with the Institutes for Mental Health or National Institutes of Health to evaluate and implement trauma-informed programs at the federal level with the goal of better addressing the needs of trauma survivors through evidence-based policies and social programs.

How have your La Follette School courses and/or experiences set you on the path to meeting your career goals?

My La Follette School courses have given me the tools to analyze and discuss existing policies with both other scientists and public sector scholars. My time with La Follette has expanded my knowledge of basic policy structure in the United States and economics, as well as given me the opportunity to critically analyze new evidence-based policies. These tools will be invaluable to my future career goals.

Summer internship

I was a community services technician at the Office of Crime Victim Services within the Wisconsin Department of Justice during summer 2018.

Primary job responsibilities

I worked under the three grants managers on the Victims of Crime Act (VOCA) grant to help coordinate a needs assessment, analyze housing policies for victims of crime, and prepare reports of data usage and sub-grantee feedback from regional meetings.

Sample internship project

My biggest project involved taking a deep-dive into qualitative data analysis from sub-grantee annual reports. VOCA grant awardees have strict reporting requirements from both the state and the federal government, but VOCA grants managers rarely have the time to look much into these data. My job was to organize the detailed qualitative data from our sub-grantees to highlight and better understand gaps in victims services, as well as internal and external challenges our sub-grantees faced in doing direct victims services. The goal of this analysis was to begin re-thinking the VOCA grant-funding announcement to better address the needs of victims service providers so victims could receive a wider range of services.

What experiences and skills helped you get the internship?

Skills with data analytics and policy analysis were essential to achieving my goals during this internship. My science background also intrigued the VOCA grants managers because I had a unique perspective on the evidence base for trauma-informed policies for victim services.

Advice for prospective La Follette School students

My advice is more for NPP applicants – try not to be intimidated by the political science geniuses in your La Follette School courses! Coming from a natural sciences background with very little political science/history, I was nervous about the La Follette courses because I thought I wasn’t qualified. I found that my classmates were super willing to help share their knowledge, and as long as I did all the background reading for each class, I was able to participate in meaningful class discussions. Forming friendships and study groups with my classmates was essential to my success in the first year. Do not let a lack of policy experience prevent you from applying to the program and learning more than you ever thought possible!

Most challenging La Follette School experience

Balancing coursework, my internship, and my dissertation research has definitely been challenging. The coursework required for the MPA is much more demanding than the coursework taken by a typical PhD student in the NTP, so time management is essential. I am in my third year and still figuring out the best way to balance everything!

Most rewarding La Follette School experience

This sounds like a joke, but it is not: Filing my taxes after taking Rourke O’Brien’s course in Federal Tax Policy and Administration was super rewarding because I finally understood everything that TurboTax was telling me as I filed. This is just one example of my coursework informing my everyday life and civil engagement.

How has the La Follette School changed the way you think about public policy?

I now see the impact of past and current public policies everywhere. I used to think of public policy as an abstract source of general rules that did not really affect my day-to-day experience, but now I can see how current policies and the remnants of past policies shape everything from the bus I use when I commute to classes to the structure of the federal science grants that fund my research.