Anthony Lee Zhang was going to be a biochemist, just like his father. As a University of Chicago freshman, he declared biochemistry as his major, with plans to get a Ph.D. in the subject.
His sophomore year, though, "out of curiosity," he signed up for an economics class taught by Glen Weyl. "It was a lot of fun," Zhang says, "and I guess Glen thought I did pretty well, because he took me to get dinner at a nice restaurant and tried to convince me to do economics."
During Zhang's high school years in Hong Kong, he had read and enjoyed the classics of political and economic thought—Marx, Nietzsche, and Machiavelli. He had also spent a lot of time staring at bacteria under a microscope and proofreading his dad's scientific papers. "Economics," he remembers, "seemed like a way to combine my interests in the natural and social sciences, so I jumped at the opportunity."
Weyl turned out to be a crucial mentor for Zhang. "The most important thing I've learned from him," Zhang says, "is that being an academic requires the courage to stand behind good ideas despite opposition. Many revolutionary ideas aren't very popular when they're first introduced—it takes a lot of pushing to get them into mainstream thought. Glen's a role model for me—he's working hard to advance ideas like quadratic voting that are really changing the way people think about the world."
Zhang switched majors, graduating with a bachelor's degree in economics and snagging a prize along the way: the Becker Friedman Institute Award for Academic Achievement in Microeconomics, given annually to the University of Chicago's best microeconomics student. He then spent a year doing data science for Facebook's analytics group. Today, Zhang is at Stanford University, getting his Ph.D. in economic analysis and policy.
In the meantime, Zhang isn't just Weyl's protégé—he's also his co-author. Together, they wrote "Ownership of the Means of Production," on what they call "self-assessed taxation," a proposed system to prevent people from amassing private-property monopolies without overly hindering the open market.
Another paper Zhang is working on, this one with Stanford assistant professor Brad Larsen, models out bargaining situations using Nash equilibrium and game theory. "We look at data on negotiations between used-car salesmen and potential buyers," Zhang explains. "Using the model, we can figure out how effective the salesmen are at getting buyers to pay higher prices, and also how many mutually beneficial trades are lost to buyers balking at unrealistically high price offers."
Within the decade, Zhang hopes to be an economics professor, "hopefully tenured or close to tenure." But, he adds, "I don't think I have a good idea what the core focus of my research in the next few decades will be about yet."
In the meantime, Zhang works to maintain a strong sense of wonder about how the world works: "Economics is full of questions we've been asking for hundreds of years that we still aren't even close to answering well. Why are some countries richer than others? Why are some people richer than others? How did Silicon Valley, a relatively boring chunk of suburbia, become the center of software innovation? Understanding the answers to these questions will, of course, inform policy and help make the world a better place."
Zhang, whose mother and father are from China, was born in Calgary, Canada, where both his parents went to graduate school. After that, he grew up on the campus of Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, where his dad teaches biochemistry.
"Personally, I feel like I'm living at the intersection of a lot of different cultures and places, with all of the confusion that comes with that," Zhang says.
In his free time, Zhang plays piano—a mix of classical and modern pieces—and occasionally writes music. He plays tennis weekly, and is a big fan of eSports, the professional video-gaming scene.
But he derives more fun from his work. "I'm solving hard problems, and every day I get to talk with people who are really smart and really dedicated," he says. "There's the feeling of contributing to the grand quest of humankind for knowledge. At the end of my career, I want to be able to look at the body of human knowledge, point to a small chunk of it, and say, 'That's mine!'"
When asked which of his accomplishments he's proudest of, Zhang points to a recent one: "Around a year ago, I wrote my first paper with my classmate Piotr Dworczak. We showed that a fairly recent idea from game theory and an older idea from classical free-market economics are mathematically equivalent."
"I remember," he goes on, "how I felt walking home from the office that day. There's this idea, and nobody in the universe besides the two of us knew about it. Since then, I think I've gone on to do more important work, but I'll always remember that paper as my 'hello world' as an academic—the first thing that I've ever added to the stock of human knowledge."
Explore the complete list of this year's 30 top thinkers under 30 here. (Lead 3-D Illustration: Comrade)