Unite For Sight's Alumni Profile Series: Catherine Thomas

Catherine Thomas is currently working at the Busara Center for Behavioral Economics at Princeton University, where she conducts randomized control trials to assess the cost-effectiveness of social programs. Catherine’s work focuses on evidence-based practices, and she says that she credits Unite For Sight for solidifying her interest in this field. Catherine participated as a Unite For Sight Global Health Leadership Intern for six months during her senior year (Spring 2011) at Yale University.

We connected with Catherine to hear about her experience interning with Unite For Sight and about how her internship experience has impacted her career.

How has your internship experience with Unite For Sight influenced your career trajectory?

The knowledge that I learned at Unite For Sight about evidence-based social programs and human-centered design were invaluable and has guided my career path. I now work at Princeton University and the Busara Center for Behavioral Economics to conduct randomized controlled trials, the gold standard methodology for generating evidence on the effectiveness of social programs. I currently work with researchers who got their training at the Poverty Action Lab and Innovations for Poverty Action on research projects to evaluate unconditional cash transfers and psychological interventions. Unconditional cash transfers are quickly becoming a new metric against which the cost-effectiveness of many aid programs is being assessed. Unconditional cash transfers have strong evidence backing their effectiveness in poverty reduction and are an efficient way to transfer donor dollars to those who need it most.

The lessons that I learned from Unite For Sight led me to seek out international development approaches with such qualities. In the future, I aim to continue developing and rigorously evaluating innovations in the fields of global health and international development to contribute to breaking cycles of poverty. 

What were some of the key lessons that you took away from this internship?

As an intern, writing modules on the research of the Poverty Action Lab at MIT emphasized to me the importance of rigorous program evaluation as a necessary and ethical approach to global poverty alleviation. Writing modules on failed innovations in international development illustrated how critical it is to have ‘more than good intentions,’ and to consider social and cultural factors in the design of services and products as well as effectively address the “last mile” problem.

What was your most memorable experience with Unite For Sight?

My most memorable experience at Unite For Sight was getting to meet some of the speakers at the Global Health & Innovation Conference and be able to hear their thoughtful insights on development in a space that demands so much creativity, rigor, and leadership. I especially was thrilled to talk with Dean Cycon of Dean’s Beans about the development of the fair trade movement in relation to the movements toward greater corporate social responsibility and philanthropy and in relation to the lives of the farmers who benefit from more stable coffee prices. Speaking at the conference myself about building the movement for fair trade on university campuses alongside others pitching new approaches for community empowerment was a real honor, and it was so rewarding to meet others so passionate about the topic.