Reflections on Most Impactful Classes

I am one case study, one oral exam, and two economics exams away from graduation. I have learned so much in the past two years at SAIS, and have been reflecting on my favorite classes. The courses below were true stand-outs, with professors who embraced their roles as mentors, and forever changed the way I think about international affairs, economics and problem-solving.

Case Studies in Sustainable Development: Smart Cities and Urban Innovation

What is sustainable development? Equitable? Cost-minimizing? Waste-minimizing? Culturally sensitive? Fueled by renewable resources? Who gains and who loses? How does it differ from traditional approaches to economic development or business?

This course in the Energy, Resources & Environment program is one of the most impactful I have ever taken. We read and discussed sustainable development case studies, including the favelas of Rio de Janeiro; rapid bus transit in Johannesburg; electrical blackouts in Nairobi; boom towns in North Dakota and Guangzhou; and urban forests in Washington, D.C.

We also wrote our own case studies and teaching notes, which will be published and available to universities around the country this summer. My team studied China's Jiuquan Wind Power Base, the largest wind power project in the world, where turbines remain idle as much as 40 percent of the time, and the electricity produced cannot reach the east coast cities where it is most needed. Our case study shook my assumptions about renewable resources at large scale: They do not replace coal, and they are often not the cheapest, most efficient, or least wasteful method of producing power, at least for now.

Policy to Drive Energy Innovation

In introductory economics courses, you learn why tariffs and tax incentives distort markets and create waste. Then, you add energy and innovation into the picture, and discover why the world cannot be reduced to supply-demand charts.

How does energy innovation differ from information technology innovation? Market-disrupting IT start-ups can be launched from a single laptop. In comparison, energy innovation requires scientific breakthrough, often conducted in state-of-the-art laboratories by teams of engineers. For example, consider the challenge of improving the cost-efficiency of photovoltaic panels. First, research costs are staggering. Second, renewables face enormous policy and infrastructure hurdles when entering the energy market, which is dominated by coal and the legacy electrical grid.

Since research and development costs are high, and successful innovations are few and far between, venture capitalists have recently shied from investments in renewable energy. Therefore, to promote energy innovation, the government must invest in R&D and support market launch with policies and incentives.

Financial Sector Developments and Reform in Emerging Markets

I can now speak confidently about renminbi internationalization, deposit insurance, the shadow banking sector, financial crises, and financial sector regulation. For that, my professor is a miracle worker.

This class broke down the financial sector into easily-digestible pieces, focusing first on the banking sector, then capital markets, then risk and reform. Furthermore, each student researched a different country throughout the course of the semester, and shared their findings in class discussion. The result? I have a thorough understanding of the financial sector in China, and how country differences -- for example, dominance of state-owned enterprises -- produce radically different outcomes in India, South Africa or Indonesia.

Was it the no-laptop policy? The 40 percent of our grade determined by class participation? The steep learning curve? I was scared of this class, but now I am forever grateful to my professor for teaching me to love finance.