[Siena (center) with two local research assistants, Yesenia Castillo Puc and Daniel Marín Ojeda, on the Las Coloradas salt flats in Yucatán, México. Credit: Jessica Zárate Losoya.]

Why did you join MIT GOV/LAB?

The first time a burning bus on the highway blocked my way to school felt like a snow day. As my mom turned the car around and drove home the wrong way up the highway, I bounced in my seat imagining all the fun things I could do with my day off. This was the first of many “blockade days” in the spring of third grade in Oaxaca, Mexico. Sometimes we went without school for weeks even months as roads were blocked, teachers joined the protests, and parents feared their children using buses to get to school. I lived in Oaxaca for five years and teacher strikes happened every year. The usual demand was for higher salaries, but in 2006 it was different: this time, teachers also called for the resignation of the governor.

What began as a standard, peaceful strike escalated into a civil uprising when the Governor, Ulises Ruiz Ortiz, sent in thousands of police with rubber bullets and gas bombs to break up the protest. This incited hundreds of activists and political organizations to join the teachers and demand the Governor’s resignation. For more than seven months, blockades and violent clashes between protesters and the state and federal police shut down the city, choked the economy, and halted education in most public schools. I was only ten at the time, but the experience sparked a lifelong interest in government accountability and its importance for regional prosperity.

How does your major in anthropology inform your work in political science?

My training at Wellesley College was in cultural anthropology and economics, with a focus on development studies. Through my overlapping coursework in the two disciplines, I found that there are many different ways of answering the same research question. For example: what impact does providing women with empowerment training have on the distribution of income within the household? An economist could measure this with a randomized evaluation, comparing the households of women before and after treatment to households that received no empowerment training. An anthropologist might be more interested in unpacking a woman’s incentive for participating in the training and the evolving way women and men in the community understand money. I find anthropology particularly useful for turning the lens back on the researcher, program, or practitioner to better understand what it means to intervene in a community. Breaking the fourth wall in research makes us more aware of the ethical implications of what we do and provides a more holistic view of the context we work in.

How did your experience at Wellesley lead you to MIT?

A serendipitous encounter in the Dulles Airport in Washington, D.C. set me on the path to MIT, and ultimately GOV/LAB. As I was charging my phone, a woman noticed my Wellesley pin. “I went to Smith!” she told me, and proceeded to ask me about my time at Wellesley. I learned that her husband is Jonathan Gruber, a high-profile MIT economist that designed the Affordable Care Act. Shortly after, Professor Gruber walked over with a box of take-out and introduced himself. We got to talking, and an hour later I boarded the plane with a job offer to be his summer research assistant.

Two summers later, I joined GOV/LAB as a summer intern in Yucatán, México with doctoral candidate Tesalia Rizzo. That summer I learned the realities of fieldwork as we surveyed over 500 bureaucrats across the state: long nights, disconnected phone numbers and distrustful secretaries, plans subject to change every day. This experience was made possible with fellowship funding from Wellesley’s Albright Institute for Global Affairs. As an intern in Yucatán and Albright Fellow, I gained an appreciation for researching effective and accountable governance, which motivated me to come back and broaden my experience with GOV/LAB.