Spotlight on Young Researchers: Isabel Z. Martínez

 

Isabel Z. Martínez has been interested in how policies are put in place and how they affect people’s lives for as long as she can remember. After completing her Masters in Economics, she realised that academia was the ideal way to quench her thirst for analysing large data sets and finding answers to questions addressing people’s well-being and policy decisions. The Swiss-Spanish national has been studying income and wealth inequality in Switzerland for years and has now come to Luxembourg as a Postdoc at LISER to expand her research to the Grand Duchy. We spoke to Isabel about life as a research economist, and how it has already enabled her to travel across the globe, as well as work with some of the foremost researchers in her field.

What do you work on as an economist in research?

“I have been working on income and wealth inequality in Switzerland, with a special focus on top incomes, for several years now. Like in many countries, top incomes have been increasing in Switzerland over the past 20 years.

“I would like to extend this research on top incomes to cover Luxembourg. Luxembourg is a particularly interesting case due to its large financial sector, the firm-friendly tax environment, and its large share of foreigners working in the country. Luxembourg shares these and other characteristics with Switzerland, and I would like to compare the evolution of income and wealth inequality in the two countries to gain a better understanding of what is driving top incomes.

“In a new project, I study wealth inequality in Switzerland and across Swiss cantons, again with a focus on the wealthiest. The goal is to understand the role income and wealth taxes play on wealth concentration among the richest families in the long run.

“In my second strand of research, I study how people respond to tax incentives, for example by moving to an area with especially low income taxes, or by deciding to work more when income taxes decrease.”

Why did you decide to become a researcher?

“I first and foremost decided to become an economist. Ever since I can remember, I have been interested in what policies we put in place, how they affect people’s lives and how they influence the decisions they take. I studied Political Science and Economics and was intrigued by the tools economists use to analyse large amounts of data from surveys as well as administrative records, like your tax returns, or even ‘exotic’ data such as luminosity per square kilometre measured from space.

“After completing my Masters in Economics, I realized that the place where I could best continue analysing large data sets with statistical methods while at the same time finding answers to questions that address people’s well-being and policy decisions, was in academia. I decided to do a PhD and to continue my research during a postdoc.

“I have the luxury to set my own agenda and work on those research questions I find most interesting. And while it is a job in which people work long hours (9-10h/day are usual), it comes with some perks, too: I get to travel to conferences around the globe, which has taken me as far as Hawaii, and I obtained a fellowship to spend 3 semesters as a visiting researcher at UC Berkeley in California, where I was working with one of the stars in my field.”

Researching economy does not involve any ‘lab work’ – what is a typical day like in your research field?

“I spend a lot of the time in my office, analysing data, reading the literature in my field and on methods on how to analyse data, and writing my own research papers.

“My research is often co-authored with other economists; I have co-authors at LISER as well as abroad. Thanks to modern communication technologies it is has become easy to work with someone who is 10,000 km away.

“During summer and fall I usually go to a few conferences in Europe and the U.S. where I present my work. As a postdoc, I luckily don’t have too many administrative tasks so I can really focus on my research.”

For your PhD and Postdoc, you have mainly been analysing Switzerland. Why did you choose to expand your work to Luxembourg?

“I wanted to gain a new experience in Europe after living in the U.S. and I would like to extend my research on top incomes to cover Luxembourg. There is currently no research on top income and wealth shares in Luxembourg, a gap I would like to fill.

“For that, I need access to official statistics and administrative data, which is often easier when working for an institution within the country. So far, however, data access has turned out to be very difficult (if not to say impossible), something that has come a bit as a surprise, to be honest.

“I had thought that in a small country administrative hurdles would be smaller, yet there seems to be a reluctance to give researchers access to the data, even when working for a national research institute. Internationally, Luxembourg is often not seen as a representative economy and object of study because of its many peculiarities.

“If one still wants to contribute to the academic discussion and get good publications based on Luxembourgish data, one has to choose the research question carefully and it is crucial to have exclusive, high-quality data.

“I think for Luxembourg to remain an attractive research destination for economists, access to high-quality data is a must.”

What do you want to achieve during your career as an economist researcher?

“Of course, publications are important and I would like to have at least one or two publications in one of the ‘top five’ academic journals in economics over the upcoming years. Publications are the currency in this business, and the top journals are the gold-standard.

“But more importantly, I would like to become a renowned expert in my field in Switzerland and abroad and use my expertise to inform policy decisions. Ultimately, I would like my work to have a real impact on policy discussions and ideally policy decisions.”

