Following the people and events that make up the research community at Duke

Author: Yunchu Huang

What I wish first-year-me knew about Duke Research

When I arrived at Duke, I thought research was all serious business. It was publications with titles so complicated you couldn’t understand, content meant to make geniuses scratch their heads, and test tubes performing operations nobody quite had time to explain to me.

I thought it was near impossible for an undergrad to get into social science research, and contemplated applying for a lab just to “get research experience.” I signed up for a research mentor, who graciously met me at the steps of Marketplace, but whose spectacular background and accolades intimidated me.

First-year me was confused about Duke Research and directions to the Duke Gardens. Here pictured with my good friend Matthew Lide, Duke 2016.

First-year me was puzzled about Duke Research and directions to the Sarah P. Duke Gardens. Here pictured with my good friend Matthew Lide, Duke 2016.

Back then, research was a grand, intangible, and formidable concept to me. It was one of those things you were supposed get involved with, and have some sort of not-quite-defined penchant for, but I didn’t know how to go about getting plugged in.

Research was Professor Lefkowitz getting recognized in front of thousands for his Nobel Prize. It was the overwhelming catalog of faculty research interests on each departmental web site. Research was cleaning test tubes, transferring liquids with pipettes, looking through a microscope — none of which I was fundamentally interested in.

Second-year me perfected the art of awkward hand gestures while conversing with Joel Kaplan, Vice President for Public Policy at Facebook.

Second-year me perfected the art of awkward hand gestures while conversing with Joel Kaplan, Vice President for Public Policy at Facebook, after a Duke American Grand Strategy Program luncheon. Photo Credit: Duke Photography

But I’m here to tell you that I was wrong. You see, over these three years, while I’ve enjoyed engaging in research in formal settings, research has also manifested itself in very personal, very approachable ways, and I’d like to share what Duke Research has come to mean to me.

Research is the enthusiastic dash from one white board to another in the midst of a discussion on model selection so passionate you want to spring off the edge of your seat. It’s the long conversation with your roommate about the state of things that goes into the wee hours of the night.

Research is feeling comfortable to share fresh, under-developed ideas with your mentors. It’s texting your professor that wacky analogy you just made up about a theory you learned. Research is the diversity and breadth of guest lectures, seminars, and symposiums open to all.

Third-year me enjoyed free doughnut breaks as part of research. From left: Kyle Casey, who studies modular forms, TJ Ciesla, who experiments with synthetic biology, and Paul Hoard, who's always down to finance.

Third-year me enjoyed free donut breaks as part of research. Here pictured with Kyle Casey, who studies modular forms, TJ Ciesla, who experiments with synthetic biology, and Paul Hoard, who’s always down to finance.

Research is forwarding your friends an email, an article or event about a concept you think would pique their interest. It’s connecting friends who turn out to be intellectual soul-mates.

Research is pondering over a question someone threw at you during thesis seminar that you don’t quite have the answer for yet. Research is a good game of “Explain (blank*) to a five-year-old,” one of my favorite activities with my best friend. (*So far, we’ve done Excel, the Maximum Likelihood Estimator, and Prime numbers.)

Duke’s research is big, but it can be manifested in so many small, beautiful ways. It advances every time we ask a speaker a question or linger in the Gross Chemistry Hall to give that research poster a second glance. Even though these small steps aren’t formalized, they inadvertently make our research community richer, make us richer.

Fourth-year research is sitting next to your chewbacca-esque friend, trying to sit still while sharing thoughts on his parking optimization thesis. Grant Kelly, Duke 2016.

Fourth-year research is sitting next to your chewbacca-esque friend, trying to sit still while sharing thoughts on his parking optimization thesis. Grant Kelly, Duke 2016.

To quote my boss, it’s not just about the glossy publications or the number of citations; it’s also about the people, the process, the ever-renewing excitement.

TL;DR You don’t have to be published in a top journal to contribute to the richness of the Duke research community–just strike up a conversation with a similarly curious soul!

 

 

By YunChu Huang, Duke 2016

Trailer Parks and Weird Socks: Economist Charlie Becker

“Do you know what a trailer park* is?” Professor Becker smiled as he threw the question across the dinner table during a FINvite.

“Yes,” I paused, somewhat defensively, “I lived in one.”

The trailer home where I spent my teenage years. An elusive façade of affordability.

