Maya Durvasula, T’18, and a current Ph.D. student at Stanford University, grew up in Albuquerque, New Mexico. “And it’s hard to grow up there without having a very clear idea of what it looks like when politics aren’t working for people,” she notes.
After graduating from high school with an interest in politics, she decided to take a year off and bounced around organizations in New Mexico, working for the state legislature, political campaigns and even a thinking group. Looking back, she says, “Having a time block where you have time is super helpful.” One thing she learned was that she didn’t really want to be in politics. “People were making policies, but the debates were heavy on sentiment and politics and light on facts.”
A high school mentor suggested she might get along better with economists than politicians, so once she got to Duke, she took that to heart.
In freshman year, she said, she knew she wanted to be exposed to a lot of things and she knew she wanted to do research, but she didn’t really know what “research” meant for a freshman. At first, she cold emailed many people and received multiple rejections.
After the rejection, however, something finally clicked, and for Durvasula, what clicked were three major research projects she undertook while at Duke.
The instinct is always to start where you want to end up and then go back, but you don’t know where you’re going to end up.”
Maya Durvasula, T’18
His first experience in a research group was a joint venture between an academic team in China and at UNC-Chapel Hill. Their group studied behavioral interventions to increase adoption of health technologies, with a particular focus on sexual health. Usually, as a country industrializes, the rates of sexually transmitted infections fall, but in China, the rates of HIV and syphilis continued to rise as the economy grew. Durvasula and the team looked at different interventions that could make HIV testing more attractive to patients, such as alternative testing locations, different advertising design, and compensation.
She has also done a project with Duke Professor Bob Korstad in the History Department and the Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity, examining the history of housing in Durham. Finally, she worked with her main advisor, economics professor Duke Duncan Thomas, in her joint lab with Elizabeth Frankenberg of UNC, on projects related to household decision-making in Indonesia.
A notable part of his undergraduate education at Duke was winning the Truman Scholarship. What was most valuable to her about the Truman was the people she met. “Most people I’ve met are defined by the fact that they choose something they care about and do a lot of it,” she says. And it’s inspiring to be around people who love what they do and totally immerse themselves in it.
Durvasula is a Duke graduate with many experiences and accolades under her belt. But from there, how did she find a way to do a doctorate? at the intersection of law, technology and economics? As she describes it, the interaction between economics and law is inextricable. Economic incentives and legal institutions affect the pace and direction of innovation, which in turn affects how quickly technology is developed and, ultimately, the products that end up in our hands. A question at the heart of his research is how to ensure that the value of this technology is fairly distributed in society.
So, in five to ten years, where will we see Durvasula? She sees herself staying in academia, although at some point she wants to work in the civil service. “I love learning new things and want to enjoy being in a space where people are always willing to teach you things.”
And in that vein, his advice to a curious Duke student is to explore everything. “The instinct is always to start where you want to end up and then go back, but you don’t know where you’re going to end up,” she said.
Pursue the questions you find exciting and let them point you in the right direction – clearly, Durvasula is proof that this process will take you far.
Message from Meghna Datta, Class of 2023