How Wharton’s research programs prepare undergraduates for careers in academia and the private sector.
By Kelly Andrews
Photographs by Ryan Donnell
Soon after Valeria Montero, W’10, began working with Peter Fader, the Frances and Pei-Yuan Chia Professor of Marketing, as an undergraduate Wharton Research Scholar, she ditched her initial line of inquiry and instead joined a project team that included senior Wharton faculty.
It was the opportunity of a lifetime.
More than a year later, the team’s work continues. And along the way Montero has learned one definite truth: She wants a career in academia.
“Going into a five-year program is a big decision,” says Montero, now a first-year Ph.D. student in Wharton’s Marketing Department. “Academia is a lot about research, and once I experienced it, I discovered that I liked working on big questions and seeing where the research takes you.”
In recent years, Wharton has expanded on its flagship undergraduate research program, Joseph Wharton Scholars, to provide undergraduates such as Montero additional opportunities for self-directed research. Research projects can be completed over the course of a summer or a year, on campus or overseas. These programs are, essentially, internships in research. “A research career path is not for everyone,” says Finance Professor and Director of Research and Scholars Programs Martin Asher. “But it is for more Wharton students than know it before they arrive.”
While some of these students will take what they learn from their research into Ph.D. programs, others will put their learnings to work in consulting, public service, finance or other careers.
“A research experience permits a student to delve more deeply into a single topic, learn about specific research methods, and do so with a faculty expert on that subject,” Asher says. “It leverages one of the key strengths of a research university, whose faculty both creates and conveys knowledge.”
And through Wharton’s research programs, the students do as well.
Making An Impact
Julia Huang, C’11, W’11, grew up in Newtown, PA, and Montreal, and spent a fair amount of time abroad, including during her freshman summer, when she worked at a Shanghai real estate company, and her entire junior year, which she spent in Lyon, France. But her experience with the Wharton Social Impact Experience (SIRE) was something else entirely: It landed her in the midst of desperately impoverished Madagascar to study mHealth—the delivery of healthcare via a mobile platform.
Huang came across the topic when she responded to a call for research collaboration from a group of Lauder MBA students. As she worked with the MBAs, she became interested in how innovative management and financial practices improved outcomes for the organizations and communities served. Advised by management professor Stephen Sammut, she applied to SIRE so that she could travel with the MBA group and answer her independent questions. The travel was the most challenging she has experienced.
“Because Madagascar recently had a military coup, virtually no Western countries recognize the government.” Huang says. “It’s a really big, sprawling island, but there’s very little infrastructure, which makes it hard for transportation. How can you deliver mobile health care to people when there aren’t any roads?”
Still, Huang was able to identify promising mHealth innovations. Organizations like the Gates Foundation and Clinton Foundation have been ushering a new wave by applying business models to charity organizations, and the private sector is leading as well, she says.
“If companies are going to operate in these areas,” she says, “they need to become involved.”
When Huang spoke to Wharton Magazine, she was weighing competing consulting job offers. The lessons she had learned would serve her well.
“When you work on a different project every few months, you need to land on your feet and get up to speed quickly. Doing a research project, especially in an undeveloped country, gives you the same skill set,” she explains. “When I was in Madagascar, I was freezing for eight days straight. At some points, I didn’t want to go out into the city and drop in on NGO offices to ask for interviews. Doing what I didn’t want to do gave me a tremendous learning experience.”
A Researcher Is Born
The path toward a research career wasn’t an obvious one for Xiao Qiao, ENG’11, W’11. Qiao started out in Penn’s School of Engineering and Applied Science before joining the Jerome Fisher Program in Management & Technology his sophomore year. The Ontario native is now looking at Ph.D. programs.
“Dr. Asher always says that SPUR (Summer Program for Undergraduate Research) is for students who didn’t know they wanted to do research yet,” Qiao says. “I guess that was me.”
Qiao started out working with A. Craig MacKinlay, the Joseph P. Wargrove Professor of Finance, and Associate Professor of Statistics Dylan Small, studying the Capital Asset Pricing Model. “Ten weeks just wasn’t enough,” he says. But it was enough to hook him on the research process itself.
When Qiao took a class with Franklin Allen, the Nippon Life Professor of Finance, on the financial crisis, he developed the idea for a SIRE research project—studying the impact of the crisis on China, where he was born. He decided to focus on the Chinese real estate market, and found that market to be overheated even by American standards. “There are apartments in Beijing selling for 100,000 RMB per square meter, [which would stretch] even the incomes of well-to-do individuals,” he says.
He also discovered that the Chinese have a very different take on their country’s role in the worldwide economic downturn. “While the American economists tend to think that China adopted very strict self-preservation policies during the crisis, the Chinese economists believe that China played an important role leading the global financial recovery,” Qiao says. Qiao says he now plans to continue researching the financial crisis, from several different angles. “I’d definitely like to learn more about financial crises, since this is going to be a relevant topic for as long as financial markets exist,” he says.
Following The Data
Noah Rosenthal, W’13, had been intrigued with Ecuador’s dollarization since high school. SPUR gave him a chance to pursue his questions about the process after his first year at Wharton.
