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MIT Better World

Mayara Felix

PhD candidate, Economics
MIT fellowships include: Albert Zesiger (1951) Fellowship, Ida M. Green Fellowship, Economics Alumni/ae Fellowship

Research focus

Labor economics, development, and trade, including projects with the School Effectiveness and Inequality Initiative (SEII) studying the effects of disciplinary measures on learning, and with the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) evaluating tax reform in Indonesia.

Policy perspective

“The research-to-policy connection takes three types of players: the academics, who are focused on the question itself, no matter what the answer is; the policy makers, who have a whole universe of considerations to take into account; and in the middle, crucial institutions like SEII and J-PAL that can talk both languages and facilitate dialogue through long-established relationships. It also takes tremendous patience, since it’s the piled-up evidence, not one study alone, that will make a huge difference.”

On bringing her dissertation home

“For my dissertation, I hope to shed light on how trade policy has affected the way firms compete for workers in Brazil, my home country. Competition is an abstract concept, but it’s a real force that pushes an economy one way or another. Partnering with governments to access large administrative data sets on workers and firms is a key step in elucidating complex issues like this.”

Faculty inspiration

“I have been inspired by nearly every MIT economics professor at different stages of my research career. But when it comes to policy, I’ll single out three inspiring examples. On combining theory and data, I’m inspired by SEII’s Joshua Angrist [Ford Professor of Economics] and [Professor of Economics] Parag Pathak, whose work extensively draws on lessons from econometrics and mechanism design to improve education policy in the US. On impacting policy standards, I admire J-PAL director Esther Duflo [Abdul Latif Jameel Professor of Poverty Alleviation and Development Economics], who has completely changed the standard methodology for policy evaluation worldwide towards randomized control trials. I also look up to [Professor of Economics] Ben Olken, who has fostered the establishment of long-term relationships with several spheres of the Indonesian government. Being respected as a scholar to the point where policy makers trust you and are continuously interested in your input on how to improve policy—that’s quite a remarkable feat.”

Daniel Gilford

PhD candidate, Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences
MIT fellowships include: Robert R. Shrock Graduate Fellowship, Praecis Presidental Fellowship

Research focus

Factors determining hurricanes’ thermodynamic “speed limit”; effects on sea level of short-lived, human-emitted greenhouse gases. Other activities: Weekly student lunches with the Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change.

Policy perspective

“Understanding what intensifies hurricanes could improve prediction, helping officials make preparations and decisions related to evacuations, infrastructure, and disaster relief. Regarding sea-level rise, the policy implications are straightforward: to limit long-term sea-level rise, we must reduce climate pollutant emissions—as we did with CFCs in the Montreal Protocol, in which my advisor Susan Solomon [Lee and Geraldine Martin Professor of Environmental Studies] played an important scientific role. Of course, how to do this, including what the role of regulations is versus the market, is more nuanced.”

On listening

“Policy is not just about talking to politicians. If you want something to change, you need to start with community outreach and engagement and most importantly, listening. People’s values, goals, hopes, fears, dollars, security—these things don’t directly affect my day-to-day science but play a major role in policy decisions. If I can’t communicate the links between my work and those human aspects, then it’s not going to be very effective.”

Faculty inspiration

“I don’t know anyone as knowledgeable about policy with a scientist’s perspective as Susan Solomon. In addition to her scientifically instrumental role in the development of the Montreal Protocol, she was the chief editor for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s fourth Assessment Report, which was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore. At MIT she developed, with the late Professor Judy Layzer [PhD ’99], a very powerful discussion/project-based course that explores environmental policy from a historical perspective. I learned so much by taking the course and just talking with her—including the importance of being an optimist. In the most challenging policy settings, Susan believes in the human spirit to problem solve, innovate, and work together.”

Reed Jordan

Master of City Planning candidate

Research focus

What cities can do to address racial inequality and exclusion through housing and economic development. Other activities: Evaluated a new performance management process for local housing authorities through the Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development.

Policy perspective

“The particular policy strategies for using housing to address neighborhood inequality are well-studied, and the need is obvious and enormous, but the collective public will is commensurately lacking. My research has turned toward how to expand and diversify the underlying political constituency necessary to make these policies a reality. I have hope that ever-rising income inequality can draw a white working-class constituency away from white nationalism and into coalitions with immigrants, poor blacks and Latinos, and millennials to be a basis for a renewed investment in affordable housing.”

On generational impact

“When I was very young I learned from my family’s history about divergent paths in wealth building. My white grandfather returned from WWII and was rewarded for his service with a generous slate of federal subsidies for his health care, education, and housing. This allowed his family to build considerable wealth even while he was the sole breadwinner as a high-school arts teacher. My black grandfather of a similar age, a highly educated Methodist minister, would have never been able to access these benefits because of the discriminatory design during this period of the Federal Housing Administration and Veterans Administration mortgage and student loan programs.”

