Developing Realistic Models of Financial Markets: A Conversation with Lawrence Jin

Lawrence Jin (MS '06) is a new assistant professor of finance at Caltech. Born in Beijing, China, Jin studied physics and mathematics at Tsinghua University, earning bachelor's degrees in both fields in three years. In 2005, he came to the United States and earned a master's degree in electrical engineering at Caltech. Then he tried something completely different, spending a few years working as a research and trading analyst on Wall Street. Ultimately, he opted to pursue academic finance and earned his doctorate in financial economics at Yale University.

Jin's arrival at Caltech marks an important step in building a finance faculty to support Caltech's Business Management option and to expand the research activities of the Ronald and Maxine Linde Institute of Economic and Management Sciences. In the spring term, Jin taught courses in Behavioral Finance (BEM 114) and Asset Pricing Theory (SS 215).

We recently sat down with Jin to discuss the types of problems he is interested in, how psychology and neuroscience can help inform financial models, and what brought him back to Caltech.

What is the focus of your research?

My main research area is behavioral finance, a very active field within the broader field of economics and finance. We try to develop psychologically plausible and realistic models to better understand financial markets.

When you say "behavioral" in this context, what do you mean?

Actual human behavior. For instance, people are not necessarily making fully rational decisions using all the available information they can possibly obtain; they cannot pay attention to every single thing they encounter. And they have some psychological biases when forming opinions of the financial market.

The key questions are: In what way are people systematically irrational? And how can we model irrationality and its interaction with other economic forces to better understand financial markets? When addressing these questions, we try to discipline ourselves by understanding people's behavior through the lens of psychology, behavioral sciences, biology, and neuroscience.

Can you give some examples of the types of problems you study?

One example is to understand stock market fluctuations and other asset pricing phenomena through the lens of psychological biases.

One type of psychological bias is something called sample-size neglect, the notion that many investors mistakenly think small samples can be just as representative as large samples. In other words, investors tend to draw a conclusion too quickly. For instance, if you see a sequence of good stock market returns, it may just be random. But if you think that you are actually seeing a trend, you might positively revise your expectations of future returns. And it turns out that you revised your expectations too quickly. This is an example that links sample-size neglect to a finance application.

It is important to note that the behavioral approach to study financial markets is not an isolated approach. Sometimes it interacts with other things like financial frictions.

What are financial frictions in this context?

In financial markets, there are many frictions. For instance, ordinary households typically do not invest directly in opaque markets such as the market of mortgage-backed securities. Instead, they invest through mutual fund managers. With this specific structure, some conflicts of interest may arise. For example, mutual fund managers might care more about making money for themselves than helping their clients. Such frictions ultimately could interact with behavioral biases, and they can amplify each other, especially during bad times like financial crises.

Another example is transaction costs that you need to pay a broker when you buy and sell stocks and bonds. One finding in finance is that when individual investors decide to actively manage their own stock portfolios, on average, they underperform. In other words, if you instead give your money to an index fund, you are likely to do better.

Financial economists try to understand why individual investors trade so much on their own even though they underperform index funds.

One behavioral explanation is that investors may be overconfident in their ability to invest. There is a very nice paper by Mark Grinblatt [UCLA Anderson School of Management] and Matti Keloharju [Aalto University School of Business in Finland] that uses data from Finland to show that people with a higher level of overconfidence trade more. In Finland, all of the 18-year-old male citizens are required to go into the military. When they do so, they take aptitude tests and behavioral tests. Overconfidence in this paper is measured as their self-reported confidence based on the behavioral tests minus how confident they should be based on their performance on the aptitude tests. The interesting thing is that this measurement of overconfidence predicts how frequent people trade stocks several years later when they open their brokerage accounts. And those who are more overconfident trade more and have poorer trading performance.

Understanding behavioral biases such as overconfidence is helpful not only for understanding financial markets, but also for helping people to make better decisions—things like saving more money for retirement and keeping their jobs.

Can you share some results from some of your recent work?

I am very interested in understanding the origin of financial bubbles and crashes. We study why bubbles—for instance, housing bubbles—arise in the first place and also, along with the formation of bubbles, why people begin to trade more. How long is a bubble going to last? When and why do bubbles eventually crash? And what are the consequences?

