Friday, January 30, 2015

From The Director's Desk - Verrazano Travels in 2014

Professor Charles Liu, Verrazano Director, did some traveling in 2014 as part of his academic work.  Below, he shares some of his observations about the places he visited.  Note the Verrazano t-shirt worn proudly, and be sure to bring your Verrazano t-shirt on your next adventure!

The Verrazano School is still young - just finishing our seventh year of existence - and not everyone has heard of us yet.  That’s changing, of course, as Verrazano alumni increase in number and continue to do great things that carry our reputation far and wide.  Meanwhile, I am happy to spread our name wherever I go.  In the tradition of Verrazano students sharing their study abroad experiences, I’ll describe a few touristy highlights from some of my 2014 academic travels:

Vindobona ruins
Vienna, Austria - At the height of the Roman Empire, Vindobona was a thriving fortress and settlement.  Today, the great city of Vienna is built on Vindobona’s foundations, and one branch of the Vienna Museum (free admission on the first Sunday of every month!) is dedicated to that history.  The ancient Romans welcomed a diverse population that brought a wide variety of languages, religions, and cultural practices into its domain, while it propagated its government and technology outward.  (Read on to see what I mean...)

Bratislava, Slovakia - Either by boat along the Danube River or by commuter bus along the highway, it’s almost easier to travel from Vienna to Slovakia’s first city than it is to go from Staten Island to New Jersey.  So I went!  Bratislava is a relatively small city, yet rich with history, culture, and art.  It was a great half-day sojourn to amble around this Eastern European capital, once behind the Iron Curtain and now a vibrant, growing free economy.  Have some bryndzové halušky - super-delicious traditional Slovak dumplings with sheep cheese and ham - when you go.

Masada and the Dead Sea
Masada - This UNESCO World Heritage Site in southern Israel is far more than just an opulent ancient Roman palace and fortress overlooking the Dead Sea.  The Roman siegeworks that surround the palace, occupying some 700 acres, are the best-preserved of its kind in the world.  Although the palace towers more than a thousand feet above the desert floor, the Dead Sea basin is so low that the palace’s highest point is less than 200 feet above sea level - half the height of Todt Hill.  It was particularly remarkable to me that many of the architectural features of the palace, including its heating and plumbing systems, looked exactly like the features I saw in Vienna’s Vindobona ruins, 1,500 miles and a continent away.  Pretty amazing, those ancient Romans.

Rawabi in the West Bank
Rawabi - In the West Bank, 15 miles north of Jerusalem and 15 miles south of Nablus, is a residential community under construction that is being modeled after American-style planned communities like Reston, Virginia.  When completed, Rawabi will have schools, shopping, an amphitheater, and 6,000 family homes.  It felt to me as if I were touring a new subdivision being built on Staten Island - complete with model homes, showrooms, and construction vehicles rolling around and beeping from all sides.

In all my travels, what struck me most was the commonality of the people I saw and met - all of our shared hopes and aspirations, all of us doing the best we can and trying to do the right thing, and all of us making the most of what we have to make the world a better place.  The leader of the development at Rawabi said it well; he told us that he grew up in Nablus, just a few miles away, and when he visits he sees his childhood friends and acquaintances still there - many of whom are more gifted and talented than he - who never left their hometown, and never explored beyond the limits of what they’d known since birth.  He counted himself so fortunate that he had the chance to go to the United States, to live and get an education here, so he could learn and see all the amazing things that exist in this world, and then embrace the opportunities he saw to make a good life for himself, his family, and his community.  Sometimes the world can feel a little too big, or crazy, or intimidating; if we can remember, though, to ground ourselves in what really matters, as one human being to another, then all that other stuff will seem much less daunting as we strive to do the best we can, one day at a time.      

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Mathematical Finance: A Verrazano Course Enrichment Project

Michael Siozios, Verrazano Class of 2015, did a special Verrazano course enrichment project in an upper-level mathematics course during the fall semester.  Read below to hear from Michael about what he learned from the course and the project.

Hello, my name is Michael Siozios, and my majors are Mathematics and Finance. I am part of the Verrazano Class of 2015.

