Coffee on the Third Floor:

Marianne Bertrand and a Tryst with the Simpsons

By Paritosh Kumar '16

I enter her office and Professor Marianne Bertrand,the Chris P. Dialynas Distinguished Service Professor of Economics at Booth, is sitting with her legs crossed on the desk, wearing a cool Desigual denim shirt. Fast paced, almost hurried, she answers questions at lightning speed, as if there were a plane to catch. I ask about where she comes from and how she got here.

Paritosh Kumar '16

Paritosh Kumar '16

Turns out she didn’t even want to be an economist, starting out. With her eyes on journalism school in France, she “pretty much chose randomly, to study economics” in Brussels and “did OK at that”. Not a bad outcome by any standards, methinks! When a Harvard PhD student visiting her university told her she should pursue a PhD, she says, “I couldn’t think for myself and did what he told me to do.Thanks to him, I got into Harvard.” The humility and attribution to external factors continues, “I thought I would work at the World Bank or something but once you get to grad school you start seeing the pecking order that if you do well in grad school you become an academic and if you’re not so good then you work at the World Bank.”

ChiBus’ Coffee on the Third Floor series begins with Professor Marianne Bertrand

ChiBus’ Coffee on the Third Floor series begins with Professor Marianne Bertrand

I probed a little bit to learn about her experience moving to the US. After wondering for a few moments, trying to recall what seems like a lifetime ago, Bertrand’s eyes light up. “The Simpsons! That was a steep learning curve - having to sit with the Americans on Sunday night, watching the Simpsons; and I did not understand half of it. I did not understand why it was funny.” To my disappointment, she doesn’t drink beer so my Belgian beer and American beer comparison question bombed. But in partnership with Chad Syverson, she has offered an evening of drinking for the upcoming GSB auction, so if you want to know more about her alcohol preferences keep your eyes and ears open for the auction call.

I mention that many students think she is very athletic in the classroom, and once again, she attributes it to an externality- “I don’t have a clicker, so I have to keep going back to the computer to change the slide. I stopped exercising after my first baby and that was eight years ago.”

On leisure and travel, she says, “I watch more Disney movies than I care for so I try to elevate my kids’ sense of taste about what to like, so we can move away from Disney movies to watching Japanese anime, which is way more exciting! I’m slowly being able to become myself again now that my kids are 8 and 5. I’m molding their taste in music so we can listen to the right thing. Cooking is the only other thing I love to do and I keep on doing it. I’ve been to India many times and I took my kids last year. I realized they do have a taste for India so we keep on pushing them to see and appreciate the world.”

As I scramble to leave the office, trying to match the pace of my exit with her pace of operation, I look at my watch and realize it’s only been 10 minutes even though we’ve covered so much. My sense of wonder about what it is really like to be a professor is almost peaking. I hope to learn more from up, close and personal encounters, through this series.

Paritosh is a first year MBA student who plans to work at the nexus of impact, technology and entrepreneurship. Lately, he has identified the need for students to know more about their professors and is working on it.