Faculty ‘dream team’ joins Rice Economics Initiative

Three rising stars in the field of economics – Flavio Cunha, Hülya Eraslan and Xun Tang – joined the Department of Economics July 1 as part of the Rice Economics Initiative, a multiyear plan to enhance research and teaching in economics at Rice University.

Antonio Merlo, director of the initiative, department chair and the George A. Peterkin Professor of Economics, recruited the new faculty members, whom he calls an economics “dream team.”

“The vision (for the Rice Economics Initiative) is to attract people who are very strong methodologically and use this strength to address important questions in economics,” Merlo said. “These three individuals comprise an extremely exciting group of young talent.”

Merlo noted that all three professors use both economic theory and econometrics (statistical tools) to address a number of important issues.

“This common ground makes it very easy for them to work together, and the possibilities for collaboration are endless,” Merlo said.

Flavio Cunha

Flavio Cunha

Cunha is an associate professor of economics. He most recently was an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania, where he specialized in labor economics and the economics of education. Among his many accomplishments, Cunha developed the first study looking at the parental and societal investments that make a human being who they are and affect their long-term achievements in education and labor markets.

Merlo called Cunha’s work “pathbreaking.”

“This particular study includes interviews with women after they become pregnant and looks at health and a variety of other outcomes that have to do with what these mothers are doing to invest in themselves and their child from the day they find out they are pregnant,” Merlo said. “Once the child is born, the survey continues following the child and the mother and measures of how the child is doing, looking not only at their cognitive development, but also at the development of their noncognitive skills.”

Cunha received his master’s degree in economics from Fundação Getúlio Vargas in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and a doctorate in economics from the University of Chicago. His work has been funded by the National Institutes of Health and other noteworthy organizations and has appeared in numerous scholarly journals.

Cunha said he feels honored to be invited to be a part of the Rice Economics Initiative.

“Most places are interested in maintaining the status quo,” Cunha said. “However, at Rice, the goal is to transform an already excellent Economics Department into an even better one. In my career, I’ve been privileged to collaborate with sociologists, demographers, nutritionists, public health specialists and physicians interested in understanding the origins of poverty and inequality. I hope that I will strengthen the existing links — and create new ones — between the Economics Department and other departments, schools, centers and institutes at Rice.”

Hülya Eraslan

Hülya Eraslan

Eraslan is a professor of economics. She most recently was an associate professor at Johns Hopkins University, where she studied political economy, bargaining theory and corporate finance. Eraslan’s research is very broad and ranges from the study of negotiations within countries, corporations and organizations — both theoretically and empirically, to the analysis of mandatory and discretionary government spending in the U.S., such as for Medicare and the military, to the study of the economic consequences of bankruptcy laws.

“A topic that Hülya has done a lot of work on is the restructuring of bankrupt firms,” Merlo said. “In the U.S., if a publicly traded company files for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, what happens to that firm? In particular, is it efficient to restructure this firm and keep it operational, or is it better to section it off, liquidate its assets and get it out of business? This question cannot be answered unless the bargaining and restructuring process is understood, which is one of the main goals of Hülya’s work. This is just an example of why her research is so important. It’s a pleasure to have her as part of our team.”

Eraslan received a bachelor’s degree in computer engineering and information science from Bilkent University, a master’s in economics from the State University of New York at Buffalo and a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Minnesota. She is an associate editor of the International Journal of Game Theory, the Review of Economic Design, the International Economic Review and Social Choice and Welfare, and she has presented her research at numerous national and international economic conferences.

“Rice’s Department of Economics is going through an incredibly exciting time,” she said. “The economics initiative is already a success with the hiring of Antonio with his vision, energy and dynamism. I would not want to miss the opportunity to be part of and contribute to a team that is about to achieve its full potential.”

Tang is an associate professor of economics. He most recently was an assistant professor of economics at the University of Pennsylvania, where he focused on industrial organization and econometrics. Tang has written extensively on the estimation of economic models in environments where individuals interact with each other strategically, including auctions, legal negotiations and social interactions.

“One of Xun’s areas of expertise is auction theory — how to buy and sell goods through auctions,” Merlo said. “The increased availability of data on auctions – think, for example, of how many goods are sold on eBay every day — has generated a huge surge of interest among economists in auction mechanisms. Xun has been a leader in asking key questions about and developing tools to assess how people behave in auctions, which are absolutely critical in the design of markets. I am delighted that he has joined our team.”

Xun Tang

Xun Tang

Tang received a bachelor’s in English from Beijing Foreign Studies University, an M.P.P from the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago and a doctorate in economics from Northwestern University. His research has been funded by the National Science Foundation and has been published in the leading economics journals.

Tang said the Rice administration’s “strong support” for the development of the Rice Economics Initiative is a reason he was attracted to the new position. He also noted that the Department of Economics provides “a collegial environment where faculty members can focus on their research agenda.”

“For me, there is great potential for collaborative work with colleagues that could help broaden the scope and the impact of my research,” Tang said. “The undergraduate and graduate students at Rice are also known for their motivation and academic excellence, and I expect to contribute to as well as benefit from the constructive interaction with these students.”

Lyn Ragsdale, dean of Rice’s School of Social Sciences, said the three recent hires will permit the department to excel in labor economics, game theory and bargaining and political economy “in new and pathbreaking ways.”

“Their research is at its core interdisciplinary, and we expect that they will make numerous connections with other faculty in the departments of Political Science, Psychology, Sociology and Statistics and in the Jones School of Business,” Ragsdale said. “The new faculty will also add to the class offerings of the department with new courses that have not been offered before.”

For more information about the Rice Economics Initiative, contact the Department of Economics at econ@rice.edu.

About Amy McCaig

Amy is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.