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Why econ: Development

Curious about what draws someone to study development economics? Or how economics connects to a wide range of policy issues? Our affiliated students share why econ matters to them.

Levi Boxell, PhD Student

Levi Boxell grew up wanting to be an engineer or a computer scientist. But his career path took a turn toward economics during his senior year in high school when perspectives of poverty and the role of economics research began to swirl together.

Levi Boxell
Levi Boxell

His father started a new fundraising job working at a community center in a low-income area of Indianapolis. Around the same time, Boxell was in a required economics class and landed an internship at a think tank to do research on international development issues.

A new interest in finding solutions to poverty set in and led Boxell to major in development economics and math at Taylor University.

“Economics gives you a set of tools to think about and understand the world,” he says. “And a lot of the Econ 101 topics — such as thinking on the margin, ignoring sunk costs, and diminishing returns — I find useful for thinking about decisions outside the academic realm in day-to-day life.”

Now, as an econ PhD student at Stanford, Boxell says — without a doubt — that economics suits him. He’s a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow. He was among the first predoctoral fellows at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research (SIEPR). And he was awarded the McKinnon Memorial Fellowship by the Stanford King Center on Global Development.

“I find working with data easier than working with people, so that matches my personality, I guess,” he says. But more importantly, Boxell appreciates how tying empirical economic analysis to answering important questions provides an approach to solving some big problems.

“A lot of it has to do with choosing the right questions, then presenting the results in a manner that’s easily understood by people who might not have training in economics,” he says.

Crunching through mounds of data as a SIEPR predoc — which led to co-authorship of two widely cited papers on America’s growing political polarization — further fanned his passion for studying political economy.

His current research focus is on the interplay between conflict, information technology, polarization and development economics.

“It’s exciting to see how research can kind of shape the public discussion on these topics,” he says.

Nina Buchmann, PhD Student

Nina Buchmann’s interest in global economic inequality and its relationship to gender took root early.

Her family was living in civil war-torn Sri Lanka when she was born, and the exposure to economic disparities and the surrounding violence compelled her, years later, to work in the slums of India after high school for an NGO that assisted women and children with HIV.

And when Buchmann did her undergraduate education, she planned to study international relations with the idea of launching a career fighting war crimes.

Nina Buchmann
Nina Buchmann

But after some friends encouraged her to take an introductory econ class, she found a different way to make an impact.

“I loved the course. I loved the empirical and evidence-based approach to poverty and development,” she says. “So I knew I would still do development, but I would be an economist — a development economist.”

The tools of economics, Buchmann says, open up different ways of examining very specific issues.

Buchmann followed her bachelor’s degree in economics with a master’s in development economics. In between that time, as she worked as an analyst at the trade and development arm of the UN, the prevalence of violence — including violence outside of war — resurfaced on her radar.

After getting her master’s degree, Buchmann turned to doing research at the Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) at Duke University. And now, as a graduate student at Stanford, Buchmann has garnered a “best paper” award and research fellowship grants from SIEPR and the Stanford King Center on Global Development among others for her projects that seek to shed light on factors behind discrimination and domestic violence.

“Understanding why violence decreases with income is key to identifying interventions,” Buchmann says.

The bulk of her work has thus far focused on evidence from Bangladesh, but Buchmann sees gender discrimination across rich and poor countries alike.

“If there’s something you think is important, and you think people should think and do more about it, you can study it,” Buchmann says. “I think I want to keep doing that.”

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