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Sanford grad comes full circle, returns as professor this fall

August 23, 2016

For Sarah Komisarow, stepping into a Sanford classroom is coming home.

She graduated summa cum laude from Duke in 2008, with a B.A. in Public Policy. When she returns this fall, she’ll have a new title—this time, she’ll be Professor Komisarow.

Her research focuses on the economics of education and education policy, and in her current work she studies public policy and educational interventions for at-risk and disadvantaged high school students.

Earlier this summer, she completed her PhD in economics at the University of Chicago. While she was in Chicago, she occasionally kept in touch with mentors from Sanford. She’d run into them at conferences or email them to get advice about graduate school.

Now, those same mentors—including Liz Ananat, Anna Gassman-Pines, Charlie Clotfelter and Sunny Ladd—are her colleagues. Komisarow hopes to continue learning from them, and to support and inspire her students in the same way her mentors supported and inspired her.

“I have really vivid memories of my public policy classes from undergrad,” Komisarow said, “like when I wrote my first memo and when I finally understood cost-benefit analysis.”

One summer, she interned at the Durham Crisis Response Center as part of the Service Opportunities in Leadership (SOL) program under the direction of Senior Lecturer Alma Blount. That experience gave her a glimpse into policy in the real world, and set wheels turning in her head.

“Coming out of the SOL summer internship, I was thinking a lot about the way that public policy affects people’s lives,” she said.

That fall, she enrolled in Liz Ananat’s class on social policy. Ananat was young, enthusiastic and passionate, and her class helped Komisarow think through things that had interested her during her internship.

“The SOL internship and Professor Ananat’s class weren’t purposefully related, but they ended up meshing well and working off each other,” Komisarow said.

After the class was over, she continued to work with Ananat as a research assistant, helping to create a database of factory closings and mass layoffs in North Carolina from the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s.

“That was when it became clear to me that research was something that I really enjoyed and that provided an exciting way to study public policy issues,” she said.

At the encouragement of her Sanford mentors, she wrote an honors thesis her senior year focused on a federal housing program that provided grants to cities to demolish public housing projects.

“Housing policy is not exactly what I work on now, but the empirical research tools and the process—trying to use natural experiments to estimate causal impacts of public policy—that’s exactly what I still do,” she said.

For her PhD dissertation she studied the impact of family-based cash transfers on high school attendance among low-income teenagers.

Just after graduating from Sanford in 2008, Komisarow jumped right back in as a full-time research assistant. She worked with professors Charlie Clotfelter, Sunny Ladd and Jake Vigdor on education policy research projects, including work on the educational trajectories of Hispanic immigrants in North Carolina and on pay-based policies to reduce teacher turnover in high-poverty schools.

Komisarow took that research assistant job for a reason: she wanted to go to graduate school and was considering getting a PhD in economics. But first, she wanted to make sure that was really what she wanted to do.

As an undergrad, she briefly considered attending law school, but ultimately decided it wasn’t for her. But she quickly was inspired to pursue a career in research, thanks to her position working with Sanford faculty.

“The purpose of that job was to figure out whether I wanted a career in research,” she said.

“It was a really unique and rewarding experience to get to work with three senior scholars in education policy,” she said. “The position gave me an inside look at what professors do and how to be a successful and productive scholar.”

Beyond academia, Komisarow enjoys practicing yoga, cooking, running and spending time with her husband, Jordan, who is a resident physician at Duke Hospital.

She will teach her first two courses in the spring of 2017, one on the economics of education and contemporary education policy issues, and another on data analysis and applied statistics.

Komisarow is eager to be in the classroom as a professor, in a place that taught her so much, and be able to give back.

 “Duke students are very enthusiastic and smart, and I hope to bring my own enthusiasm to the students,” she said.