How HLF changed my life: Amy Zhang

BLOG: Heidelberg Laureate Forum

Laureates of mathematics and computer science meet the next generation
Heidelberg Laureate Forum

The COVID-19 pandemic forces us all to pause, reflect, and adapt. While the 8th Heidelberg Laureate Forum has been postponed to September 2021, this year’s Virtual HLF will take place from Monday, September 21 until Friday, September 25, 2020. Its motto: Traversing Separation.

An excellent opportunity to review seven successful years of HLF and to follow-up on some alumni and their path since then.

Who are you, where are you from and what is your scientific background?
I am Amy X. Zhang and from the United States. My background is in computer science, specifically human-computer interaction and social computing, meaning that I conduct research on how to design and build technology to support pro-social interaction and collaboration.

Photo courtesy of Amy Zhang

In which year did you attend the HLF and what were you doing back then?
I went to HLF in fall 2018. Back then I was writing my Ph.D. thesis at MIT and preparing to go on the academic job market in computer science in 2019.

What inspired you most during the HLF?
Meeting other Young Researchers from around the world and hearing about their research, their goals, and their career trajectory thus far.

What is your best memory you have from your stay in Heidelberg?
I have lots of good memories, and it’s hard to pick just one! Probably the most memorable was the boat cruise, where I sat and listened to Sir Atiyah and Prof. Phillips argue about something regarding Einstein (I could not follow but enjoyed it nevertheless!), and then Sir Atiyah and I reminisced about Trinity College, Cambridge, where I did my MPhil and he once was Master. This was especially memorable given that Sir Atiyah passed away only a few months later, so I’m thankful that I had a chance to spend a lovely afternoon cruising on the river with him.

Amy Zhang on her HLF experience.

What has happened in your life since then and in which position are you currently working?
I went on the job market in 2019 and accepted a position at the University of Washington as an assistant professor in CS, which I deferred for one year to start this fall. I then graduated in summer 2019 from MIT EECS and started a 1-year postdoc at Stanford CS which I wrapped up this summer.

Which advice would you give the next generation of Young Researchers?
Make an effort to get to know other Young Researchers and take time to explore the town of Heidelberg together, such as the Philosopher’s Walk, as it is really beautiful! You will get many opportunities to speak with and take photos with the Laureates so don’t feel like you have to meet them all right away.

How does the coronavirus pandemic affect your professional and private life?
Since March, I’ve been working from home. Some conferences I was planning to attend were canceled. MIT’s graduation ceremony was also canceled, which was sad for my family and I. But on the whole, my life has not changed too much since I can do my work from home. It is disappointing now to not be able to set up my lab or my office at UW, or meet with my new students in person, or run into colleagues regularly, especially since I loved the campus, the CS buildings, and the overall culture at UW when I visited. But on the bright side, I’m spending more time with my husband, and we’ve been doing a lot of hiking outdoors. And I am in good health, as is my family, and that’s a lot to be thankful for now.

What is the most valuable lesson the pandemic taught you so far?
It is so important to have a functioning national and local infrastructure for public health communication that is accessible, consistent, non-politicized, and backed by credible scientific institutions, as well as transparent and robust data collection and reporting.

It is easy to get overwhelmed by the amount of (mis)information surrounding us every day. How can we become better in consuming information, e.g. in judging the credibility of a source or filtering out the essentials?
Our understanding of COVID-19 is evolving rapidly as scientists conduct more studies, sometimes with contradictory results. A lot of this is playing out in the public instead of within scientific communities, as is typical. What I think we need to do a better job of communicating is that scientists must weigh tradeoffs when designing studies. Thus, each study is only one piece of the puzzle and must be considered in concert with other studies that together might tell a clear story or signal that more research is needed. But that consensus among experts is hard to understand when news articles don’t report on the context or treat studies as closing the door on questions as opposed to providing evidence. I think that we can still design better tools for surfacing this consensus information instead of requiring people to just keep up with all the literature or be already embedded in a scientific community.

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Jens-Steffen Scherer is a neuroscientist, science communicator, and moderator. Besides pursuing his Ph.D. at the University of Oldenburg, he works for the National Institute for Science Communication (NaWik) and the Südwestrundfunk (SWR). In 2018 Jens-Steffen won the 8th Science Slam of Oldenburg. LinkedIn

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