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Turning a talent for numbers into a career in finance

By Tom Henderson

Ryan Holzschuh liked math as a teenager.

He was even one of the top mathematics students at Cleveland High School in inner southeast Portland and took a year's worth of college-level math classes during his senior year in 2022.

However, it took going to Oregon State University for Holzschuh to truly fall in love with numbers.

“When I was in high school, I was just good at math," he said. "I didn't really know what to enjoy about it. Coming here really helped. A lot of the professors helped me learn to love it."

One such professor was Dr. Axel Saenz Rodriguez, who specializes in algebra and number theory, analysis and applied mathematics as well as probability.

"He was my probability professor," Holzschuh said. I "had him for a whole year. He has really taught me to love proofs. I was terrible at proofs early in the year. Now I've gotten good at them."

One area of math was a bit of a harder sell for Holzschuh.

"Algebra was not my favorite, but I had Dr. Clayton Petsche as a professor," he said. "He is such a good teacher and really helped me love algebra, even though I will probably never do it again because it is very complicated."

Holzschuh is graduating from Oregon State this spring with a mathematics degree with a focus in statistics as well as a minor in actuarial science.

A man stands on the Oregon State University campus and pets a miniature horse.

Ryan Holzschuh pets a miniature horse in front of the Memorial Union.

His road to graduation started with his father.

"I was very good at math when I was a kid, and my dad tried to hone in on that," he said. "He always told how when he learned math, he memorized formulas and that got him through math even when he didn't always understand it."

Even if math didn’t rise to the level of a passion quite yet in Holzschuh's young life, he spent a lot of time crunching numbers. "I would always spend hours learning to understand the math I was doing," he said.

All that time paid off when he arrived at Cleveland High School. "I quickly picked up on math because I had such a strong foundation that I could easily build on," he said.

"That led to being very good at math and very good at physics," he added. "I didn't pursue physics because there are just a couple of concepts I really didn't understand, like when I started learning about Feynman diagrams."

Feynman diagrams are pictorial representations of mathematical expressions describing the behavior and interaction of subatomic particles.

Physicist Richard Feynman used wavy lines to represent photons. In physics as well as mathematics, a wave is a propagating dynamic disturbance of one or more quantities. "Waves are pretty weird," Holzschuh said. "Waves always tripped me up, so I decided to focus on math."

Oregon State was a fairly straight-forward choice for college, he said. Other colleges and universities in Oregon don't offer as many classes in statistics, and Holzschuh also wanted to stay close to home.

"I came to Oregon State mostly because I'm from Portland, and it was pretty easy," he said. "I wasn't moving too far, and I still had a little bit of freedom. I also knew a lot of people here, so it would be an easy transition into college."

Once in Corvallis, Holzschuh said he was impressed with the university's world-class faculty, and his love of math flourished.

"I love the theory behind math," he said. "It's super interesting to me how you predict outcomes."

He added he also loves how math is so unambiguous.

"I like how math has one answer," he said. "When you're doing calculus, there's one answer. Now that I'm in more proof-based analysis level math, I like how you go from Point A to Point B, and there are different ways to go, but you're always going to get to Point B."

A man holds a piece of ice and attempts to eat it.

Ryan Holzschuh pretends to eat a piece of ice during an ice storm in January 2024.

His other academic passion is not known for its lack of ambiguity.

"Math and science were my big subjects in high school, but I also had a small interest in philosophy," Holzschuh said. "I really do still love philosophy."

He just doesn't have a lot of time to hang out with Plato, Descartes and their 21st-century counterparts as a mathematics major.

"Because I spend most of my time studying math, I don't have the reading comprehension level to truly understand a lot of the current philosophy papers," he said. "They're just so heavy and dense."

Still, he has friends ready to help. "One of my best friends is a philosophy major in Belgium, and he will talk to me about philosophy for hours," he said. "I really love it."

"Being able to go on the scheduling website and just take a bunch of math classes, it makes me pretty happy."

Being a math major has not kept him socially isolated, he added.

"I've met so many different people from so many different majors," Holzschuh said. "One of my best friends is a mechanical engineer. My two roommates are botany and English majors."

Students recognized for expertise in certain subjects in high school are often humbled when they arrive at college and are no longer the big fish in a small pond.

Even if he was no longer one of a handful of math stars, Holzschuh said he found coming to the mathematics community at Oregon State exhilarating.

"I actually liked it," he said. "For one, college allowed me take the classes I wanted to take. I went from high school, where I took one math class a year and seven other random classes, to where I'm taking 20 hours of math and statistics this semester."

He added, "Being able to go on the scheduling website and just take a bunch of math classes, it makes me pretty happy."

Undergraduate students usually spend much of their freshman and sophomore years taking required lower-division classes, regardless of their majors.

"Once you get past your second year in mathematics, it really opens up," Holzschuh said. "I came in a year ahead on my math track, so once I got to my second year, I could take linear algebra, and once you've taken that, basically everything opens up. You can pretty much take any math class in any field."

He has taken such general elective classes as differential equations, complex variables ("which is really interesting"), math models and math biology.

"I never thought I would take anything related to biology because I hated biology in high school, but that was an interesting class," Holzschuh said.

After graduation, he intends to move from Corvallis in August to start graduate school at Boston University.

"I selected Boston University because it's on the East Coast," he said. "I really want to go there, especially because of math and finance. The East Coast is a great place to be for that. Also, Boston seems beautiful, and it's close to New York."

After grad school, Holzschuh said he hopes to remain on the East Coast and pursue his love of numbers as a quantitative analyst -- designing, developing and implementing algorithms and mathematical or statistical models to solve complex financial problems.

"It's a very challenging career path, and I really like being challenged," he said.