From Beijing to the Big Apple

Sarah Wang has done everything from cheerleading to studying economics and mathematics during her time at Columbia.

Eve Glasberg
January 04, 2024

Notebook is a Columbia News series that highlights just some of the many fascinating students who study at our University. 

When Sarah Wang is not working on her senior thesis or being a teacher's assistant in the Economics Department, she is most likely people-watching at a food truck in Astoria or enjoying a sunset along the Hudson River.

When are you graduating from Columbia, and what is your major?

I am graduating in the spring of 2024 with a joint degree in economics and mathematics. Prior to declaring my majors, I considered studying sociology, East Asian studies, political science, public health, psychology, and philosophy. It’s been quite the journey getting to where I am now, but I’ve loved exploring different interests along the way!

What drew you to economics (and mathematics)?

Coming into college, I was a composer, writer, and youth rights advocate interested in working for NGOs. When people heard I was going to college in New York City, they asked if I was aiming for Wall Street, but I was never interested in business or finance—what I assumed econ was. 

When I took Sunil Gulati’s (in)famous Principles of Economics course freshman year, I was introduced to concepts such as externalities—the effect any good or service has not just on buyers, but on society—which resonated with me. Later, I discovered that in empirical research, economists play a fun brain game of creatively finding natural experiments and instruments (proxies for unobserved data) to specify models that determine causality, and the causal bit is what differentiates econometrics from statistics. Once I understood economics as a combination of social and scientific intuition, I didn’t want to study anything else! 

In hopes of encouraging the same reaction in underclassmen, I’m a TA for the Principles class, and link the theory and models from lessons to the fact that they are representations of our world and our societies. In  the summer of 2023, I researched housing inequality, education access, and gender economics at the Brookings Institution and co-authored several research reports, the first of which was even covered by The New York Times and other news media. It’s been rewarding to chat with students who, like me, initially wrote off economics as “Wall Street,” and want to explore research once they realize, “Oh! That’s economics, too?” (A question I love hearing.)

My passion for economics is also fueled by my amazing mentors and teachers in the department: Senior Lecturer Susan Elmes, Professor Mark Dean, and Dean Miguel Urquiola, as well as my TAs, Michelle and Krishna, two wonderful graduate students.

What is your thesis topic?

The Supreme Court ruling this past summer, which banned affirmative action at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina, left me wondering just how accurately admissions officers would be able to “update their brains” in the upcoming admissions cycle. In the relevant literature, it’s been shown that when comparing two groups, people make the mistake of penalizing the underdogs more for a weakness even when the two groups are shown to be equal in baseline abilities.

I explore this in the context of training gaps between groups. My thesis is a behavioral economics study conducted at the Columbia Experimental Laboratory for Social Sciences, which models how people correct for bias and how signal distortion leads to inaccurate Bayesian updates at new information nodes. The model is stylized by the admissions process at highly selective colleges with a simplification of affirmative action in regards to access to a private education. Breaking down the model of my experiment, it allows us to ask: What shifts can we expect in the incoming freshman class at a college where affirmative action has just been banned? 

What are your plans after Columbia?

I am excited to continue toward a PhD in economics through a two-year predoctoral research fellowship before going back to school, and I plan to continue coursework in math, as my job covers tuition, so I could be back at Columbia! Ultimately, I hope to pursue a career in academia—to teach, do research, and help promote female persistence in male-dominated academic fields such as economics.

Are you still cheerleading?

Unfortunately, I stopped cheering following my second year with the team, but some of my best friends today are still from Columbia Cheerleading, including my roommate. I miss watching the play-by-play of some of my friends in basketball and football, but I still try to cheer from the stands when I get the opportunity to do so.

How do you like studying in New York City? What are your favorite urban activities?

Studying in New York is an unparalleled experience, and shapes students to be more independent and open-minded than other college settings. When I need a break, I can easily go into the real world by taking the train to another neighborhood or borough. I still remember visiting Manhattan’s Chinatown for the first time and not hearing a word of English around me, which transported me back home, having grown up in Beijing with American immigrant parents. I know such moments and hubs also exist for a lot of my friends from other cultural backgrounds; New York City is special in that it has a home for everyone.

I love walking here at a pace faster than that in any other city, or people-watching while sitting at a sidewalk café. I like that you never feel alone in this city, not even for an instant.

Any recommendations for things to do beyond campus?

Explore different areas of New York at different times of the day or the year. The West Side has beautiful sunsets—the West Side Highway has an incredible walkway along the Hudson River that runs the length of Manhattan, and can be accessed at various points in Riverside Park or further uptown, from the Met Cloisters, in Fort Tryon Park.

For a food crawl on a cold Sunday morning, Astoria has the best food trucks and small shops, with steaming tamales and noodle bowls.