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Harvard Nobel Prize winner talks economics with Chinese kids

Posted by Brock Parker  July 12, 2013 05:35 PM

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By Brock Parker, Town Correspondent

As he walked into Radcliffe Yard in Cambridge Friday, Nobel Prize winning Harvard professor Eric Maskin was greeted by a group of Chinese middle school students who crowded around to take photographs, and later asked for autographs.

But when the students asked Maskin at a lecture at Harvard Friday how winning the Nobel Prize in economic sciences in 2007 changed his life, Maskin, through a translator, didn't describe a life of celebrity.

“I still do pretty much the same things I’ve always done,” said Maskin, who is 62 years old. “Basically, my life hasn’t changed that much. The way it has changed is I have opportunities like this one. Probably you wouldn’t be so interested in seeing me if it hadn’t been for the Nobel Prize.”

It’s the type of message--that celebrated scholars are not so different from many students--that organizers behind a Nobel Laureates’ School Visits program are trying to get across to kids. Founded by Quincy scientist Edward Shapiro in 2009, the program coordinates visits by local Nobel Prize winners to young students in an effort to inspire them to excel in their studies. Drawing on a pool of more than 30 Nobel Laureates living in Massachusetts, the program has met with students at schools across the state.

On Friday Maskin, who won the Nobel Prize with two other people for their work in mechanism design theory, addressed the group of middle school students visiting the United States this summer from Nanjing, China. 

Pei Zhang, director of the U.S. China Scitech Education Promotion Association, said the students are visiting as part of a summer camp program, which for Chinese children are typically focused heavily on academics. 

Introducing Maskin, Shapiro told the students that he hopes they will follow in the footsteps of examples like the Nobel Prize winners and become intellectual leaders of their generation.

“They are not special,” Shapiro said of the Nobel Laureates. “They are like you. They like to learn.”

After a short lecture by Maskin, the students peppered him with questions, sometimes in English and sometimes through a Chinese translator, asking about everything from winning the Nobel Prize, to the secret to success.

“If I knew the secret to success, it wouldn’t be a secret, I would tell everyone,” Maskin said.

But most of their questions centered on China, its impression on Maskin, and the future of the rapidly growing country’s economy.

Maskin said he believes China’s success in the past 30 years can be attributed to the country’s decision to rely heavily on international trade. Moving forward he said the country will need to address energy needs and inequality so that all people in the country can share in its success.

One student asked what his classmates, as middle school students, could do to help the Chinese economy.

“Your main responsibility now is to prepare yourself for being a grown-up,” Maskin said. “Get the best education you can. The future of the Chinese economy will depend on having a well-educated public.”

--brock.globe@gmail.com

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