Meagan Hume hopes she will help shape how one of the world's most influential human rights organizations does research — all before she's done with graduate school this spring.

Hume is one of 10 students involved in a first-of-its-kind partnership begun last year between the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School of Public Affairs and Human Rights Watch. They are sizing up innovative ways of gathering information for Human Rights Watch researchers. Hume and her peers tackled the project with gusto this month.

"I think the students understand this is the chance of a lifetime for them professionally," said James Ron, the Humphrey professor overseeing the project.

Like other Humphrey faculty, Ron is constantly on the lookout for hands-on experiences that get students connected with real-world players in public affairs. A consultant for Human Rights Watch since 1992, he approached the New York-based nonprofit asking, "Is there anything our students can do to help?"

That's how East Coast native Hume found herself looking at how the organization could beef up its research arsenal, and how much that would cost. Hume, who recently spent a year linking newly arrived refugees with health services in Philadelphia, says she came to Humphrey for just such opportunities: "That we get to work with this well-respected human rights organization is really exciting."

Hume and her team are looking at peer sourcing, an approach to learning about "people with whom you can't just go to a website and pull their names," as Ron puts it — vulnerable populations from sex workers to refugees to intravenous drug users. Researchers start with one key member of the group and fan out as they make more connections. Human Rights Watch has used the method, but it is looking for ways to make this "snowball sampling" more consistent and reliable, Hume says.

The students will make recommendations in the spring. Ron hopes that will be the start of a productive partnership.

Mila Koumpilova • 612-673-4781