By Dana Guth, A17
For many Tufts students, June means the end of tests, papers, and homework. But
for political science major Sophie Laing, A16, the end of finals marks the start of
a long-term research project.
As a Tufts Summer Scholar, Laing examined how voters punish and reward politicians who change their opinions. "I wanted to investigate the difference in public reception when politicians flip-flop on controversial issues," says Laing, "and whether or not this is affected by the candidate's gender."
Laing was one of 53 Summer Scholars selected to pursue independent research at Tufts. The Summer Scholars program provides undergraduates with resources to delve deeply into an unexplored area of their field of study. For Laing, this meant continuing research she had initiated last year when she wrote a paper on political flip-flopping for her political science course, Political Representation in the United States.
Summer Scholars like Laing work with a mentor—generally their professor or major advisor—to craft a research plan. While students typically approach professors to request mentorship, Laing's mentor, Political Science Professor Deborah Schildkraut, encouraged her to apply to the program.
"I read her paper and realized there wasn't a whole lot of work on this subject," says Schildkraut. "Why do politicians flip-flop, and what decides if the public will be forgiving? When do we punish people, and when do we reward them? I thought it would make a great project."
Schildkraut, who has mentored three students in the Summer Scholars program, helped Laing prepare a general outline for the summer. Together, they determined where there was room for new research in the field. Summer Scholars and their mentors meet once a week to discuss their projects and work out possible issues. "There's a lot of planning involved," says Schildkraut. "That's why it's so important that Sophie started her research early. It means she's likely to be successful."
This past summer, Laing prepared for approval from Tufts' Institutional Review Board that reviews all research studies involving human subjects. She also developed concrete elements of her study design and hypothesis. Laing also learned to use Qualtrics, a web-based survey software tool that analyzes survey research. In the fall, she will begin the next phase of research as part of her senior thesis.
Laing has compiled most of her literature review—critical and scholarly research
on "flip flopping" that will form her initial hypothesis—and
has rough drafts of four case studies of initial subjects: United States
Senators John Kerry and Kirsten Gillibrand, former Republican presidential
candidate Mitt Romney, and Hillary Clinton.
In examining the rationale these candidates gave for changing their minds on key
issues, as well as how voters reacted based on the candidate's gender, Laing
says her biggest challenge is that she wants to test everything. "There is so
little research on the topic, so I want answers for every little manipulation
and variable," she adds.
While conducting her preliminary research, Laing discovered a few patterns in the phenomena of candidate "flip-flopping." Some of the most interesting research has found that the more important we find an issue, the less likely we are to punish a politician who flip-flops," Laing says. "At first, this seems backwards."
A lot of the complexity has come from the gender stereotyping. "Many people assume that female candidates are perceived differently by the public," Laing says of her initial hypothesis. "But the more research I perform, the more complex these correlations become." She looks forward to exploring these contradictions more fully in her research.
To Anne Moore, who oversees scholar development for the program, Laing's proposal stood out among a competitive pool of over 100 applicants. According to Moore, Laing demonstrated an ability to handle independent research and a good sense of where the project would fit into her long-term goals.
"It resonated on a gut level," Moore remembers. "Why is it that sometimes changing your opinion is viewed as positive and sometimes it's not? It's a phenomenon that has such a clear impact on political reality."
Laing believes the Tufts Summer Scholars program helped her develop the tools needed to focus and explore her interests in-depth.
"I'm thinking about law school and continuing my research for a long time," she says. "I've already learned a lot about the research process...and I'm really fortunate that I will have such a thorough background for my [senior] thesis."
Moore and Schildkraut agree that mentors can be valuable assets during students' time as undergraduates. "It's a great way to get a faculty member deeply invested in your academic future," says Moore. "The level of one-on-one mentorship all summer is unique to Tufts. It feels really, really special."
Laing and her fellow Summer Scholars will present their work at a student poster session this fall. Their projects will culminate at the Undergraduate Research Symposium in the spring, where the Summer Scholars will showcase the next stage of their research.
"The Summer Scholars program really does set [the students] up for success," says Schildkraut. "When senior year starts, Sophie will be ready to hit the ground running."
Related article: Summer Scholars Program Provides Funding and Mentorship for Student Research Projects: Cassidy Heverling, A16, investigates how science has influenced Ebola health care policy.