“This shows the share of total income that goes to the richest 1% of all taxpayers each year in different countries over the past 100 years. Top incomes have been increasing very fast in the U.S. since the 1980s, leaving European countries behind. However, starting in the 1990s, top incomes also started to increase in Switzerland and Germany. One possible explanation for the different trends are income taxes. Some scholars argue that when taxes on high incomes were low, top earners have seen their pre-tax incomes rise substantially over time and vice versa. What is striking about Switzerland, is its relatively stable evolution from the 1930s until the 1990s.”
Source: Foellmi, Reto & Martínez, Isabel Z. “Volatile Top Income Shares in Switzerland? Reassessing the Evolution Between 1981 and 2010”, forthcoming in: The Review of Economics and Statistics.
“We find that the recent rise in top labour income shares in Switzerland corresponds to a period where stock market capitalization, that is, the worth of stocks registered and traded in the country, rose remarkably above the level we observe in most countries. It would be interesting to have a similar country, such as Luxembourg, where stock market capitalization in percent of GDP rose just as much, for comparison.” Source: Foellmi, Reto & Martínez, Isabel Z. “Volatile Top Income Shares in Switzerland? Reassessing the Evolution Between 1981 and 2010”, forthcoming in: The Review of Economics and Statistics.
Isabel Z. Martínez

About Spotlight on Young Researchers

Spotlight on Young Researchers is an FNR initiative to highlight early career researchers across the world who have a connection to Luxembourg. This article is the 18th in a series of around 25 articles, which will be published on a weekly basis. You can see more articles below as and when they are published.

Spotlight on Young Researchers: Glioblastoma and the challenge of getting cancer drugs to reach the brain

Glioblastoma is the most aggressive form of brain tumours in adults. The incidence is about 4 per 100.000 people and the average survival after diagnosis is about 14 months with current treatments. The tumour’s location represents a major challenge – few drugs make it past the blood brain barrier. Researchers are working on designing a novel kind of drug that could help do just that.

Spotlight on Young Researchers: Identifying environmental pollutants

Nobody is untouched by environmental chemical pollution, but most are unaware of how they are exposed, what to, and the possible health consequences. With over 350,000 registered chemicals in use, an important first step towards assessing their environmental impacts is to make chemical information more machine-readable and open. Environmental Cheminformatics is on the case.

Spotlight on Young Researchers: Understanding drug resistance in skin cancer

Melanoma is a rare type of skin cancer, but it is the deadliest type – and incidence is on the rise. Metastatic melanoma has seen a rapid emergence in drug resistance: After a few months, treatment stops working and tumours begin to grow again. Molecular biologists are working to understand why this happens.

Spotlight on Young Researchers: Towards predicting ageing-related diseases

A rapid increase in both life expectancy and global population size has led to a rise in the prevalence of chronic ageing-associated diseases. Brain and heart age-associated diseases including hypertension, stroke, heart failure, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases are leading causes of mortality and disability worldwide. Researchers are working on much-needed ways to predict these diseases.

Spotlight on Young Researchers: Are you what you eat?

Cardiometabolic complications threaten health and reduce life expectancy. In Luxembourg, 1 in 3 people have metabolic syndrome, as a risk factor for cardiometabolic complications such as obesity, high blood sugar and cholesterol, as well as hypertension. Science has shown a link between what we eat and our health – nutritionists are now investigating how dietary strategies could prevent these health complications.

Spotlight on Young Researchers: AI for ethical and legal debates

Looking at popular culture, big tech and ongoing societal debates – technological progress in Artificial Intelligence (AI) affects us all. Researchers from numerous scientific fields are working on the best way to bring AI forward, including the study of systems able to autonomously reason over arguments – calculators for philosophical, ethical or legal debates.

Spotlight on Young Researchers: How is scientific quality fostered by research collaboration?

In the last decades, how research is conducted has been profoundly changed by ICT, and there has also been a shift from the ‘sole genius’ towards teamwork and especially interdisciplinarity: Today, millions of researchers worldwide collaborate across organisational, disciplinary, and cultural boundaries, extending the possibilities of new scientific discovery. This, and the associated data, has paved the way for the scientific field Science of Science, where one key question is understanding exactly how scientific quality is fostered by research collaboration.

Spotlight on Young Researchers: Turning up the heat on solar absorbers

Using solar absorbers for collection and storage of heat from the sun is an environmentally friendly way to generate heat, yet only 16% of heating is generated from renewable energy. Material scientists are looking for ways to boost this number by making the solar absorber coatings more efficient.

Spotlight on Young Researchers: Ramping up carbohydrates production

Carbs are all around us: a major constituent in food, they also play a role in many biological processes such as intercellular communication; they are in demand in the pharmaceutical industry, where they are currently used as anticoagulants and in skincare. With the goal of no longer having to rely solely on nature’s production of carbs, scientists have been working on ways to ramp up production. A case for chemistry!

Spotlight on Young Researchers: The role a gene plays in neurodegeneration and cancer

Neurogenerative diseases and cancer affect millions of people worldwide, especially people over 60. While advances in diagnosis and treatment have been made, there are still many open questions on the path to better treatment and earlier diagnosis. Translational neuroscientist Pauline Mencke studies a gene that is involved both in Parkinson’s disease and the brain cancer Glioblastoma multiforme.

