‘I didn't know economics could be used like this’: How LEO research assistants make an impact

Author: Erin Swope

Leo Students

Each summer and school year, a poorly lit computer lab in the basement of Jenkins-Nanovic Hall on Notre Dame’s campus hums with the activity of undergraduate interns working to find solutions to complex poverty-related issues.

Emily Merola ’20 enjoyed her work as an intern for the Wilson Sheehan Lab for Economic Opportunities, helping with data collection on nonprofit partner Catholic Charities Fort Worth’s Stay the Course project, a college persistence program, and Padua program, which offers holistic case management to families in poverty. However, as Emily worked with caseworkers and the clients the program was serving, she was struck by another aspect of doing research for LEO.

“It was really great to be close to the actual operations of the provider and knowing that each data point is actually a person,” Merola said. “I think everybody knows, but sometimes you need that actual salient reminder about it.”

This reminder coincides both with the mission of LEO, to use science to confront poverty, and the University of Notre Dame’s mission for its undergraduate students. Notre Dame aims to cultivate in its students a “disciplined sensibility to the poverty, injustice, and oppression that burden the lives of so many.” A vision since the University’s founding is that Notre Dame students will feel a sense of human solidarity and concern for the common good.

Through its undergraduate intern program, LEO fulfills this mission for Notre Dame’s undergraduate students. Godsee Joy ’20, who began interning with LEO as a research assistant in summer 2018, said that her time at LEO working on Stay the Course and project development helped her explore her interest in issues related to poverty.

“From the things that I’ve learned, it’s important to know, ‘What are the root causes?’ [Poverty] is so hard to tackle because you have all these intersecting issues that often compound each other,” Joy said about how her perspective expanded as she learned about more aspects of poverty. “What I’ve taken the most away from LEO is the need to focus on the micro level and the need to work with community organizations that know different communities better than researchers ever can. You need to build relationships and know people to know what they really need.”

“Poverty is so hard to tackle because you have all these intersecting issues that often compound each other. What I’ve taken away from LEO is the need to focus on the micro level and the need to work with community organizations that know different communities better than researchers ever can. You need to build relationships and know people to know what they really need.”

— Godsee Joy ’20

Since LEO’s founding in 2012, its intern program has expanded to include positions for on-site and off-site research assistants, project development interns, marketing and communications interns, and administrative interns — and has had more than 50 interns sit in its basement.

Shortly after learning about LEO, Doug Ciocca ’93 became interested in supporting and expanding the intern program through an endowment gift. Jim Sullivan, LEO co-founder and a former classmate of Ciocca, mentioned how LEO needed to hire interns to be able to expand the lab’s research capabilities. Ciocca thought it was a fantastic idea.

“It makes all the sense in the world. You have people who have big brains. They are oriented in this direction and want real life experience, and here you have this platform on campus that is this really cool sub-organization of the econ department. How do you not capitalize on that? It would have been crazy not to tap into the talent pool sitting right in front of you,” Ciocca said. “I think they saw that. These kids are smart, they are ambitious, they are technologically savvy. This is how we’re going to get better results.”

LEO interns have been able to get that real-life experience they crave, and LEO has certainly benefited from the results. LEO interns have worked on multiple projects: researching the issues, designing the projects, aiding in collecting data directly at partner sites, helping LEO’s talented research associates and faculty in analyzing the data, and writing blog posts and improving LEO’s dissemination methods. LEO interns have worked on all aspects of LEO projects focused on aspects of poverty such as health care, housing and homelessness, and financial stability.

Junior Brigid Meisenbacher worked on seven projects this past summer as a project development intern. She says she was excited to work for LEO because it allowed her to explore how her interests in poverty-related issues and quantitative economic research could intersect. In her role, she helped outline the research project, find data sources, and answer questions that came up in weekly meetings with the partners as together they figured out what the project would need to be ready to launch. These tasks helped her develop both interpersonal and technical skills.

“Since we’re doing weekly calls with all of the different service providers, you start getting in the groove of disseminating information in a way that is helpful to both parties. The back and forth of trying to explain ideas clearly and bouncing things off of each other is definitely a really important thing I have learned,” Meisenbacher said. She noted that combining academic research project design with hands-on provider knowledge is essential to creating a successful project.

However, LEO doesn’t just give students the chance to develop their data analysis and communication skills. It also allows them a chance to forge connections with peers who share a commitment to high-quality research, public policy, and social issues. Throughout their summer and school year internships, LEO interns bond and support each other in the basement computer lab.

Credit Matt Green Leo Interns Summer 2018Gathering in the basement computer lab figures prominently in the LEO undergraduate intern experience. Photo credit: Matt Green.

Kevin Angell ’20 interned as a research assistant in the summer of 2018 and worked with LEO co-founder Bill Evans on a paper on the origins of the opioid crisis. Kevin remembered his time in the basement fondly.

