Stories of Young Urbanists: Meet Lea Bou Sleiman

07.10.2020, Nayla Saniour

Lea Bou Sleiman is an urban economist, currently pursuing her PhD at Ecole Polytechnique, Paris. She was born and raised in Lebanon and moved to France for her studies. Diving into the world of research, she tackles in her thesis the economic impact of pedestrianizing parts of the Seine river quays. #DISCOVERING A PASSION FOR RESEARCH "I studied economics with a minor in statistical and economic engineering at [Paris II Panthéon-Assas University]( It was during my first research internship at the economics lab of the university when I discovered my love for research. When I had to make a decision about my next degree, the choices were limited: either finance, or statistical engineering, or marketing, and I was attracted to none of these options. My professors advised me that a master’s in research suited my interests. So I chose a two-year research program in economics at the [École Polytechnique]( in Paris. My love for research was consolidated. This led me to pursue a PhD in urban economics." {{Pic1: Photo by Monica Abarca on [Unsplash](}} #TAKING THE LEAP INTO URBANISM "At the end of my first master’s year, I did an internship in research at the [Ministry for the Ecological and Inclusive Transition of France]( (Ministry of Environment). I was assigned an urban project about the closing of certain roads in France to reduce car use and transform the highways into “urban boulevards”: the roads had several lanes and were designed to accommodate cars, bicycles, buses, and pedestrians. This was when I realized I loved everything related to urbanism and urban economics. There was a new policy that was adopted in 2016 in Paris, about closing the quays of the Seine river that cross the city. Today, we reached a point where we realized that, in order to reduce traffic, increasing road capacity was not the way to go: if we increase it, more people will tend to use the roads, and therefore, worsening traffic. But closing roads also have a negative impact on the commuters living in the suburbs. I found this subject fascinating and decided to write my thesis about evaluating the economic impact of pedestrianization of some roads, including the potential traffic displacement and pollution that it can induce at the Peripherique, the highway circling Paris." #WHY DO A PHD? "When I first started thinking about doing a PhD I was very skeptical of this idea.. What if I don’t want a career in academia? What if I am overqualified for private companies? My goal was – and still is – to work for international organizations that evaluate policies, such as the World Bank and the OECD. So I went on the websites of all these organizations and checked the CVs of their employees. Almost everyone has a PhD, especially those in higher positions. This was the decisive factor. But I also chose to do it because I realized it was a personal development project, an enriching experience." {{Pic2: Photo by John Towner on [Unsplash](}} #RESEARCH MEANS FAILING DAILY "My daily aim is to understand something new about my data. I might have nothing new to add in terms of content, but if I understand that something I did does not work, and if I understand why it doesn’t work, it is already a good step. In research, it is impossible to find what you are looking for from the beginning. You can feel like you are wasting your time. But when you present your work to other people, they will ask you about your methodology, what trials you did. This is where you can explain to them how you did and discarded to support the choices you ended up making. When I started my PhD, I was assigned by my university to teach a course which I had taken just a year before. It was a course about macroeconomy, a topic I wasn’t particularly fond of. But I accepted because I used to have good grades, and I thought I understood everything. But when I actually started teaching, I realized there were fundamental things that I actually did not get! It was a challenge. I ended up loving it because I realized that even if you don’t know it all, you can still be a good professor. You can learn a lot from your students by having constructive debates and find the answers together." #NETWORKING AT LABS AND CONFERENCES "Every week in our research lab we have guests who come from various universities around the world. They usually spend the day with us, so we can ask them about their work or get feedback about ours. There are also local conferences where you meet other professors. I already signed up for several of these in other universities in France. Then there are the international conferences where you present your own work to the audience. The one I was supposed to go to this year, the European Meeting of the Urban Economics Association, got postponed to 2021 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.” {{Pic3: Photo by Andreas Selter on [Unsplash](}} #THE CHALLENGE OF BEING (TOO) AUTONOMOUS "Having so much autonomy as a PhD student can be exhausting: no one tells you what to do, how to do it, when to take a break. You have more freedom than a “regular” university student: no courses or homework, no exams at the end of the year. So the big challenge is to set realistic goals. In the beginning, I used to be overly optimistic about it, which was only discouraging. You need to set your methodology and some attainable goals day by day, but also schedule in your rest time. The hardest part was learning how to disconnect from work: I am so absorbed and excited about my thesis that I can’t stop thinking about it. At one point, I spoke so much about it that my sister and boyfriend would ask me to stop! (laughs). I had to set limits between work and personal life." #A LEBANESE IN PARIS "I was always attracted to Paris for several reasons: I am a francophone (speaking French as a first language), education in France is very low-cost, and my brother lived in Paris at the time I was choosing my university. I thought I would be going only for the bachelor, but I ended up doing my masters and my PhD there as well. Since I wanted to work in politics and urban policies, and as a non-national resident, studying here was the only way to access that field. I get asked why my thesis is on the topic of Paris’ transportation, which serves a foreign country rather than my own. But I could never do the same kind of research in my country because I would not have access to so much data, something Lebanon is sorely lacking. But in the end, the objective of my study is to extract conclusions that you can apply to other cities with similar scenarios."