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First Update

gent_mapSince this is my first blog post, a short introduction is probably warranted. My name is Manu Navjeevan and I’m an economics student at CMU. My honors thesis is focused on studying trends in income mobility in the U.S and specifically in Pittsburgh/Allegheny County. I chose this topic, partially because it is, I believe, extremely relevant in today’s political climate, but also because it is a less studied field of economics that I felt I could contribute to.

The last few weeks have been extremely constructive in terms of getting a more focused research question and getting a better idea of how to approach the problems I want to work on. When I came into this at the beginning of the summer, I had relatively little idea of what specific question I wanted to answer. I had chosen the topic of income mobility about halfway through the spring semester, with some input from my advisor, Prof. Laurence Ales and had initially thought I would look at specific Pittsburgh programs and see how they might affect income mobility. As I did a bit more looking into the subject over the back half of last semester, it became increasingly apparent to me, however, that I did not have the data to analyze these programs. To study the effect on a specific program on life outcome, one needs individual level data on a variety of variables and over a relatively long period of time for the people in the program. Even if the City of Pittsburgh kept this data, the odds that I would be given access to this data (privacy concerns, etc.) or that it would be robust enough to get significant results were slim. Also, I was having some trouble identifying programs unique to the City of Pittsburgh that I could analyze (though this was probably due to a lack of discipline in looking through the budget on my end). Because of this (and again, in the interest of transparency, a good deal of laziness in doing any real research or reading on my topic during the school year), I didn’t really know what I should be doing apart from reading papers when I got back to Pittsburgh.

However, through reading papers, I began to get a better idea of what problems I could reasonably expect to tackle in an honors thesis. My advisor, Prof. Laurence Ales, has also been particularly helpful in this regard, pointing me to a number of websites where I could find county and census tract level data. Also, with the help of the Dean’s and Associate Deans in Dietrich, I was able to get in touch with the office of City Councilman Dan Gilman and meet with his Chief of Staff Erika Strassburger this Tuesday to talk about city and county programs targeting income mobility. As it stands, I am currently studying income mobility via two approaches.

The first is to look at what county programs or attributes may be correlated with higher income mobility. Through the work of Prof. Raj Chetty at Stanford, we have estimates on the causal effects of living each county in the U.S on income mobility. We don’t know, however, what policies may drive the differences in income mobility between counties. By looking at data on demographic characteristics and the relative sizes of people on public assistance income or on differences in public spending in these counties we hope to study these differences. I’ve currently merged together census data with Chetty’s estimates and am in the stage of identifying what characteristics may be the best predictors and cleaning/transforming the data to perform inference on our regression estimates.

The second approach is through studying the effects of gentrification on income mobility, a problem salient to Pittsburgh. There is a considerable body of work out there that shows that growing up in a better neighborhood has positive effects on life outcomes for poorer children and there is some evidence that people in gentrifying neighborhoods may not move out at a higher rate than in non-gentrifying neighborhoods. Given this, we may want to study the extent to which (if at all) the gains for poorer children in gentrifying neighborhood caused by lower crime rates, etc. are offset by the detriments (less disposable income, more inequality, etc.). To this end, I again used census data at the census tract level to identify which of the over 50,000 census tracts in the U.S look like they’re gentrifying and to what extent. I was able to use this to generate a heat map (below) of which states in the U.S look like they are experiencing the most gentrification (weighted gentrifying neighborhoods as a % of total neighborhoods). The map shows a few interesting results. For example, there appears to be a lot of gentrification in the Dakotas as well as Montana, which runs contrary to where we might believe gentrification is happening. Some of this can probably be explained by the emergence of shale gas in those regions making oil towns in those states significantly better off (North Dakota has the nation’s lowest unemployment rate). When this is combined with the fact that those states have relatively few people, and therefore relatively few census tracts, it probably explains the high rate of gentrification we are seeing on the maps. The hope is now to study outcomes or other characteristics of gentrifying neighborhoods to get a better sense of their effects on life outcomes.

Research aside, life in Pittsburgh over the summer has been relaxing. It’s odd to be on campus without as many people but it means that finding a place to work on campus is nice and restaurants in the area are generally less crowded. Also, because there are no homeworks or midterms, there’s more time to run errands or catch up with people over the summer that, over the school year, you may not get as much time to see. The flexibility of independent research also allows me to go to events and fit my schedule around other things that I may want to do. I’m excited for the rest of the summer, both in terms of making progress on my thesis as well as being to do things in Pittsburgh that I haven’t made time to do yet.

