Meet new faculty member Nathan Fiala

Nathan Fiala
Nathan Fiala

Nathan Fiala began his appointment as assistant professor in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics in August 2014. Before coming to UConn, he managed dozens of data collections and randomized impact evaluations in Africa and Asia, including an evaluation of a large-scale enterprise development cash grant program for the government of Uganda. He has spent over a thousand hours with small-scale micro-entrepreneurs in developing countries in order to understand the constraints and difficulties they face.

Where did you get your degrees?

I received my undergraduate degree from Arizona State University. I actually started out on a very non-traditional route: I began at a community college in Dallas, Texas, then switched to ASU. It’s actually something I’m very proud of, because it’s not a very common type of approach. I was working during the day and attending college at night, so I paid for my whole way through. It took me a total of seven years to get my bachelor’s degree because I enjoyed my education so much. I officially got a bachelor of science in economics, but I have “unofficial” minors: I took a lot of classes in English literature, political science and mathematics.

Then I got my PhD at the University of California Irvine. I first got a master’s in mathematical and behavioral sciences, and then my PhD was in economics. I was very curious and took a lot of classes in sociology and a few classes in political science as well.

What did you do before coming to UConn?

The last few years I’ve been doing a post doc in Washington, DC, and I just returned from Berlin where I was for three years as a postdoc at a German research institute.

After my PhD I was living in DC, working with the World Bank as a consultant. It was all consulting on research projects, so all the work I was doing back then is being published now. That’s why I call it an informal postdoc, because I wasn’t a postdoc but it was very much what a postdoc would do.

Then I was offered an opportunity by a research institute in Berlin, and my wife and I moved there for three years; it’s also where my daughter was born. It was fantastic to get that international experience but also take time as a postdoc and conduct significant research, especially since my projects take a long time to complete. I use a special methodology with my projects called randomized control trials. It’s an experimental approach, not very common, but growing in popularity in the social sciences.

One of the reasons I was hired here is because I have a paper in a top economics journal. That project started in 2007, and it was published in 2014. The postdoc essentially gave me the time to do what I was interested in; as a PhD student you can’t do that. I actually have a lot of PhD students that want to conduct similar research but I’m trying to find ways to do it faster because they can’t take seven years to finish something.

What will your work here at UConn focus on?

My official position is food security, with a focus on economic development in Africa. I work predominantly in East Africa; right now, mostly Uganda. But I’m also developing work in Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, South Africa, Zambia, Swaziland and a bit in India as well.

For example, in Uganda, there are very few formal employment options for people. What is common is self-employment, and people starting small enterprises themselves out of necessity because they have no other option. Improving the efficiency of those enterprises, increasing income and helping people transition from unskilled, low-wage daily labor into more skilled trades is the type of thing I’m interested in.

I also work on governance, and a major theme is anti-corruption. I have developed a project with the anti-corruption office in Uganda, a government agency that’s supposed to fight corruption. They normally do top-down auditing; if there’s a problem, they look back to try and find where the money went, and they try to prosecute those responsible for the missing money. The approach I’m trying there is a bottom-up approach. We’re going into communities to train people on how to identify corruption, specifically with the development programs they’re receiving. We encourage them to go their government so they demand from elected officials and bureaucrats better quality, less corruption and more transparency in finding out where the money is going.

Name one aspect of your work that you really like.

I think one of the things that’s really nice is that I get to travel and really understand the people I work with. Before my daughter was born, I would spend three to four months a year in Uganda. Since 2007, I’ve spent one-fourth of my life in Uganda.

Is there anything else you would like us to know about you?

I could potentially be the only professor on campus that drives a red sports car with over 300 horsepower. It’s a Subaru. When I’m driving through campus, sometimes the students will stop and look at me. Faculty, especially in economics departments, drive conservative, perhaps even boring, cars, so I wanted something a little different.

By Francesca Crivello