From classical music to the economic consequences of forest fires

Ranking second in her class at the Graduate School of Climate Sciences, Sarah Meier has been awarded a 2020 Oeschger Young Scientist’s Prize for her achievements. For her master’s degree she majored in economics.

Porträt von Sarah Meiier

Careers like these are rare. Sarah Meier initially studied music and earned a master’s degree in classical trumpet. Afterwards, she realized that although she was enthusiastic about making music, she couldn’t imagine working as a music teacher for very long. “That’s when I started looking for back-up plans,” she says in her straightforward way.

A friend got her interested in economics. No sooner said than done; the trumpeter completed her second bachelor’s – this time in economics at the University of Bern. She also attended lectures on environmental economics, which sparked her interest in the climate master’s programme. Besides the content of this programme, there was something else that appealed to her: “I was attracted to the international flair, which I knew well from music.” But her experience of business studies, on the other hand, had been quite different: “Everyone there was the same as me – I missed the diversity.”

For this master’s degree, Sarah Meier cultivated an intensive exchange with people from all over the world – and she also chose a cosmopolitan topic for her final thesis. She investigated how natural disasters in the USA affect the religious affiliation of their victims. “At first glance, this may seem far-fetched,” she says, “but on closer inspection, you realize that natural disasters and religion have always had a lot to do with each other.”

Changing role of churches

The young climate economist worked with data science methods and analyzed climatological data as well as data from church registers. The conclusion: although one might assume that people who are suffering would seek comfort in a church, the reality was different. Sarah Meier was able to show that in the year following a devastating hurricane, the proportion of church members does not increase, but rather decreases. Why? “To answer this question, we’re moving into the realm of hypotheses,” she points out. For example, it’s possible that the state has taken on aid work that churches were traditionally responsible for.

Sarah Meier continues to work in academia. As an economist she is currently writing a doctoral thesis on “the quantitative assessment of the economic impact of forest fires in Europe”. The study is part of a European project entitled, “Training a new generation of wildfire scientists”. Actually, the researcher from the rural Swiss region of Entlebuch now works at the University of Birmingham. But due to the restrictions of the pandemic, she has been unable to move to England.

By the way: Sarah Meier has remained true to her old love. In addition to being excited about economic issues, her passion for classical trumpet keeps her playing in symphony orchestras. These two equally important areas of her life complement each other perfectly: “The ability to concentrate that I’ve acquired as a musician also benefits me in research. I find it very enriching to be able to immerse myself in both worlds and I am convinced that this helps me manage a lot of things.”

(February 2021)