From Student to Alumna--The Power of Girls' Intellect: Amy Finkelstein '91 Wins MacArthur "Genius" Award

Article reprinted from The Zephyr, Brearley's student newspaper. It was written by a Class X Staff Writer.

Every year, the MacArthur Foundation grants the MacArthur Award, commonly called the “Genius Award,” to about 25 individuals who have shown “extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits, and a marked capacity for self-direction.” This year, one of the awardees is Amy Finkelstein, a Brearley Alum from the Class of 1991, who works in the field of economics. Finkelstein had previously been honored with the prestigious Clark medal.

Finkelstein focuses on public finance and health economics. She researches market insolvencies, the influence of government on the insurance business, and the effect of public policy on health care.

One of Finkelstein’s most well-known studies analyzes Oregon’s use of a lottery to determine which low-income citizens receive healthcare. Her research showed that access to Medicaid not only helped the poor obtain more medical treatment and avoid pecuniary crises, but also increased the use of emergency rooms. Finkelstein’s 2007 paper examined the various results of the establishment of Medicare in the US in the 60s. She proved that Medicare’s launch spurred increases in health spending and the adoption of new medical technologies, while successfully financially assisting the program’s recipients.

Finkelstein is currently investigating the effects of healthcare policies on the opioid crisis. In an interview with the MacArthur Foundation, Finkelstein explained, “We’re trying to understand how much of the opioid epidemic is due to these personal specific factors like poor economic outcomes and substance abuse history and how much is actually the result of doctor behavior and other supply-side policies. That seems a very important step in trying to understand the potential effectiveness of policies that could combat the opioid epidemic.”

Finkelstein studied government at Harvard, where she was a Truman Scholar, and from which she graduated summa cum laude in 1995. She was a Marshall Scholar at Oxford and earned her PhD from MIT in 2001. Finkelstein has been an economics professor at MIT since 2005, imparting her diligent research practices and abiding curiosity on future economists.

Among her many accomplishments, Finkelstein was awarded the John Bates Clark Medal in 2012 by the American Economic Association. The medal is awarded annually to the best economist under the age of 40.

Finkelstein is the co-scientific director of J-PAL North America, which promotes random assessments of social science themes. She also co-directs the Public Economic Program at the National Bureau of Economic Research, which is “a private, non-profit, non-partisan organization dedicated to conducting economic research,” according to its website.
Each year, the Genius Grant is awarded to individuals in various fields including poetry, engineering, activism, theology, and music. On its website, the MacArthur Foundation outlines its criteria for the selection process. Qualities of recipients include “exceptional creativity,” “promise for important future advances based on a track record of significant accomplishments,” and “potential for Fellowships to facilitate subsequent creative work.”

There is no application for the grant. Rather, candidates are selected by external nominators of a broad range of fields. Nominees are presented to an anonymous selection committee, which narrows down the list and makes recommendations to the program’s President and Board of Directors, who ultimately choose the recipients.

The awardees receive an unrestricted fund of $625,000 paid over the course five years in quarterly installments. On the MacArthur website, the foundation emphasizes that the fund is not a reward for the recipient’s previous feats, but rather a contribution to their innovation, vision, and potential.

Finkelstein was chosen for the grant for her use of “novel empirical designs in tandem with sophisticated econometric techniques and theoretical models,” according to the MacArthur website.

Finkelstein told Bloomberg News that the award “offers a chance to experiment with new ideas or theories in a way that isn’t always possible with typical grants.” She says she appreciates that the award brings “broader attention to the scientific work that healthcare economists are doing, and recognition of the progress we have made as a science.”

In a video with the MacArthur Foundation, Finkelstein explains how she plans to use the funds; “My goal is to bring rigorous evidence to bear on better understanding important questions in US healthcare like ‘what happens if we cover the uninsured with healthcare insurance?’ and ‘How can you reduce healthcare spending without harming patients?’” Hopefully, Finkelstein’s receipt of the grant will open doors to pursue these questions.

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