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Nobel winner was student at Van Buren HS

Economist Alvin Roth (l.) drinks to his Nobel Prize victory with colleagues. Photo courtesy Stanford University
TimesLedger Newspapers

People usually assume the worst when the phone rings at 3 a.m., but former Queens resident Alvin Roth had a good feeling about who was calling in the early morning hours of Oct. 15.

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences jarred Roth from his slumber that night to award the Stanford University professor the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences.

“I knew I was in the running for the prize, but I didn’t think it was very likely,” Roth said in a telephone interview from his home in California. “My friends all claimed to know it was a definite.”

The academy cited the Bayside native for his work in “the theory of stable allocations and the practice of market design.” According to the academy, the work “honors work that provided a deeper understanding of how markets work and put that knowledge to use for the practical benefit of humanity.”

Roth, who attended Martin Van Buren High School in Queens Village but did not receive a high school diploma because he left high school early, received the prize for work that made for better match-ups among students and the schools they wish to attend and between kidney donors and recipients. Roth is credited with implementing concrete uses for the matchmaking theories of UCLA professor Lloyd Shapley, with whom the economist will share the $1.2 million prize.

“It is really nice to be recognized for my work and win this award,” said Roth, who grew up near Alley Pond but left Queens in 1971. “The work that led to the award was one eureka moment among a thousand frustrations.”

Roth, the McCaw Senior Visiting Professor of Economics at Stanford and a Stanford alumnus who will become a full faculty member at the start of 2013, is a pioneer in the field of game theory and experimental economics and in their application to the design of new economic institutions.

Stanford University Provost John Etchemendy, who described Roth’s recent arrival at Stanford as “fortuitous,” praised the economist as not only “an extraordinary researcher and teacher, admired worldwide by other economists,” but also “a heck of a nice human being.”

Roth said the prize has sparked an interest in economics on Stanford’s campus and his students are listening more closely during his lectures.

“I’m sure my lectures are a lot more interesting now. Also, I’m probably funnier and more handsome, too,” joked Roth. “But I think they’ll get over it pretty quickly. The students in my class are already heavily into market design and the Nobel Prize will make little difference to them.”

One noticeable change in his life, Roth observed, is the media attention that has infiltrated his once academically tranquil life. The professor said he has been bounced around the globe and has made appearances on Swedish television.

And even though he appreciates the attention garnered for his chosen profession, he is anxiously anticipating a life without pre-dawn phone calls.

“I am looking forward to bringing my media career to a gentle end,” he said. “And I have no plans to retire — we’re just hitting our stride in market design.”

Reach reporter Steve Mosco by e-mail at smosco@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4546.

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