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Faculty Spotlight : Professor Natalia Levina

This month’s faculty highlight is Professor Natalia Levina. Professor Levina has been nominated for the best professor award by EMBA students and regularly speaks at industry conferences. Her work focuses on how people span organizational, professional, cultural, and other boundaries while producing and using technological innovations. Currently, she studies the evaluation and adoption of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in medicine, open innovation, theories of smart contracts, and firm-community relationships in crowdsourcing. We were lucky to get a chance to catch up with her and here are some excerpts from our conversation.

Hello, Professor, Thank you again for meeting with me today! Let’s start by introducing yourself where you’re from, and what you teach at Stern.

I am a professor in Technology, Operations, and Statistics at Stern. I am originally from Ukraine and migrated to the USA several years ago. I teach Digital Innovation & Crowdsourcing, and Digital Strategy. I teach MBAs & undergrad students. In addition to that, I also lecture at a Ph.D. seminar and lead the Ph.D. program. 

Tell us a little bit more about your teaching journey. 

I left Ukraine in 1989 when it was still part of the Soviet Union. There was a big exit of people in that time period when the Soviet Union started opening up. Many people from Jewish backgrounds left the USSR due to the discrimination we have experienced. I was part of a group of 13 members consisting of my extended family. It took us three hops through refugee processing locations to reach the US in 1990. We first settled in the Boston area where I completed my education, both my undergrad and graduate training. I came to New York, as an NYU professor, 21 years ago. 

Did you always know you wanted to teach? 

As a child growing up, I wanted to be a teacher, like a schoolteacher probably teaching high school students. I ended up studying computer science and applied mathematics and decided to get a Ph.D. in Mathematics at Brown University with the hope to teach mathematics to college students. However, at that time, the technology boom was happening, and I felt like there was a lot of cool stuff happening around me, and all I was doing was proving math theorems. 

There was a disconnect between the practical applications of what I was doing and my interest, and this was concerning to me. I decided to finish my coursework and move to the industry to be part of the technology hype. When I started working in the industry sector as an IT consultant, I was unsatisfied with my understanding of technology and technology management. I decided to pursue a Ph.D. to get a deeper understanding of how people interact with technology. I did not know that a Business Ph.D. would lead to teaching in a business school, I was doing it for learning purposes. I got very inspired by my professors in my Ph.D. program at MIT, and this resurrected my passion for teaching, and I decided this is what I must do. 

Wow! You have had a long journey in education! What is your favorite thing about teaching?

Helping students understand complexity and identify things that are not on the surface. The MBA students are very bright and can generate the first level of ideas very quickly, but drawing on the research in my field, I can open their minds to the second level of thinking. For example, students can understand if they do this, what will be the consequences that people do not expect? Getting students to recognize and engage in this type of thinking is very rewarding. Sometimes, I get feedback that I do this in my classes time after time – push students for that second level thinking – and that’s what I mean to do. I want students to become skeptical about on-the-surface answers. 

If you are excited about having your thinking challenged like this, there are still some spots in my Spring 2023 class on Digital Innovation & Crowdsourcing (TECH-GB.3355). Link: https://s18798.pcdn.co/natalialevina/wp-content/uploads/sites/5806/2022/11/MBA-DIC-Syllabus-Spring-2023-1.pdf 

What is your current research interest if you have any?

Artificial Intelligence in Professional Decision Making, particularly in medicine. We just won a few awards, and I am proud of this research. Research focuses on how AI tools have been promoted as a solution for diagnostic radiology. What we saw is that when some of the best hospitals with the best specialists evaluate these tools, there was a disconnect between the way the tools are stated to perform in published materials versus what the doctors see when they put these tools to the test. When trying to understand why – the main insight was that these tools were trained on the opinions of other physicians in machine learning models, but these opinions are not the objective truth. Better data would be clinical data, and right now it is very expensive for machine-learning tool creators to access this information. Additionally, no one knows who is right.  I am very excited about this paper because I believe that this research has applications in all areas. My current paper looks at the issues related to the data used to train tools for Human Resources decisions. Do we really want to hire the workforce of the future based on the data from the past? 

