Alumni Spotlight: Jill Gandhi, Ph.D.
At the BIP Lab, our main goal is to understand parental decision-making. Information is power, and learning about someone else’s personal experience can be particularly helpful when making decisions for your career. In our “Alumni Spotlight” interview series, we sit down with former students and staff to learn what drives them, what they liked about working at the BIP Lab, and where they are now.
This time we had the chance to speak with Jill Gandhi, a former research project manager at the BIP Lab who is currently a Ph.D. student in the Developmental Psychology program at New York University (NYU). During our conversation, we talked about how her past experiences led her to her current work and her advice for students who are interested in following in her footsteps.
BIP Lab: How did you come to work at the BIP Lab and what drew you to do so?
Gandhi: I was getting a masters at the University of Chicago in the Masters of Arts Program in the Social Sciences (MAPSS) and I ended up enrolling in a course with Ariel Kalil in the Harris school on Early Childhood Interventions. It was a class that I found just to be really inspiring and interesting, and in particular, it was Ariel’s perspective on interventions and the ways in which she brought a developmental psychology lens to public policy issues. And more than that, I was really drawn to the kind of researcher and academic that Ariel is, which is being able to kind of seamlessly merge those two disciplines. And it is something that I continue to be inspired by and that I’m trying to emulate in some ways. I took that course with Ariel and I asked her for a recommendation letter for a different job, and she let me know that they were hiring at the BIP lab for this new project. It seemed like a really good fit for me, so I took the job.
BIP Lab: What are you doing now?
Gandhi: I am in my last year in the Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology in the Applied Psychology Program at New York University (NYU). I just submitted my dissertation last week and I am defending in April! So, pending a successful defense, I will be taking on a post-doctoral position at the Columbia Center on Poverty and Social Policy, working with Jane Waldfogel, Jeanne Brooks-Gunn and a couple of other folks.
BIP Lab: What is one of your biggest professional accomplishments to date?
Gandhi: I feel like I have been so lucky to be able to publish so much and be able to be involved in so many projects. I think the biggest accomplishment for me was a paper that I worked on in my Ph.D. program that, quite frankly, was agonizing at times, but it was rewarding because it was a successful collaboration with the New York City Department of Education. I was using data that they had given me to answer a question that they had about how effective their methods of collecting preschool classroom quality data were, and I was able to share the results directly with the Department of Education. Also, I was able to collaborate with the person who was coordinating the classroom quality assessments, and she was a co-author on this academic paper that we were able to publish. So, it was just really rewarding to be able to actually work on research that had direct implications for practice in New York City and those kinds of skills were things that I learned from my work with preschool programs in Chicago at the BIP Lab. I learned how to listen to the needs that a lot of preschool administrators and preschool directors have and how to effectively communicate with these kinds of programs to be able to actually enact some kind of change with research.
BIP Lab: When and how did you first become interested in your field?
Gandhi: It has been kind of a long journey to get here. I was originally interested in becoming a child psychologist. I really wanted to work with children in a clinical capacity. I ended up doing Teach for America right after undergrad because I was tangentially interested in education reform. After working in a school, I became really interested in the kind of precursors that led a lot of my students to a certain point in their educational trajectories. I became really interested in the systems of education and the ways in which education may not be adequately serving the needs of economically disadvantaged communities. And so, I ended up getting my master’s with an eye towards doing something that merged my interests in education and psychology, particularly working with a younger set of children — I started in elementary school and I started getting younger and younger as I did my Ph.D. program. So, it was just a mix of classes I have taken and direct experiences with communities that I have worked with.
BIP Lab: What is one of your favorite memories from your time with the BIP Lab, and how does your experience reveal what the BIP Lab is all about?
Gandhi: When I started at the BIP lab, all the systems that we were trying to build were from scratch. Everything was new. My position was new. This project was new. They had just delivered two hundred iPads in my office, and I had to oversee these iPads. We were working on the Parents and Child Together (PACT) project, which involved an app called Story Before Bed, and I created a flowchart and had gotten all the research assistants to program the iPads, get everything worked into the system and then a new iOS came out and I said, all right, let’s just update the iOS. I thought we might as well keep everything updated just in case and so, we updated. This was the weekend before we were about to deploy all the iPads for week one of the project. I updated all the iPads at once because it was one push, and it broke the app. I realized that Story Before Bed was no longer working because it just was not compatible with the update. So, I called in all the RAs and Keri Lintz, the Associate Director at the time, and they all came in over the weekend. We all just had to undo and start from scratch, and we were watching Netflix in the background and just having a pizza party and trying to get these things working for the next week. I contacted the app makers and they were able to push out an update for us in the next week. Everyone was really pulling together to get this going. It all felt very grassroots and stressful but also, it was nice to know that we were all working on it together.
BIP Lab: What advice would you give to other students who aspire to follow a similar career path?
Gandhi: My biggest advice is to recognize that you have so much to gain from having strong relationships with professors and academics and to not be intimidated or afraid of professors. I see that a lot even as somebody who is teaching at NYU. I have a lot of students who are afraid to come to my office hours, even though I’m just a grad student. For whatever reason, they are worried that they are inconveniencing me, or they are worried they don’t know what to say. I think that it is really important to recognize that professors have a lot that they want to share and a lot of worthwhile experiences and that you should go to office hours, even if you have nothing to say, just to chat, because they are there for you and they want to help you. I was always intimidated by professors when I was in undergrad, and I realized once that came to the University of Chicago how cool professors can be and how they can really set you on a path.
BIP Lab: What do you enjoy doing in your free time?
Gandhi: Before the pandemic, I was doing a lot of rock-climbing. Now, I am mostly cross-stitching and reading books. I just finished reading The City We Became by N.K Jemisin and I am currently reading Eve Ewing’s Ghosts in the Schoolyard.