An interview with Nicholas Wright, assistant professor of Economics, who recently joined our department. Professor Wright discusses what led him to choose cconomics as his field of study and provides insights into his research in the fields of development economics, education economics, and public health. He also discusses his teaching approach and elaborates on some of the pressing economic challenges the world is facing today.
1. What motivated you to pursue a career in economics and become a professor in this field?
Growing up in a low-income rural community in Jamaica, I witnessed firsthand how individuals can become ensnared in an intergenerational cycle of low-skill employment and poverty. I also observed the transformative power of education and the impactful role that governmental interventions can play in dismantling these cycles and fostering upward economic mobility. It became evident that education could function as a powerful catalyst for change, rescuing individuals from the clutches of poverty and paving the way for a brighter future. These experiences and observations left an indelible mark on me, profoundly influencing my desire to address these pressing social issues.
As an undergraduate, I recognized that economics provides a valuable toolbox for comprehending individual decision-making and formulating solutions for complex social problems. I subsequently chose to pursue a master’s and PhD in Economics to further refine my theoretical and empirical skills, and to better understanding the intricate constraints that impede access to quality education and perpetuate socioeconomic disparities. Becoming a professor in this field flowed naturally from my earnest aspiration to contribute to meaningful change and to impart what I have learnt so that others may share my passion for tackling social and economic challenges.
In the context of developing countries where resources are scant and access to quality education is limited, the role of government policies takes on heightened significance. In my research, I strive to generate insights that can guide policymakers in crafting effective strategies to expand equal educational opportunities, uplift disadvantaged communities, and ultimately break the cycle of poverty.
2. Can you tell us about your research interests and any ongoing projects you are currently working on?
My research interests can be broadly defined as applied microeconomics. In practical terms, this means that I use extensive administrative data to delve into policy-relevant matters at the intersection of development economics, education economics, and public health. For instance, I have authored multiple studies investigating the impact of college-level interventions on students' behavior and academic achievements. Building on this research, a graduate co-author and I are currently collaborating on a project that explores how increasing the difficulty of achieving each letter grade affects students' investment in college.
More recently, I have begun to investigate the effects of extreme temperatures on criminal activities and education outcomes in Jamaica. Developing countries bear the brunt of the adverse impacts of climate change. However, despite the ongoing rise in temperatures, climate adaptation technology remains largely inaccessible in much of the developing world. In this new research avenue, my co-authors and I aim to comprehend whether elevated temperatures worsen various social issues (such as high crime rates and low educational attainment) in developing countries.
3. In your teaching philosophy, what methods or strategies do you use to engage students and foster critical thinking in the study of Economics?
In my courses, I teach students how to apply economic theory and advanced empirical methods to analyze the effects of public programs on individual outcomes. My primary goal is to equip students with essential analytical and critical thinking skills for their future pursuits. To foster student achievement, I have three key objectives in the classroom. Firstly, I inspire curiosity beyond the syllabus and engage students with the subject matter. Secondly, I emphasize core course objectives while cultivating critical thinking and problem-solving abilities. Lastly, I guide students in applying classroom knowledge to real-world issues. I achieve these aims by fostering open dialogue on course topics, stimulating well-informed policy discussions, and creating an environment that welcomes diverse viewpoints. For instance, in "The Economics of Poverty and Public Policy" course, I cultivate an inclusive atmosphere for academic discourse where students can share their unique experiences. I encourage them to assess education and poverty programs in their respective countries using the course's economic and empirical insights. Additionally, I offer personalized feedback on assessments to help students identify areas for improvement and gain the most from the course.
4. In your opinion, what are some of the most pressing economic challenges the world is facing today, and how do you believe economics can contribute to addressing them?
There are several pressing economic challenges that are affecting individuals across the globe. In my opinion, there are three challenges that rise to the top: climate change, income inequality, and access to quality education and health care. These issues are all interconnected, forming a complex web that requires comprehensive solutions. I believe the economics toolkit provides analytical tools that are needed to assess the economic impact of climate policies, enabling us to balance environmental sustainability with economic growth. It can also guide the design of targeted interventions to ensure equitable access to education and health care, thereby fostering human capital development and reducing inequality. Additionally, economics offers insights into the drivers of income inequality, informing policies that promote fairer income distribution and social mobility. By utilizing economic analysis, we can address these challenges with informed strategies that lead to more sustainable, inclusive, and prosperous societies.
5. Fun Facts:
Hometown: Clarendon, Jamaica
Favorite Food: Jamaican Cuisine, Korean BBQ, Brazilian Steak
Favorite Novel: The Pearl, by John Steinbeck
Favorite place to visit: Anywhere, with family or friends.
Little known fact: I’m very competitive at multi-player games (from Domino and Scrabble to One night werewolf, Exploding kitten, and Racquetball.)