Faculty inspiration

“Justin Steil [Spaulding Career Development Professor, Department of Urban Studies and Planning] is a constant reminder to me of how to be deeply engaged in theory for the purpose of imagining new visions for our communities, while recognizing that the strength of our relationships and connections in our everyday lives is the most fundamental source of our growth.”

Abigail Regitsky

PhD candidate, Materials Science and Engineering
MIT fellowships include: Martin Fellowship, BP MIT Energy Fellowship, MITEI Energy Fellowship

Research focus

Creating materials such as industry-customized calcium carbonate in a sustainable way. Other activities: Graduate Student Council (GSC), MIT Waste Alliance, MIT Science Policy Initiative (SPI).

Policy perspective

“An interest in sustainability shaped my choice to do research in the Laboratory for Bioinspired Interfaces, and I became interested in policy as another way to drive sustainability-related changes. Through SPI, I’ve learned how governmental science funding works and how to advocate for maintaining it. We visit DC to tell personal stories about our research and put faces to the funding. A large part of what we do on the GSC External Affairs Board is also to advocate on behalf of the MIT graduate student body at various levels of government on issues ranging from immigration to sexual violence on higher education campuses to road safety. Last summer, for example, I was able to go to a hearing at the Massachusetts State House to give testimony in support of a bill for enacting a carbon fee.”

On career paths

“Maybe because I’ve been exposed through my extracurricular involvement to these policy issues, I’ve transitioned from wanting to be the researcher in the lab to wanting broader involvement in the policy side of things. My current plan after I get my PhD is to apply to science policy fellowships, many of which are available through the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and to work for a year as a staffer on the Hill.”

Faculty inspiration

“Participating in several SPI activities, particularly the science policy Independent Activities Period boot camp, I’ve learned a lot from Bill Bonvillian [former director of the MIT Washington Office]. From the historical context of science policy to the current state of science funding and inner workings of the US government, Bill has a wealth of knowledge and enjoys sharing this knowledge with students to empower and inspire them. I’ve also learned a lot and broadened my ideas of sustainability from taking sustainability-related classes in a range of departments. I got a glimpse of international climate negotiations from [Institute for Data, Systems, and Society (IDSS) and Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences faculty member] Noelle Selin; an in-depth look into the technologies and policies behind clean energy systems from [IDSS faculty member] Jessika Trancik; and a thorough understanding of sustainable development, including the importance of employment, from [professor of technology and policy] Nicholas Ashford. Their contributions to policy in their fields and overall passion for making a positive impact are definitely things to aspire to.”

Samantha Zyontz SM ’16

PhD candidate, Technological Innovation, Entrepreneurship, and Strategic Management
MIT fellowships include: Zenon S. Zannetos Memorial Scholarship

Research focus

How breakthrough technologies affect the interests and production of innovators. Other activities: Served as research assistant for US Cluster Mapping Project and the MIT Regional Entrepreneurship Acceleration Program (REAP).

Policy perspective

“From my intellectual property and law and economics roots, thinking through policy implications of my research will always be a natural inclination for me. Innovation does not occur in a vacuum. For example, I co-authored a paper about the types of scientists who experiment with the DNA-editing system CRISPR, and who is successful with it. We found that scientists who experiment are different on a number of important dimensions from those who can successfully turn that experimentation into a new project. This has implications for how policy makers or companies might want to target their adoption policies and programs.”

On innovation clusters

“Kendall Square in Massachusetts is a phenomenal example of an area where a concentration of companies from the same industry (such as biotech) are bolstered by complementary industries and institutions. The question for the US Cluster Mapping Project became: Could we help key decision makers determine which clusters suit their geographic area? Not every location can be the next Silicon Valley, but some are primed to be the next footwear or automotive cluster. Our role as researchers is to make sure policy makers get all the correct information and be creative in developing tools and strategies that they can implement. Essentially, we show them how the rubber meets the road.”

Faculty inspiration

“Scott Stern [David Sarnoff Professor of Management] and I have known each other for many years. He helped get me a position at Northwestern’s Searle Center on Law, Regulation, and Economic Growth that eventually led to my PhD at MIT. He later involved me with the US Cluster Mapping Project, which gave me firsthand experience working directly with the government as an academic. Scott, [senior lecturer] Mercedes Delgado, and [Harvard Business School professor] Michael Porter wrote a paper that very carefully showed what we mean by clusters, what industries are involved and where they are. This paper is amazing because it has been useful as a tool, both for economic development practitioners and for follow-on research like the Entrepreneurial Quality Index that Jorge Guzman [MBA ’11, PhD ’17] and Scott are currently working on.”