Big things next for Harvard’s first CSE cohort

June 6, 2014
Big things next for Harvard’s first CSE cohort

King and Zhang: A Master in Engineering and Data Scientist at Nokia

by Anita Mehrotra

So what’s next for Harvard’s first Computational Science and Engineering Master of Science (S.M.) graduates? In a field as cutting-edge as data science, the CSE students have the world as their oyster. But with so much freedom comes great opportunity cost, and they have no intention of wasting a minute.

In this first piece in a series of articles on Harvard CSE alumni, Anita Mehrotra sits down with Ryan King and Ellie Xueshan Zhang to hear about their next steps.

Ryan KingIn his first year at Harvard, Ryan King, M.D. (M.E. ’15) strengthened his programming skills and gained a wide range of expertise in data exploration. King, who obtained an M.D. from Louisiana State University and was in residency for surgery when he decided to switch directions, says that he “always had an interest in engineering.” In many ways, “coming to this program was a very natural next step, because medicine is ripe for innovation. Computer science and applied statistics are tools that can help increase doctors’ productivity and ultimately have a direct impact on patient health.”

King is a recipient of the competitive 2015 IACS Scholarship. He will be pursuing a Master’s in Engineering (ME) through the CSE program next year with Pavlos Protopapas (Harvard) and David Craft (Harvard/Massachusetts General Hospital) as his co-advisors. King’s intended thesis – optimization of radiation therapy – focuses on improving available cancer treatments.

Typically, cancerous tumors are handled in three ways: radiation, which can cause collateral damage by harming non-cancerous cells; chemotherapy, a systemic procedure that, too, can impact a large region of the body; and, finally, surgery, in which the tumor is physically cut out. Current literature on the first method, radiation, provides information on the amount of radiation a tissue type can handle. In practice, radiation oncologists collaborate with physicists to devise a mathematical plan that best fits the doctor’s objectives. Unfortunately, the resulting solution is often flawed – and subject to massive revisions that, in turn, eat up valuable time. King observed that the issue was, at a high-level, an optimization problem: how can physicians maximize radiation to a tumor while minimizing the radiation damage to surrounding healthy tissue?

In his research, King intends to programmatically leverage the multi-criterion optimization (MCO) methodology (currently constructed by-hand in hospitals) to reduce the amount of time spent identifying a global optimum.

In the future, King plans to continue combining his background in medicine and love for technology to innovate in that intersection. “I plan on making a difference in medicine from the science side,” he says.

Ellie ZhangEllie Xueshan Zhang (S.M. ’14) is excited to begin working as a data scientist at Nokia come July. Zhang’s formal statistical training is deep, as she joined Harvard immediately after finishing a Master’s in Statistics from University of Waterloo. She notes that this background, when coupled with her improved expertise in programming, machine learning and parallel computing – gained through the CSE program – will “undoubtedly” be useful for her new role.

Zhang is looking forward to working with real, messy data and being a part of the ever-evolving tech industry. Yet above all, the idea of bringing change to people appeals greatly to her, and this was the most compelling reason why she chose Nokia.

“Clearly, smart phones have an extensive influence on individuals and their daily lives. [But this also means that] the competition in the smart phone space” can lead to new ways of innovating by “expanding or redefining the concept of mobile phones.” The result? An enormous amount of responsibility in the hands of developers, who can “create brand-new features that may have been realized in other ways, but now fit perfectly within a phone.”

Zhang hopes to continue using her skills to help others through the power of data: “We collect data from people to learn useful information. The cycle is complete when data helps us build a better world.”

Out of their entire Harvard experience, King and Zhang both concurred they would most miss their classmates. Regardless of their next steps, Harvard’s first CSE graduates will definitely be ones to keep an eye on.