Robel Alemu, N17, AG22, knows that a well-nourished child is more likely to grow up healthy and succeed in school and the workplace. A recent study he conducted in his native Ethiopia, for example, revealed that loss of iodized salt from women’s diets during pregnancy and breastfeeding led their children to obtain lower scores on university entrance exams years later.
At Tufts, Alemu has made further forays into the intersection of nutrition, human development, and environment as a graduate student in the Neubauer Family Program in Economics and Public Policy (Neubauer EPP Program). The joint Ph.D. program bridges the Department of Economics at the School of Arts and Sciences and The Fletcher School.
Tufts and the Neubauer Family Foundation came together to launch the program in 2017 with a $3.75 million gift from the Foundation. That philanthropy, fully funding five students per year throughout the five-year program, trains students to address critical issues centered around economic development, the environment, and energy.
For Alemu, that opportunity included continuing research he started as a master’s degree student in applied human nutrition at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. In an influential paper he and co-author William Masters, a Friedman School and School of Arts and Sciences economics professor, developed a groundbreaking method to compute the most affordable combination of foods that meet a person’s daily nutrient requirements.
That innovative work caught the attention of national and international institutions such as USAID and the World Bank, and the United Nations incorporated the paper’s estimates in its reports on food security and nutrition.
That’s a gratifying response, said Alemu, who also holds a master’s degree in biotechnology from Addis Ababa University. “Undernutrition impairs physical health and cognitive development, so it has obvious serious implications for children, and, from a larger perspective, on later-life health and labor market outcomes,” he said. “It’s rewarding to see our work validated and to have such broad relevance.”
Neubauer gift challenge
Alemu’s singular focus is characteristic of Tufts’ 25 current Neubauer Fellows drawn to an uncommon opportunity for interdisciplinary study. They count in their number an expert for the Turkish Ministry for European Affairs, a returned Peace Corps volunteer, a manager at the Reserve Bank of India, and a deputy director in the Trade Policy Bureau of Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry.
All share an intense dedication to tackling some of the world’s most pressing challenges, among them poverty, malnutrition, and the impact of climate change.
Now, as the first class of Neubauer Fellows prepares for Commencement, the Neubauer Family Foundation has made another $6.5 million gift to support the program. To secure the program’s future, $5 million of the gift will establish an endowment matching gift challenge. With endowed gifts from other donors and additional funds from the university, the program will be self-sustaining and support future generations of students
The foundation’s matching gift challenge continues a longstanding partnership between Tufts and the Neubauer Family Foundation, funded by trustee emeritus Joseph Neubauer, E63, J90P, H15, and his wife, Jeanette Lerman-Neubauer. The Neubauers have created other innovative programs at Tufts, including an undergraduate scholarship program and a faculty fund to attract and retain talented teachers and researchers. They also endowed the first professorship in economics as well as the executive director’s position at Tufts Hillel and established a teaching prize fund.
“Our initial goals in funding the program were to expand upon the excellent reputations and the strengths of The Fletcher School and Tufts’ Department of Economics to create a truly unique program producing graduates trained to work on the most critical public policy questions of our time,” said Joseph Neubauer.
Program Director Margaret McMillan, JRN Family Professor of International Relations, said that by combining the expertise of both the School of Arts and Sciences and The Fletcher School, Tufts has created a powerful program well-positioned for future growth and global impact.
“We are deeply grateful to the Neubauer Family Foundation for recognizing the passion, expertise, and, most of all, our vast capacity for making real change in the lives of people around the world,” she said. “Because of the foundation’s generous gift, we have been able to attract students of the highest caliber from all over the world. This, in turn, has made it easier for the university to attract and retain outstanding faculty.”
The fundraising endeavor comes as the program’s reputation is growing. In 2021, it attracted 251 applications spanning 53 nationalities—a 63% rise over 2020—and 261 students applied for this fall. With a target of admitting five students a year, it is the most selective of all graduate programs in the School of Arts and Sciences. According to a student survey, the overwhelming draw was the combined reputation of the Department of Economics and The Fletcher School.
James Glaser, A14P, A17P, dean of the School of Arts and Sciences and professor of political science, said he was not surprised by the Neubauer EPP Program’s popularity.
“We fill a unique niche in higher education by taking full advantage of our complementary strengths,” he said. “Both schools are stronger together; they allow us to train and educate policy professionals and academics who will serve hundreds of thousands of people where policy expertise is critical.”
Fletcher School Dean Rachel Kyte, F02, said that the strong enrollment numbers reflect the value of the first cross-school Ph.D. program at Tufts, which attracts students with diverse experiences, perspectives, and research interests that transcend traditional academic boundaries.
“Sustainable economic development and climate change are two of the central policy concerns of our time,” she said. “We have the expertise at Tufts to tackle those challenges, and the efforts of Neubauer Fellows and our faculty get us closer to lasting solutions.”
Driving real change
Neubauer Fellows learn how to ask tightly focused research questions using state-of-the-art techniques that examine aspects of economic development, such as how households invest cash grants. “In the past 20 years, economic development has shifted away from theory to being more empirical,” said Kyle Emerick, associate professor of economic development. “We’re much better at testing theories with data, instead of blindly saying that they’re true.”
In addition, the program provides a solid grounding in economics and analytical skills, which prepares students for the challenge of conducting pathbreaking field work. “To land in a new country and set up an experiment, manage a survey, and gather data—that takes some serious guts,” said Emerick.
