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QuIRK-sponsored Speaker Discusses Intersection of Stats and Activism

<ril 18, Valentin Bolotnyy, a graduate student in economics at Harvard, visited Carleton to speak about his involvement with the Immigrant Doctors Project. This data-based initiative studies the reliance of American communities on doctors who immigrated to the United States from countries targeted in President Trump’s 2017 travel ban. The talk was sponsored by Carleton’s Quantitative Inquiry, Reasoning, and Knowledge initiative (QuIRK), and focused on the potential links between two seemingly separate pursuits: research and activism.

Professor of Psychology Neil Lutsky, who has been involved with QuIRK for many years, was instrumental in bringing Bolotnyy to campus. After reading an article about the Immigrant Doctors Project, he was struck by the project’s unique approach to activism. “I thought this would be a wonderful opportunity for Carleton students and faculty and community members to see how you can use data to inform important political and social issues,” Lutsky said.

Bolotnyy started the Immigrant Doctors Project with a group of fellow PhD candidates. They had all participated in protests after President Trump’s first travel ban was announced in January 2017, but were looking for a way to make a greater impact. “The ban made a lot of things that we were worrying about day to day – classes, with teaching, research – seem much less important,” said Bolotnyy.

The group decided to investigate the reliance of American communities on doctors from Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen – the six countries targeted in President Trump’s second travel ban. They found that these immigrant doctors provide about 14 million appointments each year.  Strikingly, communities that face doctor shortages – many in areas that strongly supported Trump – rely the most on doctors from these six countries.

Bolotnyy’s team created an interactive website displaying their findings and pitched their story to dozens of news outlets. Their work was covered by CNN and NBC, and was even cited in lawsuits against the travel ban. The biggest challenge, Bolotnyy said, was reaching their target audience – right-leaning and local news outlets.

Bolotnyy urges students to explore connections between research and activism. “Activism is often based in a sense of injustice and often in values, and there’s a lot of importance to that,” he says. “But I think data has the potential to allow us to communicate with others who might have different values.” He says data especially has potential to reach those, “who might not be standing with us immediately in opposition or in support of something.”

The Immigrant Doctors Project brought together people with a wide range of skill sets. A large group of computer scientist volunteers, for example, were instrumental in developing the project’s website. When it comes to research activism, “There’s a role here for almost any discipline,” said Bolotnyy.

Bolotnyy believes there is great potential for students to do good in working with data. “Helping the public sector—especially if you’re data-inclined, if you’re a scientist, or if you’re a social scientist, especially finding a way into a local or state organization and doing some data analysis there—has the potential to answer important social and public questions,” he said.
Lutsky hopes that Carleton students take inspiration from the project. “This is an example of a team of people who are using the skills they gained in education to address effectively a major political issue,” he said.  “It’s a great model for Carleton students.”

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