Economics, Students

Student Profile: Leanna Mitchell

May 12, 2014

It took Leanna Mitchell, doctoral student in the Economics Department, some time and soul searching to find her ultimate career path. Mitchell grew up in Smithers, BC, a small town northwest of Prince George, where she ran for town council at the age of 19 (unsuccessfully), with a goal of diversifying the local economy and focusing on green products and solutions. 

Prior to finding her interest in economics, Mitchell had a wide range of academic interests and pursuits; her initial career goal was to become an elementary school teacher: “for three years I took courses in every subject, from Greek and Roman studies to Physics to Geography, before settling on Economics.” Mitchell ultimately decided that a degree in economics was a good fit “because it seemed to provide the most consistent and useful understanding of human behaviour”.

After completing her BA in economics at SFU, Mitchell decided to remain at SFU for graduate studies because of the dedication and excellence of the Department. According to Mitchell, the faculty and administrative staff in the Department of Economics truly “care about student success” and “the faculty are always updating and improving the courses and the program.” Moreover, Mitchell felt it was time to stay in one place; “I had been a nomad for a long time and it felt good to settle down.”

Mitchell credits several specific faculty members as particularly influential on her decision to continue her academic career at SFU, noting that “SFU Economists Greg Dow and Arthur Robson are leaders in the research fields I am most interested in: Economic Prehistory and the Evolution of Economic Behaviour.” Additionally, Mitchell notes, “there are professors whose courses are not to be missed, including Greg Dow, Krishna Pendakur and Fernando Aragon, to name only a few.”

A career in economics has given Mitchell the opportunity to utilize her diverse foundation of knowledge and interests. She takes a multidisciplinary approach to her education and research, often asking “questions that push the boundaries of what is considered economics.” She explains that many of her “research ideas often come from discussions with Biologists and Anthropologists, at the weekly meetings of the Human Evolutionary Studies Program.”

Currently, Mitchell is working on three papers that will constitute her thesis. The three papers are linked by the common theme of early human institutions. The first, “Conflict, Co-operation and Linguistic Diversity”, was presented in 2013 at the Canadian Economic Association conference, at an Economics and Biology special workshop in Toulouse France, and at the Econometric Society Summer School in Seoul, Korea. It explores why some geographic regions have so many languages and others so few. Mitchell and her co-author, Haiyun Chen, “hypothesize that over many generations, a high frequency of cooperative interactions have a homogenizing force on languages, whereas a high frequency of competitive interactions result in divergence and high linguistic diversity. The latter provides an incentive for sub-groups to innovate, inventing new terms known only to insiders. Over time, dialects become less and less similar until they are categorized as different languages.”

In her second paper, “Endogamy and Human Evolution: Causes and Consequences of Fitness Depression during the Pleistocene”, Mitchell “analyzes incentives for in-group versus out-group marriage in the late Pleistocene, concluding that early humans likely faced an inbreeding problem, with accompanying fitness depression. The evolution of institutions and beauty features that facilitated out-group marriage would have ameliorated the situation.” Finally, Mitchell's third paper, “The Origins and Incidence of Early Warfare”, is coauthored by faculty members Greg Dow and Clyde Reed, and examines “evidence and incentives regarding early human warfare, to explain the large variation across prehistoric societies in the incidence of warfare.”

After graduating from SFU, Mitchell wants to continue working as an academic economist. She hopes to stay in Canada as her family is close and she loves “small towns and easy access to nature.” Mitchell has “always enjoyed teaching” and she is very much “looking forward to this part of an academic career.” She plans to continue her innovative ways, as she “would rather try to open up new fields than contribute to old ones.”

In particular, Mitchell plans to continue and extend her current research. She explains, “many modern challenges, such as inequality, violence, isolation and overpopulation have their roots in human evolution and prehistoric social institutions. Although I don’t study these challenges directly, I hope that a better understanding of human preferences and early institutions will eventually lead to better modern institutions.” Thus, as with many academics who study the past, Mitchell’s ultimate goal is to improve the human experience in future.