Undergraduate students get hands-on experience in economics research

Alex Foster, a third-year economics major, spent the summer studying the works of contemporary artists Jackson Pollock and Andy Warhol. Instead of visiting museums or reading up on the two artists from art books, he stayed on campus, crunching numbers.

As a summer research assistant to David Galenson, professor in economics and the College, Foster pored over the sales histories and auction house prices of Pollock and Warhol paintings to gauge which innovative artists were what Galenson called “conceptualists,” who make radical innovations in their field at a very early age, or “experimentalists,” whose innovations develop slowly over a long period.

“If you graph their age to the value of their paintings, you’ll see a peak when Pollack and Warhol were younger, and as they aged, their creativity declined correspondingly,” Foster explained. “Working on this project with Professor Galenson is one of the most memorable experiences that enhanced my education.”

One of the highlights of Foster’s summer job included a two-week program, organized by the Department of Economics’ Undergraduate Program and the Becker Friedman Institute for Research in Economics, which aims to enrich the hands-on experiences for undergraduate students and inspire sustained interest in research.

The annual training, “Economic Research Experience for Undergraduates,” ran in late June and early July. Foster and a group of 45 fellow students working as summer research assistants for UChicago faculty in economics and related fields gathered for a series of lunchtime lectures highlighting applications of economic analysis. Topics ranged from high-frequency trading and the role of bride prices in African girls’ education to energy economics and the use of traditional economic tools to understand how public policies are shaped.

In addition, students attended workshops on research software and the application of new technical skills in advanced research.

“For many undergraduate students, transitioning from classwork to research doesn’t always come easily,” said Grace Tsiang, co-director of undergraduate studies in economics. “The summer jobs give them some exposure into how research is done.”

However, Tsiang points out that working on a single project all summer has certain disadvantages–students only focus on one set of research methods and one specific research problem. “Therefore, we want to make our training a broad enough focus so students can hear a variety of topics from faculty members, and find out what topics truly interest them,” she explained. “The program gives them an accurate picture of what a career in research can look like so they have a better view of the directions they could go in graduate school.”

Foster said, “The program has given me lots of insights into the research process. I had the opportunity to interact with top researchers who can explain to me the steps they take from developing an idea to writing and getting it published.”

After graduation, Foster hopes to work for a research institute abroad and pursue research in poverty and development.

Victoria Mooers, who majors in economics and public policy, said the seminars taught her new research tools. “We’ve learned programming language and other practical skills that I will need for more sophisticated projects in the future,” Mooers said.

Organizers have also invited UChicago graduate students to share basic and new research methods with participants. “We want to build a community for the participants,” Tsiang added. “So if they get stuck, they know they have someone to turn to.”

By investing in these kinds of programs, the Department of Economics and Becker Friedman Institute hope to ensure that the tradition of Chicago economics continues by drawing young minds into the academic fold as early as possible, said Lars Peter Hansen, director of the institute.

Other institute programs and activities for undergraduate students include the Friedman Forum series, which will feature informal discussions with prominent economists who use economic analysis to help students understand real-world issues and problems. Between the fall of 2015 and summer of 2016, students will have the chance to engage in discussions with three economists: Hugo Sonnenschein, President Emeritus and the Adam Smith Distinguished Service Professor; Michael Greenstone, the Milton Friedman Professor in Economics and the College and director of the interdisciplinary Energy Policy Institute at Chicago; and Amy Finkelstein, the Ford Professor of Economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“The demand for creative problem-solving utilizing the tools of econometric analysis will only gain importance as today’s undergraduates become tomorrow’s economic scholars,” said Hansen. “We’re happy to support student programs that will challenge them to engage with the tools they’ve learned about from textbooks in the context of approaching significant business and policy issues.”