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Home » Discover Rackham » Student Spotlight: Elaine Wah

From her first foray in programming with a “Learn Visual Basic in 21 Days” tutorial that she and her twin sister completed during one summer vacation while in elementary school, Elaine has been around computers from an early age. Inspired by her father, a faculty member in Electrical and Computer Engineering, she majored in Electrical Engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign before switching to computer science for graduate school.

Elaine landed at Michigan after a stint in the Ph.D. program in Computer Science at UCLA and a difficult couple years finding her way. She recalls, “It was a challenging time because I was discovering new research interests, which was exciting, but it turned out that these interests weren’t the main areas of focus at any of the research labs there, at the time.” Elaine had started graduate school interested in computer graphics but became intrigued by research questions at the intersection of finance and computer science after completing two summer internships at Citigroup in New York – one in technology and another in quantitative trading. “Finance seemed like such an interesting area because the market changes every day. It made me want to explore research opportunities that combine finance and computer science,” she says.

So she started looking into the opportunities available at other programs and institutions, including Computer Science and Engineering (CSE) at U-M. “I knew Michigan was the right choice from my campus visit day. It was clear that both the department and the College really cared about making sure the prospective graduate students got a chance to meet both faculty and students, as well as get a good feel for the culture of the department.”

“Coming to Michigan was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made, and I’m so grateful for all the opportunities I’ve gotten since coming here. One thing that’s particularly great about U-M is that it excels in a wide range of areas, which is ideal for interdisciplinary work like my dissertation research. I have both a finance and a law professor on my thesis committee, for instance, and being able to get their perspective on my research progress has been invaluable,” she continues.

A fifth-year doctoral candidate, Elaine is studying the effects of algorithmic traders, who can utilize automated computerized algorithms to submit orders to buy and sell in financial markets. For instance, one of her projects looks at the effects of ultra-fast high-frequency trading algorithms on other traders in the market who aren’t as fast. She asserts, “In my first paper, we looked at a strategy called latency arbitrage, which takes advantage of fast access and response time to exploit price differences caused by trading across dozens of competing venues, rather than just one.” The general approach she uses is to build computational models of algorithmic traders as intelligent agents and to then let them loose in a simulation to see what happens. She continues, “What we found is that when these latency arbitrageurs are present in the market, they reduce trading gains for everyone. However, that’s only possible because current markets are continuous. Switching to a discrete market where orders are matched to trade at intervals, rather than as they arrive, improves gains all around and prevents these high-speed traders from exploiting slower investors.”

In her most recent project, she constructed a model where various fast (such as high-frequency traders) and slow traders (such as regular investors) have the opportunity to choose between a continuous market and a discrete one, also called a frequent call market. She says, “We found that fast traders chased slow traders to either market, whereas the slow traders tend to run away from the fast ones, ultimately ending up in the frequent call market. This is pretty exciting because it shows that there’s definitely potential for a frequent call market to exist ‘in the wild,’ so to speak.”

Last summer, Elaine interned at the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission headquarters in Washington, DC analyzing stock market data to investigate the efficacy of current and proposed regulations. She spent this past summer at the Microsoft Research office in New York studying a different type of market: prediction markets, which are used to make predictions about the probability of an event happening. Through all of these experiences, Elaine has been exploring a well-rounded set of options and she plans to pursue both industry and academic job opportunities in the future.

Like many graduate students, Elaine gets out of the lab to recharge with friends. She does so in a unique way: playing broomball, a hockey-like sport played on ice in sneakers with a “broom” instead of a hockey stick. She describes, “It’s a random hobby I picked up as an undergrad. I’ve organized a team for other grad students in my program for the last couple semesters and our team even won the U-M Grad/Faculty/Staff league intramural championship last year.”

Elaine has also played a pivotal role in starting the Ensemble of CSE Ladies

new student organization specifically for supporting graduate women in Computer Science and Engineering through mentoring, community, and professional development, and she is currently serving as its co-chair. Leading comes naturally to her, but she’s had some help developing her vision, goals and ability to lead with integrity through her involvement in LeaderShape, week-long leadership development program offered to students at U-M for nearly thirty years. She says, “I attended as a participant and loved the experience so much I returned as a facilitator the following year. It was really great to meet so many incredibly enthusiastic and passionate U-M students and to help them in their personal journey. It’s not an opportunity that many graduate students know about so I’m always encouraging others to participate as well.”

As her journey continues, Elaine draws strength from the tireless support she receives from the people around her: “My family has been really great throughout my time in grad school. My parents have been incredibly supportive and understanding of all the times I’ve only been able to chat briefly on the phone because of research deadlines, and my twin sister, who recently completed a Ph.D. in CSE at another institution, has read and given me feedback on every one of my research papers. I couldn’t have gotten through grad school without them. I also owe a lot to my advisor, Michael Wellman; the opportunities I’ve been afforded as a Ph.D. student at U-M have been largely thanks to him. For grad students, our doctoral experiences are largely shaped by our advisors, and I’ve found that the U-M faculty are outstanding. But it’s really everyone here at Michigan: the entire community, from my peers to the faculty and staff, have made my journey so far go much more smoothly than I could have hoped for.”