Alumni Spotlight: Shanika Gunaratna, MPP’19

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 Shanika Gunaratna, a former research assistant (RA) at the BIP lab who is currently working as the Senior Program Coordinator for policy at ParentCorps. During our conversation, we talked about how her past experiences lead her to her current work and what are some of her advice for students who are interested in following in her footsteps.

BIP Lab: What drew you to work at the BIP Lab?

Gunaratna: I applied to the BIP Lab after hearing Professor Ariel Kalil speak, and becoming interested in Professor Kalil’s exploratory thinking on new approaches to support young children and families using insights from behavioral economics.

BIP Lab: What is one of your favorite memories of the BIP Lab?

Gunaratna: In my time at the BIP Lab, I worked closely with the Associate Director of Research and Strategy, Michelle Michelini, on a rigorous evaluation of an early literacy program in partnership with schools in four different states. Early in the evaluation, we flew in several contracted assessors for a training on campus. Working alongside Michelle to execute a high-quality training that would ensure reliable results in this ambitious study was a lesson in the thoughtful, messy, human-driven work of education research.

BIP Lab: What are you doing now?

Gunaratna: I am a senior program coordinator for policy at ParentCorps, an early childhood organization in New York City that works to help schools in historically disinvested neighborhoods to partner with families.

BIP Lab: How did you become interested in your field? 

Gunaratna: I became familiar with Professor James Heckman’s work from reading about social policy over the years and I became interested in early childhood development due to the pioneering research of Professor Heckman and others, who showed that early childhood is one of the most impactful areas of investment in all of social policy.

BIP Lab: What is one of your biggest professional accomplishments to date? 

Gunaratna: I am proud of my organization’s continued work to center children and families’ mental health throughout one of the most disruptive periods imaginable in child and family wellbeing.

BIP Lab: What advice would you give to other students who aspire to follow a similar career path?

Gunaratna: Grad school, and Harris specifically, is bursting with rich opportunities for learning. Because the coursework is often so challenging, it can be tempting to focus your time on classes alone – but carving out some time for lectures, lunch-and-learns, exploratory coffee chats, and meaningful part-time work will make for a much deeper educational experience. I would encourage folks to take an instinctive approach: note which thinkers excite you in the UChicago universe like Professor Ariel Kalil and figure out how you can jump in and join their team.

Interview conducted by Eibhlin Lim.