New colleague: Nathan Lane

Nathan Lane grew up working class in diverse areas across Florida. His mum was a Venezuelan immigrant to the US and she was involved in labour activism and the migrant workers’ struggle in the US. Early on when Nathan was a child, she would bring him along to migrant rallies and take him with her into the fields.

“There are many people poorer than me, who don’t look like me, why is that? Economics seemed to be the glue that was under-girding all of that which drew me to it,” he says.

Nathan dropped out of traditional High School and an academic career was never obvious to him. He travelled the world and started university late. Once he did start, he gravitated towards more philosophical economics departments.

Finally, he chose Amherst Massachusetts for his undergraduate studies and moved on to New York for his Master’s degree in Statistics at Colombia University. His idea was doing a PhD in Political Science but then as he calls it “jumped ship” and completed his PhD in Economics at Stockholm University and Harvard.

“Economics has a structured, disciplined way of saying things about the social world. It also has this “scientific-ness”, for better or worse, that for some reason has a cache with people in power. That drew me to it. For political scientists and sociologists, for some reason, there is a discount with what they say. I think it’s ridiculous but I gravitate towards Economics because it has this cultural capital in so far as people in power listen to you.“

Nathan describes his research as being somewhere in the intersection between Political Economy and Applied Empirics. By using new types of data and methods, he approaches big questions in Political Economy. He is interested in using alternative, unconventional sources of data such as the economic meaning that can be extracted from a bird’s eye satellite photo of an economy.

One current project involves trying to measure how digitised states are across democracies and autocracies in the world by measuring their internet footprint using IP data.

“We want to look at how digital technology has transformed the ability of the state to extract information from people. The US and China would be examples of that process.”

Another research topic is part of the digital state project, which investigates how digitalisation and technology is rapidly transforming what states do, and how they behave. Using CIA yearbooks, the research team tracked every state entity and found their IP address in order to map the extent to which these sources are changing with geopolitics.

Social interaction is a very important part of research for Nathan. He’s happy to be at Monash, but wants to keep improving the culture of research.

Part of this project has meant trying to build more a research community within his field. SoDa Lab is a result of that endeavour. The research laboratory is an interdisciplinary group of researchers from the departments of Econometrics, Computer Science, Economics and Engineering who are all interested in applying new tools from machine learning and data science to answer social science questions. It has grown exponentially in a short time from 4 to 31 members.

“I knew machine learning was huge at Monash and we were incorporating it into Economics so when I got here I thought there’s a comparative advantage. Let’s build a lab around it where we can be experimental and playful. The good thing at Monash is we were not constrained in creating it.” SoDa has found that the new dean shares in the lab’s vision.

Nathan is also very happy with the new scholars recently recruited by the department and is looking forward to improved mentorship and engagement.

“It was a bit of a culture shock coming here I guess. In Cambridge, Massachusetts, it was so dense and productive. But it’s changing rapidly here so that’s positive.”

Although Nathan worried about being cut off from the world, Melbourne is still the favourite place in the world where he has lived so far.

“It’s easy and diverse and people are so nice. I like being in diverse places because everyone is mixed and from somewhere else so I don’t feel out of place.” His family is split between the US and Europe and used to also be in Latin America before the current distressing situation in Venezuela.

“Melbourne has everything I like about a European city, or an American city but no one is going to stab you.”

Even though setting up SoDaLab has taken “an insane amount of time”, he still finds moments for other things. He finds balance with Buddhist Samatha meditation and Melbourne’s restaurant culture.

“I meditate a lot and eat out. That’s what I do, meditation and restaurants. Restaurants are awesome here, right?”