A Journey to Real World Impact

One experience can alter your career path in substantial ways, as economics alumnus Michael Pesko (PhD, 2012) discovered while spending a summer in Guatemala between his junior and senior years at Hamline University. “I planned on becoming a lawyer, but then I was struck by the poverty that I observed there,” Pesko explained. “It made me wonder if there might be a more effective way to contribute to society—through economics, rather than law.”

Michael Pesko

Michael Pesko. Photo courtesy of Pesko

At the time—as an undergraduate triple majoring in economics, English, and management—Pesko did not know that his time in Guatemala would prompt a journey that would one day garner him a place on Forbes magazine’s “30 Under 30 in science and healthcare” list. What he knew, however, is that he wanted to make tangible change occur.

Pesko’s journey led him to the LAS Graduate Department of Economics in 2008. “UIC offered me a very nice fellowship that basically supported my tuition throughout my entire time there,” said Pesko, who worked as a teaching assistant as a condition of his fellowship. “It was extremely thought-provoking to start studying economics as financial institutions were crumbling and the recession began.

“I originally wanted to study development economics. However, UIC is world-renowned for their health economics work,” Pesko said. “In particular, their work in tobacco control fit well with my desire to do research that contributes to society. Since tobacco use is increasing most rapidly in developing countries, I saw a logical pathway to connect tobacco control research with my desire to improve the situations of those living in poverty in developing countries.”

Pesko found his place in the program with support from fellow students, as well as LAS Distinguished Professor Frank Chaloupka, who, in addition to his role as professor of economics, serves as the director of the Health Policy Center at UIC. “I got in touch with Frank about my interest in tobacco control research and asked if he had any research assistantships available,” Pesko said. “In addition to a research assistantship at his Health Policy Center, Frank found an opportunity for me to work for the World Health Organization, documenting worldwide tobacco excise taxes. I also worked for the Centers for Disease Control to study strategies that smokers use to reduce the price they pay for cigarettes, such as purchasing across state borders. It was an incredible gift to be given these professional and research opportunities while still in graduate school.”

For Pesko, these assistantships provided an excellent applied economics research opportunity. “UIC does a tremendous job at connecting research to policy,” he said. “The applied economics training and its connection to health policy, paired with opportunities with external government agencies, were the key parts that made UIC a good fit for me.”

In his research, Pesko uses his academic training to seek out “shocks” that have some sort of tangible effect on populations. For economists, shocks—which are unanticipated events, such as 9/11, or large shifts in policy, such as the Affordable Care Act—can be examined by determining if an effect can be felt wholly or disproportionately by a group of individuals, called the “treatment” group.

“We can estimate the effect of these policies or other shocks by comparing changes in the treatment population compared to those less affected,” Pesko explained. “This research methodology, which I learned at UIC, can be used to influence policy directed at improving health in this country and globally.”

Pesko’s current work focuses on the secondary health-related consequences of large-scale disasters, such as examining how many former smokers resumed the habit after the 9/11 attacks. It was this research that brought the recent graduate to the attention of Forbes. “The work I do researching how the demand for behavioral health is affected by large-scale disasters is basically brand new,” Pesko said. “That makes the work especially exciting.” Pesko also studies various aspects of the Affordable Care Act and their impact on healthcare delivery.

After completing his PhD, Pesko accepted a tenure-track faculty position at Cornell University, where he is an assistant professor in the Department of Healthcare Policy and Research in the medical college.

“The ability to conduct applied research, which UIC’s program taught me well, is highly valued in a number of settings. This explains why I, an economist, can be a professor at a medical school,” he said. “I work with physicians and individuals in other disciplines on their research projects and provide my particular expertise in conducting applied research to help us jointly break ground in answering emerging research questions.”

Putting his expertise, as well as the data, to work seems to be meshing well with Pesko’s desire to better understand the links between disasters and our health, an approach that he is now determining how best to share with future generations. “We are in the process of building a masters-level program and a PhD program in health economics at Weill Cornell Medical College,” Pesko said. “Starting next year we'll have even more students going doing down this path.”