Zili Wang Receives NSF Graduate Research Fellowship

May 2, 2024

Zili Wang, a first-year Computer Science Ph.D. student, has been awarded the prestigious NSF Graduate Research Fellowship award. He is currently working with Professor Kristin Yvonne Rozier at the Laboratory for Temporal Logic. His research is at the intersection of machine learning and formal methods. He is interested in leveraging techniques in formal methods and machine learning to solve problems such as the detection of forced labor in supply chain management. He is also interested in making formal methods more widely accessible to system designers and studying the learnability of temporal logic from data.

The National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program (NSF GRFP) is a prestigious fellowship program in the United States that provides financial support to graduate students pursuing research-based master’s and doctoral degrees in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) fields or in STEM education. Applicants are evaluated based on their intellectual merit and the broader impacts of their proposed research, as well as their potential to contribute to a diverse and inclusive scientific workforce. The fellowship is for three years, with financial support provided in terms of an annual stipend and allowances for tuition and fees. The fellowship also provides professional development and networking opportunities.

To gain insight into the application process, we spoke with Zili Wang. We discussed his background, his journey with the NSF GRFP, his goals, and any advice he could offer students who are interested in pursuing a similar path.

Can you start by telling us a bit about yourself and your background?

I am a first-year Computer Science student at Iowa State, working with Professor Kristin Yvonne Rozier at the Laboratory for Temporal Logic. I grew up in the Bay Area, in California, and I studied mathematics and computer science at UC Berkeley. I first came to Iowa State University in summer 2022 to participate in the very awesome ISU Math REU (Research Experience for Undergraduates) organized by Steve Butler and Bernard Lidicky. Professor Rozier mentored my team, and I learned about the field of formal methods. I also had one of the best summers of my life here in Ames, which is why I ultimately chose to come back for the PhD. 

Mathematics has always been my passion, but I was inspired to study computer science by the groundbreaking success of AlphaGo in playing the game of Go. My current research in formal m methods is, for me, a perfect combination of theory and practice that allows me to continue learning about both mathematics and computer science. 

Congratulations on receiving the NSF GRFP. That’s a fantastic accomplishment. How did you hear about the award?

I first learned about the NSF GRFP while participating in the 2021 Texas State Math REU (Research Experience for Undergraduates).
My major professor, Kristin Yvonne Rozier, was by far the most helpful in providing me with invaluable feedback and helping me polish my application materials. I could not have done it without her! Additionally, I found the one-on-one writing consultations with the ISU writing center to be immensely helpful for additional peer review.

What is the application process like?

Three letters of recommendation, a three-page personal statement, and a two-page research proposal. The boring (but important) logistics can be found at https://www.nsfgrfp.org. It's a relatively involved application, so try to start as early as possible!

One of the purposes of GRFP is to help ensure the diversity of the STEM workforce and broaden participation. What role do you see for yourself as you continue to grow your career in promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion within computer science?

My positive experiences with REUs were a big part of why I came to ISU. To give back, I plan to serve as an REU mentor and hope to inspire others the same way I was inspired to pursue research. 

What advice would you give to future applicants?

Look at previous successful GRFP applications! Read through at least several applications in your field to get a sense of what a strong application looks like. Start as early as possible (August is a good time, it's due in October), and get as much feedback from as many people as you can.

That’s great. As you continue your graduate research, what are your long-term goals? Where do you see yourself after you graduate?

Throughout my graduate studies, I hope to make contributions that are both theoretically interesting and practically useful in tackling real problems. 

I want to solve difficult problems, ideally for a living. I haven't yet decided if I want a job in academia or industry in the future, but I do know that I want to do research that is both interesting to me and useful to the world. 

One last question: what advice do you have for aspiring researchers who are considering pursuing graduate studies in STEM fields?

I will relay a great piece of advice I received: graduate school is HARD and comes at a steep opportunity cost (especially in computer science). Think hard about your reasons for pursuing graduate studies and make sure that it will advance your career!

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