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UDR Participant: Romuald Thomas

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

Romuald shares how he gravitates toward fields in which there are a multitude of ways to solve one problem, and how that interest led him to his major in Computer Science. During the UDR program, Romuald worked with his mentor, MS&E professor Johan Ugander, to study the correlations between demographics and the effects of implementing ranked choice voting.

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Can you tell me a little bit about your background?

My name is Romuald Thomas. I'm currently a sophomore majoring in Computer Science, and I grew up in Tampa, Florida. Before I came to Stanford, I knew that I wanted to pursue an engineering discipline, and I also had an interest in entrepreneurship. I felt that Stanford would be a perfect university for me to attend because of its strong engineering school and prime location within Silicon Valley.

How did you become interested in pursuing research at Stanford?

Research was something that I wanted to try because there are a lot of opportunities for students at Stanford. I've always considered research as a pathway that I might want to pursue in the future. I wanted to see how the research process takes place at a high level in a university, and that led me to apply to the UDR program in MS&E.

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

The research topic that I pursued was initially introduced to me by my research advisor. We studied the effects of the implementation of ranked choice voting, which is an electoral system in which voters rank candidates by preference. In a typical election, the candidate who receives the most votes wins. With ranked choice voting, if a candidate wins a majority of first-preference votes, then they are declared the winner, but if no candidate wins a majority of first-preference votes, the candidate with the fewest first-preference votes is eliminated, and then their votes are redistributed to the next-highest-ranked candidates until there is a winner.

We wanted to look at the effects that the implementation of ranked choice voting may have in a given precinct, and particularly at how factors such as race, educational level, household income, and gender might affect the rate of over-voting and under-voting. To explain those terms, imagine voters have to rank three candidates. Over-voting means a voter ranks four or more candidates rather than three, and that means their ballot would be invalidated. Under-voting is the opposite of that, where a voter ranks only two candidates or one. That doesn’t necessarily invalidate the ballot, but it could cause issues later down the road.

We focused primarily on San Francisco as a case study, because ranked choice voting has been practiced there for over a decade. We replicated previous studies that measured over-voting and under-voting rates to see if we came up with the same results. We then compared our results to demographic data by precinct.

We found a correlation between income level and rates of over-voting and under-voting. With income level, there's a tie to race as well, as race tends to correlate with income level. This correlation can lead to disparities within the election process. For example, if a particular precinct has a higher rate of over-voting than others, more of its ballots would be invalidated, and thus that precinct would have less of a say in the election results.

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

I had a lot of support from my mentor, Professor Johan Ugander, as well as his PhD students, who helped me tremendously throughout the project. They gave me a lot of direction, especially in moments when I was stuck or unsure of how to tackle a particular problem. They were always willing to help guide me through that process, which I was really grateful for. It was really a highlight of my experience in the MS&E department.

Do you have a favorite memory from the UDR program?

When we were working with precinct data from government websites, the most difficult part was mapping Census Block Groups, or CPGs, within each individual precinct. That took a lot of searching online and computational work. Mapping CPGs on the precincts made extracting demographic data much easier, because that information is not publicly available.

We had to do a lot of that work ourselves, and at some point I remember being absolutely stuck, having no direction and not knowing what to do. But one of Prof. Ugander’s PhD students, Amel Awadelkarim, was a tremendous help. She took the time out of her day to give me guidance and made a roadmap for me to follow, which was extremely helpful. That was a testament to the tremendous support that’s offered to our students in the UDR program by the MS&E department and Prof. Ugander’s research group.

Do you think you'll pursue a career in research?

Absolutely. Before I came to Stanford, I was already thinking about pursuing a career in research further down the road. Now, this experience has solidified that idea for me. The thing with research is you can pursue any idea as long as it's structured and you have a good plan. That's one of the things that excites me about research, and that was demonstrated through the project that I worked on these past few months. So I definitely want to pursue research, not only within my undergraduate career, but after I graduate and beyond. I’m actually considering doing a coterminal master’s degree in MS&E as well.

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

There are so many ideas that you can explore through research, and that's the beauty of it. Going to a research university like Stanford, there are a lot of opportunities for students to be involved in research and to pursue the ideas they're curious about. I would encourage students to seek out those resources and opportunities. It's even a good idea to try it for only a quarter or a few months, to see if you enjoy the experience and if it's something you'd like to pursue in the future.

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