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Yuanzhao Zhang

PhD Candidate in the Department of Physics and Astronomy

Yuanzhao Zhang

I study networks, which is the science of interactions. My research aims to understand the underlying mechanisms behind collective behaviors, so we can better harness the potential of this increasingly interconnected world.”

Yuanzhao Zhang is a PhD candidate in the Department of Physics and Astronomy in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. Yuanzhao’s research has focused on the theory of synchronization in coupled oscillator networks and demonstrating how disorder can restore synchrony. As a candidate for a PhD in physics, he is interested in developing theories to predict collective behavior in complex systems. Recently, Yuanzhao was awarded a 2020 Schmidt Science Fellowship, which supports early career scientists pursuing interdisciplinary approaches to tackle long-term societal challenges.

How would you describe your research and/or work to a non-academic audience?

I study networks, which is the science of interactions. When microscopic entities interact, they can often coordinate with each other and achieve a macroscopic impact. Think of birds flocking together to confuse predators, cardiac pacemakers beating synchronously to create rhythmic impulses, and the confluence of millions of investors to drive the financial market. My research aims to understand the underlying mechanisms behind such collective behaviors, so we can better harness the potential of this increasingly interconnected world. In particular, I have been interested in how diversity can influence the emergence of synchronization and consensus, for which I wrote a non-technical article for Helix Magazine and created a dance piece with students from Regina Dominican High School.

What is a mistake you have learned from in your career?

Prioritize your big, long-term goals over small, short-term tasks. Those little tasks might seem more "urgent" and easier to deal with, but they are like the Hydra and keep coming back no matter how many times you hack off its heads. If not careful, we might get trapped by small tasks and find ourselves achieving nothing after an extremely "busy" day/month/year.

Whom do you admire in your field and otherwise, and why?

Steven Strogatz. He is one of the pioneers of network science and has been extremely influential in the field of nonlinear dynamics. He is also a master of science communication. He recently started a new podcast in collaboration with Quanta Magazine called The Joy of X, in which he interviews some of the world's leading scientists about their lives and work.

Why Northwestern?

Northwestern is one of the hubs for research in complex systems and networks, with places such as Northwestern Institute on Complex Systems offering intriguing talks (and in normal circumstances a delicious lunch) every Wednesday. Also, purple is a nice color, and I like cats. 

How do you unwind after a long day?

Watching John Oliver while sipping tea.

What books are on your bedside table?

Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas Hofstadter. The book explores how systems can acquire meaning despite being made of "meaningless" elements, among other things. I read the Chinese version of the book back in college. However, a significant portion of the book's appeal is in its clever wordplay. I am now reading the English version and often find myself pleasantly surprised by the subtle differences between the two versions. 

What inspires you?

The beauty of math and nature.

Tell us about a current achievement or something you're working on that excites you.

I recently received a Complexity Postdoctoral Fellowship from the Santa Fe Institute, which gives me an opportunity to pursue independent research in complexity science. I am looking forward to starting a new chapter of my career in such a collaborative and interdisciplinary environment.

What are you most proud of in your career to date?

One of my favorite moments in my research so far is a gem that I stumbled upon while studying chimera states—exotic dynamical patterns in which coherence and incoherence coexist. In this case, unexpected switching between two stable chimera states emerged due to the computer rounding errors in my simulations. Understanding how the rounding errors are amplified to trigger the switching events has been an exciting journey full of twists and turns. So far, this accidental discovery has led to a publication in Physical Review X and a winning image in the Northwestern Science Images Contest.

Published: May 12, 2020


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