An interview with Dr. Amir Jina

Dr. Amir Jina is an Assistant Professor at the Harris School of Public Policy, University of Chicago.

Go to the profile of Jenn Richler
May 16, 2019
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Please tell us about your research interests.

I research how the environment affects society - peoples’ health, wealth, or well-being. I look at the impacts of climate change, natural disasters, and air pollution on different outcomes, and policies to decrease those impacts. I use econometrics and methods from climate science. A collaboration we started about five years ago, the Climate Impact Lab, has grown to include about 30 members. We try to quantify the socioeconomic impacts of climate change with a high level of detail, and make it useful to people who might need that information. Recently, I’ve been engaged in some field experiments on low-cost policy solutions. These include randomized control trials in Delhi on cool roofs in low income communities, and air pollution reduction in schools.

 

What has your journey been to this point?

It was never obvious to me that I’d end up in academia. At university, studying physics, I had thought about PhDs but I quickly lost that desire. I started to see an academic world where individual competition and intellectual aggression seemed to be rewarded above all else. I don’t think I fit in that type of world. A few difficult challenges, among them an extended illness and a couple of sudden deaths in my close family, added to the misery I was feeling. It didn’t help that in Ireland, where I grew up, you decided your field early and it was hard to change your interests - something which I found restricting.

Aiming to get as far away from this as possible, I moved to Japan as a high school English teacher. This was transformative. Teaching is one of the hardest and most terrifying things I have had to do. There are not a lot of situations these days that intimidate me as much as that. University lecturing is very different by comparison, and nowhere near as difficult or exhausting. Japan also exposed me to ideas that have continued to dominate my research. I lived through my first typhoon and was truly awed by the power of it. Later, travelling in Vietnam, I saw homes that had months before been torn up by a storm and had yet to be repaired. Same hazard, different outcome. Why? Exploring the reasons for that vast disparity, and trying to think of solutions, has been my daily life ever since.

I started an interdisciplinary MA program in Climate and Society atColumbia University that I saw as a gateway to a humanitarian career. I was exposed to development economics for the first time. My perception of economics had been grossly misinformed - I used to think it was about money and finance. I started to learn that economics was about understanding human behaviour and learning about the difficult trade-offs we make in order to increase our well-being. A short and deeply affecting stint with the Red Cross in South Asia convinced me that my comparative advantage may not be in rescuing people from the wreckage after a flood or a cyclone, but in trying to understand how we could reduce the number of people who needed rescuing in the first place.  

I started an interdisciplinary PhD in economics and climate science, researching the consequences of natural disasters. I became aware of the challenges of communicating research where it mattered most, and I suddenly got the opportunity to work on a policy report on U.S. climate change impacts. I dropped almost all my own research at a pretty critical time of my PhD because I thought this report was a worthwhile endeavour, even though most of my advisors discouraged it as a risky move. It was that work that led to my being hired as a post-doc at the Economics Department of the University of Chicago, and that led to the opportunity to join the faculty at the Harris School of Policy at University of Chicago, which has been an incredibly supportive environment for me.

 

What are you most proud of in your career so far?

I’m amazed and thankful that some of the work I have been involved in is resonating with people - policy-makers wrestle with the results and their implications, and people from different walks of life are paying attention. It seems to be making a difference. I’m proud that I have continued to take (sometimes faltering) steps as a communicator of this research.

The team that I work with on climate impacts makes me extremely proud. The research is exciting and fulfilling, but the way we built the team is in many ways a greater achievement. Over five years we have built an extremely collaborative group where people with all levels of experience can contribute to the research ideas. We emphasize rigor and transparency. A lot of our research assistants have started PhDs in top places. This feels like a positive legacy, particularly because we try to hire people with a passion for the research and ideas more than a narrow, typical background for success in academic economics.

Also, I’m proud of the fact that I made it this far at all! Back in Japan, I only applied for a couple of PhDs in the US and was rejected because I was unprepared, and really had no idea about the esoteric applications, GRE, etc. and had no one to ask for insider advice. Luckily, Columbia offered me a place in the MA program after rejecting me from the PhD. Turns out MA programs in the US are expensive, and I had nothing like the resources needed. Were it not for someone taking a risk and giving me a scholarship, I’d never have gone to grad school. In fact, if it weren’t for the universal free university education in Ireland, I wouldn’t have even gotten that far. If any of the work that I do has positive effects, it’s not lost on me that it’s possible only because of the people who took chances on me early in my career. I try to pay that back by being as responsive and helpful as I can be to people who might otherwise get overlooked when they try to start a career in research.

 

Can you speak to any challenges that you had to overcome?

I’ve mentioned a few already - my undergrad left me disillusioned. I struggled with classes - I failed quite a few of them early on and was on the verge of dropping out. A consequence was learning what it meant to be a failure, because that is how I often felt. In a world where self-worth and ability to pass exams are equated, it wasn’t a good feeling. There were some positive consequences - knowing very well what failure feels like, I am no longer afraid to fail or to take risks that could lead to failure.

When I decided to apply for grad school, I got rejected from everywhere I applied to! At Columbia, as I mentioned, I was super fortunate that they offered me partial funding in an MA program that really crystalised my thoughts. When I applied for my PhD after that year, I applied to one place, and rolled the dice on whether my career would be in research or not. But dealing with the barriers on the way to being accepted and trying to have enough self-belief that it was the right path was a challenge.

