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Lokvani Talks To Gita Gopinath

Ranjani Saigal

Harvard University’s economics department appointed its first tenured Indian woman professor in the university’s 374 year history. Last month the University’s president confirmed tenure for Professor Gita Gopinath, making her only the second internally promoted woman full professor and the third woman to be a tenured full professor in a department that is rated the best economics department in the world. The only other Indian-university educated faculty at the economics department is Nobel Prize winning Professor Amartya Sen.

Professor Gopinath, 38, works in the area of international macroeconomics and finance, a field that has become key in light of the current financial crisis and the critical macroeconomic situation faced by countries like Greece and Iceland

Before joining Harvard in 2005, she was an Assistant Professor of Economics at – the University of Chicago, Graduate School of Business. Prior to that she completed her Ph.D. in Economics from Princeton University

Before coming to the United States, Professor Gopinath completed her B.A. (Honors) in Economics from Lady Shri Ram College where she received the President’s Gold Medal from then Vice President of India Shri K.R. Narayanan for standing first in the University of Delhi (see picture below). Thereafter she did her Masters in Economics from the Delhi School of Economics, where she received the National Post-Graduate Fellowship in Economics.

Professor Gopinath is married to Iqbal Dhaliwal, her classmate from the Delhi School of Economics, who stood 1st in the U.P.S.C. Civil Services examination in 1996 and worked for many years in the Indian Administrative Service (I.A.S.), and is currently the Director of Policy at the Poverty Action Lab in the Economics Department of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.). They live near Cambridge with their seven-year son

Congratulations on getting tenure in the Economics  department at Harvard. You are the second Indian to get tenure in this Department. The first was Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen

To clarify, I am the first Indian women to get tenure in the Economics department. Besides Amartya Sen  there are two other tenured male professors of Indian origin. The common factor between Amartya and me is that we both went through the Indian university system before getting here unlike the other two professors who are U.S. university educated.

What do you think contributed the most towards getting this high honor?

The contributing factors are several.  Academically I had the fortune of learning economics at several prestigious institutions including the Delhi School of Economics, University of Washington and Princeton University. At Princeton I was highly influenced by Ken Rogoff's (currently a Professor at Harvard) research in International finance and he later became my thesis adviser along with Ben Bernanke (the current chairman of the Federal Reserve). The academics alone would have been far from sufficient without the indispensable support and encouragement of my husband, Iqbal Dhaliwal, and my parents, T.V. Gopinath and V.C. Vijayalakshmi.
Could you give us an abstract of your area of research ?

My research is in the area of international macroeconomics, where I have focused on two central issues: 1. International pricing and the impact of exchange rate movements. 2. Business cycles and crises in emerging markets.  On the topic of international prices I explore empirically and theoretically the impact of exchange rate changes on the price of import and export goods and on consumer prices. The questions I investigate include "what is the impact of dollar-euro exchange rate movements on import price and consumer price inflation?" The findings of this research impact both monetary and exchange rate policy. On the topic of business cycles in emerging markets I have explored the differences in business cycles between developed and emerging markets and the impact of international capital flows and sovereign debt in these markets.  
How does your research impact the current debt crisis in Europe ?

Debt crisis has in recent times been viewed mainly as a phenomenon of the less developed world so the developments in Greece certainly shakes things up. In my research we have explored the negative impact that having large levels of debt has on the real economy. As Greece undertakes tough measures to reduce the size of its debt it must have in mind the negative impact of large debt levels. On the other hand there is the negative demand side effects that arise from the wage and salary cuts that are being instituted, so there is an interesting trade-off that we wish to explore in future research.
The past couple of years have been very turbulent times for the financial world in the US and the world at large. What makes you feel hopeful about the future?

No two crises are ever alike so it is not surprising that the current one was so unpredictable. Nevertheless, we can use our rich understanding of prior crisis to solve some of the issues of the current one. Ben Bernanke, who is one of the leading researchers of the 1929 "Great Depression" and currently the chairman of the Federal Reserve has used all the tools at his disposal to avoid the mistakes that were made by the Federal Reserve during the Great Depression. The fact that the current financial crisis did not end up as a second major depression owes in a significant way to his policies. Going ahead there is a serious need to address failures in financial regulation and growing budget deficits across the globe - to the extent that these issues receive a lot of attention and the momentum on reform is not lost I am very hopeful about the future of the world economy.
The number of women faculty at prestigious institutions is quite small. What do you think are the challenges for women Faculty? How did you overcome them?

You are right about the very few women faculty at the top. At Harvard for instance, including me there are only 3 tenured women out of approximately 40 tenured faculty. While this is very low it is still a whole lot better than it was in the past. An important part of career development is receiving explicit or implicit mentoring. I do think that junior women could benefit from having senior women as mentors, so when that pool is very small this is just harder to accomplish. In academia the whole tenure clock makes having a family difficult, so this is a bigger challenge for women. I am very fortunate to have a hugely supportive husband in this matter.
What is your vision for the future?

I take things one step at a time. I am happy with my research and teaching for now and lets see what the future holds.

What advice do you have for students who may be contemplating doing a PhD in economics and considering a teaching career at a University?
I will advice them to stick with it since these are truly exciting times to be a economist. I would advice students to inquire a little bit into what kinds of courses best prepare you for a Ph.D. in economics so they can use their time optimally in preparation.
You are married to another very successful economist. How do you both manage your home while aggressively pursuing your careers?

Yes, my husband works at M.I.T's economics department as the Director of Policy for the Jameel Poverty Action Lab. I often bounce my research ideas off him and have benefited tremendously from his advice. We have a 7 year old son Rohil who is the center of our life. It is a tough task balancing career and home but my husband and I work hard at it and ultimately having both is very gratifying.
Any special message for our readers?
Over the last few days I have received many congratulatory notes and I am very thankful for it and very humbled. For those reading this piece, especially the students among you, I will say go ahead, work hard, and chase your dreams. A lot of things are more intimidating from a distance than up close, so follow your dream one step at a time and you will find everything attainable.

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1.Great achievement of this young Indian woman Professor September 12, 2011MG Chandrakanth 
2.Prof Gita Gopinath May 28, 2010 

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