Wenxin (Cyndia) Chen’s behind-the-scenes data work supported successful study
By Bryan Hay
Successful faculty research often depends on behind-the-scenes data collection and other conclusion-supporting work done by students.
In his recently released “Prosecutor Workplace and Compensation Study,” done for and in collaboration with the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, Adam Biener, assistant professor of economics, was assisted by EXCEL Scholar Wenxin (Cyndia) Chen ’22.
Her detailed, sometimes tedious, data collection helped support Biener’s study, which revealed that prosecutors’ offices nationwide are constrained by inadequate staffing, uncompetitive compensation, and a lack of resources to better serve their communities.
A former student in Biener’s econometrics course, Chen leveraged the tools and topics discussed in the class to perform complex data work and analysis to make the report happen.
“The advantage of doing something like this at a place like Lafayette College is that as students learn the skills, you can turn that right around and it becomes part of this impactful policy work,” he says. “We have the ability to not just involve our students in the process. But we can expect to teach them at the level at which this real work gets done in practice.”
The stars aligned nicely for Chen, who is majoring in mathematics and economics as well as psychology with a minor in data science, as she would apply that rich array of skills and interests to the study.
During her junior year, Chen was looking to find a research opportunity to prepare her for graduate school. She wanted to learn more about data cleaning and analysis on different topics as part of a research-related project.
“So I emailed Prof. Biener, and he kindly replied to me saying there was something I could possibly assist him with,” Chen recalls.
Data work is serious business; there’s no room for error or inattention to detail. It’s very easy to miss a zero or decimal point, and send a developing report into disarray.
An international student, Chen says she had the added challenge of learning about the American legal system as she poured through survey results and public records. But the experience also expanded her awareness of economics and how it touches issues that may seem beyond its traditional role.
“People first think about bonds, stocks, interest rates, exchange rates,” she says. “But actually the field is about real life and touches on areas that really affect people, like the work of a prosecutor. When you assist with research like this, you gain knowledge and learn from it.”
Biener says he’s grateful for Chen’s assistance and attention to detail, and to Lafayette for offering graduate-level opportunities to students.
“I’m really thankful to be at Lafayette. You might think that this is something a small college might not be capable of,” he says.
“But you have the right combination of highly motivated students and actively researching faculty, and there are the resources and the structure to bring the two together. There’s a pathway for capable students to do high-level work and take on this kind of responsibility.”
“It’s something that sets us apart at Lafayette, where undergrads can be really connected to real research in this way,” he says.
Economics can give you invaluable insight into how the contemporary world works, excellent training and practice in qualitative and quantitative reasoning, and an understanding of the complex political economic issues that face the United States and the world today.