My PhD was a struggle. Graduate economics with zero background meant there was a very steep learning curve. And interdisciplinary research was a challenge in itself. It is a lot like my experience growing up biracial in Ireland, when the Irish at the time had a very narrow view of what it meant to be “Irish”. I needed to adjust to the sense that people wouldn’t accept me in any particular discipline. I needed to define myself not as other people wanted to define me, but based on the work that I do and the things I think are important. That’s what I focus on. In this, I was helped enormously by a group of friends and collaborators at grad school from many different departments who were all dealing with the same issues in one way or another. To this day, they are still the first ones I turn to when I hit roadblocks on any research project.

All of the above are really about the daily challenge of convincing myself that I am capable and worthy of being in the position I am in. It’s not something I have overcome, but something I am more open about recently. I think it would have helped me to hear that some of my professors didn’t always feel like the smartest people in the room all the time.

One ongoing challenge in economics is particularly disheartening. Despite the majority of people I meet being supportive, there is an adjacent culture of aggression. Aspects of this, particularly the misogyny, have thankfully been getting attention recently, and while the field is trying to correct itself, we have just seen the tip of the iceberg. I’ve been at the receiving end of some of this hostile behaviour, and have witnessed a lot more. In the process I have lost a lot of the idealism I had about what a life in research is.

I used to think that the best response was to persevere and not be one of the people who pushed others out or held them back. I’d remark on instances of behaviours that I saw that were obviously discriminatory. Even small ones, like male grad students being given credit for comments that female grad students had made moments before. But now I think that, rather than just being reactive to these instances of implicit or explicit discrimination, it is important to call out that negative behaviour and its consequences more broadly, and if possible, to make sure I use my continued presence here to stop the same cycles of pushing people out of academia.

 

What advice would you give your younger self?

I think I’m unqualified to give advice, so I rarely do. But there are pieces of advice that I have been given that I follow. I’ve been incredibly fortunate that the risks I have taken have been rewarded, and I’d remind myself not to take any of that lightly or for granted. There’s another message in there: “Be strategic, but not too strategic.” Think carefully about how your research will be received, about how you “market” yourself so that people know how to think about your expertise. Be aware of the trends in research. Take all of that into account, but follow your instincts about what is important. It’s really just the Golden Mean: push some boundaries, but make sure you don’t push yourself out of the life that pays you to push them.

A quote (maybe apocryphally attributed to Truman): “The way to get things done is not to mind who gets the credit.” In academia, the individual rewards are so often about the ego and the reputation of being the expert. That’s a message that implicitly is imparted to a lot of us early on. While I learned to be wary of fighting for credit along the way, I’d go right back to the start of grad school and tell myself that getting credit isn’t the goal of research.

Another reminder: people who are not professors sometimes do great things too! We spend a lot of time in academia surrounded by people who “survived”. There’s some ex-post rationalisation of life choices that leads many to get the impression that anything other than success in academia is somehow “failing”. I think it’s important to remember that academia and research are just one part of a bigger machine of progress, it’s not the be-all-and-end-all. If you want to leave, don’t feel like a failure. Make the most positive contribution in whatever setting feels right.

Less a piece of advice, and more something that I’d nag myself about: remember the responsibility to try to open up the doors to more people rather than shutting them out. Particularly people, like myself, who felt they didn’t belong in academia because of the personalities and characteristics of some of those they saw succeeding, and who had a hard time relating or finding role-models.

Also, I wish my younger self would have spent more time finishing papers. Life would be a lot easier now if that was a skill I’d developed earlier!

 

What are your predictions for your field in the near future?

First, I’d need to decide what my field is. The type of work that I do has seen a transformation since I started. New access to new types of data have opened up possibilities that weren’t there a decade ago. The computer has displaced the pen and paper in a lot of economics, and I predict that we’ll start to come more to grips with machine learning techniques and apply them to causal questions in a thoughtful way.

There is currently an odd stigma against large collaborations in economics that I hope will change. Economics was traditionally a field of individual contributions and small collaborations - some of the papers I am on are extreme outliers in economics. I predict larger collaborations becoming less unusual as we start to tackle bigger questions with more data and more resources required.   

This is more a wish than a prediction: Research on the interaction of people and the environment has never been more important. The flow between academia and the rest of society shouldn’t only be a one-way street. Above all, academic research shouldn’t just stop at our office doors, or with a couple of news articles covering the results. The current scope of the environmental crisis means that instead of just finding and quantifying problems, we researchers need to learn what questions need the most immediate answers and be engaged in arriving at the solutions.


Photo credit: Betsy Priem

Go to the profile of Jenn Richler

Jenn Richler

Senior Editor, Nature Climate Change & Nature Energy

Jenn joined Nature Research in 2016 as a Senior Editor serving Nature Climate Change and Nature Energy, where she handles a broad range of manuscripts from across the behavioral and social sciences. Jenn was named Head of the Nature Research Social Sciences Centre of Excellence in 2017. Prior to joining the company, Jenn was an associate editor at Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, and a writer for the American Psychological Association. Jenn completed her PhD in psychology and postdoctoral work at Vanderbilt University.

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