MEET THE 2018 INTERNATIONAL SUMMER SCHOOL VISITING PROFESSORS – CYCLE 3

July 23, 2018

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Luca Taschini from the London School of Economics and Political Science, Alexander Coutts from Nova School of Business and Economics and Miguel Gómez from Cornell University, were among the faculty who joined the International Summer School from July 3 -13. Our journalist interviewed professors Coutts and Taschini to enquire their impressions about Universidad de los Andes School of Management, students enrolled in their courses and their lives as scholars.

  • When and why did you decide to pursue an academic career?

Luca Taschini

That's a very good question. I think it was very natural, in the sense that it wasn't planned. I did my undergrad in my hometown, Bergamo, I studied financial markets and then at the end of my journey with my master's thesis I realized that I like to do things related to finance and economics. I started my PhD in Italy and then ended up in Zurich so it wasn't planned at all.

Alexander Coutts

It took me a long time to figure out what I wanted to do. I was particularly interested in development economics, even when I was studying my undergraduate. My favorite topic was learning about gaining an understanding of poverty in the world which growing up in Canada you don't get to see so much. So I would say that this was an interest of mine. I was never completely sure that it was I was going to study, but it was always in the background, and so I think eventually I continued on this path which led me to doing my PhD in economics and specializing in development economics.

  • What are the most satisfying aspects of being a scholar?

Taschini

I like to research and teaching is very rewarding when you have good students. In particular at this moment I am doing work related to the economics of current change and where I am currently doing that we have the opportunity to debate with policy makers so we possibly have an impact in terms of policy design.

Coutts

  • What other research areas would you like to develop in the future?

Taschini

Coutts

I have two different research topics but seem a little different: one is development economics and the other is more behavioral or experimental economics. So some of the work that I am most interested in doing now is how people form beliefs and how they update their beliefs in different situations so one of the issues I am looking at right now is overconfidence; how people basically form beliefs about how good they think they are how well they perform on tests for example and giving people feedback and seeing how those beliefs change and if they change, and seeing whether overconfidence is something that persist over time. And that is related to developing economics. For example, something that I want to pursue is looking at how beliefs affect life decisions in particular contexts, in developing context, in the beliefs about health. I think there is a lot of misinformation about the causes of illness or how they should be treated and I think there is some interesting work that can be done that can also be helpful in terms of policy. How to get people information in a way that will allow them to incorporate it to make better decisions.

  • Please tell us a special anecdote from your academic life.

Taschini

Nothing really in particular, but there was a moment where I had to go to Brussels to speak to someone in parliament that I didn't know. So I showed up and it was very scary. But what was nice is that the initial fear disappeared quite quickly and what was interesting is that I had to put myself in the shoes of the policy makers I usually talk to and understand the challenges they face. They have a very challenging job.

Coutts

It was at the beginning of my academic career. Having studied development economics I also had the opportunity to travel a lot. Once, I spent two weeks traveling in Ghana trying to start some kind of survey on essentially agricultural produce, supply chains and middlemen. I ended up unintentionally trying to follow a supply chain around the country on public transport, which sometimes involved waiting for 10 hours for a bus which turned out to be a small car to travel on a dirt road for three hours, waking up at 5 am and trying to fight with locals to try to get into the next town. So it was an example of something that was an interesting part that doesn't fit the stereotype of what an academic would do. But our chase for answers took us on a literal chase around the country on public transit to all the major markets of the country.

  • How does your work contribute to the society as a whole?

Taschini

I don't think there is a real clear contribution, I think there is an imagined contribution that is currently related to carbon markets and I see that when I am participating in workshops with policy makers or when I talk to people working in the commission in Europe or when I talk to people in other countries who are trying to implement carbon markets. So I see the contribution in trying to disseminate some of my research, whether this has a clear impact on society, I don't know. I won't be able to say that at this stage.

Coutts

I think for the development side, it is very easy to answer the question because I like to think that the work I do is going to have an impact in terms, in the example about health, of figuring out ways to get people to learn about the scientific cause of illnesses and their treatment. I think research is something that is frustrating as it goes very slowly. So we learn new things but it is a very gradual process. I have no delusions that this is going to dramatically change the world in the next few years, but it is something that can be built on by other researchers.

  • How would you describe your teaching philosophy?

Taschini

Coutts

I graduated from my PhD three years ago so I still remember what it is like to be a student. I think that is really useful because when I am teaching I put myself in the shoes of the student. I try to make sure that they are learning about things that are relevant and useful for them but I also want to do it in a way that they are actually going to enjoy learning, to be captivated by what they are learning. I teach a behavioral economics class and there I often use phone apps, where I have everyone log in on their smartphone so I can give all the examples of behavioral biases, and they can see right away that it is not just in a text book that people are biased. I think students like to see in real time that people are making these decisions and that these kinds of biases are real.

  • What do you learn the most from the interaction with your students?

Taschini

Do not take anything for granted. So in most of the classes at graduate level, you tend to see very wide heterogeneity in the students' backgrounds so you cannot talk univocally in one direction to students in finance or economics or engineering so you need to have a common denominator to present a particular topic, and then build on that depending again on the discussion emerging in the class.

Coutts

There are some things that I learn from teaching when for example a student raises a question that I hadn’t thought of before, and this affects how I think about my research. This actually happened in a master's class where a student had an interesting question about a project I had been working on for almost three years at that point, and it was something I hadn’t thought about. So I sometimes learn something about something I have been working on for a long time. I also think that students are really good about demanding a good education in the sense of also showing you, or pushing you back on assumptions we make in economics that have been taught for a long time. Students are really good at telling you when they think these things are not realistic so it causes you as a teacher to re-evaluate things.

  • During your visit, what surprised you about Colombia?

Taschini

You know I am actually talking about sustainability, and I found that people are alert to it. Everyone is cautious; recycling is a topic. I like to talk to everyone I like to talk to the taxi drivers to see where the discussion goes and most of the time it goes in the direction of, "we love our country and we like our resources to be used in a good way". There is this concept of respect for nature and sustainability so that was something I wasn't expecting and I am very positively impressed.

Coutts

  • What would you highlight from your visit to Universidad de los Andes School of Management?

Taschini

Coutts

Most of my interactions have been with the students so that's been really nice. I was also surprised at how most of the students here are really motivated and very smart. So it has been fun for me to have the students want to discuss the topics; even at 8.30 pm when everyone is very tired, they still have a lot of energy and continue the discussions and make it fun for everybody, for them and for me, and the fact that they are so willing to do this so late at night.

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