Javier Pérez Sandoval and Carlos Basurto working on research

When Kellogg Visiting Fellow Javier Pérez Sandoval came to the University of Notre Dame for a semester with the Kellogg Institute for International Studies, he planned to continue exploring how subnational actors influence democracy, especially leading up to national regime change in some countries and as a factor in democratic backsliding in others.

What he was not expecting – but was delighted to learn – was that for the first time, the Kellogg Institute was making undergraduate research assistants available to visiting fellows. Pérez Sandoval learned that these students would come prepared and trained in various methods of research through the Kellogg Developing Researchers (KDR) program. And, Holly Rivers, associate director of the Kellogg Institute, who developed the program, found an ideal student match for his research.

Carlos Basurto ‘26 is a sophomore at Notre Dame double majoring in philosophy and computer science with great interest in political science. Like Pérez Sandoval, he is from Mexico, which he says gives him a keen interest in anything to do with his country, but especially in the state of democracy there and elsewhere in Latin America.

Not only did Basurto’s interests align with Pérez Sandoval’s research, but his skills were invaluable to the projects. 

The first task was assisting in a broad literature review, to help identify books, articles, working papers, and other academic documents that related to subnational happenings and influences on democracy in Latin America.

“I quickly learned that Carlos had the skills and ability to take charge and own the task, so instead of instructing him on specific steps to take, we discussed ideas on how we might address this challenge and optimize the process,” explained Pérez Sandoval, who teaches Latin American Studies at the University of Oxford.

Basurto proceeded to create a visualization of abstracts drawn from 1800 scholarly works, indicating the most frequent terms, people, and places mentioned and tagging them based on whether they were about specific cases or were more general in their content. To do so, he used his computer science knowledge, but also the skills he learned as part of the KDR program.

“Through KDR I’ve done sessions on Python natural language processing and data mining this semester, which has been really helpful. Previously I did a workshop on how to read for comprehension and retention – how do you read a long text quickly and extract the most important information, how to annotate smartly – and that will be especially helpful as I move now to analyzing sample articles,” said Basurto.

When Pérez Sandoval approached Basurto with a second project, he again didn’t want to impose a formal structure on how to accomplish the tasks but instead allowed Basurto to use his own creativity to figure out the best way to tackle the project. Anchoring his work on the important case of Mexico, Pérez Sandoval needed to compare and contrast chapters of a 32-volume series of books individually covering the history of each state in the country. After reading through a few of the chapters, Basurto decided to create a timeline document organized by state to show the key information from each, which proved extremely effective for the project’s needs.

In a final project, once again Pérez Sandoval provided basic background to Basurto and relied on his ingenuity to determine the best approach to the tasks. And once again Basurto did not disappoint. Working with a Notre Dame librarian he met through the KDR program, he was able to find an existing tool that would help him build a data set and track the needed information.

“I really enjoy working with Javier. He’s a very intelligent, determined, and organized person, and I’ve really appreciated learning so much about these research topics,” expressed Basurto. “I am lucky to be working with him, and I felt the same way about previous KDR work I did assisting Professor Scott Mainwaring. And, I’ve really appreciated everything I learned through the KDR training. I guess I just feel really lucky to have found this program.”

Pérez Sandoval feels equally lucky to have worked with Basurto. “It has been such an important part of my fellowship, and he really enabled me to get so much more done than I could have on my own,” he said.

Since its inception last year and the pilot the previous spring, 99 Notre Dame undergraduate students have participated in the Kellogg Developing Researchers program, including five students who have served as research assistants to four visiting fellows for the first time this fall. And, a new crop of students is being chosen from among the applicants to join returning KDR undergraduates in the spring.

“We’ve found that the KDR program really serves a unique niche among our regular and visiting faculty who need research assistants for specific projects or time periods,” shared Rivers. “Our KDR students are in demand because of their drive to do research and because of the skills they’ve taken the initiative to learn through KDR.”

“KDR presents fantastic opportunities for both the students and for the researchers themselves,” Pérez Sandoval continued. “So many of us have gotten into academia not just for the research, but to mentor students and help them find their passion. It’s really been a pleasure all around. I hope Carlos will take parts of what he’s learned with me into the next steps along his path.”