St. Olaf alumnus, professor publish article on interdisciplinary research
An article written by St. Olaf College graduate Tyler Benning ’17, a medical student at the Mayo Clinic Alix School of Medicine, and Associate Professor of Political Science Chris Chapp was recently featured in JAMA Pediatrics, a monthly peer-reviewed journal published by the American Medical Association.
Also co-authored by Benning’s fellow Mayo medical student Grayson Ashby, the article examines how political campaigns address pediatric health issues in policy discussions. While taking Chapp’s research practicum course at St. Olaf in 2016, Benning began working with a database that Chapp created on U.S. congressional candidates’ issue statements from their websites. Benning knew the database could be of help in examining the problem set forth by JAMA Pediatrics’ call for papers, which suggested that policy debates under-emphasize children’s health issues.
“I started thinking of ways to quantitatively assess the amount of political attention that children’s health issues receive. I knew that Professor Chapp’s database of congressional campaign websites would provide a great source of data to help explore this topic, and he was on board as soon as I pitched the idea to him,” Benning says. “To my knowledge, this database is the only one of its kind in the country, and I knew it would offer us a great way to systematically assess the prevalence of pediatric health policy discussions.”
To my knowledge, this database is the only one of its kind in the country, and I knew it would offer us a great way to systematically assess the prevalence of pediatric health policy discussions.Tyler Benning ’17
The project intersected perfectly with Benning’s and Chapp’s individual research interests.
“One thing that I’m really interested in is clarity and ambiguity in political communication,” Chapp says. “Tyler and our co-author Grayson Ashby brought a deep knowledge of specific pediatric policies to this project, so we were able to examine the clarity with which candidates were staking out firm positions on pediatric issues.”
This interdisciplinary approach provided an ideal entryway into the neglected issue of pediatric health policy discussions. By combining Benning’s medical knowledge and Chapp’s political science research, the project not only acknowledges the lack of emphasis on children’s health policy in political campaigns, but provides a quantitative assessment of the amount of attention that these issues receive.
“I think the strength of this project is its interdisciplinary approach. Leaders in pediatric medicine have suggested that children’s health issues are under-emphasized in policy debates, and without this medical perspective, we may never have asked this particular research question,” Benning says. “Likewise, our data for answering this question came from the political science world. A researcher approaching this question from a purely medical perspective might not have thought about analyzing political campaigns and campaign websites.”
I think the strength of this project is its interdisciplinary approach.Tyler Benning ’17
Benning’s time at St. Olaf allowed him to develop the necessary skills to develop such an interdisciplinary project. While on the Hill, Benning served on Student Senate for three years, led the political science honor society, and participated on multiple Student Government Association (SGA) branches and residence hall councils. To cap off his St. Olaf experience, Benning achieved a perfect score on the MCAT during his senior year — the first step in a medical career that has already included a year of work at Children’s Minnesota prior to his admission to Mayo Clinic’s medical school.
“I spent so much time at St. Olaf working on student government projects and taking political science classes that sometimes people were surprised to learn that I was actually a pre-med student!” Benning says. “My science classes prepared me very well for the MCAT and for the challenges of medical school, and my political science classes got me interested in research methodology and statistics. I’m so grateful that I went to a school where I was encouraged to explore my interests outside of science and wasn’t pigeon-holed into a ‘pre-med’ track.”
Chapp was instrumental in developing Benning’s passion for political science. “Professor Chapp’s research methods class was a very influential class for me, as it got me interested in quantitative social science and showed me how much fun research can be,” Benning says. “I was lucky enough to take five different classes with Professor Chapp, and he was easily one of my best professors.”
Benning’s graduation from St. Olaf didn’t signal the end of his and Chapp’s collaboration. Writing the JAMA Pediatrics article allowed them to work together again, their rapport ensuring that the project would be a joint effort. They each credit each other with making the project successful: Benning provided direction for the idea of the project, developing a public health question that could be answered with political science data, while Chapp’s knowledge of academic research and publishing helped Benning and Ashby navigate the peer-review process. Benning also made a visit to Chapp’s current research practicum class while students were still on campus to give a guest lecture. “I think it was really valuable for students to see a recent alumni actively using the data to answer important questions,” Chapp says.
Both Benning and Chapp see this article as just the beginning in the exploration of pediatric health policy discussions — and their partnership.
I think this paper is really just the first step. There is a great deal more we can learn about health communication.Associate Professor of Political Science Chris Chapp
“I think this paper is really just the first step. There is a great deal more we can learn about health communication,” Chapp says. “Tyler and I have already started looking at communication about the Affordable Care Act, but given the current global pandemic, there may be even more pressing issues to tackle. I’d like to work with Tyler to better understand how candidates communicate about public health, and more importantly, how communication might be related to different public health outcomes.”
Benning agrees that the paper opens up new avenues for research and discussion. “Like many political science papers, this project raises as many questions as it answers,” he says. “We do know that well-crafted childhood health policies can have lifelong positive impacts, so I hope this paper will inspire childhood health advocates to continue their advocacy efforts.”