Tag: Economics

Nobel inspiration: Lawrence scientists, economists embrace new momentum

Megan Pickett, associate professor of physics, stands beside a whiteboard showing some of her astrophysics research in Lawrence University’s Youngchild Hall of Science. (Photo by Danny Damiani)

Story by Ed Berthiaume / Communications

If you sensed a surge of excitement in recent days coming from the halls of Lawrence University’s Youngchild, Steitz, and Briggs halls, you were not mistaken.

When the Nobel Prizes for chemistry and physics were announced earlier this month, the news hit close to home for a couple of science faculty members and their students, creating momentum for the research they’ve been working on here at Lawrence.

The same can be said for a pair of economics faculty members who have focused their research on topics tied to the groundbreaking Poor Economics, a book that’s been a mandatory read in Lawrence’s Freshman Studies since 2016. More on that later.

The win in chemistry went to three chemists — Stanley Whittingham, John Goodenough, and Akira Yoshino — who were instrumental 30 years ago in the development of the lithium-ion battery, which now powers many of our wireless electronics, most notably cell phones. That’s a subject near and dear to Allison Fleshman, an associate professor of chemistry who has dedicated much of her research over the past two decades to ion mobility, work that could potentially improve the next generation of those lithium batteries.

The win in physics, meanwhile, went to two astronomers — Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz (they split the prize with a cosmologist on a separate project) — who in the mid-1990s discovered a fiery, uninhabitable planet orbiting a distant sun-like star, a breakthrough that set the course for the discovery of thousands of exoplanets in the Milky Way galaxy. Megan Pickett, an associate professor of physics, was fresh off her Ph.D. and working for NASA when word of the discovery came through. She has since spent much of her career studying the formation of those stars and planets, simulating how solar systems are formed.

Both Fleshman and Pickett drew inspiration early in their careers from the groundbreaking work these scientists were doing. To see them now honored with Nobels, well, there were celebrations in recent days to rival those of football fans on a Sunday afternoon.

“As soon as the Nobels were announced, my Facebook was a flutter with all of my old colleagues from graduate school and my post-doctoral work,” Fleshman said. “We were all very, very excited. There’s a subgroup of scientists, and we were just going absolutely bonkers when we heard. And I may have run through the hallway shouting, ‘lithium for the win.’”

Pickett had a similar response when the physics award was announced, not just because she was happy for Mayor and Queloz but also because of the momentum and validation it provides for the science she and her students are doing in Youngchild.

“I was wondering when this group would get the Nobel Prize,” she said.

How solar systems form

It was in 1995 when Mayor and Queloz first announced the discovery of the Jupiter-like planet, having tracked a periodic wobble in the colors of light from the star that indicated a planet was circling. They determined it to be a four-day orbit. Scientists at the time already believed there were planets other than Earth that were orbiting sun-like stars. But they had no proof. And then they did.

“The scientific community was skeptical, as it ought to be with new discoveries like this,” Pickett said. “There had been a lot of false discoveries and false alarms in the past. But this stood the test of time. And as people started using this method, more and more solar systems were found. We now know of 4,000 planets that orbit stars.”

Learn more about Physics at Lawrence here.

Pickett had just finished her Ph.D. at Indiana University earlier that year and was working at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California. She remembers hearing the news of the discovery like it was yesterday.

“I was in the space science research laboratory,” she said. “The entire floor that I was on, mostly theoretical astrophysicists, were running down the halls excited about this. Everyone at first was trying to show that it was wrong, but they were really excited. They were either excited one way or the other. If it was right, we would finally have proof that there were planets outside our solar system. And it turned out to be right.

“And it turned out to be the kind of stuff I was interested in studying. So, I was very lucky in terms of my career, being in the right place at the right time studying the right thing.”

Scientists now believe that the number of planets in our galaxy could number in the billions.

“Twenty years ago, or 25 years ago, you would have been laughed off the stage if you had said something like that,” Pickett said. “Now people are taking it very seriously based on the statistics we’ve seen.

Allison Fleshman, associate professor of chemistry, stands for a portrait in her lab in Lawrence University’s Steitz Hall of Science. (Photo by Danny Damiani)

The study of ions

Meanwhile, over in the Steitz chemistry labs, Fleshman and her students are busy talking about the charge that the Nobel announcement has given their work. They aren’t necessarily doing lithium battery research per se, but they’re studying a piece of the process that could affect the ongoing development of the battery technology. Fleshman has been doing research in and around that topic since her doctoral studies at the University of Oklahoma.

