Brunna Martins Villar Torino

Studying: MSc in Economics for Development

Find out what brought MSc student Brunna to her field of research and what her St Antony’s College experience has been like on a one-year master’s course.

“We’re using economics…as a tool to improve life in developing countries.”

Who are you and what are you studying?

I am Brunna Martins Villar Torino, and I am from Brazil. I grew up in a small town on the border with Argentina and Paraguay – a three-country border. This gave me a lot of insight into Brazil, but also our neighbouring countries and more Latin American culture as a whole. I think in Brazil you’re very focused on Brazil sometimes, but being born there gave me more insight into other countries.

I moved away from Brazil 10 years ago for school, and I am now doing a Masters in Economics for Development.

Could you explain Development Economics?

You have the field of economics, which is very broad and tries to understand how we interact with each other in monetary and transactional ways. And tries to model those interactions and essentially how society is built. And then within those, there are some of us that really want to understand why poor countries are poor and why rich countries are rich. And the goal of that is to find a way to develop those countries further and improve quality of life – it’s development through economics.

What inspired you to choose the University of Oxford?

I was already living in the UK. I was working as an analyst at a bank. But I was working mostly with Europe and the US – developed countries – and I really wanted to shift into development. So I found this master’s. It’s a nine-month master’s, so it’s really good if you want to get out of the market for a little bit and learn something new and then come back. It also opens up the potential to do a PhD. So it’s very open-ended in that sense in Oxford, and it’s probably the best university in Europe for development economics just because you have so many brilliant professors here and the content and classes are so specialised.

What brought you to St Antony’s?

I didn’t pick a College, I got assigned St Antony’s and I think it was the perfect selection. I’m glad I let you guys choose for me! I believe in many Colleges there is diversity in what people are studying. Say you go to a formal and you talk to someone studying physics and someone studying geography, and then you talk about things that you’d never talk about. But what I love about St Antony’s is that the scope is more focused. People are studying different things, but it’s all connected due to the College’s focus – so it really enriches my experience to talk about these different things. I really love that, because I’m not here for a very long time. I’m so interested in my specific field, so  I love hearing about how other fields connect to mine.

“Just to be able to apply was somewhat of an achievement for me!”

Can you share a bit about your journey to get here? Were there any milestones or achievements?

I was working and I was working in a really, really intense job. So it was quite hard to progress in the application. Especially the statement of purpose where you really have to think and reflect on everything – all your experiences, your achievements, what you want to do next, your interests. So that really took I think a good six months to write that. Just to be able to apply was somewhat of an achievement for me!

And when I got the letter back, I remember it was  March 17th or something, it was a Saturday.  I was having brunch with my boyfriend, I was very uncertain about whether I would get in because it’s a very small cohort and very competitive. So I got the email and we both started crying! That was a really great moment.

Did you leave your job completely to complete your master’s?

I did something kind of unusual. I found another company that was OK with me doing the master’s. So I changed companies in the June, before term started in October. I worked full time for a few months and then I’ve been working part time at that company and doing the master’s full time since.

How do you balance doing a full-time master’s and part-time work?

It’s been challenging, but it helps a lot when you have a very good team that is very flexible and understanding and supportive of the master’s itself. So that’s helped a lot. Communication is key so I’ve always told them when I have deadlines, exams and essays. And it helps that the job is in a similar field. So even when I’m working, I’m applying things that I’ve learned in class. My company is also very flexible, so because I’m studying for exams right now I am working less and have flexible hours. So the two complement each other very well.

What’s your field of research about?

