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  • Lisa Borland

    Physicist Lisa Borland uses her scientific background to tackle problems in the world of finances: at a company in San Francisco, California, called Iris Financial Engineering and Systems, Borland uses theoretical concepts from physics to understand certain patterns and dynamics in financial systems. Born in Kingston, Jamaica to a Swedish/Russian mother and a Jamaican father, Borland describes her upbringing as "privileged" and "close to nature" -involving "a lot of star-gazing and pondering the origins of the universe." Due to political unrest in Jamaica in the 1970's, however, all this abruptly changed when Borland was twelve years old and had to accompany her mother and sister to Sweden, where they would move into "concrete slums" that contrasted greatly with their lovely home in Jamaica, before they got settled and on their feet again. She overcame the culture shock and setbacks she faced in Sweden, and soon learnt the language, made new friends, and was doing well at school. She managed to get into one of the best high schools in Stockholm, earning her bachelor's degree with distinction in physics at the University of Stockholm. She remembers the professor of her first mechanics class "sneering and wondering if we girls could manage," which, Borland hastens to add, "We did." Borland also recalls the Dean telling her "jovially" at a graduation party, "Well, congratulations. It's odd that things could have gone so well for a refugee child!" With characteristic optimism, Borland speculates that "in a way it was constructive to have to overcome the doubts of others."

    Borland has traversed the globe collecting degrees and honors. She earned her Diplom with highest honors in Germany from the Freie Universitaet Berlin, then her doctoral degree at the Max Planck Institute in Stuttgart, West Germany, where she gradated summa cum laude in 1992. At the institute, she worked with Hermann Haken, famous for his work in the field of Synergetics, a field of statistical physics which aims to understand the phenomenon of spontaneous pattern formation, or "how order can arise from chaos." Examples include the sudden formation of patterns in fluids, laser lights, clouds, ecological cycles -indeed, "the most extreme example of all, namely the formation of life itself." Borland was Haken's first female student in his thirty-year career. Her research centered on the following problem: Given a set of observations of a particular phenomena (the classic Newtonian example is an apple falling to the ground), what are the underlying dynamics and forces driving the phenomena -both deterministic and stochastic (random)? In the case of the falling apple, the force of gravity is deterministic, whereas the force of the wind, which changes the apple's course, is stochastic. "The apple example is an easy one," Borland explains, "but in physics one is often faced with measurements and observations of very complex processes and it would be desirable to understand the forces creating them." Her thesis developed a theory which can extract and separate the underlying deterministic and stochastic forces of a large class of random nonlinear processes.

    Borland continued her research at the University of California at Berkeley, where she had received the President's Postdoctoral Award. There she met her husband, who is also a physicist, and had their first of two children. Landing a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant enabled her to work in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. After two years, with two children, she and her husband decided to turn down academic posts in Brazil in order to return to the United States, where they wanted to settle. Despite many publications in good journals, however, they failed to secure academic jobs in the U.S. and began applying in the private sector instead, with great success. Borland accepted her current job as a researcher at Iris, which she enjoys tremendously. She explains that these "two worlds" of finance and physics are actually surprisingly close: "There is even an up-and-coming field termed econophysics." Borland encourages those who love physics to study it, even though academic jobs are limited, because there are many other fields that you can break into as a physicist -including computer science, biology, finance, and scientific journalism. "So if you feel the calling, go for it!"