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Heidi Williams, Senior Fellow

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This story is part of the Why Econ? series. Our affiliated students and faculty share why econ matters to them, their work and our world.

Why Econ: Heidi Williams, Senior Fellow

Heidi Williams started thinking like an economist as an undergraduate student. But it wasn’t an econ course that inspired her. It was a discussion in biology class about the developing world’s struggle with malaria.

“The fact that malaria is a problem in poor countries but not rich ones intrigued me, and I started doing some research,” Williams says.

That led her to discover a paper by Michael Kremer, an economist who would later become one of her mentors and a 2019 Nobel Prize winner. Kremer’s paper proposed a way for governments and private foundations to incentivize drug companies to develop malaria vaccines. His work essentially made the case that a compelling solution to curbing the disease could exist in the marketplace. Williams was hooked.

“I immediately realized that economics has a natural language and toolkit for addressing important social problems in a really practical way,” Williams said.

After graduating from Dartmouth as a math major, Williams headed to Oxford for a master’s in economics. She then received her PhD in economics at Harvard, and focused her research on the causes and consequences of technological change, particularly in health care markets.

Her work earned her a MacArthur “genius grant” and an Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellowship during her tenure as an economics professor at MIT. After two separate stints as a faculty visitor at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research (SIEPR), Williams decided she wanted to make her academic home here. She joined the Stanford faculty in 2019 as the Charles R. Schwab Professor of Economics and is one of SIEPR’s newest senior fellows.

Along with her robust research agenda, Williams is also committed to encouraging the next generation of economists and working with students who are — as she puts it — “save-the-world types” wanting more experience before committing to a career in economics.

“I’m looking for students who have a passion for really making a difference in the world,” she says. “Just about anyone can learn the skills and tools of economics, but the passion is what is most important.”

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