UMass Boston

Center Staff

Center for Women in Politics and Public Policy Staff

Laurie Nsiah-Jefferson Director 617.287.5554
Christa Kelleher Research and Policy Director 617.287.5530
Muna Killingback Assistant Program Director 617.287.5530
Leena Maqsood Program Coordinator

Staff Bios




Laurie Nsiah-Jefferson, Director

Education: PhD, Brandeis University; MPH, Yale University; MA and BA, Brandeis University

Areas of Expertise:  Intersectionality • Social and Health Policy • Diversity • Equity and Inclusion 

Laurie Nsiah-Jefferson is the director for the Center for Women in Politics and Public Policy at UMass Boston, and graduate program director for the Gender, Leadership and Public Policy graduate certificate program. In 2018 she was a Visiting Professor in the same program. She has held faculty and senior scientist positions at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University, where she was affiliated with the Institute for Child, Youth and Family Policy, the Institute on Assets and Social Policy, and the Sillerman Center for the Advancement of Philanthropy. 

In prior academic roles, Nsiah-Jefferson has headed efforts related to diversity, equity, and inclusion at the Heller School, and was the concentration head for women, gender, and sexuality studies for the Master's in Public Policy Program. Nsiah-Jefferson has served as affiliate faculty with the Health, Science, Society and Policy Program, Women, Gender, and Sexuality Program, and the African and Afro-American Studies Department at Brandeis University. She is also an affiliate of the Intersectionality Institute for Policy and Research, Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, British Columbia. She was recently appointed associate research professor at the University of North Carolina, College of Health and Human Services.

Nsiah-Jefferson earned a PhD in social policy with a concentration in Health Policy/ Health Services from the Heller School for Social Policy and Management, and a master’s in women and gender studies from the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Brandeis University. She also received a Master’s in Public Health (MPH) degree in Health Services Administration from Yale University School of Medicine, Dept. of Epidemiology and Public Health. In addition, she holds a BA in African and Afro-American studies and politics from Brandeis University.

Read Professor Nsiah-Jefferson's complete biography here. 


Christa Kelleher, Research and Policy Director

Education: PhD, Sociology, Brandeis University
MA, Sociology and Women’s Studies, Brandeis University
Areas of Expertise: Public policy development and analysis; women’s political representation and leadership; women’s health and reproductive rights, state government, Massachusetts politics.

Christa conducts research on public leadership, with an emphasis on women of color, and policy issues related to women’s economic security. Among other projects, she has directed studies on women’s economic status, the midwifery workforce, and women in construction. Recent projects have examined gender parity in higher education leadership, the early care, and education workforce, and pay equity. In 2002, Kelleher began teaching in the center’s graduate certificate program in Gender, Leadership, and Public Policy. Her positions in academic, nonprofit, and government settings include teaching at Brandeis, Pine Manor College, and Tufts; work on political campaigns; public service in the Massachusetts State Senate; and board roles in nonprofit advocacy organizations. Christa earned her BA in Political Science from Union College, and an MA in Sociology/Women’s Studies and PhD in Sociology from Brandeis University.



Muna Killingback, Assistant Program Director

Education: MPA, International Relations, University of Massachusetts Boston; Graduate Certificate in Human Rights, UMass Boston;
BA, English and Journalism, Douglass College of Rutgers University
Areas of Expertise: Women's rights, human rights, non-governmental and nonprofit organizations, feminist peacebuilding, faith-based and NGO advocacy

Muna Killingback joined the Center for Women in Politics and Public Policy with many years of experience advocating for and writing about women's and human rights, peace, and social and economic justice issues.  At CWPPP, she works with the Gender, Leadership, and Public Policy graduate programs, oversees communications, and assists with fund development. Formerly at the Center for Rebuilding Sustainable Communities after Disasters at UMass Boston, she had previously served as Executive Director of the Cambridge-based nonprofit organization, WomenExplore (formerly Theological Opportunities Program). She is a former director of communications for the World YWCA, headquarters of the global women's movement in Geneva, where she had been one of its first-ever Young Women Interns. As a freelance writer and editor, she specialized in the work and communications needs of nonprofit and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), including grant writing. She continues to be active in the World YWCA network and serves on YW Boston's Advocacy Committee, UMass Boston's Restorative Justice Commission (RJC), and the Professional Staff Union's Committee on Racial Equity (CORE). Muna completed the Human Rights Graduate Certificate in the School for Global Inclusion and Social Development at UMass Boston in 2019.  She is currently a third-year doctoral student in the Global Governance and Human Security PhD program, based at UMass Boston's McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies where her research is focused on the feminist peacebuilding work of women's NGOs and faith-based organizations. 


Leena Maqsood, Program Coordinator

Education: MA, Conflict Resolution, University of Massachusetts Boston; MA, Telecommunication, Information Studies, and Media, Michigan State University; MPhil, International Development Studies, Iqra University in Pakistan
Areas of Expertise: International development; women empowerment and gender equity; information and communication technologies for human development. 

Within the center, Leena is responsible for coordinating the Distinguished Public Service Fellows Program, Center's Advisory Board activities, and the New England Women’s Policy Initiative (NEWPI). Prior to joining the center, Leena was an international development professional. Some of the organizations she was associated with include the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS), and the international nonprofit JSI Research & Training Institute, Inc. Twice, she had been a recipient of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Safe Motherhood Award for producing behavior change advocacy programs broadcasted on Pakistan Television to improve the maternal and neonatal health indicators in Pakistan. 


