A Bridge to Bettering the World

Ph.D. Students in Economics and Public Policy Follow their Passion for Global Challenges
Carolyn Pelnik

Carolyn Pelnik, AG24, says the Neubauer EPP Program “is an awesome opportunity to work with and be advised by applied economists who care about the downstream application of our work.”

Graduate students who want to tackle the complex issues of economic development, the environment, and energy are finding a perfect fit with a unique Tufts program. The Neubauer Family Program in Economics and Public Policy is a five-year Ph.D. program that connects the expertise of two schools: The Fletcher School and the Department of Economics in the School of Arts and Sciences. Launched in 2017, the program reflects the generosity of the Neubauer Family Foundation. Here, we showcase some of the Neubauer Fellows and the ideas and goals that their transformative education will help them realize.


Marina and Bahety

Girija Bahety, AG22, and Marina Ngoma, AG22

Girija Bahety and Marina Ngoma were among the first five students admitted to the Neubauer program in 2017. Bahety, a graduate of Delhi University, earned a master’s in economics from the University of Cambridge; as a consultant at Oxford Policy Management, she evaluated health projects in India, Nepal, Malawi, Nigeria, and Pakistan. Ngoma, a graduate of the Université Protestante au Congo, earned a master’s in policy economics from Williams College, and has worked on issues of agricultural and rural development for the Office of the Prime Minister in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

One highlight of their time at Tufts was being awarded a grant from the Centre for Economic Policy Research to study the interplay between credit and labor markets in India and Bosnia and Herzegovina. One might think that small cash loans are a sure way to help low-income entrepreneurs improve their financial footing. But Bahety and Ngoma wanted to test that theory—and came up with surprising results.

They found that expanding access to credit is not a quick fix. Rather, loans had little lasting impact for most of the entrepreneurs, who were hindered by limited job opportunities. In other words, they could not increase their earnings in a restrictive labor market and start a business out of necessity, hence limiting the effectiveness of small cash loans.

What are possible next steps to change that dynamic? “Policymakers need to target and allocate resources more efficiently and effectively,” said Bahety. “Our findings lead us to propose that they need to strengthen investments in educational and industrial measures that support long-term, meaningful employment.”

Both researchers are excited to see their paper published and believe it has the potential to open up deeper insights. “Our research contributes to a growing body of literature that we think is well positioned to impact policy," said Ngoma. As Neubauer Fellows, they will continue to keep their eyes on the horizon.


Siddhi Doshi

Siddhi Doshi, AG26

A graduate of Northeastern, Doshi worked at the Brookings Institution prior to coming to Tufts At Brookings, she explored the impact of energy transitions on U.S. coal communities. As a Neubauer fellow, she wants to study broader regulatory questions with respect to environmental justice and efficiency.

“Working on policy questions alongside economists at Brookings made me appreciate the intersection between [policy and economics] and the value that economic methods can add to the policy space,” she said. “Additionally, my work in coal communities helped me better understand the complexities of climate issues: effective solutions must account for fairness, scientific and economic efficiency, and political will.”

At Tufts, Doshi is developing a project focused on the role of enforcement in reducing air and water pollution. “I want to understand how responses to regulatory standards differ across developed and developing countries,” she said. “When we have a better understanding of what defines optimal enforcement, we can allocate resources more efficiently. Ultimately, I hope my research will contribute to building more targeted regulatory processes that protect our natural resources and the future of our planet.”


Ernesto Tiburcio

Photo: Alonso Nichols

Ernesto Tiburcio, AG23

Ernesto Tiburcio’s interest in the links between economics and politics propelled him from his home country of Mexico to graduate school at the University of Chicago, and, later, field studies on food policy in West Africa and Southern Bangladesh.

“For me, it’s about how does society transform?” he said. “That’s the general question I’m applying to three main relationships: between foreign aid and democracy, between immigration and political behavior, and between democracy and state building.”

As an example, he is now researching the impact of foreign aid in rural Bangladesh. His central question is whether aid given to local administrative bodies strengthens their capacity to deliver services, such as providing public safety – or, more broadly speaking, are those programs more civically and political engaged.

Research studies like these, he said, “allow us to understand what type of aid creates positive change. What connects the threads of his inquiries, he said, is a fundamental desire to understand how governments improve—and support the greater good. “To the extent that the world is able to create democratic, functioning, fair government,” he said, “everyone will be better off.”

For his Ph.D. dissertation, he is also looking at immigration and political behavior to discern possible connections between migration and political views. Have they moved to the right? Have they not moved at all? “We want to understand if those places that received more migrants also show changes in political beliefs and if so whether that is explained by changes in economic or social conditions,” he said.


Aja Kennedy

Photo: Donovan Payne, A22

Aja Kennedy, AG26

A 2012 graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Kennedy went on to earn a master’s degree at Princeton’s School of Public and International Affairs. Her interests focus on how policy decision-making impacts social welfare and equity, particularly in housing. Prior to coming to Tufts, she was a Foreign Service Officer with the U.S. Department of State, most recently in Colombia. 

Kennedy studies how to best take into account the wellbeing of different groups when quantifying the impact of a policy. This difference in effects of a policy is called “distributional impact,” she explained. “As an example, what if a new policy waved a magic wand and every single person in the country got $1,000 in their pockets tomorrow,” she said. “That policy will have different impacts for different groups. For people who are living paycheck to paycheck, it may mean they can afford groceries this week or pay an electricity bill or make rent. For someone with a lot of wealth or savings, that $1,000 might not affect them at all. 

There are a ton of different policy areas where we might wonder about distributional impact—fiscal and monetary policy, health policy, or even policies designed to mitigate the impact of climate change,” she said. “I hope that with the new cultural shift in this country toward focusing more on issues of diversity and inclusion, we can also shift policy priorities toward taking distributional impact into account in decision-making.”

This summer Kennedy is looking forward to working in housing policy in the Boston area, having been  awarded a Summer Public Policy Fellowship from the Rappaport Institute. She is also working as a research assistant to Elizabeth Setren, the Gunnar Myrdal Assistant Professor of Economics, on her evaluation of METCO’s Bussing Desegregation program. “Working with her is a great opportunity to see how a researcher can work collaboratively with state or local government to both contribute to economic research and find ways to serve real communities,” Kennedy said.


Carolyn Pelnik

Photo: Alonso Nichols

Carolyn Pelnik, AG24

Carolyn Pelnik, a graduate of the University of Virginia, became interested in the connections between economic inequality and policy reforms while working at the Federal Reserve Board's Division of Monetary Affairs, and later, with a team from the University of Notre Dame, studying household savings and investment behavior in Uganda. As a Neubauer Fellow she returned to Uganda to continue her inquiry into effects of microfinance programs in rural communities.

 “In Uganda, high rates of self-employment can disguise unemployment or under employment,” she said. “You will find people starting businesses for themselves simply because there are no other opportunities. I became really interested in how we could support those businesses toward increasing their profits.”

The World Bank estimates that 41% of Uganda’s population lives under the extreme poverty line of $1.90 a day, so understanding the true impact of cash aid could make a big difference in people’s lives, Pelnik said.

“We know that every dollar invested in Uganda has a potentially large return so it's fascinating to think, longer-term, about what future anti-poverty investments could be effective,” she said. “We just don't know yet, but it’s fascinating to be part of finding the answer.”