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John Harvard's Journal

Alvin Roth

September-October 2008

Photograph by Jim Harrison

Alvin Roth

Alvin Roth loves how open economics is to people and ideas from different fields. The Gund professor of economics and business administration began his academic career in a branch of applied mathematics called operations research, but in graduate school at Stanford, a game-theory class refocused his interests. After earning his Ph.D., Roth passed up jobs in math departments for a joint appointment in economics and business at the University of Illinois. He began studying market design, the rules by which buyers and suppliers link up. “One of the things you look for,” he says, “is interesting examples of market failures, because they tell you something about how markets work.” Before arriving at Harvard in 1998, he discovered that identifying failures can sometimes lead to fixing them. Roth not only wrote about the problems plaguing the program for matching New York City public high schools and their students, but also was asked to redesign it. In 2003, when he wrote about kidney-exchange programs—databases plus matching algorithms that bring together two incompatible donor-recipient pairs to make a mutually compatible group of four—he sent the paper to surgeons all over the country, seeking ideas on how to encourage more hospitals to participate in such programs. Frank Delmonico, a professor of surgery at Harvard Medical School, stepped forward to offer his expertise. A year later Roth, Delmonico, and three others founded the New England Program for Kidney Exchange. “Economics is about how the world works, and making it work better,” says Roth. “It seems natural that we ought to fix markets when they’re broken.”