Along with more than two dozen research projects from departments across campus, this summer economics Assistant Professor Rosie Mueller worked with two Whitman College students on research projects supported by the Faculty-Student Summer Research Awards program.
Instead of going home to his hometown of Dallas, Texas, Robert Qin '20, a computer science major, joined Mueller on her project examining the connections between infant health and exposure to agricultural pollution from pesticide use.
Luke Ratliff '21, who is majoring in economics-environmental studies, began the summer working with Mueller on a project examining the effects of conservation efforts in the Pacific Northwest, particularly in relationship to payments made as part of the Northwest Forest Plan. Ratliff was able to work on his aspects of the project remotely from his home in Sharon, Vermont.
Both students participated in data collection and analysis, using the programming language R to put together the complicated puzzle the data presented.
For the project on infant health, Qin helped Mueller gather pesticide data from the U.S. Geological Survey, crop cover data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and drought monitor data from the National Drought Mitigation Center.
He primarily downloaded and cleaned data, analyzed trends and correlations, and created some maps to graphically depict these data at the state and county level across the U.S. After cleaning up the data, Qin used mapping tools and statistics to analyze the data. The analysis allowed him to search for the possibility of correlations between the data sets and measure if the correlation has changed over the years.
"I've always loved working with data because it is a really interesting and useful way to see trends that exist in the world," Qin said. "My weekly schedule usually consists of daily meetings with Professor Mueller, and then typically a mix of learning different ways to analyze and clean data, actually cleaning and analyzing the data, and then reading up on related research that may help me better understand the data that I'm looking at."
Mueller said she enjoyed getting to work with students on the project and how they've helped her move her project forward.
"I worked with two students this summer, and definitely found it to be a really positive experience," she said. "It was helpful for me to advance some new projects that I have had difficulty getting started."
Ratliff worked with Mueller on studying federal government payments made to support county governments who lost revenue because of the Northwest Forest Plan, created in 1994. The plan protected endangered species by restricting logging in old-growth forests in the Pacific Northwest.
"The particular payment we looked at this summer is the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self Determination payment," Ratliff said. "This money is given to counties in affected areas determined by a formula that considers acres of federal land, an income adjustment and several other factors."
Ratliff's summer has largely consisted of collecting, cleaning, and analyzing SRS payment data, school district demographic data, and census data in order to create maps that can illustrate where the money is going.
This summer research opportunity has been a great way for Qin to combine many of his interests, some of them including coding and understanding data. He credits the courses he has taken at Whitman as being a significant spark for his interest in doing this work.
Ratliff has loved the mapping aspect of the work he has been doing, as well as the new skills he gained from working with data and programming software.
"For a beginner coder like me, using the coding software involved typing code, receiving error messages, googling the heck out of Google to find a fix, fixing them, receiving more error messages, fixing them and so on," he said. "Honestly, I love this aspect of it, though. While it can be frustrating at times, it is incredibly rewarding."