Peanut butter, bicycles & economics: Life as a BIG Lab RA

Author: Ambrose Donnelly


A peanut butter and jelly sandwich, that was all I was looking for in the kitchen. But by the time I left, I had learned about the historical implications of bicycles as labor saving devices and their outsized influence on transportation infrastructure. It is the privilege of a research associate to extend the breadth and depth of one’s economic knowledge almost constantly; here, economists and graduate students are happy to share their insights at the slightest provocation.

I came to the BIG Lab with a background in public finance. My interest in economics had sprung from a few narrow questions about corporate governance. The Lab offered a special opportunity. Here, we try to answer questions about regions where the stakes are clearly so high– the developing world. The questions of development economics are rich, requiring the insights of several sub-fields. As someone still identifying his ideal focus, that wide exposure is a boon.

Most of my week is devoted to work on data for a few Notre Dame economists and their collaborators. That work takes many forms. Sometimes, I do the preliminary cleaning of a project’s data and, sometimes, I listen into calls where co-authors discuss the direction they want to take with their paper. I am studying, too. Three mornings a week, I’m in classes to prepare for graduate school. What’s more, we pre-docs make time to attend seminars on development economics and other topics. These are busy days, each one helping to develop not only skills but also new habits of economic thought.