This 30-minute podcast was released Feb. 26, 2020.
“On one hand it’s nice to be the first of something … but on the other hand, it's, like, wow, it’s 2019. How has this happened?” says Mackenzie Alston, an assistant professor at Florida State University. She talks with Maria Hasenstab, media relations coordinator at the St. Louis Fed, about her experience as the first African American to receive a doctorate from the Department of Economics at Texas A&M University.
Maria Hasenstab: I'm Maria Hasenstab, and you're listening to the Women in Economics Podcast Series from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. Today I'm here with Mackenzie Alston, an assistant professor at Florida State University .
Mackenzie, thanks for being with me today.
Mackenzie Alston: Thanks for having me.
Hasenstab: You earned your Ph.D. in economics in 2019 from Texas A&M University. You are the first African‑American woman to receive your doctorate from the Department of Economics at Texas A&M. How did you end up at A&M? And during your studies there, when did you discover that you were making history?
Alston: Those are some good questions. I knew I wanted to study experimental economics, which isn't a universal subfield of economics, that sort of limited what choices were available to me in terms of places that I could apply to. So Texas A&M was one of them because they had a lab and several researchers there that studied experimental economics, and so they were definitely one of the schools that I was interested in attending. Fortunately, I got to visit there during a campus visit with a bunch of other graduate students. And while I was there, I got to meet Catherine Eckel, who later became my main adviser, and was somebody I'd read about online but had never met face to face before. And I really was struck by how nice and kind she was. And then on top of that, there was a graduate director at the time, Mark, who was sort of in charge of making sure people said yes once they got their acceptance letters, and he was giving me a lot of attention and made it very clear that he wanted me there. And so because of all the attention I was getting and how nice Catherine was, I thought that if I did go to A&M, I would be very supported, and so that's why I chose to go there.
So when I first got there in—2014, I realized that I was the only black person in my cohorts, so the group of students that entered at the same time as I did, and there was no other black person in the cohorts above me. So typically at A&M you stay for five or six years, and there was no one else that was a black Ph.D. student in the program there. So it was sort of in the back of my mind that I could possibly be the first person, but it wasn't something that I was really focused on, but then after the job market process, which you complete in your last year of graduate school, I had a little bit more time. And so I started digging around more and talking to people in the department and people who keep track of these records for the university, and it was at that point that I found out that I was the first African‑American and the first black female to get a Ph.D. from Texas A&M in economics. And then there actually were two black males who were in the program back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but they weren't born in the United States. So it was fascinating for me to learn all of this, and I was surprised, but it was nice to finally figure that out that I was actually the first.
Hasenstab: When I hear that, I think wow. And so what did you think when you first realized that?
Alston: Yeah. That's actually an interesting question. So I posted about finding this out on Twitter, and most people were responding back very positively and saying, "Congratulations. You made history." But then there were a small group of people that were, like, how is this possible?
Like what does that say about the state of economics? And I felt like that mirrored my own kind of feelings about finding this out. Like on one hand it's nice to be the first of something, I guess, but on the other hand, it's, like, wow, it's 2019. How has this happened?
Hasenstab: Yeah. You said something very telling there. You said what does this say about economics. So was your thought more so what does this say about the field that I've already invested a large portion of my life studying and pursuing?
Alston: Hmm. So I guess I started by thinking about it as the field.
Hasenstab: Hm‑hmm [affirmative].
Alston: And that was maybe because I am part of this mentoring program for underrepresented minorities, the AEA Mentoring Program is what it's called. And so that gave me the chance to meet other black graduate students and professors, and they would sometimes talk about how few of us there are. So I think I understood kind of early on in my graduate career that in terms of how many black people are in economics, it's a small number across the country.
Hasenstab: Well, I think it's really amazing, and I think it's great that you're vocal and interested in sharing that you were making history. I do want to back up a little bit and talk about how you chose economics as your field of study. What interested you about economics?
Alston: Yeah. So I got into it sort of by accident. I had taken AP micro and AP macro as a senior in high school, and so I thought, it wouldn't be a bad choice to take those classes at the undergraduate level, especially during my first semester at undergraduate at WashU So I took Principles of Micro with Professor Bandy. And I was struck by how caring she was. She was so nice and always asking us, like, were we okay if she saw that we were super drained or not engaged, and I really appreciated how much she cared about her students; but then on top of that, she had a way of teaching economics that made everything click for me, like things started making sense. It was as if before the world was a bit foggy, and then after that class, things cleared up. I think that things cleared up because I learned about the concept of benefits and costs and weighing those against each other to figure out what decisions people should make. And once I learned that basic concept, I think that allowed me to understand what decisions I was making, what decisions businesses were making, what decisions my peers were making. That clarity or that compass I really valued and wanted to continue learning about.
