Ugrad Alum Profile: Susan Athey

From the Fall 2009 issue of Threads

Susan Athey

Susan Athey remembers her first foray into economics. In 1988, then a young CS undergrad at Duke, Athey landed a job administering a Unix workstation for an economics professor. Though she was hired for her computing skills, it wasn’t long before Athey’s talent in another field began to shine. “I had always been interested in programming,” recalls Athey, now a Professor of Economics at Harvard University, “but the business aspects of computing were very compelling.” Athey’s first research project was a study of how computers are bought and sold at auctions, and in 1991 she graduated magna cum laude with a triple major in economics, mathematics, and computer science.

Today, only thirty-eight years old, Athey is a world-renowned economist and winner of the 2007 John Bates Clark Medal, a prestigious economics award second only to the Nobel Prize. She is the first female to receive the award. After Duke, Athey attended the Stanford Graduate School of Business and graduated with a PhD in economics and an entourage of two dozen universities eager to hire her. Athey chose MIT, where she made tenure in only six years. She returned to Stanford in 2001 and finally settled at Harvard in 2006.

Athey has been called an “applied theorist” for her work in both extremes of the economics spectrum: applied economics and basic research. She has investigated a wide variety of topics, including diversity and mentoring at organizations, U.S. timber auctions, and secret industry agreements. But her research is united by a single goal—to create tools that enable economists to make and test predictions about how organizations will act in the marketplace. Currently, Athey is studying auctions and online advertising, working to develop auctions that will promote the best quality matches between advertisers and consumers online.

Computing remains an important part of Athey’s work. “I still write my own programs,” she says. “Having expertise in coding, writing efficient programs, and conceptualizing which problems will be easy or difficult to solve are important skills for me.” Last year, Athey took leave from Harvard to work full-time as chief economist at Microsoft, designing online advertising auctions for the company.

“I was working very closely with a lot of computer scientists and engineers. Being fluent in technical discussions as well as economics discussions made me a lot more effective,” she says.

Athey’s list of accomplishments is long, including an honorary doctorate from Duke, but she still remembers the early days of her career. “Duke professors really reached out to me and were excited when I was interested in research,” she says, recalling Professors Owen Astrachan, Donald Rose, and Carla Ellis. “I felt like they saw something in me that I didn’t necessarily see in myself, and they took the initiative to encourage my studies.” Such encouragement certainly paid off, as there is no end in sight for this talented computer-savvy economist.

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