BFI NewsAug 13, 2013

For Young Scholars, A Grand Tour and Deep Dive into Economics

For many undergraduates studying economics at the University of Chicago, summer is not a three-month hiatus from data sets and regression analysis. It can be a prime time to pursue independent study while sharpening their research skills.

More than 50 students took the opportunity to do so this summer in the Economics Undergraduate Research Experience (REU). Designed specifically for undergraduates working as research assistants for faculty in economics and related fields, the three-week program enriches their hands-on experiences.

Marianne Bertrand, the Chris P. Dialynas Distinguished Service Professor of Economics in the Booth School of Business

They hear from and interact with top minds in the field in a series of talks that cover diverse subfields, topics, approaches, and methods, also taking seminars on advanced research software, learning the technical skills critical to succeeding in a research environment.

Students interested in academic research really need to see it up close; getting whatever hands-on experience they can helps them to learn to formulate questions and methods of their own. UChicago faculty members are always in need of research assistants to catalog data, translate text, and do the day-to-day tasks of economic research.

But working on a single project all summer has certain disadvantages–namely, it only exposes students to one set of research methods, one specific research problem. And even for the most brilliant students, transitioning from class work to research doesn’t always come easily, said Grace Tsiang, co-director of undergraduate studies in economics.

In 2012, Tsiang and her co-director Victor Lima worked with the institute to design a program that would both broaden students’ exposure to a range of advanced research and deepen their skills.

“One of the hardest parts for students is formulating a research question,” said Grace Tsiang, co-director of undergraduate studies in economics. “Another is devising a research method that will shed some light on the question posed.”  In sessions with some of UChicago’s most innovative scholars, students see different ways to attack a question. “We want to enhance the narrow focus of working on one professor’s project to point out that there are many research methods out there,”  she noted.

Chris Denning, an economics major entering his fourth year in the College, said that attending REU sessions this summer introduced him to areas of economics beyond his interests in macroeconomics and finance that he had never thought to explore. Denning is spending his summer analyzing US Treasury bond data for a project with Professor of Economics and in the College Ali Hortaçsu, but he says that REU really opened his eyes to work in the field beyond econometrics. He was especially interested in field experiments presented by John List, the Homer J. Livingston Professor of Economics, and work addressing gender gap differences being examined by Marianne Bertrand, the Chris P. Dialynas Distinguished Service Professor of Economics in the Booth School of Business.

“It’s really important that we’re exposed to some of the other research that’s out there,” said Denning. “Maybe you end up writing a really great paper that you wouldn’t have even thought of doing if you’d stayed pigeonholed into finance or macro.”

“I’ve really learned how vast economics really is as a research area,” said Jonathan Kowarsky, entering his third year as an economics major. “You know there are a lot of different fields, but you don’t realize exactly how different they are.” In his research this summer, Kowarsky is working with Hortaçsu as well, analyzing fMRI data of the brain patterns of people as they make decisions in the course of performing cognitive and non-cognitive tasks, a neuroeconomic study that, coupled with the variety of work seen at this summer’s REU, has him interested in exploring more special topics courses across the spectrum of economic research.

If the lectures show students the breadth of economic research, the skill-building seminars add depth. Kowarsky and his fellow REU attendees say the sessions teaching programming skills augmented their work in entirely different ways. Being early in their academic careers, many undergraduates at REU have yet to be exposed to advanced programming; gaining those skills early on allows them to contribute more significantly to the research they’re assisting with this summer.

“[Those sessions] acted as a great nudge into seeing the research possibilities with both MATLAB and STATA,” said Kurt Caldwell, an alumnus speaking about how his experience at REU during summer 2012 applied to his work helping to analyze the nutrition of elementary school lunches for John List’s research.

Tsiang said that’s one of the major reasons faculty are so willing to participate and help make the REU a success: they gain top-notch research assistants in exchange for giving undergrads a peek under the hood of their research work. “The undergraduate population is a huge asset to the vibrancy of research on this campus,” she said. The breadth of projects involving REU students ranges from modeling the electricity market to find potential for market manipulation to studying the mobilization effects Twitter has had on firms connected to regimes overturned during the Arab Spring to analyzing the role of monetary policy in growth of economies in developing countries.

But more than providing great assistants for their research, faculty give their time in REU to ensure that the tradition of Chicago economics continues by drawing young minds into the academic fold as early as possible. “The REU enhances the research environment and shows students the range of research questions and approaches, so they have a better view of the directions they could go in graduate school,” said Tsiang. “It really gives students an idea of what a career in research can look like.”

–Mark Riechers