Sometimes in life, with just a little luck and a lot of hard work, our passions and our talents line up perfectly — and we find ourselves working in the elusive dream job. This situation pretty perfectly sums up Lauren Chenarides’ path to becoming an assistant professor in the W. P. Carey Morrison School of Agribusiness.
Lauren started off as a math major and was on track to pursue actuarial sciences. However, an internship helped her see it wasn’t quite the best fit. This is where the “luck” and “passion” parts come in. Lauren was invited to a book club that was reading the work of culture and food author Michael Pollan. She immersed herself in discussions of food security and food justice. Lauren eventually got to meet with Pollan — “Pinch me,” she still says, and learned, “We have enough chefs, we have enough journalists. We need more policymakers. I had no idea really what that meant, because it was kind of a foreign thing to me.”
Enter talent and hard work. While volunteering with a community food cooperative, Lauren learned about her current area of study, agricultural economics, and decided to pursue graduate education. “I thought, wow, this seems like such a good fit. I can apply my quantitative background to the things I find really fascinating about food access.” Lauren had to take night classes in economics before she could qualify for the program, but her dedication to her research understanding food access earned her a pre-doctoral fellowship at Penn State. After graduating with her PhD in agricultural economics, Lauren joined W. P. Carey in 2017.
Today, Lauren’s research focuses on food deserts. In a video for the W. P. Carey magazine, Lauren explains how access to healthy food options is a major predictor of health. Yet for many rural Arizonans, there are no major supermarkets to frequent. These consumers often default to less healthy, more processed options that can be purchased at a convenience store or other available options. Lauren hopes her research can identify ways to efficiently bring healthier options to all consumers, whether that is identifying government policies that stimulate profitability for businesses to enter those regions, or less traditional interventions like grocery delivery.
Lauren is grateful for the support from W. P. Carey and the ASU community. “I would say the community-based, participatory aspect of research is valued heavily here. You know, we're applied economists, and I think a lot of the questions that I find most interesting are ones that are informed by the community,” she explains, “and if our community is so diverse, then I think that should reflect in some of the work that I do.”
That commitment to inclusion and place is part of what Lauren loves about being a Sun Devil. “ASU has a great vision of how we include everybody. Not just in how we teach, but how we research and work,” she says. That “business is personal” mindset has always stood out to Lauren. “I have personal relationships with our deans, Amy [Hillman] and Mike [Goul]. I don't know many of my own peers in other institutions who have personal relationships with their deans,” she notes.
How do you explain your job to someone who is unfamiliar with it?
I tell them that I am an assistant professor and they usually say, “What do you teach?” And then I explain that teaching is actually just a portion of what I do — I do a lot of research, and that research is looking at how poor food access influences consumers spending, diet, and health. And then they ask me a bunch of questions, “Oh, is that food deserts?” Actually, a lot of people do kind of know that term now, because it became a popular one and is used in the press.
What is your favorite part about your job?
I get paid to learn! Without a doubt. I get to be intellectually curious every day.
Have you ever taken any classes or attended any conferences that you really liked or maybe changed your mindset?
I went to a conference in France this summer and it was really nice to see a different format of how things were presented. It taught me a lot about how to present research in a way where not only the audience is engaged, but also the people presenting it can be a little bit more engaged. Similarly, I took a class on personal storytelling last year at a community college. It’s been amazing how it has extended to teaching and grant writing, too. Last year, our project was selected as a finalist for a Schmidt Futures Award and we had to give a pitch to this audience. I can't tell you how helpful it was to create a story. That changed how I will present going forward for sure.
Have you ever received particularly good advice?
Hmm, lots of good advice. One that’s been coming up for me a lot is, “Say no, so you can say yes.” That's one that I find really valuable. You know, say no to some projects, so you can say yes to another project. It also helps put some emphasis on prioritizing yourself, because sometimes when you get too busy that can come last.
If you could be in any other career, what would it be?
I really love languages, so I’ve always wondered, could I do something with that? I never went down that path of taking “all the languages,” but I always I think I can pick them up relatively quickly if I make time to do so. Something in linguistics or languages.
If you could visit anywhere in the world, where would you go and why?
The top on my list is Japan. I think the culture is so neat in many ways. There's a lot of precision and intentionality, things that I think are really important. Oh, and I love sushi.
Do you have any hidden talents?
If I told you, they wouldn’t be hidden anymore.
Salty or sweet? Salty
Coffee or tea? Coffee
Cat or dog? Dog
Board games or video games? Board
Book or movie? Podcast
On time or late? Usually on time?