Jennifer Kao PhD 2019

JENNIFER KAO PhD 2019 REMEMBERS when she first saw the outlines of a multifaceted career that she would eventually make her own. While doing research for a project on economic growth run jointly by the London School of Economics, where she was studying for her master’s degree, and a United Kingdom government think tank, she interviewed government officials, academics, and people in the private sector. “That to me was the sweet spot when it comes to thinking about policy decision making: to have one foot in government, academia, and business,” says Kao, who joined the faculty at the UCLA Anderson School of Management in July after completing her doctorate at HKS.

Her twin areas of interest, however, were ones that Kao had almost been raised on. She remembers when her mother, who worked in biotech—“classic Bay Area,” the California native says—would get ready for FDA inspections. “It made me keenly aware that the regulatory agencies for drugs in the United States really influenced how companies went about and thought about their decision making,” Kao says.

“My career goal is to be in spaces where you’ll have three voices heard: the policymaker’s, the private sector’s, and the academic’s.”

Jennifer Kao PHD 2019

Her experience in the U.K. led Kao to Harvard Kennedy School for her PhD. She was attracted by the school’s multisectoral approach and its position as a hub for policy learning. In Cambridge, her interest in regulation and health care further crystallized. At Harvard, Kao found the freedom and the flexibility to explore her interests at the vanguard of academics and innovation. She took classes across Harvard, but also took advantage of the academic community at MIT and the National Bureau of Economic Research. Her two closest friends in the doctoral program were an environmental economist and a development economist “doing quite different things,” Kao says. “But there was always an intellectual appetite to discuss ideas.” These conversations inspired her to take a broader view. Kao also points to the mentorship she received from HBS Professor Ariel Stern PhD 2014.

Her scholarship now focuses on how regulation and information influence companies’ innovation decisions. “One thing I’m looking at right now is how the current regulatory system influences the type of drugs that companies are coming up with,” Kao explains. “For example, in one project my coauthors and I are examining how regulation influences the speed at which new products come to market and their ultimate safety. In another project, I’m examining how regulation shapes firms’ decisions to seek approval for new uses of existing products. One of the most exciting aspects of this area is that regulation is constantly shifting to keep up with changes in technology, and vice versa. In addition, improvements in data have allowed researchers to document how an idea flows from an innovator to a consumer. It’s a really fruitful area to study.”

Her research will continue to be in that sweet spot. “My career goal is to be in spaces where you’ll have three voices heard: the policymaker’s, the private sector’s, and the academic’s,” Kao says. “If I can continue to be in a realm where those three types of voices are heard, I will be very satisfied.”

Photo by Kristyn Ulanday