Turning point: Andrew Simons

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A biologist turns to economics — and Ethiopia — to explore policies that improve food security.

credit: Bruce Challgren

From 2008 to 2011, Andrew Simons led a programme in Ethiopia for a US-based non-profit relief organization. The former biologist recently earned a PhD in applied economics from Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, as a pathway to explore policies that could help to improve global food security — reliable access to affordable and nutritious food.

What sparked your interest in helping developing nations?

In 2000, as a biology undergraduate, I spent a semester in Latin America studying tropical biology. I lived with rural families in Guatemala and Nicaragua, where I saw grinding poverty. One night, I saw a woman rummaging through the garbage to find clothing. It was heartbreaking. I thought a lot about poverty and the 'right' response from someone living a relatively wealthy life in the United States.

How did you shift away from biology?

I went straight to a summer internship at a biophysics lab at Texas A&M University in College Station. There, I saw a powerful contrast between the economically privileged, who had access to technology, and the poor, who had no such access. I had always thought I would go into molecular genetics and work on crops that could improve nutrition and food security. But during my internship, I started thinking more broadly about how technology could be used to help the poor.

Did you pursue more opportunities overseas?

Yes. I did a short internship in the Dominican Republic with a US-based, Christian international-relief organization that sent groups to build a clinic in the slums of Santa Domingo. As they got more money, they went on to build homes. While there, I searched for and found a masters programme in international development at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I was able to tailor my coursework to explore aspects of human health.

What brought you back to Ethiopia in 2008?

I had done short stints there and in Honduras, and I returned as director of programmes with a group that worked to alleviate chronic food insecurity in rural areas. We developed an initiative that provided food and cash to 300,000 people. We also planted trees throughout the country.

Why did you decide to pursue a PhD in economics?

I couldn't help thinking, instead of helping 300,000 people, what if I had the ear of government and could suggest policies that could help 7–8 million people? I was inspired by the work of Chris Barrett, an applied economist at Cornell who works on global food security and critiques food-aid projects worldwide. He has a lot of influence on governments, which are interested in his advice on how to make food-security efforts work better. My experience in Ethiopia paved the way for me to work on a handful of projects in East Africa for my PhD.

Can you describe some of the projects that you worked on in Ethiopia?

I monitored the use of fuel-efficient stoves. For 6 months, we tracked 1.7 million temperature data points from sensors in people's homes to understand when and how they used the stoves. In addition, I worked on a project to turn animal bones into a soil fertilizer. These projects aim to solve real problems — problems that will never be solved just by soil science or by applied economics. We've got to combine insights from all these areas to find useful solutions.

How have these experiences positioned you for the job market?

I have a wider tool kit than does someone who has studied just one discipline. I have an economics hammer, but I also have a few others to pick from. I want a job at a public-policy school — I'm gearing up to apply for more than 100 academic positions this year. I like working with non-governmental organizations, but I feel that an academic route will give me the chance to design research with people who can provide meaningful input on policy discussions.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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