Sunday, September 6, 2015

understanding economic behavior through hygiene...,

MIT |  Graduate student Reshmaan Hussam has always seen economics as more than a collection of numbers: For her, it also entails history, health, and human behavior. Now, as a fifth-year PhD student in economics at MIT, she applies this outlook to understanding sanitation and hygiene behavior in the developing world, with an eye toward affecting policy and behavioral changes. 

Economics first piqued Hussam’s curiosity in high school, when a summer course exposed her to the experimental and behavioral aspects of the field; since then, she’s kept empathy at the forefront of her work in modeling human economic interactions. And after picking up Max Weber’s “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism” in college, she became acutely interested in how religion impacts economic choices.

Growing up with an uncle who managed a microfinance institution in Bangladesh — where Hussam still has family — gave her early exposure to this particular population’s financial needs and behaviors; as an undergraduate at MIT, she soon turned her research toward development economics. Working with Abhijit Banerjee, the Ford International Professor of Economics at MIT, and Nava Ashraf at Harvard Business School, Hussam embarked on a project to understand how religious sense informs microcredit savings decisions amongst the poor in Bangladesh.

But she quickly found the topic difficult to study: There were many other factors at play in this type of economic decision-making, not least of which was gender roles within a household. Hussam found that while microloans are often marketed to women, their husbands routinely handle the funds. Studying money-saving behavior was nearly impossible when it was unclear whose behavior was being studied — the borrower’s, or her husband’s.

“There is so much valuable work to be done in women’s financial and social empowerment, but how do we capture the right outcomes?” Hussam says. “Maybe there are more measurable, tangible, or direct ways to improve the well-being of these individuals.”

Health takes center stage
Among the many factors that affect economic decision-making is health. Hussam quickly realized that a key means to self-empowerment is empowerment in health and hygiene — where women, particularly mothers, often play a significant role.

“When you’re sick, that becomes your entire focus,” she says. “Repeated, preventable illnesses — with which the developing world is too familiar — have huge, long-term physical and cognitive consequences. Education, labor, and financial security suffer — all of which are channels to self-determination and empowerment.”

chronic inflammation leads to cancer

MIT |  Chronic inflammation caused by disease or exposure to dangerous chemicals has long been linked to cancer, but exactly how this process takes place has remained unclear.

Now, a precise mechanism by which chronic inflammation can lead to cancer has been uncovered by researchers at MIT — a development that could lead to improved targets for preventing future tumors.

In a paper published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers unveil how one of a battery of chemical warfare agents used by the immune system to fight off infection can itself create DNA mutations that lead to cancer.

As many as one in five cancers are believed to be caused or promoted by inflammation. These include mesothelioma, a type of lung cancer caused by inflammation following chronic exposure to asbestos, and colon cancer in people with a history of inflammatory bowel disease, says Bogdan Fedeles, a research associate in the Department of Biological Engineering at MIT, and the paper’s lead author.