So… Who am I?
Instead of just listing out my experiences, I would like to present my philosophy, because these principles define me much better than any noun can. The three guiding principles that I follow are:
I believe in the power of interdisciplinary knowledge and cooperative thinking
I stand by pragmatism when it is needed, but I am a scientist at heart.
I endeavor to improve the human condition, or better, to enable humanity to move to a higher platform.
Let us explore who I am through the lenses of these principles.
1a. I believe in the power of interdisciplinary knowledge
Ever since a very young age, I have been interested by a wide range of subjects: Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry, Biology, History, etc… Each subject fascinated me in its own way.
I always like to say if reality is a cake, then each subject is like different cuts of the cake, trying to observe the cake from the cut. Some cuts get more icing, some more base, and every cut is tasty, but no cut by itself can give us a holistic view of the cake. It is only through multiple cuts of the cake/reality can we get a better understanding of the world. The aggregate of multiple subjects is much greater than the sum of its parts.
Even though my research is now primarily focused on the intersection of optimization, causal inference, and machine learning, I have never stopped my interdisciplinary search for knowledge. That’s why I am also a thinker in Epistemology, a Fellow of Institute and Faculty of Actuaries, an amateur astronomer, and a drama producer which led to the first ever Chinese drama production in Cambridge. I intend to continue this thirst for knowledge throughout my life, so that I can unlock more mysteries and answer more questions.
However, there is a question that I cannot answer, which is where my love for knowledge came from. Maybe it is my cosmopolitan upbringing, living in Canada, USA, UK, China for each more than 3 years; Maybe it is my parents, whose actions proved to me first-hand that knowledge can raise a family from poverty to middle class; Maybe it is something else. I don’t know. But what I do know is that:
I love learning.
1b. I believe in the power of cooperative thinking
As a natural extension of my love of interdisciplinary knowledge, I enjoy cooperating with people as everyone is better than me in at least one skill/area and thus can bring new ideas to a seemingly impenetrable problem. That’s why even though I have had my fair share of solo awards (AIME, AMC, etc), I am always prouder of my team achievements. Whether it is spearheading a multi-group COVID-19 modeling effort that resulted in accelerating the availability of one of the major COVID-19 vaccines by 8 weeks, or contributing to a 3-people team that patented a nano-filter which solves the problem of water contamination, the team always achieved the goal that the sum of our parts could never do.
More importantly, I enjoy the company of others. Their viewpoint on issues often diverges with mine, and I enjoy that difference in angles of observing reality, because as I said above, the reality cake takes many cuts before the true flavor is known.
I have been a team player and will always be.
2. I stand by pragmatism when it is needed, but I am a scientist at heart.
As a mathematician by training, I often strive to understand every detail in a branch of knowledge. And in the past, it most often had served me much good by enabling me to use knowledge effectively when entirely new problems come.
However, I understand that in reality, constrained by deadlines and resources, the luxury of complete understanding is scarcely guaranteed. Under these scenarios, I put on my engineer hat and strive towards the goal of “what works”. I would use my interdisciplinary knowledge to find the best candidates for what works, but if another method comes by that works better and passes all reasonable tests to fail it, I go along with that method, and task myself to understand the details in my spare time or afterwards (as otherwise the scientist part of me would be continuously bothering me).
Nevertheless, as a scientist at heart, I believe that we should always strive for better. What is state of the art today (eg. Neural Networks for certain vision problems) will be replaced by a better framework tomorrow, and as a scientist I endeavor to search the foreign landscape before we get there, so that when we land, we would not be in for a surprise.
3. I endeavor to improve the human condition, or better, to enable humanity to move to a higher platform.
I am incredibly grateful to be living in an era where wars are scarce and resources are plentiful, technology is booming and possibilities are limitless. However, arguably we are also facing the most potentially impactful issues humanity ever encountered: climate change, biotechnology, the rise of AI/fall of industrialized society, the possibility of a nuclear war, and the sixth mass extinction event. We need solutions within our lifetime, and the clock is ticking.
I do not expect my actions to completely solve some of the problems (and no one can indeed claim that), but I endeavor to be part of the solution. Here are some (broad) problems I am especially interested in:
Developing scalable optimization algorithms for difficult (NP-hard) machine learning problems to extend what we can do
Applications of predictive and prescriptive methods into healthcare and other high-stakes industries, focused on improving policymaking.
Trusted evaluation of predictive and prescriptive methods to ensure that algorithms are indeed doing good for our society