Meet Our New Faculty: Economics' Thea How Choon Connects Across Time Zones | St. Lawrence University

Meet Our New Faculty: Economics' Thea How Choon Connects Across Time Zones

These days, Assistant Professor of Economics Thea How Choon sets a lot of reminders on her phone. Like many around the world, the pandemic upended her daily routine. Today, she’s living and working across a nine-hour time zone difference—which means several of her classes begin as early as 12:30 a.m. her time.

“I have alarms for everything because the timing is so weird,” she says. ‘I have to know when to eat dinner and all that.”

How Choon returned to her home country of Mauritius at the beginning of the pandemic. That’s where she defended her thesis before earning her Ph.D. from Boston University in the spring, where she spent her summer planning for her first semester at St. Lawrence, and where she’s currently teaching from.

Her decision to teach synchronously despite its effect on her schedule is both a personal preference and an effort to accommodate students so they get the most out of every class. She believes the best way to learn economics is to work closely through problem sets with someone who already understands them.

“I really want to have that component of guiding them through each lesson so that they feel safe and supported in that way,” says How Choon. “I'm not someone who can learn very well asynchronously. I actually really like it when there's someone walking me through everything. That's the way that I learn. If you're interacting with someone, it’s so much easier to remember everything and to understand things because your mind is more engaged. You feel like you actually can connect with the material.”

As an economist, How Choon considers herself an applied theorist. While much of her research deals in the theoretical, it encompasses observational work as well. 

“I use data sometimes, but I’m more interested in economic theory and how to model people’s behavior and people’s choices,” she says.

Her most recent paper is particularly topical: it looks at how biased information from advisors may impact candidates’ decisions when running for public office. 

“For example, you have an advisor to a politician whose objective might be to push certain policies rather than help the politician win. They’re biased in that way. When can the politician actually trust the advisor to give them accurate information about what voters want?” says How Choon. “There’s a lot of literature on that, so my paper is trying to contribute to that literature by talking about how the political process and democracy actually affects the incentives of people to reveal some information to each other, even when their incentives might diverge.” 

She also considers how an advisor might temper a recommendation based on the anticipated response from voters and the effect it may have on the outcome of the election in question. 

“In political competition, as an advisor you have to be pragmatic,” she says. “You cannot just push whatever your agenda is, because if you do that, your candidate might actually lose the election. You want to scale back on your recommendations a little bit and tell them to do something that can actually win the election. In that sense, you are conveying some information about maybe what is the most extreme thing that voters are able to accept.”

This semester, she brings her knowledge, expertise, and research interests to three virtual classrooms at St. Lawrence. She’s teaching two intermediate microeconomic theory courses, as well as a senior honors seminar alongside Charles A. Dana Professor and Co-Chair of Economics Cynthia Bansak. She finds the latter course especially exciting because of the level of research her students are completing. 

“It’s a small group and they're working on actual economic research. I think it’s a great opportunity for them to actually see what research is like and to dip into it themselves,” she says. “I really enjoy the course myself. I was a grad student not so long ago and I really wish we had a course like that.”

The structure of the course reminds her of her own time as an undergraduate student at Cambridge University in the United Kingdom. 

“It's not exactly the same kind of system, but it's very similar in the sense that you have these small group supervisions where a faculty member sits down and works with maybe three students. That kind of small group interaction is a really big part of the learning experience there,” says How Choon. 

The parallel between her undergraduate experience and the liberal arts model at St. Lawrence was a big part of her attraction to the University, especially after visiting a snow-covered campus last February and getting a sense of its community. Though she hasn’t been able to return, she can feel its impact from nine time zones away. 

“I really like the concept of a liberal arts college where you have a lot of interaction between faculty and students. There’s a lot of care. It really struck me when I joined,” she says. "Even in the summer, we were preparing so hard for the semester. There's so much care that goes into preparing for teaching, thinking about what the student experience is going to be like, and really supporting them along the way.”