Approaching complex social challenges with an investigative perspective

Anna Russo enjoys tackling puzzles, which demand patience, organization, and a holistic perspective. Her approach mirrors that of an investigator, enabling her to address significant institutional and societal issues with far-reaching and lasting effects.

Russo embarked on her journey at MIT driven by curiosity and a quest for answers. This quest began with some uncertainty: “I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life,” reveals Russo, who is set to complete her doctoral studies in economics by 2024. She initially leaned towards a career in medicine due to her proficiency in math and science.

During her time at Yale University, where she pursued a double major in economics and applied math, Russo uncovered a passion for problem-solving. This newfound interest allowed her to approach policy challenges with a keen analytical eye. “Empirical research is both enjoyable and stimulating,” affirms Russo.

Upon graduating from Yale, Russo deliberated on her next steps. Immersed in full-time research under the guidance of MIT economist Amy Finkelstein, Russo honed her skills in identifying and addressing intricate questions.

“My research merges principles from public finance and industrial organization to tackle issues related to environmental and healthcare policy design,” Russo articulates. She is drawn to the analytical approach economists adopt in combatting social issues.

Focusing Her Research

Gravitating towards the tutelage of distinguished economists during her academic journey helped Russo sharpen her research focus. “I was attracted to MIT’s commitment to its graduate students,” expresses Russo.

Engaging in economic research entails delving into policy inquiries, pinpointing market deficiencies, and proposing remedies. Through her doctoral studies, Russo was able to compile data meticulously to explore each avenue of investigation.

“Doctoral studies afford the opportunity to delve deeply into a subject of personal interest,” Russo remarks, reflecting on her endeavors to study policy responses to climate change adaptation and mitigation.

“During my initial year, I delved into a project examining the effectiveness of floodplain regulations in incentivizing appropriate levels of development in flood-prone regions,” Russo recalls. She remains intrigued by how economists can aid governments in encouraging communal adherence to societal interests.

Russo underscores the necessity of comprehending institutional intricacies to help investigators devise and implement effective solutions.

“Guidance, feedback, and encouragement from the faculty proved instrumental in my growth as a researcher at MIT,” Russo acknowledges. Apart from her primary MIT mentors, Finkelstein and economist Nikhil Agarwal — whom she lauds as “exceptional, dedicated guides and mentors” — Russo frequently engaged with faculty across the department.

Subsequently, Russo uncovered another challenge she sought to address: the inefficiencies in conservation and carbon offset programs. Her sights were set on enhancing the United States Department of Agriculture’s Conservation Reserve Program, which she believes can be enhanced. 

The CRP represents a land conservation initiative overseen by the USDA’s Farm Service Agency. Participating farmers agree to withdraw environmentally sensitive land from agricultural production and cultivate species that enhance environmental well-being in exchange for an annual rental fee.

“I believe we can optimize the program’s structure to enhance cost-effectiveness,” Russo asserts. “A wealth of data is at our disposal.” This data encompasses details such as auction participants’ bids in response to clearly defined auction guidelines, which Russo correlates with satellite data assessing land usage outcomes. Understanding landowners’ bidding behavior in CRP auctions can improve the program’s functionality.

“By refining the CRP’s scoring system, we may enhance targeting and achieve more cost-effective conservation,” Russo contends. The potential exists to expand the incremental adjustments under examination to other conservation initiatives and carbon offset markets in a broader sense.

Economics, according to Russo, offers a framework to approach issues and proffer viable alternative solutions.

Charting the Next Course

While pursuing her research, Russo is eager to uncover her next challenge. She intends to continue her research as a junior fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows before transitioning to a role as an assistant professor in the Harvard Department of Economics. Russo is committed to aiding aspiring economists, recognizing the importance of supporting fellow students.

Russo’s mentors are among her staunchest advocates.

Finkelstein highlights Russo’s inquisitiveness, passion, and vigor as pivotal factors in her achievements. “Her authentic curiosity and dedication to unraveling problems using data — be it through econometric analysis or addressing modeling issues — serve as a potent antidote to the pressures associated with research,” Finkelstein remarks. “This constitutes a fundamental element in her ability to generate consequential and credible work.”

“She also exhibits remarkable generosity with her time and guidance,” Finkelstein continues, “whether it involves assisting an undergraduate research assistant with their senior thesis or helping an advisor like myself navigate a data access process that she has successfully traversed before.”

“Rather than a conventional advisor-advisee dynamic, collaborating with her on a thesis felt akin to a partnership among equals,” Agarwal adds. “[She] possesses the maturity and intellect to pioneer groundbreaking research.”

“Doctoral studies offer students the chance to explore their paths through collaborative means,” Russo observes. “If I can aid someone in solving a fragment of their puzzle, that constitutes a significant positive. Research embodies a continuum of numerous modest strides forward.” 

Identifying key areas for further research and exploration will remain a hallmark of Russo’s work. “I am keen on investigating another market segment that is underperforming and devising strategies to enhance its efficiency,” she shares. “I am particularly enthusiastic about delving into California wildfire mitigation at present.” 

Puzzles are designed to be unraveled, after all.

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