Undergraduate Complexity Research
Sahana Subramanyam is a Ph.D. student at Stanford University in the Department of Economics. Her long-standing research interest is inequality. She has also contributed to economics education research with the goal of broadening participation. Sahana first became involved with SFI as an Undergraduate Complexity Researcher (UCR) in 2018. She holds a B.A. in economics from Azim Premji University (Bangalore, India) and a M.S. in economics and social science from Università Bocconi (Milan, Italy).
What was your research project as a UCR?
My project was done with [SFI Professors] Sam Bowles, Wendy Carlin, and [SFI Postdoctoral Fellow] Michael Price. We used topic modeling on a century of economics research and situated famous economics texts from Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations to Samuelson’s Principles of Economics within that space to investigate if there were Kuhnian paradigms. It was interesting to see how similar some classical economists were and how different Hayek and Keynes were from their peers. I learned a lot about my own discipline in a very broad and different way than I had in the classroom, with expert qualifications and substantiations from Sam and Wendy on what I was finding. I continue to work more extensively on this project with Sam, Wendy, and Simon Halliday (University of Bristol) to look at the paths that microeconomics and macroeconomics research has taken over the last century.
Why is economics education important to you?
It was a non-standard econ curriculum that got me into research. How economics is taught – the questions it centers on and the tools it offers to answer them – play a crucial role in who it attracts as future researchers. I think economics would greatly benefit from more students entering into economics research, bringing with them their diverse perspectives and fresh ideas. Economics is something you live, so your experiences can play a role in your research and the questions you ask. While an important function of economics education can be to offer tools to navigate the world as a voter, I personally find its ability to attract diverse voices with the right questions and tools exciting and promising.
How did you first encounter SFI?
One of my undergraduate professors, Arjun Jayadev, told me about SFI. Honestly, I was sold when he told me that people write with markers on glass walls and think about extremely weird – in a good way – questions. But I was also especially thrilled about the possibility of meeting Sam at SFI, having learned economics from CORE – developed by Sam, Wendy, and colleagues – and his intermediate textbook. Stalking the SFI website for days, I soon amassed a long list of all the interesting people I would love to hear at a seminar. It was only once I got to SFI that I realized I could talk to them one-on-one and work with any or all of them!
How did your experience in the UCR program change your perspective?
The SFI experience completely changed my approach to research and what I was interested in. The excitement that everyone in the institute has – staff, faculty, postdocs, and students was infectious. I got a sense of the intellectual environment I wanted to be in and how I wanted to have fun with my research. I always had weird side interests, but [my UCR experience] just added fuel to the fire. The disregard for disciplinary boundaries was refreshing, and it has encouraged me to explore and be curious about stranger – for an economist – topics and questions. I was worried that only SFI would have this rich and playful environment, so I wanted to maintain my connection to the institute. I came back in 2019 for a research visit, I'm back again now for a Working Group, and hopefully, I'll be back in the future.
What stood out to you about the UCR program?
The best part of the UCR program was the other students. Students came from very different disciplines and were at the edge of those disciplines. Everyone was thinking differently, had new ideas, and was not afraid to communicate them. Some of the best conversations I have had has been at SFI, where my brave peers sought to explain an entirely new – to me – discipline and then their research interests in it. When you communicate across disciplines like that, you approach new ideas with more curiosity than skepticism, which can be a lot of fun. Unlike other undergraduate research programs, SFI not only gave students the freedom for such conversations but actively facilitated them through its equally excited and committed researchers.
In what direction will your research go next?
I have heard that you always enter your econ Ph.D. with a different idea than what you leave, so I can’t be certain where I’m headed. But I’m excited to see how Stanford and its people mold my interests. That disclaimer aside, one of the topics I'm interested in is inequality, especially the forms it takes with gender and caste and why it persists. I think gender inequality is something every woman experiences from a very early age, and in India, it's extremely salient. Concerning caste, my parents had an inter-caste marriage, which is still very rare in India. Many media and textbook simplifications of caste turned out to be insufficient in explaining things that I observed, which got me interested to learn more. I think an important and fine-grained way to understand better how caste operates and persists is by studying it in networks. It was Matt Jackson (Stanford University; SFI) and his previous work on the network organization of rural Indian villages – capturing things like who lends rice to whom, which is very caste oriented – that made me apply to Stanford. I hope to explore this interest by learning from him during my time there.
I also have a side interest in human-algorithm interactions. Game theory looks at human-human interactions, but you can't just chuck in an AI instead of a human in those theories. Algorithms - for instance, social ones that we interact with on social media – learn not just from humans but also the community. In addition, they are subject to statistical bias from the training data and bias from their creators/programmers. And with humans changing their behaviors in response to algorithmic interactions, these biases could get amplified in strange ways with real consequences. I would like to take a crack at modeling those interactions more generally. It's a topic that economists, together with computer scientists and social scientists, should engage with more substantially. It's so important and pervasive, and economics has much to offer from its study of human behavior, incentives, and institutions.
What differs about a complexity science perspective on economics?
Economics as a discipline is unconstrained in topic but constrained in method. Historically, people weren't afraid to ask questions about the complex world around them – politics, society, philosophy, and economies combined into one. That's still true today but in a different way. For instance, in applied microeconomics, you can ask many different questions and get away with it, which is very promising. However, apart from all those questions usually using similar causal empirical tools, there hasn’t been much work that tries to consider all these varied components or a select subset of them as a complex, adaptive and dynamic whole. A complexity science perspective on economics centers the dynamic and evolutionary attributes of an economy that mostly lives outside of static equilibrium. SFI economists like Matt, Sam, and Wendy, for instance, usually consider a dynamic, evolving economy and its heterogeneous agents with methodological flexibility.
What interests or talents do you have that might surprise your colleagues?
I illustrate as a side-gig. In my undergraduate, I would compulsively doodle to keep my hands busy and stay focused in my classes. One of my professors noticed. I thought I was going to get in trouble, but instead, I ended up illustrating an article he was writing and, later, illustrating his economics textbook. I continued illustrating for the same magazine through my undergraduate and started illustrating for another one, communicating economics research in my masters. I think fun science illustrations help concepts stick for visual learners, and I’m grateful for all the creative freedoms I have been given so far to create pictures that do that!
Sahana at SFI, summer 2018
"Monolith" illustration by Sahana.
This interview was conducted in August 2022.