Rice Data to Knowledge Lab Connects Students with AI/ML Opportunities through Experiential Learning Capstone Programs

D2K Alumni Success Story

Rice D2K Lab Alumni - bill.com - Data Science - AL/ML Engineering

Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning engineering are not just buzz words, but in-demand career paths for students who are passionate about applying data science skills to interdisciplinary domains and industries.

Bill.com, a cloud-based software company, recently hired six Rice Engineering Alumni in their Houston office. The Senior VP of Engineering Vinay Pai mentioned in a recent interview that Rice played a pivotal role in choosing Houston as their second office. “The university convinced us we could have a close connection with local education, industry, and the community.”

So why do companies prefer to hire data science and engineering students from Rice?

One thing shared among the alumni is that they all participate in and actively get involved with the Capstone program of the Data to Knowledge (D2K) Lab. In the D2K Capstone, students work on real-world data science challenges sponsored by industry and community partners. Companies have the opportunity to connect with students and collaborate on a project-based challenge.

What is it like working as an AI/ML engineer? And how does the capstone experience make a difference for aspiring students?

Let’s hear from recent alumni about their experience with the D2K Lab:

Stefano Romano (’20 Statistics and Mathematical Economic Analysis) - Machine Learning Engineer at bill.com

Stefano found his interest in statistics and finances when he was a sophomore at Rice University. He further explored his interest in data science by taking the D2K Capstone course and working with a company sponsored project with Belvedere Trading.

“One of the great things about data science is that it can be applied to almost any industry, whether it’s finance, tech, health, or non-profits,” Stefano said. “It is a lot of fun to work with real-world data, especially a massive amount of data sets at the same time. Being able to work with experts in the data science field is fantastic.”

Stefano was hired by bill.com as a Machine Learning Engineer in July of last year. He stays actively involved with the D2K Lab by providing sponsor mentorship to two student teams working on projects sponsored by bill.com in the Capstone course.

“I worked as a teaching assistant at Rice for Rudy Guerra, Professor and Chair of the STAT department, and I always enjoyed mentoring and teaching. I view the capstone mentorship as an extension of that, you know, talking about data science and helping other people learn data science, just like my mentors did.”

For students interested in machine learning engineering, Stefano suggests identifying the field you are interested in and then learning more about that field, whether it is the tech, finance or health industry. His summer internships with an investment fund and the CarMax company have helped him gain tremendous industry knowledge in finance and retail.

Han Shi (’19, MS in Electrical and Computer Engineering) - Software Engineer at Bill.com

Han took the D2K Capstone course in 2018 and was one of the students who worked on bill.com’s project that semester. “We worked on a real-world project detecting fraudulent transactions that went through bill.com.” Now working full-time as a software engineer, Han is applying her experience with machine learning and techniques to help bill.com to improve user experience.

“I spent a lot of time on coding and communicating with codes. The best part of working as a software engineer is to build products and solve problems for users. It is really cool to see the real-life impact of that.”

When asked about advice for aspiring students, Han mentioned, “Improving communication skills is important, especially for international students. Also, we need more women in the machine learning and data science field in general. Don’t be shy, and try to challenge others. It’s the only way to learn and get better.”

Han has been providing sponsor mentorship for the Capstone students working on bill.com-sponsored projects. “When I was a student, I asked a lot of questions, and now I’m a mentor, I receive a lot of interesting questions. It’s like learning from both sides of the project. I enjoy working with students and looking into ways to solve the problem together.”

Along with Stefano and Han, three other Rice students participated in the D2K Capstone program while working as an intern at bill.com:

  • James Warner, who started as an intern, joined Bill.com as an ML engineer shortly after earning his BA in Statistics last spring.

  • Since last June, Nicholas Glaze, a sophomore in Electrical and Computer Engineering, has worked for the company as an ML intern.

  • Michael Price, who will graduate from Rice this spring with a BS in Statistics, was an intern at the company over the last two summers and has been hired to work full-time as an ML engineer in June.

“I enjoyed my internship at bill.com and their working atmosphere. It’s like Rice. We work hard and play hard,” Michael said, “There’s a lot of freedom there, and we are passionate about the projects we are working on.”

Michael found his passion in data science early in his sophomore year and participated in the Rice DataSci Club and many data science events on campus. Besides the Capstone course, Michael has taken other courses like Data Science Consulting, another experiential learning program at the D2K Lab.

“We have a pipeline of amazing talent coming from Rice,” said Natalie Berestovsky, Director of Data Science at bill.com. She earned her master’s degree and Ph.D. in computer science from Rice University in 2011 and 2013. She is also the lead sponsor mentor of the bill.com projects in the D2K Capstone program. As one of the D2K Lab’s affiliate partners, bill.com has sponsored D2K Capstone projects and data science events at Rice, such as the recent Rice Datathon 2021 and HackRice X.

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Is your company interested in hiring the next generation of AI/ML engineers and data scientists? Contact us at d2k@rice.edu to learn more about the capstone program, sponsorships, and many exciting opportunities to get involved with data science at Rice.


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