June 25, 2019
Departing Pre-Doctoral Fellows Reflect on Experience Gained
Trinetta Chong, Ananya Kotia, Nadia Lucas, Yixin Sun and Henry Zhang ready to take the next step.
As the 2018-19 academic year comes to a close, EPIC is bidding farewell to five pre-doctoral fellows who made major contributions to the institute’s research while honing valuable new skills and advancing a thriving academic and social research community.
“All of our research assistants work incredibly hard and grow so much during their time at EPIC,” says EPIC Director Michael Greenstone, the Milton Friedman Distinguished Service Professor in Economics, the College and the Harris School. “Their passion and dedication are critical to the faculty's research. They leave very well prepared for the next phases of their careers but also having had a lot of fun in contributing to the special EPIC community. We will miss them but look forward to staying in touch.”
The highly competitive fellowship provides young researchers who have completed their bachelor’s degrees the opportunity to gain hands-on research experience in a full-time work environment under the guidance of EPIC-affiliated faculty and researchers. This year’s departing class—including Trinetta Chong, Ananya Kotia, Nadia Lucas, Yixin Sun and Henry Zhang—are moving on to the next step in their careers with the backing of a strong support network of professors and postdoctoral scholars who helped advance their research skills, knowledge base and career paths.
Lucas and Sun will remain at the University of Chicago to pursue their PhDs in economics, joining several other recent EPIC alumni. Sun, who will pursue her PhD through the Booth School of Business, spent nearly three years at EPIC and worked primarily with Booth Assistant Professor Thomas Covert on research examining the efficiency of oil and gas leasing in Texas. She credited Covert for his strong mentorship.
“Every project and task I get, he always wants me to understand the economic intuition for what we’re doing and the bigger picture,” Sun said.
The emphasis on understanding all components of research is part of the larger EPIC experience. Sun helped run a student lunch-and-learn series that promotes speakers from interdisciplinary backgrounds. She said that helped her become a better researcher and strengthened her sense of community at the University of Chicago.
“EPIC is a very unique space…where you see people doing truly great interdisciplinary work, and being able to bring that to people at the student level has been a really good part of the EPIC experience,” she said. “I truly believe EPIC is the best RA program possible because of the community that’s been fostered here.”
Lucas will pursue her PhD through UChicago’s renowned economics department. While an RA, she worked on industrial organization, particularly how lease terms affect drilling decision-making, with Ryan Kellogg, professor and deputy dean at the Harris School of Public Policy. In addition to feeling well prepared for her PhD thanks to the hard technical skills and better understanding of academic research gained from her time at EPIC, Lucas credited the institute with guiding her toward doing impactful research in the future.
“What EPIC has taught me is that I want to think really carefully about the policy implications and the impactfulness of any sort of research I go into,” she said. “I don’t want to be doing research in a bubble.”
Chong, who started at the same time as Sun in September 2016, worked for the Climate Impact Lab, an interdisciplinary collaboration measuring the costs of climate change to society. Before coming to EPIC, Chong spent more than two years at the Ministry of Environment and Water Resources in her native Singapore.
“I wanted to be closer to data and research, and those goals were definitely fulfilled in my time here,” said Chong, who is pursuing work in machine learning and data visualization. “I picked up new programming skills and got to be a part of a multi-disciplinary research team. I’m incredibly grateful for this experience”
So, after three years, what advice would she give to the next batch of pre-doctoral fellows?
“It’s OK not to know, but it’s not OK to not want to learn,” she said.
Kotia, who hopes to one day return to his native India to teach, worked for Greenstone on a variety of research projects including rural electrification in Bihar, India, and the effectiveness of protected marine fishing areas. He echoed Chong’s sentiment about how much his time at EPIC bolstered his hard technical skills, adding that the experience also provided valuable insight into the details of the full research project.
“Just seeing and hearing discussions that co-authors and senior academics have about high-level messaging that the paper is trying to convey, how to write a paper effectively, how you should be interpreting the results – I think that’s been super useful,” said Kotia, who will pursue his economics PhD at the London School of Economics this fall.
In addition to programs such as the student lunch-and-learn series Sun helped run, EPIC provides pre-doctoral fellows with the opportunity to take graduate-level courses and participate in a variety of seminars with faculty. Zhang, who will begin his PhD in economics this fall at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said that feature dovetailed with his work on a variety of projects for Greenstone.