Our model is trying to answer these questions through something called extrapolative expectations. Consistent with the sample-size neglect we discussed earlier, extrapolative expectation is the notion that after seeing a sequence of good stock returns, many real-world investors tend to believe that the stock market is going to keep rising in value

In this model, a fundamental shock is needed for a bubble to start—something like good news about the market. Those signals create a positive price impact on the market, so market prices go up. Then our extrapolators, people who have these extrapolative expectations, start to get more and more excited. They take the initial increase in market prices too seriously, and their self-enforcing beliefs end up helping prices to keep going up. However, as the initial good news that got people excited in the first place recede into the distant past, extrapolators' irrational exuberance diminishes, and the whole bubble unravels—you get a crash.

How does the idea of frenzied trading come into play?

There is lots of empirical evidence that suggests when bubbles occur, you see a lot of trading in financial markets: investors buy and sell lots of stocks. Economists have had a hard time explaining this.

We have this idea, supported by some neuroscience studies, that when investors are looking at a stock market as a bubble is being created, their trading decisions are influenced by two conflicting signals. On the one hand, investors see a positive trend, and their extrapolative expectations tell them that the price is going to keep going up. This is what we call a growth signal. On the other hand, investors are also aware of the fact that the stock market may be overvalued, and therefore it may crash in the near future. We call this a value signal. Given that the value signal and the growth signal typically tell investors to trade in the opposite direction, investors may slightly change the weights they put on these conflicting signals over time¾we call these changes in weight "wavering." 

As the bubble develops, these two signals endogenously become very large, or extreme.

And as a result, a small degree of wavering could generate a lot of trading volume.

Intuitively, you can think of the value signal and growth signal as two voices in your head telling you different things. During normal periods, the voices are speaking in pretty low tones. In this case, you may be wavering, but that does not change your actions much. But during bubble periods, it is like you have two crazy voices screaming at you, telling you radically different things. Then even the same small degree of wavering is going to cause lots of trading.

The idea of wavering we came up with turns out to be very helpful in generating lots of trading volume during bubbles.

Do you plan to collaborate with anyone in particular at Caltech?

On the one hand, my research is very structural and mathematical. On the other hand, it requires very good intuition about financial markets. To get that intuition right, sometimes you need to work with psychologists, neuroscientists, biologists, and behavioral economists. Caltech has a lot of strength in these other areas that can definitely help me to build my research.

Were there any other factors that led you back to Caltech? 

I really like the idea of having an impact on talented students, and Caltech clearly has very high-quality undergraduate and graduate students. I think it is going to be fun to teach the students and do research with them.

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A Conversation with Lawrence Jin
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Lawrence Jin (MS '06) studies how psychology and neuroscience can help inform financial models.
Thursday, August 11, 2016
Center for Student Services 360 (Workshop Space) – Center for Student Services

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Wednesday, August 24, 2016
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Wednesday, September 21, 2016

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Wednesday, July 13, 2016
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Teaching Statement Workshop

2016 Distinguished Alumna: Janet C. Campagna (MS ’85)

The 2016 Distinguished Alumni Awards were presented on Saturday, May 21, during the 79th annual Seminar Day. Each week, the Caltech Alumni Association will share a story about a recipient.

When Janet Campagna arrived at Caltech in 1983, she had already taken the unexpected path. First, she had come to study social science in a department that was still a young, small island within a campus devoted to science. She was also the only woman in her class. 

Thirty years later, Campagna is still charting new territory. As the founder and CEO of QS Investors, she is among a very small group of women who lead investment firms. 

She is also the first social scientist from Caltech's Division of the Humanities and Social Sciences to receive the Distinguished Alumni Award, which was presented for her contributions to quantitative investment and for her leadership in the financial industry.

Read the full story on the Caltech Alumni Association website

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Campagna received the award for her contributions to quantitative investment and for her leadership in the financial industry.

The Next Big Thing

To get a glimpse into the future, what better place is there to look than the minds of those about to become Caltech's newest alumni? After all, our 2016 graduates have been at the forefront of research in vastly different fields for the past few years. Their unique perspectives have informed their ideas of the future, and their work will reach far beyond the confines of a lab.