“Part of my Ph.D. was in developing a new way of describing ion transport, which is what this field of research is called,” Fleshman said. “Ion transport is how well the ions can move, or their mobility between two electrodes. If you have an electric field, how well can the ion adjust to responses in that electric field?”

Learn more about Chemistry at Lawrence here.

Keeping that and related research alive could one day lead to changing the electrolyte — the chemical medium that carries the positively charged lithium ions — from a liquid to a solid, eliminating potential issues related to leakage or expansion in the battery.

“That would be kind of like the Holy Grail,” Fleshman said. “That’s the next big thing. Until then, the idea is to improve the material that carries the charge. My students and I apply a new model to describing that transport.”

The Nobel for the lithium-ion battery is a momentum changer in part because it’s something people can relate to. They may not understand the science behind it, but they appreciate the rapid advances in the cell phone and other electronic tools that they can hold in their hands. The message from Fleshman is simple — we’re not done yet.

“Once it gets to the consumer’s hands I think people assume there is no more innovation to be made,” she said. Not true. While the Nobel award acknowledges that the work of Whittingham, Goodenough, and Yoshino was cutting edge, there are a lot of questions yet to be answered.

“If you’re in the field, you know these questions,” Fleshman said. “You know there are limitations with the electrolyte. There’s a misunderstanding about why lithium moves. There are misunderstandings of how lithium interacts with the electrolyte as a whole.”

The possibilities for the next generation of lithium batteries are just now being explored, and it’s more than just making our electronic toys run faster. The prospect of communities redirecting some of their energy usage in more sustainable ways is in play.

“The Nobel puts those questions on the international stage,” Fleshman said of the continued study of lithium technology. “I think it gets more people interested, people who thought the technology was basically at its end. We’ve made a lithium battery. It works great. My cell phone stays charged for forever. But there is so much more innovation to be had.

“There are really good scientists out there trying to answer the question of how can we redirect our energy demands to energies that are sustainable, and rewarding those scientists with a Nobel is yet another way of saying we need a global conversation about renewable energy sources,” Fleshman said.

The book on development economics

When the winner of the Nobel in economics was announced, you might have heard a smattering of applause across campus. The work of development economists Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo of M.I.T. and Michael Kremer of Harvard is plenty familiar to students and faculty here. The 2011 book from Banarjee and Duflo, Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty, has been part of Freshman Studies since 2016, meaning most every current Lawrence student has dissected the book at some point over the past four years, or will next term.

Dylan Fitz
Hillary Caruthers

The book — and now the Nobel – has shined a light on the growing field of development economics. In this case, it’s the work of economists who zero in at the micro level in the study of poverty and other economic issues in developing countries, gathering and using specific on-the-ground data to analyze outcomes. Instead of taking a big picture view, they run real-world trials of local groups or communities to test how certain factors — be it in the areas of education, health care, food, family planning or others — are affecting the economics of a region.

Nowhere on the Lawrence campus was the applause for the Nobel louder than in the offices of Hillary Caruthers and Dylan Fitz, both assistant professors of economics who specialize in the micro approach to development economics. Both have counted the Poor Economics authors and Kremer as role models since their graduate school days a decade ago, even before the book was published.

“I do find it extremely validating,” Caruthers said of the Nobel announcement. “It’s exciting that when you look at all of the Nobel laureates going back through time, this is by far the closest to our research. So, it’s exciting to see people be honored who we have admired and who have inspired us in our field of study and have really shaped the field so much. It’s like seeing our idols rewarded for their work.”

Learn more about Economics at Lawrence here.

Caruthers and Fitz said they both were driven to pursue development economics on the micro level because it is so tightly tied to the people affected. It is analysis of open-ended micro data from individuals and households with an expectation that it’ll add to the larger economics conversation, and, in the end, help improve living conditions.

It’s not that the more macro approach to development economics isn’t valuable, Fitz said. It’s just the micro approach and what it can bring to the table is another important piece, and it’s what drew him to the field.

“The type of work in Poor Economics is why I’m an economist,” he said.

Some of the research done by Caruthers, for example, has focused on how poor nutrition in utero can affect someone through life. That touches on the same themes explored in Poor Economics, studying how early health care, or lack thereof, can have ramifications that affect one’s ability to ever escape poverty.

