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UDR Participant: Quinn Smalling

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As part of the Stanford MS&E: Stories & Voices podcast, we chat with Quinn Smalling, a participant in the MS&E Undergraduate Diversity in Research program.

Quinn shares how his love for mathematics and teaching led him to pursue research at Stanford, and that he plans to pursue a career in academia after graduating. During the UDR program, Quinn worked with his mentor, MS&E PhD student Josh Grossman, on research in the Stanford Computational Policy Lab in MS&E.

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Can you tell me about your background?

I'm Quinn Smalling, and I’m a senior studying math. I grew up here in the Bay Area, in a town called Livermore in the East Bay. I went to a Catholic high school and started thinking about university in my sophomore year. I always knew I wanted to go to Stanford; being from the Bay, it's obviously very well-known for its academics. I ended up applying and was lucky enough to get in. Initially, I thought I was going to study something like international relations, but then ended up focusing more on the STEM side of things.

How did you become interested in your Mathematics major?

I've always been STEM-inclined. I bounced around between a few different STEM majors at Stanford, but ended up focusing on math because my main goal while learning here is to figure out the “why” behind a lot of statistical practices that I want to end up using in the future. I felt that math was the best way to do that. I've mainly focused on applied math classes, but I've had a good amount of experience in theoretical math as well, which gives me the proper framework to work with.

How did you become interested in pursuing research?

I really like teaching, and professors kind of have two jobs—one is teaching and the other is research. I wanted to delve into that world, see what it would be like, and see if it would be a career interest for me. I also wanted to be able to connect with some of the professors that I had taken classes with. I reached out to a bunch of professors to try to get involved, and then I got an email about the UDR program in MS&E. It sounded exactly like what I wanted to do, and it was very structured. I thought it was a great way to delve into that world and learn what it means to do research.

What was your research topic, and how did you choose it?

I can't get too into the details because the project is ongoing, but I was able to work with my mentor, Josh Grossman, who is a PhD student in the Stanford Computational Policy Lab in MS&E, on a project regarding public housing in a big American city. We're looking at racial disparities in the amount of time it takes for public housing entities to respond to and act on various work orders. I was given a few different projects that I was able to choose from, but I ended up settling on this one because of the intersection of race and governmental red tape. It's a very interesting problem for me.

How would you describe your experience in the MS&E Undergraduate Diversity in Research program?

Overall, it's been extremely positive. I'm lucky to have a great mentor who has been by my side this entire time helping me out. I really consider the work that I'm doing not as just my own work, but as our work together. Anytime there's anything that I don't quite understand, he can very easily break it down in almost a lecture format, and I find that very helpful.

Outside of the specifics of my research, I also find the overall community in the UDR program is great. I've been able to speak with a few other students who are also doing research through the program, and they’re all working on extremely interesting topics. It's great to be a part of that community and be around people who are doing great work.

Do you have a favorite memory from the UDR program?

It’s more a series of memories of being exposed to all of the different people in the lab that I'm working with, sharing space with people who are extremely talented at what they do, and learning from them. I've been able to build connections through this research program, and I'd say that's the most positive thing that I've taken away from it.

How was your experience working with your mentor?

We worked together both over Zoom and in person. I've been able to go into the office a few times and do work there, which is great—I personally prefer to be in person when working with other people. But working asynchronously is good, too, because anytime I'm doing work between classes and have any sort of question that pops up, I can get an immediate answer, rather than having to wait to go in person. It’s a good combination.

Because the project I’m working on is a collective effort among the entire lab, I'm also getting to experience a lot of the ups and downs that happen during a research project. For example, sometimes it feels like a research project can be stalling a bit, and that's something that Josh as well as other PhD students in the lab have a lot of experience with. Their guidance through that process has been extremely helpful. It's definitely a bit frustrating when it feels like you're not really making progress, but I’ve found that if you put in enough work, ask the right questions, and figure out the right way to ask those questions, you can come up with something interesting.

Do you think you will pursue a career in research?

I definitely would be interested in continuing to pursue research throughout my career. My experience in research has given me the ability to ask questions that no one has the answer to yet, then take what I've learned up to this point and try and apply those learnings in unique and creative ways to figure out the answers.

I've also been able to speak with the PhD students about what they're pursuing and what doing a PhD really means. That was a big question I had coming into this, and now I have a much better understanding of it and it's something that I've become more interested in. It's been demystified, and I have a better understanding of the mindset you need if you want to pursue a PhD. Also, being around Josh and the rest of the students has been a great experience because I can see the qualities in them that make them fit to be PhD students. That helps me better assess for myself whether I'd be a fit for a PhD.

If I was to pursue a PhD, I would want to stay in a field like math, computer science, or statistics. And what's good about MS&E is it really incorporates all of those things. Plus, it applies all of them to the real world, which is, I think, the number one most important thing—to make an impact in the real world and help make lives better. With that being my overall goal, I definitely would consider doing a PhD in MS&E.

What advice do you have for students who are thinking about pursuing research?

Jump into it! It can definitely be a bit intimidating at first when you hear about other students who are doing research and it sounds like they're doing amazing things. You might feel behind; I know I did. But as soon as I got involved, I realized quickly that this was one of the best decisions I've made during my time here at Stanford.

Don't be afraid to ask questions; your mentor is there to help you. They're there to figure out the answers to these questions with you. Also, don't be afraid to pursue exactly what you're interested in. If you have a research question in mind, it's likely that a Stanford professor has the ability and the capacity to guide you in that direction and help you throughout the research process. So just reach out.

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