At work, Debbie Berebichez is a quantitative risk analyst. On her own time, she's the Science Babe. She's also an inspiration to young women interested in righted-brained careers, including finance.
Berebichez is a moonlighter on a mission: to turn young people, particularly girls, on to science. She visits about three to five schools a month, in classrooms, by Skype or at science fairs, making science fun with entertaining but educational presentations. She also speaks at 10 to 20 international conferences a year on her vacation time.
"My goal is to get people excited about science in everyday life," Berebichez said. "When you get just one email from a 14-year-old girl telling me, 'I never met a mathematician before and, because of you, I can tell my mom that I'm interested in it.'...it's so rewarding."
In her day job, Berebichez is a vice president of quantitative risk analysis at Morgan Stanley spin-off MSCI Inc., a New York-based financial data and software company known for its stock indices.
She earned a Ph.D. in physics from Stanford University in 2004. As a girl growing up in a typical conservative family in Mexico City, Berebichez had to struggle to persuade her parents that she wanted to study math and science.
"It was definitely not a common career choice for women or girls," she said.
She eventually joined the quants streaming into finance about four years ago in a quest for a green card and work that offered less isolation than academia. Fischer Black of Black-Scholes options-pricing model fame, she pointed out, was an applied mathematician and physicist.
Her interest in science-education outreach sparked when she moved to the U.S. "I realized that I wanted to start a program to encourage women to learn science and math in a fun way," said Berebichez, who is in her early 30s.
In her presentations, she'll show, for example, how high a stiletto can be and still remain stable for walking, sprinkling in references to Manolo Blahnik shoes and "Sex in the City." (About five inches.)
She covers such topics in the book she's writing, "The Physics of High Heels and Other Cool Science," and in a television show she wrote. Among the episodes: "Chemistry in the Kitchen" and "Nanotechnology and Fashion."
This fall she'll be an expert in National Geographic's "Humanly Impossible" television series about death-defying stunts. Her efforts won notice in 2008 from O, The Oprah Magazine, and the White House Project, a New York-based women's leadership nonprofit, when she was a keynote speaker for their Women Rule leadership-training program.
Her goal is to create a company in the future and become the Martha Stewart of science edu-tainment with a multimedia website, retail, television and books. While her work is currently volunteer, she hopes the business will one day allow her to focus full time on nonprofit outreach.
To that end, she's rebranding TheScienceBabe.com. "I don't always own it," she said, explaining the word "babe" put off some people. "It resonates very well with some communities, but it isn't so portable." She recently bought the domain Fabulab.com, and plans to flip the switch in four-to-six months.
When asked to speak to students about science and math careers, she'll try to include finance as one option and talk about her own job and career path.
A typical week has her meeting with six-to-seven clients, many with similar backgrounds, reviewing how complex financial models might affect portfolios. But there are limitations to what math and physics can do in the world of finance, she said.
"It's easier to come up with abstract principles for nature, because nature is more consistent. The financial markets are ruled by humans, and human behavior is far more unpredictable," she said.
The "client facing" part of her job is important to her. Most of the roles that math and science Ph.D.s take in financial services are "back office" jobs working with computers and formulas constructing models related to pricing options or other complex financial instruments.
"I'm very happy to have found a place where I can use my mathematical skills and, at the same time, teach other people and interact with them. That's really the joy of my everyday job," she said. "Contrary to a lot of physicists, my personality is more outgoing."
Career Momentum and Inertia
So, what about the physics of finance careers?
In Berebichez's case, momentum seems to be a strong factor.
"When I first started in finance, it was hard to make the jump. That's a very slow momentum situation," she said. "Now that I have a lot of experience, I get phone calls from recruiters all the time. Once you get the ball rolling, then the momentum keeps going."
How about career inertia?
"You tend to stay in the same job unless you actually take matters into your own hands, post your resume and look for another job. You have to get out if that inertia if you want a better job," Berebichez said.
Inertia is the tendency to stay in the same state, either moving or still, unless acted on by an outside force. For most financial professionals, that outside force is market demand.
"You feel that as a force, as soon as market demand goes up. It's extremely reactive."
Write to Laura Lorber