The program also focuses on successful implementation of economic development projects. “Students who have experience in policy are able to take a real-world problem with real-life implications and then bring in the economics, and vice versa,” said Jenny Aker, professor of development economics at Fletcher and in the Department of Economics. “They can focus on questions that we care about—not just as economists, but as human beings—that address a problem and analyze it using empirical and theoretical economic tools. Then they use these findings to bring it back to policy, so they come full circle.”
Assistant Professor Cynthia Kinnan, the James L. Paddock Junior Professor in International Economics, said the diverse experiences and perspectives of Neubauer Fellows were one reason she chose to come to Tufts from Northwestern.
“If the voices informing policy decisions come from a very narrow set of backgrounds, then that narrowness will have a limiting impact on the way policy gets made,” said Kinnan, who studies how households and small firms in developing countries make investment choices. “It’s important that our students are drawn from all around the world and bring a range of backgrounds and global perspectives. They want to affect real change in the world and that’s brought them to Tufts. I find that refreshing “
Steve Cicala, associate professor of economics, and an expert in the economics of environmental and energy policy, said Neubauer Fellows also share a passion to find “the sweet spot between intellectual curiosity and concrete motivations to improve the world.” Their approach, he said, is intellectual and far-reaching. “They want to know: ‘Why is industrial pollution so bad in Pakistan? Do cap-and-trade programs exacerbate inequality? How do firms respond to regulatory stringency and uncertainty?’ Being able to ask and to answer these complex questions raises the possibility of delivering tangible benefits to society, a double dividend!”
That dynamic real-world perspective is important to undergraduates as well, as Neubauer Fellows serve as teaching assistants. Frankie Michielli, a Tufts undergraduate, appreciated what Neubauer Fellow Sarah Shaukat brought to an economic development seminar. “Since she has worked in Pakistan, she was able to share anecdotal evidence that complemented the research we were looking at in that region,” Michielli said. “And she was inspiring as a role model; she gave insight into the type of research I might be able to conduct if I choose to pursue a graduate degree.”
Research into policy
Neubauer Fellows say the program prepares them for impactful careers. Marina Ngoma, AG22, began her education in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and continued at Williams College; the Neubauer EPP Program supports her plans to teach economic development at the college level, possibly in the DRC.
“Studying economics and public policy helps me not lose the big picture,” she said. “I need to know the economic models and understand their underlying theories, but the policy aspect is what we need to be thinking about too. I want to be able to learn about how people behave, given different economic incentives, and how can we translate that into specific policies.”
Carolyn Pelnik, AG24, also found the right balance of economics and policy at Tufts, as she continues fieldwork in rural Uganda to understand the effect of cash grants on entrepreneurship. The Neubauer EPP Program, she said, “is an awesome opportunity to work with and be advised by applied economists at the cutting edge of economics research, who care about the downstream application of our work.”
For Aja Kennedy, AG26, coming to Tufts represented a “career pivot from practitioner to researcher.” The Ph.D. program builds on a resume that includes two tours with the U.S. Foreign Service (in Mexico and Colombia), a master’s in public affairs from Princeton, and two years with the Peace Corps in Panama. She hopes to help policymakers incorporate issues of diversity and inclusion in their decision-making, considering “the wellbeing of different groups when we quantify the impacts of a particular policy.”
“Tufts was a great choice for me because researchers here are serious about making contributions to academic economics literature while maintaining a real interest in the public service aspect of the field,” she said. “I’m excited about the opportunity to use both skill sets—quantitative research skills and government work experience—in my future endeavors.”
Siddhi Doshi, AG26, said the Neubauer EPP program was one of only a few programs that allowed her to conduct “meaningful research that represents perspectives and addresses issues beyond those usually discussed in the economics space.”
She now expands on her experience at the Brookings Institution, where she learned the value of economic methods and the complexity of crafting effective climate solutions that “account for fairness, scientific and economic efficiency, and political will,” she said.
At Tufts, she found “rich expertise in all three areas of interest—climate, environment, and energy economics—which can be hard to find in a Ph.D. program,” she said, “and I strongly believe that an interdisciplinary setting is critical to what I want to achieve.”
Ernesto Tiburcio, AG24, came to Tufts to learn more about how economics can help governments function more effectively and fairly. His interest in the topic began in his homeland of Mexico, where he was puzzled by the government’s inability to bring prosperity for all. “I wanted to know: Why don’t politicians prioritize poverty eradication?” he said. “I wanted to understand how to diagnosis this problem and create incentives to bring about meaningful and lasting changes.”
That question propelled him to graduate school in public policy at the University of Chicago, and, later, to field work with the International Food Policy Research Institute that led him to study agricultural spending in Ghana and the economies taking root in refugee camps in Bangladesh.
Now he is conducting research that examines how foreign aid changes civic and political engagement in receiving countries and how immigration shapes local politics. “When do we see foreign aid programs that positively change the political situation in their country?” he said. “We could just hope for the best, or we could, based on evidence, design programs that make better governments.”
At Tufts he has found an inclusive and progressive culture that encourages asking not only how change happens, but why. “Everyone, at least once in their lives,” he said, “should learn to think systematically about what justice is and what just actions are. With this program, we come together around values that we believe will make the world better for everyone.”
For more information on the Neubauer matching challenge to support the Ph.D. program in economics and public policy, contact Nancy Mahler at Nancy.Mahler@tufts.edu or 617-627-5483 (School of Arts and Sciences).