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MacArthur ‘Genius’ Andrews Lauded for ‘Ridiculous Smarts,’ ‘Ridiculous Amount of Kindness’

The MacArthur Foundation selected Harvard economist Isaiah S. Andrews as one of its 2020 "geniuses."
The MacArthur Foundation selected Harvard economist Isaiah S. Andrews as one of its 2020 "geniuses." By Courtesy of John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation
By Cara J. Chang and Carrie Hsu, Contributing Writers

Without fail, Harvard Economics professor Isaiah S. Andrews rises at 6:45 a.m. every day.

He finishes his workout by 8:15, then grabs breakfast and showers before 9:30. For the rest of the day, Andrews works at his standing desk overlooking downtown Boston, conferencing with colleagues and students. At 8 p.m., he cooks with his husband, Welton E. Blount ’09, then reads or plays video games. He goes to bed by 10:15, and the cycle repeats the next day.

It’s an ordinary routine for an extraordinary man.

Andrews was named a 2020 MacArthur Fellow in October, receiving $625,000 for his work overcoming statistical inference problems in empirical economics. The grant itself gives him flexibility to take more unpaid leave and focus on research, Andrews explained, but it is also a tremendous honor in its own right.

“The ‘genius’ label is setting the bar way too high, but it’s definitely a really, really encouraging and really great vote of enthusiasm for my work,” Andrews said. “It’s also nice just as a recognition or as a sign of enthusiasm for the broader set of issues I work with.”

The MacArthur “Genius Grant” is Andrews’s latest in a long line of prestigious accomplishments. Shortly after becoming a tenured member of the Harvard faculty in 2018, the Economist named him one of the “the decade’s eight best young economists.” Andrews is also an associate editor of several prominent journals, including the American Economic Review and Econometrica; a research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research; and a fellow of the Econometric Society.

“I think the field does recognize him as a superstar by all metrics,” MIT Economics professor Anna Mikusheva, Andrews’s Ph.D. dissertation adviser and long-time collaborator, said.

At the age of 34, Andrews is only starting his career.

‘The Importance of the Underlying Questions’

Econometrics harnesses mathematics and statistical tools to develop and test economic models. Andrews said the subfield centers around complex mathematics but emphasized that his work is not theoretical.

“The value of econometrics derives from the importance of the underlying questions and the contribution to improving the quality of empirical work in economics,” Andrews said. “At the end of the day, I would like to do work that is useful.”

When beginning a project, Andrews starts by zeroing in on a problem empirical researchers face — for example, unreliable data inferences — and then narrowing the scope until he pinpoints a single question he can attempt to answer.

“The broad questions that I am largely interested in are questions of inference, trying to quantify our degree of uncertainty, our degree of confidence,” Andrews said. “How do we learn as much as we can from the data, but then also importantly, how do we quantify the limits of what we’re learning?”

After identifying a research question, Andrews then generates a conjecture. Once he has a set of plausible statements, he works with his co-authors to develop proofs and presents the material so it directly answers the original question. This is the process that he used to quantify and correct statistical uncertainty, most notably in weak identification and publication bias.

In its official announcement of Andrews’s fellowship, the MacArthur Foundation lauded the applicability of his work.

“Andrews demonstrates keen insight into how to address key statistical challenges in econometrics that are directly useful to empirical economists and have relevance to multiple fields,” the website announcement said.

Andrews’s colleagues point to his research process — tying all work back to a central motivating problem — as a cornerstone of his brilliance.

“What he’s done is brought a lot of sophisticated tactical machinery to answer and think about very different, relevant questions,” said Ashesh Rambachan, a Harvard Ph.D. candidate advised by Andrews.

‘My Child Really Was Very Special’

Growing up in the Boston area — first in Wellesley, then in Brookline, Mass. — Andrews was surrounded by conversations about economics. His parents, Cheryl I. Smith and Marcellus Andrews, both hold doctorates in the subject.

Andrews’s father described his son in an email as “brilliant” but not bookish and “a fun kid with an easy laugh and a mischievous manner.” Yet a young Andrews was also exceedingly meticulous, a trait his father called a “need for intellectual and personal independence.”

Smith recalled how her son was inquisitive and had a long attention span.

“He would focus on something, and then he would just want to learn everything about it,” Smith said. “Every mother will tell you that their child is very, very special. But my child really was very special.”

Nobody in his family expected that Andrews would follow in his parents’ footsteps and pursue economics.

“[He] probably wanted to do anything but that,” Smith said.

But in college, Andrews discovered that economics might offer answers to his questions about the global economy. He received a B.A. in Economics and Mathematics from Yale University in 2009, then went on to complete his Ph.D. in Economics at MIT in 2014.

“It was some guidance from ‘I think these are really important questions,’ and then a lot of just trying things out and continuing to do the ones that I was enjoying,” Andrews said.

A Pioneering Econometrician

While he enjoyed some advanced econometrics classes in college and took more of them in graduate school, Andrews’s first serious venture into econometrics happened almost by chance: in the spring of his first year at MIT, Andrews was randomly seated next to Mikusheva at a dinner. At the end of their conversation, Mikusheva — who would become Andrews’s future mentor and collaborator — offered him a research position.

