emLab spotlight: Kathy Baylis

kathy baylis headshot with field in the background

Describe your role at emLab. 

I just started as the new People & Poverty Program Director. Part of being program director is trying to coordinate different research and the people doing it in the space of people and poverty, in as much as finding places where there’s synergies and joint interests. It’s trying to find those places where there are joint interests and the possibility of working together to make our work better. As well as a bit of fundraising—trying to bring in a bit of money!

What do you think makes emLab unique? 

emLab is really exciting because it’s trying to harness the economies of scale and scope of what we’re doing. As an example, there’s projects where I think “I could really use someone who’s good at coding,” or “I could really use a GIS specialist” but I can only hire them for a month. There’s no way I could find somebody who would agree to that, so instead we pooled together and said “I have a month of work, you have a month of work, let’s find someone who can be a part of a team.” That’s rare, having a point of contact with postdocs, PIs, and researchers so we’re all sharing ideas. It creates this very lively academic debate, but it also helps create resources that we can all tap into. 

What aspect of your work are you most proud of? 

One thing is the multidisciplinary nature of it. emLab is a group of economists that are very keen to interact with and treat non-economic disciplines and other scientific fields seriously. I won’t say that I’ve always done that perfectly in my work, but I aspire to, and I’ve gotten a lot better over time at explaining economics to non-economists, and more recently, trying to be open to insights to other disciplines to treat them seriously in my own approaches. For me, that’s solving real world problems through integrating multidisciplinary approaches. 

The other part that’s nice is the link in with policymakers and stakeholders. Everyone at emLab wants their research to have impact, and that’s a whole lot easier with institutional support making those connections.

Where did you grow up? Did growing up there have an impact on the work you do now? 

I grew up in a small farming town in Southern Ontario Canada, and it was a place where people often farmed but also worked in the automotive industry—it was right near the “Detroit of Canada.” I’ve always been interested in the links between rural and urban livelihoods, how people in rural areas respond to shocks in prices and in climate, and how that interfaces with urban opportunities nearby. Also, I grew up on the border between Canada and the U.S., where international trade had a very big presence. I grew up with the U.S.-Canada Trade Agreement, before NAFTA, and I’ve been interested in agricultural and manufacturing issues that came from that. Frankly, that’s what led me to be interested in international trade. Again, this relationship between economics, rural livelihoods, and urban response came out of where I grew up. 

What is your personal story behind why you do what you do?

Part of it was growing up in a small farming community, and getting interested in questions around agriculture and food. I was always interested in sub-Saharan Africa. This is slightly embarrassing, but as a kid I grew up watching Born Free, which is about lions in Tanzania, and I fell in love with Africa at that time. In undergrad, I did research abroad in Botswana, where I was working on rural livelihood resistance to drought. That confirmed that I wanted to work in agriculture, climate resistance, and rural livelihoods. I ended up working for agricultural policy in Canada for a number of years, doing some government work. It took me a while to get back to the development work I wanted to do, but in the last ten years I’ve been really happy being able to double down on the work I want to be doing.

What is one of the most inspiring places you have been and why?

There’s some places where you get a viewpoint that makes your heart go in your throat, and that includes Victoria Falls, because they’re incredible, powerful, and an amazing place. Just outside of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, there’s rocky hills that almost look like the American Southwest. It’s awe-inspiring, and one of the last black rhinos of the world is there. Also, Glen Canyon when I got to see a condor overhead—it’s great to be able to see that success in conservation out in nature.

Were there any fields of study you were interested in before you chose agriculture and economics?

I started off in international relations in undergrad, and I had plans to join the foreign service. I realized I would be a really bad diplomat. I was doing a bunch of domestic policy related things and I was intrigued by political science, but I felt more like I was “armchair quarterbacking.” It felt more like I was stepping back when I wanted to be out there doing something. It was my first “microprinciples” economics class taught by a really good teacher that made me shift, and for someone who liked math and liked using it to explain human behavior, it was really cool. It kept me going.

What keeps you curious about your work at emLab? 

The interdisciplinary nature of emLab means that I’m always learning. Working at emLab means working with really smart, nice, and supportive people who challenge me to make my next paper better. And, of course, the real-world impact of my work keeps me curious. For an academic to be able to “move the needle” at all is rare, and yet that’s the focus of what we do.

What research question/topic are you most excited to tackle next?

The link between weather shocks, crop failures, and food insecurity. The other is one I’m working on with Robert Heilmayr and Andrew Plantinga. We’re trying to link agricultural price shocks to deforestation and land use change to better understand where agricultural price shocks lead to deforestation and where we could use carbon payments to prevent deforestation. 

What kind of impact do you hope your work at emLab has on the world?

In an ideal world, it would be huge if we can help better understand drivers of food insecurity, and therefore help mitigate it and improve targeting of aid. I’d also like it if we can make agriculture a little more climate resilient, and help agriculture and forest dependent households buffer the swings in welfare and income and become a little more resilient.

What is your vision for emLab over the next 5 years?

I think, maybe because I’m new, my vision is more of what we’re doing since we’re doing really good things. If we can further our impact in policy and working with environmental NGOs, I would love to see emLab continue that in the foundation space. There’s work coming out of emLab that should be getting into the hands of people at the Gates Foundation, for example, and there’s people in Washington, D.C. who need to see it as well. Especially in initiatives around climate change and environmental justice. I wouldn’t mind pushing on some more agricultural projects, since there’s an opening for that at the national and international level. 

Rapid fire questions

Give me a one-word description of how you work. 


What advice do you wish you received early in your career?

“Say no.” I once received advice that it’s good to say yes and look for opportunities. The flip side is to make sure that you have time to dedicate to the things you say yes to, and that you understand that by saying “yes” to some things you are implicitly saying “no” to others. The other advice is that we are so lucky as researchers to choose what we want to work on, so make use of that choice—it’s okay to do the things that you actually want to do! We spend too much time at work to be doing things we don’t want to do.

What are 5 things you couldn’t live without?

Coffee—good coffee, espresso. Nature. That’s probably true in a fundamental biophysical way, but it’s important to me. Dog (Mindy, my Australian cattle dog). Having a dog is important. My husband. Music is definitely a biggie.

What could you present about for 40-minutes with absolutely no preparation?

Agriculture conservation policy, international food security. More fun things: the principles of kayaking and camping, including preparation.

If you could be any animal, what would it be and why?

Ravens. They’re cool, super-smart, they play, and stay with their family groupings. The idea of flying is so cool. The other is either a dolphin or orca. Just because. They travel through beautiful parts of the world, they’re smart, they play. They’re a lot like ravens.

If you could go to the past or the future as an observer, which would you choose and why?

Both would be fascinating. There are so many points in our past that would be so fascinating. That said, as someone who reads the ending of the book to enjoy the middle more, I would want to go to the future. I am fundamentally an optimist, and hope that we figure things out.

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