Melanie Morten

Assistant Professor of Economics - Stanford University.

Economics always held an early fascination for Melanie Morten.

It was an interest fostered as a student at Wellington Girls’ High School learning about different economic principles and realising the power of economics to contribute to understanding what drives better outcomes for societies.

Completing a BCom with Honours in Economics and a postgraduate diploma in Development Studies in 2005 and quickly discovering a passion for academic life, it wasn’t difficult deciding to continue to pursue further study as well as realising how much could be gained through research.

“My honours thesis looked at the economic impact of HIV Aids and it really made me aware of how economics could be used for a wider purpose to analyse a wide range of issues.”

Encouraged to undertake post grad studies in the United States, Melanie admits that her time at Motu Economics (a research organization based in Wellington) as a research assistant also gave her time to work on strengthening her maths skills before heading to the US.

“I hadn’t done a lot of maths to that point but I knew it would be necessary for my post grad studies and the experience at Motu proved to be particularly helpful and valuable preparation.”

Applying for Yale, but worried that she wouldn’t be sufficiently prepared academically, Melanie was surprised to find that wasn’t the case at all.

“I was very glad to discover that I was indeed very well prepared and was able to hold my own in class. Based on my own experience, I really believe we should be encouraging more NZ students to consider the U.S. for graduate school.”

Spending time as a research scholar at the Minneapolis Federal Reserve and completing her PhD with distinction from Yale in 2013, her thesis Temporary Migration and Endogenous Risk Sharing in Village India examined how informal financial systems, such as loans from friends and family, may break down as villages modernize and in particular young people start to migrate away.

With a keen interest in migration and economic development, even before going to grad school, Melanie says she spent a summer working as a research assistant in the Philippines, her first experience of doing field work. The experience really opened her eyes into how migration and remittances contribute to economies of low-income countries.

“Now I have research projects in many countries around the world including India, Indonesia and Tanzania. I really enjoy the research side of what I do and was very honoured to be offered a position at Stanford when I graduated where I continue to pursue my work understanding the economic implications of migration for the global poor.

One study that Melanie is currently undertaking in Tanzania highlights the  powerful insights that have come from her research. The developing world is rapidly urbanizing, but the “demons of density,” congestion and sanitation, may make it hard for people to realize the gains from living in productive cities. Alongside colleagues from the World Bank and the London School of Economics, Melanie is undertaking a multi-year study on the impact of a new transit system, the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s Capital city. The research team is following people both before and after the opening of the BRT and examining the effect of better access to transport on employment, income, as well as the cost of living.

Melanie admits that the study reinforced a very fundamental insight she gained from her PhD regarding the importance of developing a critical eye towards arguing empirical causation – correlation does not equal causation – and showing that one policy did indeed lead to a specific outcome is very challenging.

“I’d like my research in the future to continue to contribute to a greater understanding of how migration can be used as a poverty-reduction tool.”

Supportive mentors and advisors are particularly important in determining future pathways, and Melanie acknowledges several people who were influential during her time at university including Prof. Peter Phillips, Prof Debasis Bandyopadhyay, Prof. Ian King (now at the University of Queensland), and Prof Begoña Domínguez (now at the University of Queensland) for their encouragement to apply to grad school in the US. She also points to Professors Ken Jackson and Yvonne Underhill-Sem in Development Studies for their mentorship, and Dr David Maré and Dr Suzie Kerr at Motu Economic Research for learning more about the fundamentals of economic research.