During her senior year at the Panamerican School of Agriculture, Zamorano, in Honduras, Michelle Segovia was required to complete a short-term internship. Segovia interned at Texas A&M University, where she completed her undergraduate thesis in the Department of Nutrition and Food Science.
Segovia earned her bachelor’s degree in food science and technology, but found a new passion while at Texas A&M – agricultural economics.
Segovia earned her master’s degree and Ph.D. in agricultural economics from Texas A&M. Two weeks after earning her Ph.D., in September 2018, she began working at MU in the Division of Applied Social Sciences as an assistant professor.
“I’m a behavioral and experimental economist,” Segovia said. “My focus is on consumer behavior and the factors driving individual decision making. I combine economic experiments with neurophysiological data, such as eye movements, electroencephalography and facial expression analysis, to predict and understand human behavior.”
Segovia, who grew up in Ecuador, moved to Texas in 2012 to begin her master’s and eventually her Ph.D. She was connected with Marco A. Palma when she first arrived. Palma is a professor in the Department of Agricultural Economics and director of the Human Behavior Lab (HBL) at Texas A&M. It was Palma who helped grow Segovia’s interest in agricultural economics.
“Dr. Palma attended the same university in Honduras, so we already had something in common,” Segovia said. “He was doing economic experiments with food and consumer behavior. I volunteered to help him with one of his studies and realized I wanted to switch from food science to agricultural economics.”
The change wasn’t an easy one. Segovia was extremely well-versed in the world of chemistry, but didn’t have as much economics experience.
“I loved the research right away,” Segovia said. “Right when I began, I was doing research and involved in multiple projects. It was fascinating and everything was new. The courses were tough. Since I hadn’t taken some of the undergraduate courses, I had to study even more. All of my colleagues were economists or mathematicians. I was studying from an undergraduate book and doing master’s work. That first semester was difficult.”
Segovia found her groove quickly and was part of the Human Behavior Lab as it began to take shape.
“I was very fortunate to be able to work there from the beginning,” Segovia said. “As I was beginning my master’s the lab was just an idea. As I was beginning my Ph.D., Dr. Palma was able to get his fist machine, an eye tracker. We slowly grew. One experiment that included 200 subjects generally took three to four months to complete. After a couple years, he was able to get more equipment and create more stations. From there, things continued to accelerate. He now has 17 stations, and an experiment that took us four months now takes only four days.”
Segovia served as the HBL lab administrator during her time at Texas A&M. She trained new students on the equipment and collaborated with several groups.
To research human behavior, subjects’ eye movements, facial expressions, brain activity and several other biometrics are collected while they perform economic tasks. Segovia said that the approach of sending out surveys can bring in good information, but it’s not always 100 percent accurate.
“With a survey, you don’t truly know if an individual is revealing their true preference,” Segovia said. “With our software, we get a huge amount of data. We can get about 600 observations per second just for eye movements, for example.
“We get a chance to see how they feel when they make a healthy decision. We can also tell what they’re looking at, whether it be the labels, calories, nutritional facts or color. It depends on the task, obviously, but we can get some really good data from the questions we ask.”
Segovia can then take that data and begin to develop models that help explain human behavior. While Segovia’s main focus is on behavioral economics, her background in agriculture gives her a unique perspective. The Panamerican School of Agriculture, Zamorano, offers its students an opportunity to learn in the classroom and the field.
“During the first two years, you learn everything related to agriculture,” Segovia said. “They have a philosophy of learning by doing, so you’re doing standard schoolwork, but you’re also working in the field. We learn about the entire supply chain, from preparing the soil for a crop to commercialization of that crop. I learned about food processing, animals, plants – anything related to agriculture.
“The last two years are where you choose a specialization. You still do the general field work, but you’re learning about your chosen area of study. That experience has been incredibly useful. While my work is very focused on the consumer side, I have a very good idea of what’s going on in the agricultural world.”
Segovia is beginning to jump into some collaborative research projects at MU. She is currently working with faculty in hospitality management on a project where they are researching how consumers make food choices in restaurants, and how those choices are affected by social norms. Segovia is also working on a project with local public schools regarding the use of incentives to increase children’s consumption of fruits and vegetables at lunch.
“Things are definitely moving along,” Segovia said. “I love the environment in the Division of Applied Social Sciences. Everyone is really supportive.
“I’m also excited to be working with behavioral, experimental and health economics. It’s a very exciting area to be in.”