Economist Committed to Study of Gender and Economic Development
“The Economics Department in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at UMass Amherst is unique,” says assistant professor Melissa Gonzalez-Brenes, who is deeply committed to public education. “It is open to a variety of approaches to economics, and I sensed that it would be a good place for me to pursue my research agenda in gender and development economics. I’ve been here only two months, but already it is evident that many professors in my department care deeply about the quality of education they deliver—and that they enjoy interacting with students.”
Gonzalez-Brenes, who will receive her PhD from the University of California, Berkeley in December, is interested in understanding how households and communities in less developed countries allocate resources among their members, the role that gender plays in microeconomic decision-making, and how the interaction of these micro-level choices with public policies ultimately results in aggregate human development outcomes, including education, health, and nutrition. During two sojourns in Tanzania as project director for her principal dissertation advisor, Edward Miguel, she designed and managed her own survey related to these interests. Recently, she returned to begin another project related to food security and community mobilization. She also is focused on the economic and social determinants of spousal violence in East Africa, the link between marriage payments and fertility in Africa, and empirical work on women’s income and spousal violence in Mexico.
“My research on domestic violence, for example, has implications for the type and timing of public policy interventions designed to reduce violence against women,” Gonzalez-Brenes explains. “Activists can use this research to lobby for changes in laws and policy interventions.”
A self-professed “accidental economist,” Gonzalez-Brenes says that she literally stumbled upon her first economics course at Brandeis University and loved it. After receiving her BA degree magna cum laude, Gonzalez-Brenes went to work at Standard & Poor’s, doing economic and political analysis to assess the credit risk of countries in Latin America and the Asia/Pacific region. “It was a great transition to graduate school,” she relates. “I was exposed to the kind of work economists do in the private sector and wrote several country reports.”
After a few years, Gonzalez-Brenes decided to get a PhD in economics because of her growing commitment to the public sector. “I knew I’d need an advanced degree to do the research that interested me,” she says, “and along the way I also discovered that I love to teach.” At the University of California, Berkeley she focused on development economics and public finance, supported by numerous grants and fellowships, including the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation Dissertation Fellowship and the Mentored Research Award for 2002-2003. In addition to her work in Tanzania as a graduate research assistant, she also worked on documenting and analyzing health program data for Professor Miguel.
“My career is just getting started,” Gonzalez-Brenes explains. “Whatever success I’ve had so far is because I pursue topics I care about deeply. I want to continue to grow as a teacher and scholar, both by developing my research agenda, and mentoring graduate and undergraduate students.”
November 14, 2005