Ning Zhu Swims Away from the Mainstream

NingHeadshotjpgMany Chinese cultures value education for its influence on social class; scholars form the highest class and businessmen form a lower class.  So when Ning Zhu completed her PhD in Neuroscience, then left a junior faculty position at the Chinese Academy of Science in order to purse a career in Computer Science, she effectively began swimming away from her family’s and friends’ mainstream expectations.

Zhu said, “Two or three years after starting my Ph.D. program I realized I didn’t enjoy it. I would go to classes and do the experiments but I didn’t feel much excitement doing so.” She wanted to find something that made her smile to get up every day and learn more.

Caught in a struggle between finding her passion and listening to her parents to follow the mainstream, Zhu had to make a choice. She said, “I thought, I cannot die without at least trying.” She had to quickly find a strong alternative plan. In searching, Zhu revisited a long forgotten passion, CS. In her high school years, she wanted to study CS for college but was told by her parents that girls can never outperform guys in CS or other science majors.

However, after analyzing her strengths and personality, Zhu found that CS might be the right choice for her. “I’m good at understanding complex ideas and creating a comprehensive logical flow. Additionally, I work best with fast, constant feedback. Lastly, I want financial independence so my next choice must pay reasonably well. The combination of these three factors led me to computer science,” she said.

The next hurdle was finding a Masters program that didn’t require a Bachelor’s degree in computer science. “There are only a few CS programs that are open to people with non-CS bachelors degrees.” She said Rice was at the top of her list due to its small class size, but doubted she would be admitted.

In fact, Rice and two other programs offered Zhu a place in their professional masters programs. “I tried to use logic to make my choice,” she said.  As she weighed her options, she met Rice MCS alumnus Yanfei Wu while he was visiting China.

Zhu said, “Yanfei is an extraordinary guy who had switched from Math to CS and then received offers from several top companies. What impressed me most was why he picked Facebook over all the other companies based on his own analysis of the companies’ financial performance, business strategies, and outlooks.”

While discussing the MCS program with Zhu, Wu described a Rice course that had impacted his own analytical decision-making process and taught him to examine potential employers in this way. Zhu said, “I admire people when they know exactly why they choose to do something. I was amazed at how clear his choice was and how Rice education shaped his decision-making skills. Immediately my preference for Rice became an emotional tie instead of a logical one.”

After completing three semesters of MCS classes, Zhu is enthusiastic about the way computer scientists think about things.  She said that in her object oriented programming course with Dr. Wong, he repeated, “I’m not only teaching you how to code, but also the philosophy of solving problems. Rice wants to produce leaders who know exactly why they do things, not soldiers.”

Zhu said, “This problem solving philosophy is transferrable in all situations and is very valuable. This is what I want to learn.” She said the majority of her courses justify and explain why certain courses of action are being taken and critically evaluate whether or not current solutions are the most effective ways to solve problems.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA“In general I love solving problems. It’s like a game for me. CS is all about how to solve a problem universally. I see CS as a great way to massively impact people and help them.” Zhu explained that an overall goal for her has always been to help people. She believes that CS will allow her to help even more people because building tools, for example, like a behavioral intervention app would help a million people who use the app, whereas a behaviorist can only treat one person at a time.

Zhu is excited to use her knowledge of neurobiology and computer science simultaneously. As digital devices have become the most prevalent and accessible things for people, there is further potential to utilize them as an extension or enhancement of the human brain. She said studies on behavior interventions have shown that external reminders help people comply with their plans better, so a mobile app implementing a behavioral intervention may be the most effective and affordable way for people dealing with behavioral disorders to get help on a daily basis.

Zhu says that computer science has taught her important life lessons. Dr. Wong has been teaching a philosophy of “find the right thing to do and then figure out how to do it” in his classes, and that encouraged her to get out of her comfort zone and pursuit her passion.

In reflection, Zhu said that if she had known that the right thing to do was to follow her passion, she could have tried much harder to persuade her parents to let her study CS as an undergraduate and avoided taking such a long detour. She said that getting her PhD in neurobiology taught her a lot but she strongly believes “the magnitude that CS can amplify the impact of technology in any field is incomparable.”

Ning Zhu completed a Master’s in Computer Science and Engineering (M.C.S.E.) in 2017.

–Meg Brigman, CS Summer Project Management Intern