Global Development Policy Fellows Pursue Hands-on Research

Grad students travel to Asia to work on solutions to global challenges

Federico Pisani, Gedeon Lim, and Rebecca Olson

Federico Pisani (GRS’20) (from left), Gedeon Lim (GRS’21), and Rebecca Olson (SPH’19) each received a $4,000 stipend to travel to their respective field sites this summer to conduct research. Photos courtesy of Pardee School of Global Studies

August 30, 2018
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One student spent the summer researching family planning in rural India, another studied job wages on an Indonesian island, and a third designed an app to aid midwives in Myanmar. Meet the inaugural class of the BU Global Development Policy (GDP) Center Summer in the Field Fellows.

The trio of grad students—Federico Pisani (GRS’20), Gedeon Lim (GRS’21), and Rebecca Olson (SPH’19)—each received a $4,000 stipend to travel to Asia to conduct research. They were among 13 candidates who applied for the fellowship, and they were chosen, says center outreach and communication specialist Sarah Lattrell, because their interests aligned closely with the center’s goals—to research financial stability, human well-being, and environmental sustainability across the globe. The center, which operates in partnership with the Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies and the vice president and associate provost for research, was formed last year.

Center administrator Rebecca Cowing (GRS’16) says the goal is to offer the fellowship annually. The fellowship is open to all graduate students who have an unpaid internship or field research in subject areas that align with the center’s mission. Applications for next year’s fellowships should be available early next semester.

Kevin Gallagher, a College of Arts & Sciences and Pardee School of Global Studies professor of global development policy and GDP Center director, says one of the center’s central pillars is to provide experiential learning opportunities, in addition to generating “scholarly research and engagement with the policy community.

“We chose Rebecca, Gedeon, and Federico because of their relation to the GDP Center’s new Human Capital Initiative and because they were not only conducting academic research, but also engaging in policy and with the local community,” Gallagher says.

For six weeks, Pisani investigated how the social connections of women in India affect their access to family planning. “It can be very important, for example, for women to be supported by family or friends in making decisions about reproductive health,” he says. Pisani worked with Mahesh Karra, a Pardee assistant professor of global development policy, to design an experiment where three groups of women received either information and a brochure (the control group), a voucher to purchase reproductive health–related services, or a voucher and the opportunity to bring two friends who would receive a voucher as well.

“We hope to find statistically significant variations in order to understand the impact of both distributing vouchers, thus affecting the demand of the services through the cost, and the ability to interact with your individual social network,” Pisani says. While it’s too early to draw any conclusions, the opportunity to be in the field conducting research had an incredible impact on him, he says, one that has shown him “an entire new world: the logistics, the real people, and real stories behind the numbers and models.

“After a few weeks, I was engaged by the context and my professor to add research questions of my own, adding even more interest to a project I was already 100 percent committed to,” he says. “The original data collected through my questions will allow me to build a new set of questions and create new analysis that I hope can turn into original papers.”

Lim went to West Java, Indonesia’s second largest metropolitan area, for four weeks to study how monetary and land incentives influence the selection and performance of village leaders. He worked closely alongside Samuel Bazzi, a College of Arts & Sciences assistant professor of economics, and he says the fieldwork helped him complete research for his dissertation.

“This debate has real consequences in Indonesia today, where hundreds of millions of dollars in central government funds are being allocated to village heads for the purpose of development programming,” says Bazzi. Yet, economics research “highlights the important role of bureaucratic selection and incentives,” he says, in determining how far the public sector should influence these kinds of “market imperfections” that can slow growth in many developing countries.

Lim especially enjoyed the opportunity to spend time in the villages. “Besides the excellent, world-renowned Indonesian hospitality, the wide expanses of terraced sawah (wet rice) fields were a sight to behold,” he says.

Olson lived for much of the summer in Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city, working with expectant mothers in the region as a program manager with the nonprofit Tag International Development. She’s helping to create a digital health tracking platform to encourage prenatal and postnatal health in Shan State; she hopes it will one day be used by local midwives.

She says the fellowship offered her a chance to apply many of the skills she’s learned at the School of Public Health working on a master’s in public health and that the work she did during the fellowship will help her fulfill her practicum.

Olson has been interested in developing the app since she took the global health course Using Mobile Technologies to Improve Health Outcomes last spring. She was intrigued, she says, by the idea of finding ways to use technology in developing countries to improve healthcare and she found that local residents embraced the chance to use technology.

In her free time, she played tourist around the area, visiting the holy town of Sarnath (where Buddha taught after attaining the enlightenment), Varanasi and its famous riverfront steps, markets, and temples, New Delhi, Lodi Park, and India Gate. She plans to continue working with Tag International Development, and will return to India in January for a training session.

“While I’ve studied abroad and completed other volunteer work overseas,” Olson says, “this was my first opportunity to work full-time overseas. This was such a valuable experience as I determine my next steps after graduation.”

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Global Development Policy Fellows Pursue Hands-on Research

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