When Sylvia Kuo begins her new position in the Department of Economics in the fall, she will not have traveled far geographically. For the last eight years, she’s worked as a researcher in the Center for Gerontology and Healthcare Research at the Alpert Medical School. And academically, it’s less of a stretch than it sounds. With a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Wisconsin–Madison under her belt, Kuo is well-versed in the theories and principles she’ll need to teach the three classes on her roster for this year: intermediate microeconomics, investments, and principles.
But it wasn’t just the subject matter that drew Kuo to make the interdepartmental switch. After teaching an introduction to healthcare class a couple of years ago, she realized that she really liked being in the classroom.
“As much as I enjoyed research and the process of doing it, my real love was in teaching,” Kuo says. “There aren’t as many opportunities to teach in public health. Since I had an economics background, I’m able to move over and teach full-time. I’m very excited.”
She will have some familiar company in the department: Her husband, Brian Knight, is professor of economics. “Because of Brian, I’ve always known what the department was like,” she says. “Not only is it very good in terms of being a very high-quality, high-ranking research department, but the people in it are really nice. If I made this move over, [I knew] they would be open to it and supportive.”
Despite her excitement over what lies ahead, Kuo says she has fond memories of the research career she’s leaving behind. For the last several years, she has worked with Joan Teno on a project about the use of feeding tubes in nursing home residents with advanced cognitive impairment. “Working with Joan and that research has been really exciting. It’s somewhat ironic, because we were finally able to show the negative outcomes of this practice in a very substantial and rigorous way, at a time when I was making the switch to teaching,” Kuo says.
Healthcare was an interest of Kuo’s long before she came to Brown. At UW–Madison, she focused on health economics, attracted to the curriculum because of its practical applications to the local area. “I realized that it was one of those areas of economics that was much more applied and affected people, and I was really interested in underserved, vulnerable populations. Madison was a place where, at the time, they were thinking about how to structure their SCHIP program [State Children‘s Health Insurance Program], which provides health insurance to low-income children.”
She and her classmates helped professors brainstorm ideas for programs that would give children living in poverty greater access to medical care.
After graduate school, Kuo worked for a policy think tank in Washington, D.C., on a research project that examined changes in healthcare markets around the country. She traveled to Boston, Little Rock, and northern New Jersey to interview people in different sectors of the industry.
Still, Kuo’s first love has always been economics, which is what makes this newest transition in her career all the less surprising. “I always knew I wanted to be a social scientist. One of things I think is really exciting and cool about economics is that it’s very practical. I feel like it’s a very powerful abstraction of the world when you think about people being rational and thinking about their choices.”