Laura Zimmermann, assistant professor of economics, talks about her classes, her teaching style and what makes for an ideal student.
Where did you earn degrees and what are your current responsibilities at UGA?
I earned my bachelor’s degree in philosophy, politics, and economics (PPE) from the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, and my master’s degree and PhD in economics from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. At UGA, I am currently an assistant professor with a joint appointment in the department of economics in the Terry College of Business and in the department of international affairs in the School of Public and International Affairs. My research focuses on the intersection of political science/international affairs and economics in developing countries, and I teach and supervise undergraduate and graduate students in both departments. I am interested in how political and economic factors shape the challenges that developing countries are facing today, and what governments and the international community can do to ensure economic and political development.
When did you come to UGA and what brought you here?
I came to UGA in July 2014 after finishing my PhD at the University of Michigan. I have had an interest in the substantial overlap between international affairs and economics since my undergraduate degree in PPE, and my dissertation focused on the intersection of political and economic factors in India. Therefore, the interdisciplinary position shared between international affairs and economics was a perfect fit for me and allowed me to become a part of two research-active and dynamic departments.
What are your favorite courses and why?
I really enjoy teaching undergraduate courses in development economics and politics of development because they apply concepts students already know to real-life and current settings. In the politics of development class, we look at the incentives different actors like the government or civilians have to behave in a certain way and why this makes political processes so complex. An example: We read a journal article on why the terrorist group LRA in Uganda abducted mostly children rather than adults to recruit soldiers, and how many of Boko Haram’s practices in Nigeria have become similar to those of the LRA. We then discuss how this influences counterinsurgency strategies by the government and the international community. In the development economics class, we look at why some countries are poor and others are not, how people live on $1/day, what their daily challenges are, and what the international community can do about this.
What interests you about your field?
Research at the intersection of economics and international affairs in developing countries is a new and very active field with many open questions. I deal with real-life issues that affect millions of people every single day, for example with whether India’s very ambitious anti-poverty schemes work in practice and where the challenges lie. This means that my research is not only purely academic, but also has policy implications that can serve as information for governments and institutions such as the World Bank. I have presented my work at workshops that bring together politicians, government program beneficiaries, NGOs and academics, which have been incredible for the exchange of ideas. When I listen to the story of a poor Indian woman about how a few days of a government-funded job have helped her get out of a de facto slave contract in her village, I just know that I am in the right field.
What are some highlights of your career at UGA?
In my year here at UGA, I have had the ability to successfully transition from being a Ph.D. student to an assistant professor, to present my work at major conferences, and to continue developing my research agenda with a number of projects at various points of completion.
How does your research or scholarship inspire your teaching, and vice versa?
My research helps me make the course content less abstract. I regularly put up pictures from my own travels to developing countries in class, for example, and we talk about some of the things that I experienced, which I hope gives students a better feel for what it is like to travel to a developing country and what daily life there looks like. On the other hand, preparing for class and listening to the diverse arguments and experiences of students during in-class discussions constantly put new topics on my radar that could become future research projects. The developing world is so large and diverse that I always learn a lot from students who have been to a country that I haven’t yet visited.
What do you hope students gain from their classroom experience with you?
Here are a few things that I hope students gain from having taken my courses: an understanding that much of what is reported from developing countries in the news are specific events that are often only symptoms of much more complex processes that we need to understand to be able to successfully improve countries’ economic and political situations; an ability to apply theoretical concepts students already know to real-life problems and to think creatively about problem-solving approaches; a better understanding of what it is like to live in a developing country and what some of the main challenges are; the ability to think about causal chains of argumentation and what we need to do to test hypotheses.
Describe your ideal student.
The ideal student is interested in understanding what life in developing countries is like, why the economic and political situation is what it is, and what needs to be done to change it; wants to think independently and to critically engage with class material; connects the dots of concepts and facts learnt in other classes with new ideas, and applies them to real-life contexts using critical thinking and problem-solving skills.
Favorite place to be/thing to do on campus is…
… sitting on a bench near Herty Field and watching excited students ring the Chapel Bell.
Beyond the UGA campus, I like to…
… work my way through Athens’ many great restaurants, read, and prepare for my next trip.
Community/civic involvement includes….
It comes quite naturally as part of my research projects and other activities. I was part of a group teaching government research staff and other interested individuals in Cape Coast, Ghana, how to graph and analyze data using statistical software programs, for example.
Favorite book/movie (and why)?
Currently, that would be “Congo” by David Van Reybrouck. The book almost reads like a novel (and many of the events feel like they should be fictional), but is really a well-researched account of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s very eventful history from colonial times to today. It is often told through anecdotes and with many details on what life was like for people at various points in time. And that makes it such an amazing reminder of why what I do is so important to me: The Democratic Republic of Congo is one of the world’s richest countries in terms of natural resources, yet one of the poorest ones in terms of per-capita income, with immense human suffering. “Congo” shows you that you need to combine both international affairs and economics to understand why, and that we really need to find ways to break Congo’s vicious cycle.
Proudest moment at UGA?
Since I have only been at UGA for about a year, I’m looking forward to many more proud moments in the future. But so far, the proudest moments at UGA have been seeing how much both undergraduate and graduate students have grown over the course of a semester in their ability to make sense of complex material and in developing their own voice and research projects on topics that they care about.