Carolina Math & Me: Ivan Kirov

Today’s guest post comes to us from Ivan Kirov, who graduated from Carolina in 2010 with B.A. degrees in both Mathematics and Economics. Kirov is now a Credit Trading Analyst with Bank of America Merrill Lynch, for which he was in Chapel Hill last night for a Summer Analyst Presentation Information Session.

Why math?  In 2007, sometime late in a hot Chapel Hill spring, I was asking myself just that.  To an 18-year-old me, mathematics was a series of equations and facts to be remembered; a strange symbolic litany as unknowable as lines of hieroglyphs.  I hadn’t taken a math class for more than two years  (and indeed was quite proud of this).  I’d planned well – my AP credits ensured I wouldn’t have to waste time memorizing my way through any university math.  My passion lay in economics and politics and literature; in understanding the beautiful complexity of the human social endeavor.  Economics in particular fascinated me.

They say that economics is the queen of the social sciences, and in that hot spring I came to understand why: it’s the math.  Barely past Econ 101 I began to encounter differential equations of which I had only the vaguest recollections.  If intermediate undergraduate macroeconomics was giving me so much difficulty, how could I hope to go to graduate school?  How could I hope to do meaningful work in the field?  The cruel logic of academic necessity admitted no shortcuts.  Two months later, I was in summer school Calculus II.

And for a time it was just as I’d remembered it – memorizing tables of integrals and formulae for curvature.  But then sometime in between discrete math and real analysis and differential equations, I came to a startling realization: that wasn’t nearly what mathematical thinking was all about.  In French literature and political economy and microeconomics I found myself thinking in strange new ways.  That’s not the direction of causation, I’d think to myself.  That condition is not sufficient.  This inductive argument can’t stand up to scrutiny.  My math courses hadn’t just taught me what an eigenvector was.  They’d changed the very structure of my thoughts.  Mathematics, it turns out, isn’t some ancient scroll to be committed to memory.  It’s a Rosetta Stone: a tool and a mode of thought that lets us tap human reason in a precise and powerful way.

Precision and internal consistency are at the core of the mathematical way of thinking.   To take a set of principles and carefully advance an argument, to build upon established postulates, to pull apart the Rubik’s Cube of life and puzzle out its intricacies – that is mathematics.  That’s why political scientists rely on game-theoretic models and why bridges can withstand wind shear.  It’s how we can securely send our credit card details to online merchants.  Mathematics isn’t Pythagoras’ Theorem and tables of integrals – it’s a culmination of the human mind.  Lloyd Shapely, one of the two recipients of the 2012 Nobel Prize in Economics, wrote in 1962 that “any argument that is carried out with sufficient precision is mathematical.”  Mathematics is a synonym for human reason.

That appreciation is the core of my UNC Mathematics diploma.  It’s an appreciation that’s widely shared – my UNC Math training gave me the analytical core I needed to be successful in finance.  I got many an interview in my final year just by virtue of my math major.  They may be dry at times, but mathematicians are universally respected.

So, why math?  And why Carolina Math?  Training in mathematics gave me an intellectual framework for life that I’ve found profoundly useful and meaningful: an appreciation for precision, careful thought and intense examination.  And the many brilliant and devoted professors at UNC instilled in me a commitment and passion that’s served me very well both professionally and intellectually.  Among many others, Dr. Goodman’s passion, Dr. Rimanyi’s rigor and Dr. Plante’s perspective  seem to me to be irreplicable.  A curious mind ought to drink deep from the draught of mathematics.  An enterprising one ought to do so at Carolina.

— Ivan Kirov