Nobel Prizes go to alumni Robert Lefkowitz and Alvin Roth

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Alvin E. Roth ’71SEAS attends a press conference at Stanford announcing his Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences on October 15. / AP / Darryl Bush

In the case of school selection, Roth has developed computer programs that help education officials make assignments in a way that balances family preferences with the academic requirements of individual schools, all while creating an incentive for parents to be truthful in their applications. In 2003, New York City implemented a version of Roth’s system, which has since increased the percentage of parents who say they are pleased with their child’s assignment. Boston, Chicago, and Denver have also adopted Roth’s system.

More recently, Roth developed software that physicians across the US are using to organize kidney-donor exchanges. The exchanges address a common problem: when a person needs a kidney transplant, a relative may come forward to donate one, only to find that he or she is an unsuitable donor. Doctors, in response, have begun organizing large networks of people such that every participant who needs a kidney receives one from a compatible stranger. Roth’s software identifies which pairs of relatives should be in a given network so that people receive organs best suited to their bodies.

“He’s helping to transform modern medicine,” says surgeon Michael Rees, who runs the transplant center at the University of Toledo Medical Center.

According to Roth, using powerful mathematics to improve people’s lives is the essence of economics. “Some say economics has all kinds of good tools and techniques, but it has an absence of interesting problems,” he told Forbes magazine in 2010. “I look around the world, and I see all kinds of interesting, important problems we ought to solve with the tools we have.”

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