So… Who am I?

Instead of just listing out my experiences (CV attached here), 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:

  1. I believe in the power of interdisciplinary knowledge and cooperative thinking
  2. I stand by pragmatism when it is needed, but I am a scientist at heart.
  3. 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 multiple 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, and 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. But I would be fooling myself if I did not have evidence to back this up:

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At the end of my high school, I was taking the Advanced Placement (AP) exam in World History, and on the test I was asked to write about the following prompt:

Compare and Contrast the modernization and development of Germany and Italy in the late 19th Century.

Ok…I did my fair share of review for the subject, but with all of the other 10 AP exams I was taking (ranging from Computer Science, Biology, to Music Theory), I could not review every detail about all countries on earth throughout all time. And unfortunate as I was, this was one of the specifics that I was missing. The only two facts I knew at the time about Germany and Italy in this period were:

  1. Bismarck united Germany and won wars against the European giants.
  2. Italy was similarly unified, but its unification was not complete until the end of World War I.

Clearly this was not enough material to start an essay, much less a good one. However, I ended up writing an essay that achieved the highest mark in AP World History, and I credit that mainly to the help of my interdisciplinary knowledge.

The two facts I know are both about unification, so this essay is clearly directed towards nation-building and consolidation. What do I know about this? Even though I had no idea about the specific situation of Germany and Italy at that particular time, I had a deep understanding of the unification of China [as it has happened too many times]. Unification is always associated with the following themes: Iron fist leader, explosion of nationalism, establishment of identity, and massive infrastructure building (to reconstruct after the wars)

Ok, this is a good starting point, but this alone cannot bring me far. What about economics? I did not understand much about economies in countries, so I borrowed from the economic theory on companies post-merger: the major headlines are always consolidation, growth by synergy, and inward-looking rather than competitor-oriented. Therefore, I translated that in country terms: Rise in productivity, higher GDP due to shared political system and more intra-country trade, and protectionist trade policies to protect domestic industries.

What about society? I looked towards Psychology, where research shows that construction of a shared identity activates centers in brain related to cooperation, learning, and euphoria. Therefore, in the early period of unification, Germany and Italy should experience smoothed social tensions, and large political projects/modernization efforts could be successful.

Then I continued on, drawing from Physics and Mathematics. Major breakthroughs in both these areas came from German scientists, and many (mathematicians’) household names came from Germany in this period. This reflected that intellectual development was also booming after German reunification, which is most possibly due to a more stable nation, tying back to the point of the Iron fist leader.

Just like that, by drawing from different subjects and areas, I completed a 2-page essay where really I only knew 2 relevant facts.

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Till this day, even though I graduated from University of Cambridge in Mathematics and am persuing a PhD in operations Research at MIT, I have never stopped my interdisciplinary search for knowledge. That’s why I am also a thinker in Epistemology (EdX Verified Certificate), 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, and I mean everyone, is better than me in at least one skill/area, and working together we can achieve something greater. That’s why even though I have had my fair share of solo awards (AIME, AMC, etc), I am always more proud of my team achievements. Whether it is leading a 3-man team in developing an epidemic model for Ebola to within 20% of error (compared to the one Centre of Disease Control used, which had 10000% of error. Yes, that many zeros.), or contributing to a [different] 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 would go along with that method, and task myself to understand the details in my spare time or afterwards [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, focused on improving policymaking
  • Trusted evaluation of predictive and prescriptive methods to ensure that algorithms are indeed doing good for our society