From physics to finance

From physics to finance: A scientist moves from theory to practice

Mihir Worah, PhD’95, deputy chief investment officer of global investment management firm PIMCO, describes an epiphany during freshman physics: “You can throw a ball and, based on fundamental laws of nature, calculate exactly where it’s going to end up.” He suspects his classmates at Lafayette College were bored, but Worah thought it was “the coolest thing in the world.” Where his career would ultimately end up, though, he could not predict.

Worah had moved to the United States from India to study engineering, but his path turned toward physics. He advanced into particle physics, specializing in charge-conjugation/parity (CP) violation, which indicates that the laws of physics apply differently to matter and antimatter. James Cronin, SM’53, PhD’55, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for his discovery of CP violation, taught on UChicago’s faculty, so it was natural for Worah to choose the University for his graduate studies. As the lead guitarist in a blues band, he was also drawn to Chicago’s music. Once in Hyde Park, he became a regular at the Checkerboard Lounge, even attending one of owner L. C. Thurman’s private birthday parties featuring Chicago’s most prominent blues players such as Buddy and Phil Guy and Magic Slim.

The time Worah spent in Chicago made a lasting impression. “The intellectual thrill of being surrounded by people who cared about advancing knowledge and not much else—that really shaped who I am.”

In 1993, a couple of years before he finished his PhD, Worah and the field of high-energy physics faced a setback when construction of the Superconducting Super Collider was halted. The Texas-based particle accelerator, planned to be 20 times more powerful than any accelerator constructed at that time, was one of many projects that fell victim to budget cuts during the early ’90s recession.

This was doubly frustrating to Worah: his field was robbed of highly anticipated crucial data and job opportunities. “When that got canceled, it hurt a whole generation of particle physicists.” So during a postdoc position at University of California, Berkeley, he did physics by day and taught himself finance by night.

He worked briefly at Iris Financial Analytics in San Francisco before joining the quantitative analytics group at PIMCO, where his physics background was immediately applicable to solving differential equations and writing simulations used to analyze probability and predictability. He now manages portfolios for institutional and individual investors specializing in inflation hedging and tactical asset allocation. He is also responsible for overseeing hedge fund and quantitative strategies, as well as portfolio analytics and risk management.

“I thoroughly enjoy what I do—it’s as intellectually challenging as theoretical physics,” says Worah, “but if there was more funding, it’s possible I’d still be a physicist. Clearly science funding is an issue, and I wanted to give back.” So he worked with Physics Department chair Ed Blucher and then dean of the Physical Sciences Division Robert Fefferman to create the Yoichiro Nambu Fellowship, named after the Nobel Prize–winning theoretical physicist and UChicago professor emeritus.

Now entering its third year, the endowed fellowship is offered to recruit the most promising graduate students in any branch of physics, who in turn attract top faculty who value the quality of students at the University. “High quality graduate students are UChicago’s lifeblood,” says Worah. “We do get some of the brightest grad students, but let’s get more than our share.”

Worah, who recently joined the PSD’s visiting committee, explains that he is committed to fellowship support because a small amount goes a long way. “Graduate students should be able to focus on research. You don’t need to build a new lab for your money to have huge dividends.”

Make a gift to the Physical Sciences Division today. For more information or to learn about your giving options, contact Tom Priebe, assistant director of development for the Physical Sciences Division, at 773.702.6135 or tapriebe@uchicago.edu.

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