Two Students Win Top Honors for Research Projects

Chicago Harris PhD students Patricia Ritter and Luis Herskovic brought home two of the three top “poster prizes” from the fall conference of the prestigious Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management (APPAM), held in Miami November 12–14.

Both students gave brief presentations and answered questions from conference participants who gathered around their displays, which included graphics like maps and charts. 

Ritter’s research examined the relationship between the availability of clean drinking water, obesity and gastrointestinal health in developing countries. A native of Peru who has lived in Tanzania, Ritter had observed that poor access to safe water often led people to drink soda instead. She also knew that the price of soda had dropped dramatically in Peru at one point in the late 1990s. So she studied that sharp fall in the price of soda to see if there was an effect on consumption and weight, and then tested whether that effect was stronger in those who had access to potentially contaminated water. 

The falling price, she found, led to more consumption of soda and less consumption of water, especially in areas without piped-in water. In places with potentially contaminated well water, the incidence of diarrhea went down, but only for women; this did not happen in areas with modern plumbing.

“The main takeaway from the paper—and that’s what I wanted to put on the poster—was that I found a causal relationship between soft drink prices, and consumption and obesity,” Ritter says. “Secondly, I show that the taxes on soda might have unintended consequences because [discouraging people from drinking soda] might increase diarrhea prevalence, at least in some populations.”

Ultimately, Ritter says, her research—which feeds directly into her dissertation work—suggests that increasing access to safe water not only decreases the incidence of diarrhea but also could decrease obesity. Rather than increasing soda taxes to accomplish this, she suggests, countries like Peru should consider cleaning up the water supply. “Everybody’s thinking about taxes, but I say first be careful because, yes, if you change prices you might change [soda] consumption, but that might have unintended consequences” in terms of GI health.

Herskovic’s research—conducted with fellow PhD student Sebastian Gallegos, although the former was solely responsible for the winning poster—looked at the relationship between school choice and access to public transportation in Santiago, Chile.

While school choice has been in place in Chile since the 1980s, relatively few parents have taken advantage, which has led some commentators to theorize that parents don’t care enough about school quality to explore their options. But Herskovic and Gallegos figured that perhaps they just didn’t have many good choices anywhere nearby.

Based on the knowledge that a new subway line had opened in Santiago in 2005, the pair used a natural experiment to examine the choices of families who lived near the subway line. Their findings: those who lived within a certain radius of the new subway stops chose schools that were further away than those who did not, in the aggregate, and they chose schools that performed better overall on standardized tests.

“This shows that parents do care about school quality, but they face additional restrictions,” says Herskovic, a Chilean native whose dissertation addresses similar issues. “Establishing a policy of school choice may not be enough—you need additional things like giving parents access to a transport network.”

Both students were pleased that their presentations were recognized with top honors at the APPAM conference. “I was very surprised, to be honest,” Ritter said of the award. “I was very happy.” Herskovic responded similarly: “I’m very happy with the award. I’m thankful to the Harris School for helping me go to the conference, and to the faculty I work with, who were very encouraging.”

—Ed Finkel