KENNESAW, Ga. | Apr 26, 2021
Jacob Rybak is having an unforgettable final year as a Kennesaw State University student, presenting to prestigious research conferences across the country and even being a featured speaker for one of them.
Rybak has been working with professor Susan Hardy for several months on research aimed at reforming the prison system in the United States and reducing the number of former inmates who relapse into criminal activity and return to jail. Rybak has given presentations online for seven different research conferences, including at Harvard, Virginia Tech and most recently Stanford, for which he also was a plenary speaker.
“It has been an incredible experience,” said Rybak, a senior double majoring in economics and finance with a minor in applied statistics and analytics. “Some of the students at these conferences hopefully will be in positions of influence in their communities in the future, and we want to make people understand that there are issues that need to be solved.”
Conducting undergraduate research wasn’t on Rybak’s radar until he took a statistical methods course from Hardy last fall, which he called “the best decision I ever made regarding my education.” For the research project the class requires, Hardy supported his idea to study how to prevent released offenders from being incarcerated again – a meaningful subject to Rybak considering he has a family member who spent 15 years in prison, was arrested again for the same crime, and now is serving a life sentence. Hardy also encouraged Rybak to participate in research showcases on campus and beyond.
“I just never imagined that it would’ve taken off the way that it did,” Rybak said. “Having the opportunity to speak on behalf of current and former inmates who might feel like their voices aren’t being heard, as well as to network with people from schools such as Stanford and Harvard, never would have been possible without Professor Hardy opening the whole realm of undergraduate research to me and mentoring me on presentation skills.”
For his research project, Rybak analyzed Iowa Department of Corrections statistics because the state has a well-organized, ready-to-use data set on their number of former inmates who return to prison and why. Rybak proposes placing greater emphasis on rehabilitation within the U.S. prison system by providing more educational opportunities for inmates and addressing hostile prison environments and the psychological needs of inmates.
Rybak shared his research at Kennesaw State’s Symposium of Student Scholars last fall and this spring, and he took first place in the undergraduate category in the recent Analytics Day. KSU’s research showcases were the springboard to Rybak being invited to national research conferences and being one of only three students chosen as plenary speakers for the Stanford conference, enabling him to address all of the attendees about the realities of prison life and his proposed solutions.
“Jacob is a passionate and motivated person,” said Hardy, senior lecturer of analytics and statistics in KSU’s School of Data Science and Analytics. “He has prompted me and others at each of his conferences to reflect on biases we have against ex-offenders. Jacob is a hard worker and he found these landmark conferences where the School of Data Science and Analytics had not previously participated.”
Rybak, 26, has been conducting and presenting his research while maintaining a full course load, being a husband and father, and working a full-time job from 5 a.m. to 2 p.m. He and his wife Andi, a Kennesaw State alumnus with a degree in integrative studies, have a 21-month-old son and are expecting their second child in July.
As Rybak looks forward to graduating in May, he aspires to a career at the intersection of economics, finance and data analytics. Rybak also wants to continue the community activism and awareness from his research, including possibly starting a nonprofit to help former prisoners transition back into society through education, scholarships and workforce training.
“This is very near and dear to my heart and I hope I can carry it on,” Rybak said. “I would love to do more than just talk about these issues.”
– Paul Floeckher
Photos by Jason Getz and submitted
A leader in innovative teaching and learning, Kennesaw State University offers undergraduate, graduate and doctoral degrees to its more than 43,000 students. Kennesaw State is a member of the University System of Georgia with 11 academic colleges. The university’s vibrant campus culture, diverse population, strong global ties and entrepreneurial spirit draw students from throughout the country and the world. Kennesaw State is a Carnegie-designated doctoral research institution (R2), placing it among an elite group of only 7 percent of U.S. colleges and universities with an R1 or R2 status. For more information, visit kennesaw.edu.