“Economics is a social science, of course, but often it’s easy to forget that we are ultimately interested in people and the well-being of humans,” Caruthers said. “So, de-emphasizing systems and instead emphasizing that micro impact is very appealing to me as a scholar.”

Poor Economics has been a great fit for Freshman Studies, introducing non-economics students to a part of the economics curriculum many don’t know exists.

“A lot of freshmen come in and they don’t know what economics is,” Fitz said. “Some of them think it is just business or just defending free markets, which is not at all the case. Economics is something that can help us make the world a better place — to try to understand the world first of all, and then to improve it for people.”

Ed Berthiaume is director of public information at Lawrence University. Email: ed.c.berthiaume@lawrence.edu

Economist David Gerard Addresses Corporate Responsibility in Lawrence Colloquium, Grinnell Symposium

Lawrence University Associate Professor of Economics David Gerard will be among the invited guest speakers at a symposium Feb. 12-14 on sustainability and corporate social responsibility at Grinnell College, his undergraduate alma mater.

David Gerard

Gerard presents “The Capitalists’ Cooperative: Economics of Organization and its Implications of Corporate Social Responsibility” on the second evening of the symposium.

Prior to his symposium address, Gerard delivers the Economics Colloquium “Waiting for Godot and for Corporate Social Responsibility?” Tuesday, Feb. 5 at 11:15 a.m in Steitz Hall of Science, 102.

A scholar whose research interests focus on the areas of risk regulation and public policy, Gerard joined the Lawrence faculty in 2009 after eight years at Carnegie Mellon University, where he was the executive director of the Center for the Study & Improvement of Regulation in the department of engineering and public policy.

In addition to a bachelor’s degree in American studies and economics from Grinnell, Gerard earned a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Illinois.

About Lawrence University
Founded in 1847, Lawrence University uniquely integrates a college of liberal arts and sciences with a nationally recognized conservatory of music, both devoted exclusively to undergraduate education. It was selected for inclusion in the Fiske Guide to Colleges 2013 and the book “Colleges That Change Lives: 40 Schools That Will Change the Way You Think About College.” Individualized learning, the development of multiple interests and community engagement are central to the Lawrence experience. Lawrence draws its 1,500 students from nearly every state and more than 50 countries. Follow Lawrence on Facebook.

Former U.S. Ambassador, International Banking Expert Discusses World Economy at Lawrence University

Former U.S. Ambassador to India and U.S. Treasury official David Mulford discusses the state of the world economy Tuesday, April 13 in an address at Lawrence University.

Mulford will examine the ongoing economic and financial crisis in the major industrial countries and its lingering effect on the global economy at 1:30 p.m. in the Warch Campus Center cinema. The event is free and open to the public.

David-Mulford_web
David Mulford

A 1959 graduate of Lawrence, Mulford was appointed Ambassador to India in 2004 by President Bush and served until February 2009. He joined the U.S. State Department after spending 11 years as chairman international of the London-based banking firm Credit Suisse First Boston, where he directed worldwide, large-scale privatization business and other corporate and government advisory assignments.

Since leaving his ambassador’s post, Mulford has returned to Credit Suisse in London as vice chairman of the bank’s international division.

Prior to his ambassadorial appointment, Mulford served in public service as a senior international economic policy official in the U.S. Treasury Department under Secretaries Donald Regan, James Baker and Nicholas Brady.

His financial experience also includes eight years as managing director and head of international finance at the Boston-based investment bank White, Weld & Co., Inc. In 1974, he was named senior investment advisor to the Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency (SAMA), where he oversaw the management and development of investment programs of Saudi oil revenues until 1983.

His work in both the public and private sectors has been recognized with numerous awards and honors, including the Legion d’Honneur presented by the president of France, the Alexander Hamilton Award, the highest honor bestowed by the Secretary of the Treasury in recognition of extraordinary service and benefit to the Treasury Department and the nation, the Order of May for Merit from the president of Argentina and The Officer’s Cross of the Medal of Merit presented by the president of Poland.

After earning his bachelor’s degree in economics from Lawrence, Mulford earned a master’s degree in political science from Boston University and a Ph.D. from Oxford University. Lawrence recognized him with an honorary Doctor of Laws degree in 1984. A football and basketball standout as an undergraduate, Mulford also was inducted into Lawrence’s Athletic Hall of Fame in 2000.