Learn more about my project.

 

 

Starting My Novel

For my senior thesis I’m exploring the concept of narrative identity, basically the idea that we form our identities through stories we tell ourselves about our lives and the world, by writing a novel. I’m currently taking summer classes and volunteering at the Jubilee Soup Kitchen, so my allotted time this summer to work on my thesis doesn’t begin until July 1st, but that hasn’t stopped me from laying out the groundwork for my project.

I’ve decided my novel will be set at a large tech company (not exactly sure what sort yet) in Silicon Valley. Having attended Gunn High School in Palo Alto, I’m very familiar with the area and its culture, and have set a few of my short stories there in the past. The novel will center around a few intelligent slackers who manage to get by without doing much by falling through the cracks at the large company they all work at. This will of course backfire for them later on in the story, but I want to introduce my characters in a somewhat tranquil setting before I plunge them into conflict. I have a lot of ideas for where the novel will go, but some of them are mutually exclusive, so I don’t really want to put them on this blog yet. As of now, I’ve done a lot more work generating choices for where the story can go than actually deciding between these choices, so once I make more decisions, I will have more to report back on.

Outside of class, volunteering, and writing, I’ve been doing some reading and have been watching some films and television. I just finished reading The Magus by John Fowles and am about to read The Sellout by Paul Beatty and The Moviegoer by Walker Percy. As far as films and television, I’ve adapted this William Faulkner quote to guide my viewing: “Read, read, read. Read everything — trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it’s good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out of the window.” Though I suppose I should read more terrible books, shoddy films are much less of an investment of my time and I often find I’m more inspired by a bad film than a good one. To this end, I’ve been making my way through the Fast and Furious series. Though most of the dialogue is terrible and much of the acting is flat or overdone, there is something really human about these sorts of mistakes that I just love. As far as more critically acclaimed films, I recently saw Nacho Vigalondo’s Colossal and Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys, and have been rewatching some of my favorite David Lynch films, as well as catching up on the reboot of Twin Peaks. No matter whether I love or hate something Lynch makes, I always feel challenged by it, and his work is a well of inspiration I can always draw something new from.

It’s been exciting going from nothing to the foundations of a novel, and I’m looking forward to seeing where it goes in the coming weeks and months.

Learn more about my project.

Pittsburgh Meets Guatemala

image1[1]It’s raining. Then again it rains everyday at this time (6 pm). I’m writing to you from Antigua, Guatemala during the rainy season! I’ve been here about three weeks and I have one more to go. I won the Jennings Brave Companion Fund, which is a scholarship to study abroad during the summer. With this, I choose to volunteer in a free clinic in Antigua, Guatemala for 4 weeks. Antigua Guatemala is such an exciting place to be. The cobble stone streets, the daily views of the active volcanoes, and the merchants selling their goods in the street never get old. I have rode in a chicken bus (a colorful loud bus packed beyond capacity) to work everyday, I hiked an active volcano, and I have had great conversations with people in my clinic.

This scholarship has given me the funds to come to the area I am researching for my honors thesis (Central America). I have learned so much about the culture and how the water system works here in Antigua. It’s been very valuable being here in person and not learning from behind a computer screen. I’ve been to Honduras and Nicaragua over the years for one-week volunteer trips building water systems, but these four weeks has deeply widened my global perspective.image2[1]

For my project I will be looking at how technical communications plays a role in sustainability in public health projects in Central America. I intend to mainly look at water systems when discussing the scope of public health projects (surprise, surprise). I’ve decided to start my journey by reaching out to nonprofits that operate in Central America and see how they work towards making there projects sustainable. It seems that everyone has a system they use that has changed over the years to make these projects last longer. Hopefully I will be able to find image3a trend between the organizations use of technical communications and the degree of sustainability.

I am very excited to be working on a project that lets me take a step beyond the United States. I’ve been interested in the field of sustainability in public health for a while, but I haven’t been able to look into it until now. Combine that with my favorite part of the world, and you have an unforgettable research project.

Learn more about my project at Carnegie Mellon University.

