“Where your talents and the needs of the world cross, there lies your vocation.”
My mother shared this maxim with me when I graduated high school, penned in her eloquent cursive. My father worked countless blue-collar jobs before enrolling in a community college to one day become a physician. Together, they inspired me to be purpose-driven and nonlinear in my career path.
At the University of Notre Dame, I applied to join the Program of Liberal Studies, an intensive “Great Books” program. We began with the Greeks and read chronologically the seminal texts in philosophy, ethics, mathematics, science, economics, political theory, psychology, and literature. I got C’s and D’s on my first papers. My professors saw through the decadent language I had been rewarded for in high school and pressed me relentlessly on critical thinking and logical argumentation. Gradually, and with great effort, I learned how to read. I learned how to write. I learned how to think.
Armed with this education, I turned my attention the challenge of poverty. Having served as the captain and president of the Notre Dame Boxing Team, which supports Catholic social work in Bangladesh, I developed a penchant for political economy and development. Over several years and visits to Bangladesh, I wrote papers on the country’s constitution and educational system, started a service learning program, produced a documentary film called Strong Bodies Fight, and conducted field research on the garments industry following the Rana Plaza factory collapse that killed 1,134 people (and traumatized thousands more).
People in international development invariably encounter a troubling truth: many anti-poverty programs do more harm than good. Some leave the sector for this reason. Others forge ahead — some in denial, most in an honorable effort to be a positive force for good. For my part, I teamed up with Michael Matheson Miller and others to produce education materials challenging conventional thinking — most notably, the PovertyCure DVD Series (a six-episode curriculum for Christians) and the feature documentary Poverty, Inc., winner of over 50 international film festival honors and the $100,000 Templeton Freedom Award.
A key insight from our work involved reframing poverty as a problem of a exclusion from institutions of justice, stifling networks of productivity and exchange. A prime example is the dysfunction of land title in low-income countries. As I toured the film festival circuit with Poverty, Inc. in 2014-2015, I began researching blockchain technology for property records. I joined the MIT Digital Currency Initiative and led a research engagement with the Mexican Government, which prioritized an intriguing problem in supply chain finance: warehouse receipts.
Warehouse receipts are title documents on stored goods, such as agricultural commodities or metals. They underpin trillions of dollars in global trade and derivatives. At their best, warehouse receipts help farmers access credit and get higher prices for their goods. But they’re plagued by countless frictions, massive frauds, and systemic risks in asset-backed securities markets. With the hypothesis that the immutable, distributed ledger of a public blockchain could help, I made this the focus of my graduate work in finance at MIT Sloan.
Advised by former IMF chief economist Simon Johnson and operations finance professor Nikos Trichakis, I teamed up with fellow MIT graduate student Henry Aspegren to lead the development of b_verify, a new open-source protocol for supply chain records. We built a prototype warehouse receipts registry utilizing the protocol and authored papers in both management science and computer science to share our theoretical predictions and experimental results. The Inter-American Development Bank is among those now working to pilot b_verify in emerging markets.
MIT’s motto is Mens et manus. Mind and hand. At Notre Dame, I fashioned my mind to analyze big problems. At MIT, I acquired the hand for creating real-world solutions. Today, I use both in my role as a research scientist and founding member of the MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab, a new $240 million initiative for the responsible advancement of artificial intelligence. My work affords me the opportunity to work on fundamental problems with super intelligent, high integrity people at IBM Research and MIT. My current research, in addition to continuing b_verify, involves developing new deep learning methods to stop financial crime, such as the money laundering operations enabling the $40 billion human trafficking industry.
I have my loving mother and father to thank for inspiring what has been a fulfilling and adventurous career-to-date, along with my ever-supportive and brilliant wife Hanane, whose courage of conviction to do what is right in all things challenges me daily to be a better man.
Thank you for taking the time to connect with me here. I will use this web platform to share my work and occasionally my mind on other matters.