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.”