SPSIA Awards Two Graduate Students for Outstanding Work


The School of Politics, Security, and International Affairs recently recognized two graduate students for outstanding work in the terms of Summer and Fall 2021 and Spring 2022. Andrew Boutton, Ph.D., the MA Program Coordinator, chaired the committee that selected Gabriella Cuber and Craig Wilding to receive the Outstanding MA Thesis and Pollock-Ellsworth Award for Best Research Methods, respectively. 

“Any professor will tell you that one of the most enriching parts of their job is working one-on-one with students on research projects. It never gets old to watch the process unfold from their initial curiosity, to data collection and analysis, and finally to presenting their results,” Boutton said. “Craig and Gabriella’s theses are both great examples of how to apply cutting-edge social science methods to timely and important research questions. In addition, their findings are actionable and relevant to both domestic and foreign policy. SPSIA congratulates both of them and wishes them the best of luck in their future endeavors.” 


Outstanding MA Thesis 

Gabriella Cuber
“Understanding variation in sexual exploitation and abuse in UN peacekeeping operations: The role of military, police, and civilian peacekeepers”  

Cuber’s thesis contributes to an important and growing body of work that investigates the conduct of peacekeepers, specifically regarding mistreatment of local populations. She focuses on the issue of sexual exploitation and abuse perpetrated by UN mission personnel. While previous studies have looked at aggregate measures such as the number of peacekeepers present and the level of sexual exploitation, Gabriela utilized over 1000 online UN allegation reports (2007-2020) to identify the specific type of culprit within the peacekeeping mission: military, police, or civilian. Doing so allowed Cuber to more directly test the relationship between peacekeeping and sexual exploitation, and—ultimately—led to novel findings. She found support for a common assumption that an increased presence of female peacekeepers and civilians can reduce the likelihood of soldiers committing abuse. However, though soldiers are often blamed as the culprits of sexual abuse in UN missions, Cuber’s thesis finds that civilian UN personnel are actually responsible for a disproportionately high share of reported sexual abuse. Other than providing a strong academic investigation of an important issue, Cuber’s thesis offers conclusions of direct policy relevance for peacekeeping. 

Thesis chair: Jonathan Powell, Ph.D.

“It is an honor to receive this award and an encouraging reminder that all the hard work put into the thesis is recognized. The thesis process was the most challenging yet most rewarding experience during the MA program, and I could not have done this without the help of my advisor and committee members. They not only supported me but pushed my research skills further during the process,“ Cuber said. 


Pollock-Ellsworth Award for Best Research Methods 

Craig Wilding
Mail ballot signature rejections: Household members signing each other’s ballots 

Using individual level analysis on millions of ballots, Wilding’s dissertation seeks to explain mail ballot rejection in the 2020 Florida general election. Specifically, he investigated whether size of household (used as a proxy for the increased likelihood of one household member signing for another – for instance spouses accidentally signing their partner’s envelope or an adult child signing for an elderly parent) had a positive relationship with ballot rejection and whether race/ethnicity did as well. Using PROBIT, he found that as size of household increased, the likelihood of ballot rejection increased even when controlling for other likely factors. Black and Hispanic voters were still likely to have higher rates of rejection even when controlling for their larger household size on average. Next, using linear regression and looking at counties scaled by vote by mail (VBM) counts, Craig examined various ballot envelope designs used by Florida Supervisor of Elections to see what features (location, keywords and layout) are associated with higher and lower rates of ballot invalidation (unsigned ballots or mismatched signatures). He found that simpler designs combining a couple of elements suggested by the Center for Civic Design work best. Craig’s use of PROBIT and OLS regression models are sophisticated and appropriate for his research question. However, what really set his research apart were the methods he used to construct his individual level dataset. Craig created a variety of programs using the programming language Python to extract data and match 6 million votes by mail ballot requests with 15 million voter registration records. In addition, he examined 225 million daily VBM status records to see if they were ever flagged for signature mismatch. Using his programming skills, he created variables for public institutions, senior homes, numbers in household, as well as several other important variables. Wilding asked important and timely research questions, employed sophisticated methods, found interesting results, and made recommendations to improve the election process in Florida by reducing the number of mail ballots rejected for signature problems. 

Thesis chair: Aubrey Jewett, Ph.D.

“I appreciate the recognition for the technical aspects of my research that the Pollock-Ellsworth Award gives,” Wilding said. “I want to thank Professor Kelsey Larsen for the help with the more advanced statistical analysis.  It was a great culmination of using my previous computer science degree to collect the data and my recent political science master’s from UCF to analyze it.” 

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