Oct 11

From Intern to Policy Influencer

Justin Larson ’18 PhD is enjoying a career as a research economist at RTI International, an independent nonprofit research institute dedicated to improving the human condition. Larson interned at RTI International from 2016 until 2018, when he completed the doctoral program.

Researching International Issues

Larson’s research interests are around environmental and energy issues. At RTI International, he has been able to pursue those interests while working with various offices within the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and for the U.S. Agency for International development (USAID). More recently, his work has focused on energy access issues in sub-Saharan Africa as part of the USAID initiative called Power Africa. Through his work, Larson has had the opportunity to work with companies, U.S. government agencies, foreign government officials, and investors.

Larson’s position has given him numerous international experiences. Recently, he traveled to South Africa for a weeklong team kickoff. He then spent 12 days in the Ivory Coast, one of the poorest yet fastest growing countries in the world. Recalling his recent trip, he said, “The sense of impact is extremely rewarding. I feel my work is leading to direct action by influencing policy or decisions made by folks on the ground. The work we are doing is making a positive difference in the world.”

North Carolina Connections

Larson continues to be connected with academic community – he engages with professors at Duke, NC State, and the Bryan School. He publishes in academic journals and presents at academic conferences, including recent conferences in Gothenburg, Sweden, and Montreal, Canada.  “It is incredible to present in international forums and meet people from all over the world.”

Prior to starting at the Bryan School, Larson wanted to be an engineer, but then he discovered economics. “The way of viewing the world through an economist’s lens makes sense to me. It’s a way to mathematize the social side of the world. Being able to unpack and untangle complex questions and social systems in a mathematical way is more tangible, and exciting to me.”

His experience as an undergraduate for Dr. Ken Snowden is what propelled him towards graduate school. “My first semester in the MS of Applied Economics program made me decide to work towards a PhD. The Bryan School provided me with an education and a valuable set of experiences that have opened up professional opportunities I never thought would be possible!”

Next Steps and Career Goals

Larson’s long-term vision is to build a career and gain experience, then return to academia — maybe back at UNC Greensboro. Thinking back on his time as a teaching assistant, he said, “The one part of my current career that is missing, is teaching.” However, at RTI International there is a steady stream of interns and junior staff that afford him with opportunities for mentorship. “While I miss teaching, I enjoy being a mentor and participating in people’s professional growth.”

His immediate next steps are preparing for a possible relocation to South Africa, where he will work with the Power Africa Off-grid Project for the next few years. “Assuming everything is approved, I would be on the ground living and working there for the next three to four years.”  Larson is comfortable with international travel – he studied in Kazan, Russia, as part of his undergraduate minor in Russian. “That experience gave me much confidence. It lifted the veil of international travel and forced me out of my comfort zone. I became okay with trying something I might not be successful at and is a mentality I try to maintain throughout my life.”

Reflecting on Lessons Learned

Thinking back on his time at the Bryan School, Larson remarked, “The collaborative environment and accessibility of the professors is remarkable. They are there to make sure we succeed, as long as the student is willing to put in the work. I wouldn’t be where I am now if it weren’t for the relationships with my professors. They helped me cultivate my confidence and I carry that through to today.”

“UNCG can be whatever you want it to be. Everything is there to be taken advantage of. I’m so grateful for the University, the Economics program, the professors, and my peers. My fellow classmates were key. Because the program is smaller, it doesn’t have the competitive nature of other graduate programs. I didn’t appreciate this until later after talking to graduate students in other programs. The camaraderie with my peers is something I have warm and fond memories of – and that’s not unique to me.  This program brings out the best in all of us.”