June 22, 2012

Young Hamline Alumnus Turns Passion for Research into a Successful Career

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It was just five years ago that Michael Pesko, a young man from Shell Lake, Wisconsin, walked across the graduation stage and turned his tassel, marking the completion of his undergraduate degree at Hamline University. Using his Hamline education, it did not take him long to accomplish many things, including recently becoming a tenure-track faculty member at an Ivy League school.

Pesko came to Hamline because of a generous scholarship and for the opportunity to play football. There, he triple majored in economics, management, and English and served as vice president of the undergraduate student congress, twice running for president. Pesko also participated in study abroad in Ireland and Latin America, and engaged in collaborative research. That research and travel abroad experiences motivated him to shift away from early plans to go to law school and to instead focus on getting a PhD in economics.

After graduating, Pesko volunteered for a year rehabilitating former gang members in Los Angeles. Following that, he went to graduate school and quickly established himself as an expert in the area of the economics of tobacco control, leading to him consulting for the World Health Organization, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and Arkansas Office of the Attorney General. During his final year of graduate school, he worked at the CDC in Atlanta, continuing empirical research on the prevalence and public health impact of cigarette price minimization strategies. He will continue similar tobacco control research and expand into other areas of health economics as a tenure-track faculty member at Cornell’s medical school in New York City.

“The most important thing I discovered at Hamline was that I loved doing research, and I was given the opportunity and support to do it,” Pesko said. “I was able to travel to Guatemala between my junior and senior year where I worked on my honors thesis and solidified my interest in economics. I knew right then I wanted to be an economist researcher. I found my vocation at Hamline.”

What sparked his interest in tobacco control work?

“In the spirit of social justice or contributing to something for the common good, I wanted to find a research area where I felt like I was making a tangible impact. I had the faculty support at my graduate school to specialize in tobacco control and was very motivated to do so, considering that one third of all deaths in the U.S. are tobacco related and almost all smoking starts before the age of 18—when adolescents are probably not ready to make decisions with life-long consequences. For these reasons, tobacco control seemed like a good place to start a research agenda.”

Pesko’s next exciting challenge starts this fall, as he steps into his new role as professor at Weill Cornell. There, he will be a researcher in the Division of Health Outcomes, and he will teach classes on empirical research methodologies to master’s level public health and PhD students.

But first, he’s heading to Russia, with a fellow 2007 Hamline graduate, Tim McDonald, as the two have been invited along with 18 other young public policy standouts from the U.S. to meet with policy leaders and government officials in Moscow and St. Petersburg.

As he heads to his next adventure, he shared this advice with future Pipers:  Seek out and seize the opportunities, and then work hard.

“Do collaborative research. It’s a great opportunity, and Hamline provides assistance for it,” he said. “And, if you have interest in more than one subject, don’t be afraid to double or even triple major. I managed to do that and still graduate in four years. Hamline makes it easy to get the classes you need to do that. If the first thing you major in doesn’t work out, it’s not the end of the world.”

In fact, it might be the beginning of something great.