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Breaking Boundaries With the Power of Data

May 10, 2017

When most people think of political science as an academic pursuit, they might picture writing extensive papers, studying supreme court cases, and learning about government structures. What many don’t immediately think of are the complex mathematical processes and statistical analysis that have been the focus of new assistant professor Jane Sumner’s career. Sumner’s expertise is in political methodology, the study of the quantitative methods that lie at the center of vital research and groundbreaking discoveries in every area of political science. Sumner brings a fresh perspective to the department and an eagerness to inspire others to seek an understanding of the events that shape our world by unlocking the fascinating patterns hidden within data.    

Sumner’s path to get where she is today has been far from conventional: In her words, “First I failed out of engineering school, and then I failed a statistics class.” Sumner always had an interest in fields like statistics, business, and computer programming, but she hadn’t discovered a major that she found compelling and motivating. That changed her senior year when she met an influential professor who showed her how her interests could be integrated into the study of political science. As a graduate student at Emory University, Sumner focused on quantitative methodology, and found that her previous struggles with statistics had actually made her better equipped to teach those same topics to undergrads. “I really enjoyed reaching out to students who didn’t think that quantitative methodology was their thing, and who didn’t think that they could or should pursue it, and I enjoyed being able to show them that if you want to, you can,” she says.

Today, much of Sumner’s time is devoted to her research, the primary focus of which is on foreign direct investment by multinational corporations. An area of particular interest for Sumner has been corporate public service provisions: the practice of corporations giving back to communities in which they do business. “I’m interested in how companies interact with and change the communities they invest in, when they build a factory, for instance,” Sumner explains. “It’s not uncommon for companies to build schools or health clinics. I’m interested in why they do that, and what effect that has, both on people and the government.”

Another interesting project that Sumner has been working on since she started at the University of Minnesota in fall 2016 is analyzing data from the Twitter accounts of leaders of non-democracies from around the globe. “In some of these leaders’ countries, Twitter is banned, so they’re not communicating with their publics. Who is their audience? What are they communicating about, and how frequently?” Sumner says she’s interested in what the answers to these questions can tell us about the regimes being studied, especially in relation to human rights violations.

As a woman in quantitative political science, Sumner is a minority in a field that tends to be predominantly male. This imbalance causes some women in the field to feel a lack of support, and intimidates many from getting involved in studying quantitative methods in the first place. Sumner says that this homogeneity is detrimental to political science research as a whole, because with diversity comes more variety in the questions that are asked and more diversity in skills and perspectives. Sumner is involved in a group called Visions in Methodology which provides resources, mentoring and support to women in quantitative political science. “I feel strongly about trying to support people from historically underrepresented backgrounds who may feel alienated from quantitative methods,” Sumner says. “One of the things I take seriously is to make sure that everyone feels supported and no one feels alienated when I teach.”

This semester, Sumner has taught a class titled “The United States and the Global Economy,” as well as a new undergraduate class on methodology. She’s already had a positive experience teaching here. “The undergraduates are earnest and try very hard, and it makes teaching them really fun,” she says. Sumner is already bringing innovative research to the University, and her inclusive attitude and passion for her work will surely be an asset to her students for years to come.    

This story was written by an undergraduate student account executive in CLAgency. Meet the team.