May 15, 2020—Data scientist. Minor celebrity. Self-styled crooner. Ahead of his May graduation, biostatistics student Dongzhengyang “Ray” An, discussed his path from China to Harvard Chan School, the draw of causal inference and machine learning, and how the pandemic has helped him reconnect with family and friends.
I grew up in Shandong, China, and I was kind of a city kid. But I always loved animals and I dreamed of having a farm. That was one of the reasons I studied animal science at the University of Maryland, College Park. While there, I had the opportunity to work for a year at the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) National Cancer Institute. That’s when I started to see the impact of public health and became interested in the field.
One of the reasons I was attracted to Harvard Chan School is because while at the NIH, I started reading a lot of public health research and became interested in the work that professors like James Robins and Tyler VanderWeele were publishing. They were doing intriguing studies in causal inference, and I realized that was something I was interested in, and Harvard seemed like the best place to study it.
I was worried when I first arrived here at the school because I thought that everyone would be so smart that I wouldn’t be able to keep up. But it’s such a collaborative environment among students and classmates. The course work can move fast, but the professors are great and there are PhD students who are willing to sit down and go over all the details of a project or a coding language or whatever the challenge is to make sure you understand it.
I recently finished my coursework and moved to Sunnyvale, California, to work at Google on the Gmail and Google Chat team. I moved in February, so most of my time out here has been during the pandemic. It’s been interesting and exciting; I’ve gotten to work on new tools that help people work from home and I’ve collaborated with the Android team on some interesting social network and data science projects aimed at helping slow the spread of COVID-19.
In January, I proposed to my wife, Candice, at Tower Bridge in London, her favorite city. I got a musician to play Taylor Swift’s “Love Story,” which is Candice’s favorite song. And when the lyrics said “It’s a love story baby just say ‘yes,’” I asked her to marry me.
If I could have a dinner party with any three people from history, I’d invite Steve Jobs, Stephen Hawking, and Leonardo da Vinci. They were all creative thinkers who used their own work and own theories to change the world.
One thing people might not know about me is that I was a sort of teenage celebrity in China. I was on a TV show called “Genius Knows,” which was kind of a quiz show that featured different students. After the show, I ended up co-writing a book focused on how to study more efficiently and how to balance the stresses of being a student with everything else in life. It sold over 100,000 copies, which was awesome.
One book I think everyone should read is The Book of Why: The New Science of Cause and Effect, by Judea Pear. We live in the age of big data, and this book made me rethink everything I thought I knew about data and what we can and cannot do with it. It’s filled with valuable lessons.
I’m a music guy, and I love traditional jazz. It helps me chill and relax. But recently, since I’ve been stuck at home, I’ve been listening to a lot of the Chinese music that I grew up with. The singer Jay Chou is probably my favorite. Actually, for Mother’s Day, Candice and I made a video for my mom of us singing a song by him called “Listen to Mother’s Word.”
One of the best ways to unwind after a long day or week is reconnecting with family and friends and just talking. Before the pandemic, there was always an excuse to not pick up the phone or to not make the call. COVID-19 is obviously a very bad thing, but it’s made me realize the importance of slowing down, thinking about the things in life that are valuable and worth chasing, and staying connected to the people in our lives.
photo: courtesy of Dongzhengyang “Ray” An