Two published paper on AI in Radiology:

Lebovitz, S., Levina, N., Lifshitz-Assaf, H. (2021). “Is AI ground truth really true? The dangers of training and evaluation AI tools based on experts’ know-what.” Management Information Systems Quarterly, 45(3b), pp: 1501-1525  (Best Published paper of 2021)


Link: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3839601 

Lebovitz, Sarah, Hila Lifshitz-Assaf, and Natalia Levina. “To engage or not to engage with AI for critical judgments: How professionals deal with opacity when using AI for medical diagnosis.” Organization Science 33.1 (2022): 126-148.

https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3480593

What is something that your students may not know about you that you think they should? 

Fortunately, or unfortunately, my students probably know by now that I am from Ukraine. Being from the country at war, in the last 9 months, my life has changed drastically. My family and I are spending a lot of time trying to find ways to help.  I have a refugee family living with me right now- 2 kids and a mother. There is also a project I am putting a lot of effort into, where I am working on fighting Russian propaganda by drawing on research insights from scholars in political science, psychology, and technology studies. The website will be launched soon. This is not for academic publication reasons; this is one way I can help Ukraine. 

On a lighter note, I am a mother of 3 kids and have an amazing dog! Two of my kids are identical twins. 

Looking back at your life, what was the best investment you made in yourself that benefited you up to today, personally, and professionally? 

I think it was to go for my Ph.D. at MIT. I had no idea the value I would get from that and finding a career that I would love. By the time I finished my Ph.D., I found things that are interesting, rewarding, and fulfilling to me. I love having the time and support at Stern to do what I love – research, teach, and mentor. This was probably the best decision I have made for myself. It has shaped my career and life in a great way. 

Outside of teaching and your career, do you have any passion projects? What is something that you do for fun?

I have a love for poetry, especially Russian language poetry. Even though I was born in Ukraine, my native tongue is Russian. I hang out with a lot of people who translate Russian/Ukrainian poetry into English and vice-versa. A friend of mine has translated many songs of a famous Russian poet and songwriter Vladimir Vysotsky (often called “Russian Bob Dylan”) into English: http://vvinenglish.com/ . Vysotsky was a Soviet-era poet, and his poems exalt the universal power of a single human to stand up to an oppressive regime. After the war started, my brother has written an original patriotic song in Ukrainian, which is being produced now and should be out soon. 

Do you have any career advice for your students?

Pursue something that you are passionate about. Life is too short to do things that are not exciting for you. Often it will be hard, and of course, there will be stress and things will be challenging, but if you find something you care about, those challenges will feel lighter.   

Quickfire Round: 

  • What is one word that describes you?
    • Fun
  • What are you reading right now?
    • Academic manuscript of a top academic journal as a reviewer
  • What’s your favorite book?
    • One Flew Over the Cuckoo ‘s Nest by Ken Kesey
  • What are your main sources of news
    • Now all my news attention is on Ukraine. I listen to Feygin-Arestovich daily war-related news on YouTube (vloggers). I have noticed that somebody took the time to translate a few of their news shows into English: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZOVPxP3A7NM&t=832  
  • What is something you do for fun? 
    • Hang out with friends, I am a very social person
  • What are you watching right now?
    • Timothy Snyder’s course on “Making of Modern Ukraine,” a Stern MBA student told me about it, and I love it.   https://youtu.be/bJczLlwp-d8 
  • Do you have a favorite movie?
    • Shawshank’s Redemption 
  • If you could meet anyone living or dead, who would it be, and why?
    • Volodymyr Zelensky- The President of Ukraine. I have been his fan for like a decade. I watched his comedy show literally three times a week, and now that he has become a leader of a country and is showing the world how a person of courage can change history, I would love to meet him! I am sure he is too busy now, but maybe when the war is won by Ukraine, we can meet for a drink. 
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