September 2022 Edition

Wendy Di, Computational Mathematician, MCS

After China’s Cultural Revolution, Zichao “Wendy” Di’s father did not have the option of pursuing his dream of becoming a scientist, or even attending college. He did, however, have a daughter who surprised almost everyone with her prodigious abilities in math. He invested himself in encouraging her interest.

“He always told me stories of scientists, and the “true science” behind science fiction stories,” said Di, now a research scientist at Argonne who focuses on applied mathematical modeling and optimization algorithm development. “Despite others’ expectations that boys excel more than girls, he never made me feel that I was not supposed to be good in math or science. Being one of the very few girls who were good at math from a very young age improved my self-esteem, and it has felt very natural to work toward where I am today.”

Despite recognition from her father, teachers, and even peers, Di did struggle to overcome one seemingly mountainous barrier to becoming a respected mathematician: Shyness.

“In China, the emphasis was on passing tests, not on asking questions or expressing opinions,” she said. “It wasn’t until I came to Argonne that I learned from my mentor, Lois Curfman McInnes, the skill of speaking up and making my ideas known.”

This ability to voice one’s ideas was critical to becoming the professional scientist Di wanted to be – one who earned her colleague’s respect with independent thinking and ideas worth hearing.

To overcome this fear, she took the small steps of first expressing an idea or question to only one person. Then, she built the courage to do so in front of only a few people. Eventually, she made herself do so in seminars and colloquiums, where there were more public audiences.

“Eventually, it worked, and now I’m not afraid anymore,” she said. “My advice is never assume any question is ‘stupid’ or ‘silly.’ Just ask!”

Di is expecting her first baby – a girl – in September and she credits her energetic Siberian Husky with keeping her healthy and in shape during pregnancy. (“The dog needs lots of walks and my husband and I both really like ice cream!”) She named her dog after science fiction writer Ursula LeGuin’s fictional character, Shevek. Di has another creatively inspired name in mind for her daughter when she arrives. And, it seems one her father would appreciate.

“I’m going to name her ‘Max,’ even though it’s a boy’s name, because I work in optimization,” Di said with a laugh. “I do mathematical optimization and that means I’m working with maximums and minimums all day. The name seems like the right fit.”