Hasenstab: And so in addition to economics, you also studied mathematics. Tell me about your experience at WashU. This podcast series is from the St. Louis Fed, which is…right here in St. Louis. We're very familiar with Washington University.
Alston: Sure. So I actually came in as a Spanish major. I thought I was going to be a Spanish professor. And so that's how I started before I took Professor Bandy's class and decided that economics was where I needed to be. But overall, I definitely loved my experience at WashU. I don't think that there is a better college that I could have gone to. And, in fact, I was just texting my parents like a couple of weeks ago to say, "Thank you so much for paying the tuition for me to go to WashU, because I'm extremely grateful, and I'm seeing that, that training pay off to this day." And I e-mailed a couple of my mentors, including Professor Bandy, and then my main adviser, Ruth Peterson, to thank them for their guidance and their training, because I feel like they really set me up to do well in grad school, and I had other professors like Dotty Petersen, who were also there to give me advice. So I was surrounded by a lot of really helpful professors that helped me find my path.
Outside of that, I was in clubs like Teach English as a Second Language. I was a lab assistant for our experimental economics lab there. And I even got a chance to run my own experiment in that lab as part of an independent research project my last semester. So I got to get involved with some research at a young age, which I think was important later on as well.
Hasenstab: You grew up outside of Milwaukee. How did you end up at Texas A&M and Florida State University? Did you want to study and work in the South?
Alston: Yeah. It's funny, people often point that out when I talk to them about my trajectory. They were, like, you went from Milwaukee to St. Louis to Texas to Florida. It seems like you keep going down. But that was not intentional, though I would say that after spending five years in Texas during the winter really made me appreciate being in the South during that time of the year, so that may have unconsciously played into my decision to pick Florida State, but I think it sort of happened more or less by happenstance, and just the quality of those schools attracted me. I talked about Texas A&M before, how I was searching for programs that had experimental economics as a subfield, and Texas A&M was one of them, and so I ended up there.
And then for Florida State, I applied to hundreds of schools, and I was fortunate to get several job offers, and I ultimately picked Florida State University because I love teaching. Teaching is very important to me, but I also really loved research. I walk around and my head fills with questions all the time that I want to get answers to. And I thought Florida State would be the best place for me to push myself research-wise, because like Texas A&M, we have a really strong experimental economics group here. We also have a lab, which makes my research much more convenient. And then Florida A&M University, which is a historically black university, is in the same city, and a lot of my research now and moving forward will have to do with African‑Americans, so I thought that was a really cool opportunity as well. And so all of those mix of features made me think that Florida State would be a really good place and that I would enjoy teaching the students here as well.
Hasenstab: You've mentioned experimental economics a couple times now. Your research as a graduate student used experimental economics and focused on topics related to stereotypes and discrimination. It sounds like you're still interested in doing work in those fields. How did you choose those topics and what are you finding?
Alston: I sort of got into stereotypes in my very first year at Texas A&M,–Catherine Eckel became my mentor pretty much day one, and she asked me to join this project about stereotype threats. And stereotype threats is this worrier belief that people will judge you based off of a negative stereotype associated with your social group, and this can lead to a negative impact on some form of performance that's related to that stereotype. And so the stereotype that we were focusing on was the stereotype that blacks aren't as smart as whites, and we were interested to see how that would impact people's score on a measure of verbal intelligence. This actually came from psychology literature, but we wanted to explore it using the economics framework and then also compare what happened for students at a predominantly white institution compared to students at a historically black college and university. And so I got involved with that, doing the literature review and actually designing and running the experiment while I got further along in the program.
And what we found, after we collected data at the historically black college and university, is that reminding them of the stereotype before they took the, the test to measure their verbal intelligence had no impact on their scores. The previous literature had showed that if you suddenly remind people of the stereotype before they perform the test, their score will actually decrease compared to a comparison group where they were never reminded of that stereotype. So that was sort of what we were expecting to see here, but we found actually at the historically black college and university these students had no negative response to a stereotype. And so we thought that that was fascinating and perhaps promising because maybe that says something about the type of institution and how that can maybe help people build protection from the negative consequences of stereotypes, or maybe it says something about the students that choose to go to historically black colleges and universities. So even though it was what we call a null effect, that we didn't find anything, it was something that was actually a happy result, and we hope to learn more about it.
In another study that we're conducting, where we're serving students at the historically black college and university and a predominantly white institution, and we're observing them when they're freshmen and following them until they graduate and trying to measure their responses to stereotypes and understand certain decisions they make throughout their academic career.
