Iglika Ivanova (BA Honours, 2005) shares her story about how she’s using economics to make a difference in our community as Economist and Public Interest Researcher at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

Iglika grew up in Bulgaria thinking she’d be a doctor. But everything changed when she found herself on the West Coast of Canada at 17, having won a scholarship to attend Pearson College along with students from over 80 other countries. She took her first economics class there and was immediately drawn to economics as a framework to understand what was happening in her home country after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Everything from the rapid rise in unemployment and the spike in poverty, to the poor repair of schools and hospitals, made a lot more sense when she viewed it through the lens of misaligned incentives.

As Iglika learned more about what was happening in Eastern Europe and around the world, she realized that public policy has a large and immediate impact on people’s lives. Poorly designed economic policies can cause as much suffering to communities as the physical illnesses she’d wanted to fight as a doctor. Iglika decided to become an economist and help fix some of those poorly designed policies.

Classes at SFU introduced Iglika to the basics in economic theory, but more importantly, they taught her to challenge her assumptions and think critically about the problem at hand – practices she uses daily in her work today. Whether it was 4th year econometrics with the late Peter Kennedy, whose assignments always featured some issue with the data (outliers, seasonality, etc), or advanced microeconomics with Anke Kessler, who had students develop their own theoretical models of market imperfections in day-to-day situations (Iglika modeled free riding in group assignments), SFU economics courses pushed students to question and think outside the box.

Iglika went on to complete an MA in economics at UBC, where she became interested in labour economics as a way to understand and address the barriers that vulnerable groups like women, immigrants and visible minorities face in Canada.

After graduation, she took a year off to decide if a PhD program was the best next step. Her first job, research assistant to UBC Economics Professor Craig Riddell, helped her make the decision: what she wanted to do was help bridge academic research and policy. The pivotal moment for Iglika was the inaugural conference for a network of academic economists and government policy analysts that Dr Riddell had started to improve collaboration between the two worlds. At the conference, it was as if the two groups were speaking different languages: professors focused almost exclusively on demonstrating the elegance of their research methodologies, while policy-makers were desperately looking for practical policy implications that might be hiding in the technical jargon. It became clear to Iglika that brilliant research alone is not going to result in better policies; not unless it is understood by those in the position to make change happen and by the communities affected by it.

Today, Iglika helps make this happen at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA), an independent, non-profit research institute that provides accessible policy analysis and solutions for a more socially and environmentally just Canada. As Economist and Public Interest Researcher, Iglika researches key issues facing Canadians such as poverty, income inequality, and the erosion of our public services, and also shares her findings and their policy implications with the community. Her reports are written in accessible language, and are available for free on the CCPA website, often accompanied by short summaries. Iglika is a regular media commentator and blogger on PolicyNote.ca and frequently presents her findings at community events. You can hear her every second Tuesday morning on the CBC Early Edition Business Panel, where she squares off with Jock Finlayson from the BC Business Council.

Iglika’s advice for young alumni and current students is to be flexible and look for opportunities to solve problems and fill gaps, rather than gunning for a specific job, and to consider the nonprofit world in their career search. Economics students and graduates are well-positioned to make a difference in their communities by applying the skills they have developed at university to any issue they are a passionate about. For individuals who don’t have an issue yet, Iglika offers simple advice:  “Get off campus and find out what is happening in this city. You’re bound to find something that gets you fired up, something you’re convinced can be done better. Then do it better.”

For students and young alumni already making a difference in their community, nominations are open for the CCPA 2014 Power of Youth Leadership Awards. Nominations will close on Dec 31, 2013, so make sure to check it out.