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Dr. Mariam Khawar: Economics research provides fascinating journeys

Dr. Mariam Khawar, Professor of Economics, has a natural curiosity about the economic systems of the world and the issues that impact them. Since she began her career at Elmira College in 1997, that curiosity has led to continuous research into comparative development across countries throughout the world, with a particular focus on geography as a factor that could explain different development outcomes.

“Geography is a very broad variable, so you have to dig deep into seeing where that leads you,” Khawar explained. “It has led me to look at culture, it has led me to look at institutions. What’s a proximate cause? What’s an ultimate cause? So, there’s all sorts of different avenues to explore.”

In 2016, she brought this research together in a book, “The Geography of Underdevelopment,” and continues to explore topics within this research, such as the difference in development outcomes between southern Italy and the more wealthy northern Italy. To help with this process, Khawar started using geographic information system modeling with the help of Dr. Trevor Browning, Assistant Professor of Environmental Science.

Throughout her career, Khawar has never worried about finding new research topics to pursue. As she finishes one project, she uncovers more questions that lead her down new paths.

“It’s fascinating. It’s like a book that never ends,” she said. “You don’t know the ending and you just have to keep reading to see what happens next.”

It can be easy to put research on the back burner with the other pressures and responsibilities of teaching in higher education. But Khawar said if she didn’t make time for research, she would lose part of herself as an academic and wouldn’t remain true to the reason she entered the profession in the first place.

“I really love my discipline and I love the questions I get to research and answer, and I think that’s really important,” she said. “I think it makes me a better teacher.”

As a student, economics wasn’t always at the forefront of Khawar’s ambitions. She began her undergraduate studies as a Computer Science major at Knox College in Illinois, drawn to the field by the mathematics involved and the logic of programming. However, the tedious process of debugging programs when something went wrong caused Khawar’s interest in computer science to start shifting away. That’s when she discovered economics.

“I found it appealing because it wasn’t a value judgment that you were imposing on things, but just an objective way of looking at things,” she explained. “And the whole idea of weighing costs and benefits in decision making, I found that very natural.”

Even though her focus was more on economics, Khawar maintained her Computer Science major and graduated with both degrees. Because of her computer science background, she already had the extensive math prerequisites she needed in place when she decided to pursue graduate studies at Johns Hopkins University. It also enabled her to quickly adapt to the statistical software they used in graduate school along with software that’s helped her in the profession since.

Although Khawar loved the idea of traveling to different countries to help leaders solve their economic problems as part of an international organization, she loved the idea of teaching at a small school like Knox and doing research even more. At EC, she found a college that was similar to Knox, right down to the purple and gold colors.

Khawar has spent her entire career at Elmira, where she is constantly trying to evolve and explore new ways to educate her students to be the best teacher she can be. As she continues to track economic trends, both through former classmates who now work internationally and extensive reading, she has seen the field evolve. Now there is more recognition of how society and culture impact the economy, a shift from theoretical to applied economics with much of the research, and an increased focus on how economists can communicate ideas to the average person in an easily understood way.

At the academic level, however, she’s seen students shifting towards fields they perceive as having more concrete job opportunities such as accounting, finance, or business.

“What I see and what economists see is that you can apply economics to every single field. For me, the grounding of economics and getting that knowledge in economics means that you can go and work in any field, but I don’t think that people on the outside see that.”

Khawar said one of the highlights of her career at EC has been the opportunity to teach Term III courses, which she did for around a decade before COVID. She hopes to start teaching them again soon.

“Taking students abroad has been a very enriching part of my experience as a professor,” she said. “It’s some of the most rewarding experiences because you get to see students grow and learn in a way that nothing else can do. Just seeing new cultures, new perspectives, new places, new ways of doing things.”

In Peru, she and her students examined how the country’s changing geography led to different modes of economy. She’s also looked at globalization in Thailand and Cambodia, from both an economic and sociological perspective with a friend who is a sociologist. Other locations have included Brazil, Australia, Vietnam, and South Africa.

“I’ve been to some of these places multiple times. I’ve been to the Amazon three times,” she added. “How many people can say that?”

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