April 2020 Faculty Spotlight
April Faculty Spotlight with Associate Professor, Anna D’Souza
We chat with Associate Professor Anna D’Souza for the first time in almost six years in this month’s spotlight in which she fills us in on recent research, her evolving teaching style, and more.
Tell us about your recent research. What are some of your most challenging or interesting takeaways thus far?
I study food and nutrition insecurity in low-income and developing countries. Given that so many of the world’s poorest and most food insecure people live in fragile environments, like conflict or post-conflict regions, I am very interested in understanding how households cope with conflict and how their food security is affected by conflict. Along with colleagues at the World Bank and the World Food Programme, I am examining the relationship between conflict, household welfare (including food security), and internal displacement during active conflict– specifically, the ongoing conflict in Yemen. We are using proprietary household data collected via mobile phones by the World Food Programme – the Mobile Vulnerability and Assessment Mapping Survey (mVAM). The monthly data begin in August 2015, just months after the escalation of violence and the peak in displacement. (Internally displaced people is the term used for refugees who stay within their own country.) Collecting household data during active conflict is rare. This survey offers a unique opportunity to track welfare and violence experienced leading up to and after displacement, and to further compare displaced households to non-displaced populations in the origin district and the districts to which they migrate.
How has your teaching style evolved as your career has progressed?
I have gained a lot of teaching knowledge by working with students, attending events at the Schwartz Institute and the Center for Teaching and Learning, and learning about pedagogy on my own. For example, I attended the Schwartz Inclusive Pedagogy workshop, which emphasizes understanding differences in learning styles and life experiences, as well as more conventional aspects of diversity (i.e., race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, etc.).
These experiences have helped me develop the following teaching philosophy. First, I try to create a supportive environment, in which students feel comfortable taking risks and seeking help. This rests on learning about students’ passions and challenges and developing relationships with them outside the classroom. Second, I aim to deepen student learning by incorporating short self-reflection activities aimed at learning how to learn. Third, I use active learning techniques in all my classes. And, finally, I integrate international examples (e.g., current trade negotiations) and discuss the value of an international perspective by describing my research on, travel to, and work in developing countries. I believe that broadening one’s physical horizons often broadens one’s intellectual and emotional horizons as well.
The Nobel Prize in economics (officially, the Sveriges Riksbank Prize) recently went to three development economists for their work on randomized controlled trials (RCTs). Can you talk a bit about the importance of this work and its recognition in the social science community?
Esther Duflo, Abhijit Banerjee, and Michael Kremer shared the prize for introducing RCTs to development economics – a change that has reshaped the field. Such trials now involve hundreds of researchers working across the world to figure out what approaches work best to alleviate poverty. The method is often called the gold standard for identifying causal effects, though several prominent economists (including Nobel laureate Angus Deaton) have argued against this characterization, stating that RCTs are just one tool among many that economists have developed to identify causal effects and that RCTs have their drawbacks as well (e.g., external validity, ethical issues associated with experiments).
Another related debate in development economics is about “thinking big” or “thinking small”. The former is about tackling research questions related to economic growth– what factors explain why countries are rich or poor? The latter is about tackling research questions related to the impact of or behavioral changes due to specific interventions. The winners have been criticized for focusing on local interventions that help poverty alleviation at a local level but do not necessarily contribute to large-scale poverty alleviation brought about by economic growth. Their response has been to emphasize the huge potential gains of implementing efficiently and cost-effectively large-scale government programs and policies and the importance of understanding behavioral responses (by testing theoretical predications). (Programs tested with using RCTs have later been scaled-up to include tens of millions of people.) (Critics of “thinking big” argue that economists have not been very successful at understanding what drives economic growth or in operationalizing lessons learned in these areas.)
I think that this very early recognition (RCTs have flourished over the past twenty years) by the Nobel Committee will encourage more young economists in development economics and other fields of economics to considering running their own RCTs. Additionally, Esther Duflo is the youngest person (46 years old) to win the prize and she is only the second woman to win it. She serves as a role model for young women and girls interested in economics and interested in fighting poverty. For a discipline that has relatively few women and individuals of color, this is one way to demonstrate the impact women can have on the profession.