Best Booth Moment: Realizing my professor exists outside of class

Booth students share their favorite stories about engaging with faculty out of class as our Best Booth Moment series continues.

“What are you running away from?” A profound question from a MacArthur Fellow (a certified “genius”) that left me stumped. But not for too long.

There seem to be two sets of people currently around me: those who ask why I came to Booth and those who have firsthand seen my passion for economics in classes or at talks. The reasons that led me to leave India’s top law school to attend Wellesley College also led me to move continents once again to join Booth; these included the desire to better understand human decision-making and the ability to work anywhere in the world. When I was accepted to Booth, I felt overwhelming excitement at the prospect of learning from the world’s leading economists. Learning that Sendhil Mullainathan would be joining the UChicago faculty only added to the fervor.

Although I had read many of Professor Mullainathan’s papers in my undergraduate economics classes, while tutoring econometrics, and while writing my honors thesis on trade, poverty and inequality, I heard him speak for the first time at his talk on “The Self-Driving Mind” last fall. While speaking about teenage gun violence, he paused, folded his arms and physically took up less space, reflecting discomfort. That moment stayed with me; I saw not only a brilliant economist and researcher, but someone who seemed to care deeply about what data revealed about the world, and how we could make society safer and more equitable for our children.

Somehow class bidding magically worked out in the winter, and I had the opportunity to see the same brilliance and sensitivity in the Artificial Intelligence class with Professor Mullainathan. Although I continue to be the student who sits in the middle of class and incessantly asks questions (during class and breaks), the interaction that I remember the most vividly is from the last day of classes.

Professor Mullainathan had organized small group dinners throughout the quarter to get to know each of the students in the class. When my turn to share my background and a fun fact came, I shared that I had moved every year or two of my life and had lived in 17 cities in 4 countries and 3 continents so far. (Fun is inherently a subjective concept, so while I do not have any stories of bungee jumping yet, those too will materialize.) A few seconds later as the astonishment began to wane, Professor Mullainathan suddenly asked, “What are you running away from?” Only one other person, a Wellesley professor (and an economist, of course), had ever alluded to this. I shifted in my seat, perhaps equally perplexed as Professor Mullainathan felt seconds earlier. Once again reminded of why I came to Booth, I quipped, “What am I running to?” More surprise followed in response.

Over the course of the dinner, I saw something I hadn’t earlier: a world-renowned behavioral scientist who served his students dinner himself, and someone who was capable of both surprising and being surprised – happily, curiously, and compassionately.

Leave a Reply