Vivek Bhattacharya, figuring out the basics

August 1, 2011
Vivek Bhattacharya, figuring out the basics

Megan Morr

A senior Angier B. Duke Scholar majoring in both economics and physics, Vivek Bhattacharya is quick to point out what he sees as the similarities between his two fields of study.

“Physics has the concept of ‘fundamental properties’—basic principles about how the natural world works. I think of economics as trying to seek out fundamental properties of human interaction,” Bhattacharya says.

In collaboration with economics professors Andrew Sweeting and James Roberts, Bhattacharya has spent the past two years attempting to develop a model of how individuals bid during auctions, with a focus on how bidders assess the value of goods. The goal is to develop a model that is more nuanced and realistic than current models, which typically assume that bidders are either guessing randomly or have perfect knowledge of the value of the goods in question.

During the same period, he has worked with physics professor Steffen Bass and postdoc Hannah Petersen to explore the properties of the type of matter—such as that which was present microseconds after the start of the Big Bang—that is produced when two particularly heavy atoms collide. In April, Bhattacharya’s work in physics earned him recognition as one of 275 Barry M. Goldwater Scholars nationwide.

Because of the unusual level of his contributions to both projects, Bhattacharya may be listed as a coauthor if either investigation results in publication. Bhattacharya notes that Duke faculty members have been particularly eager to work closely with him. “It’s probably not all that common to find another situation where it’s just you, as an undergrad, and two faculty members.”

These current research interests are the latest manifestation of Bhattacharya’s longstanding fascination with—and talent for—quantitative inquiry. As a senior at William G. Enloe High School in Cary, North Carolina, Bhattacharya finished in the top four at Duke’s annual math meet for high-school students. Now, as an officer of the Duke Math Union, Bhattacharya organizes the competition.

At Duke, Bhattacharya practices competitive math at a higher level: He was one of three members of the university’s team for the William Lowell Putnam Mathematical Competition. The Duke squad finished in the top ten nationwide.

His already extensive experience with academic research has led Bhattacharya to conclude that the academy is probably where he belongs. “I like the challenge of modeling human behavior and figuring out what’s important about different kinds of decision-making. It’s the challenge of distilling complexity and making it coherent,” he says.

Bhattacharya intends to enroll in a doctoral program in economics after he graduates. Though he doesn’t yet know what his specialty within the field will be, he probably won’t struggle too much with his first-year coursework.

Last semester, Bhattacharya was enrolled in five economics classes, four of which were part of the department’s graduate curriculum. By the end of his junior year, he had essentially completed the first year of Duke’s economics Ph.D. program.

Bhattacharya doesn’t think there’s anything especially glamorous about his academic accomplishments, saying, “I’m just trying to get a good grasp of the field.”

In other words, he wants to make sure he’s clear on the basics.