Heidi Williams ’03 Named MacArthur ‘Genius’

Among the 24 “geniuses” who make up the 2015 class of MacArthur Fellows is one Dartmouth alumna: Heidi Williams, Class of 2003.

An assistant professor of economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Williams studies how intellectual property rules, such as patents, encourage or discourage innovation in health care, from the development of new cancer treatments to the study of specific genes.

On a video posted on the MacArthur Foundation website, Williams visibly tears up as she recalls receiving word of the award.

“I was just completely speechless and overwhelmed,” she says. “I’m really early in my career, and I’ve just started the kind of work that I feel that I want to do. And to have that vote of confidence put into my work is just incredibly humbling at this stage.”

“It is always a thrill when a Dartmouth person is recognized for her impact on the world, and Heidi Williams is having a tremendous impact on our understanding of how to encourage critical innovations in health care,” says President Phil Hanlon ’77.

“Her rigorous and often inspired work draws connections from economics, biology, genetics, public policy—and, of course, my first love, math,” says President Hanlon, a mathematician. “I could not be more proud that the MacArthur Foundation has paid tribute to Heidi’s achievements in this way.”

Provost Carolyn Dever says Williams “exemplifies the courage to seek answers across disciplinary boundaries that Dartmouth tries to instill in all its graduates. I’m delighted by the news.”

According to the MacArthur Foundation website, “The MacArthur Fellows Program awards unrestricted fellowships to talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction.” Williams will receive a five-year, unrestricted stipend of $625,000 “to pursue [her] own creative, intellectual, and professional inclinations.”

 In an email to Dartmouth Now, Williams, who recently became a mother for the first time, writes that she is still deciding how to use the funds. She also writes fondly of her time at Dartmouth. 

“I had a fantastic undergraduate experience at Dartmouth as a math major, working especially with Professor Dorothy Wallace,” she says. “Late in my senior year—extending to the present!—I’ve also been extremely lucky to be an ‘adopted’ student of the Dartmouth economics department, and I’ve been lucky to be mentored and advised by a number of faculty in that department. I’m extremely grateful to Dartmouth for being such a wonderful home for me.”

‘Foundational Work’

Dartmouth faculty from both the math department and the economics department applaud the announcement.

“This is an inspired choice,” says Jonathan Skinner, James O. Freedman Presidential Professor in Economics. Skinner knew Williams when she was an undergraduate, and more recently worked with her on an NIH initiative examining the diffusion of health care technology.

“Probably her most notable paper has looked at the impact of intellectual property rights on the human genome,” he says. “It is really important work.”

“Her research is path-breaking—pretty foundational stuff, actually,” says Christopher Snyder, the Joel Z. and Susan Hyatt Professor of Economics, who teaches Williams’ work in his introductory course on competition and strategy.

“One of the things she studies is the relationship between the patent system and innovation. Innovation is one of the main engines of prosperity, so anything the government can to do to promote it is wonderful.”

But the impacts of patents are notoriously difficult to study empirically, he says, because it would be impractical to set up controlled experiments of patent policy.

“Heidi thinks of these clever ways to look at ‘natural’ experiments on these big questions of growth and innovation—finding things that have happened in the economy that give you the same flavor as controlled experiments. The big key is she sees these fundamental economic problems that no one’s been able to do any causal inferences around, and she’s thought of ways to do it.”

“But it doesn’t stop there,” Snyder says. “She’s looking for sources of data that no one’s thought to use. It’s so brave to say, ‘I’m going to get all this data on clinical trials for early- and late-stage cancers.’ And then what’s beautiful is the care she takes with her work—she goes through it and says, ‘Here are the alternatives that somebody might think of; let’s take those seriously and try to prove or disprove those.’ She’s very rigorous.”

Early Talent

Professor of Mathematics Dorothy Wallace, who served as Williams’ undergraduate adviser, says Williams was a star from the moment she arrived on campus.

“Before she got here, I got an email from a friend who edits a journal called Cryptologia, which sponsors an undergraduate writing contest,” Wallace recalls. “He had discovered that the person they had awarded the prize to was actually a high school student in North Dakota—that would be Heidi. When he found out she was coming to Dartmouth, he said, ‘You have to grab this person the minute she arrives because she’s fabulous.’ So the very first week she came to my office.”

Wallace served as Williams’ adviser for a Women in Science Project (WISP) internship, for which Williams co-authored a chapter for a calculus textbook, a version of which Wallace still uses in her classes. She also advised Williams’ senior thesis, on elliptical curves and cryptology.

“She actually proved a theorem,” says Wallace. “Unfortunately, by the time she proved it, a graduate student in some other institution had scooped her and published it. But you know, that’s OK—she was an undergraduate!”

While at Dartmouth, Williams was named both a Truman Scholar and a Rhodes Scholar, received a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship—and was among Glamour magazine’s 2002 “Top College Women,” a list of the “10 most likely to succeed at anything.”

“The Truman requires that you do a year of some sort of socially valuable service and she got bit by the socially valuable service bug and decided that she would go into economics instead of mathematics. I only cried a little bit,” says Wallace, laughing. “She’s still doing mathematics, actually—she just does it as an economist. So I’m pleased with that—though I’m still waiting for a chance to write a paper with her.”

A Mentor to Students

Williams herself is a committed mentor to Dartmouth undergraduates and recent alumni. According to Snyder, she regularly hires “our best students who are interested in research to work with her at the National Bureau of Economic Research in Cambridge.”

One such student is Mahnum Shahzad ’15, an economics and math double major from Lahore, Pakistan.

Working with Williams is “absolutely amazing and I'm not exaggerating here,” Shahzad says. “She is kind of a legend at the econ department at Dartmouth. You can’t take the advanced theory classes without each professor talking about her work and how amazing she is—and she has proven to be even more amazing than I expected. She is the definition of a great mentor.”

Faculty and students all call Williams “a lovely person.”

“She’s a wonderful scholar, but she is also genuinely nice,” says Erzo Luttmer, the Dartmouth Professor of Economics. “It’s great when awards like this go to the good ones.”

Previous Dartmouth MacArthur Fellows

Eight members of the Dartmouth community have previously been named MacArthur Fellows. They are:

  • Stuart Kauffman ’61, 1987, for work in ecology and evolution
  • Dartmouth President Emeritus Jim Yong Kim, 2003, for work in public health
  • The late Donella “Dana” Meadows, professor emeritus of environmental studies, 1994, for work on conservation and the environment
  • Terry Plank ’85, 2012, for research in geochemistry
  • Dartmouth Trustee Annette Gordon-Reed ’81, 2010 for scholarship on Thomas Jefferson
  • Dartmouth Trustee John A. Rich ’80, 2006, for work in public health
  • Anna Schuleit MALS ’05, 2006, for artist achievement
  •  Jeffrey Weeks ’78, 1999, in mathematics