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School of Economics and Finance

Simone Marco Ferro

Simone started his research career as a Labour Economist, then moved more into the field of health economics, which is a branch of Applied Microeconomics. The research began with a study examining the effects of prenatal exposure to air pollution on infant health.

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Could you tell us a bit about your current research? What made you want to go into this field?

I started my research as a Labour Economist, then I moved more into Health Economics, which is a branch of Applied Microeconomics. It began with a study on the effects of prenatal exposure to air pollution on infant health. We work with administrative data which means we have hundreds of thousands of observations which allows us to estimate the effects with precision. Working with observational data can however be challenging because you don’t have a randomised controlled experiment, which means you have to find creative ways to estimate causal effects in the absence of a counterfactual. This challenge is why economists started addressing research questions related to health, because our econometric and statistical tools allow us to pin down the causal effect of the treatment in non-experimental settings i.e. real life scenarios.

I am currently working on a study on the effect of social behaviour in mediating the effect of weather conditions on the spread of the coronavirus. This study tries to disentangle the direct effect of temperature and other weather conditions on the virus from the indirect effect which weather conditions have through social behaviour. It is very important to take social behaviour into account when looking at the effect of weather on the reproduction rate of the virus because social behaviour responds to weather and is a crucial determinant of infections. Epidemiological studies looking at the effect of weather on social behaviour will not have a full understanding if they overlook the effect of social behaviour, and this is an example of how social sciences can contribute to this debate in my opinion.

Why did you choose to study at Queen Mary? Why did you want to do a PhD?

It’s a great university, there are very good professors in many areas, including Labour and Health Economics, but also in all the other areas. All the members of the faculty were very supportive throughout my PhD. I am especially indebted to my supervisor Barbara Petrongolo and to Francesca Cornaglia, who was very helpful and supportive when I began working on health topics.

Doing a PhD is very challenging. You put a lot of effort, and then the prize for that effort comes so long after, which can be tough. On the other hand, one of the best things in this profession is that you are very free to investigate any relevant research question you can think of. You can be reading the newspaper, have an idea, and then invest months working on that intuition. That is very interesting, I have been able to satisfy my curiosity, and that’s the main reason I find it interesting.

What were you doing before?

After my Bachelors and Masters at Bocconi University in Milan, and before I started my PhD at Queen Mary, I worked as a Research Assistant, also at Bocconi. This gave me the opportunity to start working in research without having too much responsibility. I think it was very helpful not to go straight from the Masters to the PhD, it gave me the opportunity to learn coding, which is especially relevant if you want to do research. It’s also a good opportunity to improve your econometric skills and knowledge, read some papers, and understand better how the whole research process works.

Why do you think the new MSc in Mental Health Economics is so important?

In my personal view, Health Economics, and in particular, mental health issues, will become much more important in the future. Partly because of the relevance of the topic, which is of increasing importance, but also because of data availability. A few years ago we didn’t have the same access to administrative data and survey data – now we have much more access to that and this opens the possibility for the investigation of very interesting research questions. This applies to all social sciences, but I believe it is especially relevant in this field. We have learnt the hard way with the pandemic the relevance of health issues and how crucial they are, how much they are important in determining our wellbeing.

What has been your best experience so far at Queen Mary?

I have really enjoyed the teaching, it has been challenging but at the same time, I felt the school was really caring about it. As a teacher at Queen Mary, you are very much given responsibility, trusted to do your job. This last year, with virtual teaching, it was very tough, but I really appreciated the effort made by the university to make it easier – for staff, but especially for students.

In moving from Milan to the UK for your research, did you find anything particularly surprising?

The school is so international I think I would find it hard to pinpoint specific cultural differences. It has been very nice to be in such an international environment, particularly with undergraduate students, it’s a very diverse environment, which is something I have appreciated.

What advice would you give a current undergraduate or Masters student considering a PhD?

The first thing would be to learn coding because it’s your main tool to do research. It’s as important as learning economics, and statistics. Most of your day will be coding or writing, so it’s something that is necessary. The second suggestion I have is to try not to rush into it. I worked for two years before doing mine, and I think this is a good idea, especially for those who are not sure about committing five years of their life to a PhD. It allows you to consider whether this is what you really want to do, and it also gives you the opportunity to build competence and skills which will come in handy in doing your research later.

What are your plans for the future?

I have actually started as a postdoc at the University of Milan. It is a great research environment, and Milan is also my home town, so I feel very lucky. For the future, we will see, but I hope to continue doing research because it is something that I love. It can, as I’ve said, be challenging and tough, but I think the benefits outweigh the challenges and difficulties.

What keeps you going through the tough times, outside of your research?

I like reading, watching movies, I do some sports too. I think in general trying to keep a good work-life balance is important, and especially in research where the full burden of success or failure is on you, sometimes it is hard to take time for yourself. I think it’s fundamentally important so I put in good effort to keep that balance.


This profile was conducted by Alumni Engagement Coordinator, Hannah. If you would like to get in touch with Simone or engage him in your work, please contact Hannah Dormor.

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