2017 Top 40 Undergraduate Professors: Laurence Ales, Carnegie Mellon (Tepper)

Laurence Ales

Associate Professor of Economics

Carnegie Mellon University, Tepper School of Business

Like most universities, Carnegie Mellon hands out awards in recognition of teaching excellence each year. This year, the highest award for meritorious teaching was given to Tepper’s Laurence Ales. Professor Ales is highly credited for transforming the teaching of macroeconomics at CMU by emphasizing the integration of modeling and data analytics — a departure from the standard textbook way of teaching economics principles. In another deviation from textbook learning, this professor also uses Twitter to direct macroeconomic news to students and to inspire discussions on theories and models.

His undergraduate course “Emerging Markets” is a popular one among undergraduate students. It explores economic experiences of countries such as China, India, and Korea and develops tools for analyzing forces that support or impede growth. It’s also gained Ales high marks with undergrads. “Best professor I have ever had at CMU,” says one former student.

Age: 38

At current institution since: 2008

Education: Physics undergraduate at the University of Rome, Tor Vergata. PhD in Economics at the University of Minnesota.

List of courses currently teaching: Emerging Markets for Undergraduates and Global Economics for the MBAs

Fun fact about yourself: I listen to AC/DC’s Thunderstruck just before every class.

“I knew I wanted to be a business school professor when…” I met the students.

“If I weren’t a business school professor…” A bifurcation point was at the end my undergraduate degree (I studied Physics). Have I not moved to grad school, right now I would probably be in a lab somewhere in Europe.

“One word that describes my first-time teaching…” Hindenburg? I was starting grad school. I just arrived from Italy. And I had surgery to remove my wisdom teeth the day before.

What is the biggest challenge that comes with teaching undergraduate business students? The students I teach tend to be fairly heterogeneous in their interests and background. A challenge is to be able to engage them all.

What do you enjoy most about teaching undergraduate business students? The heterogeneity of the students in my class is not only a downside. On the contrary, it makes the class interesting and surprising.

What is the most impressive thing one of your undergraduate students has done? I am always impressed with the dedication students have in trying to reach their dream job or in the effort they put in starting their own companies.

What does a student need to do to get an A in your class? I think there is a very high correlation between how much the students are excited about the content of the course and the final grade.

“When it comes to grading, I think students would describe me as …” Darth Vader.

“But I would describe myself as …” Obi-Wan Kenobi.

What are your hobbies? I like to fix things.

How did you spend your summer?  The highlight of the summer was our trip to Europe visiting my grandfather in England and my parents and siblings in Italy. It was the first time in Europe for our youngest daughter.

Favorite place to vacation: These days anywhere with a good beer list and a decent playground.

Favorite book: I like Cixin Liu, Alastair Reynolds. But really anything with a spaceship in it.

Favorite movie and/or television show: See above.

Favorite type of music and/or favorite artist:  It varies depending on mood and circumstance. iTunes says that Carlos Kleiber’s Beethoven 7th symphony was the most played in recent times.

Bucket list item #1: Both my wife and myself have traveled a lot. It would have to be to bring our little ones to a place that neither of us have been. Some options could be Alaska or the Canadian Rockies.

What professional achievement are you most proud of? I am proud of all my papers. However, I am particularly proud of two recent publications that appeared in The American Economic Review.   

What is your most memorable moment as a professor? Last Spring I was awarded a university-wide teaching award. The announcement to the students was made during one of my classes.  The atmosphere during and especially at the end of class was unforgettable.  

Professor you most admire and why: My PhD advisor at the University of Minnesota: Larry Jones. I still try to replicate his innate ability to make students think. I am not there yet.

What are you currently researching?  These days I am particularly excited about a couple of new projects. In one we study how should policy respond to economic shocks (perhaps due to technology or trade) that hit a particular geographic location. In another project, I am partnering with other units around campus, taking a closer look at how manufacturing is evolving over time, how it is impacting the demand for certain occupations, and how best should policymakers respond to these changes.   

Twitter handle: @cmu_macro

“If I had my way, the business school of the future would have much more of this…” Tighter connections between with the rest of campus both in terms of research and teaching.

“And much less of this…” Constant focus on grades.

Looking ahead 10 years from now, describe what “success” would like for you To be as excited about doing research and about teaching as I am today. Also, making this list ten years from now would not be bad too!

Students say…

“Best professor I have ever had at CMU”

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