IDG Student Profile: Deepak Lamba-Nieves

In the fourth IDG student profile, we meet fifth-year PhD student Deepak Lamba-Nieves as he reflects on his time at DUSP, his plans for the future and what it means to study international development within a city planning context. 


1. What were you doing before you came to DUSP?

From 2002 to 2008, I was the Research Director at the Center for the New Economy, Puerto Rico's first (and still only) non-profit, non-partisan think tank, which focuses on building a more equitable and progressive society by thinking about the economy in a comprehensive way to transform the policy landscape. I am still affiliated as a non-resident senior scholar and continue to collaborate on projects there, including a venture with Columbia University focused on actionable economic development efforts. I was recruited to the Center while I was completing my Master's in CIty Planning (concentration in Regional Planning and Economic Development) at UC Berkeley, where my research concentrated on Puerto Rico's high technology sector and economic development institutions. 


2. Why did you choose to come to DUSP?

It was a hard decision to make since I had the option of returning to Berkeley or starting anew in Cambridge. What convinced me was the idea of building a new intellectual community in a place that had an amazing tradition of studying international development from a perspective that was critical of markets and the market dynamic and that considered the state a key actor in development pursuits. I was drawn by the work of serious intellectuals like Diane Davis, Judith Tendler, and the late Alice Amsden. They're women in a field that hasn't been necessarily welcoming to female intellectuals and their ideas resonated with the projects that I wanted to undertake as a doctoral student. 


3. What is your current work and/or research? 

My current research began when I picked up Diane Davis's book "Discipline and Development," which argues that in regions like East Asia and Latin America, in some countries the middle classes have played an important role in shaping the policy and institutional spheres that discipline development trajectories. I wanted to figure out whether this story played itself out in the Caribbean. What I started to understand was the fact that diasporas in the Caribbean have played that role of helping shape state development programs and practices. I was drawn to look at the role of developmentally-engaged diasporas, so I looked for concrete examples of groups, collectives or institutions that were helping achieve developmental outcomes transnationally. I stumbled on the hometown associations. For over four years, since I arrived at MIT, I've been conducting qualitative and ethnographic fieldwork on the transnational practices of Dominican hometown associations to better understand the messy politics of development that ensue when transnational actors engage in development projects across borders. 


4. How do you draw on resources at DUSP to support your work and/or research?

A key partner in my research has been the Community Innovators Lab (CoLab) since they have provided both intellectual and financial support. Another important resource are the people at DUSP, not just the faculty, which is obvious, but the students, as well. The ability to rely on committed, smart and engaged peers is an incredible asset for the kind of work that I do. Also, the support staff here at DUSP provides the back-end support, from grant administration to managing receipts, and they have been amazingly supportive of me and other students who carry out fieldwork in different parts of the world. 


5. What resources, working groups or other affiliations outside of DUSP do you draw on to support your work and/or research?

I've been working closely with Professor Peggy Levitt (Professor of Sociology at Wellesley College and Co-Director of the Transnational Studies Initiative (TSI) at Harvard) since my arrival at DUSP. TSI has been a wonderful space for building a network of like-minded scholars and a very safe space to explore new angles and learn from colleagues who engage in research topics that are of interest to me. I've also relied on the expertise and knowledge of professors outside of DUSP, like Professor Rick Locke at Sloan and the Political Science department, and Professor Mary Waters at Harvard. My work has been nurtured not just by the wonderful assets I can draw from at DUSP but also from a broader universe of scholars that are either affiliated to DUSP in some way or in the larger Cambridge region. 


6. What is unique about learning international development in an urban planning department?

Each planning department has its take on what "planning" means, and here at DUSP there is an emphasis on understanding how institutions matter, on critically interrogating what "development" means, and on developing an analytical tool-kit for thinking about the different aspects of what development planners do. At MIT it's about identifying development puzzles, and each puzzle is both contextually-driven and structurally-bounded. Being able to study how development is situated in specific places but at the same time is shaped by larger structural phenomena is something that a great planning school like DUSP can offer students of international development.  


7. Where would you like to be after DUSP?

DUSP prepares PhD students for multiple career paths. As someone who had experience in the professional world and who has committed to advancing new ideas on how to engage in development practice, I see myself as a committed academic who has a foot in the classroom and another foot in relevant projects to create critical economic development opportunities. At DUSP, you're groomed to be able to undertake those two journeys if you so desire. I definitely see myself (hopefully) as a tenured professor who is connected to both public and NGO-driven initiatives in the Caribbean region.


To visit Deepak's website to learn more about him and his work, click here. 


To read the profile of current MCP student Weixuan Li, click here.

To read the profile of current MCP student Sarah Dimson, click here.

To read the profile of alumna MCP student Julia Tierney, click here.