The social-science wunderkind is a rare breed.
For one thing, most of the world’s prodigies tend to congregate in the hard sciences and the performing arts. For another: In every realm of academia, age 30 is well shy of when the typical career starts to take off. The majority of scholars don’t even have their doctorate in hand until after their 33rd birthday.
So when we decided to track down the social sciences’ 30 top thinkers under the age of 30, we knew we had our work cut out for us.
You may not have heard of any of these fresh-faced thought leaders yet, but we promise you that many of them will become household names.
We asked every academic we know to recommend someone for this feature. Most sent back apologetic responses to the effect of: “Almost everyone I can think of that I consider a rising star is in their early thirties,” and “I’ll look into it but, as you may know, 29 is pretty young,” and “It is very rare for someone to have accomplished anything in academia and also be under 30.” We canvassed colleges, combed through dozens of CVs, begged friends to ask friends of friends.
Our stated criteria: We were hunting for intellectuals in the social and behavioral sciences who, because of their brilliance or originality of thought or ambition or charm or whatever, are likely to be famous in five to 10 years. The goal was to find the world’s not-yet-known Milton Friedmans and Philip Zimbardos and Margaret Meads.
In the process, we found a frustrating number of jaw-droppingly impressive people just a shade over 30. Solomon Hsiang, for example, missed our cutoff by just two days.
The result, though, after months of research, is a list of dazzling minds that will be shaping our society’s big ideas for years to come. You may not have heard of any of these fresh-faced thought leaders yet, but we promise you that many of them will become household names.
Among them are whiz-kid teens, an anti-college advocate, a bunch of early-career professors, and even a married couple (Glen Weyl and Alisha Holland share a made-at-Princeton love story).
While interviewing these remarkable overachievers, themes emerged, the foremost of which is mentorship. Not one of these thinkers thinks that they could have gotten where they are on their own. They’ve all benefited from a certain mix of serendipity, openness, and enterprise. Most claim a story of meeting exactly the right person at the right time.
More of these 30 than you might think have risen from tough circumstances. Most are admirably—and genuinely—humble. Many are contrarians, critical of the current state of their field and motivated by the need for change. But they also possess a rare level of patience. They know, on a deep level, that work of the caliber they do takes time.
Perhaps most of all, these phenoms have an abiding love for the beautiful stories that research can tell. They understand the aesthetics of a good idea and the elegance of a well-conducted study.
Lest you start to envision our 30 as pointy-headed shut-ins, let us tell you about their hobbies: One played in a heavy-metal band and is learning to tend bar. Another, who’s an improvisational comic in her spare time, also enjoys “dancing in the pit at ska concerts.” Our list includes an actor in Chinese theater, a pastry chef, and an avid rollerblader. These dynamic characters maintain a level of energy that helps them inhabit a diverse array of spheres with shape-shifting ease—and keeps each of them at least a little eccentric.
Here’s another thing our 30 have in common: Their work will make you feel better about our prospects as a society. While the rest of us binge-watch TV shows and fiddle around on Facebook, these brawny brains (and others like them) are focused on addressing society’s toughest challenges, from racism to mental illness to unrepresentative democracy. Their pursuits, whose implications ripple way beyond the ivory tower, are among our best hopes for a brighter future.
THE MONTH AHEAD
The Aspiring Congressman Who Wants to Bring Healthy Food to Everyone
“I work to advance the mission of providing our country with healthy food options, ensuring our farmers and ranchers have a safety net in times of natural disaster, and assisting families that struggle to put food on their table or have trouble securing affordable housing.”
- 04/02: Kelly Miller, 24, Psychology
The Crafty Artist Who Wants to Understand Human Vulnerability
“What happens in the body when people experience stress and seek comfort from parents or significant others? Why does going to others for comfort seem to work for some people but not for others? And how do difficult childhood experiences set us up to get sick later in life?”
The ‘Neuroscience and Hollywood’ Professor Who Wants to Erase Memories
“Join a lab and get your hands dirty as soon as possible. It’s the way of experiencing whether or not research tickles your hippocampus. And don’t just join a lab or program for the name. Even at places like MIT and Harvard, people can quickly become unhappy because the sexiness goes away very rapidly and then you realize that research is a great equalizer because it requires hard work from everyone.”
- 04/04: Xu Tan, 29, Economics
The Accomplished Economist Who Wants to Empower Whole Societies
“I try to apply anything I learned at school to real life. For instance, after studying financial math, I started to trade stocks using pricing theory and negotiated housing prices using bargaining theory. It works sometimes and fails otherwise, but it’s fun.”
The Proud Kansan Who Wants to Put Middle-Class Americans in Office
“In 1945, the House and Senate were each 98 percent men. In the decades since, party leaders and interest groups have deliberately recruited many female candidates, and today women make up 19 percent of Congress. The same strategies seem to work when you apply them to blue-collar Americans. Congress doesn’t have to be an old boys’ club, and it doesn’t have to be a millionaires’ club, either.”
- 04/06: Jon Freeman, 27, Psychology
The Brain Sciences Rock Star Who Wants Us All to Think Broadly
“Think broadly, read widely, and really engage with the work outside your immediate research area. Some of the most exciting discoveries and research developments arise from integrating work outside one’s home discipline.”
The Twitter Diplomat Who Wants to Connect the World
“I would like to chat with [Kim Jong-un] freely about his vision for North Korea’s future as one of the most closed nations in the world and gauge his openness to engaging in Twitter diplomacy.”