“There were probably a dozen of us down there. The first week when we were doing the training and it was all of us there was just a lot of fun. We were kind of making it our home. Someone put up Christmas lights and we put up a picture of the ‘Stata god’. He’s just a guy that frequents online forums and that we heavily rely on for help,” Angell reminisced.

The interns even sometimes return to the basement during the school year to study and catch up after their official time at LEO has ended.

“I got to know some of my best friends at college throughout my two summers that I was at LEO,” said Quentin Colo ’20, who worked as an intern in 2018 and 2019. “We still talk a lot. I can’t tell you the amount of time I spent in that basement in Jenkins-Nanovic Hall. Even during the semester when we weren’t working, people would just go down there and study for exams. We wouldn’t really study for exams. We would just kind of talk about our lives and do random riddles or something. There are no windows in this basement. So, we’re going to this very desolate prison to hang out and it’s oddly comforting. The people there had such different opinions, and everyone was so smart. I constantly felt like I was being challenged and I really enjoyed that.”

During his time at LEO, Colo worked on the Padua program, the Homeless Prevention Call Center project, which connects callers with temporary monetary assistance for housing needs, and Project Nightingale, a program that offers temporary medical respite care for patients experiencing homelessness.

The interns’ experience at LEO can also help with their discernment of long-term goals. Students get the chance to experience research and work with nonprofits, some for the first time, and see if it is for them. LEO interns have gone on to participate in competitive Ph.D. programs at schools such as Harvard, Yale, and Stanford; work for government agencies; and work in industry areas such as data analytics, finance, and consulting.

Their experience at LEO prepares them for these programs and careers and helps them become competitive candidates. For example, undergraduate interns sometimes publish papers with LEO’s faculty, providing valuable experience for their resumes. In 2019, LEO co-founder Bill Evans published a paper with undergraduate student Emily Pohl ’20 and Caroline Palmer ’18 as co-authors. And this past summer, intern Josie Donlon, a junior, assisted with data analysis for a LEO paper on the economic effects of COVID-19-related government assistance, which ended up on the front page of The New York Times in June.

“It is really cool and just totally beyond what I ever would have thought. I mean, I just finished up my sophomore year and now I’m working on a paper that was mentioned in The New York Times. That’s just so unbelievable,” Donlon said. “It is such an honor to be trusted with this and be a part of this paper that I think is really going to be useful going forward in how policymakers choose the policies and programs that will offset COVID as it continues, and any other pandemics or economic downturns.”

“I just finished up my sophomore year and now I’m working on a paper that was mentioned in The New York Times. That’s just so unbelievable. It is such an honor to be trusted with this and be a part of this paper that I think is really going to be useful going forward.”

— Josie Donlon

Not everyone ends up leaving LEO after their internship ends. In one case, an internship turned into a full-time position. Emily Merola returned to LEO as a research associate after graduation. Merola began interning for LEO in summer 2018 after her sophomore year and worked during the school year. However, the summer after her junior year, she interned elsewhere. There, she said, she struggled to find the tangible feeling that she was doing something helpful. She enjoyed that at LEO — no matter what she was doing, she always felt that she was helping and doing something positive along the way to reaching LEO’s goals.

“Weirdly, I think that something that was most informative was being at LEO and then not being at LEO for a summer. And then having that comparative experience and coming back and realizing that the kind of work I was doing at LEO was what I really enjoyed and wanted to be a part of. I knew that at a first job out of college, I wanted to be learning as much as I could,” Merola said.

When COVID-19 hit earlier this year and students had to leave campus in March, LEO was determined to keep offering that learning experience to their interns. While they may have been working from their bedrooms, offices, and dining rooms instead of the Jenkins-Nanovic basement, 11 students interned with LEO this past summer. And while they missed experiencing the camaraderie of the basement, Donlon and Meisenbacher both said they still felt extremely supported and connected to LEO as a whole.

Senior Sean McConville has worked the past two summers as a research assistant. In 2019, after a week on campus, he headed to Texas to work on-site with Catholic Charities Fort Worth. This summer he worked from his home on homelessness and housing-related projects with Santa Clara County in California.  While the experience was definitely different this summer, he says it was still a fulfilling experience.

“I think it definitely has its pros and cons. I am behind in the time zone so it forces me to get up, so I feel much more productive with my days,” McConville said of his experience working from his home significantly to the west of South Bend. “But I also do think that we are definitely missing out on something, not being surrounded by all the interns in the computer lab in Jenkins-Nanovic. There is something to be said about camaraderie and asking questions of each other.”

LEO hopes to have 13 undergraduate interns as part of the team next summer to continue the pairing of economic research methods and innovative social programs to fight poverty.

As Joy put it, “I didn’t know economics could be used like this.”