Hollingsworth Undergraduate Research projects

Economics students develop skills and career insight through summer research

May 05, 2014 | Jenny Munro, Contributing Writer

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Four Furman University economics students who conducted Hollingsworth Undergraduate Summer Research projects in 2013 said the experience helped them map out their career paths.

“We want to give students real research experience,” said Jason Jones, an assistant professor in economics who mentored one of the teams.  A faculty mentor “guides them through the literature,” but “we want them to develop their own ideas.”

The two teams, of two students each, conducted research on very different subjects: obesity and the prevalence of fast-food restaurants and the question of how China’s unit labor cost affected the country’s exports and economic development.

The research program encourages collaborative research involving students and faculty members.  The students, with consultation with faculty, develop the project. Students generally spend eight to 10 weeks working full-time on the project although they may refine it over the following academic year.

A paper is required by the end of the summer work, said Ken Peterson, John D. Hollingsworth, Jr., Professor and Chair of the economics department. Jones said a visiting scholar reviews the research and gives the students feedback.

The research paper is critiqued in the fall and refined throughout the following school year, Peterson said. The work is presented at various Furman events and at outside events.

Juniors Madelin Ward and Daniel Puette said they became involved in the summer research project because they wanted to do something in economics during the past summer.  Puette said he had an interest in international research and wanted to focus on Asia, particularly China.

Brittany Fulton and Sarah Harris, both seniors at Furman, said their research project, focusing on the availability of fast food restaurants and the effect on obesity, helped them find jobs or decide what direction they wanted to look.

Harris said she became involved in a research project because “I wanted to get a better grasp of what economic research is” and how it can be used in creating policies, something in which she is interested. Fulton said she wanted to spend the summer doing something meaningful during the summer and decided research was the way to go.

Both teams pitched ideas back and forth before finally deciding on what they wanted to study.

“I was impressed with how long it took to come up with an idea,” Harris said, adding that she enjoyed finding the necessary data.

“We spent a lot of time trying to create our model,” she said.

Ward said the hardest part of the project she and Puette worked on “was the data. China’s data is so hard to find.” Then, Puette said, “we had to find a way to utilize the data” in coming up with an explanation of the unit cost of labor’s impact on economic growth.

A major finding was that no matter what variables are used, the country’s unit labor costs—the cost of labor per unit of production—will rise, Ward said. As that occurs, China could find that exports are no longer the best way of improving its economy and that increasing domestic consumption could be a stronger method to boost growth.

Wages in China, which has been known worldwide as an exporter, are growing, Puette said. In recent years, the country’s productivity has been increasing but not as quickly as wages.

Fulton and Harris decided eventually to look at how the abundance of fast food restaurants impacted obesity rates on a county level.

The results, they said, is that an increase in the availability of fast-food restaurants increases the amount of money spent in that sector.

“When there are more restaurants, people spend more money at fast food restaurants,” Fulton said.

They also found that the more grocery stores an area had, the lower the obesity rate.

Results were “strongly significant, but the magnitude was small,” Harris said. “I think we expected a stronger link between the expenditures in fast food restaurants and obesity.”

Jones said the research experience “serves them quite well” as it teaches students to think clearly, analyze data, skills that will be useful  in any career they may choose even if they choose not to go further in economics research.  “Not many undergraduates have this experience.”

Fulton said the project “helped me decide the type of job I wanted after college,” she said. It also helped her while interviewing. She plans to join Keybridge Research in Washington, D.C., in July. Harris, who was already interested in working with economic policy, also said the research project will be helpful in interviewing and job searches.

Puette, who has an interest in the  international arena, said the skills he acquired will be useful in a career.  Ward said the experience was helpful in learning to work with another person, something that will be useful in the future.

Learn more about the Hollingsworth Summer Research Program and other research and internship opportunities here.