- 04/08: Molly Fox, 28, Anthropology
The ‘Brilliant’ Researcher Who Wants to Put an End to Dementia
“I’m especially interested in the evolutionary forces that shaped the length of the human lifespan,” she says, “and in the central role of women’s reproductive biology.”
The Aspiring Defense Secretary Who Wants to Change the Intelligence Community
“Intelligence failures are made extremely public which results in what I believe to be a distorted and unfair representation of the intelligence community. I hope to promote a more open relationship between the IC and the public without compromising the safety of the country.”
- 04/10: Emma Spiro, 29, Sociology
The Social Media Researcher Who Wants to Understand How Warning Messages Travel Online
“One of the things I hope to accomplish is to demonstrate how thinking about networks can be a powerful paradigm for reasoning about social phenomena.”
- 04/11: E. Glen Weyl, 28, Economics
The Quadratic Voting Inventor Who Wants to Refit the Social Machine
“I believe that in the long term, ideas shape the world. In the 17th century, no one took democracy seriously as a way to organize society. Three centuries later, most people in the world thought it was the only acceptable form of social organization.”
- 04/12: Gus Cooney, 29, Psychology
The Daniel Gilbert Protégé Who Wants to Answer Philosophy’s Deep Questions
“It’s exciting to work against something so immense. There’s great pleasure when it yields. Science is like this. It’s difficult to ask the right questions but when you get an answer, it’s a brand new truth about the world, and you get to author the story.”
The Google Intern and Ph.D. Student Who Wants to Focus Only on Questions That Matter
“There are too many things to study to study anything but questions that matter.”
The Global Ideas Institute Leader Who Wants to Solve Food Insecurity Around the World
“Severe undernutrition is life-defining. It can stunt physical development, impair cognitive skills, increase susceptibility to disease, and result in early death.”
The Multi-Instrumentalist Who Wants to Understand Why People Make Music
“I find science to be an incredibly humbling enterprise. Everyone stays up late thinking up new questions to help better understand the world and then stays up later trying to answer them.”
- 04/16: Dana Smith, 26, Psychology
The Addiction Researcher Who Wants to Translate Science for a Broad Audience
“Oftentimes science is seen as scary or confusing or even boring. My goal is to convey the really exciting and cool stuff in a way that everyone can benefit and learn from.”
The Student of Latin American Politics Who Wants to Understand Inaction
“It is much easier for social scientists to study action as opposed to inaction. I hope to push political scientists to think more carefully about deliberate choices not to act.”
The Student of Mass Murder Who Wants to Predict and Prevent Genocide
“While many people believe that genocide is unpredictable, I study how it is actually patterned. I am creating models to better understand the factors that influence why, when, and how genocide occurs.”
The High School Dropout Who Wants to Create Alternatives to Traditional Education
“Spend your time—years—learning whatever subject you want to learn.”
The Creator of a Police Profiling Database Who Wants to Question the Ethics of Big Data
“Sometimes I get frustrated that I don’t see results faster, but organizational change is always slow. Social change is always slow. One of my mentors, the political psychologist Rose McDermott, told me that academic work is a marathon, not a sprint.”
The ‘Model of Intellectual Humility’ Who Wants to Develop New Political Theories
“I would like my scholarship to reverberate with a wide audience, with a particular interest in those working in international law, human rights, and the ethics of development.”
The Human Rights Advocate Who Wants to Study Post-Conflict Reconstruction
“Some days, the reality of the abuses are just too much. But you keep moving. Other days, when your work has made some change, when a government or group has finally stopped what you have been calling for them to stop, those days are the best and sweetest.”
The Science Writer Who Wants to Understand How Sleep Affects Our Health
“Find a topic that interests you, then bring your own twist to the research. Once you learn the ropes, you can lead your colleagues to ideas that nobody ever considered before.”
The Coach Pop Fan Who Wants to Create a Culture of Excellence in the Public Sector
“It’s easy to get frustrated or caught up on a specific task or detail. I often remind myself that the work we are undertaking is long-term in nature. If you can maintain the discipline to see it through, you can make a difference—even in government. But you may not see it until it all comes together.”
- 04/25: Felix Ruano, 19, Economics
The Gates Millennium Scholar Who Wants to ‘Make a Dent in the World’
“I want to make a dent in the world, whether it is by disruptive innovation or helping scale a powerful idea. I am a young man willing to take on some of the world’s toughest challenges.”
The Big Digital Data Guy Who Wants to Learn From Our Online Behavior
“I showed that Facebook Likes can predict personality, IQ, ethnicity, addictive substance use, and other traits that people would assume are private.”
The Sir Henry Wellcome Fellow Who Wants to Better Understand Psychiatric Disorders
“The brain always fascinated me. I thought it was a really exciting thing to try and understand, and I thought if I could use that knowledge to help people, that would make for a really satisfying job.”
The First-Generation American Who Wants to Improve Asian-American Relations
“During my time at the State Department I learned that much of diplomacy is learning to see the world from the other side of the table.”
- 04/29: Adora Svitak, 16, Education
The Aspiring Princess Who Wants to See Major Changes in America’s Education System
“When I hear from someone my own age that I’m an inspiration or that the things I said on a conference stage accurately channeled their own thoughts, fears, and hopes, I feel like I’m doing what I’m meant to be doing—being a representative for others, and ideally motivating them to speak up themselves.”
- 04/30: Michael Kuhn, 26, Economics
The Policy Advocate for Households Who Wants to Redesign Social Programs
“The Earned Income Tax Credit, which is basically the pillar of current welfare policy, is distributed in a great way to help households make big purchases—cars, college deposits, flat-screen TVs—but in the worst way possible to alleviate food insecurity.”