New Summer, New Goals

One year ago I dipped the front wheel of my Trek 520 in the Atlantic Ocean, 40 days and nearly 4,000 miles after dipping its rear wheel in the Pacific, marking the end of a physical and personal journey that was perspective changing, to say the least. I doubt I’ll have the chance again in the near future to embark on quite the same kind of journey, and I follow with envy the cyclists making their ways across the US this summer.


ICYMI: a Snapchat video compilation of last summer’s trip

Some use New Year’s as a personal reset point, a time to reexamine goals and make new ones for the future. Starting ten years ago when I began swimming competitively, eating healthily, and subsequently lost more than 40 pounds, I realized the summer was better suited to be my reset point. Many of my fondest experiences – competing at Long Course Nationals, serving with OCBP, traveling through Europe, and of course last year’s bicycle tour – occurred during the summer. As I enter my 19th year of schooling this fall, the time between semesters remains a luxury with flexibility and opportunity for unstructured activity not possible otherwise. So, what is the big adventure this summer?

The first portion of this summer was spent studying for Qualifying Exams: three three-hour long exams encompassing the entirety of the material covered in the first year of the economics graduate program. Although one gets three attempts to pass before getting kicked out of the program, passing enables one to focus on research (why I’m in grad school) and less on the nuances of dated economic models that have minimal applicability to my dissertation. Hence, the incentives to pass on round one are strong, and I spent most of June in the books. My cohort took Quals at the end of June, and we found out last week the results. I’m thankful to report that I passed, though I’m skeptical and am still awaiting the “We regret to inform you that there’s been a mistake” email.

With Quals in the rearview, I have three additional goals for this summer:

  1. Complete a summer research project
  2. Progress towards completing an Ironman
  3. Better define my service goals

Goal #1: This summer I am working with a UCSD professor and another at CMU (who is a UCSD alumna) on a research project investigating sleep, habit formation, and behavior change adherence. So far most of my work has entailed examining the existing literature and ideating potential pilot experiments, which we hope to run by the end of the year. While applying to graduate school, I had dreamt (pun intended) about working on a sleep-research project like this one. Excited? Heck yes!

Goal #2: work towards overcoming my largest barriers to finishing an Ironman – the run, mid-race nutrition, and cost. The last leg of the Ironman is a marathon distance run, which by itself is an endurance feat, let alone after swimming 2.4 miles and biking 112. This summer I am spending most of my workout time running and completing “prehab” exercises for injury prevention. I am progressing faster than I had anticipated, and perhaps I’m being optimistic, but I believe by this fall I will able to finish a marathon (though it won’t be pretty). Combined with my swimming and cycling background, this last bout of training should be enough to handle the endurance rigors of the Ironman. The next challenge: fueling during a 140.6-mile race.

Fully rested, our bodies store about 2,000 calories of glycogen in our muscles and liver. The typical Ironman athlete burns 7,000 – 10,000 calories, a deficit of 5,000 – 8,000 calories. Racers overcome the deficit in two ways: eating copious amounts of food and using body fat. More of one implies less dependence on the other. Given my history of GI distress after eating sugary gels during past triathlons, I am experimenting with diets that raise fat oxidation rates and hence lower dependence on consumed energy sources. To avoid opening a can of worms I will not go into detail here, but I promise to write more on this in the future.

If I can handle the physical and nutrition challenges of the Ironman, then Ironman Maryland would seem like the perfect race to attempt my first. The race is held in Cambridge, a short drive away from my childhood home. The course is super flat, and come October, the temperature should be ideal in the mid-60s. Another consideration (though definitely a longshot) is that this year’s race is the last Ironman Maryland in which I may qualify for Kona in the 18-24 age group, which is less competitive than the 25-29 age group. So why not go for it? The registration fees for Ironman Maryland total more than $850. Flights add another $400, and throw in training expenses and gear and we’re over $1,500. For one race. Wow.

So maybe it makes more sense to save my pennies and register for my first Ironman in 2018. Or maybe not. To be determined…

Goal #3: better define my service goals. Time and money are both scarce resources, and if I’m going to contribute either, I want to be sure they 1) enact as much social benefit as possible and 2) help a cause that resonates with me. I’ve discussed with a few of you effective altruism and the importance of considering the value of the enacted change per dollar donated (if you’re unfamiliar, read about effective altruism here). Governments, if providing aid, must consider opportunity cost and seek to maximize social benefit. While I’d suggest considering bang for the buck when giving, private entities, on the other hand, should contribute however they’d please, even if their contributions go to causes that are less than efficient.

Consider this example: few would argue that feeding a starving human provides less social benefit than feeding a starving animal, and hence it is logical for governments to provide aid to victims of famine before giving to animal rights groups. That said, I pass no judgement on the pet owner who, after watching miserable, caged animals on TV set to Sarah McLachlan’s “Angel,” donates to the ASPCA instead of the Red Cross. Similar to why (absent of being asked for my opinion) I would withhold telling someone what they should eat, where they should live, or how they should spend their time, I would not tell someone what causes they should support because our core values may differ.

Maximizing social benefit and giving to causes that resonate with me are often contradictory objectives. Many of the causes I have supported in the past, including drowning prevention, financial literacy, and educational attainment, produced less social benefit than could have been generated if I provided my resources elsewhere. Or at least I believe that to be the case (social benefit can be difficult to measure). I don’t regret supporting those causes, but the economist in me desires to at least in part contribute in the future to causes that produce the best returns. This is a poorly defined goal and one that is unlikely to produce much tangible social impact, hence the meta-goal. More research to follow, but for now, I will write about a charity I believe does more than most in terms of social benefit per dollar invested.

Evidence Action (EA), a charity that emphasizes “evidence-based interventions” in Africa and Asia, works to eliminate parasitic worm infections, particularly among children, through their Deworm the World initiative. The poorest populations living without access to sanitation are most susceptible to these infections, which inhibit sufficient nutrient absorption, hinder brain and other bodily development, reduce school attendance, slow economic development, and perpetuate the cycle of poverty. Although parasitic worms take an enormous toll on their hosts, treatment is ridiculously cheap – 55 cents or less per child when administered in school and only necessary twice per year. The Copenhagen Consensus (read more about it here) regards deworming school children a top-5 global development priority and estimates a 10 to 60-fold return on investment (i.e. each dollar invested produces 10 to 60 dollars in social benefit). GiveWell, a nonprofit that is dedicated to identifying the charities that best maximize social impact per dollar spent, recommends EA as a top-rated charity. Despite being a smaller charity, EA spent more than 96% of its donations on programming in 2015 – compare that with the Boy Scouts of America Trail’s End popcorn fundraiser, which spends 70% on programming and 30% on non-scouting related expenses.


The END Fund, which grants money to Evidence Action’s Deworm the World initiative, put together this video on Schistosomiasis, a parasite that affects many residents of Lake Victoria.

I lied – there’s a fourth goal: to practice writing more, hence this blog. The nature of blogging implies the content will be personal, but more than talking about myself, I aim to write content that spreads useful knowledge backed by research and less by untested (or poorly tested) theories. Especially with regards to training and nutrition, it can be difficult sorting between what’s good and what’s crap. Exhibit A: Netflix documentaries. Some filmmakers, like those from “What the Health,” spread pseudoscience by finding people with MD after their names (I dare not call them professionals) willing to make unsubstantiated claims that aid their own causes (e.g. promoting veganism – read this article for a thorough debunking of “What the Health”).

Anyhow, I appreciate feedback, and if I’ve ever discussed a topic with you that you think would make an interesting blog piece, let me know!

That’s all for now. Until next time,
– ZAG