“Being on a variety of projects gave me a broad perspective on what Michael and other applied micro-economists are currently studying,” he said. “This nicely complemented being 'in the weeds' while doing project work for Michael. I will use both perspectives in graduate school as I begin my own research.
“Also, UChicago provided opportunities for me to listen to talks by accomplished researchers. From attending seminars and being in that environment, I saw how professors engage with each other’s research and how they think.”
Each of the pre-doctoral fellows expressed their appreciation for the strong academic and social community they built through EPIC.
“Being part of the EPIC community was so nice because it’s a community of people that support you in every aspect of your life, not just professionally,” Lucas said.
April 29, 2019
EPIC Pre-Doctoral Fellow Wins NSF Graduate Research Fellowship
Henry Zhang was selected for the prestigious fellowship.
EPIC pre-doctoral fellow Henry Zhang is the latest in a recent line of EPIC researchers to join a tradition that includes former U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, Google co-founder Sergey Brin and 42 Nobel laureates.
Zhang was accepted to The National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship Program, and is one of just 38 awardees matriculating into economics PhD programs. His colleagues, Nadia Lucas and Yixin Sun, received honorable mentions. The program—the nation’s oldest graduate fellowship of its kind—recruits high-potential, early-career scientists and engineers and supports their graduate research training in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields.
“Henry, Nadia and Yixin show exceptional passion and promise in their work, demonstrating their great potential in economics,” says EPIC Director Michael Greenstone, the Milton Friedman Distinguished Service Professor in Economics, the College, and the Harris School, who supervises the researchers. “They have all grown so much in the last two years, while simultaneously making critical contributions to our research. I look forward to seeing everything they accomplish as they continue their academic careers.”
With the prestigious fellowship, Zhang will receive a three-year annual stipend, with tuition and fees paid to any accredited U.S. institution of graduate education he chooses. He has chosen to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Economics PhD program in the fall. His colleagues Sun and Lucas will enter PhD programs at University of Chicago Booth School of Business and Department of Economics, respectively.
The researchers are part of the EPIC pre-doctoral fellowship program, which offers ambitious young researchers interested in empirical economics a bridge program between their undergraduate and graduate studies. The fellows report to Greenstone or an EPIC-affiliated faculty member. In the past two years, five former pre-doctoral fellows received the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship. Greg Dobbels, Johanna Rayl and Patrick Schwarz received the fellowship last year, with Dobbels and Rayl attending the University of Chicago and Schwarz attending the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Harshil Sahai and Dan Stuart, who are attending the University of Chicago and Harvard Kennedy School, respectively, received the fellowship the previous year.
May 31, 2018
Departing Pre-Doctoral Fellows Reflect on Community, Lessons Learned
Greg Dobbels, Michael Galperin, Azhar Hussain, Bridget Pals, Johanna Rayl, Yuqi Song, Patrick Schwarz, Kevin Schwarzwald and Jingyuan Wang move on to continue careers in diverse fields.
As the 2017-18 academic year comes to a close, EPIC is saying goodbye to nine pre-doctoral fellows who made major contributions to the institute’s research. They did so while building new skills and a beloved community.
“All of our research assistants work incredibly hard and grow so much during their time at EPIC,” says EPIC Director Michael Greenstone, the Milton Friedman Professor in Economics, the College and the Harris School. “Our research wouldn’t be possible without their passion and dedication. They will all no doubt go on to do great things in whatever careers they choose. We will miss them, and will always be here to support them in their future endeavors.”
The highly-competitive fellowship provides young researchers who have completed their bachelor’s degrees the opportunity to gain hands-on research experience in a full-time work environment under the guidance of EPIC-affiliated faculty and researchers. This year’s departing class—including Greg Dobbels, Michael Galperin, Azhar Hussain, Bridget Pals, Johanna Rayl, Yuqi Song, Patrick Schwarz, Kevin Schwarzwald and Jingyuan Wang—are moving throughout the world to pursue advanced degrees in economics, law and public policy. They do so knowing that the strong support network of professors and postdoctoral students that they worked with through EPIC helped advance their research and knowledge base, and as such, their career paths.
