PFC Spotlight: Student Fellow Alumna Heidi Williams image

October 6, 2016
Petrie-Flom Center


Learn More about Heidi Williams!

2015 MacArthur Foundation Fellow Heidi Williams was a Student Fellow for both the 2006-2007 and 2008-2009 academic years, while pursuing her PhD in Economics at Harvard University. Founding Director Einer Elhauge, then Academic Fellow Ben Roin, and then visiting professor Anup Malani served as her mentors. Today, Heidi is Associate Professor in the MIT Department of Economics.

1. When did you first become interested in health law policy, biotechnology, and bioethics? 

I first became interested in this area when I was an undergraduate.  During my senior year of college, I had the opportunity to work as a research assistant for Harvard Economics Department professor Michael Kremer on some academic and policy work at the intersection of economics, health care, and innovation policy.  Working for Michael convinced me that I wanted to earn a PhD in economics, and that I wanted to spend my career working on research related to intellectual property rights in health care markets.  I was extremely lucky to get admitted to the PhD program in economics at Harvard, where I worked with David Cutler, Amy Finkelstein, and Larry Katz.

2. What attracted you to the Student Fellowship program at the Petrie-Flom Center? 

While I decided that economics was the right disciplinary training for me, given my substantive focus on intellectual property rights in health care markets I was on the look out while I was in graduate school for opportunities to engage with and learn from individuals with interests in that topic but with training in other disciplines, including law, medicine, and the sciences.  I remember being thrilled to hear about the Petrie-Flom Center Student Fellowship program as something that seemed like a perfect such opportunity.

3. What was the focus of your Student Fellowship project, and how did your advisor and mentor assist you in completing it? 

During my first student fellowship year, I worked on an empirical research paper analyzing whether the introduction of new cancer screening tests can affect the incentives for private biopharmaceutical firms to invest in developing new treatments for the screened disease. During my second student fellowship year, I worked on an empirical research paper analyzing the value of medical spending for at-risk infants. Both of these research papers ended up being chapters in my PhD dissertation.  I received extremely helpful feedback from several of the Petrie Flom faculty affiliates, including Einer Elhauge and Anup Malani (who was a visiting professor at the time), as well as Ben Roin who was one of the Academic Fellows at the time.  All three of them are incredibly sharp and gave extremely constructive advice and guidance as I was working on these projects.

4. What were your key takeaways from the SF?  Have you continued to interact with the Center and/or its affiliates since completing your  fellowship? 

My biggest “long term” benefit from the student fellowship is an ongoing collaboration with Ben Roin, who is now my colleague at MIT.  Ben is an extremely smart, thoughtful, creative, and careful thinker. Together with Eric Budish at Chicago Booth, Ben and I co-authored a research paper together investigating whether there is a disconnect between the private and social incentives that exist for private firms to develop different types of cancer drugs.  Ben, Eric, and I are continuing to collaborate on some related research, and I feel extremely lucky to count Ben as both a fantastic co-author and as a good friend.

5. How has the Student Fellowship influenced your career? 

I suspect that I’ve had many more opportunities to interact with legal scholars in my career because of the Petrie-Flom Student Fellowship program.  Given that I don’t have any formal training in law, I’m still very much on the steep part of my learning curve when it comes to understanding e.g. the intricacies of patent law.  During my student fellowship years I had the opportunity to meet and engage with a wide variety of legal scholars, both people based at Harvard as well as some visiting speakers like Arti Rai from Duke, all of whom have continued to be incredibly valuable sources of advice and feedback as I have continued to work in this area. 

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