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Anya Samek becomes second Krannert graduate to win Vernon L. Smith Ascending Scholar Prize

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Anya Samek

The International Foundation for Research in Experimental Economics (IFREE) has named Krannert alumna Anya Samek, associate professor of economics at the University of California San Diego’s Rady School of Management, as the 2020 recipient of the Vernon L. Smith Ascending Scholar Prize.

Samek joins fellow Krannert alumnus Roman Sheremeta, an associate professor of economics at the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University, as two of the first four recipients of the Smith Prize, which has been awarded since 2017.

Named in honor of Nobel Laureate and former Krannert faculty member Vernon L. Smith, and made possible through the generosity of the Rasmuson Foundation and other contributors, the Smith Prize seeks to inspire early-career scholars to emulate Smith’s joyous zeal for scientific discovery. Set this year at $50,000, the Smith Prize is a “budding genius” award that recipients may use flexibly to advance social science in whatever manner they choose.

“Dr. Samek has emerged as one of the leading young scholars in applying experimental methods to real-world problems in philanthropy, health and education,” said IFREE in announcing the prize. “Her scholarly contributions are particularly noteworthy in studies of the impact of early childhood education on social preferences and methods that enhance charitable giving and support for public programs.”

Samek is also a Faculty Research Fellow at the National Bureau of Economic Research, an affiliate of the Centre for Experimental Research on Fairness, Inequality and Rationality at the Norwegian School of Economics, and an affiliate of the Center for Economic and Social Research at the University of Southern California. She began her economics studies as an undergraduate at the Krannert School.

“I first decided to major in economics because I liked that it could be applied to policy,” Samek says. “I took a small, honors-level introductory course as a freshman that involved a lot of small-group discussion about applying economic analysis to current events, and I found it very inspiring.”

When Samek began her graduate studies, she was unsure which sub-field of economics she wanted to pursue. “As soon as I took the course in experimental economics, I knew it was the direction I wanted to take because I liked the idea of designing a study to collect my own primary data to answer questions,” she says.

Samek’s advisor in the PhD program was Distinguished Professor Tim Cason, the Robert and Susan Gadomski Chair in Economics and director of the Vernon Smith Experimental Economics Laboratory. “His wisdom and feedback helped shape my career as an academic,” she says. “He encouraged us to think critically and independently, which is important for working in academia.”

Samek describes her career in academia as unconventional. “Up until this year, for example, I was in a non-tenure-track position, and prior to that I was in a department outside of economics,” she says. “I was thrilled to receive this award despite not following a more traditional path in academia. Professionally, I’m happy that this prize acknowledges my work combining laboratory and field experiments to test economic theory.”

Sheremeta, who was the second scholar to win the prize, was also acknowledged for his groundbreaking work.

“Dr. Sheremeta’s prolific, highly influential scholarship has marked him an exceptional early-career scholar,” said IFREE. “His research into behavior in contests and tournaments has broad application to commercial promotions, sports management, research and development, patent races, military strategy, and political campaigns. As other social scientists have followed Dr. Sheremeta’s pioneering work, studies of tournaments and contests have become a mainstream topic within the field of experimental economics.”

More than 60 leading scholarly journals in economics, business, psychology, and political science have published Sheremeta’s research, which has also been featured by a variety of popular media outlets, including the Wall Street JournalForbesNBC NewsNPR, and Science Daily.

“My interest in behavioral economics can be traced to my childhood,” Sheremeta says. “I started playing chess when I was six. By the age of 12, I had won more than two dozen championships and started to play professionally. Although I did not pursue a career in chess, I became fascinated with the game because it involved a complex way of strategic reasoning: you have to think many moves ahead of your opponent in order to win.

“Today, as a behavioral and experimental economist, I have the luxury of experimentally studying different behavioral issues which are often ignored by theory,” he says. “This allows me to better explain why people behave in certain, sometimes irrational, ways.”

Sheremeta says the Krannert PhD program has been instrumental in his success. “It was there that I met Tim Cason, who became my mentor, my supervisor, and my coauthor. He taught me how to design experiments, how to run them, how to look for interesting ideas, and even how to write,” he says.

Like Samek, Sheremeta says the prize reflects the changing research landscape of experimental and behavioral economics.

“I remember my very first academic Economic Science Association (ESA) conference in 2008, where I presented my research on contests,” he says. “And I remember how the organizers didn't know where to put my presentation, so they put me into a session called ‘games.’ Not many people were interested in the topic at that time.

“Fast forward 10 years, and I received the Smith Prize for that same research. It reminded me of my childhood as a young chess player, fascinated by human behavior and curious about the nature of human competitiveness. Interestingly, at the most recent ESA conference, the word ‘contest’ was mentioned more than 100 times in the conference program.”

Cason says Sheremeta and Samek continue a strong tradition.

“We have had many terrific PhD students in Krannert’s economics department over the years, including some true pioneers in experimental economics,” Cason says. “I am so proud and honored to have worked with Roman and Anya, our latest pioneers who are taking the field in exciting new directions.

“Purdue’s rich tradition in experimental economics, of course, can be directly traced to Vernon Smith’s pathbreaking and Nobel prize winning research during the first few years of the Krannert School. It is particularly heartwarming to see our students recognized by this important international prize named in his honor.”

The prize’s namesake says the fact that two of its recipients earned their PhD at Purdue’s Krannert School is notable.

“The two Krannert alumni were particularly deserving, having survived a thorough vetting by an independent panel,” says Smith. “What is unusual is that a strong Krannert program in experimental economics gets stronger after nearly 45 years at Purdue.”