Ganesh Karunakaran grew up in the diverse neighborhood of Washington Heights in Manhattan. Despite the urban setting, his mother made sure he and his younger brother were exposed to nature. The elementary school teacher and later adjunct professor at the Borough of Manhattan Community College often took them to explore city parks or go bird-watching.
That fostered a love of natural sciences for Karunakaran that eventually led him to participate in the American Chemical Society Project SEED program, which gives high school students a chance to work in a research lab. “It was just a really great experience,” he says.
Hometown: New York City
Years in Project SEED: 1998 and 1999
Education: B.A., economics, political science, Cornell University
Current position: trader, Citigroup
His one regret about leaving science: “You lose the jargon; you lose the way of talking about science.”
Karunakaran is now a bond trader rather than a scientist, but his love of science and nature continues. He says his brain is “wired to think about things from an analytical perspective,” something that his Project SEED experience and his high school science classes encouraged.
When he was at Hunter College High School, Karunakaran and a good friend were both interested in science, including chemistry. A chemistry teacher alerted them to Project SEED. Rather than playing basketball with his neighborhood friends, Karunakaran spent the next two summers in the lab of Dani McBeth at the City College of New York, working on ways bacteria can be used to clean up pollutants.
“Project SEED gave us something really interesting to do in the summer that we definitely would not have done otherwise,” he says. He learned a lot and enjoyed his time in the lab.
Karunakaran loved it so much that going into his freshman year at Cornell University he thought he would be a scientist, but his introductory physics classes turned him off. He was surprised to be drawn in by a political science elective and by French, which he had actively avoided taking earlier. That exposure led Karunakaran to study abroad in France, where he explored economics and political science. He eventually graduated from Cornell with both political science and economics degrees.
When he graduated it seemed natural to get a job in finance, Karunakaran said. “Growing up in New York, you get exposed a lot to the financial system. If I was in a different part of the country, I probably wouldn’t be doing this,” he says.
For the next few years, Karunakaran wondered whether he should have stayed with physics or another science discipline. But that wasn’t the right choice for him at the time. “I felt rushed to start a career kind of quickly to deal with family things” and to make money, he remembers. He has friends who continued in science and are still doing their postdocs or are just now starting their careers. He doesn’t regret his choice. “Every moment you have to do your best to make a choice that makes sense.”
After about five years working in finance, Karunakaran got a Fulbright fellowship to go to Brazil to study a financial crisis that at the time, 2011–12, was having a big impact on emerging markets. Commodities prices had crashed, and “it really hurt those economies,” he says. He worked at a university in Brazil and learned Portuguese. “It was an amazing experience,” he remembers.
Karunakaran returned to the financial sector, where he has worked for 15 years. His current job is as a trader for Citigroup, where he’s the head of a small team analyzing the value of bonds related to commercial properties like office buildings, shopping malls, and multifamily buildings.
And he puts his analytical skills he first honed in city parks to good use, he says. “There is reasoning and an empirical aspect to trading and financial markets, and I like it.”