Summer Internships Help Undergrads Sharpen Research Skills

Sunday, Nov 4, 2018

Last summer, five undergraduate students received JRCPPF financial support to sharpened their policy research and policy implementation skills through meaningful internships at international institutions and research centers.  JRCPPF’s summer internship program, started in 2014, is open to all Princeton undergraduates seeking to pursue an unpaid summer internship in the areas of financial markets and public policy either in the U.S. or abroad.  

While the internships varied significantly in terms of specific topic and geographic location all provided the students with very valuable experiences that helped them define their future career paths.   All the students found that having strong programming and data skills was very important for a successful and rewarding experience.  Very often the first task of the internship was cleaning/compiling data, once this was done, the next task would be actual research/policy design.  Good programming skills, specially in Python, STATA or R, allowed the students to be done quickly with data cleaning and to move on to more meaningful tasks such as modeling and policy design.  Highlights of the experiences of each of the students are summarized below.

Alexandros Papamatthaiou, a sophomore majoring in Electrical Engineering, interned at the Foundation for Economic and Industrial Research (IOBE) in his native Greece. Alexandros’ first task was to clean up spreadsheets and pdfs which, had he done using excel alone, would have resulted in a dull and frustrating summer.  But, applying his coding skills, Alexandros created a program in R to automate the data cleaning and he completed the task in just 2 weeks. This allowed him to devote the rest of the summer to data analysis and other interesting and rewarding work including designing policies to augment digital skills in Greece.  Reflecting on his experience, Alexandros concludes “My internship at IOBE was successful both in learning quantitative analysis and policy research and in finding my true interest.  I became aware that I am more interested in institutional design rather than economic policy….I also learned to take the initiative and challenge myself…” Alexandro had a great experience but would not recommend this particular organization to other undergraduates, particularly if they lack relevant skills as they may “get stranded doing mind numbing work.”

Daniel Vogler, a sophomore majoring in Computer Science with a certificate in Statistics and Machine Learning certificates, interned at European Systemic Risk Board (ESBR), a division of the European Central Bank.  He was a member of the ESRB’s Big Data team that uses data on millions of daily financial transactions to help policymakers monitor development in the global financial system.  During his internship, Daniel learned how expert analysis influences policy decisions and the importance of clarity and conciseness.  He quickly learned how to produced effective data visualizations. His main task was creating an applet to study the interconnectedness of the European financial system.  He successfully delivered the applet written in Python.  He also wrote a large library of Python functions that allows policymakers visualize banking networks and conduct empirical work.  

Hannington Omwanza, a senior majoring in Economics with a certificate in African Studies, interned at the Busara Center for Behavioral Economics in his native Kenya. The Busara Center is an NGO that was funded by Johannes Haushofer, Assistant Professor of Psychology and Public Affairs at Princeton University.  Hannington was involved in several projects including research on youth gap and insurance in Tanzania, a project that sought to optimize advocacy communication in Kenya and Tanzania for women and LGBTQ and his main project was to test the impact of exposure to news on people’s political engagement, self-efficacy and economic efficacy.  His work required the use of R to program survey questions and analyze data collected and the use of STATA to clean and analyze data.  Reflecting on his experience, Hannington says “This experience was very fulfilling, I learned a lot, worked with many different people and tackled tough challenges like leading the team for 2 weeks in the absence of my direct manager.  I also became more proficient in data analysis using STATA which will be useful for my senior thesis.”  On top of that, he also got an idea for his senior thesis relating to the ineffectiveness of the Kenya health system.  Hannington hopes that other Princeton students will follow in his steps and also become Busara fellows.

Tiger Gao, a sophomore majoring in Economics with certificates in German and Statistics and Machine Learning, interned at the Institute for Economic Research (ifo) in Munich, Germany. Tiger worked with a team of economists on various research projects on various topics including the stability of the Eurozone, the influence of immigration on extreme voting, wealth redistribution and the relationship between geopolitical conflicts in Africa and soccer rankings.  The projects required conducting background research, performing high level math calculations, inputting formulas in excel, and writing STATA programs.   Tiger successfully completed all his projects. But, because he had no prior knowledge of STATA, he had to learn on the job through YouTube videos and textbooks recommended by colleagues.   Reflecting on his experience, Tiger says “Former Princeton interns had alerted me that I might be doing low-level work like translation or proof-reading had I not known how to use STATA, I am extremely grateful that the economist at the Institute gave me the opportunity to learn on the job and challenge myself to be entrusted with harder tasks.”  In addition Tiger got to “experience the life of economists.”  He now knows that “research takes a very long time (on average 3-5 years) and requires insightful and calm thinking.”  Tiger gained a greater appreciation for the importance of good research as it directly influences public policy decisions. 

Luca Rade, a senior majoring in Complex Adaptive Systems (independent major), attended the Santa Fe Institute’s Complex Systems Summer School (CSSS).  Luca spent four weeks learning the fundamentals and practice of complex systems scholarship with a focus on exploring and developing the mathematics of adaptive co-evolving networks.  Luca’s main take away from the workshop was “Many of our current models for complex systems miss the dynamics of and dynamics on that adaptive networks do capture…….We should look to models built upon them [adaptive networks] so as to better model reality and thus be better able to, in this case, regulate the financial system.”  

JRCPPF will again be offering summer support to Princeton students interested in pursuing unpaid summer internships related to public policy.  The experiences of the 2018 students who received awards show that it can be a very rewarding experience and that having good quantitative and program skills will help make the most of the opportunity.  


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