June 23, 2021


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Passion for research: Economics grad wins NSF Research Fellowship

Yonglin Yonglin
Yonglin "Pauline" Liang Image Credit: Provided photo.

In an economics class, Yonglin Liang came to a startling realization: She may owe her life, and her mother’s life, to the price of tea.

In his Research Seminar in Applied Economics, Binghamton University Assistant Professor of Economics Plamen Nikolov led a discussion of the “missing women” phenomena that creates gender disparities in developing countries such as China. Tea is traditionally picked by women, who have smaller hands, in some cultures; a higher price of tea means that they have more economic value, and that baby girls are more likely to survive.

It struck Liang deeply; a first-generation college student, she had emigrated with her family from Guangdong in southern China as a teenager. More than just the content caught her attention. She was intrigued by the depth of the author’s thinking, and how it linked such disparate topics as agricultural reform, female income and the survival of baby girls. Without an in-depth investigation of historical reform, the author wouldn’t have been able to discover the chain of events, she realized.

She found a new passion for research, and graduated from Binghamton University in 2017 with degrees in economics and mathematical sciences. That passion paid off: She is the first Binghamton economics major to win the highly competitive National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship, which supports outstanding graduate students in NSF-supported science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines.

This fall, she will join Stanford University as a PhD student in the Graduate School of Business, where she will focus on financial economics. Her ultimate goal: to become a college professor and researcher, like her mentor.

She remembers the precise moment when she learned about her win: 11:30 p.m. March 30, while checking her email one last time before going to bed.

“The first word I saw was ‘congratulations.’ I sent it immediately to Professor Nikolov,” she said. “It took me two to three days to calm down.”

The lure of research

A first-generation college student from a low-income family, Liang benefited from TRIO’s Student Support Services (SSS), a federally funded program that soon became her second home on campus. She became an academic tutor and mentor and also co-founded the Student Advisory Board, which continues to organize events throughout the year for the SSS community.

“Binghamton provided the best education for me. It really meant a lot,” she said. “I had a great opportunity to do community engagement and resources to find internships.”

From her Brooklyn high school days, she imagined a future as an actuary and landed an internship in that field while at Binghamton. Her plans began to shift during her junior year, when she joined Nikolov’s research seminar and later his research lab.

“From the start, it was clear to me that she was a student of star potential,” said Nikolov, who invited Liang to become a co-author on an experiment-based research project. “Because of her strong performance on quantitative assignments, her active participation in class discussions and her creative streak, Pauline quickly became the top student in the class.”

Nikolov’s economics lab developed a randomized experiment that tested a seminal theory in behavioral economics: To what extent do bad decisions result because of conditions of scarcity? Scarcity, in this context, doesn’t refer to money, but “mental bandwidth,” the portion of our mental capacity that we use to make decisions, Nikolov explained.

The experiment varied the amount of time available for the completion of specific tasks and tallied how often people made mistakes. Liang collaborated with Nikolov in the experiment’s design, and also presented the research proposal to the Economics Department, the Harpur Edge Student Support Fund and University President Harvey Stenger in the effort to secure funding — winning a $5,000 grant.

As the experiment took off, she trained and managed a team of eight undergraduate research assistants, analyzed data and remained involved even after graduation. While the project is still ongoing, the researchers do have preliminary results showing that time crunches reduce people’s cognitive capacity and executive control — essentially, their ability to engage in abstract thinking, planning and willpower. It’s one explanation of why people who live in poverty can make suboptimal decisions, Nikolov said.

For Pauline Liang, the lab also posed a different kind of experiment, showing her the possibilities for her own future.

“That was the very beginning of my journey into research and my academic career,” Liang said.

Still, she decided to try her hand in the business world first and joined a consulting firm after graduation, focusing on healthcare consulting.

But she felt something missing: the depth she enjoyed in research, the opportunity to truly engage with and explore a topic and all its implications. She decided to return to academia, and landed a research assistantship at New York University’s Stern School of Business, where she has been examining the transmission of monetary policy through the financial system.

Just like that article she read on the price of tea back in her Binghamton days, she is lured by questions that lead to more questions, and the complicated web of connections and consequences that lurk behind seemingly simple acts. In a word: the depth.

“In industry, you care more about how it works. In research, you care more about why it works. That’s why it fascinates me,” she explained. “It gives you the opportunity to go deeper into one particular project. In industry, you work on many projects and don’t go into them deeply.”

Posted in: Business, Harpur