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New in Groningen: Stephanie Rizio and Ahmed Skali

Date:14 September 2022
Assistant professors Stephanie Rizio and Ahmed Skali (Photo: Reyer Boxem)
Assistant professors Stephanie Rizio and Ahmed Skali (Photo: Reyer Boxem)

In the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, assistant professors Stephanie Rizio and Ahmed Skali decided to make a change. They moved their family from Australia to Groningen and continued their research at FEB.

 Moving during the pandemic must have been quite challenging?

Skali: "Moving from Australia to the Netherlands during the pandemic (in January 2021) was quite an experience. It was very eerie to travel through three completely empty airports and to arrive in a country in lockdown. As former Melbourne residents, we were already very experienced in the “art” of living in lockdown, but even though such measures are sometimes necessary, they are never pleasant. Of course, one never wishes for a pandemic, but a practical silver lining was the lack of congestion: no airport queues, no crowds, and not many issues finding an apartment when we got here, which is clearly unusual in Groningen. On the practical side, we really cannot overstate how much help we got from the University’s International Service Desk (ISD). They took care of all visa matters and more, which kept our cognitive load manageable - we are very grateful for that. And once we got here, our new colleagues took the time to meet us, some online and some in person, and we are very grateful for that too.”

Why did you choose Groningen?

Rizio "From a personal perspective, as an Italian-Australian growing up listening to many stories of my grandfather’s work experiences in several cities throughout Europe (France, Belgium and Switzerland), I was always fascinated by how a continent as large as the country I grew up in, could be so diverse and highly integrated. Once I saw Europe for myself, having had the opportunity to travel to several parts of the continent, I knew that I would very much like to experience living here at some point in my life. For an early career researcher with a background in economic psychology, the timing was just right: here was an opportunity to join an excellent marketing department in the heart of a country I very much enjoyed travelling to. After having learnt more about FEB, I was impressed by the excellent research spanning across FEB but also its support of inter-disciplinary work, which very much suited my background in economics and psychology. It goes without saying that when the opportunity arose for my family and I to move to Groningen, there wasn’t much to contemplate.”

Skali: “On paper, it is clear that much brilliant research is being done throughout FEB, across many areas. Thus, without knowing anything else, the opportunity to join such a vibrant research community was already very exciting. Then, talking to my now-colleagues before moving here, I became convinced that FEB would be a great intellectual home, which has absolutely been the case so far. The people here make for a stimulating, supportive, and collaborative atmosphere, and I am grateful to have them as colleagues. On the organizational side, FEB’s approach to research, with its embrace and support of inter-disciplinary work, also fit me very well. Add to that my previous interest in moving to the Netherlands, an open society where people (including one of my siblings) lead quite happy lives, and the decision to move here really was not a difficult one.”

Could you tell us about your career so far?

Rizio: “Prior to starting my PhD, I had worked as an economist in the Australian public service. This made me aware of the practical difficulties of policymaking and the constraints that policy makers face in terms of how people understand messages about public policy. I guess it comes as no great surprise that I sought to undertake a PhD in social psychology which looked at how lay beliefs about the economy can help us understand how people come to view issues regarding the environment. I have been fortunate to work in research and teaching roles throughout my PhD, that not only has been extremely rewarding, but has also been a great help in streamlining my transition from PhD to Assistant Professor.”

Skali: “I received a PhD from Monash University in Australia in 2015. After that, I worked at several Australian universities in research and teaching roles, so I have quite literally been a student of economics my whole adult life. It has been a very enriching journey, over the course of which I’ve been fortunate enough to live in France, Spain, the US and Australia. Each of these places is unique, and each also quite different from Morocco, where I was born and raised. So I feel right at home in the Global Economics and Management (GEM) department, with its focus on international economics and international business.”

Can you tell us what your research is about?

Rizio: “My research is in the field of economic psychology, with a particular interest in social cognition. Therefore, I tend to gravitate towards research that involves understanding the psychosocial underpinnings of broader macro-level phenomena, including those involving public policy communication, but also on projects in social marketing and environmental psychology that target consumer sustainability behaviours. In a recent paper, I look at the relationship between the timing of government communication about the pandemic and the propensity to engage with QAnon conspiracy theories, using Google search data. With colleagues in my department, I am currently working on investigating the effectiveness of various government interventions for curbing plastic use, with an international dataset of supermarket purchase behaviors. More generally, I am passionate about how and why people come to view social and economic issues in a certain way and how this shapes institutions, our behaviour, and its implications.” 

Skali: “My research is in the field of political economy, focusing on the interplay of culture, institutions, and human behaviour. For example, in a recent paper, my co-authors and I studied the effect of crises on trust in government, using neutral Switzerland during the two world wars as a quasi-experiment. In ongoing research, my co-authors and I look at the effect of war on trust between Christians and Muslims in Indonesia. More generally, I try to learn something about how economies and societies are organized, why that is the case, and where that leads us.”

How about the societal relevance of your research?

Rizio: “My early work experiences in the public service have taught me to consider the broader societal relevance of an issue, which has influenced how I see problems, and which areas I am interested in, including sustainability, health, and institutional problems. Also, as a social scientist I feel that it is our duty to ensure that we help educate and train the next generation of leaders and thinkers about the importance of evidence and scientific rigour in public discourse and policy development, especially on these issues.”

Skali: “As an empirical social scientist, I try to always keep societal relevance at the top of my mind. I very much hope to inform the public and policy-makers of what works and what doesn’t. We live in an era where our social and political institutions are under various threats, especially in the wake of the pandemic, and where often times, public discussions of societal issues are not always well-informed by analytical rigour, so bringing evidence to the fore is very important.”

What can we expect from you in the future?

Rizio: “I am currently working on a paper investigating the psychological determinants of vaccine hesitancy and uptake, which also considers the effect of COVID pandemic fatigue and the broader anti-vaccination backlash. More generally, I look forward to submitting my PhD thesis and expanding my thesis research into social marketing, not only on issues pertaining to the environment, but also towards public health, and the circular economy.”

Skali: “At the moment, I am working on the determinants of combat motivation in Nazi Germany’s armies. At the risk of sounding alarmist, we need to understand what motivates people to participate in large-scale social movements which entail putting their own lives at risk, especially in the pursuit of objectively abhorrent ideas. Fascism may seem like ancient history to most residents of liberal democracies, but recent events show that democracy is not as secure as we previously thought.”