Acknowledgement

Just a few days ago, I received emails from Pittsburgh service providers and a few of my interviewees who wrote to me to tell me that they’d read my thesis … and that they wanted to share it with others who may be interested. They were satisfied with the final product.

I received approvals from my thesis advisors, department heads, peers, and yet, these emails made me especially nervous. One of the fears I had prior to diving into this project was that I would not be able to produce a thesis that would be helpful to anyone. I wasn’t motivated to write a thesis that would only benefit me. I struggled to analyze the narratives of others and to present them in a way where the audience would perceive them the way I knew them.

The acknowledgement received by the interviewees meant a great deal to me; it allowed me to feel as though I had truly completed this project.

One of my interviewees wrote: “I just wished you had more participants for the interviews.”

So did I. When I made the last few revisions before submitting my thesis, I could not get out of my head how much more I could have done if I had just a few more voices represented. There were variables out of my control and I acknowledged that, but at the same time, I continued to imagine what I could have done with a few more months.

I’m grateful to have met so many incredible individuals in Pittsburgh through CMU FORGE and this research project. The voices within my thesis will are ones I cannot forget. The experiences of analyzing narratives and presenting these human experiences on paper and in the form of an oral presentation have challenged me in so many ways. I look forward to doing similar research in the near future, but for now, this projects has been completed.

Surviving the Second Semester

I am a second semester senior, and the struggle to stay motivated is very real. As is evidenced by my lack of blog posts, the first half of this semester was rather slow for me in terms of working on my thesis. Some of this can be accounted for by the fact that I have been much busier than I had originally expected this semester! On top of my classwork, I had the added stress of awaiting decisions and doing interviews for graduate school, was a model for CMU’s Lunar Gala fashion show, and have been working extra shifts at my jobs to prepare for post-grad life–all the while trying to enjoy what is left of my senior year.

However, if I’m being honest (both with myself and all of you), a main holdup for me was finding the motivation to work on my thesis. Because I had collected all of my data by the end of fall, I came into my second semester feeling confident about my thesis. I felt that I was in a good place in terms of my timeline, and that I should focus on more pressing matters before worrying about my thesis–I would get it done eventually. But, here I am, halfway into the second semester and about a month away from the final due date, and it’s still not finished.

Though the clock is definitely ticking, I have recently been able to get back into the swing of things. Though picking up extra work shifts may never end for me, Lunar Gala has ended, and I was finally accepted into a graduate program. Tying up these loose ends has lifted an unbelievable burden off my shoulders, and has allowed me to return my focus to my thesis. In fact, when I was not working on my thesis over spring break last week, I went and visited my potential graduate school. Seeing the place that I might call home for the next5+ years has made me incredibly excited about my future, and I know that an integral step to getting there is finishing my thesis.

A photo taken while visiting my potential grad school, The New School for Social Research, in NYC.

Data Analysis: Remembering the Visual

As soon as I press the “play” button on the voice recorder, I begin to type as fast as I can to transcribe the first few words of the interview. I press pause as soon as the recording gets ahead of me, and then repeat the process. Transcription is a bit tedious and there are moments when my fingers stop typing, because I begin to really listen to what is being said. Then, I have to rewind a few seconds back in the recording and type, again.

Having allocated a few hours on the weekends to transcribe, I finally had the opportunity to lay the transcriptions out on my desk and read (multiple times) the words of my interviewees. Multiple readings alone are insufficient to code and analyze. Time also plays an important role in coding the information that I have. There are moments in between classes that I have to pull out my notebook and jot down a note to go back to when I’m looking at the interviews.

Staring at the transcriptions, I almost forgot that I have other senses. One of my professors reminded me that I have eyes. Since I only have audio recordings of the interviews, I made sure to take time after the interviews (not in front of the interviewee) to take notes of body language, the environment of the interview, facial expressions, etc. that seemed significant and accompanied their words. I find more connections when I don’t get completely absorbed in the words themselves. After all, these words are products of individuals who express themselves in a myriad of ways.

One of my goals in this research project is to encompass as much of the individual voice in the analysis as possible without sacrificing the quality of the analysis. Behind each word, each sentence, is a human being who is sharing various moments of their lives.

As I read through the transcriptions, and often re-listen to the recordings, I remember the facial expressions, the pauses, the shifting in their chairs, etc. These are elements that allow me to interpret their words beyond just the words and I hope I can convey that in my writing.

