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Math-Econ Alumni Finding Success: Three Stories From healthcare to finance to urbanization, AU grads are prompting worldwide change

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American University’s BS degree in Mathematics and Economics (Math-Econ) is opening a myriad of opportunities for its graduates. They are finding success in financial engineering, public policy, government statistical offices, political science, data science, computer science, urban studies, robotics—and of course many go on to graduate school to pursue advanced degrees in economics and related fields.

“Our math-econ degree keeps open more doors than just about any other program,” says Economics Professor Mary Eschelbach Hansen, who collaborated with Math/Stat faculty to design the program. “Our graduates obtain tools in mathematics and statistics. Through their economics coursework, they learn how to apply these tools. Our program allows students to move on to graduate study that puts them in a position to design research projects—not just work on them.”

American University math-econ alumni are passionate and driven leaders, prompting worldwide change in industries such as business, healthcare, urban studies, and climate change. Read about our alumni making their mark on the world.

Zarek Brot-Goldberg

(BS math-econ ’11)
PhD in economics at UC Berkeley
Postdoctoral researcher at Yale University (2019-20)

After graduating with an MS in economics from American University, Zarek Brot-Goldberg spent two years at Microsoft Research, working on research about the economics of health care. He then left to pursue a PhD in economics at UC Berkeley. After finishing his PhD, Brot-Goldberg will spend the upcoming academic year as a postdoctoral researcher at Yale University. After that, he will start as an assistant professor at the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago.

Brot-Goldberg’s research uses theory and tools from economics to inform health care policy. “In my dissertation work, I showed that large health care organizations use the primary care physicians they employ to steer patients to services they sell,” he says. “In other projects, I have used ideas from behavioral economics to show how patients misunderstand health insurance, and why this may make it difficult to reduce health care costs through so-called ‘consumer-directed’ policies.”

Brot-Goldberg says he’s thankful for his time at American University. “Having a strong background in math is essential for understanding and doing modern economics research,” he says. “Skills I picked up in courses at AU on probability theory, mathematical statistics, and linear algebra have been essential for my career.”

When asked about what advice he would give budding economists, Brot-Goldberg says, “The best part of economics as a discipline is its dedication in marrying theory to data. Understanding economic theory, knowing how to analyze data, and, most importantly, being able to use data analysis to verify and refine theory, are the most important skills one can pick up in the Math-Econ degree.”

Benjamin Miller

(BS mathematics and economics ’12)
Software Engineer
Center for Government Excellence (GovEx) at Johns Hopkins University

After graduating from American University, Benjamin Miller became a research assistant at the Federal Reserve. The US economy was still slowly recovering from the financial crisis, he says, and Congress was actively not helping so monetary policy was the only game in town. “I helped run balance-sheet simulations on Operation Twist, QE3, and eventually tapering. My experience with AU’s Math and Econ program, including assisting on a Great Depression research project with a wonderful professor, gave me the theoretical baseline knowledge needed to understand these newer policies,” he says. “Further, the programming skills I gained in the program set me up to accept a promotion to a Technology Analyst role. In my new position I got to create and manage SQL databases, create forecasting models, and automate routine processes. In December 2016, the Fed raised interest rates for the first time in a decade, and as policy began to normalize, I looked for a new challenge.”

Miller saw urbanization as the next great policy frontier. “Because more people live in cities than ever before and because land use policies impact everything from climate change, to social justice, to public health, and more, I decided to pursue the field,” he says. Miller enrolled at the Center for Urban Science and Progress at NYU and earned his Master's in Applied Urban Science and Informatics. “The coursework further developed my analytical and programming skills and all the projects focused on urban issues. My capstone involved measuring the determinants of real-time population clustering as approximated by connections to public WiFi networks,” he says. “I also had the opportunity to intern with the NYC Department of City Planning where I helped develop data pipelines used for the creation of a capital projects explorer.”

Miler currently works as a software engineer with the Center for Government Excellence (GovEx) at Johns Hopkins University. “We work with cities and other governments and help them use data better. I am the lead developer on our internal website, which we use to link information about the cities and other governments we work with our project management, survey, and customer tracking tools,” he explains. “I also manage our analytics server and am involved in a few projects where we are helping cities perform more in depth analyses.”

Miller says his Math-Econ experience at American University created the lens through which he sees and thinks about the world. “The emphasis on both theoretical and empirical analysis, as well as the technical skills I gained, gave me the tool set I needed to succeed in any profession,” he says. “While I no longer directly work in economics, I would not be where I am today without my background and I still very much think about things at the margin!”

Miller believes that students will never regret studying Math-Econ. “It provides a way of thinking and a collection of skills that allows you to success to in whatever you want to do,” he says.

Jonathan Wallen

(BS mathematics and economics, finance minor ’14)
Finance PhD Student
Graduate School of Business, Stanford University

Jonathan Wallen is currently a PhD student at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business. His research is in the areas of finance and macroeconomics, in particular, an intersection of finance with the real economy: bank lending. His recent work documents the effect of bank market power on asset prices.

During his time at American University, Wallen did a summer internship at Soros London between his junior and senior years. He received an Honors Scholars and Artists Award in 2014 and won the Best Student Oral Presentation in the Social Sciences at AU’s Matthias Research Conference in 2014. Wallen graduated half a year early from AU’s program and worked on research until he began the Stanford PhD program in the fall of 2015.

When asked if he had any advice for current American University math-econ students, he says, “For the first two years, ace the coursework and take as many advanced math and econ courses as you can handle. In your third and fourth years,  focus on building a portfolio of your original work.”

In the world of finance, Wallen says, “Hard skills are the core; soft skills are the periphery.”