Well before high school students were flocking to ChatGPT to write their homework, and before every other article in your news app was about the promise and perils of artificial intelligence, a unique program at the University of Delaware was putting its students at the very center of the AI revolution.
UD’s Financial Services Analytics (FSAN) doctoral program got underway with the first cohort of students in 2014. It forges a link between different fields of study and the corporate world, via a partnership between the Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics, the College of Engineering and JPMorgan Chase. The program offers doctoral students financial support and access to top-notch facilities while they pursue an intensive program of research and learning with input from multiple disciplines. It’s competitive, with only a limited number of students accepted every two years.
Students learn both theory and practical application of technology to work with data in the financial services industry and related fields.
That means as businesses increasingly search for workers skilled in tools like machine learning, artificial intelligence and language models, this program is turning out graduates ready for the job. Nineteen classes have completed the program so far with a 20th set to graduate this winter.
It’s not an opportunity you’ll find elsewhere. “As far as I know, there’s no (other) such a program at the Ph.D. level,” said Bintong Chen, director of FSAN.
To see some of the opportunities this program creates, let’s meet a few of its graduates.
Huang “Harry” Shi, Class of 2018
Job: Senior manager, data science, Sallie Mae
Harry Shi earned a doctoral degree in FSAN from UD in 2018 and began a job as a statistical modeler for Sallie Mae. He wouldn’t stay in that role long, though, quickly moving up to become a senior manager. He ran a team focusing on forecasts for different operations like sales and service, like determining how many staff they’d need to handle phone traffic. They also did analytics work to help promote customer use of the company’s mobile app.
Now after a reorganization, Shi oversees a team of data scientists and analysts looking at analytics and strategy development, like exploring data to try to improve customer experience. As a senior manager, he also relates to other teams to develop and coordinate projects.
AI technology is changing really quickly, he says, so he’s continuing to learn and consider how to apply it to solve challenges.
His career has been a process of refining his interests. He earned a bachelor’s in electronic engineering, and a master’s in data communication. After a number of years working in Shanghai in a job where data played a key role, Shi grew more interested in data and wanted to study it more deeply.
“I was searching a lot of different Ph.D. programs across the whole United States,” Shi said. “So I created a list of all those programs. I was really lucky. I got a chance to enroll (in) this program and study at UD.”
Shi valued the foundational mix of classes covering computer science, statistics, business and more. “It really helped me a lot.”
He recalls an optimization class with Chen that he was able to draw on directly to reduce operational cost and improve customer experience using data from phone conversations, agent chats and chatbots. He credits the solid analytics and business training he got in his FSAN education with helping analyze millions of customer contacts.
“In addition, by using these techniques, we have built up a quality scorecard system for different business functions,” he said.
Leonardo De La Rosa, Class of 2018
Job: Vice president of AI machine learning, JPMorgan Chase
At JPMorgan Chase, Leonardo De La Rosa enjoys the way his job is always different and challenging.
He sees it as an art. “Every new problem that I try to solve involves a lot of creativity, in terms of what goes into our models,” he said.
From a class he took while living in Columbia, De La Rosa developed a vague idea that he wanted a career using customer data to improve the systems serving them. He didn’t know what exactly that field was called, but when he heard about what UD was offering, “I was like, this is the answer that I’ve been looking for. I had no idea that such a program existed.”
His work now involves using machine learning to evaluate credit card risk, and decide what to offer customers as far as balance transfers or credit limits.
“I enjoy that tangible aspect of what I do now,” he said. “Because when I build a machine-learning model, I know that it will directly impact our 65 million customers that we have in the U.S.”
That means being careful to make not only accurate tools, he said, but reduce bias in the models so the application doesn’t discriminate against certain groups.
“You want to make sure that the predictions that you make are correct, and provide benefit both for the company and the consumers.”
During his time in FSAN, De La Rosa researched AI applications for cybersecurity and identifying malware. While what he’s doing now is a shift from that in a sense, he’s still using math, statistics and programming to solve problems, he said.
Like other students in FSAN, De La Rosa started an internship during the program that led to his job after graduating. He was able to intern with JPMorgan Chase during most of his time as a student, which he said was an incredible opportunity to both apply what he was learning and build connections for the future.
Kexin Yin, Class of 2022
Job: Senior associate, applied AI machine learning, JPMorgan Chase
A data scientist, Yin is part of a team building machine learning algorithms to evaluate issues like customer risk on credit card applications or car loans, similar to De La Rosa’s focus.
Yin was glad for the financial support she got in the FSAN program that was a big help in being able to graduate.
Her previous education had been in management information systems, and she was interested in studying financial technology. When she applied to doctorate programs, the FSAN program stood out as the most unique, she said. (It also was conveniently close to Penn State, where her husband studied.)
“I realized that this is a very reliable and also very carefully designed program,” Yin said, one that offered excellent support from professors as well as guidance in a diverse field of studies.
She feels the demanding research requirements and different foundational courses in algorithm design and machine learning have been “very helpful for me to do my everyday work now.”
Rachel Zheng, Class of 2021
Job: Machine learning engineer, LinkedIn
At LinkedIn, Rachel Zheng describes her role as helping test advanced AI models, using generative AI to help users refine their searches.
“The key focus for me right now (is) how to leverage the state-of-the-art models to ensure you get what you want, in the shortest time,” she said.
Before starting FSAN, Zheng didn’t know much about artificial intelligence, aside from what she read in the news. By the time she graduated in 2021, though, after researching natural language processing, she had a strong passion for the field and was excited about finding real-world uses for the technology. It’s a vocation she wants to pursue for the rest of her life.
“I feel like it’s a blast to find what I love and make my living on that,” Zheng said. “This is a huge blessing. Not everyone in this world can do that.”
She appreciated FSAN’s flexibility, allowing students to choose from a broad range of research topics and follow their interests. She also appreciated the faculty support.
“They’re very caring. They want to know how things are going. And if there’s anything they can do for you, they will be there.”
Changes on the horizon
As artificial intelligence reshapes the business world, incoming Dean of UD’s Lerner College Oliver Yao has expressed strong support for the FSAN program, saying he’d like to see it grow. Efforts are underway to explore how that can happen.
With a limited number of available openings, the FSAN program is quite competitive, according to Chen.
“We just simply have a lot of applicants. A lot of people want to study in this field,” Chen said.
The tight-knit community of students and the faculty and the high quality facilities combine to make FSAN what it is, said Kelly Chan, academic program coordinator for FSAN.
“It’s all of the pieces put together that make it so successful.”