My Fall 2014 semester was awesome to say the least. I had a research experience unlike any other, in which I was lucky to witness, in action, all of the mathematics I’ve had exposure to my entire life. Thank you to the Verrazano Program for making this possible. I interacted directly with mathematical finance, utilizing the mechanics necessary for future study in financial engineering. My course material and the research project made me aware that the depth of knowledge necessary to be fluent in this field is vast.

I was able to see and understand a beautiful derivation of the Black and Scholes formula used to price options available for sale in the financial markets. The techniques used to price options are amazing. My favorite part of pricing options is that the methods financial engineers and banks apply hedge an option that writers position to be risk neutral in theory.  Hedging, in investment terms, means that investors use strategies and instruments to try to reduce or offset risk as much as possible. I see why the options market has grown over time to be a tremendous industry.

The course strategy was amazing and taught with passion, giving the class a great perspective on the material. We obtained a thorough understanding of the discrete elements of the course, and by employing methods learned in continuous probability, we were able to move into the continuous, and thus more realistic, world nicely.

Programming was a focus of my research outside of the classroom, and I analyzed and compared models designed to price options appropriately.  A “correct” option price eliminates arbitrage opportunities.  Arbitrage is when someone buys in one market and, at the same time, sells in another market without much, if any, financial risk. I learned that after many instances of time accounted for discretely using the binomial option pricing model, one may price options nicely. Otherwise, one may use the Black Scholes formula. Why am I interested in this material? It’s simple: options have been a key component in finance for a long time, and they allow individuals to hedge their investments. It has even given rise to other practices like option trading. These are business opportunities available to everyone, making it possible for individuals to have a diversified portfolio and a varied source of income.

An important lesson learned in my research experience is that there is no upper limit to the knowledge of programming I should obtain. Many individuals prefer some languages over others; however, knowing multiple programming languages can be extremely beneficial to someone in the field of financial engineering.

All in all, although the demands of my courses and research combined were extensive, this experience was excellent. I have far more knowledge than previously, and I’ve acquired information necessary for my future career.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

First Annual Verrazano Alumni Reception

In December, The Verrazano School Honors Program hosted the first annual Verrazano Alumni Reception.  It was a fun, festive evening of conversation, refreshments, and connections!  

Verrazano alumni networked with people from various class years, reconnected with former classmates, and shared what they’ve been doing since they graduated. Some are completing graduate programs, and others are working full-time in their respective fields.  Alumni remarked that the activities they participated in as undergraduates - especially study abroad and internships -  made them strong candidates during their job search.  About fifteen alumni attended, along with their guests, and represented undergraduate majors ranging from nursing and psychology to business and English.  There are just under 200 members of the entire Verrazano alumni community, so it was a great turnout for the first event!  

The food was generously sponsored by the College of Staten Island Alumni Association.  As a highlight of the evening, Professor Charles Liu, the Verrazano Director, facilitated a wine tasting to accompany the hors d’oeuvres.  The tasting was a big hit and a great learning experience, and it was unofficially the first VELA for alumni! 

The alumni who attended were enthusiastic about attending future Verrazano alumni events, and we look forward to hosting the second annual Verrazano Alumni Reception next fall.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Bella Italia: Preparing For A Winter Intersession in Florence, Italy

Jennifer Giordano, Verrazano Class of 2017, has been awarded a Verrazano Study Abroad Scholarship to help support her winter study abroad experience in Florence, Italy this January.  Jennifer is a History major with a minor in Italian Studies.  Below, Jennifer shares why she decided to study abroad and how she hopes to grow through the experience.

Jennifer prepares to spend the winter in Florence, Italy.
For the past two years, I have been told the same phrase multiple times and although it was said by different people, it always sounded the same: “You will only grow when you step outside of your comfort zone.” I could not understand why everyone was under the impression that I needed to step outside of my comfort zone in order to grow. I have always disagreed with the implication that I needed to be uncomfortable in order to transform myself. I knew long before college that I wanted to study abroad. I had always been intrigued by the cultures of other countries and how people live their daily lives. I intended to travel to Italy in the most comfortable way I could possibly think of, and that was with a reputable program associated with my college with the company of a few of my good friends.

