Prof-iles: Economics professor finds his calling on a mountain in Nepal

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While spending time in Nepal, economics professor Jim Murphy met another student who showed him he could evaluate environmental policy issues using economics. Photo credit: Young Kim

Before economics professor Jim Murphy knew about economics, he was working in the San Francisco bay area. A recession hit the company he was working at, and he decided to go trekking in Nepal.

“The company laid me off and they gave me a six-month severance package, so I took the money and went trekking in Nepal,” Murphy said. “I wouldn’t say I went on a soul-searching expedition — it was really just that I was 25 — and I had six months of money in my pocket, so I went to Nepal. I met a guy who was an environmental economics student… Before that time I wasn’t aware that economics could be used to understand environmental policy issues.”

The environmental economics student Murphy met introduced him to an economic approach to solving environmental problems. At Villanova University, Murphy switched majors frequently, starting off as a business major, before realizing that he wanted a broader education and switched to German. As a German major he didn’t realize he needed to learn two languages to meet major requirements, and he didn’t have enough time for that, so he switched to the Honors Program. Very few of the honors classes interested him, so he decided not to focus on that either.

“I graduated as general arts [major] which is kind of code for undeclared humanities major,” Murphy said. “But I collected a lot of minors; I wound up with a business minor, a German minor, and an honors. Indirectly I wound up with a pretty well-rounded education but no real focus.”

It wasn’t until that mountaintop in Nepal that Murphy realized his academic calling was in economics, so he went to the University of California Davis to pursue a master’s, and later a Ph.D., in agricultural and resource economics.

While a graduate student, Murphy became acquainted with Vernon Smith, a 2002 Nobel laureate in Economics. Smith also served as UAA’s first visiting UAA Rasmuson Chair of Economics. After Smith’s term in the position ended, he recommended Murphy for the job. In 2006, Murphy moved from a faculty position at the University of Massachusetts Amherst to Anchorage to become the next chair.

“I knew I wanted to get into academics because I like teaching and I like research. I wanted to find a job that let me do both well,” Murphy said. “I love my research, but I don’t want a job where all I do is research and not teach because I also enjoy working with students.”

At UAA, Murphy continued to conduct research, and many of his research projects led him too far corners of the world. He is currently working on the last year of a four-year project about fisheries in Chile that is funded by FONDECYT, which is the Chilean National Science Foundation. His past research projects also focus on natural resources, like fieldwork he conducted in Colombia studying rural management of natural resources, and field experiments in Western Alaska and Far East Russia. When he is not researching, he is teaching at UAA or at a partner university in China as the Chairman of Nankai University Vernon L. Smith Experimental Economics Lab.

“Every summer I go there for a few weeks and work with them, I teach a class to their graduate students,” Murphy said, “I advise their faculty on the projects they’re working on, I try and help them think about, if they get a program started, what would it look like. Here’s what we did, here’s what you can do.”

Nankai University in China is a good example of how UAA’s experimental economics program has gained international recognition, Murphy said. The experimental economics program is now ranked in the top 10 percent of programs internationally, and the department has even broken UAA faculty application records.

“Before Elmer Rasmuson donated the funds to endow the Chair when a faculty position in the economics department opened up, the average amount of applicants was 20 to 30 people.The most recent faculty position we just hired for the job…we had almost 300 applications,” Murphy said. “It’s a university record for the most applications for any full-time job on campus, and we got our top candidate. We had a huge pool of people, and we got who we thought was the best person, which was awesome.”

In the future, Murphy hopes to continue growing the experimental economics program while minimizing the harm budget cuts might have on it. He plans to continue researching, as well as spend time outdoors doing activities he loves like hiking, biking, skiing and fishing.