Heather Evans, Ph.D. ’16, talks productive partnerships and research with an impact

Heather Evans stands on a boat dock holding an orange umbrella.

“Grad students are the engine of a lot of meaningful research,” says Heather Evans, Ph.D. ‘16, lecturer in the Departments of Sociology, Law and Social Justice, and Disability Studies.

If grad students are engines, Heather, who earned her PhD in Sociology, is a diesel one. As a graduate student, Heather contributed to a well-publicized study that played a critical role in abolishing the death penalty in Washington state.

The study, which was commissioned by the Washington Appellate Project, looked to understand whether race places a significant role in capital sentencing by analyzing capital sentencing trial reports from roughly the last 30 years. Working alongside Dr. Katherine Beckett, the researchers found that Black people are four and a half times as likely to receive the death penalty than people who are not Black.

It’s such a strong effect, Heather says, that when she first saw it she doubted it was real.

“I ran it several more times before I called Katherine to tell her,” Heather remembers. Dr. Beckett was shocked as well, Heather recalls. “Katherine responded, ‘did you run it again?’”

When the researchers submitted this finding to the Supreme Court, the prosecutors hired their own data scientist to critique the study, and later, the Court brought in a commissioner to make sense of both the reports. A four-year dialogue ensued, as the researchers provided the Court with additional analyses, explanations of their models and even primers to help the judges understand statistics.

While the process may sound tiresome and tedious, Heather says it actually made her feel hopeful.

“In the political climate we’re in today where it seems like evidence or facts may not matter or make a difference, it was really heartening in a lot of ways that our Supreme Court Justices took the time to engage and were so thoughtful in their deliberations,” she says. “And at the end of the day, the facts won.”

Heather and Dr. Beckett worked on several projects together while Heather was a grad student, and continue to collaborate since she earned her degree. They are a strong team as Katherine, with decades of reading and experience under her belt, is “like a vault of knowledge,” Heather says. “So to pair someone like her with a researcher like myself who is cutting their teeth on the newest statistical modeling techniques, it’s such a productive collaboration.”

And this pairing is mirrored in labs and research teams across the University, fueling the world’s top-notch research. “It’s such a fruitful pairing to bring together a professor with lifelong experience and a graduate student exploring the latest techniques,” Heather says.

But Heather also feels lucky to have had an advisor like Beckett who supported her in pursuing the kind of applied research she was eager to sink her teeth into.

“A lot of grad students receive the message they can’t do work that is meaningful and succeed at their Ph.D.,” she says. “They may be told it will take too long, or they’ll be too invested in the work.”

But for Heather, working on the death penalty study “drove home the fact that I can do good, solid research that an educated lay-person can understand, apply, and make decisions based on.”

Heather’s message for grad students is that while there is room for applied research, “you may need to push back on folks who want you to just check boxes and complete your degree.”

And the results? “Maybe you won’t produce research that’s published in a top-tiered journal,” she says. “Instead, you’ll do something like abolish the death penalty.”

That’s a trade-off she’s willing to take, Heather says.

Published December 2018