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First-gen student from the United States earned her Ph.D. in applied math. She is offered a position as an AI scientist.

Zhimin Penny Wu graduates this week with a PhD in applied mathematics from the School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences.

Wu’s doctoral dissertation “Data Assimilation and Uncertainty Quantification using Reduced-Order models” makes use of data assimilation to describe the northern vortex and employs the same mathematical method to describe prostate cancer treatment.

Data assimilation is a common technique for numerical forecasting of weather. To give a rough idea of the method, suppose that the forecast for Phoenix Sky Harbor airport calls for temperatures at 75 F at 3 p.m. It is then assumed the forecast is correct, and at three p.m., the temperature was recorded as 77 F. The forecast was colder, and the model had to be adjusted to reflect the actual temperature.

The same process should be carried out at all other weather stations. But, the model must keep track of the weather up, but we don’t have temperature readings for 1,000, 2,000, 3000 feet, and so on. Higher than Sky Harbor airport at 3 p.m. to compare to the model. It is necessary to use a mathematical method to draw educated guesses on updating the temperature model at these high altitudes, considering that they too could be too cool.

“Penny’s research utilized this mathematical method to create a model of the northern polar vortex, that you could think as part of the jet stream,” stated Eric Kostelich, President’s Professor of Mathematics and co-chairman of Wu’s panel. “When the vortex surrounds the arctic region, the polar regions are extremely cold, and the climate within southern Canada, the U.S., Europe, and southern Canada is moderate. However, the vortex may begin to flow, and different areas may be dipping towards the south. In this case, it can trigger a series of extremely cold weather in the mid-latitudes. However, the temperature in the Arctic might be relatively moderate. Penny’s developed model indicates that this vortex could change into ‘wobbly modes’ during certain winter seasons but not in other seasons. Penny’s research compared results from different model outputs to cross-check.”

We used data assimilation methods to create a mathematical model that simulates prostate cancer under treatment. While the model doesn’t have anything to do with weather, the same approach can evaluate the clinical data with the model’s output to improve the model and possibly provide better forecasts of how patients will fare within a few months. We found that certain previously published models in the research literature could be trained so that they showed an excellent match with historical information. Still, a high degree of the accord was not necessarily a guarantee of accurate predictions, and her paper outlined some reasons as to why this is the situation.

Wu was born in Chengdu, the capital city of the Chinese Sichuan province, which is famous for its giant pandas. Her parents attended only high school but put great importance on higher education and encouraged their daughter in all aspects to ensure she received a quality education.

“I recall my mom teaching me multiplication tables and asking me to memorize them by five years old,” Wu said. “Since the second grade, I required English classes at the hands of American educators outside school, although English was taught in schools as an elective. They would always tell me that the right education could transform your life as well as the entire world around me, so they established high standards for me.”

Wu was not a fan of school at the time. She opted to skip classes or go out drinking with her friends without telling her parents. We did not have siblings, and all of her family and friends were in her hometown in China. They never resided in a different country. Wu was a different person.

She went to America to study at Houghton College, a small liberal arts institution in New York.

“Since my early years, I was fascinated by thinking about patterns and analyzing the world through mathematics as a tool or language; however, I was always convinced that I wasn’t smart enough to take math classes as a career,” Wu said. “For many years in college, I didn’t even think about studying math.”

She entered college to study accounting. To satisfy an education requirement for general education for her college, she enrolled in her first calculus course. It was an enjoyable experience due to her outstanding math teacher.

“She demonstrated such a great amount of care to the student in her class. She always opened the door to her office for us to ask concerns about maths or our career and life objectives,” Wu said. “She assisted me in learning to be able to comprehend the significance of math symbols during her office hours. I was able to rekindle my enthusiasm and love for maths after the semester. She has also informed me about careers suited to math majors. She also convinced me to pursue a profession that I enjoyed, so I eventually decided to pursue a math career.”

As a maths specialist, Wu participated in a research project for undergraduates at NIMBios during her final year in college. The Director of NIMBios was Suzanne Lenhart, a gifted mathematician specializing in mathematical biology.

“She suggested I attend graduate school and provided me with the list of schools that offer decent Ph.D. programs in applied mathematics, and ASU was among them. I looked up the faculty on ASU’s website and discovered the expertise of my adviser interested me. This inspired me to apply and talk for Eric Kostelich before I decided to apply,” Wu said.

She also took a break for a year before beginning graduate school. It was a must and allowed her to recharge and get confident about going to graduate school.

Being a woman and a first-generation undergraduate student, Wu could not believe she was part of the larger mathematics community. We did not feel accepted or appreciated for a considerable period before the start of graduate school. Things started to improve as she established an academic group with colleagues and instructors.

“We shared burdens and worries and supported each other when possible,” Wu said. “We developed a solid community of support for other graduate students during my first two years of my Ph.D. The group was my studying group, and we worked on lots of work and exam preparations with them.”

Then they all moved in different directions in their research, and the pandemic erupted. This made the final two years of graduate school the most challenging.

“Penny completed the prostate cancer study in the last quarter of 2019. Most of her research was carried out at a distance afterward due to the pandemic. It was a stressful time for a lot of the students in our master’s program,” Kostelich said. “Lockdowns or remote class sessions added typical stress of research. Many initially thought-provoking ideas fail, and one’s computer programs don’t perform as expected, and debugging is difficult, and then, of course, you have to write your thesis.”

In graduation, Wu got involved with ASU’s chapter of the Association for Women in Mathematics (AWM) and was an active member of the Chinese Graduate Students Advisory Group. And was selected as one of the College Student Leaders at ASU’s homecoming party.

“Penny is extremely focused on increasing opportunities for women within STEM fields. She was president of the ASU’s AWM chapter and was able to experience certain successes as well as issues that come with the position of leadership,” Kostelich said.

“What I loved best regarding this Ph.D. course at ASU is the fact that we are a big department. This means that there are a lot of opportunities for collaborations and research opportunities within this program.” Wu said. “I think I’m able to study the many mathematical fields in the department.”

Certain graduate students served as mentors or coaches to assist Wu in determining her path to a career. We also received excellent guidance from her Ph.D. committee comprising Kostelich, Mohamed Moussaoui, Chris Jones from UNC-Chapel Hill, Malena Espanol, and Rodrigo Platte.

“They all referred me to numerous great opportunities both inside or beyond ASU for me to broaden my opportunities to become productive,” she said.

We determined to pursue an industry career instead of academia, which meant undergoing difficult technical interviews to be considered for a position as a data scientist or similar.

“I was concerned that Penny could be undermining her strengths and contribution too in the process. We discussed how she could answer questions regarding her research and highlight her research’s originality without overstating and in a manner that could correspond with the responsibilities of the new job,” Kostelich said.

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