Graphic that includes two head shots one Kent Messer and one Leah H. Palm-Forster
Kent Messer (left) passes the Center for Experimental and Applied Economics leadership baton to his colleague and research collaborator Leah H. Palm-Forster.

Center for Experimental and Applied Economics embraces new leadership

July 17, 2023 Written by Kate Zincone | Photos by Monica Moriak and courtesy of Leah Palm-Forster

Leah H. Palm-Forster takes over director responsibilities from founder Kent Messer

Founded in 2007, the Center for Experimental and Applied Economics (CEAE) is a critical contributor to the University of Delaware’s thriving research reputation. Housed in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources (CANR), the center enables faculty and students to conduct state-of-the-art research examining human behavior, most often through an agricultural or environmental lens. Research topics cover everything from consumer acceptance of recycled water in agriculture to decisions of smallholder farmers in Kenya. 

CEAE also supports research from the Center for Behavioral and Experimental Agri-Environmental Research, which has been twice named a Center of Excellence by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.


Kent Messer showcases some of the center’s research to attendees of 2022 Ag Day.

As CEAE’s founder and outgoing director, Kent Messer worked alongside many

individuals to whom he credits the center’s longevity. Faculty, staff, undergraduate and graduate students have made CEAE a hub for economists to apply experimental approaches, foster new ideas and collaborate with one another. 

“It wouldn’t have happened without the contributions of lots of talented students and staff,” Messer explained. “We’ve had tremendous support from the Department of Applied Economics and Statistics and the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources to help bring our vision into a reality.” 

CEAE initially adopted a nomadic lifestyle, with its researchers borrowing spare classrooms and relocating when their limited space, time and resources were up. 

After a period of daily lab construction and deconstruction, CEAE earned a place of its own in Townsend Hall. Messer and his team were one step closer to achieving the interdisciplinary reach he hoped to extend across campus to students in all colleges.

In 2014, UD leadership cut the ribbon on a new location in Townsend Hall for the Center for Experimental and Applied Economics.

“As director, my goal was to foster a community — a diverse and inclusive community —– that would be engaged in this research,” Messer reflected. 

In 2012, the CEAE made what Messer describes as a transformative move, relocating to another space in Townsend Hall with greater capacity and flexibility.

“Kent has really built it up to be a world-leading center in terms of doing experimental and behavioral economics in the space of agriculture and environmental issues,” explained Martin Heintzelman, chair and professor in the Department of Applied Economics and Statistics. “We’re all very grateful for all the work that he’s done.”

After 16 years, Messer is ready to take a step back, passing the director’s torch to his colleague, mentee and current associate director Leah H. Palm-Forster

“Leah is a fantastic leader. The center is very lucky to have her take on this role and I’m very happy about it, too,” Messer boasted. “She is a world-renowned scholar so she brings real expertise.” 

Leah Palm-Forster stands with a research vehicle stocked with the packets of corn seed used in their economic experiments on how seed fraud impacts Kenyan farmers.

Palm-Forster joined UD in 2015 and was quick to lead research and offer aid to junior researchers. She transitioned to associate director in 2018, supporting affiliated researchers while helping the lab and its infrastructure operate efficiently.  

“I like the idea of creating opportunities for people that want to be engaged and then doing our best to lift everyone’s research up through the resources that we’re lucky to be able to have and maintain,” Palm-Forster explained. 

The center goes beyond the research of the director and associate director and is composed of researchers that rely on the CEAE for the support, space, technology and training it provides. 

“As director, I am now moving into this role where I’m thinking about long-term strategic planning of how we can take on initiatives to increase our capacity to support research,” Palm-Forster specified. “Kent was mentoring me, in a sense, to take on this role, so I am really excited that this is now happening.”

As the new leader of a team consisting of staff members, an active research group and post-doctoral scholars, Palm-Forster hopes to continue doing right by the people that keep the CEAE research engine humming. 

“I’m honored and tremendously excited to be taking on this role because of the community that already exists and that we are continuing to reinforce,” Palm-Forster explained. 

“This is a bittersweet moment for the department,” reflected Heintzelman, who is among the many other researchers simultaneously sad to see Messer step down and excited for the new ideas Palm-Forster will bring. 

“Leah will help expand the reach of the center to be more inclusive, bringing in even more interdisciplinary work and people from across the college and the university,” Heintzelman explained. 

“It’s really cool to pass that torch on to really capable leaders and see what they do with it,” Messer recalled. “That’s where the moment is now and great things await!”

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