Spotlight - Josh Graff Zivin
Q&A with Josh Graff Zivin, Associate Professor of Economics
Your degree is in agricultural and resource economics, but you come to us with several years of experience in public health. Can you give us the background on your career trajectory?
I went to graduate school at Berkeley. I was interested in studying environmental economics, which is still one of my areas of specialty, but I spent a year doing a directed reading with an epidemiologist. I became immersed in understanding toxicology and epidemiology and how we map environmental toxics into health outcomes. I wanted to understand how you might integrate that into a model of environmental policy.
I’ve always done eclectic things, so after finishing my dissertation, I was considering faculty positions in variety of fields: public policy, economics, law, agricultural economics and public health. The school of public health [at Columbia University] was very interested in my research, so I continued that after I joined the faculty. Over time, I became more engaged with health issues – health in the traditional sense – and I continued to be interested in the interface between environment and health.
What are you currently working on?
I’m working on a few projects right now. The biggest is probably my project in Kenya, which is a large undertaking that’s looking at – in multiple dimensions – the economic impact of HIV/AIDS and its treatment in Africa. It’s an interesting marriage of health, healthcare, and economic development. [Our research team] has been collecting data in our primary site for four years. We have 600 households enrolled in our survey, which is 120 pages long and takes five hours to administer. What we’re really interested in understanding is all of the socio-economic endpoints that might be affected by AIDS and, in particular, its treatment.
The other major project that’s almost as big as the Kenya project – but with a completely different flavor – is my “superstars” project. This project, in essence, tries to answer the question, “How does new scientific knowledge emerge within the academic life sciences?” Essentially, what my collaborator at MIT and I are trying to understand is the role of geographic, social, and intellectual distance in modulating, mitigating, and affecting peer influences. So, I’m a superstar, you’re an up-and-coming scientist. How important is it that we’re in the same department? How important is it that we’re in the same discipline? And how does that influence your ultimate trajectory of output?
What brought you to San Diego?
I think California in general and San Diego specifically is an exciting place to do environmental and biomedical work – two of my central areas of focus. And while I’ve done a lot of development work in Africa, my first allegiance was always to Latin America – so San Diego’s proximity to Latin America is also attractive.
I already have a very strong relationship with San Diego. My wife is from here, so I’ve spent at least two visits a year in San Diego for the last 15 years. In some ways, living here is odd, because now I have to find my own way instead of following a vacation agenda.
What made you want to be a professor?
Well, I always loved school. When I was doing a Ph.D., I didn’t necessarily think I would be a professor, but it was just always so much fun to learn and read. I think part of the reason my vita and my life look the way they do is because if I branch out into a new topic every six months, then I get the opportunity to be a grad student again.
What are you most looking forward to at IRPS?
I’m really interested in hearing the nitty-gritty about what projects everyone is working on. There’s a long corridor of people I know very little about, and I want to learn about what they’re doing. And the students are very interesting to me also, because we have a pretty international student body here, and it’s just great to have students from other countries in your class. They have a completely different experience, and they ask questions that are often incredibly insightful because of those differences.
For more information on Professor Graff Zivin’s work and areas of expertise, please visit his faculty page.