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Isabelle Sin

Isabelle 'Izi' Sin is an economic researcher at Motu, an independent economic and public policy research organisation that aims to provide solid evidence to inform public debate.

Isabelle SinWhat do you do on an average work day?

I get in to the office early, make myself a cup of tea, and sit down at my computer. The office is quiet at that time of day and the buskers outside on Cuba Street haven’t arrived yet, so it’s a great time to concentrate. 

I log in to the Statistics New Zealand datalab where I can access confidential data, and spend an hour and a half coding for one of my long-term research projects. I might be trying to understand why women are paid less than men, how government policies affect the labour market, or how student loans affects the work choices of graduates. It’s exciting when the data start to reveal their secrets and before I know it it’s coffee time.

A few days a week the junior researchers at Motu and I go out to a coffee shop at 9am. We always go to the same cafe and the staff are getting pretty good at remembering our coffee orders. We sit by the window, one of us explains an economics paper they’ve read recently, and the rest of us ask questions about it. The smell of coffee, the whine of the coffee machine, and the soft background music create a great atmosphere for deep intellectual conversations, and we all learn a lot from these talks. Some of the papers we read are excellent and inspire our own research questions, whereas others employ shoddy methodologies and draw unsupported conclusions. Those we tear apart, of course, and discuss how better to answer their research questions.

I’m back in the office by 9:35am, and from there my day might go in any direction.

Some days I’m up (literally) at Victoria University lecturing first year students about comparative advantage and Nash equilibria.

Some days I have a meeting with the Ministry for Women, Treasury, or the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment about some research I’m doing for them or about their unanswered questions on the economy.

If I’ve recently released a paper I might present it at a government agency or a university, or talk to the media. I still find presenting a bit intimidating, but it’s a great buzz when your research is understood and used by the people who actually help design policy for the whole country.

If there’s any time left in my day, I’ll spend it on research - analysing data, figuring out how to use data to answer the research questions that won’t let me sleep at night, or writing theoretical models that motivate and support my empirical analysis.

I leave the office at 3:15pm and clench my teeth through traffic until I get home at 4pm. Then it’s another hour or two of research, lecture preparation, admin work, or designing proposals to convince the powers-that-be to fund my research.

Not a bad day when you’re basically getting paid to think about fascinating questions and write what you think down.

Isabelle on holiday

What did you study at school? And after high school?

At school I was very into the physical sciences. I took physics, chemistry and biology and toyed with the idea of becoming a doctor, but I also loved mathematics, economics, and classical studies. In the end I gave up on the idea of studying medicine because I couldn’t bear the idea of giving up maths. By my first year of university I’d narrowed my options to maths, physics, economics, or law.

I’d never studied law before, and it was a big mistake. I went in with the naïve idea that law was about the truth. Not so much. It turned out to all be wrangling and twisting words to make them mean what you need them to mean at the time, which is so not my thing.

I decided against studying pure maths because its applications in economics and physics seemed more fun. Then my choice was between physics and economics. I think I could have chosen either and been happy with my career choice, but in the end I went with economics because I figured it would make it easier to get a job.

My honours degree was in economics, but I kept studying maths right up to 400 level and I’m glad I did. Not only did I find it stimulating and exciting, but it also really helped my economics.

I went on to do a PhD in economics and my declared fields were microeconomic theory, industrial organisation, and economic history. That doesn’t make it weird that most of my research now is labour economics, right?

Was your study directly related to what you do now? 

Absolutely. In fact, sometimes it feels like I never left grad school (which is a great thing, in case you’re wondering).

Isabelle sitting on steps to a hut

What would you like to share with young women who are thinking about their career choices right now?

Dream big. When I was attending a rural high school in Canterbury I never imagined that I would be accepted into and gain a PhD from Stanford University. But I did. And it never would have happened if some wonderful mentors hadn’t convinced me to dream big.

Find something you love and work to become awesome at it. You don’t want to be stuck in a job that bores you because you need it pay the bills. Figure out what excites you, whether it’s understanding people, numbers, technology, or anything else, and devote yourself to it. Don’t settle for average when you can be great, and when you’re great people will pay you to do what you love. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t.

Never stop learning. Be curious about life, about people, and about your chosen field. Everyone you meet has something to teach you if you’re prepared to listen, and there’s always a world of information just a few mouse clicks away.

What are some of your career highlights so far?

Getting my PhD from Stanford was a highlight, but it didn’t compare to the six years I spent working towards it, surrounded by some of the top economics minds in the world and a continual flurry of fascinating ideas and research.

Since coming back to New Zealand, it’s been a thrill to have my research widely discussed in the media on three occasions, and to have spoken about my findings on national TV and radio.

Why do you believe engaging in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) is important to New Zealand?

Because badly informed people make poor decisions - for themselves and for their country.

Why is it important to have more women working in STEM?

The directions a field takes are affected by the perspectives and values of the people who work in the field, and women bring different perspectives to men. We don’t want to deprive the future of STEM of half its possibilities.

Isabelle hiking

Isabelle Sin is an economic researcher at Motu, an independent economic and public policy research organisation that aims to provide solid, non-partisan evidence to inform public debate.

This profile is part of our series of girls and women in STEM.

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