ASU engineering graduate looks to the sky, reaches for the stars

December 14, 2017

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of profiles for fall 2017 commencement. See more graduates here.

Brittany Nez was a cowgirl growing up, riding and roping from an early age. Every spring and summer her family traveled to her grandmother’s house on the Navajo reservation to tend the livestock, and she still loves being outdoors. But it was a field trip in middle school that made her look to the sky. Brittany Nez in the lab Brittany Nez, recent aerospace engineering graduate, works in the lab during her undergraduate studies. Photo by Jessica Hochreiter/ASU Download Full Image

The class visited a location where lunar rovers were being tested, and for the first time, she heard about aerospace engineering.

Nez found a perfect fit in the general engineering program at the Arizona State University Polytechnic campus, where the small-campus feel and hands-on methodology allowed her to find her focus.

She was working on a project through the NASA Space Grant Internship Program, creating a secondary control system for an underwater robot, when she realized her deep interest in the mechanical/aerospace engineering field.

Her biggest achievement was leading ASU’s Next Level Devils microgravity team in creating a project accepted by NASA for the 2017 Micro-G NExT Program held at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. Brittany is also proud of the two years of research she conducted during her NASA internship, work that became the basis of her honors thesis.

Nez was the ASU chapter co-president for the American Indian Science and Engineering Society. The group promotes the STEM disciplines to Native American students, a mission she plans to back at the secondary level by supporting AISES and similar groups.

Question: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in?

Answer: There were several checkpoints in my education that let me know I was on the right path. The first would probably be my first week at ASU. My classes and the people I was surrounded by gave me confidence that I was where I needed to be. Another time I remember feeling this way (was) when I finished my first project with NASA Space Grant because that was the point when I realized that I needed to change my major. The next time was when I started my honors thesis, because I realized that I have other STEM interests besides aerospace engineering. Another major moment was my trip to Houston because I had finally accomplished a childhood dream to see the NASA headquarters. The most recent “aha” moment occurred with my fellowship at Northwestern University where I realized that I have set myself up in a position where, no matter which path I decide to choose, I will always be happy.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: I chose to come to ASU because it had a great engineering program and the program was very versatile. At the time, I did not know which type of engineering I wanted to go to school for, so ASU’s general engineering program at the Polytechnic campus was appealing to me. I really liked the hands-on methodology that the school provided, and I enjoyed the idea of having the small-campus feel of the Polytechnic campus while still having the resources that a large campus would provide at the Tempe campus.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: After graduation, I am heading to Illinois to work for QuesTek Innovations as a materials engineer. In the future, I hope to become a test pilot for NASA. I hope to complete Air Force Officer Training School and become a pilot. I think I want to continue my education and attain a graduate degree in either mechanical or material science engineering in hopes to better my chances of becoming a test pilot.

Monique Clement

Lead communications specialist, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering


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SIM Fund grows endowment — and the students it serves

December 14, 2017

ASU’s student-led portfolio management program offers practical experience alongside investment professionals

Endowed funds are an important source of revenue for the long-term health of Arizona State University’s research, teaching and learning activities, but their returns are not just monetary: Each year, about 30 students gain rigorous, hands-on experience analyzing and managing a small percentage of ASU’s endowment assets as part of the Student Investment Management (SIM) Fund.

On Dec. 1, those undergraduates and master’s in business administration candidates presented their initial portfolio recommendations to investment professionals — including experts in the community, members of ASU Enterprise Partners’ Investment Committee and representatives from its outsourced chief investment officer, BlackRock Inc.

“The level of sophistication students are bringing to security analysis and portfolio construction is phenomenal. It reflects the investment depth of ASU’s SIM Fund program,” said Suzanne Peck, head of endowments and foundations at BlackRock. The firm will provide portfolio insights to students in the program as part of its new partnership with ASU. “The other thing that stood out was the quality of the oral presentations — in addition to portfolio management skills, it’s clear they’re gaining marketing skills, too.”

The SIM Fund was established in 1996 by ASU’s W. P. Carey School of Business’ Department of Finance and has evolved to meet the demands of the industry. After returning to ASU from two years navigating the financial crisis at Dimensional Fund Advisors, SIM Fund Director and Jack D. Furst Professor of Finance Sunil Wahal recognized the need for experts who, in his words, “understand financial markets in a quantitative, sensible way guided by science.”

Wahal wanted to deliver students a structured experience in portfolio management and securities analysis while they earned credit toward their degrees — not merely a club-like or extra-curricular activity in the field. Though most of the 200 or so student-run funds in the country operate on “stock-picker” models, in which analysts forecast how a company will perform and buy or sell accordingly, ASU’s SIM Fund participants build quantitative portfolios, which require thorough understanding of academic theories applied to large groups of securities.

“You can think of the investment management process — the process of building portfolios themselves — as sort of an engineering problem,” said Wahal, who created a new course, “Portfolio Engineering,” for students enrolled in the SIM Fund program. “The analogy holds reasonably well: you cannot engineer a product unless you understand the science behind it. If I told you, ‘Here, go build a car,’ you wouldn’t know how to build a car unless you understand the basics of propulsion, friction, motion, etc. So, to me, it didn’t make sense that we have students build the equivalent of a car without understanding the science behind it.”

In the course, students learn about financial markets, asset allocation, portfolio chance and drivers of risk and return. From there, they evaluate original, published, academic research focused on anomalies in the market. These theories, such as the use of profitability, volatility or insider trading, have been shown to generate higher (and thus, riskier) returns.

Each of the three teams that made up this year’s SIM Fund program selected and presented one such theory. Coincidentally, each group elected to build their portfolio by linking the value and profitability of companies with relatively small or mid-range market capitalizations. After receiving feedback from faculty and the funds’ advisers, who will gather again in the spring to review results, they will execute their strategy within the restrictions mandated by the funds’ investment policy.

Paige Weisman, a senior studying math and physics, joined the SIM Fund as a junior and is leading a team this year.

“A lot of our decisions are democratic — to a point,” Weisman said of her new position. “It’s hard to put your foot down at certain times without being discouraging. You’ve always got to keep things positive and make everyone feel good about the work they’re doing.”

In addition to reviewing literature, students must identify and scrape their own data, transform signals into an optimized portfolio and, ultimately, automate each step.

“It’s a fair amount of work,” Wahal said. “And let’s not forget, these are students.”

“The professionals in this room are astounded by how well these students do,” ASU Enterprise Partners Vice President of Investments Jeff Mindlin said during the presentations. “The SIM Fund demonstrates the role of an endowment in not only sustaining the university for the future, but in making an impact for students’ education in immediate ways.”

Though the students typically produce superior returns, Wahal says the real dividend is the learning they get out of it.

The program’s alumni agree.

“SIM Fund was the single most valuable experience I had during my years as an undergraduate student at ASU,” said Dakota Boyd, who graduated in 2014 before pursuing a master of finance degree at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He now works as a quantitative trader at Virtu Financial. “Taking Professor Wahal’s Portfolio Engineering class and co-leading SIM Fund my senior year made me realize that I wanted to pursue a career in quantitative finance.”

The experience was similar for Andrew Farber (Class of 2015), who is now an investment associate at Dimensional Fund Advisors.

“For students who are serious about finance, the SIM Fund is a great way to learn the skills and obtain the knowledge necessary to be successful in the field,” Farber said.

As the students’ careers grow, it is likely that so will the SIM Fund investments they made for the university — and in themselves.

Top photo: Students in the SIM Fund program present to investors. Photo by Asael Jimenez/Enterprise Partners

Beth Giudicessi