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February 24, 2012

Econ Nobel Laureate reaches out to undergrads

Nobel Laureate James Heckman spoke about his influential work in economics and encouraged undergraduates to pursue their hunches in the inaugural lecture of the Friedman Forum College Speaker Series. The speaker series is the first ever hosted for undergraduates by the Becker Friedman Institute for Research in Economics.

Heckman, the Henry Schultz Distinguished Service Professor in Economics and the College, began by explaining his Nobel Prize-winning work. To account for selection bias in econometric data, Heckman developed a solution known as the “Heckman correction.”

Heckman discussed how selection bias may be inherent in the methods that economists and other researchers use to collect data and make conclusions. Heckman extended the ideas of economic modeling to other realms of research—for example, the study of epigenetics, which looks at external mechanisms that alter gene expression. He said that there are analytical techniques in economics that can be used to model genetic data from multiple species.

Fourth-year economics majors Maryclare Griffin, Kuan Chen, and Jin Soo Han organized and led the discussion in order to show undergraduates that they don’t have to be isolated from the Institute’s research.

“Professor Heckman has some distance. Undergrads fear him for his fame and accomplishments, but we wanted to let young students know that he is open and interested to talk, work, and even research with them,” Han said.

After the lecture, Heckman added that economics should be important even to students with little background in the subject, because of its multipurpose applications.

“We live in a world of scarcity, inevitably a world of scarce resources,” he said. “Understanding the consequences of scarcity and making choices in scarce situations is going to always be worth it.”

First-year Jason Gold said that he enjoyed the lecture despite having little background in economics.

“He was great at simplifying his ideas and research so that any of us could follow along. It was definitely interesting even without an econ background,” Gold said.

Heckman concluded the lecture by telling aspiring researchers not to fear failure, because even the smallest answers can help advance knowledge and give one a sense of internal satisfaction.

“You shouldn’t run the risk of being told you’re an idiot,” Heckman said. “When something grabs you, you should probably follow it.”

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