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When opportunity meets preparation

Political science PhD student Laura Chirot examines industrial policy in late developing countries.
Laura Chirot poses with rural kindergarten children in central Vietnam.
Laura Chirot poses with rural kindergarten children in central Vietnam.
Photo courtesy of Laura Chirot

Three years ago, Laura Chirot was living in Vietnam, conducting policy research in the country she fell in love with in college and had returned to repeatedly. As part of her work, she became engrossed with recent globalization studies by MIT political scientists.

Among these was the work of Suzanne Berger, Raphael Dorman-Helen Starbuck Professor of Political Science, who performs extensive qualitative fieldwork to make revelations in thinking about outsourcing, competition and innovation. Prof. Berger’s work caught Chirot’s eye because of its connections to the real lives of people in developing nations, the very same connections that had enchanted Chirot with Vietnam in the first place. Suddenly, Chirot was committed to a new destination: MIT.

Now in her second year of doctoral studies in political science at MIT, Chirot is doing similar fieldwork as part of a joint project with the World Bank and the Korean Development Institute to examine industrial policy in late developing countries, including Vietnam, China, Malaysia and Brazil. Working with Edward Steinfeld, professor of political economy, Chirot has traveled to Vietnam twice in the past year. She has conducted interviews with business people there to understand the forces that encourage and hinder economic development.

Chirot first fell for Vietnam in 2006 during a grant-funded summer trip to teach orphans in central Vietnam to speak English. She had spent the previous year doing foundational reading — Marx, Weber, Smith, Durkheim — as a college sophomore in Harvard’s interdisciplinary Social Studies program. As a result, Vietnam resonated with meaning.

“I saw a mix of communism, rapid industrialization and a change toward a market economy occurring very visibly on the ground, concretely connecting these theories about modernization that I had been reading,” she says. “I was hooked.” So hooked that she spent the next semester — in which she lived in Paris — learning to speak Vietnamese.

Chirot returned to Vietnam the next summer to work with humanitarian demining organizations in the former DMZ, where land mines and unexploded ordnance clot fields and yards and still kill and maim people today. “I was really affected by meeting these people,” she says.

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