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Experiences Mentoring Undergraduate Students in Economics Research at the University of Michigan-Dearborn

    By Antonios M. Koumpias and Stuart DiDonato

    Antonios M. Koumpias, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Economics

    One of the parts of my job I enjoy the most is engaging with students in research. As an Assistant Professor of Economics in the Department of Social Sciences at the College of Arts, Sciences, and Letters (CASL), I have worked with an increasing number of undergraduate students. I would like to take this opportunity to offer a view of my experience collaborating with students on various projects in the past and present. I use behavioral economics tools and data-driven methods to examine policy-relevant questions related to taxation, public health and energy efficiency. Therefore, this discussion will focus on challenges from student training in statistical software and takeaways from, often first-time, exposure to the conduct of research in these fields.

    The first UM-Dearborn student with whom I collaborated was Owen Fleming, an Economics and Mathematics major at the time. Convinced by his diligence, I had the pleasure to collaborate with Mr. Fleming on a study examining the association of COVID-19 diagnosis with healthcare utilization and medical expenditures. This was a particularly beneficial experience for Mr. Fleming as he had the unique opportunity as an undergraduate research assistant to work directly with confidential medical records from near real-time data. The task required an SQL-based language that is not an expected skill among Economics undergraduate students; however, Mr. Fleming demonstrated a quick affinity for SQL, R programming, and proficiency in data cloud services applications used by top firms. This experience working with high-quality medical claims data helped shape his future academic plans as health economics became a major research interest for him. We published this research in August 2022 at BMC Health Services Research (available through open access). Currently, Mr. Fleming is in his second year as an Economics PhD student at Wayne State University where he excelled in his first year. I am lucky that our productive collaboration is on-going with a second project that examines the effects of in-state telehealth licensure waivers on out-of-state healthcare utilization and costs of care. Mr. Fleming is now in a research coordinator role where he leads two undergraduate students at the University of Michigan through the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program. It is gratifying to see this growth in one of my former undergraduate students, from an inexperienced research assistant into a colleague; I hope more will follow his path.

    The University of Michigan-Dearborn provides a wonderful opportunity for undergraduate students to delve into research for the first time and engage in a rigorous research journey through the Summer Undergraduate Research Experience program. Through this program, I was fortunate to have led two students in research projects analyzing the determinants of Walmart Health market entry in U.S. counties in Summer 2021 and the impact of property tax assessment growth limit portability on migration flows in U.S. counties in Summer 2022. This past’s summer project has received external seed funding from the Institute for Humane Studies to support a part-time undergraduate research assistant in AY22-23. As a result, Mr. Stuart DiDonato, a SURE 2022 student and an Applied Statistics major with an Economics minor, who I had the opportunity to first interact with at ECON 302, will be able to continue his active involvement in this research project and directly apply analytical skills from class to his employment. We recently had the opportunity to shop around the research idea at a two-day conference in Grand Rapids, MI, organized by the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago in the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research. This was a unique learning experience for Mr. Stuart DiDonato who interacted with Fed officials, local policy stakeholders, and business leaders. We aim to have a manuscript ready by January 2023 for submission to an economics journal specializing on public finance and finalize a major external funding application to the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy by June 2023.

    Stuart on his experiences in the SURE program

    Working on a research project can seem like a daunting task at first, but over time it becomes really satisfying to see all the pieces fall into place in the final draft. Working on this research project has given me the opportunity to see how data analysis works in the real world, beyond what I have done in the classroom. It has introduced me to some of the challenges that I will face in the future in data analytics, and I have had to figure out where in my skillset I can improve upon to face those challenges. Over the past few months, I have learned more and more about STATA, a statistical software I had not even heard of prior to the start of the project. Most of my coursework had been done in R, python, and Excel, and there is always some difficulty adjusting to new programming software. I have still had to turn to R and Excel during this project, and I have learned to appreciate each software’s strengths and weaknesses. I have started to look at them like tools, each having its own purpose, which I can pull out of my toolbox when I need it. Professor Koumpias has been a great mentor and has taught me a lot of the ins and outs of STATA, and what the world of academia looks like. While I personally still plan to find an internship and go into the industry, this has still been a very worthwhile endeavor that has taught me a lot about data analytics and its role in research.

    Another internal research funding opportunity I have benefited from in recent years is CASL’s research assistant support fund. Through this support, I have been able to jumpstart projects on tax compliance in Greece in collaboration with Mr. Addison Pettway, a Mathematics major, (near) Economics minor. He is also preparing his application for the American Economic Association’s Summer Program, a prestigious program that aims to increase diversity in economics to ensure that more under-represented views and backgrounds contribute to scholarship in the field.

    Through Economics coursework as early as W21 and his long-time involvement in the Economics student club I have come to know well Mr. Austin Kipfmiller, an Economics and Political Science major who is currently serving as the Economics student club President. His attention to detail from an early stage of his undergraduate tenure stood out, prompting me to immediately seek his involvement in an energy efficiency experiment led by Prof. Wencong Su, Interim Chair and Associate Professor of the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department in the College of Engineering and Computer Science (also sponsored by DTE Energy). This is an interdisciplinary project where faculty and students from all four colleges of the University are represented, which poses new challenges but also opportunities. Mr. Kipfmiller’s initiative in identifying data sources has been exemplary. He is actively supporting the project by helping design participant surveys and the forthcoming energy efficiency behavioral experiment.

    In sum, all these hours debugging code with undergraduate students, parsing through healthcare policy reports for state telehealth licensure variation, writing and rewriting manuscripts or mentoring graduate school aspirations represents a most enjoyable interaction for me. I trust this trend will continue in the future, and I welcome students with a genuine interest in economic research or graduate school aspirations to connect with me directly to discuss potential future collaborations. Students from backgrounds traditionally under-represented in Economics are particularly encouraged to reach out. I am also delighted to work with data savvy, industry-aspiring students interested in honing their analytical skills while also adding statistical software typically used in economic consulting and public policy to their quantitative toolkit.