Feb 22

Economics student eyes master’s, future as health researcher: ‘I was extremely lucky’

When Benjamin Thornburg chose UNC Greensboro’s Bryan School of Business and Economics for his undergraduate studies, he had no idea that even before graduating he would be well on his way to becoming a healthcare economics researcher.

The transformative experience Thornburg had at the Bryan School began his freshman year when he thought he wanted to study Business Administration. But a class he took with Dr. Martin Andersen changed his life, and his career dreams, forever.

After graduating, Thornburg launched into his MA in Applied Economics, doing an online “distance internship” with the Harvard School of Public Health (his regular internship there has been postponed by the COVID-19 pandemic). That’s where he intends to apply for a PhD in health policy after his graduate study is complete at UNCG.

“I can’t express how much reverence I have for the Bryan School’s Economics faculty. If it had not been for them, and the combined faculty of UNCG giving me a chance, it’s likely that I would not have pursued a research career,” he said. “I’ve had the unusual experience of being treated like a colleague as an undergraduate here; faculty members have been willing to let me do, try, and fail such that hands-on learning was as much a part of my education as coursework. Anyone considering an economics or policy degree should look at UNCG. I believe the faculty create an unrivaled learning environment.”

When Thornburg was searching for schools three years ago, he sought a college with a down-to-earth feel and an ethos that aligned with his. When he explored UNCG, he knew he struck gold — and blue!

“Chancellor Gilliam was relatively new to UNCG. I liked his messages then, and still do,” said Thornburg.

Thornburg’s passion for health policy and health economics began as a freshman.

“Dr. Andersen’s class was the first indication I got that the science of economics was much more than dollars and demand. I learned it was possible to decode and understand human behavior through the lens of economics, and that was a power I wanted to learn and pursue,” he said.

Inspired by Andersen’s research, Thornburg approached him with hopes of working in the adjacent fields of public health, health policy, or health economics.

“He was extremely gracious and found work for me to do, though I was hopelessly green. I was astonished that he treated me like a colleague, while somehow, not letting me get in over my head,” said Thornburg.

Working under Andersen instilled confidence in Thornburg that suggested he could succeed at anything he wanted to if he was willing to do the work.

“The work I did then, data cleaning on a project focused on the impact that baby-friendly designated hospitals had on delivery modalities, gave me the early skills and feel to become a fledgling researcher. Dr. Andersen inspired me to move into a place where I could make a more legitimate contribution to the field, so I applied to be a research assistant on Dr. Jeremy Bray’s new grant. I was extremely lucky to be selected for this role, Dr. Bray is a world-class alcohol researcher,” said Thornburg.

Working with Bray on a small team — including several graduate students from UNCG, a pharmaco-economist from Research Triangle Institute, and a senior research scientist from the Harvard School of Public Health, Center for Health Decision Sciences — they conducted rigorous alcohol health services research to inform practice and policy.

“It’s hard to believe that in only three years of work I’ve begun working with the Harvard School of Public Health and even received an internship there,” said Thornburg.

What’s on the horizon for Thornburg?

“I’m planning to research the use of Naloxone, a drug that reverses opioid overdoses,” he said. “It’s simple and inexpensive to manufacture, but difficult to get. From a health literacy standpoint, not many people know it even exists. There’s a rising school of thought that if bystanders had access to this drug, we could reduce the number of people who die from opioid overdoses. Administering Naloxone is simple and safe, I see potential in teaching and distributing Naloxone alongside, say, CPR certification as part of basic First Aid. From an economic research standpoint, there’s a lot of work to do around pricing, distribution, and disentangling the web of laws surrounding this drug.”

Currently, along with his work on Bray’s grant, Thornburg has started summer work at a biotech firm in Pennsylvania.

“I can’t express the gratitude I have for UNCG,” he said. “Applied Economics can get students on the fast track for a successful and impactful career. Here’s a tip for incoming freshmen — start learning to code and take math seriously. When you get excited about a topic, you don’t want to be unable to pursue it.”

Thornburg doesn’t regret that his last semester at UNCG was derailed by COVID-19.

“I had taken online courses at the Bryan School and knew that the MA was going online anyways,” he said. “The UNCG professors are accessible such that online is not impersonal. Do not be scared of doing classes online. UNCG does it well!”