With that in mind, in the Summer 2016 issue of E&S magazine, we talked to a handful of undergraduate and graduate students prior to commencement to find out what they think will be the next big thing in science and engineering and how their plans after graduation reflect those ideas.

 

I believe that the future of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) will place a greater emphasis on implementation and impact of research. While rapid economic growth and globalization have introduced numerous difficult challenges, society has acquired powerful new tools and technology to develop and implement solutions for these issues.

I will be working as a management consultant after graduating to expose myself to business and strategy. That way, I can perhaps one day help new discoveries and ideas produce a tangible impact on people's lives."

Aditya Bhagavathi
BS in Computer Science

 

I believe the future of planetary and space exploration will follow two paths—one, the search for life beyond Earth within the solar system, and two, the characterization of exoplanets.

For the solar system, the initial survey of its major worlds was just completed with the New Horizons flyby of Pluto, and therefore a new focus will likely emerge. That initial survey has revealed several worlds to be potentially habitable, including Mars, Europa, and Enceladus, with the former two already targets for future missions. These new missions will not only reveal more about these worlds but also force us to reevaluate what life is, how it arises, and how it endures.

For exoplanets, the diversity of worlds is immense. From giant planets that orbit their host stars in less than a day to habitable planets with permanent daysides and nightsides, exoplanets offer a tremendous opportunity to understand the planets in our own solar system. With the rapid development of technologies, instruments, and observing techniques, the flood of data regarding exoplanets will only continue. I plan to be among the scientists who will analyze this data and combine their results with theoretical models to investigate what these distant worlds are like. By doing this, we will be exploring our place in the universe and whether we are alone within it."

Peter Gao
PhD in Planetary Science

 

When asked what he would do with his degree in philosophy during a routine dentist appointment, David Silbersweig, MD at Brigham and Women's Hospital and Academic Dean at Harvard Medical School, responded with a single word that spoke volumes: 'Think.' Simply put, I too want to think.

I want to learn how to think at a complex level such that my ability to think and subsequently solve problems allows me to change lives. The history and philosophy of science degree at Caltech has given me exactly this. According to Silbersweig, 'If you can get through a one-sentence paragraph of Kant, holding all of its ideas and clauses in juxtaposition in your mind, you can think through most anything.' In my first History and Philosophy of Science class, I read Kant. I also find immense happiness in working with and helping other individuals, a sense of euphoria matched by little else in life. I learned this lesson through tutoring students and coaching younger athletes. And finally, as a collegiate athlete myself, I have undergone multiple orthopedic surgeries that ignited an interest in the musculoskeletal system and its ability to suffer injury yet recover remarkably. Together, these three aspects of life are central to my vision of the future. Becoming an orthopedic surgeon is the perfect combination—the career that will give me these components and a lot more.

One of the major developments in medicine will be 3-D printing, primarily in order to provide individuals with replacement bones and organs. Combining new progress in computer science will facilitate immense progress in 3-D printing, which also aligns well with the use of robotics in surgery. As an athlete who has torn my ACL and had bone spurs in the past year, I'm excited to be a part of this field in the future and hopefully help other athletes succeed in pursuing their passions."

Harinee Maiyuran
BS in History and Philosophy of Science

 

My personal hunch, and perhaps a somewhat common one, is that all disciplines—and not just STEM ones—are moving toward being increasingly data driven, a phenomenon rooted in freer dissemination and greater influx of research data. Correspondingly, computers and programming drive data processing in all disciplines; a common joke is that every scientist is automatically a software engineer. Statistical and machine learning techniques that are designed to tackle vast quantities of data are increasingly common in academic papers and will probably continue to climb in popularity.

I am planning to go into computational astrophysics research because I believe that the recent influx of data from new detectors will drive a huge surge of research questions to be investigated. And as a physics/computerscience double major, I'm uniquely equipped to analyze big data and extract scientific meaning from it."

