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Meet our graduates | Wanyi Li, PhD '21

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July 6, 2021. Interviewed by Linda Esquivel. Edited for length and clarity.

As part of MS&E's 2021 graduates podcast series, we chatted with Wanyi Li, a recent graduate of the PhD program in Management Science and Engineering.

Wanyi shares how listening to an episode of the Freakonomics podcast series featuring Professor Al Roth led her to pursue a PhD degree in MS&E. Wanyi came to Stanford to study Operations Research focused on Economic Systems and Environmental Sustainability. While at Stanford, she started to ask questions about the way governments and non-profits were incentivizing people to protect and conserve the environment. Wanyi also shares stories about her time at Stanford and her plans for the future.

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My name is Wanyi. I have just finished my PhD in the Management Science and Engineering department, specializing in Operations Management. I’ve been working with my advisors, Professor Itai Ashlagi and Professor Irene Lo, for the last five years.

Can you tell me a little bit about your background, such as where you grew up and where you studied before Stanford?

I grew up in my hometown in China called Xuzhou. Before I came to the States to study for college, I also spent two years living in India, attending the Mahindra United World College. And then at Wellesley College on the East Coast, I studied physics. After my undergraduate study, I came straight to Stanford MS&E.

What sparked your interest in engineering and science?

I was always really interested in physics throughout my life. It was less about engineering simply because it was something that was less familiar to me then. Nobody in my family were engineers, so I had not thought about that as a career.

I had amazing physics teachers growing up. Even coming to Stanford today, I’m indebted to all my physics teachers throughout my middle school, high school and college. They were really good teachers and I loved thinking about those problems.

Why did you want to potentially pursue a degree in physics?

My relationship with studying physics was simply that I find I enjoy things the most when I love the people who I’m doing it with. And I think, because I had really good physics teachers and a community, I kind of kept going with it up to college, until I realized that was not the only thing I want to study for the rest of my life.

Can you tell me a little bit about your research? What are you working on and how did you become interested in it?

Before I even dive into my research, my research is very far away from my undergraduate studies in physics, so I’ll share how I decided to come to Stanford MS&E and study operations research. Towards the end of my junior year, I listened to a Freakonomics podcast episode where Al Roth was talking about his Nobel Prize-winning work on market design. And he is a proud alum of MS&E, when the department was still Engineering Economics Systems.

And so I was surprised that I could study math and economics and do things that are really impactful for society. So I looked up where he did his PhD and it turns out it was MS&E and that is when I decided to apply for Stanford. I had no idea whether I would  get in or if it was a good fit because that was clearly a big transition for me. Fast forward, I came to Stanford, I really wanted to work with my advisor Itai Ashlagi, who is also an expert in market design. So I was looking and reflecting on the field of market design. People were studying things like kidney exchange and school choice, or medical residency matching programs. I think they were all super cool, but I was thinking whether we could apply similar kinds of economic engineering thinking and operations research thinking to other areas that I cared a lot about. 

One application area I care deeply about is environmental sustainability and also how sustainability is affecting us as a society, given that there is all this inequality globally and domestically as well. That was what made me interested in my research. And I started to ask questions and study how government and nonprofits design these contracts and incentive schemes that induce people to protect and conserve the environment. But there was a gap there, where operations management could be really helpful in thinking about how to make these programs efficient, so that became my thesis work on designing better contracts and incentive programs to make these sustainability programs more effective.

I think that would be my dream, if I could inspire someone like how Al Roth inspired me via a small podcast.

How did the pandemic affect your time at Stanford for this last year?

This last year has been really different. In general, I feel blessed and fortunate that I was able to move right before the pandemic to the east coast to join my partner and live with him during the pandemic. I felt fortunate that I was able to have a good personal life, being with my family and also continue to work with my advisors. Stanford has been really supportive and good at transitioning into the pandemic system, because I know you and Lori and everyone at MS&E are doing an amazing job supporting the students and the faculty.

I also know that Stanford has all these amazing in-person wellness programs and fitness trainings, but now they've moved everything virtual, so now they're all free and available for not just Stanford people but anyone with Internet access. So in general, I feel grateful that even during the pandemic Stanford tries to support me and my study through the last year.

How did being remote affect your research?

