Undergraduate research opportunities guide ISU economics student

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Iowa State economics Student Deepak Premkumar, right, with a man in Tanzania in 2012.

As a freshman at Iowa State University, Deepak Premkumar wasn’t sure he made the right decision about where to attend college. After all, Ames was where he’d gone to high school, so he wasn’t exactly leaving home. And as the “typical liberal arts student” that Premkumar sees himself as, his sense was that the university was mostly focused on agriculture and engineering.

But with a thirst to try “a little bit of everything” in the liberal arts spectrum, Premkumar soon could see a number of unique opportunities available to him. As a freshman honors student, there was the chance to work one-on-one with Professor Peter Orazem, known for his work in labor economics and developing economies – areas of interest to Premkumar.

Even though he lacked experience in economics or statistics, Orazem could see something unique in the eager freshman. “Deepak was very serious and he came here wanting to make a difference,” he said. “I usually select a book to read with a freshman honors student, but he clearly wanted to sink his teeth into something more.”

At the time, Orazem was working on a project to analyze the outcomes of Vision Iowa, a state funding program designed to enhance tourism attractions to the general public across the state. Noting Premkumar’s potential, he chose to include him in the research process itself.

Premkumar was surprised by the way that he was included in the work. “Professor Orazem didn’t just make me do the grunt work, but gave me the chance to compile data sets and do regressions,” he says.

Former Iowa Governor Vilsack, the original promoter of Vision Iowa, eventually read their research when it was complete. It was “a surprising moment” for Premkumar when he learned that the governor and his wife had appreciated his efforts.

“I just thought to myself, ’wow!’ It was an experience that really captured my attention,” he said.

Now a junior, Premkumar has explored the potentials of economics far past his initial studies. With basic research skills under his belt, he connected with an NGO in Tanzania that needed help compiling data sets to support a development project around schools, power supplies, and water, and spent time traveling and working there.

“I started to see how research and economics can be used as a lens to look at issues of development,” he said.

Currently, Premkumar is working on a project with Economics Department alumnus Sheetal Sekri, to explore the issue of groundwater in India, and the factors which affect the adoption of water-saving techniques in the Punjab region. Eventually after graduation, he plans to work in the areas of international development and global health.

Orazem isn’t surprised by Premkumar’s evolution since freshman year. “He’s someone who doesn’t just want to participate in things, but he really wants to create something. He is very driven toward public service in a meaningful way,” he said.

Premkumar says, “I was raised to have intellectual curiosity and to explore everything that I can. I never want to become complacent.”

In hindsight, he’s glad that he made the choice to remain in Ames and study at Iowa State. “The university has such a large research base, so you have incredible opportunities as an undergrad – you just need to take the initiative,” he said. “I’ve done a complete 180-degree turn in my viewpoint. I never would choose another school for myself now.”

– By Kristin Senty, ISU Department of Economics