Gunther lseeks to use her MPP skills to better engage people in political and economic discourse.
Headshot of Olivia Gunther
Olivia Gunther

Olivia Gunther credits the Data & Policy Summer Scholar (DPSS) program as her first major exposure to the programming language R. “I had briefly used it during my undergraduate stats course,” she said, “but that was less diving into the program and more being given pieces to copy and paste. My DPSS experience with R was way more hands-on, and it was really cool to see the power of such a tool to run a regression,” said Gunther. 

The DPSS, Gunther said, proved valuable not only for strengthening her coding skills but also for the social aspects. “I enjoyed having homework groups and learning from such a diverse group of people. Everybody came from such a different background—there were international students, people who were 10 years into their career, people who wanted to see if grad school was a path for them, and some who were between semesters of their undergraduate experience.”

Gunther also noted that the summer program was “the perfect time for a program like this,” as she was also working as a recruitment and admissions administrative assistant at her undergraduate institute, the University of Michigan.

After completing the DPSS, Gunther asked Assistant Professor Austin Wright—who is the DPSS Faculty Lead—about opportunities to continue research, data, and policy work at Harris. “I was really interested in Associate Professor Damon Jones's work on how people handle household finances, and how their interaction with community economic policies may help or harm them.” Gunther became a research assistant (RA) with Jones, working primarily on assessing the rate of publication by Black economists in major academic journals. “It was so insightful to attend the regular research meetings and hear about this policy and economic research in action. I feel super fortunate to have had this experience as part of his team,” said Gunther.

Her experiences with DPSS and as an RA also cemented Gunther’s decision to pursue graduate school—with Harris as her top choice. “Not only was Harris the best quantitative program that I researched, but after experiencing DPSS, it was the best place to resolve the coding gap I had in undergrad. I really appreciated that coding is built into the curriculum.”

The Master of Public Policy degree also appealed to her, Gunther said, primarily because of her interest in the impact of data accessibility. “People are often left out of political or economic conversations because information is not accessible to them. I believe the process of public policy can include distilling research on a more accessible level,” she said.

Gunther, who earned her BA in gender and health with a minor in political science at the University of Michigan, also brought ideas such as intersectionality to her Harris experience. “I try to keep the bigger picture in mind when it comes to data analysis—like, who is this data actually encompassing, and what viable conclusions can we draw?”

As for future plans at Harris, Gunther is open to exploration. “I know I want to continue improving my policy methods, and I’m interested in the Data Analytics and Policy Analysis certificates." 

This summer, Gunther will be interning remotely with The Education Trust, where she will be doing higher ed data/research. "I'm looking forward to combining what I've learned thus far at Harris with my professional background to help make information more accessible to others.”