Office Hour: The 64 Thousand Dollar Question

Hi there! I’m Samuel Cai, and I’m the blogger for Office Hour and Blogside Manner. For Office Hour, I visit professors at the best university in the world and talk to them about their jobs here at Brown!

This week, I visited Professor Emily Oster, who is a professor in the economics department and is doing incredible work on health and development economics, both published and currently ongoing!

1. What drew you to come to Brown? What do you enjoy most about teaching here?
I was excited to come to Brown for at least two reasons. First, the research environment. The economics department here is excellent and I’m lucky to work with many great colleagues. In the University broadly I’m also fortunate to have connections outside of economics – in part through my work at Watson.  Second, the opportunity to work with excellent undergraduates (and graduate students!)  Before Brown I had been teaching at a business school, which offered it’s own excitements and challenges, but the opportunity to work with undergraduates was a big draw.
2. What made you want to teach a first year seminar rather than teaching upperclassmen or graduate students?
I actually teach three groups at Brown. I teach first year undergraduates, Masters in Public Administration students, and second-year graduate students. It’s a good mix!  I happened into the first-year seminar almost by accident, but I’m so glad I did. The opportunity to go deeply into areas I’m interested in with a group of students who haven’t done a lot of technical training is really exciting. It’s a challenge for me and, I think, for them as well. Watching students rise to a challenge and do something they didn’t think they could do is probably the high point of teaching, and it’s one I get with the first years probably more than any of the other classes.
3. You research a variety of different topics within the fields of health and development economics. How did you find topics that inspire you? 
This is the 64 thousand dollar question of research – how do you come up with ideas? It’s hard! I think it is easy to find topics that interest me – probably too easy, which is why my work is on so many different topics. I think most good idea generation comes from looking at the world around us and thinking about what is puzzling – what we’d like to understand better. One of my recent papers is on the topic of infant mortality – the impetus for this was a NY Times article. Other recent work on methodologies for generating causal treatment effects comes out of a book I wrote, and some frustrations with literature in public health.
4. You have written many papers about Huntington’s disease. What got you interested in that field, and do you have plans in the future to continue work in the area?
I started working on Huntington Disease because I was interested in the impacts of early mortality on human capital investments, which is an old question in human capital theory. There turned out to be a lot of interesting question in this space, for example about whether people choose to learn information about whether they have the disease, so it led to a series of projects. I have continued to work in the general area of understanding what information people respond to and what they do not, although not in the particular case of Huntington Disease. At the moment I’m more interested in the dietary choices of people who are diagnosed with chronic diseases, and what motivates them to change behavior. Stay tuned!
Have a professor you’d like to see covered on Office Hour? Send me an email at!

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