Let the Adventure Begin

~Awaiting adventure~ with some of my housemates!

~Awaiting adventure~ with some of my housemates!

Now that I’m halfway through the fall semester of my senior year (!!!) I’ve spent a great deal of time thinking about the somewhat limited time that I have left at Carnegie Mellon (which is still really hard to believe). When I started off my senior year a few months ago, I promised myself that I would make the most of my time left at Carnegie Mellon, and enjoy every moment I spend here, whether that be in class, at work, or just at hanging out at home with my wonderful housemates (2 of which are pictured above). As cheesy as that sounds, I have actually benefited a great deal from having this perspective. I am not as stressed as I usually am, mainly because I am truly enjoying the work that I’m doing it.  Investing time and energy into my classes and extra curricular activities can be overwhelming and stressful, but since I’ve made more of an effort to enjoy every moment I have left here, I’ve grown to be even more passionate about my courses and activities on campus. I’m incredibly grateful for CMU, my professors and my friends for giving me this kind of environment to thrive in; as a senior, it is making my last semesters extremely valuable. I can only hope that I keep up this attitude for the remaining semester and a half that I have left as an undergrad.

As I walk around campus, I become more sentimental about the adventures that I’ve had but also the adventures that are to come. I hate not knowing where I’ll be a year from now, but I’ve started to embrace the unknown. The future is scary, but exciting.

In the meantime, I am waiting for IRB approval for the online survey that I will send to French and Québecois participants. I’m really looking forward to reading the results from these surveys to see if my archival and library research about La Loi Toubon and La Charte de la Langue Française corresponds with contemporary opinion about these language policies.  I am also starting to engage in more archival research and starting to write my introductory sections to my thesis.

Thanks for reading!

Sweet New Year

The fall is upon us; this is the realization that I had as the temperature took a sudden dive and I pulled a sweater and umbrella out from my closet. This Monday and Tuesday was Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. I celebrated with apples and honey for a “sweet new year”, and dinners filled with my grandma’s recipes (kasha varnishkas, goulash, honey cake). I’ve been thinking about and planning for the year ahead, my final year of undergraduate school, and where it might take me. October is a month filled with job interviews and job fairs. My friends are in Seattle for an interview one day, back in school the next, finishing final touches on medical school and graduate program applications. The next year seems like a distance away, and yet here we are, trying to make decisions that will prepare us for the next move, and then, hopefully, for the next. Wrapping my head around where we may all end up in a year is like writing a collection of tension-filled fiction in itself.

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Shanah Tova! Happy New Year!

I have also been thinking about my thesis, and where it may take me. I am grateful for the momentum that I was given over the summer, but now I am forced to be even more mindful of getting myself to the writing table. This past month, I gave myself the commitment to find time to sit and write every single day, weekends and weekdays alike. Amid reading assignments and engineering group projects, job applications and exams, I have been finding the space to give my writing the priority it deserves – to not just let the days slip away. (Of course, weekly meetings with my advisor, Kevin Gonzalez, have provided the necessary encouragement). Some days, this has meant finding the silence early in the morning, and others – later at night.

I have been working on a story that now might be turning into a lengthier novella. There is also the chance that, when I’m through, I will have to untangle it into two distinct stories. I’m not sure where it will end up now, or where the stories of the rest of the year will take me. In any case, I will be writing! Have a happy and healthy new year, everyone!

A GREat start to Senior Year

It is now October, and we are about 6 weeks into the school year. That is 6 weeks into my senior year of college, and it feels absolutely unreal! Actually, I retract my statement. It feels a little bit TOO real. As the school year began, so too did all the responsibilities that come with being a senior: the most notable of which is applying to graduate school. I am applying to Clinical Psychology Ph.D programs, a.k.a. one of the most competitive program types out there. To say I’m stressed out would be an understatement. However, as with everything I do, I’ve got a structured plan, and am making steady progress.

In fact, this past Friday I completed an integral step in the grad school application process: I took the GREs. All I can say is thank goodness that’s over with! For the month of September, I spent, no exaggeration, all of my free time studying for the test. Though it prepared me to do well, it did hinder my ability to work on other things, such as my honors thesis. However, now that the test is over and I have a bit more free time, everything with the study is back on track; it has been piloted and is just about ready to launch! If all goes well, the month of October will be spent collecting data!