What Andrews and Mikusheva explored in their first paper together in 2014 — and in a subsequent series of joint projects — became his first area of expertise: weak identification. Weak identification occurs when information is limited in scope, making economic models unreliable. Andrews and Mikusheva created methods that test and improve upon models when data distribution interferes with causal inferences.

Andrews established these new mathematical frameworks for weak identification through differential geometry and decision theory. Colleagues praised his creative perspective for the innovation it brought to the field.

“I would say that he and Anna, in two of their papers, opened up a completely different way to think about identification analysis for econometric models,” said Adam McCloskey, a University of Colorado at Boulder Economics professor and one of Andrews’s current collaborators. “That was kind of a breakthrough.”

Within traditional econometrics, Andrews also began working extensively on model misspecification in 2017, pioneering ways to best utilize models when their underlying assumptions might not align with the real world.

Some of Andrews’s groundbreaking work lies outside the field of economics, however. Last year, Andrews and University of Oxford Economics professor Maximilian Kasy published a paper in the American Economic Review on publication bias, a phenomenon in which research publication depends on the significance of effects detected in addition to quality. A potential research replication crisis in the life sciences prompted this work, which showed the sources and magnitude of the bias and offered ways to correct for it, according to Kasy.

Andrews is currently working on four papers, two of which have potentially wide-ranging applications outside of econometrics. The first is a paper with McCloskey and University College London Economics professor Toru Kitagawa entitled “Inference on Winners,” which scrutinizes data-driven policy selection when the same sets of data are used to determine the best treatments and the effects of those treatments. The second is a paper with Brown Economics professor Jesse M. Shapiro ’01 on a new model of scientific communication that increases research transparency and helps policymakers better utilize findings.

“One really special attribute of Isaiah is that his research is relatively technical within econometrics, but he’s always been interested in applications and other fields,” labor economist and former MIT classmate Conrad C. Miller said. “It’s always very easy to talk to him about my own work and find connections with his work, to look at different applications for applying new econometric methods.”

Beyond his research, Mikusheva and Kasy also noted Andrews’s important work in expanding diversity in economics. As a black and gay man, Andrews said that while he feels he has never been treated unfairly due to his identity, he is working to increase minority representation across the field of economics. He currently co-chairs the Harvard Economics Department’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee and will serve on the American Economic Association’s Committee on the Status of Minority Groups in the Economics Profession starting in January 2021.

“He will keep working very hard, keep pushing economists to do better, keep trying to make it possible to provide useful answers to important public questions by making sure that econometrics gets things right,” Marcellus Andrews wrote.

Marcellus Andrews added that his son’s painstaking dedication to the field of econometrics stems from the belief that people’s lives are at stake.

“This passion for getting ‘it’ right is coupled with Isaiah’s very cool sense of analytical rigor: he insists that we all ‘sweat the details,’ so much so that he has absolutely no patience for sloppiness in thinking or writing,” he wrote.

'Exemplary in Two Dimensions'

McCloskey described Andrews as “exemplary in two dimensions”: his creativity and raw skill in econometrics on the one hand, his humility and compassion on the other.

“I haven’t really run into anyone with both that, sort of, ridiculous smarts and ridiculous amount of kindness simultaneously,” McCloskey said.

Many of Andrews’s colleagues echoed McCloskey’s words. In everyday conversations, said Daniel Barron — a Northwestern University Economics professor and former MIT classmate of Andrews — his brilliance comes through immediately.

“He’s just sharp, he’s there, he’s picking up on everything and making connections,” Barron said.

Kitagawa spoke to Andrews’s open-mindedness.

“He’s very eager to share the idea with the collaborators. And at the same, he also listens to our idea,” Kitagawa said. “Sometimes our idea doesn’t really work, but he’s very patient about that.”

Stanford Economics professor Matthew A. Gentzkow ’96 said Andrews is generous with his time. Gentzkow recalled that Andrews would spend hours writing pages of notes and feedback for a paper, even before being named a co-author.

A common sentiment among Andrews’s mentees, who are Ph.D. students at Harvard and MIT, is an appreciation for Andrews’s humility and relentless personal support.

“In a classroom, you thought he was just having a conversation with you, even though you know he knows very theoretical concepts so much more thoroughly than you do,” said Liyang Sun, Andrews’s mentee and a Ph.D. candidate at MIT. “He still articulates these concepts in a very accessible way that made me feel — as a learner — very encouraged."

Jonathan D. Roth, Andrews’s former mentee at Harvard, said he admires and tries to emulate Andrews’s ability to break down complicated concepts using simple explanations. Roth also said that when he was first preparing to enter the job market, Andrews stayed late past dark with him to practice interview questions and discuss strategy.

Rambachan remembered how Andrews looked out for him at one of his first conferences. When he was standing alone, Andrews introduced him to colleagues and invited him into conversations.

“He is simultaneously, easily, the smartest person I’ve ever met,” Rambachan said. “But at the same time, he is one of the kindest and most generous people that I get to interact with every single day.”

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