Graduating Ph.D. Student Richard Zheng Reflects On His Georgia Tech Experience

May 3, 2018 | Atlanta, GA

After eight years at Georgia Tech, Yuchen (Richard) Zheng is finally getting out. He’ll be walking across the stage at McCamish Pavilion on Friday, May 4, 2018 to shake Dr. Bud Peterson’s hand and participate in the Ph.D. hooding ceremony. Zheng has graduated from Georgia Tech once before: during the Spring 2014 Commencement, when he received a bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering from the Stewart School of Industrial and Systems Engineering (ISyE) in 2014.

“Georgia Tech is like home to me now,” Zheng recently said of his extended studies at Tech. Originally from Shanghai, China, the Institute was the first and only school he applied to as a high school senior. Impacted by his engineer father, Zheng wanted to pursue an engineering degree and was specifically drawn to industrial engineering’s combination of math, engineering, and business. When he discovered ISyE’s long-running No. 1-ranked program, Tech was an easy choice.

In 2013, while a third-year, Zheng began working as an undergraduate researcher with ISyE Professor Nicoleta Serban. Serban leads the Stewart School’s Health Analytics group, which had recently acquired thousands of Medicaid records – three terabytes’ worth – from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. According to Serban, Zheng was instrumental in processing the raw data: “He worked closely with the information technology group supporting our project to set up the data infrastructure and database backbone for the medical claims data and created tables for research-specific requirements.”

Eventually – still an undergraduate – Zheng began working on Ph.D.-level research projects related to the Medicaid data. He decided to delay his entrance into the 8-5 working world to continue focusing on these projects as an ISyE Ph.D. student. Because of his undergraduate experience, he was able to lead projects from the very beginning of his graduate career.

One of Zheng’s projects analyzed the pediatric asthma population – a prevalent condition in Georgia – in conjunction with Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta (CHOA) and the Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH). Zheng developed a novel clustering algorithm to identify the population of children whose asthma was well-controlled, as well as children whose asthma was prone to flare-ups. In the latter cases, Zheng discovered that this could be because of inaccessibility to medical care or because care protocols, such as regularly taking medication, were not being followed. This group is more likely to end up in the emergency room with an asthma attack, resulting in higher costs for Medicaid. Ultimately, Zheng was able to provide some policy models and interventions to CHOA and DPH.

“This project has substantive impact of managing care of children with asthma,” noted Serban. “Richard has demonstrated his ability to learn and contribute in a variety of environments as a highly adaptive, creative problem-solver.” Within the four years of his doctoral study, Zheng has published his research in six top-tier academic journals, presented at multiple conferences, and obtained a U.S. patent.

Zheng will have the opportunity to share his eight years’ worth of experience during the Friday hooding ceremony, as he has been selected as the reflection speaker for the event. This represents for him a particularly high note among his many accomplishments while at Tech. “This has always been on my bucket list,” Zheng said. “I’ve been on both sides of the boat at Georgia Tech – undergrad and grad – which are very different lifestyles from each other. That’s something I think is unique to share with the audience.”

The three-minute speech will give Zheng the opportunity to thank his family, his friends, and Serban for supporting him throughout his academic endeavors. “It’s really the people I met here that shaped my experience at Tech, to help me become a better version of myself,” he added. “I want to also send the message that as we graduate, we become vital members of this community of support and excellence, and we need to … help future generations of Yellow Jackets like we’ve been helped.”

After graduation, Zheng is headed to New York City to work for a hedge fund as a data scientist, focusing on what he calls the “high velocity, high risk” of quantitative trading, which is different from traditional trading methods. “I’ll use what I’ve learned at Georgia Tech – statistical modeling, computational methods, and critical thinking,” he said. “I think it will be a very fine experience.”

  • Richard Zheng
    Richard Zheng