Master of Applied Economics (MAE) student Lea Wei did not begin her collegiate career aware of, let alone intending to study, economics. Rather, deeply interested in Thai culture - from religion, cuisine, and language to the arts, Lea planned to spend her time as an undergraduate at Beijing Foreign Studies University (BFSU) focused on studying Thai Language and Literature. It wasn’t until she attended a conference held by Peking University’s (PKU) Institute of New Structural Economics and Institute for New Economics Thinking that she was introduced to economics and the work economists do, and it fascinated her. She saw how economists were researching the most important and challenging problems facing the world and became captivated by how the discipline could produce potential solutions. Shortly thereafter, Lea applied to PKU’s double degree program, passed the entrance exam, and began her economics studies in her sophomore year.

Throughout her undergraduate career, Lea was very conscious of the need to continually improve her research and data analysis abilities and participated in a number of extracurricular activities to form and hone her empirical edge. She participated in an Innovation and Entrepreneurship Contest held by PKU’s Southeast Asia Association where her team won third place for designing a hypothetical “China-ASEAN Online Educational Resource Sharing Platform'' to pool learning material on language and culture from prestigious universities in both China and ASEAN countries. Lea also studied abroad as an exchange student in Thailand in 2017, and  held several internships involving Thai and Chinese industries, including three in 2018. She first interned in the beginning of the year at a Thai real estate company, charged with designing a home-stay travel itinerary targeted at the Chinese market; that July she worked as a research assistant at the China Petroleum Planning and Engineering Institute (CPPEI) where she would produce a paper evaluating the impacts of this policy on the domestic oil market (which was later published in International Petroleum Economics, a core journal in the field), and co-author a report on PetroChina’s Net Promoter Score (customer satisfaction). Additionally, Lea’s work analyzing and forecasting global economic growth, something she had not done before, was sent directly to PetroChina’s HQ to inform their marketing strategies--a rare accomplishment for an intern and a testament to her progress as a researcher. Later in the fall of 2018, Lea would hold a post with BDA China (a consulting firm) conducting research on Thai e-commerce market players and assisting in expert interviews. 

The experiences during Lea’s internship in Thailand with the real estate company would be particularly impactful on her personally, as she saw firsthand extremes in affluence and poverty, often in stark contrast with one another. In her own words, “What struck me most was a young girl selling pineapples outside Bangkok’s biggest mall, juxtaposed against her well-dressed peers holding newly-bought branded goods. It left a deep impression on me, having grown up in Beijing where such scenes are less commonplace. With this in mind, I want to explore the driving forces behind economic inequalities and development, with econometrics models and data analytics tools.” On the heels of this trip, having both solidified her interest in economics and established a new source of motivation, Lea found herself drawn once again to the forces behind social issues, and was inspired to apply theories learned in class to policies in Thailand. Her resulting analysis on abortion restrictions was published in VICE China and cemented her determination to pursue a Master’s in economics in order to delve deeper into the subject and equip her for a future analyzing data to solve real-world problems.

Familiar with the reputation of U-M and seeing the flexibility of the MAE program, Lea moved to Ann Arbor shortly after completing her undergraduate programs in 2019. Building upon her interdisciplinary background, Lea has valued the opportunity to work, research, and take courses in other departments and programs while working through her rigorous economics training with an intelligent and fun cohort. She quickly developed an affinity for the data sciences and added a dual degree in Masters of Science in Information (MSI) to her MAE curricula in Fall 2020, hoping to use the programming tools available through the U-M’s School of Information to solve econometrics problems. 

Though this year impacted by COVID-19 has challenged Lea, she has found ways to stay connected and continue making strides in her scholarly competencies. As an international student unable to return home, Lea has fought isolation by prioritizing staying in touch with her friends and family through weekly facetime visits and connecting with some classmates by sharing concerns and plans for the future. Finding an internship over the summer was tricky, however Lea found remote work as a research assistant where she collaborated with technical staffs at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and a Professor from the U-M Energy Institute to evaluate the cost of time spent on transport. 

Working from home to meet competing deadlines while producing high-quality work, Lea has learned about herself and gained confidence in her abilities to work independently as an organized researcher. This knowledge has no doubt aided Lea as she’s shifted from student to teacher this academic year; first taking a position with the Ford School of Public Policy as a tutor and grader for a graduate-level applied econometrics course this Fall, then this winter 2021 when she stepped into the role of graduate student instructor (GSI) for an intermediate programming in python, responsible for holding labs, office hours, and grading homework. In both positions, Lea has been excited to help students succeed, and grateful for the many opportunities to improve her communication skills, particularly in relaying technical information clearly—a vital skill as she looks forward to a career in data analysis.

Beyond her academic achievements, Lea is a skilled writer, having published in various media on topics ranging from economics to gender and sexuality issues, with a focus on Thailand. She spent time as a volunteer English teacher in a provincial middle school, alongside 9 others from China, Pakistan, and Germany, united by the common perspective that education and discourse is the key to a better and more open society. Lea has found these experiences outside the classroom rewarding, providing the opportunity to learn about the importance of teamwork, communication, and open-mindedness, while building networks and developing meaningful relationships.

This summer, Lea will join Domino’s Analytics & Insight team as a data science intern. She can’t wait to use her statistical and economic knowledge and coding skills to facilitate strategy-making decisions at the company. Upon her graduation from the MAE and MSI programs, anticipated in Winter 2022, Lea plans to tackle real-world problems as a data scientist in order to contribute, however possible, to a better society.