Lab Report: Updates Keep Hanlon Facility on Cutting Edge

When you walk past the Hanlon Financial Systems Lab on the fourth floor of the Babbio Center, it’s easy to forget you’re on a college campus.

From the real-time stock ticker to the rows of Bloomberg terminals and other high-tech computers, the Hanlon lab could fool you into thinking you’ve wandered into a Lower Manhattan trading room — except, of course, that you can see Manhattan from the windows.

That’s been the reaction from virtually all of the alumni who’ve toured the lab since it opened in 2012.

“When they see the lab, there’s a common reaction,” said Dr. Ionut Florescu, the lab’s director and a research associate professor in financial engineering in the School of Systems and Enterprises. “The reaction is, ‘Wow, this is interesting — this is amazing, what you guys have here. What do you do with it?’ ”

The answer, of course, is plenty. A variety of courses are taught in the lab, it’s a research hub and it will be a vehicle to bring companies across the Hudson for training.

The latest donation to the lab is just part of what that effort could look like. In July, Nvidia selected Stevens and the Hanlon lab as a CUDA research center. CUDA is Nvidia’s computing platform, which uses high-powered GPUs to improve analysis of financial data — critical in areas like risk management and high-frequency trading. The Hanlon lab was selected for the potential research provided by its high-tech trappings, including financial engineering projects that could change how calculations are done on Wall Street, as well as better and faster modeling of financial instruments to assess risk.

Other universities have high-tech labs of their own, but Stevens’ stands apart, said Dr. Germán Creamer, a Howe School associate professor in quantitative finance, who played a role in the lab's development, leveraging some of his experience in working with hedge funds and financial service companies.

The lab's history stretches back to 2002, and the creation of the financial engineering program at Stevens. Dr. Khaldoun Khashanah, a professor in the School of Systems and Enterprises who is the financial engineering director, said he and others who envisioned that program saw a financial lab as a necessary component, to keep Stevens' offerings on par with competitors like MIT.

"You need that lab to be able to compete with schools that had these programs in place," Khashanah said. And Stevens has gone one step further with its lab — the university offers a Ph.D. program that is the only one in the nation.

Khashanah, working with Florescu and Dr. George Calhoun, of the Howe School, led the effort to find physical space for the lab, furnish it and attract donations, including the critical gift from alumnus Sean Hanlon.

Importance of innovation

At other schools, labs stagnate when leadership lacks an understanding of both finance and technology. With the lab under Florescu, keeping it up to speed won’t be an issue, Creamer said.

“As long as we have leadership that understands changes in the finance industry, and also technology, then the innovation process will be maintained,” he said.

The key needs for the lab going forward, Florescu said, are in research and collaboration with industry.

“Research is an issue, because the finance area is not supported by the government,” Florescu said. To counter this, the lab is pursuing funding opportunities with industry and foundations.

Still, the lab has effectively attracted donations to keep it competitive. Creamer said donations have helped bring in industry standard software, such as Barra and OneTick, and the recent gift from Nvidia of 10 GPU cards.

The donations are “very important, because (this technology) is used by the major investment companies as a way to build portfolios and explore different investment strategies,” Creamer said. It creates an opportunity for students to use software to complement theory.

“If there are such facilities at other schools, many of them are not available to undergraduates,” said Calhoun, a distinguished service professor and director of the quantitative finance program at Howe. “Here, we can tell incoming freshmen that they will be using the lab actively, and getting Bloomberg certified in the very first semester on campus.”

“I see several student candidates and parents every week, and there is no doubt in my mind the Hanlon lab is a decisive plus factor in recruitment,” Calhoun said.

Brush with celebrity

Alumni, donors and industry executives who visit the Hanlon lab typically come away with plenty of positive stories about the depth of teaching and research that is performed in this high-tech facility.

And some more recent praise of the kind of work coming out of the lab comes from a very prominent leader.

Gov. Chris Christie’s visit to the Hoboken campus in October included an address focusing on the importance of a technology-centric education and innovation in today’s economy.

“For New Jersey to continue to grow economically, we will need workers to fill more than 260,000 STEM-related jobs by 2018, and a large number of those workers will need to come from the Stevens campus,” Christie said.

That, of course, is at the heart of the lab and its mission.