Faculty Spotlight: Prof. Betsy Sinclair

Get to know Betsy Sinclair, Professor of Political Science and incoming Chair of the department.

I grew up in Southern California -- I did my undergraduate degree (in mathematics and economics) at the University of Redlands, where I also played softball (go Bulldogs!). I earned my PhD from the California Institute of Technology, where I met my husband (Brian Rogers). After a brief stint in Chicago (me at the University of Chicago, he at Northwestern), we came to WashU in 2013 (me in political science, he in economics).  

My research focuses on understanding human behavior through the lens of politics. I've focused on how our family, friends, and neighbors influence our political behaviors and choices (and how we can influence theirs), how to be a good digital citizens, and how the world around us (from rising levels of anger, to simple changes in political institutions) impacts the way in which we participate in politics. 

When I was a little kid, I imagined that when I grew up, I would be a mathematician. I love the combination of precision and imagination that goes into mathematics. Yet, in the aftermath of the 2000 presidential election, I read an article in the LA Times about a project that was jointly launched between Caltech and MIT (The Voting Technology Project) to try to leverage the technical skills of those institutions to improve our election systems in the United States. This was a project that was important -- essential for the integrity of democracy and our country -- and it involved statistics! I wrote to my future advisor and asked how I could help. Next thing I knew, I was a graduate student at Caltech, working on these kinds of thorny problems that require the precision and imagination of mathematics but also have tremendous impact for a participatory democracy. 

I'm currently working on a project to collect origin stories and to understand why political candidates tell the origin stories they do. We all know a fairytale when we hear it -- they start with "Once upon a time..." or in other cultures sentences like "There was and there was not" -- but consistently they move you out of time or to a different place, and you know that what you are about to hear isn't real. Candidate stories often start the same way with some version of "I was born with humble beginnings...". I'd like to know more about why political origin stories have the structures they do, why voters respond to some stories more than others, and if types of candidates (women vs. men, local aldermen vs. presidential candidates) tell different types of stories. I'd like to know how to recommend a candidate get better at telling their origin story. I'd like to know if these stories are different from the kinds of stories that startups and CEOs and athletes tell. You can read more about it at Stories That Win (https://stories.win/). 

My favorite place in St. Louis is the Grand Basin in Forest Park. We are so lucky to have so many resources here in St. Louis that are accessible to all -- Forest Park is extraordinary in terms of the Science Center, the Zoo, and the Art Museum. My favorite part about working at WashU is the kindness -- I love that so many of my colleagues take the time to care for each other.  

One thing that people might not know is that Chancellor Andrew Martin was one of my earliest mentors. He covered the cab ride cost when I was a new graduate student at a conference and we were headed to the same airport. In exchange, he said I had to tell him about my research. He's been mentoring me (and building up the networks of women in the discipline more broadly) ever since. He was influential in recruiting me back to campus in 2013. 

I love my job, and I'm really grateful for the opportunity to work at WashU. 

Prof. Betsy Sinclair is the incoming Chair of the Department of Political Science beginning July 1, 2023.