Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

On the contributions of mentors and role models

By David Zilberman

Last week, I learned that I was awarded the Wolf Prize in Agriculture. I wondered what had enabled a kid that grew up in a low-income neighborhood in Jerusalem to receive this award from the Israeli president. Of course, there are the usual suspects loving and supportive parents and family, excellent primary and secondary education (as I get older, I appreciate more and more what I received in my primary and especially secondary school ), but here Id like to concentrate on role models and mentors.

Role models are individuals who, by their achievement and performance, show you what can be done and also how to do it. Sometime, they are not aware of their influence on your life. The economics of technology adoption and diffusion suggests that frequently, the adoption of new practices originates with imitation. Our choices are inspired and affected by those that we consider role models. Mentors are people that actively guide you and assist you throughout your life. To some extent, they are surrogate parents, and your relationship with them evolves. They may start as your superior, but they may eventually grow to become your partner and friend. I have been fortunate to have several important role models and mentors.

Two early role models were my cousins, Abraham Doron and Hanoch Slor. When I was a kid, growing up in poor, isolated Israel, I was very much interested in geography and seeing the world. These two cousins were able to obtain resources to study abroad in the 1950s and 1960s based on their academic achievements. I marveled at their stories and was inspired to work hard so I would have the option to explore the world, while augmenting my education. As I grew older, their example was in the back of my mind, and when I had the opportunity, I came to Berkeley to get my PhD.

Before coming to Berkeley, I went to the Israeli army. After completing my service, I realized that I needed to support myself to attend university, so I registered for a three-month training program in programming on one of the fly-by-night operations in the middle of Tel Aviv. I was fortunate that the instructor there, Dov Sacharov, was excellent. He taught me the foundation of IBM360 Assembler programming, and he was my mentor. I did well in the course and at the end, he told me that his company, Koor Computers, needed interns and he recommended me for the job. That was my big break after an introductory period where he showed me the ropes, I was given the responsibility of writing the payroll system for the company, and then managing the system. That helped pay for my schooling and to do well during my undergraduate training.

Uri Regev was the chairman of economics at Tel Aviv University, and became my mentor. As a Chair, he met with all the A-level students at the beginning of the third year to speak about their lives and plans. I told him that I worked in computers and he figured that I had a decent salary, so while the other A-students received a plaque and a check, I only received a plaque. But Uri encouraged me to take classes in econometrics and to consider graduate school, including going abroad. My econometrics teacher was Eithan Hochman, and I have benefitted from his mentoring for years. He offered to have me work with him and mentioned that Berkeley Ag Econ had asked him to recommend potential graduate students. For a long time, he sold me on Berkeley. I was debating whether I wanted to study economics or computer science, and he told me that at Berkeley I could decide to switch since they are good in everything. A year later, when I had to make a choice between Berkeley and Chicago, Berkeley won. Much of it had to do with Eithans inputs, but the good weather and the cool image also helped. When I came to Berkeley, Eithan was on sabbatical and I was assigned to be his research assistant. From the beginning, he treated me as an equal partner on our research team, and we started publishing together. We submitted a paper to the best journal, American Economic Review, and it was rejected soundly. I panicked, but Eithan showed me other rejection letters and I realized that our rejection wasnt that bad after all. The referee told us that we didnt know the literature, and even told us where to go. This rejected paper ended up being the foundation of several publications that were published in good journals. Working with Eithan taught me the mechanics of academia the need to get grants, to survive rejections, and to acquire partners that allow you to overcome your weaknesses. More importantly, he taught me that in academia, in research teams, there is no hierarchy and no egos. You have to tell the truth to one another and work towards a common goal.

The papers I wrote with Eithan were crucial in helping me get the job as a Professor of Agricultural Economics at Berkeley. While I picked apples and drove tractors on the kibbutz (a collective farm in Israel) for a while, I knew very little about agricultural economics and how to perform as a faculty member. One of my role models was Andy Schmitz. Andy was a farmer-intellectual. From time to time, we spoke about his farming business in Saskatchewan, but most of the time, he would argue with me about welfare economics and international trade, and at the end of each of these debates, he would suggest that we write a paper. Actually, we published one or two. Andy imprinted on me that being in agricultural economics doesnt mean that you need to work only in agriculture. Actually, your first obligation is to contribute to the overall frontier of knowledge in economics, but you should also be familiar with agriculture and natural resources so that you can use economics tools to address problems in these sectors. Another role model was Alain De Janvry. Alain started as an econometrician, and became a prominent development economist. I admire his guts and his commitment to pursuing major problems and taking controversial perspectives. For a while, he took a radical perspective, especially regarding issues of land reform and distribution, but he was always open to learn and his perspectives evolved over time. Regardless of policy position, Alain always maintained rigor, and I found this combination of rigor and relevance very appealing.

My dissertation advisor at Berkeley was Richard Just, who has been a mentor ever since, and later became a partner and a dear friend. Richard emphasized that if you dont have fun writing a paper, dont do it! A collaboration is a social activity that you should enjoy because you can work harder when you have fun. Some of our papers were written while we were sailing on Richards boat on the bay. While he emphasized the fun, he taught me the importance of paying attention to the little details and making sure that you get the maximum knowledge out of your data and the maximum insight out of your analysis. Richard always believed in learning by doing. You may want to study an important problem without knowing much about it, but if you think hard, develop a reasonable approach, and start writing, you will force yourself to learn the literature, and by the end you will have become an expert. From Richard, I learned that its better to be tough on yourself and rewrite a manuscript than to send it to a journal and then have the referee be tough with you.

Gordon Rausser was the department chair when I was hired and he has also been a role model and a mentor. When I started as a professor, many advised me to spend my time writing papers and to forget about anything else. Gordon, of course, appreciated good papers, but from the beginning, he emphasized the importance of a well-rounded portfolio. You have to do your best as a teacher not only to survive academically, but because teaching is supposed to be enjoyable, it can serve as motivation and inspiration for students, and of course because we get paid to do it. He emphasized the importance of public service, preaching that if you stay in the department it will be your home, which you want to be well run and a comfortable place for everyone. Gordon appointed me to be graduate chair when I was a young professor, because he thought that as a Berkeley graduate I could relate to the graduate students and that it would help me to develop as a citizen of the university, and he was right. Gordon also emphasized the uniqueness of agricultural economics as a discipline and the challenge of excelling to contribute in economics, agriculture and natural resources. That meant learning about agriculture and its problems, working with people across disciplines, and being active in the agricultural and environmental economics community. This advice obviously served me well.

I took the examples of my role models and the advice of my mentors to heart, and I have aimed to pass everything on to my students. I have found that research is hard work but has to be fun if you pursue it for a long time. Since research is time consuming, its worthwhile to spend it on important problems. Rigor matters, and you try to do the best work that you can, recognizing your limitations and engaging partners to produce a better final product. Its better when research is a social activity when you build a team and establish friendships. While success in research requires specialization, it is worthwhile to diversify and study multiple issues. To succeed, you need to develop thick skin, realize that rejections are a part of the game, and in the long run, the acceptances stay. Its important to take criticism seriously and what matter is not the rank of the colleague, but the quality of the ideas. Being in academia is more than writing papers, it is the complete package of teaching, serving your community, and being a good citizen of your department, your university, and your community. You gain a lot by speaking with practitioners and explaining your ideas to your family and friends because at the end, the value of your work depends on its contributions to society.

You can never make yourself a role model. But I realize that mentoring is part of my responsibilities and it has been good for me as well as all of the individuals that I have collaborated with.