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Published May 11, 2021
Madison Ashworth entered the University of Wyoming in 2015 after graduating from Star Valley High School, where she was a stellar student and athlete. She’s now well on her way to receiving a Ph.D. in economics from UW, where she has played a key role in cutting-edge research that has attracted national and international attention regarding the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ashworth is part of the research team of Department of Economics Professors Todd Cherry, David Finnoff and Jason Shogren, Assistant Professor Stephen Newbold and Associate Professor Linda Thunstrom. The UW economists’ studies of the economic and health impacts of the pandemic, along with COVID-19 testing and vaccine hesitancy, were some of the first conducted on those topics. Their findings have helped inform public policy decisions in Wyoming, around the nation and beyond.
Most recently, the researchers have documented levels of and reasons for vaccine hesitancy in Wyoming, as compared with the rest of the nation, and offered ideas to encourage vaccination among the state’s residents.
“I am so lucky to get to work with such a great team,” Ashworth says. “As a graduate student, the attention our research has received has been a little overwhelming at times, but mostly it has been inspiring. To get the kind of widespread attention that our COVID-19 work has received is motivating and a helpful driver in coming up with even more policy-relevant research.”
“Maddi has been absolutely indispensable to all the work we have done. And she was from the very start, despite the fact that she had virtually no experience with research,” Thunstrom says. “I don’t know how we could have pulled it off without her.”
Ashworth, who competed in the high jump as a UW Cowgirl, was a Mountain West Conference scholar-athlete and received academic all-Mountain West honors, earning her bachelor’s degree in 2018. After beginning graduate studies, she became a teaching assistant for Thunstrom who, along with Finnoff and Newbold, eventually invited Ashworth to join a research project regarding hesitancy to receive the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine.
“We were actually working on developing a survey tool and model to learn more about MMR vaccine hesitancy when COVID-19 happened,” Ashworth says. “We were seeing a lot of inconsistent messages about how severe COVID-19 was, so we adapted our survey tool to measure what that might do to uptake of a COVID-19 vaccine. Our group worked really well together, and we just started working on all sorts of questions relating to COVID-19.”
Among the group’s findings:
-- Aggressive social distancing policies used to slow the spread of COVID-19 have been economically justified, with the benefits of those policies in lives saved outweighing the economic costs by an estimated $5.2 trillion.
-- Physical distancing measures to slow the spread of the virus appear to have dramatically reduced the number of deaths that would have occurred otherwise.
-- Widespread, voluntary testing to control the spread of the virus was likely to be successful because a strong majority of people were willing to be tested.
-- One year ago, about 20 percent of Americans said they would likely decline to receive COVID vaccines after they were developed, making it difficult to achieve herd immunity against the virus.
“I think it would be fair to say that tackling those topics has been the wildest and most intense ride of all of our careers, short or long. Our entire group literally worked day and night to make timely contributions to the knowledge on both vaccine hesitancy and physical distancing, such that there was no time to wait for, or teach Maddi. If she was to keep up, it had to be learning by doing, and learning very quickly,” Thunstrom says. “She blew us all away by the manner in which she entirely embraced that; kept up with the rest of us at every step of the way; and dove headfirst into modeling, programming and survey developments, while also keeping up on the steady stream of new knowledge about the virus and its consequences. She did everything, and the fact that she learned it all so quickly is incredibly impressive.”
Exploring Vaccine Hesitancy
Ashworth notes that COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy has fluctuated during the past year. While about 80 percent of people in the U.S. said in March 2020 they were willing to be vaccinated, vaccine hesitancy steadily increased after that. In December, the UW researchers found that only 49 percent of U.S. adults would be willing to receive the vaccine. More recently, polls by John Hopkins University and the Pew Research Center have shown that vaccine hesitancy is going down again, with about 60 percent to 70 percent of U.S. adults willing to take the vaccine.
The UW economists’ most recent research shows that vaccine hesitancy may be more deeply rooted in the Cowboy State than elsewhere.
“I think one of the biggest reasons we are seeing a relatively high number of vaccine-hesitant people in Wyoming is that the incidence of COVID-19 has not been as severe in our state as it has been in others,” Ashworth says. “This could be reducing the perceived risk of COVID-19 and making the vaccine appear not as necessary in Wyoming.”
