Rakesh Vohra - The Best Seats in the House

by Justin Choi

When we think about the future, we always associate it with uncertainty - the stock market, the next featured entree at NCH, whether or not you’re going to pass CIS160, etc. - you know, the usual.

Yet, with Dr. Rakesh Vohra, one of the ECON101 and ESE204 professors brought over from Northwestern’s renowned Kellogg School of Management as a PIK Professor specializing in mechanism design, the future is what he specializes in and embraces. It’s not something to fear - in fact, it’s something that he can predict.

Most people have probably heard of the term “game theory”, and if you haven’t, this is the basic premise: given a game with set rules and two players who you assume are going to compete against each other and behave rationally, you can predict the outcome using game theory. What Dr. Vohra does completely flips this idea upside down -

“Supposing I can design the game that people are going to participate in, and though I cannot control what they do, I can control the rules of the game and use game theory to predict how they will respond to the rules of the game, and that determines the outcome that I might be interested in. For example, how resources are allocated, what kinds of investments do people make. As the planner, how should I design the game to achieve those outcomes?”

This kind of research has extremely practical applications in the world that we live in today - the AdWords auction system that Google runs as part of its search engine platform is fundamentally connected to mechanism design. The auction is the “game”, and ultimately Google designs it in a way that maximizes the revenue that they make from the bidders that try to compete for lucrative search words. Dr. Vohra defined these advertisements as “complex assets”, assets that are far beyond typical things you’d find at an art or car auction:

“There are also complicated assets that you can sell, where your consumption of the asset affects my value - for example, you buying a piece of “spectrum” or network might affect the way that my network and “spectrum” works, or bids on supply transport chains for the U.S. Army using trucks, ships, and planes will depend on the people buying them - which path they need, what kinds of trains and planes and ships they need, etc… It’s not enough just to look at the highest bidder; you have to think about how to feasibly combine the bids so that they fit onto the supply chain”.

It’s this combination of considering the constraints of the product and the demands of the buyer that creates this interesting, complex equilibrium that everyday consumers never consider. And it’s the art of predicting and targeting the balance point of this equilibrium that Dr. Vohra specializes in.

 

Beyond balancing assets and games, however, Dr. Vohra also balances the responsibilities of teaching classes at Penn as well as his research. In ECON101 (Intermediate Microeconomics) and ESE204 (Decision Models),  Dr. Vohra tries his best to be as engaging as possible in his lectures by actively making his students participate in discussion focused conversation; rather than boring students to death with pure, unfiltered information and minimal interaction, Dr. Vohra aims to make his classroom more of a discussion-based learning environment:

“I don’t know that I have a philosophy, but I have a preference for doing things a certain way - I prefer discussion and argument, rather than straight lecture. I think that’s one of the best ways to learn - it’s through discussion… I think of myself as this - I’m trying to set an agenda, so I frame a topic in a way that one can have a concrete discussion, and I’d like to manage the discussion so as to push the students to realize ‘oh, ok, this is what’s going on, this is the way to think about it”.

With this in mind, however, he also had insightful things to say about teaching undergraduates compared to his prior experiences in the business school at Northwestern. When asked about how he liked teaching at Penn, he offered up a comparison to the types of students he had at Northwestern:

“One thing to keep in mind was that, at Northwestern, I was in the business school, so I was only teaching MBA’s, so they were older, more mature, and they were executives; executives are a huge fun to teach - they’re probably the best group of students I’ve ever had to teach. They’re really sharp, they have experience, and they’re very curious - the reason they’re coming is because they’ve faced problems, and they’re not looking for answers in the sense of “do this, do that”, but they’re looking for “what’s the way to think about issues that I’ve been confronted with? I learned a huge amount from them as I was trying to convince them “here’s a particular way to look at things”, and they’re saying “no that doesn’t make sense, what about this, what about that’. I find undergraduates to be far more quiet.”

Further on in the interview, Dr. Vohra mentioned one incredibly insightful comment that pretty much summed up his later advice to undergraduates here at Penn:

“That’s the strange thing with undergraduates: the best seats in the house are free, and nobody makes use of it”.

Beyond his experiences from the past, however, Dr. Vohra still mentioned how he’s still enjoyed teaching at Penn thus far. Beyond just teaching courses, he’s also served as co-director of the Warren Center for Network and Data Sciences since 2014, around the time of its inception, and has since helped select and advise its first postdoctoral fellows, launch a speaker series housed under the program, and create several grant proposals for further research into the field of networked social/economic/technological systems. When asked about what motivates him to continue teaching and conducting research as actively as he has over the past several years, he responded as such:

“A huge amount is rather selfish. It’s simply curiosity - this is one of the few places where you have this opportunity to wake up one morning and say ‘you know what, I don’t understand something’. And then you ask your colleagues, and then you discover they don’t understand it either. And it gets under your skin - then you start digging. The other part is when you learn something new or interesting, you become excited and you’re dying to tell other people. And if you have come up with something really fascinating or interesting or surprising, the look on their face when you tell them - that’s also amazing.”

In a similar vein of thought, Dr. Vohra’s advice to undergraduates concerning how they should go about picking a major or deciding what they’re passionate about followed the same theme: “Do what interests you.” Rather than caring about how much you’ll be able to make in the future or what other people will think, do what interests you. And if you do that, then everything else will follow. Dr. Vohra himself followed that same path in his undergraduate years when he decided he wanted to pursue something in the field of mathematics at first:

“I’d like to say there was some grand plan, but there wasn’t - I thought I was going to be a mathematician, and then I realized that I wasn’t that good[chuckles], so I drifted into other things that seemed interesting. 15 years old, rainy day at school, came across book called Men of Mathematics by Eric Temple Bell, and that was it.”

And even though not everyone will find their calling as Dr. Vohra did at age 15, he still encourages students to pursue their passions; though it may take time, it’ll ultimately pay off more in the end. In fact, Dr. Vohra is so engulfed in his own personal passions that he rarely has time outside of his research and professorship duties for many hobbies. And yet, he’s far from just a dull academic: he still remains profoundly cultured from the knowledge he’s accumulated over the years. Poetry is one reprieve that he personally enjoys (“I have too many to pick from if I had to pick a favorite. For genre, I guess I’m biased - dead white men up to the Edwardian era of poetry; that’s probably me.”), as well as regular TV shows like the rest of us mortal Penn students (“I like the old Doctor Who’s - because the special effects were terrible, so they had to rely on the story to carry it.”). Although some of us at Penn tend to forget how human our professors are, it was when talking about palette preferences that Dr. Vohra revealed his true colors:

“In that respect, I’m very Catholic - I like almost all kinds of foods except seafood - in fact, nothing beneath the water. I’ve tried, and I’ve never took a liking to it. My friends keep on saying “oh, you must absolutely try it when it’s VERY fresh”, and yes, even when it’s been killed in front of me, no[chuckles].”

Despite my disbelief at his heretic statement of disliking even salmon, the most acceptable of all sushi fishes, there is still much to be said of how passionate Dr. Vohra is concerning his research and teaching; he truly does care for his students and is deeply motivated by the research that he does, which is apparent in all the awards that he’s accumulated over the years as a result of these passions. And on that note, here’s to hoping that we use those best seats in the house available to us - maybe we can learn an extra thing or two in the process.


Justin Choi