By Katie Smith
How the GRB Uses Student Research to Solve Real World Problems
When she started at USD in 2006, Mara Lindokken dreamed of being a high school music director. But after switching her major from music education to a double major in economics and communication studies, Lindokken found herself searching for what she wanted to do with her career. She found it at USD’s Government Research Bureau (GRB).
Situated in the unassuming Farber House on the southern edge of USD’s campus, the GRB appears to be a small institution. But over the years, it’s become a powerhouse for students looking to gain research experience and for South Dakota government entities and nonprofits needing research analysis.
A Dual Purpose
The GRB was created in 1939 by William O. “Doc” Farber, a legendary USD political science professor, as a way to provide advice for lawmakers and other government figures.
“Originally, it was a way for Doc Farber to provide insights on existing research and to provide his knowledge from the discipline to decision-makers in the state,” said current GRB director Shane Nordyke, Ph.D., who is also a political science professor at USD. “It was a very informal way to advise legislators and state policymakers on issues that they were thinking about in relation to government.”
In the past 20 years, the GRB has become a more formal entity that helps South Dakota city governments and other organizations collect and apply research to solve real-world problems while also serving as a training ground for students.
“In South Dakota, most of our departments and agencies aren’t large enough to have a full-time research staff devoted to evaluating programs or analyzing the data they have, or doing the types of evaluations that are required for federal grants,” Nordyke said. “So we are able to play that role for those organizations, and we have always incorporated students into that research process.”
Both undergraduate and graduate students work on all aspects of the research process, including writing survey questions, analyzing data, writing research reports and presenting the results.
“We really try to incorporate them into all stages of that research process,” Nordyke said. “It’s a great way for us to mentor students with those research skills that they’ll be able to use as they get into their professional careers or go off to graduate school.”
Finding Her Fit
Lindokken got involved with the GRB rather by accident. Looking for an opportunity to earn extra cash, Lindokken turned to her friends, political science majors who were doing a survey project and needed data entry assistants. She started spending time at the Farber House, inputting paper survey data into the computer, and quickly became a more permanent part of the team.
“Following that project, they actually brought me on in a research assistant capacity, and I remained there until I graduated in 2011,” Lindokken said.
One of Lindokken’s favorite projects was working with the cities of Brandon and Beresford to analyze what people in their communities wanted from economic development, and how the cities could grow and meet residents’ needs. In addition, she was part of a team that studied how South Dakota public university students spent money in their college communities and how that spending impacted the state economy.
“That was a really cool project,” Lindokken said. “It was an opportunity for me to take what I was learning in class and put it into practice.”
After graduating in 2011, Lindokken moved to Washington, D.C., and began searching for a job. She landed at the Ethics & Compliance Initiative—a nonprofit that specializes in ethical standards and practices at various organizations—as a temp worker doing survey data analysis, which she had experience in because of her time at the GRB.
“I actually had the specific stats package and hands-on experience that they were lookingfor,” Lindokken said. “Without the GRB, I wouldn’t have been an obvious fit for that job.”
After rising in the ranks at the Ethics & Compliance Initiative, Lindokken is now a principal advisor at Gartner, a Stamford, Connecticut-based global research and advisory firm. “What I get to do now is help folks take data and make sense of it, and build action plans to help them achieve their next goal or priority,” she said.
Lindokken credits the GRB with preparing her for a career she loves. While many of her coworkers did internships and other research work, she feels her experience at the GRB uniquely prepared her for the work she does now.
“That sort of applied, hands-on research— I haven’t worked with very many people who have had anything like that,” Lindokken said.
Lindokken is just one of many students who got a career kickstart at the GRB.
Originally from Lyons, Nebraska, Martin Long graduated in May 2020 with dual bachelor’s degrees in economics and political science. He has been working as a resource planner at the Omaha Public Power District (OPPD) in Omaha, Nebraska, for less than a year, but already feels his time at the GRB has given him a leg up in his career.
“There are not a lot of opportunities as a student, or even as a young professional, where you’re going to get project management experience,” Long said. Long describes his role with OPPD as forecasting fuel power and market interchanges as many as five years in the future, a task that relies heavily on research like the kind he was exposed to at the GRB. Currently, he is coordinating a $450 million project with as many as 50 people across eight divisions at OPPD. “That’s a tall order if you’ve never managed a project,” Long said.
