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Harvard professor Alvin Roth wins Nobel economics prize

Roth is one of two Americans to share the award

Harvard University professor Alvin Roth was one of two scholars awarded the Nobel prize in economics on Monday for his studies about choices that lead to more efficient and successful match-ups between doctors and hospitals, students and schools, and organs and transplant recipients.

Roth and Lloyd Shapley, a professor emeritus at the University of California at Los Angeles, helped spark a “flourishing field of research” that revolutionized the performance of many markets, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said.

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“It’s a good day for market design and economics,” said Roth, who recently decided to leave Harvard for Stanford University. “My co-winner, Lloyd Shapley is long overdue -- he’s 89 -- so possibly they were thinking this would be a good time to give him the award and I’m along for the ride.”

Shapley made early theoretical inroads into the area in the 1950s and ‘60s, working on the creation of a mathematical formula for how 10 men and 10 women could be coupled in a way so that no two people would prefer each other over their current partners. The algorithm was developed further by Roth to better understand bargaining behavior in many different markets.

Roth used it in the 1990s to create a new way to match U.S. student doctors to hospitals. His method was later adopted by the National Resident Matching Program, which helps match resident doctors with the right hospitals. Roth also helped redesign the application process of New York City public high schools, ensuring that fewer students ended up in schools that were not among their top choices.

Roth has applied similar formulas to efforts to match kidney donors to patients needing a transplant, helping save lives.

“It’s about how we make choices, and how we get the things we get when we just can’t get them, when you have to be chosen,” he said. “When you pick a spouse, you have to be chosen, too, and that’s true for schools and for jobs and in many areas. We participate in these two-sided choices.”

Prize committee member Peter Gardenfors noted how the research could be used for allocating housing to students or refugees.

‘‘There are economic problems that can’t be solved with normal market mechanisms,’’ Gardenfors said. ‘‘With these matchings there is no money involved so the main thing is to follow what kind of preferences people have — who wants to be matched with whom — and find a good solution to that.’’

Roth, who dropped out of high school in Queens, N.Y., took weekend classes at Columbia University and later became a full-time student, graduating with an engineering degree in 1971. He went on to receive his master’s and Ph.D from Stanford.

After teaching stints at the University of Illinois and the University of Pittsburgh, he became a faculty member at Harvard in 1998. Earlier this year, Roth made a key choice of his own: he decided to leave Harvard for Stanford.

Roth said the decision was not a difficult one: Stanford wanted him and he and his wife wanted a change. Roth, 60, said both his children are adults and he was ready for a new adventure. He has already relocated and has been a visiting professor at Stanford for the last month.

“It was hard to explain it to our colleagues at Harvard,” he said. “But we’re still young and we thought we’d have an adventure all over again.”

Megan Woolhouse can be reached at mwoolhouse@globe.com
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