How the public policies that shaped my life taught me the importance of informed decision making

By Mary Zhu, senior at Nashua High School and Regeneron Science Talent Search 2017 finalist

“Stay still,” my dad whispered, as the masked man pointed his gun at my forehead. Time froze as I sat, petrified. After several moments, the man in the medical facemask finally lowered the infrared thermometer gun and moved on to the next passenger on the airplane. In 2009, the extreme measures taken by Chinese officials to inhibit a global upsurge of H1N1, including the threat of quarantine, had resulted in innumerable cancelled travel plans. Although my family had taken the risk, witnessing the aggressive policies implemented by decision-makers at age 10 sparked my interest in the far-reaching impacts of public policy.

Beyond my memorable experience on that plane, government policy has shaped my family and personal life in several major ways. In 1996, my parents and my older brother (who was only an infant) first immigrated to the United States from China’s Yunnan province. Had this option not been available, one of China’s most controversial public policies — the One-Child Policy, designed to limit population growth — would have prevented my birth. Although overjoyed at the opportunity to start a new life, my parents spent the first few months in Madison, Wis. struggling to adapt to an entirely foreign environment. After I was born, my family depended on government aid in the form of food stamps, medical care, and assistance with obtaining other basic necessities. As I grew up, listening to my parents talk about how U.S. welfare policies had once sustained us in our times of financial hardship made me all the more eager to learn about public policy, especially after that plane ride in 2009.

Regeneron Science Talent Search 2017 finalist Mary Zhu solving math equations.

Upon hearing that economics was the “science of decision making,” I allowed my curiosity about the policy process to shape my high school course schedule. However, the moment I first entered my Advanced Placement Macro/Microeconomics class in ninth grade, the room of intimidating, bearded seniors made me want to drop out immediately. Little did I know that, by the year’s end, my interest in the subject would prompt me to enroll in a college math/economics course at Harvard Summer School. My instructor, Economics Professor Gustavo Vicentini from Northeastern University, would later agree to become my research mentor for the next three years.

In sophomore year, one of the most contentious political debates revolved around Ebola-combating travel policies. Despite the slim chances of Ebola infecting more than a few Americans, politicians nevertheless pushed for rigorous travel restrictions to reassure a terrified public. Through email communication with my mentor, I created my first economic model, which projected the impacts of Ebola-combating policies on the U.S. tourism industry. Just as how the drastic H1N1 restrictions had discouraged travel, my research effectively projected similar economic losses. The excitement I felt as my model simulated real policies kindled an eagerness to begin searching for new social dilemmas to solve with economics.

As it turned out, I didn’t have to look beyond my school cafeteria. In September 2015, nutrition regulations spearheaded by Michelle Obama were considered for congressional renewal. As classmates complained about the meager portion sizes the policies enforced, I spent junior year developing a mathematical model that compared the nutritional, environmental, and economic trade-offs among different food policies.

As I navigated through high school, it struck me how most high school STEM and government programs merely focused on one subject area and failed to address the underlying relationships between different fields. Unfortunately, this lack of understanding was evident beyond my high school. After serving as a student representative to my city’s Board of Education, I noticed how qualitatively arguing about policies, without addressing their quantitative impacts, often resulted in hours of redundant bickering. Consequently, I tried to demonstrate this understanding by applying scientific methods to social inquiries through my research.

Mary explaining her project at the Regeneron Science Talent Search 2017 public exhibition of projects.

Eager to continue building economic models, I enrolled in three advanced economics and mathematics courses at Harvard Extension School in senior year, where I learned alongside adults studying towards graduate degrees. Inspired by the policy proposals of 2016 Presidential candidates and the global conversation regarding the Paris Climate Agreement, I developed a model that can project the impacts of carbon taxes on the international agricultural market. Using only free or home software, the model spans 17 countries/regions and 11 commodities. I was thrilled to learn that my model was selected as one of the finalist projects for the Regeneron Science Talent Search 2017 as it gives me the opportunity to share my research with others.

My experiences with the best of both worlds have inspired me to use each of my interests in economics, mathematics, and politics to bolster the others. The episode on that plane in 2009 and my family background have helped me understand the government’s powerful influence over public affairs. Paired with my passion for the fields I’ve explored through research, my experiences have been a driving force behind my future aspirations to design economic models for government agencies. As the nation becomes increasingly ideologically divided, my hope is to use economics to generate objective solutions to our world’s most complex social dilemmas.

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