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Overseas adventures

Recent Econ grad Emily White travels to India to conduct research on poverty and cognition.


Emily White

The sugar cane fields of Tamil Nadu in Southern India might be a world away from the UO campus in Eugene, but 2013 Economics graduate Emily White is getting plenty of opportunities to apply what she learned in class. “I think I’ve used information from nearly all of my 300- and 400-level econ courses in this job so far, and I expect to draw on more of that information as the job continues,” she says.

Emily works as a research associate for ideas42, an organization that, according to its website, “uses behavioral economics to do social good.” She’s currently conducting research to study the impact of poverty on cognition, specifically how poverty affects decision making, and how impaired cognition might affect things like accident rates and preventative healthcare uptake.

Emily’s home base is the city of Chennai, but her research happens in the small farming villages about four hours away. “We’re surveying rural sugarcane farmers who get paid for their crop just once per year to see whether they make different types of decisions before versus after they receive the harvest payment,” Emily says.


Emily White (third from left) and her co-workers create a Rangoli decoration during the Diwali celebration that happens in October/November.

The professors coordinating the research are in the US and her research manager is in a different region of India, so she’s learned a lot about how to plan and organize a research project on her own, which has been challenging at times. “I work best when I have someone to talk to and bounce ideas off of, so I’ve had to be a bit more creative with that,” she says.

Although she has some experience in interviewing subjects for research projects, she’s never used an interpreter before. “It’s been a new challenge to learn the rhythm of an interview through a third party and to figure out how to dig in on important questions while respecting different cultural norms.”

But her favorite part so far? The fieldwork. “I’ve spent a lot of time speaking with farmers, healthcare workers, mill directors, and village officials about the daily life and typical challenges,” Emily says.

Emily was offered this position as a result of applying for research jobs through J-PAL, a common application administered by the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab that connects researchers with projects conducted by J-PAL and other organizations around the globe to combat poverty by learning its root causes. “I’ve wanted to work for J-PAL or a similar organization since I first learned that it existed,” she says. “There is no way I’d have this job if I hadn’t majored in econ.”

Emily advises other students who are interested in following a similar path to look for ways to get real-world research experience on top of their class work. “One thing I’d note is that if someone is interested in landing one of these roles with just a bachelor’s degree, they will definitely need to do some research projects, like the econ department’s honors program, to be a competitive candidate,” she says. “If you aren’t able to commit to the honors program, try getting a research associate/assistant role.”

The Tamil Nadu project is expected to take from nine to twelve months, and she’s nearly at the halfway point. After that, she’ll deciding whether she’ll continue on to graduate school, either for her master’s or PhD, in the hopes of continuing to do this kind of research.

In the meantime, she says she’s getting the most from her time in India. She’s enjoyed visiting the various villages, hearing new music, meeting new friends, and “trying to learn the frankly impossible rules of cricket.”