“Positive Feedback Loops”, Dr. Robin Sickles, Economics

I grew up in the 1950s in Orlando, Florida. My mom and dad had moved down from Pittsburg when I was young. My mom was a very intelligent woman but had to leave college at Columbia during the Depression basically to make ends meet and never finished her degree until I was in college. Education was always important because she had not been able to finish hers in due course. My father was a music major, very accomplished in composition. He went to Carnegie Tech (now Carnegie Mellon) but had to drop out because of the Depression.  At one point, Aaron Copland wanted him to be his understudy. He had a very interesting career and ended up in radio and television. He was a television personality when I was growing up in Central Florida. At the end of the day, education was very important in our family. My mom was a teacher. She taught early childhood. Her training was in early childhood education and so she taught Kindergarten and first grade.

I had visions of doing a variety of things. I was a very accomplished athlete. I played baseball, and my father told me after I had been in college for a year that the St. Louis Cardinals had come to ask him if they could recruit me, and he had told them that I was going to college. I could have probably played some Class D ball, would have been on a bus travelling around small, podunk towns in Florida.
In any event, I went to Georgia Tech. I was in aerospace engineering, and I wanted to be an astronaut. I was the most physically fit person in our class at Georgia Tech. I sort of nailed the tests, and I was also a walk-on baseball player. I was 17 when I went away to college. When I was home right before my 18th birthday, I blew my knee out playing some pick-up football. It got misdiagnosed as a slight sprain. It ended up being a torn ACL, and I didn’t find that out until about a month later when I got back to the team. The team physician told me that there was no way to operate at that time. They didn’t have a procedure back in 1967 to repair an ACL once necrosis had set in. So here I was at 18 and I had to sort of rethink things. Athletics was out. And then I got astigmatism, so I couldn’t pass the flight physical for Air Force ROTC and pursue the astronaut idea. By about the third or fourth year, I realized I wasn’t that interested in aerospace engineering anymore. It was about that time that the aerospace industry was tanking, so it wasn’t the best place to be.

Then I took a course from a Jesuit priest who had left the Order and had decided to become an econ professor. They had just opened up an economics degree—they did not have one when I started. So I took a course in economics, the history of economic thought. Because of all the maths I had done when I was in aerospace engineering, the econometrics and statistics were fairly easy for me to work through. I finished the courses in about a year and was encouraged to go to graduate school. I didn’t have a clue about what I could do so I went to graduate school at North Carolina. I applied to two graduate programs—Duke and North Carolina. I went to North Carolina because they paid me $500 more than Duke did.

I saw myself becoming a professor when I started doing well in classes. Positive feedback loops are not a minor reason of why you pursue things. I was very good at math, and in programming, so I worked for a professor. I had gone there to work in population economics and demography with a very famous economist, Harold Hotelling. Hotelling died the summer I got to graduate school, so I had to switch what I thought I would do. There was a very young and very talented econometrician, so I worked for him as a research assistant. We published a couple of papers in the top journals in Economics, and I said, “Well this is kind of easy.” Of course, it wasn’t that easy. But you know, I got very positive feedback and one thing led to the next and I finished the PhD in four years and went to George Washington University. I stayed there a few years and continued to work hard and all of a sudden, people seemed to think that I knew what I was doing, so I was offered a job at the University of Pennsylvania.