Alumni Interview: Liyou Borga

During his PhD studies at CERGE-EI, Liyou Borga had the chance to experience student life at Princeton for four months. In this new interview, Liyou shares his experiences from this stay, and speaks about his current research projects at the University of Luxembourg as a postdoc.

Since 2018 you have been a Postdoctoral Research Associate in the Department of Behavioural and Cognitive Sciences at the University of Luxembourg. Can you tell us more about your position and work?

The Department of Behavioural and Cognitive Sciences at the University of Luxembourg is an interdisciplinary department that specializes mainly in research on the interplay between individuals and their physical, economic and social environments. I am involved in one of the research groups of the department that investigates the economics of health and well-being. Our unit is composed of an interesting mix of senior academics who are experts in their field, postdocs such as myself, and PhD students. Our group is involved in several interesting and wide-ranging topical research projects. My colleagues are currently working on machine-learning methods to better predict vulnerability and poverty; historical research of archival data to understand wealth inequality and social mobility in the long-run; and research on epigenetic mechanisms to investigate how stressful life events affect individuals.

In your research, you focus on intrahousehold resource allocation, and the measurement of poverty and vulnerability. What are the research projects you are currently working on?

In terms of my own research, I very much picked up where I left off at CERGE-EI. My dissertation work was on the importance of innate abilities, parental investment, time use patterns, and early childhood interventions in explaining inequalities in cognitive and noncognitive skills, as well as health capital. Overall, my main research interest still lies in labor economics with a special emphasis on human capital formation and household dynamics.

My other current research projects slightly veer towards development economics, as I focus on the causes and consequences of inequality and poverty, and the role of public policy in mitigating them. For most of the last two years, I was working on a research project supported by the French Development Agency and the European Commission to investigate the impact of three large-scale social protection schemes in Ethiopia, India and Peru on multidimensional poverty, as well as intrahousehold and group-based inequality.

Most recently, in response to the global COVID-19 pandemic, my department coordinated a comprehensive survey with participants from six European countries assessing the well-being of the population during this lockdown. Our research team is currently investigating how different confinement measures affect people (such as their mental and physical health, social relations, financial worries and confidence towards authorities).

You studied in Ethiopia before coming to CERGE-EI. How did you learn about the possibility to study at CERGE-EI? What convinced you to apply?

At the time I was working as a junior researcher at a local think tank; and I was actively looking at opportunities for a graduate program. I came across a link to CERGE-EI’s admission guideline on one of the scholarship websites. Once I clicked on that link, I didn’t look back. CERGE-EI ticked all the boxes. They offer scholarships, they follow a US-style taught program, the faculty are graduates of top universities (and at that time there were at least 3 whose former advisors were Nobel Laureates), it places its students in top positions, and it is in beautiful Prague. On top of all that, they invite you for a summer preparatory semester before the formal fall entry. I remember watching a short promotional video on the website, and in one clip Joseph Stiglitz was talking highly of the institute. I decided to apply, and one year later, I was featured in the next CERGE-EI promotional video co-starring Stiglitz.

As a CERGE-EI PhD student, you spent 4 months at Princeton University. How was your experience studying there?

My mobility stay at Princeton University was very rewarding. I obviously had high expectations prior to getting there, but I was still surprised at how quickly all my expectations were met and surpassed. It starts by the beauty and majesty of the campus. You immediately feel the vast experience, the resources, and the brilliance of the entire community. The organization and efficiency of how things are run is so assuring. It is, however, the overall environment and scholarly culture that I found most rewarding. The faculty were humble and very approachable. I was amazed to see the most respected and successful professors attend brown bag seminars of second year graduate students.

Things that are deemed routine amazed me the most. I had a chance to attend the occasional high table dinners in the graduate dining room, where we had dinner-table conversation with distinguished guests. On more than one occasion I attended seminars and departmental get togethers where I had informal chats with top economists (including Nobel Laureates John Nash, Angus Deaton and Chris Sims). Chatting with students (who come from almost all corners of the world) in the dormitory common rooms, strolling down the magnificent gardens and sidewalks, having dinner and Sunday brunch with fellow students were all great sources of inspiration in their own right.

What are your next professional plans?

My future plans are typical. The immediate goal is to get all my ongoing work to the finish line and get them published. The next step is just a natural extension of what I’m already doing: keep being engaged in policy-relevant research. In the medium to longer run, I would like to give back. And for that, there is no better place than home.

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