Susan Athey awarded CME Group-MSRI Prize for innovative work in tech economics

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Graduate School of Business (GSB) professor Susan Athey Ph.D. ’95 received the 2019 Prize in Innovative Quantitative Applications from the CME Group and Mathematical Science Research Institute (MSRI) on Dec. 11. Athey’s research explores the design of auction-based marketplaces and the economics of digitization across several application areas, including the news media and online advertising.

The CME-MSRI prize “recognizes an individual or group who has contributed and applied original and significant ideas and concepts to quantitative fields such as mathematics, statistics, and computing for the study of market’s behavior and global economics.”

The CME Group, a foreign exchange company, and MSRI founded the prize in 2006 to recognize innovative research in mathematical sciences and global economics. Past recipients include four GSB professors, including recent economics Nobel Laureate Paul Milgrom M.S. ’78 Ph.D. ’79. Seven of the past 13 recipients of the prize have since become Nobel Laureates. 

Athey is the first woman to receive the CME Group-MSRI prize. She was honored for the award at a virtual ceremony on Friday and received $50,000 and a bronze medallion. 

Milgrom, Athey’s Ph.D. adviser, told The Daily it “is rare to encounter a scholar who contributes as broadly and deeply as Susan Athey. Not only has her research pushed the frontiers of economic theory, econometrics, and machine learning, but she has also been a leader in business applications and social activism.” 

Athey’s current research focuses on industrial organization, microeconomic theory and applied econometrics. Athey pursued an undergraduate degree in computer science and mathematics at Duke University and a Ph.D. in economics at the GSB. Athey bridged her dual interests in technology and market behavior while she was the consulting chief economist at Microsoft, she told The Daily. 

She is considered by her peers to be one of the first “tech economists,” pioneering research on markets and technology. Athey attributed her early interest in the field to the exposure to machine learning, artificial intelligence and cloud computing while at Microsoft. 

“My exposure to the search engine at Microsoft was a preview of many issues that were going to be important, both for tech firms and research from a policy perspective, and the idea of a tech economist was someone who might engage in all of these issues,” she said. 

After six years at Microsoft, Athey said that she was eager to delve into the issues and important questions she’d been exposed to in the private sector. She now focuses primarily on her research, but said that she remains attuned to “the private sector, partly because that’s where a lot of new technologies are introduced and working with the private sector helps me see what’s going to be important.”

She continues to consult for several corporations, including Expedia and Turo, and advises government and non-profit organizations, like the British Columbia Ministry of Forests and Innovations for Poverty Action. Athey is also the associate director of the Stanford Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence. In 2019, Athey became the founding director of the Golub Capital Social Impact Lab to work with social impact firms. 

She said that partnering with social impact firms is mutually beneficial: There are less challenges to research in terms of concerns about proprietary data and confidentiality, and the firms also provide her the opportunity to connect students to firms that can’t afford to hire as many engineers but are developing important digital solutions. 

Athey said that working with students from teaching to research was one of the most rewarding aspects of being part of the Stanford community. With the creation of the Golub Capital Social Impact Lab, she said she was excited to easily connect students to opportunities to develop technical skills in a meaningful, impact-driven context. 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Athey said she missed the conversations with students before and after classes that helped her develop research ideas and form relationships with them. She also said that were unexpected upsides to the situation. 

“We’ve started several projects that were really enabled by the COVID-19 pandemic because there were unique opportunities to improve educational services or training services,” she said. 

Fifth-year computational and mathematical engineering Ph.D. candidate Allison Koenecke, who collaborated with Athey on a COVID-19 research project, praised Athey’s dedication.

“Susan and I spent many nights (virtually) side by side, writing code at 4 a.m.,” Koenecke wrote in an email to The Daily. “This sort of passion is especially valuable in Susan, not least because she solves tough technical problems, but more so because she’s working on solutions that positively impact real people in the world, on topics ranging from vaccines to peer-to-peer lending systems.” 

Koenecke added that she is grateful that Athey “is also a fierce advocate and mentor for women in the field.” 

Athey said she was honored to receive the award, especially considering the past recipients. She said that she’s frequently made decisions that went against conventional wisdom, including taking time away from research to work in the private sector. 

“These prizes are really nice, because they remind me that I should keep listening to my instincts,” she said. “And also that when you violate expectations, but then you succeed in your ambitions, that’s important as a role model as well.”

Jann Spiess, an assistant professor at the GSB and faculty affiliate at the Golub Capital Social Impact Lab said that the recognition “does not only honor Susan’s top-notch theoretical contributions across fields,” but also “puts the emphasis on the practical impact of her work and her passion to leverage technology for social impact.”

“It is not just her research and outreach that makes Susan so influential, she has also been training, mentoring and inspiring a new generation of interdisciplinary researchers here at Stanford,” Spiess wrote.

Yuan Yuan, a predoctoral research fellow at the Golub Capital Social Impact Lab, told The Daily, “Her high standards for research drive us to learn more and excel. At the same time, she is so accessible to her students and is willing to help us along the way.”

Postdoctoral researcher Erik Sverdrup added that Athey emphasizes creative problem-solving. 

“Working in Susan’s lab involves a lot of interdisciplinary work, ranging from theoretical economics to computer science and statistics,” he wrote. “If there is a problem where existing tools are lacking, she develops new ones.”

Fifth-year economics Ph.D. candidate Karthik Rajkumar M.S. ’15 M.A. ’18 wrote that it’s rewarding to have Athey as his dissertation adviser, citing her open-minded and interdisciplinary approach, and generosity. 

“Most academics would be glad to have made a sizable impact on one field, while Susan has not only done that in multiple fields, but has created fields of her own,” Rajkumar wrote.

Contact Kaushikee Nayudu at knayudu ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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