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A double major in biology and economics & business, Daniela Simova ’06 (Sofia, Bulgaria) equates her research experiences to swimming.

“No matter how much time you spend learning the movements and the coordination, you will never know if you can really swim or if you will really enjoy it, unless you hit the water,” she says. “The research I have been and am now working on was that first interaction with the water for me.”

A member of Phi Beta Kappa, Simova has been conducting economics-based research since the spring semester as an EXCEL Scholar with David Stifel, assistant professor of economics and business, and during the January interim session she completed EXCEL work with Edward Gamber, associate professor of economics and business.

In Lafayette’s distinctive EXCEL Scholars program, students conduct research with faculty while earning a stipend. The program has helped to make Lafayette a national leader in undergraduate research. Many of the more than 160 students who participate each year share their work through articles in academic journals and/or conference presentations.

“The interim research I did was my first EXCEL research, so I was really excited to be able to work with a faculty member on a real-world project,” says Simova. “It was also a good experience of applying classroom material outside of class, which was very exciting because economics especially is a subject that can be hugely different in practice versus in theory.”

Her work with Stifel is continuing throughout the summer and is part of a larger study he is conducting to understand poverty in Kenya. Using nationally representative household survey data on child height and weight, Simova is helping Stifel estimate the economic determinants, such as household or individual income, of child malnutrition.

“We are trying to discover what policies might be effective in reducing child malnutrition and, given the documented persistence of its effects from a young age throughout life, have a long-lasting impact,” Stifel says.

Although the work might not have an immediate impact on international economics policy, Simova says, “I feel it would be very useful to be able to recognize any measures that could be taken both there and in other countries in order to address child malnutrition appropriately.”

Simova’s winter research focused more tightly on national economic trends as she compiled and analyzed huge amounts of data to determine how economic forecasters adjusted to the reduced volatility in the United States’ Gross National Product and economy in the mid-1980s.

“What we were trying to look at is how quickly people recognized changes in the economy because when we look back now with the lens of history, we notice it’s an abrupt change and we wanted to know if people recognized it quickly, if it took a year after it happened or two years after that,” Gamber says. “Economists want to know how quickly people catch onto changes in the economy. It’s almost like the economy gave us a natural experiment by changing drastically.”

A theory called rational expectations speculates that the accuracy of forecasters is linked to their experiences and the history of the marketplace. The more quickly someone learns from a change, the easier it will be to track trends and make relatively certain forecasts about the economy.

“The way the economy works in an economist’s mind is that the whole mechanism depends on expectations — the way people see the future is really important in determining the path of the economy and how it responds to policy,” Gamber says. “So economists, for about 30 years, have been trying to figure out, by measuring how people form those expectations, how they look for changes in the economic structure and how they learn.”

Simova adds, “Since a big part of economic activity depends on the forecasts, it is useful to look at the measures forecasters use and also to see actually what expectations we can have for those forecasts.”

Not only have both projects given Simova a better understanding of how two vastly different economic measures are applied in the real world, they’ve provided greater insight into “the methods and difficulties that researchers go through,” she says.

For example, her work with Gamber involved inputting 40 years’ worth of data from the Survey of Professional Forecasters. For each data set Simova organized, she gathered the “vintage” number as well as dozens of years of revised numbers on the same set.

“There was a lot of tedious work,” Gamber says. “The government revises the data that is published and it revises it continuously, so we might look at the data the government publishes right now as being the growth in 1972, but the number they are using is probably not the number the forecaster was using back then. For every quarter of every year there is a snapshot of history as seen at that time period and instead of taking the data point we see now, she went back and saw what the 1972 vintage data looked like.”

Her current work is a bit more interesting to Simova because it hits close to home.

“Since I come from Bulgaria, a country not as economically strong as the U.S. or the European powers,” says Simova, “I have a natural interest in developing countries and countries which have yet to show their economic strength. I have always felt that in today’s world of globalization, it is useful to be aware of the situation in all countries — the weaker countries as well as the stronger ones.”

Simova adds that she hopes her EXCEL work with Stifel leads to an honors thesis.

Gamber and Stifel say that her academic skills were among the reasons they chose her as a research assistant.

“I asked Dani to work with me because she is extremely intelligent and a quick learner,” Stifel says. “It also helps that she is diligent and pays close attention to detail. The hard part of this research is handling the data correctly and getting the statistics right so that we can make statements with some confidence. It has been a real luxury for me to be able to count on Dani to work well with the data, and to do so promptly. Further, she clearly understands what she is doing as she has caught data issues that I missed on more than one occasion.”

Gamber says that Simova’s involvement in his project taught her that research is a dynamic process, often bringing to light more questions than are answered.

“It takes on a life of its own; that’s what makes it exciting and difficult and makes [students] gain an appreciation for it,” Gamber says. “In most classrooms, you want to package information into a broad base of information so that all student can process it, but in research students gain an appreciation for how messy the process is, how there aren’t really very narrow answers to the questions we’re asking.”

Simova is not sure what career path she will take following graduation, but her experiences have not only enhanced her time at Lafayette by allowing her to use the concepts learned in class in other contexts, they have given her confidence in her ability to do so.

“For me, learning how to apply everything you learn in class to real-life situations and opportunities is the first step to being a grown up and doing things by yourself, because your professor won’t always be there to tell you which part of the material you need to learn for the exam,” Simova says.

She is part of an innovative Technology Clinic class working with officials from Hugh Moore Park, home to the restored Lehigh Canal, the Locktender’s House Museum, 19th Century Industrial Ruins, and other historical structures, to create a computerized walking tour of the area.

She is a member of International Students Association, College Choir, and Madrigal Singers. She also was a member of the team took third place at the College Fed Challenge National Championship in Washington, D.C.

Categorized in: Academic News