Best 40-Under-40 Professor Sinan Aral
David Austin Professor of Management, Associate Professor of IT and Marketing
Institution: MIT, Sloan School of Management
Before current institution: NYU, Stern School of Business
Hometown: Honestly, I’ve moved so much I can’t tell. Istanbul, New York, Boston, and Atlanta.
Marital status: Spoken for.
Children: 1 son, Kaya, 8 months
PhD in Managerial Economics, MIT
Courses currently teaching: Digital Marketing
Fun fact: English is my second language. When I first went to school in the United States at around age 5, I didn’t know a word of English. When the teacher would call everyone in from recess, I would stay outside, not knowing what in the world she was saying. People who knew me at the time said I developed a reliance on two phrases and that I would repeat them everywhere I went because I didn’t know how to say anything else. I would go from person to person and thing to thing in the world around me, repeating, “What is this? How does it work?” over and over again.
Professor you most admire: Stanley Milgram. In my mind, Milgram was one of the most innovative social scientists of the twentieth century. He had an uncanny ability to ask the most fundamental and interesting questions about human behavior and to investigate those questions through an uncompromising dedication to the scientific method. His experiments revealed fascinating human behaviors, like our obedience to authority and our tendency to organize ourselves into social networks characterized by “six degrees of separation.” The experiments he devised were incredibly creative and he was not afraid to take risks in his research and push the boundaries of human knowledge.
For example, he was likely denied tenure at Harvard for the controversy surrounding his ‘electric shock’ experiments, which revealed our obedience to authority figures wearing white lab coats. Though these were seminal experiments, it took Milgram years to design, execute and analyze these studies, which ultimately collected data on at most a small handful of people.
Most memorable moment as a professor: I get emails years after a course from students who have started companies, excelled inside large organizations, or started non-profits, who say my course was the one that helped them the most. They recall specific lessons and describe precisely why what they learned helped them succeed. It feels good to know that what we teach is both rigorous and relevant.
“If I weren’t a b-school professor…” I’d be a social entrepreneur. Building something innovative, from scratch, with a tight team of like minded, motivated people is the most fulfilling experience in the world. Science is the same way. I love lab meetings with students and post docs where we discuss new findings or sketch models on the board for hours. If I wasn’t teaching business school I’d be building new innovations for poverty alleviation, economic development and global health.
I took “Digital Analytics and Strategy” from Sinan at Stern while in my M.S program there. I had worked for several years at various tech startups and Google, and I had started my own company, so I came in with a chip on my shoulder. I was just the kind of know-it-all jerk that I bet he has to deal with all the time. This sounds a little silly, but it’s the way Sinan can command a classroom that makes him so effective at transmitting his message in a given class. He is comfortable getting a little off topic and encouraging in-class debate. He goes with the flow and will let a conversation develop somewhat organically (within a certain framework) because he knows that (a) he knows so much about the topic that he will be able to use whatever angle people opt into to transmit his message and that (b) he has so much industry experience, having started companies and sold them off (and currently working on a really interesting one called Humin) that he commands the respect of everyone in the room, not because where he’s standing, but because what he has achieved and how well he knows his material.
I am lucky to have caught him before he left Stern, and Sloan is luckier still to have him on board and representing their programs.
-Jack Hanlon, Stern MBA
Professor Aral combined a real world perspective with an academic slant that left students engaged and excited to leave the classroom. His perspective and relevant academic expertise infects and inspires with each lecture. His specialty is taking abstract and complicated concepts and simplifying them for students to be able to understand and master. But most importantly, Sinan’s empathy and accessibility are his strongest traits. We were very sad to see him leave us here at NYU.
– Craig Wilson, Stern MBA
“It’s discovery—like we’re Louis and Clark, but for knowledge.” That’s how Sinan Aral describes research. Much like the two famous explorers, Aral covers a ton of ground: “I’m currently working on projects promoting HIV testing in South Africa, de-escalating election violence in Kenya, encouraging voter mobilization in the U.S., and spreading positive health behaviors worldwide,” he says. The professor is no different on social media. He has more than 14,000 followers, and he tweets about everything from drone strikes to CVS to Bitcoin.
It’s hard to imagine how someone could juggle all that without a serious passion for learning. Fortunately for him, Aral has it in spades. “Today, we can design, conduct and analyze such experiments much more rapidly—and not on samples of hundreds of people, but rather on hundreds of millions of people at a time,” he says. He believes these advancements will make the world a far better place. “This new toolkit portends a sea-change in our scientific understanding of human behavior and dramatic improvements in social policy as a result,” he continues. “In pursuing this new line of large-scale experimentation, we are now standing on the shoulders of giants like Stanley Milgram in advancing social science into the era of Big Data.”
His research puts him at the cutting edge of this movement; Aral studies social contagion, product virality, and how information diffusion in massive social networks such as Twitter and Facebook affects worker productivity, consumer demand, and viral marketing. It’s also won him a slew of awards ranging from a Microsoft Faculty Fellowship (2010) to the PopTech Science and Public Leaders Fellowship (2010) to the IBM Faculty Award (2009).
Sinan Aral is among “The World’s 40 Best B-School Profs Under the Age of 40“