I am incredibly excited with all the progress I am making, both in terms of grad school applications and my honors thesis. And, though I know things won’t be slowing down for me any time soon, I am comforted by the fact that I have plans to move forward with, and a support system that can help me get through anything and everything.

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Special thanks to my wonderful housemates for my post-GRE surprise: a piece of Prantyl’s burnt almond torte cake saying “U R GREat”

 

And that’s all, folks

It feels a little strange to say, but my thesis — a comparison of the political and militant arms of Hezbollah and the Provisional Irish Republican Army — is pretty much done.

Oh, there are a few edits left. My footnotes are still in disarray, so those need neatening up, and I’m sure there are typos that still need to be rooted out. But by Friday, those last little issues will be gone, and I’ll have my adviser, Dr. Clarke, sign the final copy, and I’ll drop it off at the Dean’s office. And I’ll be done.

This thesis has been a huge part of my academic experience as an upperclassman at Carnegie Mellon. In the fall of my junior year, I took my first class with Dr. Clarke, where I first began to develop my interest in militant groups. By the spring, I was almost 4,000 miles away in Granada, Spain and trying to plan a substantial self-guided research paper and pick which militant groups I wanted to focus on. That summer — my last summer as an undergrad, really — was spent with my nose in a pile of books and articles as I tried to absorb as much as I could about Hezbollah and the Provisional Irish Republican Army as quickly as I could. I ended the summer with a 20-page rough draft I was pretty proud of. I was about to launch into my fall semester, which I would be spending in Washington, D.C. working at a foreign policy think tank. I thought I’d finish the draft while I was there, and enter my spring semester of senior year with only edits left to do.

Boy, was I wrong about that last part! Over the fall semester, I got virtually nothing of substance done on my thesis.

My D.C. semester was wonderfully challenging. I loved the think tank where I worked, I made some really good friends and I learned a lot. And I could say that all the goings-on of Washington prevented me from working on my thesis, and there would be some truth in that. It was a jam-packed semester. But the real reason I got nothing of consequence done was that I kind of hated my thesis for a while there.

I’m told this is a natural part of the production of any academic work. Maybe it’s like having a kid? For the first part of the baby’s life, you and the kid are thick as thieves. But then the kid hits adolescence and suddenly everything is more difficult because the little bugger just will not stop rolling her eyes at you. Okay, maybe that’s not the smoothest metaphor, but I honestly struggled to feel connected to and invested in my work that semester. I thought my thesis was no good, but since I didn’t really have the time to fix it, that didn’t galvanize me to make it better; it just made me really anxious about having a piece that wasn’t much good be the crowning achievement of my college career.

So I spent my fall semester ignoring my thesis. And then I got back to campus in the spring and continued to ignore it. Because I was sure that my aversion to rereading it and working on it must have been based in some true lack of quality, some egregious hole in my argument that I had registered subconsciously but hadn’t seen yet. But eventually I got to the point where it was due to Dr. Clarke in a week with major edits, and I hadn’t cracked the file open in months.

I printed off a fresh copy, braced myself and sat down with a cup of coffee and a red pen. And there were problems, definite problems – I didn’t really define my research question or thesis statement as clearly as I should have, my Hezbollah section was longer than the PIRA section by a full four pages and I didn’t have a real conclusion as yet. But none of those problems were insurmountable. And so I began to fix them, in that draft and then in the next. And now I’m basically done.

I don’t know if my long dormant months were a necessary part of the creative process, like a caterpillar forming a chrysalis and then popping out a butterfly, or something. It certainly didn’t feel that way to me. It mostly felt like frustration, topped with a liberal dusting of self-doubt. But when I managed to get over myself and settle down to work, I managed to produce a paper that I’m proud of.

The two most important things I learned from this thesis are these: that any creative process, whether it’s for the academic or professional world, will have its fits and starts, and, when in doubt, it’s best to just grit your teeth and get it done. Hopefully, I’ll remember that the next time I feel overwhelmed by a project.

Working on this thesis has been an exciting challenge for me this past year. I’m so grateful for the support that I received from the Dietrich Honors Fellowship staff, especially Dr. Jennifer Keating-Miller, as well as my advisor, Dr. Clarke. I’ve learned a lot, and I’m excited to present my work at Meeting of the Minds on May 4th.