“Oh…,” He had a look on his face that I would never forget, a curious, deliberate gaze. “Well, why don’t you come research for me?”  And that, kids, is how you get a research job.

Thus began the story of how I became a trailer park research enthusiast with Dr. Becker. (Actually we just call him Charlie.)

*For our purposes, trailer parks = mobile homes = manufactured housing

Due to increasing demand for affordable housingabout 20 million Americans live in mobile homes even though trailer park management might be anything but fair. Here’s how it works:

In a community like this, tenants typically own the manufactured structures that are their homes (Homeownership! The American Dream!) but not the land under it, and once they’re dropped off, mobile homes are not very mobile because it costs about $3,000 to relocate.

The low-to-moderate income tenants are often subjected to increasing monthly land rents after being lured in by the predatory sales practices, at which point they often can’t afford to relocate to another park (that could have exploitative rents anyway).

Here’s how Charlie explains it (2:27 Video):

How could anyone voluntarily subject oneself to living with such fishy property rights?

Caitlin Gorback (Duke ’11), who recently left the NY Federal Reserve for the Wharton School of business, wrote a thesis on trailer parks economics under Charlie Becker’s mentorship to answer this very question.

Photo Credit: Duke Economics

Gorback modelled the mixed-ownership method to explain how the tenant-owned-house and park owner-owned-land arrangement might maximize profit and utility for both owners and tenants: The park owners benefit from not having any toilets to fix because the tenants own the housing structures. The tenants benefit from sharing a form of governance because the park owner who owns the land has the authority to control unruly neighbors.

This creates the possibility of a mutually-beneficial scenario, where the management provides the governing structure needed to maintain a homogenous tenant base within trailer parks. This is beneficial for tenants, since they typically prefer neighbors with similar habits. So it happens that there is within-park homogeneity and inter-park heterogeneity, such as retiree trailer parks, family-friendly trailer parks, and so on. Wow! Science.

Charlie first got into trailer parks after witnessing a horrendous case of mismanagement first-hand. A relatively large trailer park changed hands shortly before the financial crisis. After suffering substantial losses and being barred from reselling, the new owner sought revenge by doubling rents, devastating the tenants. “It’s a tough story,” he said, “and also interesting to an economist… where else do you find people entrusting a valuable asset to someone else who might render it worthless?”

Before his obsession with trailer parks research, Charlie has consulted for The World Bank, advised the government of Kazakhstan on social security, and helped fix the higher education system in Ukraine by chairing the International Academic Board.

Stay tuned for Charlie’s forthcoming book with Caitlin and research with Ashley Yea on trailer park valuation and nearby apartment rents. In the meantime, check out why Charlie endorses President Obama’s plan of racially integrating neighborhoods and read up on his do’s and don’ts of purchasing a home.

You can also find Charlie busy running the unique Master of Science in Economics and Computation (MSEC) at Duke, teaching Urban Economics to undergraduates, or masterfully making fun of his students’ socks.

Exhibit A:
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By YunChu Huang, Duke 2016

Aspiring data scientist & cow mascot joins Duke Research Blog

I’m YunChu. In my former (read: pre-Duke) life, I was a dashing cow mascot/enthusiast, sousaphone player, and preschool teacher.

Charming a bride who desperately needed a Chick-fil-A milkshake after her wedding party

Charming a bride who desperately needed a Chick-fil-A milkshake after her wedding party

Since then, I’ve played the bassoon with my professor at a local Durham bar, drank my fair share of subpar Turkish beers in the beautiful city of Istanbul, and spent a disproportionate amount of my college career standing in front of the extensive chocolate bar selection in our beloved campus café, Bella Union. Now a senior at Duke, I’m scrambling to figure out the meaning of life along with my thesis topic and slowly coming to terms with my (appalling) recent discovery of the fact that you cannot spell YunChu without the “unc”.

Sometimes I get to do cool things like write briefs for congressmen or explore data management options for the White House Switchboard. This time, as you might have inferred from the title of this post, I’ve acquired the newest and coolest job on campus where I’ll be going around bugging friends, professors, and strangers alike about blogging their research—I’ve finally found a good excuse!

Join me as I document my last year of exploring this rich community that is Duke Research, brought to you in cocktail conversation-esque snapshots. We’ll be marveling over elegant solutions, chuckling over quirky explanations, and having a grand ole’ time appreciating just how diverse and incredible our friends and colleagues really are.

headshot_yunchuBy YunChu Huang, Duke 2016

 

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