My Mathematica: Emilie Bagby

My Mathematica: Emilie Bagby

Jan 31, 2024
Emilie Bagby giving a presentation in Morocco

Emilie Bagby presents findings of a workforce development program in Morocco.

Curiosity has always been a core part of me. From an early age, my parents encouraged me to learn and explore the world around me—in some ways, that is exactly what I still do in my work at Mathematica.

Growing up, I lived in two very different urban centers of the United States with two very different educational institutions. I began and ended my pre-primary through secondary school years at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, thanks to university hospital employee benefits. I also attended public school in Houston, Texas, for many years when my family relocated. I was exposed to a wide swath of people from many cultures which helped me develop a broad horizon. So it was at a young age I developed a desire to explore the iterations of human existence across the world.

With such a wide set of interests, I struggled to settle on an undergraduate path of study and career. I delved into my love for math and science at the University of Illinois’ engineering program, while double-majoring in economics and minoring in French. The program’s interdisciplinary approach enabled me to explore a variety of engineering domains before selecting a specialty and, through this exploration, I uncovered my passion for data and solving problems. Engineering helped me recognize my drive to understanding systems, but I found myself continually drawn to the public policy questions addressed in my economics courses. A year studying at a highly rated engineering university in France (l’UTC) helped me establish lifelong friendships with people from multiple continents, better understand my place in the vast world, and see the wide array of roles I could play professionally.

After graduation and lacking a clear vision for my career, the project-style model of management consulting attracted me. I hoped that applying my technical skills to problems across unique clients would help me find a professional niche. However, early in my career, I suddenly got sick and seemingly overnight I became a previously healthy 20-something on disability.

My reality shifted. All my focus and energy went toward trying to feel well while witnessing my health fail in ways I had never imagined. It was deeply unsettling as a young person, raising existential questions and revealing to me the breadth of unique ways different bodies move through the world. I missed the feeling of productivity that came with working and I recognized that I wanted to contribute to something bigger than myself. I wanted to play a part in the world that was consistent with the values I had identified in myself.

Thankfully, I recovered and chose to leave the for-profit world behind. I pursued a Ph.D. in Economics in hopes of using econometric tools to study societal systems that affect vulnerable populations worldwide. The opportunity to posit and frame my own research to better understand investments in human capital and youth behaviors felt natural for my curiosity-driven mind, and I reveled in the opportunity to learn from and about a panoply of cultures. From Ecuador to Burkina Faso, I was eager to learn in hopes of using data to make a difference.

My doctoral studies merged my analytical strengths with my interest in societal systems and their impact on people’s lives. But more than that, giving myself permission to explore human and policy questions about the world, rooted in my Lab School days, felt quite brave. I wasn’t sure where such an indulgence of my long-standing interests would lead me.

When it came time to reenter the job market with a doctorate, policy research jobs that would enable hands-on work with data to reshape our world for the better attracted me. Over time, I’ve learned that I thrive when I pursue opportunities that excite me. Such excitement often pairs with a fear of what could go wrong, or what would happen if I failed at the things I truly want. I love working with data, but I know that data are more than numbers. Each data point is an experience of a person that can tell us something about their world. So, I equally love talking with families, communities, and policymakers about the human stories data tell us. As my mother-in-law likes to tell her Argentinian economist sons, “We are the economy.”

That’s exactly why I joined Mathematica. Here in the Global unit, I use my methodological toolbelt to solve some of the most complex problems we face today, and I do so by understanding and connecting with people around the world. Using structured problem-solving and systems-thinking, I explore challenging questions with answers that can lead to better educational opportunities and well-being for communities most disadvantaged by past and present global systems. I get to harness my curiosity by exploring the world with partners and communities across the globe, helping find new ways to strengthen educational policy using data and evidence.

I believe that education is about more than learning. It is about developing voices: giving young people the confidence and the tools to pursue their dreams and put their stamp on the world. Thinking back on my formative years, I am grateful for the incredible opportunities I had: parents who encouraged my curiosity, world-class education, resources to explore my passions, and the ability to change paths as I learned about myself. I was so fortunate, and so many aren’t afforded the kinds of opportunities I was. I’m proud that my work helps address these inequities. It is one of the things that brings me to work every day.

About the Author

Emilie Bagby

Emilie Bagby

Director, International Education
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