Shedding new light on real-life problems

14 June 2022

2021 recipient of the Mollie Holman medal, doctoral candidate Lina Zhang.

PhD candidate Lina Zhang.

Can humanitarian food aid help stop civil conflicts in non-OECD countries? Will having more children affect a woman’s labour force participation? Do free laptops improve the cognitive skills of primary school students?

Solving meaningful, everyday problems such as these is the inspiration behind Dr Lina Zhang’s work.

“I love working in the field of economics and econometrics,” Dr Zhang says.

“I’m the kind of person who gets excited by questions driven by real-life problems.”

Dr Zhang is the recipient of the Monash Business School 2021 Mollie Holman Award for the Department of Economics and Business Statistics – the highest honour bestowed on a PhD candidate by the faculty.

Dr Zhang says while economic models can help to provide quantitative solutions to these problems, many studies are based on unrealistic assumptions of the real world.

“These assumptions are powerful in formulating understandable answers,” she says.

“However, if we look closer, we may notice that many of them are hard to verify and questionable in practice.

“My works aim to relax these kinds of restrictions and provide methodological alternatives.”

The judging panel said her thesis, Identification and Estimation of Causal Treatment Effects: Instrumental Variable Approaches, sheds new light on policy evaluation studies and would enable meaningful advice for effective policy targeting.

Deputy Dean of Research Professor Russell Smyth says her thesis received outstanding reports from internationally acclaimed examiners - and her work is already making the academic world sit up and take notice.

“Lina presented her work at leading international conferences while a student, and was also the faculty representative at the National PhD conference in Economics and Business in 2019,” Prof Smyth says.

Dr Zhang is quick to acknowledge the critical role of her colleagues and supervisors in the work.

“The knowledge and experience of my supervisors taught me to ask the right questions, detect important research potentials, and build connections with other researchers,” she says.

“This award is a team achievement - it reminds me of the guidance, help, and encouragement from my supervisors, colleagues, and all other friends.”

Currently a lecturer in the internationally renowned econometrics department at the University of Amsterdam, Dr Zhang says she is keen to continue “exploring new frontiers” in her field.

“I am a naturally inquisitive person who enjoys doing research a lot, so I plan to continue working in academia as a researcher after graduating from Monash,” she says.

The Mollie Holman Award was established in 1998 and is named after the late pioneering physiologist, Emeritus Professor Mollie Holman AO, in honour of her significant contributions to science and education. A pioneer in her field, Professor Holman's memory is preserved in these medals struck in her honour. They are among the highest academic honours we bestow, and mark the recipients as researchers of the highest order.