Long describes his role with OPPD as forecasting fuel power and market interchanges as many as five years in the future, a task that relies heavily on research like the kind he was exposed to at the GRB. Currently, he is coordinating a $450 million project with as many as 50 people across eight divisions at OPPD.
“That’s a tall order if you’ve never managed a project,” Long said. “So that’s probably been the most instrumental part about the GRB in my current career, is just having that background in taking the reins in a project.”
Austin Hofeman, a Ph.D. candidate in political science at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, has a history similar to Lindokken’s with the GRB.
A 2011 USD graduate with a double major in political science and history, Hofeman started doing data entry at the GRB in 2008 before being more involved with the group.
“I never felt like I was a lesser part of the organization,” he said. “I was helping out with a project, but they also wanted to make sure that I was developing skills.”
One of the most memorable parts of Hofeman’s GRB experience was doing fieldwork at a casino near Watertown, interviewing casino-goers about their experiences there.
“I’d never done anything like that before,” he said.
Years later, Hofeman is now finishing up his Ph.D. research on how presidential election campaigns use television advertising to talk about personality traits, and he says the skills he learned at the GRB were beneficial in getting him to where he is now.
“The variety of things that I was exposed to there really set me up well to start doing research of my own,” Hofeman said. “It provided a ground floor for a lot of familiarity with research.”
Many students involved with the GRB have gone on to pursue master’s or Ph.D. degrees, work for political campaigns, legislative research councils or government offices, become city managers and more.
“It’s always nice to hear back from them that these practical, real-world skills are really helpful to them when they go off into their careers,” Nordyke said.
An Affordable Option
But the student preparation aspect of the GRB is just one of its functions; the other is to be an affordable option for both oncampus and off-campus organizations to perform data collection and analysis.
One of Nordyke’s favorite annual projects is creating the South Dakota Highway Safety Plan, providing crash data analysis that fulfills federal requirements for receiving Office of Highway Safety funding. In turn, those dollars go toward funding public safety programs and other priorities.
Amanda Hossle, director of the South Dakota Office of Highway Safety, said the agency partners with the GRB to prepare the report each year.
“They play a crucial role in collecting and analyzing our crash data,” Hossle said. “Looking at that data then helps me determine where I need to allocate my federal resources.”
Based on that data, the Office of Highway Safety is able to determine whether or not the way funds are spent correlates with the agency’s highest priorities, such as drunk driving prevention, seat belt use and others, according to Hossle.
“We really rely heavily on them to provide us with that information,” she said. “We’ve always appreciated our partnership with the GRB, and it’s always been a good experience.”
The GRB is also involved with USDrelated projects. Currently, it is working with the Beacom School of Business to complete a program evaluation of the state’s re-employment services and eligibility assessment grants to determine which ones were most effective in helping people find jobs sooner.
“There’s a ton of data that’s been collected, but they haven’t really had a chance to go back in and analyze it to see what tends to be working really well,” Nordyke said, “so we are super excited to dig into all of that data and help them answer those questions.”
When asked what she would tell students who are interested in working with the GRB, Lindokken encouraged them to try it, even if they’re not sure which career path they’re interested in.
“It served as a really good preview into a whole bunch of different paths I could have potentially taken,” Lindokken said, pointing to nonprofit work, economic development and city planning as just some of the areas she was introduced to while at the organization. “You get exposure to a lot of different things.”
In choosing students to be part of the GRB, Nordyke said she focuses on students who work well both independently and as a team, learn new skills quickly and think on their feet.
“It’s a great opportunity for students to get their feet wet in understanding applied practical research and how it relates to government decisions and policy problems,” she said.
Long praised the opportunities the GRB provided to work one-on-one with both professors and potential future employers. “A lot of the experience and projects you’re going to work on look so good on a resume,” he said.
For her part, Lindokken said she is glad she took a chance on the GRB.
“I gave it a shot and stuck with it, and it really helped me figure out what I wanted to do,” she said. “Without the GRB, I don’t know what I’d be doing, but it would look very different.”