Patrick Schwarz, who worked on a variety of projects under Michael Greenstone—primarily on air pollution and its effect on health and human capital development—will begin his PhD in economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the fall. He says the people you interact with as a research assistant at EPIC make it a truly valuable experience.
“That manifests itself in a lot of different ways—for instance, the RAs frequently bounce ideas off each other, even when not working on the same project.” says Schwarz. “I’m sure I’ll carry the relationships I’ve developed here into grad school and beyond. What sets my experience at EPIC apart is the sheer number of seminars, lectures and classes that predocs can attend and the one-on-one advising we get from postdocs and professors.”
The other quality about the EPIC program that sets it apart from other experiences is the amount of independent thinking and responsibility you’re given, says Bridget Pals.
Pals, who will begin law school at New York University in the fall, worked with the UChicago Energy & Environment Lab. There, she assisted on projects that ranged from evaluating the reach of Illinois’ lead testing program to advancing water conservation in Fresno, California.
Pals said her work was highly rewarding because it was so substantive and she was always surrounded by a highly-talented team.
“I can’t imagine any career where you would grow as much over the course of a couple years as you do at EPIC,” Pals says. “There’s a lot of opportunity for independent work and to strike out on your own, and at least in my experience, to get increased responsibilities as you go.”
Michael Galperin agreed. Galperin, who will be pursuing his PhD at UChicago, worked with Greenstone on a variety of projects. He said Greenstone would have him look at relevant papers and textbooks before collaborating on a solution, and he relished the opportunity to learn how to tackle complex questions on his own.
That was a necessity while working on a paper that estimates the relationship between extremely hot days and mortality rate in India—a paper that took eight years to complete.
“I hadn’t had an experience that required so much independent thinking in that sense,” Galperin says. “I think that’s a cool approach because it’s not like I’m being spoon-fed what to do. That got me more comfortable with seeking out information that I needed to do something with on my own.”
All of the departing RAs in one way or another mentioned they would miss the larger EPIC community. Kevin Schwarzwald, who has a climate science background, worked on improving climate impacts projections and researching the societal impacts of changes in climate variability with Harris Public Policy Assistant Professor Amir Jina at EPIC and the Center for Robust Decisionmaking on Climate and Energy (RDCEP).
The interdisciplinary collaboration was something he said he really enjoyed.
He and Johanna Rayl created and ran a student lunch-and-learn series that invites young researchers from all disciplines to discuss their climate, energy and environmental research and receive feedback in a low-pressure environment.
The lunch series was a natural pairing to his work at RDCEP, where he researches climate variability and climate modeling. He used the lunches and other projects to help foster collaboration and dialogue between the climate science and social science/economics fields at EPIC, such as the lunch when he presented on how best to interpret climate data in social science and economic research.
Like other research assistants, he said he expects to stay in touch with his fellow research assistants.
“I’ll miss the community a lot. It’s a fun group of very intelligent people who are all going to go great places,” Schwarzwald says. “The good thing is that I know in 30 years when I need an opinion on something, I’ll call [other RAs] and get that. It’s been a great crowd to be a part of, and it’s going to be one that I’ll miss a lot.”
Rayl will remain at UChicago to pursue her PhD in economics. During her time at EPIC she worked with Greenstone and gained valuable experience beyond traditional data analysis work as she helped coordinate a team of stakeholders studying the adoption rate of a federal home weatherization program in Baltimore.
“The work that I did was challenging and fun because it involved being the project manager in between [researchers], the gas and electric utility and their implementing partner and other actors in the project,” she says. “I’m really glad I got that experience.”
Greg Dobbels, who will begin his PhD in economics in the fall at Princeton University, echoed Rayl’s assertion that EPIC prepared him well for a career in research. He is one of several departing research assistants who worked on research for the Climate Impact Lab. The Lab is an interdisciplinary collaboration between researchers at the University of Chicago, University of California, Berkeley, Rutgers University and the Rhodium Group who are measuring the costs of climate change to society.
Working primarily on models of the impact of climate change on the agriculture sector, Dobbels said the opportunity to expand upon the large body of existing literature on the topic through rigorous data collection and analysis was highly rewarding and will prepare him for his upcoming studies.
