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Making the Most Out of Life

George Bernard Shaw wrote that "Economy is the art of making the most of life." [1] By this definition, Christina Fong (pictured left) is an economist in more than one sense of the word. A research scientist in the Department of Social and Decision Sciences at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Fong deftly balances research, teaching, and family as she pursues a demanding career in the field of public economics.

She considered becoming a natural science major in college until she took an introductory microeconomics course during her sophomore year. "I was immediately attracted to the abstract style of reasoning that economists use," says Fong, "and the power of this style to help us understand social problems"--problems she became aware of through her early exposure to two very different cultures. "I realized that through economics, I could take an analytical approach to studying certain social problems that I care deeply about." Today, Fong’s work in public economics is informed by these deep concerns as well as her parallel interests in psychology and political science.

Personal Experience Helps Shape a Career

Fong was raised in West Lafayette, Indiana, a place she characterizes as "relatively poor and conservative." But she often visited Sweden, her mother’s birthplace, where she came in contact with people who were relatively wealthy and egalitarian. "I am still puzzled by how these two democratic societies can differ so much," she says.

"Here in the U.S., we have relatively inegalitarian governmental policies. Many people support these policies despite the fact that they would be better off in an egalitarian society," she says. Fong suspects that her early life experiences, straddling these two different societies, helped her appreciate the difference between them. She still struggles to understand this phenomenon. "The proximate answer may have to do with fairness," she says. "Americans may be more likely to believe that inequality is fair because the rich work hard and the poor are lazy. However, we do not know where these beliefs come from."

Her father came from a highly educated Chinese family that was wealthy prior to China’s Communist revolution. She speculates that her grandparents’ status helped her father and his brothers move from the merchant class to the intellectual class. "My father and his two brothers were university faculty in chemistry, physics, and Chinese art history," she says. "In my family, intellectual pursuits were valued over financial ones, sometimes even to an impractical degree. In contrast, my mother came from a working-class Swedish family."

"My parents had a lot of financial trouble when I was in high school and college. They also suffered stress and emotional instability, which affected me and my brothers. Dealing with this took a lot of time and competed with my education and early career development," says Fong. But as she looks back, she believes that those experiences became an asset, making her wiser and stronger.

Finding Focus

As an undergraduate, Fong pursued a traditional liberal arts education. She admits that at the time she was ignorant of the larger social and political world that is now the focus of her research domain. "I continued to take a fairly broad range of courses, even in graduate school," she says. This strategy worked for her because she found a career she loves. The downside, she says, was that her education may have been "too light" in a technical sense.

Academic Background

1990--University of Michigan--B.A. in economics

1990-1996--University of Massachusetts, Amherst--M.A. plus 3 years full-time work experience

2000--University of Massachusetts, Amherst--Ph.D. in economics

2000-Present--Carnegie Mellon University, Department of Social and Decision Sciences--Research Scientist

Fong took time off after graduation from college and worked at the Department of Labor, the Inter-American Development Bank, and for a Massachusetts state senator to help pay some of the expenses she had incurred in putting herself through school. "Although I would have preferred to go straight to graduate school, the jobs were a blessing because they helped me appreciate how much I love research," she says.

In graduate school, Fong's faculty advisers exposed her to research in behavioral economics, public economics, and the study of income and wealth distribution. Now, her own research agenda is built around a concept she calls "public generosity," the willingness of democratic publics to pay for substantial amounts of governmental redistribution to the poor. "To date, my research in this area has focused on the role of social preferences in individual demands for redistribution," says Fong.

"My research is question-driven," says Fong. "I use a variety of methods, and I am willing to consider both behavioral and economic explanations for redistributive behavior and attitudes. I strive for most of my research to take the form of rigorous empirical analysis of hypotheses derived from economic theory."

The Economic Outlook

"This is a great time to be an economist," says Fong. "Interesting, socially relevant, and empirically grounded research is now widely appreciated in the discipline." She cites behavioral economics as just one example of a ripe area for trainees, a fresh perspective that substantially improves our understanding of social problems or long-standing puzzles in economics. For a really fun read that takes a look at creative and "hot" ideas in economics, Fong suggests the popular book, Freakonomics, by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner.

Fong mentors students at Carnegie Mellon and always encourages them to focus on accomplishing as much as they can with the talents and opportunities they are given. "I tend to judge students according to how hard they apply themselves," she says. "A really bright student who is not applying herself, or a privileged student who does not have to pay for anything, may get good grades with less work, but if they are not accomplishing as much as their talents allow, I tell them to work harder." Conversely, there are many students who are less gifted or less privileged. "I encourage them to make the most of their situations rather than dwelling on their disadvantages," she says.

Woman’s Place

Like many scientific fields, economics harbors some serious challenges for women, says Fong. She has faced the widespread social pressures for women to take primary responsibility for their families and homes. "This means that, on average, professional women are getting less support and encouragement--and often, explicit discouragement--from society for their professional pursuits. And, of course, the demands of pregnancy and infant care necessarily fall largely on women."

She stresses how important parental-leave policies can be in helping women maintain their professional standing during their childbearing years but says that those policies aren’t enough. "We need to work toward a society where women are generally as free to focus on their professional work as men. This will take time."

Advice to Trainees

"The job prospects are excellent for young economists," says Fong. She urges trainees interested in the field to bone up on as many math and statistics classes as they can. "Talk to an economist whose work you admire," she suggests. "Ask him or her what skills you need to acquire to do the kind of research you would like to pursue. Then do more." Focus on learning and understanding things deeply, not simply on getting A’s, she says. She urges trainees to explore and cultivate the research questions that are meaningful to them as individuals. "Consider pursuing them through an independent study or honor’s thesis," she says.

For those whose careers are still "undeclared," she recommends taking a wide variety of courses that they find interesting, including technical ones. "Try to think about how the methodological skills you are learning can be applied to the substantive problems that interest you most," she says.

Fong’s unbridled passion and enthusiasm for her research and teaching career in public economics is almost contagious. "I love the process of discovery," she says. "I love pursuing a better understanding of problems that I care about." Outside of the office, Fong likes to windsurf, hike, and watch movies with her husband. But "things have changed though, because we are expecting a baby," she says. "Now I only work, sleep, and prepare for parenthood."

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation Grant No. SES-0549096. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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Irene S. Levine is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in many of America 's leading newspapers and magazines. Trained as a psychologist, she works part-time as a research scientist at the Nathan Kline Institute for Psychiatric Research in Orangeburg, New York, and she holds a faculty appointment as a professor of psychiatry at the New York University School of Medicine. She resides in Chappaqua , New York .


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