Ph.D. Graduate Earns Prestigious Harvard Strategic Data Project Fellowship

By Tom McLaughlin

As Abigail Todhunter-Reid recalls, school didn’t quite come so easily to her as a child.

A self-described “slow learner,” she later worked as an educator, where she became increasingly frustrated with the emphasis on standardized test scores and the stigma surrounding slow learners.

“I knew then that I wanted to dedicate my career to education research,” says the 2017 graduate of the Ph.D. in childhood studies program at Rutgers University–Camden.

With her doctoral diploma in hand, Todhunter-Reid will now put her research expertise to the test, as she has been awarded a prestigious, two-year fellowship at the Harvard Strategic Data Project.

“I feel honored and incredibly fortunate to be a part of the evidence-based movement in education for which the Harvard Strategic Data Project has become a symbol and an important player,” says the Toledo, Ohio resident.

Beginning in September, Todhunter-Reid will work with administrators at an education agency, such as a school district, state department of education, or nonprofit organization, to optimize their use of data and help them make informed policy decisions.

The Ph.D. graduate is excited to take on a service role and eager to use the advanced statistical skills that she developed during her time at Rutgers–Camden. She gained invaluable experience working on her dissertation, which focused on the effects of in-school arts education on academic achievement. Over the course of the project, she used data from two national studies, as well as advanced techniques for analyzing longitudinal data, to examine whether arts education contributes to long-term academic achievement.

“Findings from this research indicate that both visual art and music education contribute to long-term achievement and growth as measured by standardized tests,” says Todhunter-Reid, who earned a bachelor of fine arts degree, with a major in ceramics and a minor in anthropology, from Ohio University in 2007.

The Rutgers–Camden graduate also worked on multiple research projects as a graduate assistant, including the innovative EPIC Camden Study. The project aims to better understand how African-American and Hispanic adolescents in Camden are navigating sexual behavior, as well as drug and alcohol use, within the context of their high-crime, high-poverty neighborhoods. The researchers’ ultimate goal is to determine what pathways the adolescents take in their decision-making, in order to devise strategies that will enable them to better deal with the risks that they are going to face.

“These experiences allowed me to see the entire research process from beginning to end, from primary data collection to the writing of manuscripts,” she says. “I also developed advanced statistical skills, which made me a strong candidate for the Harvard Strategic Data Project Fellowship Program.”

In addition, Todhunter-Reid had the opportunity to continue teaching at Rutgers–Camden, leading four semesters of a required undergraduate statistics course. As she recalls, many of the students whom she taught had no prior interest in research and statistics, and she took great pride in changing their preconceived notions of the material.

“One semester, I received a comment on my teacher evaluation that read: ‘I am so confused. I don’t know what to do with my life now. I never thought I would be interested in statistics but now I want to become a researcher,’” she says. “Reading that comment was the highlight of my year.”

Todhunter-Reid now joins a growing cadre of successful Rutgers–Camden Ph.D. graduates who have gone on to enjoy educational and career opportunities in a variety of fields and professions.

“A number of graduates have secured positions as assistant professors in colleges and universities throughout the U.S. and elsewhere, while others work in higher education administration, counseling, and publishing, and as research analysts for international NGOs,” says Dan Cook, chair of the Department of Childhood Studies at Rutgers–Camden. “Abigail scored a highly competitive position with a prestigious program, which is a testament to her scholarship, as well as our program and training.”

Todhunter-Reid now looks forward to developing new analytical and leadership skills through her participation in the Harvard Strategic Data Project. She believes that the added experience working for an education agency will bring her even closer to her career goal conducting education research.

“Ultimately, I want to start initiatives focused on collecting data on student engagement and motivation,” she says, “and work to reduce the stigma surrounding slow learners.”

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