“Every part of [my work at EPIC] contributed something,” Dobbels says. “Learning to code is necessary to pursue my own research. Learning about a whole bunch of literature, both what they’re thinking about and how they’re thinking about it, helps me build off that in my own research. And, just [taking classes] to get the math skills was a great opportunity.”
Azhar Hussain also worked with the Climate Impact Lab and will begin pursuing his PhD in economics at the London School of Economics.
Hussain, a native of India who previously worked on grant-level energy economics projects at the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) in India, comes from an engineering background. That meant much of the research techniques he was using to study how climate change affects human mortality were brand new to him. He said the strong teamwork fostered at EPIC was hugely beneficial.
“The good thing about EPIC is the cohort – principal investigators, other research assistants, postdocs – there’s a lot of learning that takes place,” Hussain says. “I received valuable research guidance and career advice from Prof. Greenstone. In addition, others at EPIC assisted me with methods, and taking courses at UChicago was another rewarding experience.”
Hussain is one of several research assistants who were born outside the United States. Yuqi Song and Jingyuan Wang are both from China, and both have been working with the Climate Impact Lab as well.
Wang, who is leaving to pursue a PhD in economics at Northwestern University, focused on the impact of climate change on conflicts during her time at EPIC. She said EPIC’s collaborative, familial atmosphere helped her with both hard research skills and more general workplace skills.
“Because I’m from China, I’ve learned how to work with people from around the international community,” Wang says. “I think my communication skills were pretty low when I first got here, and now I think I’m much better. It’s the first time I’ve been exposed to a completely international environment. That’s pretty important to me, to experience that here and live here, it has impacted my life, not just my research abilities.”
Song, who focused on the impacts of the energy sector on climate change, will take a slightly different path and begin pursuing her PhD in public policy at the Harris School of Public Policy this fall. Having come to the program with an MBA from the Booth School of Business, she said EPIC boosted her confidence as a researcher in independent and group settings.
“I’m really happy I got the opportunity to do a lot of things by myself but also all the help and discussions with others,” Song says. “I really learned a lot about how to handle all of these problems when a barrier comes up, how to coordinate with other people. When I came here, I wasn’t really sure if I should continue to get a PhD or just go work in industry, but now I’m really confident in continuing academic research.”
April 30, 2018
Three EPIC Pre-Doctoral Fellows Win Prestigious NSF Graduate Research Fellowship
Greg Dobbels, Johanna Rayl and Patrick Schwarz were selected from more than 12,000 applicants to win the prestigious fellowship.
What do three pre-doctoral fellows from the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago (EPIC) have in common with Google founder Sergey Brin, former U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu and 42 Nobel laureates? They’ve all been accepted to The National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship Program.
Greg Dobbels, Johanna Rayl and Patrick Schwarz were selected from more than 12,000 applicants to win the prestigious fellowship, and were among only 36 awardees matriculating into Economics PhD programs. Their colleague, Michael Galperin, received an honorable mention. The program—the nation’s oldest graduate fellowship of its kind—recruits high-potential, early-career scientists and engineers and supports their graduate research training in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields.
“Greg, Johanna, Patrick and Michael’s exceptional passion and rigor in their work demonstrates their great potential in economics,” says EPIC Director Michael Greenstone, the Milton Friedman Professor in Economics, the College, and the Harris School, who supervises the researchers. “They have all grown so much in the last two years, while simultaneously making critical contributions to our research. I look forward to seeing everything they accomplish as they continue their academic careers.”
With the prestigious fellowship, the researchers receive a three-year annual stipend, with tuition and fees paid to the institution. They also have the opportunity to participate in international research and professional development offerings from the NSF, and the freedom to conduct their own research at any accredited U.S. institution of graduate education they choose. This fall Dobbels will enter Princeton’s Economics PhD program, Rayl will enter the program at the University of Chicago, and Schwarz will enter the one at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The researchers are part of the EPIC pre-doctoral fellowship program, which offers ambitious young researchers interested in empirical economics a bridge program between their undergraduate and graduate studies. The fellows report to Greenstone or an EPIC-affiliated faculty member. Last year, two former pre-doctoral fellows received the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship, Harshil Sahai and Dan Stuart. They are now attending the University of Chicago and Harvard Kennedy School, respectively.