Promoting Human Rights Around the World: Stanford Interdisciplinary Graduate Fellow Cecilia MO

While many in academia have traditionally been reluctant to engage in study outside of their selected fields, a new movement in higher ed aims to incorporate ideas and tools from a wide variety of disciplines. Cecilia Mo, a Ph.D. Candidate in Political Economics at Stanford, is the recipient of a fellowship that focuses on providing students with an interdisciplinary education.

by Douglas Fehlen

Cecilia Mo Stanford Interdisciplinary Graduate Fellow

Cecila Mo You're a student in the Stanford Interdisciplinary Graduate Fellowship program. Can you provide information on this unique program?

Cecilia Mo: The Stanford Interdisciplinary Graduate Fellowship (SIGF) program is a competitive university-wide program overseen by the Office of the Vice Provost for Graduate Education that awards three-year fellowships to doctoral students engaged in interdisciplinary research. The program is a commitment on the part of Stanford to encourage multidisciplinary inquiry within and between the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences to think through complex problems, ranging from issues of energy and sustainability to human trafficking.

E-P: Can you describe your educational background, including how you came to be in your current doctoral program.

CM: I am a Ph.D. Candidate in Political Economics at Stanford University and a Stanford Interdisciplinary Graduate Fellow, as well as a Michelle R. Clayman Graduate Dissertation Fellow. My work has also been supported by a generous grant from the Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society. I aim to conduct interdisciplinary empirical work that is informed by field work, experimental research methods and when possible, collaboration with practitioners with an eye towards improving public policy and practice.


After studying mathematics and interdisciplinary studies at the University of Southern California, I joined Teach for America and became a high school math teacher. I went on to consult with the World Bank in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, and worked with INHURED International in Nepal, where I became passionate about social policy. As part of my dissertation, I collected original fieldwork data from villages in Nepal with high human trafficking incidences. I am using tools from economics, political science, sociology and psychology to illuminate what makes some women and children so vulnerable to human trafficking. I also hold a Master in Public Administration and International Development from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

E-P: Your academic work is focused on human trafficking. When did you become interested in this global epidemic?

CM: I first became interested in fighting child trafficking during the summer after my junior year of college, where I worked as an intern at an international human rights organization in Nepal. During my internship, I met women who had been enslaved as children by traffickers, cast aside when they contracted AIDS and ostracized by their villages when they returned home. It was tragedy layered upon tragedy layered upon tragedy, and I was left with the question: Why does trafficking happen and what are effective solutions?

E-P: As part of your work you traveled to Nepal to talk with more than 1,000 families. Can you explain your research methods and goals?

CM: Despite the seriousness of the human trafficking problem, there is a severe lack of data, scant published information and incomplete understanding of causal factors. My research examines the factors that induce and facilitate trafficking on the supply side, and the identification of potential policy and program instruments for addressing vulnerabilities created by these factors.

Traffickers take advantage of vulnerabilities in others. What are the factors that push individuals into situations of high risk to be recruited by traffickers? The most commonly identified push factor that starts the trafficking process is poverty. The necessity to meet basic survival needs is the most commonly identified motivation to migrate or to encourage a family member to leave for employment. Beyond issues of poverty, however, an understanding of people's assumptions and perceptions are important. If a job opportunity sounds sufficiently enticing and interesting (i.e. a high paid job in a big city), and one does not think there is any risk of exploitation, it is no longer just a problem of poverty. There is a problem of incomplete and/or imperfect information. It is critical to understand how assumptions and perceptions of trafficking risk are formed, and how learning and decision-making procedures regarding this type of risk occurs.

Given my focus on child vulnerability, as opposed to vulnerability in general, I focus on the decision-making processes of heads of households, and I define trafficking vulnerability as their willingness to make potentially perilous decisions, like encourage their child to migrate without his/her family for work. I surveyed over 1,000 families in Nepal, using experimental techniques that allow for causal inference, to begin understanding the decision-making processes of families in regions with high trafficking incidence.

E-P: I know you're still completing your research, but are there preliminary findings you can share about factors that make it more or less likely families will be manipulated by traffickers?

CM: Vulnerability to exploitation often involves a willingness to make high-risk actions (e.g., having one's child migrate without his/her family for work). I find that as opposed to absolute poverty, increasing disparities coupled with an increased salience in these disparities with respect to wealth within and between communities drive families to make high-risk decisions that put themselves and their children at risk for modern forms of slavery.

E-P: What work are you currently doing on campus to support your field research?

CM: I am finished with the fieldwork component of my research, but aim to conduct more field research after completing my doctoral studies. Given the magnitude of the human trafficking problem, and the scarcity of information on how to address the problem, I am working with other scholars at Stanford to start a human trafficking research initiative.

E-P: Has the Stanford Interdisciplinary Graduate Fellowship allowed you opportunities to advance your research in ways that otherwise would have been unavailable?

CM: I wanted to learn how to do research in a really rigorous way, but about something I really cared about. When you approach your research with a problem like human trafficking vulnerability, you quickly realize that analytical tools and modeling techniques from one field are not enough. You don't want to be constrained to one discipline when thinking about a problem that doesn't fit neatly into one discipline. That's why the interdisciplinary fellowship made a lot of sense for me.

Providing its recipients with generous tuition, stipend and research support, the SIGF program enables doctoral students with both intellectual and financial support to push traditional academic boundaries and collaborate with faculty and students in different departments. It is an exceptional program that has made all the difference in my own research pursuits!

E-P: What are your general thoughts on the interdisciplinary movement in higher ed?

CM: Powerful tools and innovative ideas required to think about some of the most important problems often do not arise from a one-dimensional course of study. The complexities of problems like human trafficking require what biologist Edward Wilson calls consilience, literally a jumping together of knowledge across disciplines to create a common groundwork of explanation. Accordingly, my research style has and continues to be interdisciplinary. Given my commitment to truth-seeking for action, I am pleased to see more and more support for interdisciplinary research.

E-P: Finally, I'd like to offer you the opportunity to share anything you'd like about yourself and the work you do.

CM: Thank you for the opportunity to share a little bit about my research interests and intellectual journey!

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