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Q&A with King Center Predoctoral Research Fellow Shakil Ayan

Ayan shares his thoughts on his fellowship experience, and the work he's been doing with King Center affiliates on human trafficking and gender discrimination.

Shakil Ayan is a predoctoral research fellow at the King Center, having started in 2022. He has been working with King Center affiliates on human trafficking and gender discrimination.

Tell us about yourself and your background. What drew you to apply for the Predoctoral Research Fellows Program at the King Center?

shakil ayan
Shakil Ayan

I am from Bangladesh and I am the first in my extended family of more than 80 people to want to pursue a PhD. While I did my undergraduate degree in Economics because I wanted to “solve” many development challenges, I had little idea about the world of academic research. It wasn’t until three years after graduation that I refocused my career on research. I joined a study in Bangladesh aimed at reducing intimate partner violence. I was lucky to have excellent mentors who were passionate about development research, and they not only showed the possibilities to contribute to social welfare through economics research but sparked a passion for the many intricacies of academic research. 

One of my mentors, Nina Buchmann, was a Stanford Economics PhD candidate at the time and she suggested that I consider the King Center Predoctoral Fellowship Program. The program would help me develop research experience beyond Bangladesh. The King Center's global research footprint and breadth of work encompassing health, education, environment and beyond convinced me to apply.

When I received the offer for a fellowship, I deliberated for a full two days. In hindsight it was an obvious step. Beyond the apparent professional benefits and having some of the leading academics as mentors, it was a big personal decision to move from Bangladesh and start my journey towards preparing better for a PhD. I thought back to my conversations with King Center predoc Ei Thandar Myint, where she talked with me about the diversity and inclusivity of the King Center, and the commitment of the mentors to helping predocs reach their potential. I knew this was important when I was working with my mentors in Bangladesh, and I knew this would be one of the most important things throughout my predoc journey and so I decided to join the program.

Which King Center initiative did you work on and what global development challenge is it aiming to tackle? What was your role on the team?

I worked on two initiatives at the King Center. One was under the mentorship of Professor Grant Miller at the Stanford Human Trafficking Data Lab; the other was under the mentorship of PhD candidate Nina Buchmann on an experiment to better understand labor market discrimination.

A group of four people is looking at a laborer.
Professor Miller and members of the Stanford Human Trafficking Data Lab accompanied an official inspection for suspected forced labor in Maranhao, Brazil. | Photo credit: Brazilian Federal Labor Prosecution Office

The Stanford Human Trafficking Data Lab aims to fight human trafficking through multidisciplinary research, close partnerships with frontline stakeholders, and large-scale, research-driven policy interventions. The lab has focused its work in Brazil, where trafficking is prevalent. The country’s robust administrative record-keeping environment and well-established transparency laws make it an ideal environment for this work.

When I joined, the first raw data for trafficking inspections became available and I worked on processing and reporting on the summary reports on trafficking inspections and victim demographics. I also worked with large national administrative data to better understand contexts relevant to trafficking. Currently, I am working with the lab to better understand the relationship between corruption, monitoring, and the reporting of labor violations in Brazil. 

With Buchmann and her co-authors, PhD candidate Carl Meyer (Stanford University), and Professor Colin Sullivan (Purdue University), I worked on research to understand whether employers “paternalistically discriminate” against women and reject qualified women for jobs the employer considers too dangerous. I coordinated the field activities, worked on coding the back- and front-end of the experiment and worked with the principal investigators to refine the study including minute details of the questionnaire. 

What did you learn from working on a research team with faculty members, graduate students, and other researchers?

3 people are speaking to each other, in front of a tent. There is a pull-up banner with the text "dRi, Development Research Initiative".
Ayan supervised pilot activities of the Paternalistic Discrimination Project in Bangladesh. | Photo credit: Tanvir Mahatab, 2023

I had the opportunity to learn cutting-edge quantitative methods when I worked closely with Professor Miller at the Stanford Human Trafficking Data Lab on understanding the implications of political monitoring on reporting of labor trafficking incidents. I also had the opportunity to interact with lab members from various other disciplines such as law, statistics and medicine. These interactions helped broaden my exposure to collaborative research. 

During my work with Buchmann and Meyer, I traveled to Bangladesh for fieldwork to train the field team and observe project implementation. This allowed me to gain experience in managing teams in fast-paced environments and also build relationships with local partners. I also had the opportunity to closely interact with study participants, understand their perspective and help refine the study tools. It was a fantastic opportunity to observe the entire pipeline of research from the drawing board to the field to a research paper.

As part of your predoc fellowship, you were able to take classes at Stanford. What was your favorite class or the one you felt you learned from the most?

I took the Real Analysis class at Stanford. Most economics PhD programs require a mathematics course at least at the real analysis level and I was able to fulfill this prerequisite at Stanford. The course provided a foundation for mathematical proofs and I am sure it will help me better understand my PhD first-year coursework.

How would you describe the research community at the King Center and Stanford? How did you connect with other predocs and researchers on campus either through your research projects or outside of them?

The King Center and Stanford felt like a rich and diverse research hub. King Center predocs are from all around the world and are working on very different research themes. This exposes us predocs to new horizons in economic research and also helps us develop a deeper understanding of diverse geographic locations and cultures. The King Center actively fosters the predoc community through research events and social lunches. This has led to predocs developing both personal relationships and opened opportunities for collaborative research. We also had two excellent Stanford PhD mentors Caylee O'Connor and Eva Lestant. Caylee and Eva have been instrumental in helping us transition smoothly to life at Stanford. Not only did they assist in connecting us with fellow researchers, but they were also available for consultations, helping us with both professional and personal matters.

What advice would you give to incoming King Center predocs or others beginning predoctoral fellowships?

Stanford is an excellent place for researchers/aspiring researchers. I had excellent learning opportunities through attending seminars and research workshops at Stanford. Throughout my two years I watched many research projects develop and this really helped me understand how researchers think. I would suggest incoming predocs attend as many research presentations as possible and connect with the researchers they find most interesting. I would also suggest incoming predocs reach out to student and faculty researchers whose work they find interesting. Understandably, researchers are very busy but nonetheless,  the community at Stanford is very inclusive and it's worth trying to connect with some of the best researchers in the world and learn directly from them.

What are your goals and ambitions for whatever’s next in your journey? How did participating in this fellowship program inform your future plans?

The fellowship strengthened my conviction to pursue research as a career. It has also helped me find collaborators; a King Center alumnus predoc and I are discussing a potential research project and we hope to further our work together in the coming years. I also hope to continue working with Professor Grant Miller on our current research.