The Economics Department

Economics Students Attend Largest Undergraduate Research Conference


In the pursuit of becoming what President William Powers, Jr. calls the "research university of the future," The University of Texas at Austin is promoting research at all levels. While faculty and graduate students have always been expected to engage in research, undergraduates are being encouraged more than ever to jump into research.

In March, the Department of Economics sponsored a trip by 29 students to the Economics Scholars Program (ESP) Undergraduate Research Conference, held at the Federal Reserve Bank in Dallas, TX. Visiting professor Enrique Martinez-Garcia, who accompanied the students to the conference, notes that "we need to dispel the view that research is something that one does alone in a library corner or a little office outside the view of the rest of the world... In order for our research and our ideas to have an impact on society and build up human knowledge, one has to be brave enough to put his own research to the test of an audience of his peers. In that sense, the ESP Conference is a great venue for these young scholars to debate their best ideas and challenge us."

The annual ESP conference, which began in 2007, is the largest conference for undergraduate research in economics. This year's edition included undergraduate students and faculty mentors from 35 different schools across 19 states, with UT-Austin having the largest contingent. Several UT students served as paper discussants and session moderators. Two students, Affonso Reis and Steve Karson, presented work based on research they had conducted with Associate Professor H. Shelton Brown, III from the UT School of Public Health. The study by Karson and Brown, "Cigarette quitlines, taxes and tobacco control policies: a state level analysis," is now forthcoming in Health Economics, a highly respected peer-review journal.

The experience was invaluable for student attendees. According to Reis, the ESP conference "gives you a picture of what the competition is working on. For those who have never engaged in research, it's a great opportunity to see what exactly you can do as an undergraduate." Shuoyo Li, a discussant at the conference, plans on collaborating with the author whose paper he critiqued, as the two researchers realized that they face similar challenges in their work.