$23,000 Grant Boosts Lawrence University Program in Innovation and Entrepreneurship

A $23,000 grant will support Lawrence University’s growing innovation and entrepreneurship program, a university-wide initiative launched in 2008 that engages students, faculty and alumni.

The two-year grant from the National Collegiate Inventors & Innovators Alliance will target the program’s flagship course “In Pursuit of Innovation.”  Cross-taught through Lawrence’s economics and physics departments, the course incorporates the use of guest experts from various fields, intertwines innovation with entrepreneurship and employs a project-driven, hands-on component designed to develop a learning community eager to pursue innovative and entrepreneurial ventures.

Since its launch, 41 students have taken the “Innovation” course.  Operating in three-person teams and in conjunction with the FabLab, a prototyping facility at Fox Valley Technical College, students have worked on projects ranging from the development of a multi-directional split-field camera and an ergonomic student desk to a hand sanitizing system for hospitals and schools and a personal identification system that allows health records to be retrieved automatically in the event of an accident.

“From its inception, our course has focused on diverse teams creating innovative products or processes, leading to functioning prototypes,” said Adam Galambos, assistant professor of economics and one of the program’s originators, along with John Brandenberger, professor emeritus of physics and Marty Finkler, professor of economics.  “This grant will enable us to take the Innovation course to a whole new level with student ‘E-teams,’ which will translate ideas into new products or services that benefit society.

“With its long-standing commitment to the liberal arts and sciences, Lawrence is the ideal setting for a program that inspires students and faculty to create innovative new ventures that combine ideas from diverse backgrounds, fields and perspectives,” Galambos added.

The “Innovation” course is designed to prepare Lawrence students to become major contributors to a globally competitive American economy through an immersion in innovation and entrepreneurship.  Students in the course develop their own innovative ideas to lay the groundwork for entrepreneurial ventures, examine how innovation and entrepreneurship invigorate businesses and industries and their roles in creating new ones, study the innovation and entrepreneurship literature and interact with active, successful innovators and entrepreneurs.

“Our students learn to connect theory with the real-world experiences described by our visiting experts and to apply this learning to their own projects,” said Brandenberger.

The impetus for Lawrence’s “In Pursuit of Innovation” course was a highly-influential national publication entitled “Rising Above the Gathering Storm” and a bipartisan piece of legislation leading to the 2007 America Competes Act, both of which warned of slippage in American competitiveness worldwide. The studies pointed toward increased emphasis on innovative and entrepreneurial effectiveness, especially in scientific, technological and engineering pursuits, as one solution to reverse the trend.

In addition to “In Pursuit of Innovation,” courses such as “Entrepreneurship and
Financial Markets ” and “Entrepreneurship in the Arts and Society” also are part of the effort to build an innovation and entrepreneurship program at Lawrence.

Based in Massachusetts, the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance supports technology innovation and entrepreneurship in higher education to create experiential learning opportunities for students and socially beneficial businesses.

Death Risk: Lawrence University Researcher Helps Develop Novel Tool To Calculate the Odds

APPLETON, WIS. — Whether by illness or accident, have you ever wondered what the odds are you could die within the next year?

David-Gerard.jpgA Lawrence University economist, working with the Center for the Study & Improvement of Regulation at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pa., has helped develop a website that allows users to easily access publicly-available data and compare mortality risks based on several different categories, such as age, gender and where you live.

The site, DeathRiskRankings, not only determines the risk of dying within the next year, but it also ranks more than 60 possible causes of death, providing quick side-by-side comparisons between groups.

“Most Americans don’t have a particularly good understanding of their own mortality risks, let alone a ranking of their relevant risks,” said David Gerard, who recently joined the Lawrence University faculty as an associate professor of economics. He spent six years as the executive director of the Center for the Study & Improvement of Regulation at Carnegie Mellon.

“A rule of thumb is that your risk of dying increases exponentially, doubling about every eight years,” Gerard said. “Approximately one1 in 500 people in my cohort – 40-something white males in Wisconsin — will die in the next year. When I turn 50, the risk will be closer to 1 in 250. And for those of us that see 65, it will be about 1 in 50. The risks are higher, but I still like my chances.”

As the national debate over health care policy and reform heats up, Gerard says one of the site’s most interesting features is its ability to provide comparisons between the U.S. and Europe.

“You can really see some systematic differences between the major causes of death between us and Europeans, which begs the question what role our respective health care systems play in those differences,” said Gerard.