Sara Zakaria, Communication and Program Assistant

Sara Zakaria is a rising junior studying communication at Boston College, transferring from UMass Boston. Aside from her position at CWPPP, she was the Professional Development Coordinator of Strong Women, Strong Girls. She was also a news writer for the Mass Media and a film writer for Unpublished Magazine. She previously worked as a promotions/marketing intern with Flickers' Rhode Island International Film Festival. Sara’s interests include media sociology, film analysis, and media representations of women.

Grace Ecklund Gustavson


Grace Ecklund Gustavson, Communication Intern

Grace is a rising senior studying International Relations and Spanish at Mount Holyoke College in Western Massachusetts. Originally from Vermont, Grace enjoys hiking, swimming, and cooking in her free time. They are currently a Communications Intern with CWPPP and a member of the organization's NEW Leadership - MA 2022 Coordination Team. She also directs Communications and co-directs Endorsements for Sunrise Montpelier, a hub of the national youth-driven Sunrise Movement.

Research Associates and Assistants


Kelly Smith, Research and Policy Associate

An alumna of the Gender, Leadership, and Public Policy graduate program, Dr. Kelly D. Smith provides research, data, and writing support to equity-related projects at the Center. She is the founder of AEWAS Consulting, which guides individuals, organizations, and communities through data-informed change processes to empower equity and social mobility. Kelly also serves as a Data Coach with Achieving the Dream, supporting community colleges as they work to diminish equity gaps and improve student outcomes.

Kelly earned her EdD in Adult and Community College Education from North Carolina State University. She received an MS in Forensic Science from George Washington University, an MS in Chemistry from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and a BA in Chemistry from Case Western Reserve University.

Violet Acumo, Research Assistant

Violet Acumo is a doctoral student in the Department of Public Policy and Global Affairs at the University of Massachusetts Boston. She earned a Master of Public Policy degree and a specialization in Gender, Justice, and Environmental Change from Michigan State University. She also holds a first-class honors degree in Industrial and Organizational Psychology from Makerere University Kampala. Violet is a member of the Michigan State University Research Consortium on Gender-Based Violence and has worked in Uganda, Nigeria, and the United States on gender and policy-related projects. She is passionate about gender-centered, policy-oriented research and international development.

Damiana Andonova, Research Assistant

Damiana Andonova is a graduate student at the Milken School of Public Health at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C. Andonova received her Bachelor of Science in Health: Science, Society, and Policy and in Biology from Brandeis University. She serves as the co-chair of the Civic Engagement Committee of the American College of Healthcare Executives of Massachusetts and is a member of the New England Society of Healthcare Strategy, the Society for Healthcare Strategy and Market Development, and the Swiss Society of Boston. Damiana’s research experience has involved working on circadian rhythm in the Michael Rosbash Lab at Brandeis University, examining the effects of oxytocin on social interaction in an autistic mammalian model, and investigating the impact of combination hormone therapies on ovarian cancer.

Gracen Fling, Research Assistant

Gracen Fling is currently a junior at Clark Atlanta University in Atlanta, Georgia. She is majoring in fashion merchandising with a computer science minor. She serves as the Co-Director of Social Media for their digital magazine platform, Her Campus. She also serves as the Co-Director of Social Media for the Atlanta University Center Title IX organization, What (S)he Said. Alongside those positions, she is a Research Assistant for Dr. Laurie Nsiah Jefferson, researching topics ranging from the measurement of gendered racism to hindrances to reporting sexual and racial harassment and violence on college campuses.

Ciyana Smith, Research Assistant

Ciyana Smith is an alumna of and research assistant at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. She holds her B.S. in Biology and plans to continue her education in a doctoral program that focuses on maternal and child health. As a certified pregnancy, childbirth, and postpartum care Doula supporting families across Boston, Ciyana passionately hopes to empower women through knowledge of self, promote healthy birth outcomes, positive birth experiences, and birth equity.

Angesom Teklu, Research Assistant

Angesom Teklu is a graduate student in the Department of Public Policy at UMass Boston. Angesom also holds an M.A. in Sustainable International Development from Brandeis University. He is passionate about the research, design, and strengthening of evidence-based policy solutions that impact public policy through collaborations with local, national, and global communities. Prior to graduate school, Angesom worked as a practitioner, helping community organizations design and implement programs that add value to community members, specifically in capacity building, civic engagement, workforce, and organizational development. His current research interests are in immigration policy and local communities’ engagement to improve policy and action.

Emma Tynan, Research Assistant

Emma Tynan is a PhD student in the public policy doctoral program. Before coming to UMass Boston, Emma earned her BA in public policy from Hamilton College in 2020. Her primary research interest is education policy, with a focus on equity of both opportunity and funding for disadvantaged students. She is particularly interested in the transition period between high school and college. Her research assistantships at UMass Boston have given her the opportunity to study several topics within the field of education policy such as student/parent activism and unequal access to high-level math courses in public schools. As a graduate assistant at the center, she is currently working on a project studying representation and diversity in the highest levels of the healthcare sector. 

Opportunities at CWPPP for Students

Download the flyer about CWPPP opportunities for undergraduate students.