For her part, Ashworth is a big supporter of the vaccines, having become fully vaccinated herself in late April.
“I think it is one of the most important ways to help protect yourself and others from COVID-19,” she says. “The COVID-19 vaccines have been proven to be safe and effective, and getting the vaccine is definitely better than actually catching COVID-19.”
Her biggest takeaway from the team’s research?
“Clear, consistent messages that emphasize the benefits of the vaccine are super important,” she says. “Along those lines, making sure the information is coming from a trusted source also is important.”
The UW research team is now studying how to encourage COVID-19 vaccination among UW students, exploring what types of incentives will be best to promote the vaccines when students return to campus in the fall.
“I think the biggest thing the University of Wyoming can do to help in the fight against COVID-19 is to encourage students to take the COVID-19 vaccine,” she says. “It is really the best way to protect yourself and the campus community.”
Additionally, Ashworth is working with an Idaho nonprofit organization called the Fletcher Group to quantify the impact COVID-19 has had on recovery houses that help individuals with substance use disorders across the country.
For her doctoral dissertation, Ashworth is working on an experiment to test how incorrect information can affect the value and trust in different information sources. In the early days of the pandemic, she says, there was a lot of variation in communication about COVID-19.
“Notably, the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) initially came out saying that masks were not the most effective means to prevent COVID-19. Turns out, masks are one of the most effective protective measures you can do, in addition to getting the vaccine and social distancing,” Ashworth says. “With my study, I want to test how this kind of incorrect information can affect the value and trust people have in information sources that vary in their credibility.”
Ashworth, daughter of Steve and Brenda Ashworth, of Thayne, expects to graduate with her Ph.D. by spring 2023. She already has accumulated a pile of awards and honors this year, including being named the College of Business’ Attilio and Bedont Outstanding Graduate Student; the outstanding Ph.D. research student in economics; and the winner of the Charles Mason Graduate Student Research Award.
She hasn’t decided yet what she plans to do after receiving her degree.
“I love the community of research and ideas that comes with a job in academia, but I also have considered pursuing a job with either the CDC or the World Health Organization,” Ashworth says.
As for her pathway from undergraduate student-athlete to accomplished Ph.D. student, she says UW has been an ideal setting for advancement.
“If I had to make the choice all over again about where to go to college, I’d choose UW again in a heartbeat,” Ashworth says. “I think the skills I learned as a student-athlete have really helped me, especially in grad school. Ballard Johnson and Quincy Howe, my high jump coaches in high school and here at UW, both taught me an important lesson: There’s always going to be people who are more talented than you, and you can’t control that, but you can control how hard you are willing to work and how passionate you are. I’ve held onto that, and it has really helped me overcome some of the challenges that come along with grad school and doing research.
“When I was in high school, I didn’t realize how important community and great faculty are to success in college. The university has both of those. It is an incredibly supportive community atmosphere, both on campus itself and across the state of Wyoming,” she adds. “The faculty at the University of Wyoming also are some of the most passionate academics I’ve ever met and are truly interested in student success. Having smaller class sizes also means you can get to know the faculty better and work more closely with them.”
Ashworth’s work with Thunstrom is an example of such student/faculty connections.
“All of my research team is fantastic, but Linda has really helped me grow as a person and an academic,” Ashworth says. “Her willingness to share her extensive knowledge and discuss all sorts of ideas makes her one of the best mentors I’ve ever had.”
For Thunstrom, the admiration is mutual.
“I truly think Maddi would have excelled at whatever she chooses to do. She just gets things done, and she gets them done right. And what she doesn’t know, she learns at lightning speed, without any prompts. She also is a phenomenal team player. So, in that sense, her career prospects would have been excellent even if she hadn’t worked with the rest of us,” Thunstrom says. “But I do think it will benefit her that her enormous efforts as part of our team have generated a multitude of research papers and that she has learned so much, in such a short amount of time, both about the topics, policy analysis and research methods, whether she chooses to pursue an academic career or a career in, say, a government agency.
“The future holds anything that Maddi wants it to. She has the capacity to do whatever she sets her mind to, and she has the determination to make it happen.”