Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs
Emily Gell Brown University Master of Public Affairs

"I daily draw from the skills I acquired in the program evaluation and data sciences courses -- the ability to quickly read and understand economic papers and use statistical software to conduct replicable impact evaluation."

Emily Gell, MPA ’18

University of Chicago Urban Labs, Chicago, Illinois

Research Analyst 

Hometown: Baldwinsville, New York

The University of Chicago’s Urban Labs seek to address challenges across five key dimensions of urban life: crime, education, health, poverty, and energy and environment. The organization partners with civic and community leaders to identify, test, and help scale the programs and policies with the greatest potential to improve human lives.

You work for both the Crime Lab and the Education Lab at the University of Chicago. Do the two areas intersect? What has been the most impactful project you’ve worked on so far?

The presence of crime and barriers to quality education both result from and perpetuate the overall lack of opportunity majority black and brown communities face due to planned segregation and systemic disinvestment. At the Crime and Education Lab, we think these two social problems are inextricably tied, and while my own work is concentrated in the education space, the programs I evaluate often simultaneously improve academic performance and reduce early involvement with the criminal justice system. 

One of these programs is a personalized, in-school-day academic tutoring program run by Saga Education. Earlier analyses showed the program is effective across multiple subject areas and in many different large school districts. I am now testing how much of the effect would persist if the program were rolled out at a larger scale through randomized control trials that account for the relatively inelastic academic tutor supply and what effect cost-cutting measures might have on students’ academic growth. It’s been exciting to be able to equip a nonprofit organization doing incredible work with evidence they can use to secure funding, adoption and expansion of their program, and I am eager to develop evidence to inform solutions to the common problem of transforming small scale interventions into widespread policy initiatives. 

What sorts of skills from the MPA program do you use in your work?

The emphasis all of our courses placed on presentation skills has helped me so much in my current position. I give a presentation at least once a week, and am constantly putting to use what I learned about commanding a room, distilling complex statistical concepts into digestible insights, and constructing a convincing argument.

I also daily draw from the skills I acquired in the program evaluation and data sciences courses -- the ability to quickly read and understand economic papers and use statistical software to conduct replicable impact evaluation.

Where did you fulfill your MPA consultancy and how did the consultancy experience prepare you for the work you are doing now?

I fulfilled my consultancy at the Rhode Island Innovative Policy Lab (RIIPL), where I evaluated the short-term impact on recidivism of Rhode Island’s services for youth aging out of foster care and youth involved in the juvenile justice system. I learned invaluable technical skills such as cleaning, analyzing and visualizing administrative data using multiple statistical software packages. I also learned strategies for building infrastructure and managing relationships that are critical to conducting social science research in partnership with the public sector. I use these skills every day as a research analyst at a social policy research organization similar to RIIPL.

What advice would you give young professionals entering the MPA program?

Be as open as possible and take advantage of the considerable opportunities to engage with policy practitioners (many of whom are also alums)! I entered the MPA program after working in the nonprofit sector for several years, and thought I had a clear idea of where I wanted to be after and what skills I’d need to develop in order to get there. However, those ideas were flipped on their heads as I met incredible people doing policy work I never knew existed! I was reluctant to switch lanes at first, but doing so led me to a type of work I love and at which I excel! 

If you’re interested in working, conducting research, or taking an extra course (all things I found valuable), do it in the fall!  The spring semester looks lighter on paper, but you’ll be swamped with informational interviews, job applications, and potentially preparing yourself to relocate.  These experiences will also shape your post-MPA plans, so it’s better to have them sooner rather than later. 

What was a highlight of your experience in the MPA program?

The Global Policy Experience was one of the highlights of my experience in the MPA program, particularly the conversations we had with other students in Cambodia and Myanmar.  The candid discussions about how these students’ government’s policies, as well as the U.S.’s, have shaped their lives, and the opportunity to hear their ideas about what government should be and do, was an incredible experience I never thought I’d have!  

December 2019