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Please Don't Call It the 'Dismal Science'

Shamma Alam poses outdoors

Shamma Alam, outside his office in Althouse Hall, home of the Department of Economics. Photo by Dan Loh.

Office Hours: Shamma Alam, Associate Professor of Economics and International Studies

by Tony Moore

Associate Professor of Economics and International Studies Shamma Alam is chair of the Department of International Studies and the coordinator for Dickinson’s security studies program. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Washington–Seattle and has written numerous publications and received scores of grants for his work. He teaches such courses as International Development, Global Economy and Understanding Poverty & Globalization.

I know you and a colleague in the economics department previously worked for the World Bank. Why is there such a relentless, seemingly endless exodus from that hulking international body to the greener pastures of Dickinson?

When you are on the outside looking in, it might seem like working at the World Bank gives you superhero powers to change the world all by yourself. However, once you are on the inside, you are more like one of many economists trying to very slowly solve the world's challenges with research and analysis. At a place like Dickinson, I believe you can have an even greater impact. Here, you still get to do the same very interesting research that can inform policymaking, but you also get to educate and inspire the next generation of thinkers and leaders in fields like international development, who can influence policies. So you have a wonderful feeling working with students here at Dickinson and seeing the amazing things that they go on to do in their careers.

Your areas of focus are the economics of development, health and population. In the matrix of issues that fall under your microscope, it seems like you must uncover a lot of things (poverty, pandemics and pesticides, e.g.) that probably aren’t great news for the world. Is that the case? And if so, what keeps you going?

I focus my research on how households in developing countries deal with economic shocks and crises. You're absolutely right; on the surface, these topics can seem quite gloomy. But honestly, it is like solving a complex puzzle. Through my work, I am able to discover the resilience and creative solutions people come up with in the face of adversity. What's more, understanding these coping strategies is vital for crafting effective policies during crises. Think of it as studying the heroes of everyday life, and understanding their strategies helps us create real-life solutions. I find that students who study these subjects leave with a sense of excitement about the potential impact they can have in these fields.

I asked Google Bard to define economics in one sentence: “Economics is the study of how people make choices in the face of scarcity.” That’s kind of deep and also somehow (again) depressing. How do you get to that depth in the classes you teach, and how do you shine a light toward the end of the tunnel?

Economics, unfortunately, has the nickname of being the “dismal science,” because it tries to understand and explain complex global problems. The beauty of it is that our students come from diverse backgrounds, and they already know what it's like to juggle limited resources. Economics helps them understand the science behind everyday decisions. It's like turning the spotlight on everyday life and discovering the fascinating ways people respond to incentives. Economics becomes the torch that lights up the path to creative solutions and exciting policy possibilities. It's like revealing the hidden gems of the economic world, and that's where the real fun begins!

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Published October 17, 2023