A Physics Pioneer on Wall Street

Sep 26, 2019
John Murray (right)

 

33 years after working at CERN, the attachment is still going strong!

CERN Alumnus: John Murray
At CERN: 1985 Doctoral Student in L3 LEP experiment
Today: Private Investor and Consultant – Synthetic Biology (USA)        

On 27 Feb 2018, less than one year after the launch of the CERN Alumni network, the Office for Alumni Relations received the following concise and pithy message:

“Is there a CERN alumni group in the New York City area? If not, I would love to start one.”

The author of this message was CERN Alumnus, John Murray who has since become one of the founders of the CERN Alumni New York group and a pillar of the Network. Based in New York, John’s first trip to CERN was 33 years earlier, when he arrived as a fresh-faced doctoral student, affiliated to the University of Michigan,

“I was working on standard model physics and in particular on the L3 experiment in the LEP. At the time the LEP wasn’t complete, so I was part of a team building and testing detectors.”

We were curious to discover how John’s career, spanning over 30 years, has taken him from fundamental research in physics to the frenetic world of finance on Wall Street and subsequently to the pioneering sector of life sciences and synthetic biology.

Curiosity and passion for science take root in R1

Going back to 1985 and his first ever experience living outside of the United States of America, John discovered a heightened level of energy and curiosity amongst his peers at CERN, something he had never witnessed prior and has yet to discover elsewhere!

“Every day was a new experience. My absolute favourite thing was spending time with the summer students, out on the patio of R1 in the evenings, just chatting. Everyone was so curious and knowledgeable.  Being in Geneva, I felt we were at the centre of everything, so weekends, we would hop on a train, or rent a car and just discover the world around us!”

John’s time at CERN also provided him with the opportunity to perfect his high-school French and gave him an immersive course in Swiss German.

 “Because we were building the detectors for L3, we were also collaborating with a group from the Paul Scherer Institute (PSI), close to Zurich, so for a certain period my time was split between CERN and PSI. This meant, living out of a suitcase in an honest-to-goodness Swiss village, learning Swiss German!”

John recalls his experience at CERN with great affection; he describes his boss, Tofigh Azemoon, as ‘a really wonderful person’ who ensured he was assimilated quickly, and that CERN was a ‘very pleasant place to work’. John loved doing physics, so one might assume he had a long and fruitful career in fundamental research ahead of him.

Next stop, Wall Street

Despite the fulfilment and intensity of his experience working at CERN, John decided to pursue a career in Finance. What prompted this choice, especially at a time - unlike now - when few physicists ventured to Wall Street?

“I felt Finance was something I would be good at, and I loved the challenge of it. I didn’t understand how the markets worked in the big-picture, but I thought it was a game I could win!”

John found his first job on Wall Street thanks to a book he had read about option pricing. He realised that the equations in the book were similar to those of quantum field theory, except they were easier! In his job interviews, John illustrated the parallels between his skills, originating from physics, and the equations employed in the world of finance. No wonder he was hired!

Ben Zimmer, journalist from the New York Times, writes in his 2010 article “Quants”,
“The big quant boom began in the mid-’80s, when investment firms started attracting venerable names like Emanuel Derman, a South African-born physicist described by Wall Street Journal reporter Scott Patterson as an “überquant,” who eventually became a managing director at Goldman Sachs. “

For John, the timing was right! When he arrived on the scene, the trend to hire quants was just beginning. Members of this new ‘species’ within finances were referred to on a first-name basis, as they were still quite rare. “People would tell me, this person has just started at Morgan Stanley and he’s a mathematician, and this person, a physicist has just been hired by Solomon Brothers. So we all knew one another. And of course, our friends in school started hearing rumours about how overpaid we were!”

Where is the challenge?

When talking to John, it is clear that the skills acquired in physics gave him an effortless understanding of the mathematical models employed in finance, so where did the challenges lie in his career?

 “The math came easily to me,” he says, “but I knew I didn’t understand the bigger picture of why markets behave the way they do.” So John immersed himself in learning about the fundamental forces behind investment markets. Soon his employer, Wall Street powerhouse First Boston, recognized his acumen and gave him responsibility for investing the firm’s capital.

By the late 1990s John was working as a hedge-fund manager at Goldman Sachs, where he was one of the first to realise that the investment world was about to go digital — an insight that prompted him to start his own company.

“I realised that the quantity of data available was going to grow by orders of magnitude, and this would enable us to manage hedge funds much more effectively. But it required a complete overhaul of the way the business was done. The company I started did some really cool things. We built computer models that could predict market inefficiencies, for example, and we used stochastic optimisation to design our trading strategies. Finance textbooks said these sorts of things were impossible, but the textbooks were all written before the markets went digital. Today the things we were doing are standard practice, but at the time they were cutting edge!”

Where there was opportunity, there was also frustration and challenge. John’s attempts to expound the impact and possibilities of increasing digitization were often denied,

“The digital revolution was super exciting for me and the people who ‘got it,’ but it was also frustrating. When I approached investors to raise money, they would often tell me that I couldn’t possibly be right because, otherwise, everybody would already be exploiting these opportunities. They didn’t see the disruption that big data was going to cause in finance, so they felt no need to change anything. Heisenberg said that scientific progress happens one obituary at a time. I found the same to be true of finance. Nevertheless, I persevered. When you try and sell a new idea, there will always be push-back.”

In recent years, John has turned his attention to the emerging field of synthetic biology, where he invests in and advises start-up companies. “I’m very bullish on synthetic biology as the basis for new companies and new industries,” he says. “Biology is following a similar path to what finance did thirty years ago. As the field becomes more quantitative, the pace of progress is going to accelerate, and we are only beginning to understand what the possibilities are. Its impact on our lives will be immeasurable.”

Back to professional roots

Despite leaving CERN in the mid-‘80s, John’s interest in the Organization has never waned. Rather fortuitously, he happened to read about the launch of the CERN Alumni Network when visiting the CERN homepage for updates on the Lab. He immediately signed up to the platform and soon after, offered to be co-founder of the CERN Alumni New York group. We wondered what factors motivated John to start the group and how he envisions its future.

“I loved the time I spent at CERN and the energy of its people. In setting up the New York group, I want to recreate that atmosphere. I also hope to help young alumni who are at the beginning of their careers. Alumni who are more established in their careers often tell me that there was not much mentoring available when they left CERN. I hope we can help our younger members avoid making the same mistakes we did! Finally, in New York, there are so many amazing universities, institutions and companies, and we hope to build connections with these entities for the benefit of CERN Alumni.”

We are delighted that the CERN Alumni New York group is gaining traction. It provides CERN Alumni in New York with a vast and exclusive network as well as access to thought-provoking networking events. Many thanks to both John and Co-founder Michi Botlo.

If you are based in the New York region, why not join the CERN Alumni New York group: https://alumni.cern/topics/3712/feed and if you want to find out more about John’s passion for Synthetic Biology check out this article: https://alumni.cern/news/167623


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