NACOGDOCHES, Texas — When Rachel Rucker was a top student at Jersey Village High School in Houston, she attended the Undergraduate Research Conference, an annual event that honors Stephen F. Austin State University’s brightest from all six of its colleges.
Watching older collegians present their work in front of their families, professors and peers, it all seemed so impressive and unobtainable. The thought crossed the teenager’s mind: How do I get from where I am to where they are?
That question has finally been answered.
Now a junior majoring in data analytics, Rucker, representing the Rusche College of Business, produced a project that won first place. Using U.S. Census demographics and 2016 county-level election results by the MIT Election Data and Science Lab, she wrote a research paper that explains why the states of Pennsylvania and Wisconsin going “blue” for President Joe Biden in 2020 should have been more expected, even though former President Donald Trump turned those states “red” in 2016.
Rucker was selected by faculty mentor and economics professor Dr. Ryan Phelps, who helped model the mountains of data used for the study, which was undertaken after the election.
“Our model correctly predicts that Pennsylvania and Wisconsin would go blue, and it predicted a Democratic shift in Arizona,” Phelps and Rucker concluded. In the future, there could be yet another study incorporating 2020 results, which could provide “prediction errors that can be used to scrutinize claims of large-scale election fraud in very particular counties.”
Prior to doing the project, Rucker had already completed, and excelled in, the applied statistics course taught by Phelps. So, when it came time to consider the conference, Phelps knew Rucker had what it took to produce meaningful research.
“I am always on the lookout for students with talent and a strong work ethic,” Phelps said. “Rachel stood out in my online class because of her perfect homework scores and her excellent project grades. Given her passion for current events, I thought that she might like to take a look at the 2020 election. She and I spent many hours of winter break on the paper. She has been an excellent research partner.”
The paper, “County Level Changes Alone Predicted Biden Win in Both Pennsylvania and Wisconsin,” is joined in the winner’s circle by top projects from SFA’s other five colleges and one from Tyler Junior College. While Rucker now gets to enjoy the accolade, the process of researching and writing a winning paper wasn’t easy, especially under Phelps’ exacting standards.
“I went through a lot of red ink and many drafts,” Rucker said.
Rucker came to SFA for the DeWitt School of Nursing. She changed her mind just two days into her first semester, instead pursuing a degree in data analytics. That turned out to be a good choice. Rucker holds a 4.0 GPA, has four scholarships – the Academic Excellence Scholarship, University Scholars Award, the STEM Scholarship, and the Focus POS Systems Scholarship – and works as a tutor for anatomy at the Academic Assistance and Resource Center.
If all goes to plan, she’ll be the first to graduate from the data analytics program when she walks across the stage in May 2022.
Down the road, Rucker certainly has a lot ahead of her, like a dual graduate degree in statistics or economics and law. But for now, winning the research conference feels pretty good.
“This actually proves that I learned a lot in all three of my fields – computer science, statistics and economics,” she said.