Yubo Su
BS in Physics and Computer Science

 

Many aspects about future climate are unclear, such as how cloudiness, precipitation, and extreme events will change under global warming. But recent progress in observational and computational technology has provided great potential for clarifying these uncertainties. I plan to continue my research and utilize new data and models to develop theoretical understanding of these problems. I hope that such new insight will be helpful for assessing climate change impacts and designing effective adaptation and mitigation strategies."

Zhihong Tan
PhD in Environmental Science and Engineering

 

The future of science and engineering depends on closing the huge gap between the general public and scientists and engineers. I think this stems from a good deal of ignorance about what it is we do and hope to achieve, which leads to misconceptions about our work and community, and the separation between 'us' and 'them.' But if we're trying to understand and solve problems that affect everyone, shouldn't everyone be more involved?

When I graduate, I'm going to take a year off to try and bridge this gap in my own life. I don't know what I'll do yet, but it will be decidedly nonacademic. I want to travel, work odd jobs, and pursue hobbies I've set aside to finish my education. If I want to help people understand why I do what I do, I need to be certain that I understand first. After only four years surrounded almost exclusively by scientists and engineers, I want to get away a little. That way, when I inevitably return, I'll have a bit more perspective."

Valerie Pietrasz
BS in Mechanical Engineering and Planetary Science

 

Driven by the goal of reducing fossil fuel use and pollution, clean energy research plays and will play a pivotal role in America's energy future. Clean energy research spans disciplines such as biological and environmental sciences, advanced materials, nuclear sciences, and chemistry. Therefore, multidisciplinary efforts are not only necessary but also crucial to develop and deploy real-world solutions for energy security and protecting the environment.

As a graduate student, I have focused on understanding nanoscale energy transport in novel energy-efficient materials. In the future, I plan to further advance and apply my expertise to solve real-world problems in an integrated and multidisciplinary approach. I hope this effort will eventually lead to developing advanced clean energy technologies that could not only ease today's energy crisis but also improve our quality of life."

Chengyun Hua
PhD in Mechanical Engineering

 

I believe that in the next decade, the behavioral and computational subfields of neuroscience will work together seamlessly. I think this change will be primarily fueled by the development of new tools that allow us to measure the activity of large populations of neurons more precisely.

A prominent behavioral method of research, in mice at least, is to activate large structures in the brain and observe the aggregate behavioral effect. However, it is unlikely that all of these neurons are responsible for the same signal, so this approach may be too crude. I think new measurement techniques will enable behavioralists to collect large-scale population activity that computationalists can use in order to find subtle differences of function within these structures. Hopefully this collaboration will lead to generating and validating fundamental theories underlying how the brain works.

Currently, I am in the process of developing a method to measure the activity from over 10,000 neurons simultaneously. I hope to validate this technique before I graduate and then apply it to studying large-scale population activity during various behaviors. My future aim is to work closely with computationalists with the hope of discovering fundamental theories of brain function."

Gregory Stevens
BS in Biology

 

I think the future of planetary science is to discover and characterize more and more extra-solar planets, including their orbital configurations, atmospheres, and habitability. This is a challenging task because it requires a solid understanding of how chemistry and physics work on a planetary scale. Learning more about the planets closest to us paves a way toward the understanding of exoplanets that are far beyond our reach, since we can send missions to them. So after graduation, I will join the team for Juno—the spacecraft that will arrive at Jupiter in summer 2016—at JPL. New discoveries about Jupiter will also tell us more about what other planets beyond our solar system could look like."

Cheng Li
PhD in Planetary Science

 

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The Next Big Thing
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We hear from a handful of graduating students to learn what they think will be the next big thing in science and engineering and how their plans reflect those ideas.

Defending the Court

Will Peterson (BS '02) was offered the chance every lawyer dreams of, to argue before the Supreme Court, but the former software engineer had less than four months to prepare his case.

When Peterson heard that a Supreme Court Justice was on the phone for him, he instinctively stood up and straightened his tie. Looking out the window of his Houston office, the 35-year-old attorney held the phone quietly for a few moments before Justice Antonin Scalia came on the line: A case was coming up, and the government had opted not to defend its position. Would Peterson be interested in arguing the case in their stead?

One week later, it was formally announced that Peterson would be presenting oral arguments before the nation's highest court—with less than 120 days to prepare.

