Technically, Dustin White, Ph.D., teaches and researches in the field of economics. However, the boundaries of his work go far beyond rigid definitions.
“I’m a field-less person,” he admitted. “I have hummingbird brain, flitting wherever I find interesting things to work on.”
Dr. White was hired by the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO) to teach economics, but also to develop a data science program for the College of Business Administration. His projects have ranged from sports economic research — how people and franchises behave during major sporting events — to pay and salary patterns of people who work from home.
He also performs pedagogy research focused on how to better teach and motivate students. He has studied “economic loss of aversion,” the theory behind why it hurts more to lose $100 than it feels good to get $100, or why students work harder to avoid losing points than they will to gain points.
In a way, his broad work in economics is surprising.
Dr. White comes from a family of physicians, and he easily could have become one. However, during his undergraduate degree, he took an economic principles course, and it hit him hard.
“The class was about how people behave, and I have always been fascinated by that,” he said.
He did well in the class, and he received a letter saying he should consider economics as a degree. So, he considered it, and when Washington State University offered him funding to earn a doctorate he decided to switch from medicine to economics.
“I had to take remedial classes in math, but they were flexible,” he said. “The whole thing was a total discovery.”
He hasn’t regretted his decision.
“I have a flexible life,” he explained. “I get to ask questions about what I care about. Yes, it’s economics, but it can go beyond that.”
The resulting academic agility and creativity in his career is one of the things that made Dr. White a great candidate to work with the National Strategic Research Institute (NSRI) at the University of Nebraska, the University Affiliated Research Center (UARC) of U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM).
Through NSRI, Dr. White and his colleagues have worked with two different STRATCOM teams, one to improve efficiencies in an equipment and resources database and the other to organize personnel and anticipate problems proactively using data patterns.
One of his colleagues, Dr. Ben Smith, said Dr. White is especially well-equipped to take on the unique data challenges posed by STRATCOM.
“This particular project required that he learn a framework he had not used in the past,” Dr. Smith said. “Some programmers tend to try to fit the problem to the tool they already know. Dusty is good about learning a new tool if it better fits the problem.”
An important aspect of his work, according to Dr. White, is the analysis and integrity of data.
“It’s so important to have data we trust and to understand data before we use it to make decisions.” — Dr. Dustin White, professor of economics at the University of Nebraska at Omaha
He also teaches his students how to use data to tell a story. They even study acting improv, because so much of successfully using data is persuading audiences it can be trusted.
“You have to be careful,” he said, “because you can convince people of things and change their beliefs, but you can do a lot of good.”
Dr. White found it satisfying to work with STRATCOM, because economics professors like him rarely have the opportunity to work in the real world, let alone the military world.
“I like to be able to talk about these applications in my classes, and that aligns with my goal to help students get real-world experience,” he said.
The data-crunching tools themselves are making a profound impact on U.S. military operations, with many agencies unable to conduct the needed work internally.
“We said we could deliver literally whatever helps them,” he said. “It will do what they want it to do. That is exciting.”
He stressed how important infrastructure work is to building exceptional defenses.
“We don’t create tech that wins wars,” he said.
“But we are helping ensure everyone is taken care of and no problem goes unnoticed. These things really matter — taking care of the people who make up our military.” — Dr. Dustin White, professor of economics at the University of Nebraska at Omaha
Ultimately, Dr. White wants the world to know how valuable unusual partnerships can be, like that between STRATCOM and its UARC.
“If you think about academics and military people, you tend not to put them in the same room,” he said. “But we learn from each other and are all better for it. It’s unlikely these things would happen organically without this unique partnership.”
About the National Strategic Research Institute
Through the National Strategic Research Institute at the University of Nebraska leading scientists deliver innovative national security research, technology, product and strategy development, training and exercises, and subject matter expertise to the Department of Defense and other federal agencies. One of only 14 DOD-designated University Affiliated Research Centers in the country, NSRI is sponsored by U.S. Strategic Command and works to ensure the United States’ safety and preparedness against increasingly sophisticated threats. Read about our mission.