Supporting Students, Advancing Research

New Avanessians gift will propel innovation in engineering and data science

Jun 10 2021 | By Allison Elliott

In early April, with many feeling the weight of the past year’s pandemic, Columbia University President Lee Bollinger announced the Columbia Student Support Initiative. By raising $1.4 billion in financial aid assistance by June 2025, the University aims to revitalize its commitment to need-blind undergraduate admissions and full-need financial aid together with a commitment to propel the next generation of master’s and doctoral scholars and innovators.

One of the early supporters was Armen Avanessians, MS’83, chief investment officer of Quantitative Investment Strategies at Goldman Sachs. Avanessians recently conferred a $10 million dollar gift to Columbia for the Avanessians Doctoral Fellowships for Engineering Thought Leaders and Innovators in Data Science.The gift will support six fellows across Engineering disciplines whose research focuses on or intersects with data science, including those enrolled in the PhD specialization for data science.

For Avanessians, the support of graduate students is an essential component in attracting top talent to Columbia and strengthening the research community. With the Avanessians Fellowships, he hopes to entrench Columbia’s growing reputation as a center of excellence for data science. Columbia has intensely focused on this area for more than ten years, most notably with the Data Science Institute (DSI) launch in 2012 in the School of Engineering and Applied Science.

“It’s hard to imagine any academic field, certainly any with the word science in it that doesn’t aggressively have data science at its center,” he said. He has worked closely with Mary C. Boyce, dean of Columbia Engineering, on embedding data science throughout Columbia and helping DSI become a powerful University-wide resource.

“Columbia has such a wealth of expertise in every area—across all fields of engineering, to medicine and law, to journalism, social work, and the arts and sciences,” said Dean Boyce. “These fellowships create a seedbed to attract and propel the next generation of engineering talent in data science to pursue foundational advances in the highly interdisciplinary environment enabled at Columbia.”

Avanessians points to how data science has transformed numerous industries and professions, including economics, finance, and medicine. He cites the rapid development of COVID-19 vaccines as just the latest example. As data science expertise from engineering and DSI permeates all Columbia schools, he predicts more important breakthroughs to emerge that will benefit the University and, ultimately, the world.

“For what we do, I think we are the best in the country,” said Avanessians. “I think we are in the early days and also at the beginning of what data science can do for society.”

Jeannette Wing, who became the Avanessians Director of DSI and a professor in the computer science department in 2017, agrees. “I came to Columbia because I saw the enormous potential here to define data science and to advance the state of the art. Investing in new talent and training future business and research leaders in data science across engineering is one of the best ways to achieve this potential. It amplifies the great strides we have made instilling data science across all the schools at Columbia and reaping the benefits of this cross-pollination.”

Avanessians believes that by establishing a signature cohort of doctoral fellows in data science, Columbia can catalyze the multidisciplinary research and synergies the University has become known for. His own career path benefited from such interdisciplinary opportunities. A native New Yorker, he started attending classes at Columbia while still in high school. Through the general studies program at Columbia, he accessed college-level mathematics and physics courses, studying alongside older adults and other nontraditional students.

I do believe that intelligence is a social phenomenon. When you have smart people working together, they become smarter. When we send them out into the rest of the world, hopefully, they will make the rest of the world smarter, too.

Armen Avanessians
chief investment officer of Quantitative Investment Strategies at Goldman Sachs

After receiving a Bachelors degree from MIT, Avanessians joined Bell Laboratories and worked on semiconductor chips. He decided to pursue further studies in engineering and chose the electrical engineering master’s program at Columbia, where he took classes as diverse as stochastic processes and computer algorithms.

“In a typical engineering school, a grad student in electrical engineering would not be taking courses in computer science,” he said. “But at Columbia, I could, and I did. Those courses in computer algorithms, optimization, stochastic networks were foundational for the work that I did in finance.”

After Columbia, he returned to Bell Laboratories. Then a call from a recruiter pointed him in an altogether different direction: Wall Street. “At the time, the big thing was to go into tech startups,” said Avanessians. “I didn’t know anything about finance. Why would they want me? But I thought, oh you know, I’ll learn some new things, and then go off and do something else when they get tired of me. I’m still here 35 years later.”

Avanessians ended up heading the “strat” group, a global group responsible for applying mathematical, quantitative, and algorithmic approaches to revenue activities of the firm. In the early days at the firm, he found an opportunity to use some of the skills he had picked up in his computer science classes. When hampered by a particularly tedious piece of software, his group decided to build its own. It became so popular that it was adopted across the firm and was the foundation of its proprietary trading and risk management strategy. Today, he leads the Quantitative Investment Strategies business in the asset management division of Goldman. A cornerstone of the group’s investment approach is applying modern data science techniques to make investments.

Avanessians’ support of the school and University has remained steadfast since graduation. From 2007 to 2019, he served as a University trustee. He is a co-chair for the Data & Society Council for DSI and the Columbia World Projects Advisory Council chair. He is a member of the Board of Visitors of both Columbia Engineering and Columbia Medical school. His son and daughter both graduated from Columbia. Over the years he has contributed to the Engineering school in many ways, including establishing the Janette and Armen Avanessians Diversity Award for faculty who display a commitment to diversity, naming the director role for the DSI, and endowing the Alexander and Hermine Avanessians Professorship in the Department of Industrial Engineering and Operations Research. With his new support of doctoral fellowships, he sees Columbia benefiting across its schools, centers, and institutes with an influence that will extend into New York City and beyond.

“The advancement of civilization is the advancement of collective intelligence,” he said. “I do believe that intelligence is a social phenomenon. When you have smart people working together, they become smarter. When we send them out into the rest of the world, hopefully, they will make the rest of the world smarter, too.”

“From the beginning, Armen has seen the transformational potential for data science and has supported us every step of the way,” said Dean Boyce. “This gift will truly help shape the future of Columbia.”

As part of his gift, the 14th-floor conference room in the Northwest Corner Building, a coveted space known for its sweeping views of Upper Manhattan, will also be named in his honor. The first two Avanessians Fellows will be named in the fall of 2022.