When Lunjun (Alan) Zhang began his studies as an international student at Villanova College, he had the words of his father echoing in his ears, "My Dad told me when I began my studies abroad that I was going to be the average and that I was to surround myself with people whom I would look up to and were intelligent and talented. He said to soak in what they have to offer and always be learning."
Lunjun certainly was not average in his years at Villanova College. He graduated top of the class in 2017, and he was incredibly accomplished in the school's STEM and Advanced Placement programs. Lunjun embraced all aspects of school life and was the most engaging conversationalist on topics ranging from physics to computer programming to philosophy to classic literature. He never lost an opportunity to question and contemplate life's mysteries, and it is no surprise that Lunjun's inquiries would lead to his studies in Engineering Science and his work and post-graduate studies in Artificial Intelligence (AI) at the University of Toronto.
Like any other first-year university student, Lunjun wanted to experience all that class and campus life had to offer. However, after a conversation with a teacher assistant and an internship at the Vector Institute, he decided to take a deep dive into research. At Vector, he gained a more profound understanding of Alpha-Go and the vast possibilities of AI in the lives of Canadians. In his second year, Lunjun participated in another internship at MILA, Quebec Artificial Institute, in Montreal. Here, he gained more substantial knowledge of algorithms in their abstract form. A third internship at Uber followed, spurring Lunjun's post-graduate application process in AI. After much research into where the best research is being done, Lunjun saw Canada at the forefront of ingenuity and has been accepted as a Doctor of Philosophy in Computer Science candidate at the University of Toronto.
Lunjun's research will focus on self-driving technology, as he works with his Ph.D. supervisor, Raquel Utarson, and her start-up company Waabi. As Lunjun stated, "The goal is to teach machines that have intuitive common sense to learn with less human supervision. Cars will be able to navigate the road autonomously and more safely."
Lunjun emphasizes that studies within the Engineering Science program are not for the faint of heart, but during the course of it, he has learned to create a balance between work and school and to develop a mindset that withstands the pressures of a deadline environment.
"I basically went into survival mode for my final year, as I completed my course work and worked part-time at Uber."
Lunjun indicates that the formation of his school and work philosophy crystallized at Kairos after hearing Mr. Stephen Morris' reflection.
"Kairos was the single most important experience of my time at Villanova. It provided a safe and open space where students and teachers came together. Mr. Morris spoke about his life, and in his talk, I realized that life is intrinsically difficult, that suffering is part of the human experience, but it is something for which we are to be grateful. Through suffering, we receive grace. It was a truly magical week, and one that has to happen in person."
Lunjun's profound understanding resonates with Augustine's words in his Confessions, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.”
Alumni Affairs wishes Lunjun continued success, as he journeys the world of possibilities in AI. He will be discussing his work and studies with our STEM students this fall.