Undergraduates gain research experience working with La Follette faculty

Collage with photos of undergraduate students Maria Manansala and Rachel Fedorchak
From left to right: Maria Manansala and Rachel Fedorchak

Maria Manansala, an undergraduate student in La Follette’s Certificate in Public Policy, jumped at the chance to work on a research project this summer to study the effects of income on child development and family processes in families with limited resources in the United States. Through her work with La Follette School Professor Sarah Halpern-Meekin, Manansala, an honors student majoring in sociology and political science, has learned to analyze interview data while building her understanding of the complex relationships between poverty and early childhood.

Manansala’s educational and career interests revolve around public policies aimed at improving the conditions of marginalized groups. “Through Baby’s First Years, I have been able to pursue this passion by gaining greater insight to the impacts of policy on society’s most unsung members: impoverished mothers,” comments Manansala. “Hearing them share their stories on a level of intimacy only achievable through qualitative research furthers my desire to study social policy in the future and inspires me on a personal level.”

One advantage of attending college at a large research university is that students can take positions as research assistants, building skills that make them more competitive in both the workforce and admission to graduate programs. Each year, a number of students work with La Follette School faculty learning valuable skills and insights into a wide variety of research projects.

“We intend undergraduate research experiences to be mutually beneficial, contributing the skills and perspective of undergraduates like Maria to our research and developing our students’ familiarity with the research process and their ability to successfully carry out research tasks,” says Halpern-Meekin. “We also hope that students get to see the topics they have learned about in class in concrete, real-world ways through research. Finally, when undergraduates work on research projects, they get an opportunity to develop relationships with graduate students and faculty, who can serve as mentors in supporting their exploration of careers and graduate school.”

Rachel Fedorchak, who graduated in May with a Certificate in Public Policy and majored in linguistics and economics, worked for a year with La Follette School Assistant Professor Morgan Edwards and the Climate Action Lab, analyzing data on climate-tech start-ups as part of a project investigating how to better represent new technologies in energy and climate models. She is currently pursuing a master’s in health administration at the University of Alabama.

“Working with talented students like Rachel is one of my favorite parts of my job,” says Edwards. “Students learn new skills and get to experience first-hand what it’s like to be part of a research team. Our lab is made up of people with many different backgrounds—from physics to economics to journalism—who want to explore what they can do to help solve the climate crisis.”

Undergraduate students at UW–Madison who are interested in pursuing research can also reach out to faculty members with whom they have had courses and inquire about the possibility of research mentorship through a number of funded opportunities on campus.