After four years of learning at the University, three social science students — fourth-year College students Erica Sprott, Macie Clerkley and Sarina Margolin — shared their unique experiences in conducting research across multiple disciplines with The Cavalier Daily. Though the three have different fields of study, each expressed a similar passion for research that integrated interests beyond their majors.
Sprott, who has completed a distinguished major program in economics in addition to a second major in statistics, conducted experimental research in the Vecon lab — an economics laboratory located in Monroe Hall — with Political Economy Prof. Charlie Holt to complete her thesis.
“Physically [the Vecon lab] is just a computer lab,” Sprott said in an email statement to The Cavalier Daily. “However, the Vecon lab’s online presence is much more impactful than its physical presence — veconlab.econ.virginia.edu hosts all the simulations that Charlie codes and maintains, so that anyone anywhere can create an account and run the simulations for free.”
After establishing an interest in offshore wind, a constantly renewable energy source, Sprott decided to look into two countries with differing mechanisms for leasing.
“Different countries have different mechanisms to allocate offshore wind leases for companies that can then decide where they want to put their wind turbines to generate clean electrical power,” Sprott said. “The U.S. has an auction mechanism that it uses, and the U.K. has a different one. For my thesis, I was interested in comparing those two in a controlled setting.”
Sprott noted that experimental economics research is often expensive because participants have to be compensated. She received funding for her research through the Marshall Jevons grant, which supports economics undergraduates at the University in research projects or academic travel.
In addition to her research, Sprott also co-taught a one credit course with Holt — Economic Insights: A Behavioral Starter. The course utilizes classroom simulations to encourage thought and discussion on real-world applications of economics.
Sprott will attend a pre-doctoral program in economics next year and intends to obtain a doctorate.
Like Sprott, Margolin pursued a distinguished major program, but in the politics department. Her research as a foreign affairs major focused on nuclear energy.
“The research I did specifically focused on eight countries that had both nuclear power for civil purposes and nuclear weapons in order to figure out if there was some type of trend between democratic and authoritarian regimes and whether they adopted nuclear weapons or nuclear power first,” Margolin said.
Margolin said the distinguished major program in politics — an application based program with a focus on thesis writing — is special because students are able to work with a cohort of people with high interest in a specific field.
“It’s really helpful because you’re getting classroom instruction on how to read and write to properly form a good argument and thesis,” Margolin said. “And then on top of that, you’re responsible for finding an advisor that is willing to work with you on your paper.”
Margolin’s interest in the energy industry comes from her previous job at a consulting firm. After starting her job with the firm, she decided to write her thesis on it and pursue a career in energy.
After graduation, Margolin will be moving to Houston to start a job in the energy industry.
While Sprott and Margolin utilized a distinguished major program to complete their research, Clerkley followed a different path.
For Clerkley, conducting an independent study with the Woodson Institute has allowed her to figure out her passion in an interdisciplinary field — Black feminist archaeology. The Woodson Institute, named after Carter Godwin Woodson, has two main purposes — enhancing the research and teaching of African-American studies at the University and establishing a research center to make contributions to learning and scholarship. Clerkley’s interest in research stems from the lack of classes about African diaspora archaeology.
“I’m doing a case study on Black feminist archaeology and its role in reshaping the way we think about our past and how we can utilize it as a tool for liberation in the present,” Clerkley said. “It’s really interdisciplinary and works with archaeology, anthropology and Black studies.”
Clerkley said that the University was the perfect place to conduct her research due to its proximity to plantation spaces like Montpelier — the home of James Madison — Monticello and Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest, as well as the Digital Archaeological Archive of Comparative Slavery where she was an intern.
DAACS is based in the department of archaeology at Monticello, but is a web-based initiative that fosters comparative archaeological research focused on slavery. The database has information about artifacts, images, ceramics, objects and site information.
Clerkley plans to continue this research throughout her education and career, specifically conducting fieldwork with Black feminist archaeology as a framework. This summer, she will attend Monticello’s Archaeology Field School as part of her gap year before applying to graduate school for the fall of 2023.
Even though Sprott, Clerkley and Margolin had very different backgrounds, they had similar advice for those who are interested in research.
Sprott noted that while office hours can seem intimidating, there are other things students can do to become acquainted with professors and teaching assistants.
“Everything that has happened to me in the economics department has come from sitting in the front of Econ 201 and 202,” Sprott said. “That’s how I first got introduced to research and professors.”
Margolin emphasized the importance of looking into non-traditional programs that allow for personalized experiences.
“If you’re interested in learning more about something that isn’t offered in the typical classroom, go after the DMP or some type of program that would allow you to pursue your interests,” Margolin said. “More often than not, you’re going to get a really great encyclopedia of resources offered at U.Va.”
Clerkley suggested attending office hours as a way to get to know professors, which could turn into opportunities in research or teaching assistant roles.
“They know a lot of people on Grounds,” Clerkley said. “And so if their research topic maybe isn't similar to yours, they're definitely likely to steer you in the right way. And so just kind of talking to someone about some broad interests. They'll definitely help you either narrow that down, or kind of help you figure out where you want to start.”
Tackling something like research is not easy, but for Sprott, Clerkley and Margolin, having a strong passion and interest makes it worth it. One thing worth remembering is that students don’t have to face big projects like this alone.
“I think the biggest part of starting a research project is having a base of communication and community that is gonna help you push yourself to finish it,” Clerkley said.