emLab spotlight: Kelsey Jack

kelsey jack headshot with african mountains and savanna in the background

Describe your role at emLab.

I am the Director of the People & Poverty Program at emLab. 

Where did you grow up? How do you think this area had an impact on the work you do now?

I grew up in Northwest Washington state in the city of Van Zandt. It doesn't appear on most maps because it’s so small, out in the countryside and forest. We lived on 40 acres of forest land that my parents bought a long time ago and they hand-built a house out of the trees from the land. I grew up surrounded by nature and the forest. 

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

When I was 14, my parents decided to take us on a summer vacation thanks to a bunch of frequent flier miles. I had just written a report in my freshman year of high school about Madagascar and the animals, nature, and beauty of the country. So when my dad asked where I wanted to go, my immediate response was Madagascar. We went to Madagascar and got out of the bubble of Washington, and this was the first time I felt I encountered something morally ambiguous because it was a totally unique ecosystem and the poorest people I had seen up to that point. Here I saw slash and burn agriculture, and people clearing the forest to meet their livelihood needs. My 14 year old brain exploded because the black and white thinking I needed to change because it was clear that these households needed these agricultural practices to meet the short-term needs of their family. Yet by practicing them, it would come at a cost to the environment – this completely changed the way I view the world. It was unusual seeing that early in age because it opened my eyes to the challenging situations of the world, everything is much more profound. 

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

It’s that: the Madagascar story. It's also a series of other experiences. The interactions between economic development, concerns about poverty, and environmental issues put me on track to the things I do now. In college, I was very interested in governance/top-down solutions because I liked the idea that you could take the whole problem and solve it, but slowly figured out it doesn't really work this way. I spent two years in Laos after college working for a conservation organization and this is where I got really into decision-making and incentives, and thinking how policies can leverage incentives and assess trade-offs. Being on the ground and gaining first hand experiences in communities is what allowed me to realize that I wanted to understand the micro decision-making process that leads to certain outcomes and how policy designs can help the competing needs of a community. 

What aspect of your work are you most proud of?

I really like the work I do because it's very hands-on in the world – I collect primary data, do field experiments, work with governments, etc. The thing I love about the work I do is that it manages to straddle implementation and doing things on the ground with the freedom of academic work to solve the puzzle of a problem. 

What keeps you curious about your work at emLab? 

It's just so fun and interesting. If I'm not curious about it then I need to do something different. The cool thing about my job is that I make the decisions, it’s up to me. The great aspect is the freedom to choose the things I'm curious about, it’s only my fault if I'm not curious about the things that I'm doing. 

What do you think makes emLab unique?

I think the people make emLab unique, as well as the enthusiasm and research. We strike a balance between wanting something applied and tangible, and wanting something intellectually interesting. I think the fact that there's a bunch of brilliant and ambitious people that see how valuable research is is totally unique. 

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

I would like to see us undertake more international work and continue building a tight and rich community of amazing people.

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

I've been thinking a lot lately about energy use in developing countries. I’m working on a large collaborative project in Ghana that is interested in household decisions about which fuels to use, where the primary use of energy is cooking. A lot of people cook with firewood, which is bad for both health and the environment. So I’m working on a series of questions around how you get households to switch from dirty fuels to clean fuels. I am really excited about the set of micro decision-making behavioral questions we are exploring and some of the directions they are taking, especially with figuring out their scalable interventions (one of which may be a mobile platform!).

Rapid Fire Questions

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

Optimistically (some might say over-optimistically). My aspirational answer is enthusiastically, but realistically scatteredly.

What are 5 things you couldn’t live without?

My daughter, my husband, my bicycle, my computer, salad

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

Physics and creative writing. Those are not related at all.

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

I could present whatever paper I am working on and the stages that I'm presenting it. Colleagues know I write out every word for a presentation I am giving and remember them after the first run. I could also give a course on environmental econ 101. 

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

Definitely the past. I absolutely don't want to know the future because what if it's sad. I don't want to know. 

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

A lemur or a gibbon, something that is flying through the air. 

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

That's a good question, and really interesting. I think maybe I still haven't received it yet either. I just feel remarkably lucky to how things have played out for me. I think that maybe there's advice I'm glad I ignored, I never got bogged down to be strict on my career. 

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