I was still actively writing papers and trying to prove theorems and communicating with my collaborators via Zoom. Mathematical notations are not that straightforward to tackle, but I think we got a handle on that right away.

What I particularly appreciated was that conferences went virtual. So, initially there were conferences that were happening outside the US and as an international student, it was going to be very difficult for me to actually go in person. But then, things became virtual and the conference was almost free to attend.

So there are these silver linings of the pandemic, where the academic conferences are now more equitable for anyone from anywhere on earth to attend without thinking about these travel restrictions, and also the financial burden that comes with traveling and also the environmental burden of air travel.

How do you imagine your research interests might change over the next five to 10 years?

I'm thinking about exiting academia after finishing my PhD, and so my research interest will become very dependent on the career paths I choose.

But I do want to continue to use the same kind of market design thinking and apply it in the sustainability area, but think more about, instead of doing more new research and publishing new papers, I want to think more about how to bridge this gap between the research and the insights we already know, and how to translate that better to society and to relevant stakeholders so that we can make the research we already know very impactful. That would be my goal for the next five to 10 years.

What are your career plans for after Stanford and how did you decide on that?

I'm sure any PhD student, probably almost everyone, would have to go through a similar decision-making process, and I think it was very difficult because, of course, I spent five years doing research and now the question is: do I want to continue down this academic path? It was a personal choice, but I decided to exit academia because simply I felt that life is very short and I want to experience many different things and do many different things over the course of my life. And so it felt like a very freeing option to leave academia and explore what other options I have.

Immediately, I'm going to Facebook as an economist to work on their financial products and think about the intersection between payments and blockchain and sustainability, these big questions. I think it will be a really good use of my PhD training to apply it onto more urgent problems. 

Has Facebook always had a group of economists working in this space?

The team I am in is very new. It’s a team of ten economists who come from various market design and macroeconomics trainings, and we will be working on a relatively new product at Facebook as well.

What most excites you about the future and the impact you can make on society?

The biggest crisis we're facing I believe is climate change and environmental degradation, just because it relates to not just the environment, but also the well-being of everyone's day-to-day life. It may not be very exciting, more depressing to think that climate change is coming. But I do think what excites me is the amount of solutions that we will be able to see that are already happening, but I know more technological change and policy change and different thinking are  going to come from academia, private industry, government and from communities who care about their own future. So I'm excited to see how we as a society are going to tackle climate change in the next 20 years because we just have to do it, and I know we will be able to do it.

And the question now is, are the tech companies and the corporations doing sustainability sustainable solutions because they care about their reputation and their branding or are they actually creating effective changes? And I think we're probably somewhere in the middle right now, but I hope we're going towards the direction of seeing real, effective changes.

What advice do you have for future PhD students and how can they make the best use of their time in MS&E and at Stanford?

Stanford is so unique as an academic institution, it's extremely open minded and interdisciplinary and that's the best thing about Stanford. Regardless if you’re an undergrad or master student or PhD student; just come to learn, with an open mindset.

I find that oftentimes, PhD students coming to their grad program to learn one specific thing, but the learning truly happens when you're learning things you didn't think you were here to learn. And we do that by talking to people at different departments, going to talks that are not related to your immediate discipline and just being ready to hear the next exciting idea that you don't know anything about. I think that was my biggest learning at Stanford and I loved the kind of interdisciplinary feeling on campus.

What will you miss most about Stanford and the Bay Area?

A couple of things that I did during my grad school time that were really helpful for me was I would go swimming in all the outdoor pools on the Stanford campus. In fact, I learned how to swim after I came to Stanford. It's such a beautiful experience and it's such a luxury. I also spent the last five years participating in the the Stanford Ceramic Studio. We have a great student-run studio and I made a lot of pottery. I think that was a really good addition to thinking about math, working on papers, which are really abstract—a research product is something that will never materialize until many years down the line–but creating something with my hands is really cool, so I definitely will miss making pottery and also swimming at Stanford.

I will move back to the west coast so I'm excited for my job and coming back to the Bay Area for the weather, for the hikes because we're so close to all these amazing hikes. I also love cooking and the groceries that are available, like all year round, from local farmers markets—I just cannot wait for all those great things I can cook with.

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