The answers he found, it turned out, were unexpected.
“In the end, the project I set out to do was actually very different than the one I just finished up,” he says. “That’s the way it usually works for SPUR scholars. My initial goal was to figure out how businesses convinced the Ecuadorian government to adopt the U.S. dollar as its currency. As I discovered in my research, businesses didn’t do much. It was mainly at the political level that these decisions took place. My research details who the political actors were and how the decision-making process reflects on the dollarization or lack of dollarization in other countries.”
Rosenthal deployed a wide range of other Wharton resources. He pored over Spanish-language Ecuadorian newspapers borrowed through interlibrary loan, then reenacted the events using Geopolitical Influence and Strategy Tool, or GIST, a simulation authored by his faculty advisor, Associate Professor of Management Witold Henisz. The simulation was an innovative way to test his results on a tool usually used for forward-looking results. “For example,” he says, “if two companies are competing for a government contract to run a mine, and each of these companies has political connections, which company will get the contract? It actually has useful implications for management, and in future research and the general business world.”
Rosenthal is now considering applying to the Wharton Research Scholars program, possibly to study agribusiness, another topic of interest.
“Technically, SPUR is 10 weeks but it’s not enough for me,” he says. “When you’re going through a research project for the first time, you second-guess yourself. You change your hypothesis. You go off on a tangent to research something else.”
An Unexpected Turn
Andrew Brodsky’s research kept him in Philadelphia. But it did take him somewhere a bit unexpected—Wharton’s home-grown, world-class behavioral lab.
While many academic disciplines involve analysis of existing financial data or case studies of business practice, Brodsky’s chosen topic, organizational behavior, exists in the interstices between psychology and business.
Brodsky, W’11, from Hazlet, NJ, who is currently applying to Ph.D. programs, believed he wanted to pursue a career as a researcher before he had ever undertaken research. His experience with Wharton Research Scholars (WRS) cemented that view.
Through WRS, which has provided intensive research experience since 2003, he had an opportunity—unusual for undergraduates— to access the Wharton Behavioral Laboratory, a state-of-the-art experimental research laboratory. Founded in 2005, the lab supports a broad range of behavioral research and experimental research methods, from psychology studies on consumer behavior, to experimental economics research on market behavior, to investigations into group and interactive situations such as negotiations and game theory.
“I had been working in a research group with my advisor, management professor Adam Grant,” Brodsky says. “I took his Organizational Behavior class last fall, and afterwards he asked if any of us wanted to be in a group that he calls Impact Club. We meet once a week with him and a Ph.D. student, discuss papers and look at research on pro-social behavior.”
Brodsky saw the opportunity to answer some of his own questions with WRS. He designed two projects to uncover the truth behind some intuitive but contradictory beliefs about the Internet. On the one hand, the Internet has increased productivity through improved information and workflow, but on the other decreased it by creating a powerful distraction for workers.
Brodsky designed an experiment to give participants a boring work task with Internet access to test whether they do their task more quickly or with more interruptions. “Many people consider the availability of the Internet a distraction, but my argument was that people with Internet access, who have more autonomy, will be willing to do more work,” says Brodsky. Brodsky initially came to Wharton intent on a consulting career, but found himself drawn to research the more he was exposed to it.
“I realized that research was what I wanted to do,” he says. “You answer your own questions, really study whatever you find interesting. I like pushing assumptions and seeing what might be wrong. As long as you’re good at studying it and come up with answers, you’ll be successful.”
Changes on the Ground
Darren Xu, ENG’12, W’12, from Calgary, Alberta, was drawn to the the SIRE program after developing a rather unique interest: Agriculture insurance.
“I was learning about agricultural insurance, and the more I read into problems in Morocco, the more interesting it was,” Xu says. “Morocco is highly dependent on agriculture, so when you look at GDP swings, bad weather can cause big dips. And although agriculture accounts for 15 percent of their GDP, it employs 30 to 40 percent of their workforce. Since Morocco has a lot of variability in its rainfall, it’s important to ensure that the people are protected.”
Working with advisor Greg Mooney, an insurance professor, Xu designed an initial project examining why the participation rate in agricultural insurance was so low. He looked at rainfall-based index insurance, since it has shown promise in countries such as India.
Once in Morocco, he spoke with local faculty and took a daytrip to Tigzha, a remote mountain village. While there, he interviewed a number of small-scale farmers working less than five hectares of land.
He quickly realized the problem: They didn’t have enough income to buy insurance.
“They were sustenance farmers and did not generate income except in years with an excellent harvest,” Xu says. “It was a different way of life, and I wanted to make sure that their problems were represented in my research. I wasn’t able to solve it, but I hope to suggest a restructuring of how the insurance program interacts with people from the remote mountain villages.”
The entire experience was eye-opening for Xu, who had traveled extensively in the past. “This was my first time by myself. It was my first time with an explicit research goal. It was my first time in an African nation, an Arabic nation, and a predominantly Muslim country.”
Xu says his research experience was inspiring.
“I could see myself working in government or the World Bank—something similar to what I did in the project, fairly academic in nature, but where I’d have an influence on addressing pertinent social issues,” he says.