The law might seem an unexpected career path for a Techer, but Peterson attributes part of his interest to J. Morgan Kousser, the William R. Kenan, Jr., Professor of History and Social Science at Caltech—specifically his class on the Supreme Court. "He made the justices approachable," Peterson said. "We understood the personalities, gained a sense of constitutional issues, and learned how to read the Court's opinions."

Kousser remembers long talks with Peterson on a number of subjects. "We disagreed politically on almost everything," Kousser laughed. "But we both came away having thought through our positions much more fully. He's one of the most memorable students I've ever learned from."

When Peterson went on to become a software developer for Microsoft, he continued to read court opinions out of interest, and soon decided to return to his home state and enter law school at the University of Texas at Austin. After graduating in 2008, he received coveted posts as a law clerk, first to Fifth Circuit Judge Edith Jones and then to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. He then joined the Houston-based law firm Beck Redden LLP, which specializes in complex civil trials and appeals.

The case Peterson was drafted on to, Reyes Mata v. Lynch, was a technical one revolving around immigration and jurisdiction.

When Noel Reyes Mata, an undocumented immigrant, was ordered deported, he appealed, first to the Board of Immigration, and when that failed, to the Fifth Circuit—but that court held that it lacked jurisdiction on the issue.

Reyes then appealed to the Supreme Court last fall. "The question essentially was: Did the Fifth Circuit have authority to reopen Mata's case or not?" Peterson said. While the Fifth Circuit said no, the government took the unusual stance of deciding not to defend its position.

Enter Peterson. "I did not have a client. My role was amicus curiae, or 'friend of the court,'" Peterson said. "My responsibility was to provide the justices with the strongest arguments for affirming the Fifth Circuit's judgment."

Of course, to do that, Peterson would have to learn everything about the case—in less than four months.

Defending a judgment that the government has abandoned is usually a losing battle, and indeed, the Supreme Court held 8-1 that the Fifth Circuit was in error and did in fact have jurisdiction. Mata himself may not be out of the woods—the case now heads back to the lower court for further rulings.

For Peterson, though, the experience was the opportunity of a lifetime. In a footnote to her opinion, Justice Kagan expressed the Court's gratitude that Peterson "ably discharged his responsibilities." Peterson believes that his Caltech education has in many ways contributed to his success.

"The law requires a very structured way of thinking, not unlike programming," he said, before pausing a beat. "Reconnecting with Caltech always reminds me that I'm not actually a successful lawyer, but instead just a failed engineer."

We'd object.

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Learning the Language of the Laboratory

In any of the leading research institutions, scientists and engineers from all over the world work together on joint research projects. Although basic scientific concepts and mathematical formulas are typically universally understood, field-specific terminology is not always the same in every language. Through her course, French Conversation (L175), Christiane Orcel, lecturer in French, tries to break down language barrier for students and postdocs who work and study abroad in French-speaking countries.

Orcel, who also teaches several other traditional French classes, came up with the idea for the course after hearing about Caltech students who were interested in studying abroad through the Institute's exchange program with École Polytechnique—one of France's elite schools near Paris—but were nervous about having to take courses exclusively in French.

"In general, a conversational French class focuses on food, sports, housing, family, transportation, et cetera. But these students wanted to become more comfortable in scientific French," Orcel says.

Although Orcel is not a scientist herself, she chose to teach the course much like a science class would be taught in a French-speaking country. Each meeting of L175 has a topical theme loosely based on the major study area of one of her students. For example, if a biology student is enrolled, she might focus one class session on genetics; if a physics major is in the class, the focus could be particle physics. For each subject area, she finds a speaker—a French-speaking scientist, usually from Caltech or JPL—to give a 30-minute presentation about his or her research in French, followed by questions from the students, also in French. Afterward, the students discuss a previously assigned science article from Pour la Science or CNRS le Journal (the equivalents to Scientific American), and review any unfamiliar vocabulary terms they encountered in their reading.

"The article I select for each class is related to the topic that the speaker will present that day, and it really helps the students prepare for some of the vocabulary they'll hear in the talk. The speakers come only for about 35 to 40 minutes, and after they leave we discuss the article to expand the conversation for the rest of the 90-minute class," she says.

