Conversation with Dr. Ngoc Phan

Dr, Phan working with her students

Recently I spoke with Dr. Ngoc Phan, new assistant professor of political science, who joined the CLA ‘ohana at the beginning of this academic year. Here are some excerpts from our conversation.

Q: You’ve been at HPU for about six months now. What are your impressions of our university?
A: I really enjoy the students, my classes, and my colleagues. I’ve taught at large universities and a small liberal arts college, but I have always wanted to experience teaching in an urban campus and be able to work with a diverse student body. HPU is both of those things, and because the classes are small, I get to interact with students on a daily basis. One thing I’m most impressed with so far is how ambitious the students are. Many work full-time while going to school and they are always amazing me with their curiosity and desire for academic growth.

Q: Can you share some of your personal and academic journey before coming to HPU?
A: I did my undergraduate at the University of Arizona, where I was at first a pre-med major. Mid- way through my sophomore year, I started taking general education courses in Political Science. The courses had provocative titles such as “Politics of Difference” and “Violence, Race, and Class in America.” I had no idea that there were people who studied and did research on social, economic, and political topics like these. After those initial classes, I was hooked and engaged with political science like nothing before. Though I was only 19 at the time, I knew then that I wanted to pursue a Ph.D. in this field and become a professor so I can do research and teach on these topics.

At Arizona I applied to the federally funded McNair Scholars Program, which targets first generation, low income, and under-represented students to apply for Ph.D. programs. I was accepted to the program and spent a summer conducting research that led to a published paper with my advisor, Dr. John Garcia.

After graduating from Arizona in 2006, I went to Rice University, where I received both my Master’s and Ph.D. in Political Science. I chose Rice because I wanted to see what resources a private research university had to help me reach my research goals. At Rice, I worked with Dr. Rick Wilson and directed his Behavioral Research Lab and completed my dissertation in 2012.

After graduating from Rice, I became an assistant professor at the University of Southern Mississippi, and later, a visiting assistant professor at Davidson College. I like to say that I’ve been either a student or professor at almost every type of higher-education institution, from large public universities to small private colleges, and from research-oriented schools to teaching-centric colleges. No matter where I was, my focus was on helping people see how scientific thinking and problem solving can be applied to our most pressing social issues.

Q: What kinds of scholarly projects are you working on these days?
A: I’m working on lots of interesting projects. My most recent one is an immigrant naturalization project, which seeks to answer questions like “What explains US naturalization over time?” and “Do state laws increase or decrease the number of naturalizations?” My research finds that states that pass restrictive immigration laws increase the number of immigration naturalizations in subsequent years. Our research shows that immigrants are responsive to how they are treated within a state/country after a lagged effect. An important implication is that once immigrants naturalize, they are more likely to also engage in politics, and my research points out where these suddenly new politically engaged citizens came from. This research project is really interesting because it points out that today’s immigrants are potentially tomorrow’s voters.

My other projects involve studying the role of race and ethnicity on American politics with a focus on Asian American elected officials and elections in Hawai‘i. This involves building a database that tracks Asian American elected officials and quantitative analysis of election records in Hawai‘i.

Q: What do you see yourself doing five or ten years from now?
A: I will continue teaching and conducting high quality meaningful research. I believe social science research provides us with the best tools to solve the world’s most difficult problems. My core research objective is to understand why individuals engage in costly actions that benefit the group.

In order to continue my research, I plan on building a Behavioral Research Lab at Hawai‘i Pacific University. The lab would enable students to participate in behavioral economic experiments and give social scientists at HPU a space to conduct group experiments.

Finally, I believe that it is essential that a social science education prepare students to understand and leverage the ever-growing importance of data. The most innovative methodologies today involve data-driven policy solutions. I plan on starting an annual DataFest at HPU in order to bring undergraduates and graduate students across different majors and colleges to work on solving problems using big data and Data Science.

For fun, I checked to see Dr. Phan’s personal preferences:

  • Android or Apple? Apple (with all the privacy settings on).
  • Coffee or Tea? Coffee first and second, and maybe tea later.
  • Cats or Dogs? Rescue dogs; would love cats but I’m allergic so I named my dog Kitty. She also acts like a cat, which is the best of both world
  • Early Bird or Night Owl? Early bird gets the worm!
  • Car or TheBus? I ride my pistachio-colored bike with a rainbow-striped helmet. If you see me, make sure to give me 3 feet of space—it’s the law!