I think actually my interest in stereotypes and discrimination and identity probably started before that, because I was a research assistant for Katie Coffman. When I was a junior at WashU, I spent part of the summer at the Ohio State University working with her. So she's now at Harvard, but at the time she was in Columbus, and she was working on gender‑related projects. Like she was trying to understand why women are more likely to skip multiple choice questions compared to men, and she was trying to design an experiment to encourage women to stop doing that. And so I got to be involved in that process and another experiment of hers, where she was trying document gender differences and willingness to contribute ideas.
So these were really cool projects and research questions that I had never thought of before, but after working on those projects with her, it was like, wow, there's still so much that we need to understand about differences based off of gender, and experiments are such a fun and cool way to answer these questions. This is definitely something that I'm interested in doing.
Hasenstab: Do you have any interest in doing future research in gender‑related areas?
Alston: Yeah, definitely. So I think I'm interested in identity more broadly. So my job market paper, the big paper that I was telling people about to try to convince them to hire me, was about gender discrimination in the labor market. And so I wanted to see what people's perceptions were when they were applying for these jobs that were stereotypically male. Like if you were a male or a female applying for an engineering position, do you think that the hiring managers are biased towards men or biased against women, and how might that affect your decisions? So that's one project that I looked at gender for, and that was a really fun experiment to run.
Hasenstab: Well, it sounds like some really interesting work. Is there one takeaway from the research that you've done that you would want our listeners or a broader audience to think about?
Alston: Yeah. I think that if I focus on the topic of discrimination, I feel like a lot of research has studied discrimination in different settings, and they've been trying to document whether discrimination exists, which is very important to, to know the answer to. I think that what's coming up in the future and where we can grow in terms of our understanding and our knowledge is about the role of perceptions of discrimination. So not only, you know, does discrimination exist, do people actually discriminate, but do people think that they will be discriminated against? Because I believe that that can have huge consequences on people's actions. So, for example, in my job market paper, I was trying to see if job applicants thought that hiring managers were discriminatory, which could affect their willingness to apply to certain jobs. And so I'm looking forward to answering those types of questions myself and reading more about what other researchers find regarding that topic.
Hasenstab: Now that you are teaching, do you see students who look like you in the classroom? And if so, how does that make you feel?
Alston: So my first semester I was only teaching one class, labor economics, and of my 16 students, two of them were girls, and one of them was black.
Alston: Yes. So not, not many. So those numbers weren't zero, but I was definitely hoping that my classroom would be a bit more diverse than that. Now I'm teaching two classes with a little bit over 50 students, and two of them are black. And then about four or five girls. So, again, not zero.
Hasenstab: Yeah. So you'd like to see a little bit more diversity in your classroom with black students and young women who are studying economics?
Alston: Yeah, I really would. So we'll keep our fingers crossed that that does happen.
Hasenstab: Do you think it's valuable to have women and minorities teaching economics?
Alston: Most definitely. There's research that shows that the identity of your professor and your TA can all have positive impacts on the students and their performance, but from my personal experience, I would like to believe that I made some impact on my students sort of like Professor Bandy did for me when I was a freshman. But there's one particular day that I remember from my labor economics class last semester, and it just so happened that a lot of my students did not show up, and the ones that were left were mostly minorities. And, also, coincidentally, it was a day that I was starting the chapter on labor market discrimination, so we were talking about, differences in education levels and income and labor force participation rate based off of race and ethnicity and how that might be attributed to labor market discrimination. And so I was a little bit anxious about teaching this topic originally, but it ended up being one of my most favorite lectures, and it was a very fun class period. And I think a large part of that was because the students in the room felt comfortable expressing their opinions and asking questions with me as their instructor. And so that was really cool to see and inspiring to see. I don't know if I've had enough female students yet to say much about how they personally have responded to me, but I hope that seeing me in the front of the room tells them, hey, you know, this is possible, and there are people like me that choose to go all the way to being a professor, and that might be something that I can see myself doing.
Hasenstab: What would you say to young women in high school or the beginning of their college careers? Would you encourage them to study economics and why so?
Alston: I wish that economics was a required course at every university, and what I would tell students before they took the class is that whatever they think economics is, it's probably wrong or at least not the full picture, and whatever course work they took in economics at the high school level was probably going to be different than what it is once you get to college. And I think it's important to tell people that, especially minorities and females, because I think the common perception is that economics is about banking and money or stock, which is a component of economics, but it's not everything. So I think when you tell people that you can use economics to understand why some people go to college and why some people don't. You can understand sports and why, you know, hockey is violent. You can look at the impacts of different health programs and policies. You can explore so many different areas and concepts and topics that aren't directly linked to money that probably resonate to any person. You can use economics to answer the questions that you've been thinking about.
