In January 2020, the Harvard College Open Data Project was constructing its annual survey of the Harvard student body. Lucy Li ’21 and other members of HODP composed some expected questions: How many businesses in Harvard Square will shut down this semester? Who do you think will win the 2020 election? One question, however, might have seemed out of place: Do you think a Harvard student will get COVID-19 before the end of the semester? At the time, the virus was in its early days, circling Wuhan, China — months before Harvard students’ departure from campus.
“It didn’t really seem like such a big deal then,” Li remembers. “We decided that it was maybe not super appropriate to include, given that we didn’t know how bad COVID was. So we didn’t end up having a question about that.”
By the time Li returned to her home in the suburbs of Kansas City, Kansas in March, COVID-19 had become a big deal. She’s been there for the nine months since, taking classes and playing cards with friends over Zoom, all from her purple childhood bedroom. She misses when she could work without the sounds of her brother’s clarinet classes floating in. Not much else penetrates her bubble.
“It’s sort of seemed less real than it did on campus, because this isn’t really a densely populated area,” she says. “I feel like I’m in a little bit of a bubble. And everything’s going on outside of the window.”
As the news of 2020 reaches her, Li filters it through her passion for economics. “I would have thought that most of the interesting findings about the pandemic would have been coming from people who work on public health and biology,” she says. “But there are lots of really interesting research questions that economists have been trying to answer, related to which policies would be the most effective, as well as the obvious economic impacts of the coronavirus.”
Li’s thesis relates closely to the events of 2020, particularly in the context of the election. She’s exploring the ways that social media can exacerbate populist sentiments. Over the summer, she read a paper speculating that social media contributes to populist thought because it “lends itself to stereotyped or emotionally charged messages, because the physical length of the messages has to be shorter.” So she began to explore “how social media use might affect political outcomes, like election outcomes and polarization.”
Li wasn’t always sure she would pursue economics. She entered college planning to study biomedical engineering, then moving to pre-med before declaring Statistics and tacking on Computer Science; after changing her mind once more, she settled on Applied Math and Economics. Despite this wide-ranging path, her pursuits have centered on a constant curiosity: “Why do people make the choices they do, and why do they act and behave the way they do?”
As Li embarks on her last semester, she’s looking forward to going back to campus. “I’m just very happy to have the chance to go back to campus at all,” she says. ‘There was a real risk at one point that I had already been at Harvard for the last time.”
— Olivia G. Oldham is the Magazine Chair of the 148th Guard. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @olivia__oldham.