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Department: Mathematics

Fontnouvelle Mathematics

Patrick de Fontnouvelle ’87

Vice President, Federal Reserve Bank of Boston

The appeal of math

I took a roundabout path to becoming a math major. Although math was one of my favorite subjects in high school, I initially wanted to try something different in college. I started off as an engineer, and went on to consider various other fields as diverse as English and architecture. The ability to explore so many different areas is one of my fondest memories from Princeton.

Despite one’s efforts to make important choices based on rational criteria, personal taste and “gut” instinct are more often the deciding factors. This was certainly my case: I ultimately came back to math because it was something I felt I was good at and enjoyed doing. Regarding the first of these reasons, I was in for a surprise as my cohort included a number of truly brilliant young mathematicians—and I felt decidedly more middle-of-the-pack than I had been in high school. But I did continue to enjoy math and find it intellectually stimulating, and the skills I developed there in perseverance and problem-solving have continued to serve me long after graduation.

My first position after Princeton was as an actuarial trainee at an insurance firm in New York. As actuarial science relies heavily on mathematics and statistics, it is potentially a good fit for a math major. I found the field somewhat dry, however, and began searching for a next step that would lead to a more policy-oriented position. I went to graduate school in economics, a field that was a perfect match of the technical skills I had acquired and the policy areas that I wanted to get involved in.

Career at the Fed

Ultimately, my major in mathematics has led me to a career as an economist in the Federal Reserve System. I am currently vice president of bank supervision at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. My responsibilities include measuring risk at our nation’s largest banks, as well as implementation of the Basel II Accord on capital and financial stability.

My work at the Fed has always involved difficult technical material. While this material is not always mathematical in nature, the rigorous thought processes of the mathematician help one consider problems and eventually solve them. Ironically, I’ve valued my math background even more since taking on a managerial role. As in most organizations, managers spend much of their time on organizational strategy and personnel matters, and this can lead to concerns about one’s ongoing ability to do technical work. The intellectual foundation gained from the math major is invaluable in this regard. Put simply, having done the math major (and the economics Ph.D.) gives me the tools and confidence I need to continue to hold my own in technical projects.

“Ironically, I’ve valued my math background even more since taking on a managerial role. As in most organizations, managers spend much of their time on organizational strategy and personnel matters, and this can lead to concerns about one’s ongoing ability to do technical work. The intellectual foundation gained from the math major is invaluable in this regard. …”