Natalia Rios Martinez (’23 political science, international studies, and public relations) has packed a lot memorable experiences into her Iowa State college career. When she graduates this spring, she will have studied abroad on three separate occasions; landed internships at the local, state, and federal government levels; and presented compelling research at a national conference.
A native of San Juan, Puerto Rico, Rios Martinez intends to pursue a career in public policy. She has already gleaned significant experience in this area, thanks to an undergraduate research opportunity.
Uncovering legal deserts
Rios Martinez has teamed up with David Peters, professor in the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice, to study rural legal deserts in the United States. Rural legal deserts are locations where there are few, if any, affordable attorneys. The study was funded by a National Science Foundation COVID-19 grant (Resiliency and Vulnerability to COVID-19 in Midwestern Rural Communities) and the Iowa Agricultural Experiment Station.
“What we found is yes, there are many legal deserts in the U.S. and their social composition is low-income communities that are often composed of marginalized groups, and they are mostly in rural areas,” Rios Martinez said.
Rios Martinez compiled data for the study, learning how to access and interpret federal data and socioeconomic information from the U.S. Census Bureau. Last summer, she accompanied Peters to the annual meeting of the Rural Sociological Society where she presented their findings, quite a feat for an undergraduate student.
“Natalia hit a home run with her presentation,” Peters said. “Her presentation and poise were so professional that many of my colleagues assumed she was finishing her Ph.D. and was soon to be on the job market. They were amazed to find out she was an undergraduate student.”
While presenting research in front of rural sociology professionals was a little intimidating, Rios Martinez is grateful for the unique experience and credits Iowa State for offering undergraduate students meaningful research opportunities.
“I think I was the only undergrad there, which I’m so thankful for because that speaks to Iowa State’s research and how well they prepare students to do research,” she said. “I felt like Iowa State, through their funding of me, empowered me to have these experiences I wouldn’t otherwise have.”
Following graduation from Iowa State, Rios Martinez intends to take a much-needed gap year, or at least she’s going to try. It won’t be all rest and relaxation, however. She will be participating in the prestigious Truman Scholar program, the premier graduate fellowship in the U.S. for students seeking public service careers. She hopes that time will help solidify her career path.
“I want to work in the field before I commit to a master’s program or Ph.D. or J.D. [juris doctor]. I want to make sure that’s really what I’m passionate about. Then with that security in mind, I will apply to a master’s or J.D. Hopefully, that year will clarify those plans.”
No matter where she lands, Peters is confident Rios Martinez is destined to make a difference in the world.
“Natalia would make an excellent academic, or a senior executive running a government agency, or a lawyer advocating for social change, or an elected official representing her beloved Puerto Rico. She almost has too many options!” Peters said. “I suspect she will wear many hats – academic, administrator, lawyer, politician – over her long and successful career. It is great that our country, and ISU, produces such amazing young people like Natalia.”