Experience: STAARS 2018 Fellow
1st of May 2018 was the day I received the email that would change my research career forever. Honestly, I was not particularly excited to open that mail when I saw the heading “STAARS Fellowship Decision”. I had applied for the fellowship program the previous year with no success, so, I thought it was a mail informing me of yet another rejection. I was already consoling myself with the hope of reapplying the following year.
You can imagine my joy to discover it was, Liz’s (you will get to hear a bit more about her later) message informing me that I had been selected to participate as one of the four fellows for 2018. It was mixed emotions for me having had all my education in Nigeria and considering my earlier failed attempt to be selected for same. One moment I was happy, the other I wondered what it was that made them select me from a pool of about 200 applicants from around the world. I probably would never know why the selection team found me and my research proposal, child health and food price volatility in Nigeria, worthy of such a prestigious award; but I can at least give an account of my experience and the opportunities I have benefited and continue to benefit from as a STAARS fellow.
The aim of the fellowship is to pair young African researchers like myself with mentors who will provide guidance on how to produce good research papers. Well, I did not only get a mentor, I got paired with three mentors – Joanna Upton, Liz Bageant, and Sylvia Blom. Initially, I had wondered if I would able to gain anything from the mentors because five out of six months of the fellowship duration was virtual, and we had to communicate using emails, Skype, and Zoom. Surprisingly, I gained a lot in those five months that my mentors not being physically present didn’t matter much. My mentors took me through a rigorous process of self-discovery and boosted my confidence in doing independent research. I had to learn, unlearn and relearn many of the things I thought I knew. They helped me clarify my thoughts and pointed me to where I could find resources to aid my research.
Through the arrangement, I learnt several quirks of virtual communication which eventually proved useful in my other collaborative research. It also improved my email writing, planning, and time management skills.
My Visit to Cornell (Ithaca, New York)
I had to get to Ithaca by road via Binghamton because the airplane I was on could not land in Ithaca due to poor visibility. The road trip, which took about an hour, offered me an opportunity to see some parts of rural New York where most of the farming activities take place. This contrasts with my preconceived view of how the New York state rather than New York City itself looks.
During my visit, I got to meet my mentors in person, and I got to present my research to some faculty and graduate students of the Dyson School of Applied Economics & Management. The feedback I got from the presentations were insightful and helped clarify the underlying concept of my research. I also got to meet John Hoddinott, the famous Canadian economist and a professor of Food Nutrition and Public Policy, Cornell University. He was happy to help clarify my methodology of constructing some variables (like the net sales values) needed for my research. I met with Florio, the data management consultant, who introduced me to the idea of producing reproducible research by following the tier protocol.
I also got to attend different seminars and a conference. Liz had planned my trip to fall during the 2018 NEUDC Conference, and I got the opportunity to attend the conference. I listened to some of the most current research findings and got to network with some conference attendees who were from some of the best universities around the world. Of course, the benefit of attending such an event cannot be overstated; the papers presented inspired some of my current research.
At this time, other STAARS fellows were also visiting Cornell, and we got to do most things together – shopping, sightseeing, dining. Our meeting at Cornell would be the start of a lifelong relationship. While at Ithaca, a STAARS mentor, Brian Dillon took us to an Ethiopian restaurant where we ate injera. Garrick Blalock, also a STAARS mentor, took us sightseeing; we visited a few gorges and as the saying goes “Ithaca is indeed gorges”. Joanna hosted us for dinner in her home with her friends and family and after dinner, we got to carve pumpkins.
Chris deserves a paragraph of his own. Chris Barrett is a renowned economist and overseer of the fellowship programme. I got to meet him for the first time at Cornell, and he was welcoming and accommodating. His comments and suggestions after reading my “supposed” complete paper helped shape it. He offered interesting insights to my work and gave my mentors and I clarification on some concepts we were confused about. I am entirely grateful for this opportunity I never thought possible. It was both humbling and eye opening.
After my fellowship year, I was invited to attend the NBER/AfDB conference in Boston and my trip was sponsored by the AfDB. In attendance were the who-is-who of development economics, names I had only read about previously. Attending this conference was a surreal experience. I met other young scholars doing research on Africa and some of the STAARS fellows from previous years.
Even after my programme had ended, my mentors continued to provide me with support –reviewing my research proposals for other research opportunities, reviewing my curriculum vitae and offering suggestions to make me competitive in the job market, informing me of available opportunities to apply for, to name a few. Our relationship now transcends STAARS and we plan to collaborate on future research projects.
My experience as a fellow of the prestigious STAARS Fellowship has opened my eyes to all the possibilities that await me. One of the many highlights was getting to work on a research that can be considered first rate. Through this fellowship programme, I have gained a wealth of knowledge, skills, network, and an experience that I would continue to cherish for a lifetime.