The Department of Applied Mathematics, the Applied Mathematics Graduate Program and the student chapter of the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM) celebrated their many successful alumni recently by holding their inaugural Distinguished Alumni event and giving the Outstanding Graduate Alumni Award to Nitesh Kumar, who graduated with his Ph.D. in 2013.
Kumar is the vice president of engineering at the financial company Affirm, where he leads a group of about 150 software engineers and machine learning engineers. He is responsible for the decisioning system that enables consumers to make a purchase using Affirm. He also led Affirm's development of machine learning and underwriting capabilities that Affirm is widely known for. Data and computation have played major roles in all the work he has done since graduation.
The company now has 2,500 employees, but there were fewer than 100 when he joined.
“Every other company I have worked for has been a startup, too. My experience at UC Merced helped me set up for startup jobs really well. I felt confident in my abilities to figure things out, and work together closely in a tight-knit group,” he said. “On the technical side, the Applied Math Ph.D. program set me up with appropriate computational training to solve real-world problems.”
Kumar was invited to return to campus to give a presentation to current graduate students and to receive his award and attend a special reception.
He spoke to the attendees about his journey through graduate school to reach what he does today.
“I talked to the students about changes I observed on campus, and how times have changed from when I was on the campus. I also tried to explain what makes UC Merced so special and how I see graduates doing exceedingly well post-graduation and over time,” he said. “I think there is an interesting comparison between UC Merced and startups that I have worked at in the industry. And I tried to illustrate what’s good about these environments and the opportunities one has in such places.”
More than 50 students have graduated from the applied math program with master’s or doctoral degrees since 2008. Many have gone on to jobs at national laboratories such as Lawrence Livermore and Argonne; jobs in industry with companies including Intel, Northrop Grumman and Philips Research North America; or jobs in academia, said department Chair Professor Suzanne Sindi.
“We are at the point where our alumni are doing some very exciting, incredible things now,” Sindi said. “We're proud of all of our graduates but when it came time to consider who we would give the award to, Nitesh was one of the first people that came to mind for all of us.”
Kumar completed his doctoral degree with Professor Harish Bhat as his faculty advisor.
“I have many fond memories of meeting with Nitesh. We would meet for hours, on weekdays and weekends, to go over background material in probability, finance, statistics and machine learning. He was super enthusiastic about doing this, and he knew that I was learning a lot of this material along with him,” Bhat said.
One of the traits Kumar displayed was an honesty about what he did and didn't understand, Bhat said.
“I guess he knew that if he said he ‘got’ something, I might ask him to explain it to me on the whiteboard,” Bhat said.
Another characteristic that made Kumar an outstanding graduate student, Bhat said, was that he “really put the time in to acquire a graduate-level understanding of the subjects and areas that were needed for his research.”
Kumar was one of the first doctoral students in the applied math program, so there were relatively few students compared to faculty at the time.
“We got to interact at a personal level with all the students and all the faculty members. This made graduate work, and particularly research, more rewarding,” Kumar said. “I felt invested in my fellow graduate students' success and inclined to learn more about what the other faculty members were doing. Even when the going was tough, I felt our relationships made it easy to both give and receive feedback.”
Professor Arnold Kim, who helped found the applied math program at UC Merced, said Kumar demonstrated to the faculty that the graduate program “could actually work.”
“Before then, we had some vague ideas, ambitions and hopes about how to establish our graduate program, but we were just putting them to the test. We didn't really have time back then to ask ourselves, ‘Can we actually pull this off?’ but it always lingered in the back of my mind,” Kim said. “Nitesh’s success was a major point of motivation for us all and really propelled what we had been doing.”
Kim also credits Kumar with being largely responsible for the department culture.
“His positivity, motivation and industriousness really were quite crucial to establishing an early culture for the relationship between faculty and graduate students,” Kim said. “The other students benefited greatly from his excitement in class, and he seemed to enjoy being at UC Merced so much, his fellow students had a hard time being grumpy. I also think his work with Harish leading to his thesis provided a crucially important model for us and the graduate students, including his choice to pursue a career in industry.”
Kumar said he was surprised to learn that he was being recognized with an award.
“I feel both humbled and honored,” Kumar said. “I want to live up to the award.”