Graduating senior has paper published in PNAS

Scott Bokemper
Scott Bokemper

Undergraduate students crossing the commencement stage on Saturday will carry the pride of a wide range of accomplishments earned during their time at UNL. In Scott Bokemper’s case, his recent achievement is one that even tenured faculty would be proud to nab.

The Sergeant Bluff, Iowa native and political science major was among the co-authors of a paper examining the neural basis of egalitarian behavior published recently in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, one of the world’s most prestigious scientific journals.

“It’s incredible, I mean, it’s my first publication,” Bokemper said. “But it also puts a little bit of pressure on me because I have to figure out how am I going to get back there.”

UNL is one of only a handful of universities across the country engaged in an interdisciplinary field examining the connection between biology and political behavior — a topic that hooked Bokemper after his first semester at UNL.

“I’m just really interested in how people think about politics and what individual differences there might be in people that make us see the world differently,” Bokemper said.

Along with coursework in political science, he has studied psychology, biology and statistics. He also participated in UNL’s Undergraduate Creative Activities and Research Experiences (UCARE) Program.

During his first UCARE year, he was paired with Ross Miller, associate professor of political science, to examine the effect of publicity on outcomes in international disputes.

“The first year of my UCARE experience really taught me how to work on my own and how to figure things out,” he said.

In hopes of moving Bokemper closer to work aligned with his interests, Miller suggested he spend his second UCARE year with John Hibbing, professor of political science and psychology and a leading researcher on the biology of political behavior. His second year brought a critical lesson, Bokemper said, although it came unintentionally after a computer malfunction stalled his work with election data.

“It was really a nice experience to see that there are some projects that sometimes you just have to shelve and come back to later,” he said. “Not everything comes out smelling like roses like a lot of my experience has been up until now.”

While checking out graduate schools, and with some help from Hibbing, he connected with researchers at the University of California, San Diego and made plans to spend the summer before his senior year working with them. They put him to work finishing a paper based on research examining the biological roots of egalitarianism — why individuals would be willing to sacrifice their own resources to promote equality among groups. He spent time learning about their research methods and framing the paper to make its findings understandable to scientists from various fields.

Their major finding was that the insula, the part of the brain involved with instinctual processes, also is associated with egalitarian behavior.

“One of the big mysteries about the brain is there are a lot of structures that are responsible for a lot of different things and perhaps the interesting thing to take away from this paper is that maybe egalitarianism is a very natural thing like eating, or breathing or hunger, or this just might be the first step in implicating the insula in social behavior,” he said.

Bokemper demonstrated a lot of moxie in going out to San Diego and the fact that that blossomed into a relationship that led to the co-authorship of the PNAS paper is wonderful, said Hibbing, who noted the generosity of James Fowler and his team at UCSD.

“Lots of tenured faculty would love to have a piece in PNAS, so for Scott to be part of a team to pull this off while he was an undergraduate is pretty extraordinary,” Hibbing said.

Bokemper is next headed to New York, where he will pursue a Ph.D. in political psychology at Stony Brook University.

Hibbing, meanwhile, sees plenty of opportunity ahead for Bokemper.

“It is a fairly new field, so I think that does mean that Scott has got a chance to be part of the first generation that is taking it seriously,” Hibbing said.

— Jean Ortiz Jones, University Communications