Passionate about education, economics, crew and making the world a better place, Angrist’s drive and work ethic are matched by his creativity and unconventional methods. The MIT senior believes anyone can learn to do anything.
“I don’t believe in natural talent,” he says — inspirational words, coming from a double major in math and economics who has contributed to several published research papers, a stellar rower turned coach, and the co-founder of a successful youth mentorship program.
Eight years ago, Angrist says, he was a solid student but had “no ambition athletically.” Then, when he was in eighth grade, his family moved to Israel for a year when his father — Joshua Angrist, the Ford Professor of Economics at MIT — took a fellowship at Hebrew University. “Everything was different,” Angrist remembers. “The school doesn’t emphasize academics; they’re huge on athletics.”
When he walked into gym class on the first day, Angrist was instructed to show how many pull-ups he could do. “I couldn’t do a single one,” Angrist says. “You can’t even do one pull-up, you sausage!” his gym teacher growled. “I walked out mortified,” Angrist remembers.
From that moment on, Angrist had a goal: He stayed up late researching nutrition and athletics, making schedules of when he would eat, when he would exercise. He devoured fat-free cottage cheese, and he jumped rope every morning. “That’s just the way I am, when I have a focus,” Angrist says.
Angrist became a star performer in his gym class — and the student who could do the most pull-ups.
When he returned to the United States for high school, Angrist took up crew, a sport that he says “gives you a chance to be the person you want to be.”
“It rewards hard work,” he says. “And I worked really freakin’ hard.” Despite being the shortest team member in a sport where height can make a big difference, Angrist says, he emerged as one of the best rowers and a team captain.
When a blood clot forced the removal of one of his ribs — ending his rowing career — Angrist switched to coaching the Brookline High School novice boys’ team. He was decades younger than his fellow coaches, but still led his boats to gold medals in the state championships.
To Angrist, coaching crew was a chance to make a measurable difference. “As a coach, I’m the independent variable, and the success of the students is the dependent variable,” he says. “I wouldn’t do anything if I didn’t feel like it had a direct and tangible impact.” Though Angrist is a tough coach, he says, his rowers are grateful. They may never see him smile, but he says, “Kids know when you invest your heart and soul in something.”
Crew has helped him succeed as well: Despite the intense time commitment, Angrist says, it helped him focus and excel in his studies. Now, he helps others do the same.
At the end of their sophomore year at the Institute, Angrist and fellow MIT senior Ron Rosenberg founded Amphibious Achievement, an athletic and academic mentorship program for low-income high school students in Boston. Amphibious Achievement has been featured in local and national publications, and students in the program have shown marked progress in school and on the water. Angrist knows because he’s been keeping careful track.
As a student of economics and math, Angrist values data-based evidence and advocates its use in the creation of policies and programs. In Amphibious Achievement as well as in TechLit — a project he recently started to evaluate the use of Kindle e-readers in schools — Angrist makes sure to keep a careful record of students’ progress.
“We need to revolutionize the way we run and create programs, because right now it’s not based on evidence,” Angrist says. “It’s shocking how much policy is made on the basis of politics and opinions.”
Angrist is working to collect that evidence and to bridge the gap between science and policy. He has spent the last three years working with MIT Professor of Economics Jon Gruber to research the impact of the 2010 Affordable Care Act.
In summer 2011, Angrist worked in Washington at the Council of Economic Advisors, a group that advises the president on economic policy. His work included the design of “randomized trials to analyze the effectiveness of educational software” — something he is currently putting into practice with TechLit. This past summer, Angrist returned to Washington to work for the World Bank’s education sector. “I am super-passionate about the power of economics to do good,” Angrist says.
Though he knows change ultimately must come from high-level policy decisions, Angrist has spent a lot of time on the ground, working personally with the students he is trying to help. In that time, he has seen kids who were slack-jawed in the face of standardized test problems become engaged and excited in discussions of articles from The Economist and history books. He insists that it is important for learning to be fun.
“Even though I am a data-driven guy with a heavy math background, what really inspires me — and the reason I think my programs are effective — are the first-hand connections and experiences I’ve had,” Angrist says. “Kids won’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”