Aidan Thornton, W’17, wasn’t sure about his path until he conducted research with Prof. Susan Wachter into real estate finance through the Summer Program for Undergraduate Research (SPUR).

For Aidan Thornton, who graduated from Wharton this past May, engagement in policy research proved truly transformative, helping to shape his entire educational experience at Penn and giving stronger direction to his burgeoning career in the private sector.

Like most undergraduates, Aidan arrived at Penn without a clear sense of what exactly he wanted to study, but excited to explore the breadth of what the University had to offer.

“My intellectual and academic interests have always reached across disciplines,” Aidan said. “I found that this drove me to adopt a multidisciplinary approach in structuring my academic work at Penn.”

Summer Spent in Research

In determining how to spend the summer after his freshman year, Aidan was referred to the Wharton Summer Program for Undergraduate Research (SPUR), which led him to a position with Prof. Susan M. Wachter. This was fortuitous indeed, for as Aidan recounts, “working with and learning from Prof. Wachter became the most memorable and rewarding element of my undergraduate academic experience.” After spending the summer working under her guidance on a self-designed research project, Prof. Wachter invited Aidan to join her as a Research Assistant — a position he maintained for the rest of his undergraduate years and that allowed him to grow immensely as a student of real estate economics and policy.

The opportunity to work with Prof. Wachter allowed Aidan to delve more deeply into real estate finance topics than he would have been able to do just in the classroom. Aidan really maximized that opportunity, and recently earned the distinction of having his research published. His article, titled “Macroprudential Policy and Non-Bank Finance: Implications for Commercial Real Estate Credit,” has been included in recent issues of the Columbia Economics Review and Berkeley Economic Review, and Aidan also presented it at the Issues in Political Economy 24th Annual Conference in New York. His work found that the implementation of macroprudential policy measures, particularly the capital regulation established in Basel III as a response to the Great Recession, may serve to disincentivize traditional banking institutions from providing liquidity to the commercial real estate debt market—a gap that will prove attractive to more flexible, non-bank financial institutions, such as private equity firms and hedge funds. The research has clear practical applications with respect to public policy, as such a shift in the composition of institutions providing liquidity to the commercial real estate sector would carry significant policy implications within the context of systemic risk management.

Aidan’s research experience also had a strong impact on shaping his plans for after graduation; he found it gave him a leg up when he started looking for work in the private sector. “During interviews with potential employers, it quickly became clear that my understanding of certain issues in the real estate finance realm were far deeper and comprehensive than the general understanding that would have been imparted from a lecture or a textbook,” Aidan recounts. “Additionally, I think that pursuing research has provided an opportunity to be continually engaged with the newest developments in my field— an incredibly useful advantage in the private sector.”

Leadership in Undergraduate Research

While at Wharton, Aidan extended his passion for research by serving as a member for the Wharton Undergraduate Research Board, a group that works to further opportunities for Wharton undergraduates to engage in research. During his tenure, the board produced a white paper outlining the state of undergraduate research at Wharton, as well as sponsored events and programs for undergraduates to pursue research. “I feel that a vast majority of Wharton undergraduates think that pursuing research is only useful to those seeking to pursue a career in academia or public policy. However, I’ve found that many of the students who have participated in research go on to leverage the knowledge gained from those experiences to be incredibly successful in the private sector.”

Aidan graduated in May 2017, and will be beginning his post-Wharton career at EY (formerly Ernst & Young). Beginning in September, he will join EY’s Transaction Advisory Services practice, working as a member of the Transaction Real Estate group, advising clients on the optimal strategy for transacting and managing real estate assets. While he hopes to continue engaging in research throughout his career, Aidan was attracted to the opportunity to apply the knowledge he’s gained through research and coursework in a practical setting. Through his position, Aidan hopes to build a knowledge of real estate and financial markets by understanding how firms derive value from real estate assets at a highly focused level. “On the long-term basis,” Aidan states, “I’d like to apply my multidisciplinary approach to real estate finance in an investment context, particularly by focusing on the international real estate debt markets.” The future possibilities are tremendous — and are a testament to the power of where research can lead.

Posted: July 20, 2017

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