Students of the French quant goddess are coming of age

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Mention Nicole El Karoui in the presence of a quant, particularly a French-speaking one, and he or she is likely to fall into the kind of reverential silence usually reserved for Carla Bruni.

El Karoui teaches the Masters in Probability and Finance at the Ecole Polytechnique and University Paris-VI. In France, a Masters is known as a DEA. Such is El Karoui's fame that the course she teaches is commonly known as the DEA El Karoui.

El Karoui's course is nothing new. She began teaching the maths underpinning derivatives in 1989, and French banks have long made use of her students.

US banks are more recent converts. However, Goldman's London trading desks are said to have developed a particular taste for El Karoui alumni. "It's compulsory that DEA El Karoui students do an internship as part of the course," says one London quant recruiter. "This makes them very appealing compared to British MScs who may not have had any experience of the business."

Until now, however, recruiters say El Karoui's pupils have typically become practitioners rather than leaders.

"Traditionally, most of El Karoui's students have been lieutenants rather than officers," says Dominic Connor at P&D Quant Recruitment. "She doesn't turn out big names, she turns out very bright and very competent, technicians and probabilistic mathematicians."

This could be about to change. Connor says non-French banks only really discovered the joys of El Karoui DEAs within the past decade. As their hires come of age, they are coming to occupy senior positions in the industry, and breaking out of quantdom in the process. One example is Rachid Bouzouba, the El Karoui alumni who was promoted to co-head of global equities at Nomura earlier this week.

In 2006, Bouzouba told the Wall Street Journal that a DEA El Karoui, "is a shortcut because you don't need to train the person on the basics of derivatives."

In future, El Karoui's alumni may gain even greater cachet from a certain scarcity value: having worked in the industry for more than 40 years, the goddess of quants is due to retire soon. A while ago, she told us she was bowing out in three year's time; that was 2007.

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