Because she chooses the invited speakers based on their work's relevance to the students' majors, Orcel says the students themselves can also help to explain—in French—some of the more technical concepts from the article to their peers in different majors.

Over the years, Orcel says that she has experienced a steady level of interest in the course, with some students wanting to enroll more than once. To accommodate these students, she finds all new articles and all new speakers for each term that the course is taught. Senior mechanical engineering major Edward Fouad is now taking the course for the third time. "It's enjoyable to repeat the class because the speakers are always different and there is always more to learn," he says. "But I think the most enjoyable part of the class is giving a presentation on my own research to the class, which allows me to learn technical vocabulary related to my own field at a much higher level."

Although the course targets undergraduates who are planning to enroll in the École Polytechnique Scholars Program in the fall term of their senior year at Caltech, it is also open to graduate students enrolled in the Caltech dual master's degree program with École Polytechnique, SURF students who will be spending their summer doing research at CERN, as well as postdocs and other scientists who are simply wanting to prepare for research experiences abroad.

"Science and engineering are becoming increasingly multinational," agrees Fouad, "and it's important that researchers from different parts of the world are able to effectively communicate their ideas with one another."

The course was designed to help students with their French language skills, but Orcel says that some students have reported that its scientific content has had an impact on their academic and career plans. "The class is so small, usually 6 to 10 students, so it's really a great opportunity for networking and getting to know these Caltech and JPL scientists," she says. "It's also such a multidisciplinary course that it provides students with an opportunity to meet people and to be exposed to research topics that they wouldn't necessarily have considered before. I've even had some students say they wanted to continue learning more about a topic they first heard of in class, so they picked up a second major."

Because of the course's distinctive nature and success at Caltech, Orcel was asked to speak about it at a conference hosted last October by the American Physical Society in a session on education and new teaching techniques.

"I don't think there are any other courses like L175 in the United States, so at the conference, a lot of faculty members from other schools came up to me and expressed an interest in adding such a course to their curriculum, but they were concerned about the availability of teaching staff. And that's the problem," she says. "I understand that many language professors might feel uncomfortable teaching a course with so much technical content, but I enjoy it, and I hope that in the future others will try it out."

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Gilmartin Named Dean of Undergraduate Students

On July 1, 2016, Kevin Gilmartin, professor of English, will begin serving as Caltech's dean of undergraduate students.

In announcing Gilmartin's appointment, Joseph E. Shepherd, vice president for student affairs and the C. L. Kelly Johnson Professor of Aeronautics and Mechanical Engineering, described him as "an accomplished scholar and author who brings to this position twenty-five years of experience in teaching and mentoring our students, and who has shown a keen interest in the welfare of our undergraduate students in and outside of the classroom."

In his new role as dean of undergraduate students, Gilmartin will work on fostering academic and personal growth through counseling and support for student activities as well as acting as a liaison between students and faculty, says Shepherd.

A recipient the Feynman Prize, Caltech's highest teaching award, Gilmartin says he was attracted to the job of dean because "I have always found our students to be so interesting, and engaging. They are extraordinarily optimistic. They seem to have a positive attitude toward the world—they're curious, and they're open to new things. What more could you ask for?"

He says he sees his role as helping undergraduates develop and thrive. "I'm excited to work with students to help foster their intellectual and academic growth and their development as individuals," he says. "Our students are remarkably diverse and they have diverse interests. The Caltech curriculum is demanding, and focused, no doubt. But within it, and through it, our students do find so many opportunities."

He adds, "The dean's office provides essential support. But we can also encourage our students to do more than they are inclined to do, to challenge themselves, to try new things."

Gilmartin received his undergraduate degree in English from Oberlin College in 1985. He received both his MS ('86) and PhD ('91) in English from the University of Chicago, joining the faculty of Caltech in 1991.

Barbara Green, who has served as the interim dean over the past year will return to her regular position as associate dean in July. In his announcement, Shepherd thanked Green "for her work with our students and service to the Institute [and for] being so willing and committed to the success of our undergraduate student body."

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