Hasenstab: I'm so glad that you highlighted all those examples, and so I love the way you said that, that it can help answer the questions that are filling your head.
Why do you think it's important for more women and underrepresented minorities to study economics and work in the field?
Alston: The world is diverse. I think it's easy for people to just default to what they're comfortable with and focus on their pocket of society or rely too heavily on their own experiences, and I think that's just natural, but the question is: What if you're missing something? And you may never find out unless you start hearing from more voices. And so I see my job and the job of researchers as building knowledge. And to me, having diverse people in the field just enriches the knowledge that we build.
Hasenstab: So you have some recommendations to help people navigate race and gender concerns?
Alston: More as a person of authority, like a mentor or a professor, how they can help people that are just starting, women and minorities, and try to keep them in economics or at least make them feel comfortable.
So the first one is that I think the people should be active in trying to make sure that their students feel like they belong, because when you don't feel like you belong, I think that that can cause a lot of self‑doubt and issues with self‑esteem. And if you can't picture yourself in the field, that would only be a barrier to you actually, crossing the finish line. So I think that there are small things that mentors and professors can do, like being aware of what gender pronouns you're using. Are you always saying "he" da, da, da, da, da when you're talking about examples? Be aware of any stereotypes that you may be including in your examples. Be sure to call on the women in your class and make sure everyone is listening to them respectfully. Definitely highlight the research that's being done by women and minorities. And then when you have students that are female and some a minority background in your class, maybe something that you can do during the first week of classes is just ask them why they're interested in economics and consider their answers when you're structuring the rest of your lectures, because in general, I think that you want to make sure that everyone knows that they're being seen, they're being heard, and that their opinion matters.
Hasenstab: I think that's some really great advice.
Alston: Yeah. And then the last tip would be to take advantage of what's already out there. There are probably other people that are concerned about diversity or making sure that people feel included. So just promote the activities that are already out there. If there's a Women in the Economics Club, talk about that with your class. They might not know it exists. And you yourself can show your support by going to those events. And then there's a program that I mentioned earlier, the AEA Summer Programs, which is a two‑month training program for underrepresented minorities to help them prepare for graduate school. It's a wonderful opportunity that all the expenses are paid for and students actually get stipends. So I think it's important to let your students know that that program exists and give them a nudge to put in those applications. I talked about it with my students. I asked the department head here to send out an e‑mail to all of the majors. I posted about it on Twitter. So definitely if you become aware of these programs, spread the word about them.
Hasenstab: That's really great advice, especially for instructors. What challenges or obstacles have you faced, and how did you overcome those?
Alston: So I think everyone faces challenges in graduate school, but I think that the challenges that you face can feel even harder to overcome if you don't feel included or you don't feel like you belong. And I think one way that this shows up for female graduate students is feeling distant from the men in your department. And so I purposely chose to be intentional about the relationships I built in my department. It would have been very comfortable and easy for me to just stay around the group of female graduate students and maybe broaden that circle to the female professors, but I did not want to limit myself in that way, and I tried very intentionally to build connections with men in the department too. And without a doubt, those relationships have been important to my success in the program.
There's a professor, Jonathan Meer, who has been a fantastic mentor to me while I was in grad school and has been very supportive and encouraging after I graduated, and that was an important relationship for me, but these relationships weren't only a help in the professional sense, they also made my time in the department more enjoyable. So various professors that I talked to when Marvel movies came out, and I'd tell them about my love for Ironman. And there was another person that I would talk to about hockey. So those are my two non‑research interests. And just having those conversations were very helpful and just stress relieving as well. And not only my connections with my male professors but also with the male graduate students were important to me. And had I taken the easy road and stuck with the women in the department, it would have been a really big loss, and I wouldn't have gotten to know these great guys.
But even with that, I do think it's important for women especially to develop connections with the females as well. So Catherine Eckel and Ragan Petrie were two female professors in my department who were always there to give me advice when I needed it. And there was also a lab manager, who happened to be black and female, and she was somebody I could always talk to. And just having other female graduate students who were in econ or psychology that I could vent to was very healthy and important for me.
So I think in general, no matter how you identify, making sure that you surround yourself with people that remind you that you're not alone and that you can do what you set out to do can make your life more enjoyable and just make the whole process easier.
Hasenstab: That sounds like some really great advice. Mackenzie, thanks for being here with me today.
Alston: Thank you for having me.
Alston: Thank you.