Careers Physics World  May 2018

Once a physicist: LeeAnn Janissen

LeeAnn Janissen divides her time between her ceramic-art practice and her role as managing director of research for East Coast Fund Management in Toronto, Canada

What sparked your initial interest in physics?

I have always been a keen observer of whatever was going on around me. My family used to go camping when I was a child, and I remember spending a lot of time just looking at plants and rocks and textures and how light looked different in various situations. I absolutely loved when the park rangers would give nature talks explaining how everything fits together. When I started studying physics in school at age 15, it seemed that this was the discipline that tried to get at the basic workings of everything. I was very drawn to that idea, and so I studied particle physics, which looks at the very smallest, basic building blocks of nature. That interest is still fundamental to how I approach projects today; both in my research in developing trading-strategies, as well as in my ceramic art practice.

Did you ever consider a permanent academic career in experimental particle physics?

Yes, I think that when I began my PhD at Carleton University in Canada I really wanted to do research as a job. At that stage, I didn’t really have much of an understanding of what the rest of an academic career entailed, in terms of teaching and other such commitments. I was part of the OPAL experiment on the LEP accelerator at CERN, and I lived in France for one and a half years collecting data. Working at CERN was an amazing experience and I’m grateful to have had that opportunity. By the end of my time at CERN, I realized that a career as a particle physicist wasn’t the best fit for me. I still wanted to wander around and learn about all the other parts of the world that I could see around me.

How did you make the shift into the stock market, and what were some of the challenges of moving from academia into the finance industry?

I had already decided to leave academia when I returned to Canada from CERN, to write up my dissertation. One of my office mates showed me an ad that he had clipped out of the newspaper that said, “Wanted: PhDs in quantitative disciplines. No experience in finance required.” This was just at the start of the development of “derivatives and options pricing models” – Citibank was an early leader in that field, and the head of derivatives in Toronto had a PhD in engineering. He reasoned that it was easier to take a person with a PhD and teach them finance, than it was to take a finance grad and teach them the quantitative-modelling skills that were needed. I applied, got the job and started work about a month after my PhD defence.

There are many cultural differences between academia and the finance industry. Some are related to hierarchy and decision making, others are related to status and who adds the most value to the process. But one thing that both fields share is a clear sense of purpose: in academia the focus is on knowledge, discovery and dissemination; while in finance, the focus is on maximizing value for shareholders.

How did your interest in pottery begin?

I started taking evening classes in the late 1990s as a creative outlet from my very analytical and often stressful day job. Right from the start, I loved clay as a medium, as it can take almost any form imaginable. There are several stages the clay must pass through on the way to the final object: from the raw wet clay, to forming on the potter’s wheel, to the drying stage, and then glazing and firing. Each stage has its own chemistry, and its own physical constraints. In many ways, working as an artist was a 180° change – I went from a fast-paced corporate job to a quiet, solitary pursuit with no real deadlines at all. But at the same time, being a ceramic artist has allowed me to connect with people in surprisingly meaningful ways.

What are some of the projects and exhibits you are currently working on as an artist?

I have a line of functional porcelain that I call “Luna-ware” that is inspired by the Moon, and I sell this work at craft shows and local galleries. I also make sculptural pieces that are variations of what I call “fractal landscapes”, where I work with the clay at a particular stage of wetness, such that the natural mountain-like, fractal texture of the clay emerges.

For the past year and a half, I’ve taken a small pause in my ceramics practice because I’ve been involved in creating a new equity trading strategy for a hedge fund. This has been an exercise of re-engaging with writing code and analysing data that has awakened the analytical muscles in my brain once more. Now that fund has stabilized and I’m able to come back to my ceramics practice, I’m keen to explore some of these themes in my ceramic work. For example, I’m starting to investigate how digital techniques can be incorporated into ceramics, either though digital forming through 3D printing in ceramics, or through incorporating types of data-driven imagery.

How has your physics background been helpful in your work?

My physics training has given me a way of looking at and making sense of the world. Physics is a discipline of formulating a model, calibrating it to everything we know, and then finding the edges to try and see beyond this model so we can build the next one. The activity of building models to understand and control the unfathomable is still a central inspiration in my art practice. In a practical sense, I learned versatile, analytical skills that are highly transferable. People often think that in physics you don’t need “people skills” but I think that, in the context of modern, collaborative physics research, social skills are just as important as quantitative ones. Certainly, my experiences with physics collaborations helped prepare me for working in a corporate environment.

Any advice for today’s students?

Reflecting on my professional journey, I think that I’ve used a kind of “gradient search” method of career development where I look at the immediate next steps available and choose the one that feels right. I think the best advice I can give today’s students is to be honest about what success would look like for you. Is it the freedom of having a lot of money? Is it being in a leadership position? Is it the admiration of being an acknowledged expert in the field? Is it inspiring and enabling the next generation? All of those goals are worthy, but each will lead you to a different place, so it’s worth trying to imagine which one would be the best fit for you.