At first, I considered studying abroad for the whole semester. I tried to recruit as many people as I could. I brought it up so often I noticed people were starting to avoid me. I took this as an indication that most people weren’t as willing to leave their lives for a whole semester as I thought they would be. When I really thought about it and considered my own disposition, I realized that traveling for a whole semester wasn’t what I was comfortable with either. Now, naturally, I had this internal battle with the whole comfort zone situation. Was I limiting myself? Was I challenging myself enough? In the end, I decided that winter intersession was the perfect medium. I would feel comfortable enough to allow myself to be uncomfortable, because I had some great friends to travel with and a beautiful language and city to look forward to.

The winter intersession fits the profile of who I am and what I want to accomplish as a sophomore college student. After declaring history as my major and Italian as my minor, Italy was the perfect place to achieve exploring both of my passions. For the future, my experience in Florence, Italy will be transformative on a whole new level. Although I’ve been to Italy before, studying abroad is a very different type of experience. Traveling alone, studying alone, and being a part of the daily Italian lifestyle will provide me with a whole new outlook. Spending this winter abroad in Florence, Italy will be a truly wonderful experience. I intend to use this experience to fully explore myself, my studies, and to represent The Verrazano School Honors Program.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Verrazano Computer Science Students Visit Google In NYC

Professor Fred Johnson teaches Introduction to Computer Science for Verrazano freshmen as part of a learning community each fall.  In December, he brought his class on a special visit to the Google headquarters in New York City.  Read below for reflections by two students who participated in the class trip.

Shannon Milone, Verrazano Class of 2018
My name is Shannon Milone and I am a student in the Verrazano Honors Program class of 2018. I am currently working towards a Computer Science degree, and my classmates and I recently visited Google in New York City.  For many years I have heard stories about Google offices, but actually seeing this with my own eyes was incredible. The atmosphere is completely laid-back and creative. Employees are trusted to lounge, play video games, or eat at any time they desire. This environment does not stunt production but increases it by letting employees come up with their own ideas on their own time. The positive energy and intelligence was felt as soon as I walked into the company doors. This trip heightened my passion for computer science and really showed me that although it is hard, a job in this field is both rewarding and satisfying.

Dakota Paxton, Verrazano Class of 2018
Verrazano class at Google in NYC.
Google was beautiful. My Introduction to Computer Science class went on a trip to the Google offices in New York, and boy was it something! Even before entering the building, I was intrigued as to how monstrous it was and what could be contained inside. Upon entering, we were given visitor passes with out names on it (that we sadly had to give back at the end of the tour) and were introduced to Andrew (our guide) and his peers. They all seemed very nice and open to any and all sorts of questions we wanted to ask about Google or how to get a career there! The first “exhibit” we looked at was the donated computers that our professor most likely used in his era; they all looked amazing.
Then as we went along with the tour we passed by a game room containing multiple entertainment machines that everyone wanted to try. However, we moved along and were confronted with multiple “mini bars” that were customized with a specific theme! There was a Pac-man, subway, Lego and other themed snack bars, all of which looked amazing. The Lego area was probably my favorite place because co-workers were able to create their own pieces of art and place them on the wall, which is a unique touch to customize the office.

As we continued onward, we were finally able to meet the “cafeteria.” They had personal chefs and baristas as far as the eye could see! I got sushi, but there were so many other choices tempting me. As we sat down we were given an opportunity to speak with members of Google. I spoke with one man who worked on Google Maps who discussed his purpose and their goals; it was all very informative. I also learned about all the quirky easter eggs that are included within Maps.

After lunch, we were brought to a conference room where Andrew presented a PowerPoint to inform us what a Software Engineer does and how they function in the workplace. These were things a majority of us already knew, considering we’re planning to go into the field, but the included jokes within the presentation were nice. All in all, it was great to see where they actually conduct meetings and such.

The tour was really awesome. Our group actually got to see what goes on inside of Google! It was kind of like finally understanding a trick that the magician did that you never knew how to do before. I feel that if given the opportunity, anyone should go visit Google. Lastly, I definitely know where I want to be interning next year!