Spotlight on Young Researchers: Empowering critical digital humanities practice

Digitisation has had a significant impact on humanities research: not only has it changed how many scholars conduct their research, it has also led to completely new fields of research, such as digital humanities, a highly interdisciplinary science. Linguist Lorella Viola is interested in how software can enable critical digital humanities practice.

Spotlight on Young Researchers: A gas sensor powered by natural light

Many of the things we furnish our homes and office with emit gases that we are oblivious to inhaling. As eliminating these items from our lives is unrealistic, science wants to understand that which we cannot eliminate, thus more effective sensors are needed. Material scientist Rutuja Bhusari combines materials at nanoscale to create a gas sensor powered by nature.

Spotlight on Young Researchers: A hazelnut quality forecasting system

Can we predict the likelihood of a hazelnut tree becoming sick? Or what quality defects, and in what percentage, will be present in the final harvest? Science could soon make this possible, thanks to a hazelnut quality forecasting system based on a combination of machine learning and simulation models.

Spotlight on Young Researchers: Steve Dias Da Cruz

While machine learning and deep learning have come a long way, they are not yet at a stage where autonomous vehicles can handle unexpected situations. As part of a public research-industry collaboration, early career researcher Steve Dias Da Cruz investigates possibilities to reduce the amount of data needed to train reliable deep learning models for safety critical applications in the automotive industry.

Spotlight on Young Researchers: Martin Řehoř

In industry, computer simulations and optimizations are established approaches to inform and improve engineering designs. As part of his Industrial Fellowship, Postdoc Martin Řehoř works on numerical solvers that could help solve design problems that involve the processing of fluids.

Spotlight on Young Researchers: Sumit Gautam

While we frequently hear about new trends in mobile and wireless technologies, challenges remain, such as the need to charge devices on a stationary device. At the SnT at the University of Luxembourg, Postdoc Sumit Gautam works on solving the future information and energy requirements of wireless devices, via radio frequency (RF)-based techniques.

Spotlight on Young Researchers: Lucas Oesch

Luxembourg is one of many countries experiencing the arrival of asylum seekers and refugees that have been displaced for reasons such as conflicts or instability in their own country. Managing a research team for the first time, CORE Junior PI Lucas Oesch leads the project ‘REFUGOV’ at the University of Luxembourg, which looks at the accommodation of asylum seekers and refugees in cities and camps.

Spotlight on Young Researchers: Understanding how language manifests in the brain

At KU Leuven, Luxembourg national Jill Kries is part of a research team driven by understanding how cognition and brain structure develop over time in language-related disorders and how this knowledge can be applied in a clinical or educational setting. We take a closer look at the work of the young team.

Spotlight on Young Researchers: Hameeda Jagalur Basheer

While solar panels appear on more and more rooftops, researchers are still developing ways to boost their efficiency. As part of her PhD at the Luxembourg Institute of Science and Technology (LIST), Indian national Hameeda Jagalur Basheer is developing alternative materials that can help capture the sunlight better and improve efficiency of solar panels.

Spotlight on Young Researchers: Mohammad Zare

Floods across the world have resulted in tremendous economic damage and loss of lives: better tools to predict flood rise and recession are needed. The biggest question facing researchers like Mohammad Zare is how to accurately simulate and predict this complex phenomenon. As part of an Industrial Fellowship between the University of Luxembourg and company RSS-Hydro, the Postdoc Works on improving the simulation and prediction of flash floods, with the goal to develop a decision-making model for flood protection in Luxembourg.

Spotlight on Young Researchers: Yamila Mariel Omar

As part of her Industrial Fellowship – a collaboration between the University of Luxembourg and company Husky – PhD candidate Yamila Mariel Omar helps industry to monetize their proprietary data by means of big data analytics. We speak to the Argentinian national who also became a mother during her PhD.

Spotlight on Young Researchers: Bella Tsachidou

Excessive use of fertilisers in agriculture has led to nitrogen pollution, and calls for bio substitutes are getting louder. PhD candidate Bella Tsachidou from Luxembourg Institute of Science and Technology (LIST) gathers scientific evidence on the benefits of biogas residues and their suitability as biofertilisers, while providing support for the modification of nitrogen-policies on European and global level.

Spotlight on Young Researchers: Antonio Ancora

In the current situation of legal uncertainty, PhD candidate Antonio Ancora’s research at the University of Luxembourg aims to improve tax certainty in the context of state aid investigation on Transfer Pricing transactions among multinational enterprises.

Spotlight on Young Researchers: Paul Johanns

Paul Johanns works in a research field one does not read about every day: knots. As part of his AFR PhD at the École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), the Luxembourg national combines high-precision model experiments, computation and theory to untangle the influence of topology on the mechanics of complex knots, particularly those used in surgical procedures.

Spotlight on Young Researchers: Understanding brain mechanisms behind eating disorders

Eating disorders affect up to 5% of people. At the University of Luxembourg, Dr Annika Lutz and Lynn Erpelding study the brain mechanisms that help form body image, and want to understand how eating disorders develop. Using a multidimensional approach, the team’s ultimate goal is to improve treatment for people suffering from eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa.

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