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New Face: Shawn McCoy

This Lee Business School professor says the field of economics is about much more than most people assume.

People  |  Dec 12, 2016  |  By Sara Gorgon

Shawn McCoy, assistant professor of economics, Lee Business School (Josh Hawkins/UNLV Photo Services) 
 

Shawn McCoy is technically new to UNLV, but isn’t really. A Las Vegas native who received his undergraduate degree from UNLV, McCoy is thrilled to return to the university as an assistant professor of economics (with a focus on urban economics, environmental economics, and health economics) and now count his favorite professors as colleagues.

Like many freshmen, McCoy entered UNLV with an open mind. He didn’t really have a plan and was undeclared for a year or two, but he was curious. Ultimately, it was a moneymaking course with Professor Bernie Malamud that piqued his interest in economics and Professor Malamud has proved instrumental in McCoy’s success in completing his degree in the field as well as his return to the university.

Why UNLV?

UNLV and the economics department is a great fit for me in terms of my research interests. The department and the university gave me all the resources I needed to take my career where I wanted to take it. I’m really excited about where this university is, where it’s heading, and I’m excited about the fact that here, people are really motivated about where the university is heading. But really, more than anything, I get along really well with the faculty/staff and the administration and people here are really happy, friendly, and they’re genuinely invested in your succeeding, so it’s really good to be part of that.

What inspired you to get into your field?

I took a class here in the economics department when I was working on my undergraduate degree ('09 BA Economics) and the class was really exciting because it exposed me to a lot of the advances made in this discipline. The class also exposed me to a lot of the notable limitations of the discipline. I became really curious about what could be done to fill the missing gaps and fortify what we know and how we do research.

What’s the biggest misconception about your field?

Well — I think people in my field would generally agree when I say this — I think one of the biggest misconceptions is that all we do is economics. The general thought is that we only care about the economy. Don’t get me wrong, that’s a big part of what we do, but we do so much more. For example, I work in the field of urban and environmental economics. I’m currently working on an interdisciplinary project looking at the impacts of residential housing development on the frequency and severity of wildfire in the West, and, in turn, what is the effect on local economies. So the breadth and the nature of the topics we study is much richer than I think people otherwise anticipate.

Every field has certain misconceptions. With economics you can just look at the titles of the papers and you see all sorts of topics being tackled by people. A lot of what we teach in the core classes here are really core foundational concepts that form essential themes through social science problems. One of the most exciting things about studying economics is that once you get on this track you start seeing how wide the applications are for what we learn and what we teach.

Can you tell us about a proud moment in your life?

In my personal life, without question, my proudest moment was when my son was born.

Professionally, I’m really proud of finishing my Ph.D. ('16 PhD Economics, University of Pittsburgh). One of the best moments of my life was walking across that stage and getting my degree. It meant a whole lot to me. I put everything I had, everything I could possibly give, to achieve that goal.

Do you have one tip that you could share with readers for success?

I’d have to say, “Don’t place a ceiling on what you believe you can achieve.” I can’t speak for everyone in the profession, but I can certainly speak for life in academia, and I can say that there is very little you cannot achieve if you are persistent enough and if you believe there is a solution to the problem you’re trying to resolve.

What would people be surprised to know about you?

Many of my students are surprised to know that I worked in the construction industry before pursuing a career in academia. I worked in new residential construction installing windows through a few years of high school and all of my studies here at UNLV. It gave me great flexibility in terms of pursuing both simultaneously and getting a lot of great perspective when I went to graduate school.

Do you have a hero?

I wouldn’t say that I have one hero, but I would say that collectively my hero is my family. They have invested so much in my success and what I wanted to do — especially my wife, she’s been here since day one supporting me in every way you can imagine.

Do you have any hobbies?

The outdoor scene here is phenomenal and it’s year-round. You can be outside all the time and you’ll often find me biking, hiking, or climbing. Occasionally you might catch me at a cross-fit gym. I love Red Rock Canyon and I’ve probably hiked every trail at Mt. Charleston. There’s a lot to do here within a short driving distance, whether it’s locally here in Las Vegas or traveling to Southern Utah or Southern California.

Tell us about an object in your office that has meaning to you?

(He gets out what looks to be a somewhat standard mechanical pencil.)

I keep this with me everywhere I go. My wife bought this and I took my first test with it here in an intro to physics course and I did well so I thought, “Okay, there must be something to this pencil. Any test I take from here on out, I’m using this pencil.” It stuck with me ever since. I used it to take quite a few of my exams here at UNLV and graduate school and now I carry it with me to every major conference and meeting I attend. It’s sort of a good luck charm and a token of all the work I’ve put in.  

What about UNLV strikes you as different from other places you have worked or where you went to school? 

UNLV is closely connected with our local community here in Las Vegas. I think it's one of the key reasons UNLV students take a lot of pride and ownership over their education. I especially see the importance of this now that I am a faculty member. One reason UNLV has been so successful is that we have done a fabulous job adapting to the needs of our community, which are constantly evolving. UNLV does a great job at making the right changes at the right time.

Tell us about a time in your life when you have been daring?

A few years ago in October, I reconnected with a friend over breakfast. We developed this idea that hiking to Charleston Peak here in Vegas was a good idea and we were really eager to go on this adventure. We were so eager, we ordered two Reubens to go, filled up a backpack with water, and decided to just go for it. We hiked into the night, but didn't bring any flashlights and eventually had to stop. The temperature started to drop and after a few hours it became unbearably cold and then it started to rain.

It got to a point where we realized that we needed shelter and heat, but it was just barren at this point of the trail. We used sticks and rocks to carve out a small roof off the side of the trail just big enough for us to keep some of the rain off and then hunkered down until the sun came up. In the morning we were cold and our clothes were soaked, but we decided we had suffered too much not to finish, so we just kept walking until we got to the peak. We walked about 16 miles from the time we left to the time we returned.