“As an example, for 40-year olds, a European woman has a better chance of living another 30 years than an American woman. However, American women have slightly lower risks of dying from breast cancer, but considerably higher risks of dying from heart attacks and lung cancer. This presents some interesting research questions about whether these differences stem from diagnostics and treatment or from some other causes.”

Gerard thinks the website will prove to be an effective tool in the classroom as well.

“My colleague, Paul Fischbeck, has been using this concept for years to teach his decision analysis courses,” Gerard said. “The underlying concept of the MicroMort – a one-in-a-million chance of dying – is an effective way of teaching student how to quantify risks, how regulatory policies might affect these risks, and at what cost.”

The web site is a treasure trove of interesting statistics. When it comes to dying within the year, there are dramatic differences between men and women, blacks and whites, and Americans and Europeans. Consider the following:

In the race to die first, men are the clear winners. For every age group, men have a much higher annual death risk than women. For 20-year olds, the risk is two-and-one-half to three times greater. Men are much more prone to accidents, homicides, and suicides, and the risk of dying from heart disease is always higher for men than women, peaking in the 50s when men are 2.5 times greater. However, men’s dominance is not as overwhelming with cancer deaths. Women’s cancer risks are actually higher than men’s in their 30s and 40s, but for all other ages, men are number one.

The difference between blacks and whites in the U.S. is almost as pronounced as those for men and women. For both heart disease and cancer, blacks have much higher death risk. Overall, African American in their 30s and 40s are twice as likely to die within the year as their white counterparts. There is, however, one category of death in which whites consistently exceed blacks: suicide. Whites typically have a 2-3 times greater chance of dying by suicide than blacks.

Not surprisingly, obesity-related death risks are much higher in the U.S. than in Europe. As one example, annual diabetes death risk for two 54-year females, one from Wisconsin and one from the U.K., is four times as high for the Wisconsinite than it is for the woman in England.

“There is an old saying that if you spend too much time watching for squirrels, you might just get trampled by an elephant,” says Gerard. “A lot of things can kill you. This website breaks risks into 66 different categories. But there are often dominant causes. For young people, for example, simple things like wearing a bike helmet and fastening up your seat belt can radically reduce your fatality risks.”

Noted Chinese Economist Delivers Pair of Addresses in Visit to Lawrence University

Leslie Young, the executive director of the Asia-Pacific Institute of Business and professor of finance at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, will deliver a pair of economic addresses during a visit to Lawrence University.

Young presents “The Optimal God: Religion and the Institutional Foundations of Capitalism,” Wednesday Feb. 1 at 7:30 p.m. On Thursday, Feb. 2 at 4:30 p.m., Young will present “China and India in the World Economy.” Both presentations will be held in Lawrence’s Science Hall, Room 102 and are free and open to the public.

In his opening address, Young will compare and contrast the Western and Eastern models of political economy that developed from the influences of Christianity and Islam. According to Young, politics and religion overlapped in the West because the Church competed for resources. Religion, in turn, became the bridge over which law came to limit politics. Under Islam, law emerged from religion as a control on personal behavior, leaving politics as a separate entity that was able to oppress the economy with no restrictions on tyranny and expropriation.

Young’s second talk will focus on the medium and long-term effects of the growth of China and India on the world economy. In tracing the balance of payment problems between the United States and China to their demographic structures, he will explain why China’s growing impact on the global environment could ultimately harm its own economic development.

A native of Guangzhou, China, Young’s research interests focus on international trade, political economy and corporate governance. He has served as a consultant to the governments of Mexico, Trinidad and Tobago and New Zealand and has been a long-time member of the editorial board of the American Economic Review, the leading academic journal in economics.

Young, who earned his Ph.D. in mathematics from Oxford University by the age of 20, spent nine years on the faculty at the University of Texas as the V.F. Neuhaus Professor of Finance and Professor of Economics. He also has taught at the University of Canterbury in New Zeeland and held visiting professorships at the Australian National University in Canberra as well as at M.I.T. and the University of California, Berkeley.

He is the author of the book “Black Hole Tariffs and Endogenous Redistribution Theory” and co-editor of “The Hong Kong Securities Industry” and “China’s Financial Markets.”

Young’s appearance is sponsored by The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation of Milwaukee and the Henry Luce Foundation Program in the Political Economy of East Asia.