Office of Undergraduate Research

Christian Ikeokwu '21

OUR Featured Researcher: Christian Ikeokwu '21

Portrait of Christian Ikeokwu.
Photo credit: Tanya Rosen-Jones

Christian Ikeokwu (he/him) is a Computer Science and Mathematics major conducting mentored research under Professors Sam Taggart and Adam Eck. His project is titled “The Mathematics of Mutual Aid: Robust Welfare Guarantees for Decentralized Financial Organizations". 

Please describe your project: 

Mutual aid groups often serve as informal financial organizations that don’t rely on any central authority or legal framework to resolve disputes. Rotating savings and credit associations (roscas) are informal financial organizations common in settings where communities have reduced access to formal financial institutions. In a rosca, a fixed group of participants regularly contribute small sums of money to a pool. This pool is then allocated periodically typically using lotteries or auction mechanisms. Roscas are empirically well-studied in the development
economics literature. Due to their dynamic nature, however, roscas have proven challenging to examine theoretically. Theoretical analyses within economics have made strong assumptions about features such as the number or homogeneity of participants, the information they possess, their value for saving across time, or the number of rounds. This work presents an algorithmic study of roscas. We use techniques from the price of anarchy we give a comprehensive theoretical study of the various Rosca formats. We show that the most common rosca formats have social welfare within a constant factor of the best possible. This evidence further rationalizes these organizations’ prevalence as a vehicle for mutual aid.

Why is your research important? 

Roscas are used in over 85 countries and by almost a billion people worldwide They are usually used in low-and-middle income nations, by the economically vulnerable and in immigrant/refugee communities. My research helps us understand why they are so widespread and demonstrates that mutual aid groups are a viable alternative to centralized safety nets.

What does the process of doing your research look like?

My research is mathematical and theoretical in nature. I first spend my time playing around with examples of the things I’m studying and hope to notice a pattern. If I notice a pattern, I then attempt to think of the underlying reason why this happens. The research process is about discovering this reason and prescribing the necessary conditions for our pattern to hold.     

What knowledge has your research contributed to your field? What are your findings so far?

My findings show that a large variety of widely observed mutual aid groups effectively allocate resources to those in need.      

In what ways have you showcased your research?

I’ve presented this work at 2 workshops at international conferences on “Artificial Intelligence (AI) for Social Good” and “Fair AI in Finance”.     

How did you get involved in research? 

I did some research during an internship, But I felt the process of discovering and presenting new knowledge was more stimulating and rewarding to me than other aspects of the job. After that I switched to focusing on research and putting my attention on topics that I care about and are impactful. 

What is your favorite aspect of the research process?

The process of breaking down a problem into bits to make it less overwhelming. The reward you might get from smaller results not only keep you motivated but help you have a clearer picture of the bigger problem. This process of slowly going from utter confusion to clarity is my favorite part of the process.   

How has working with your mentor impacted the development of your research project?

My mentor helps me understand what problems I can tackle with the time and resources I have. They also identify what tools I need to learn and what directions are interesting. They are an integral part of the research especially from a big picture perspective.

How has it impacted you as a researcher?  

I’ve grown a lot, not only have I developed my mathematical ability and toolbox but I now know what it’s like to scope a problem out and turn it into an interesting research project. 

How has the research you’ve conducted contributed to your professional or academic development?   

This research helped me get my first publications and international presentations. Without those things I wouldn’t have been able to get into my top choice grad schools.

What advice would you give to a younger student wanting to get involved in research in your field?

Research is broad they are many unanswered questions and places where you can make impact. Start early, take care of yourself and focus on what matters to you.