For context, I’ve been working in rates trading for three years now. That means trading government bonds in Europe and the US. Specifically, I forecast inflation and then trade around those expectations. Very macroeconomic stuff. Because of this, I know a lot about how European government bonds react to macroeconomic indicators. I started noticing that a lot of countries in Latin America, including Brazil, had reacted to inflation and to COVID in better ways from a policy perspective – but their government bond yields were still quite a lot higher than everywhere in Europe and the US. If you think about Italy, a government bond is trading at maximum 3 to 4%. In Brazil, it’s been consistently at 10 to 11%. That’s a very big difference. That’s the first thing that made me think, ‘you know, this is interesting. Let me study why this is happening.’ And that was before I even decided to apply for a master’s. I applied knowing more or less what I wanted to research.

When I was paired with my supervisor, who’s a macroeconomics professor, we studied all the existing literature to try and pinpoint where this difference is coming from. We found that Brazil has very low domestic savings – it’s hard to save because income is low, and income is low because it’s hard to save. You’re stuck in a vicious cycle. However, Brazil has access to financial markets, so could supplement the low domestic savings with foreign savings – but why isn’t that happening? When you have interest rates at that level, you should really attract foreign capital. So the question of why they’re not is the research question of my thesis.

The bottom line is that it is a big problem for Brazil because interest rates are an important factor in how fast your country is going to grow and how many opportunities normal people will have – in things like business and owning a house and quality of life.

What excites you most about your research?

I am naturally just very interested in Latin America, and I think there are so many opportunities that are untapped in the region, the people, the culture, the resources. I would love to bring more attention to that region. But then more broadly, I love that we’re using economics to not just explain things in the developed world, but we’re trying to use it as a tool to improve life in in developing countries. I think it’s being able to use something, a skill or knowledge in a field for the benefit of all countries that really need it.

“I really love that we have all these research centres and a lot of really brilliant people.”

How would you say that your experience at St Antony’s has shaped your academic growth or personal growth?

It has made me question a lot of a lot of things and get to know different things about the world. We’re all trapped in our own bubble sometimes. I obviously focus on Latin America and Brazil a lot, but it’s been really interesting getting to know about issues in the Middle East, issues in Asia, in Africa. I really love that we have all these research centres and a lot of really brilliant people that come for those research centres from all around the world. That has been really enriching. I don’t think I would have gotten that elsewhere.

Because of my background, I see the Brazilian interest rate from a financial perspective, but sitting down with people that see it from a sociological or institutional or political  perspective gives me a very more complete picture. At the Latin American Centre we had a lecture from a constitutional professor from Brazil, and he basically explained the same problem that I was studying, but from a law perspective. He explained why it’s so hard to change things and push new laws through the Congress. That was so interesting.

Is there anything particularly memorable about your time at St Antony’s?

One of my absolute favourite experiences was HalloQueen – the biggest Halloween party in Oxford. It’s a huge celebration of drag queens and drag culture and there’s a show and a really competitive costume competition. It’s such a fun time and a great celebration of LGBTQIA+ culture.

Do you do any extracurricular activities through St Antony’s or the University?

I’ve been in the few societies, such as the Oxford Women in Finance. I’ve been their Director of Careers. This involved giving career tips and trying to get more women into finance, the society is interested in creating more opportunities for women in finance. I’ve also been part of the Brazilian Society and organised their Carnival party as well. That was another great time! And there’s something called Coffee and Science with Brazilian Studies – every month we invite a new researcher to talk to us about whatever they’re researching. It can be about Brazil or a Brazilian researcher that is doing something completely different, so we get a very diverse set of themes.

“You’re going to meet a lot of…people that are going to give you new perspectives on everything.”

What advice would you give to a student starting at St Antony’s?

Take your time in the first few weeks to really understand the structure of your course and what kind of things will help you along the way – especially if you’re on a one-year master’s like I was. Really try to get involved in as many things as possible.

You’re going to meet a lot of really interesting people that are going to give you new perspectives on everything. So don’t start writing the dissertation before you talk to a lot of people! Use the networking opportunities and resources and meet as many people as you can. And ask them about their research and theses, because it’s bound to be interesting!

Attend all the college events as well – we had the President of Colombia give a lecture. There are so many opportunities for growth and for learning