Meng Li says it was a “no-brainer” for him to pursue a career in academia. His passion for math and data started early in his studies, and he was drawn to a field that tackles so many real-world issues using mathematical tools.
“Whenever you have uncertainty and data, statistics can play a role,” he said. “Statistics is a very important tool to do some useful stuff and impact the world. It was naturally attractive to me.”
Li joined Rice in July 2017 as the Noah Harding assistant professor of statistics, and was hired as part of the Data Science Initiative at Rice. His research is both theoretical and applied, centered around a key domain in statistics--methodology.
“In statistical domain, we categorize our research in several directions. One is methodology,” he said. “We start with a real data set from science or industry. We come up with a statistical model based on which we make an inference and address numerous pressing real-world problems.”
Li is tackling some of those real-world problems next door at the Texas Medical Center, which he found impressive on his initial visit to Rice.
“I have collaborations with Baylor College of Medicine and MD Anderson. It’s an exciting environment,” he said.
He was also drawn to Rice’s strong reputation, its friendly atmosphere and interdisciplinary approach to statistics.
“People know Rice,” he said. “I really like it here. People are supportive and get along with each other very well. We collaborate with the medical center and industry, we do machine learning, and we play a big role in data science. On one day, you may be dealing with a specific type of cancer, and the next you can be working in artificial intelligence. We can play in everyone’s backyard!”
Li earned his Ph.D. in statistics from North Carolina State University in 2015, and a B.S. in statistics from Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, China, in 2010. In 2015, he was hired as a visiting assistant professor of statistical science at Duke University. He credits Duke with introducing him to academic life and solidifying his decision to pursue an academic career.
“I was at Duke for two years which really influenced my decision to stay in academia,” he said. “The researchers at Duke are very active, energetic and it was a friendly environment.”
While at Duke, he realized that statistics gave him freedom to pursue new applications for his research, and he is interested in continuing this pursuit at Rice.
“I like collaboration and having the opportunity to play in different fields,” he said. “I do modeling, but I want to make sure my model is useful in other applications. If you have a science problem that is data heavy, let’s talk.”
Li encourages students interested in studying statistics to factor opportunity and access to faculty into their decision.
“If you want to study statistics, apply to Rice. Houston is great because there are so many industries here. For example, you can do consulting and medical research in Houston. We have something to work on all the time. Maybe too many things!”
Jennifer Hunter, Engineering Communications