Bridging gaps in a networked digital age

Wenjia Wang is a graduate student studying in Data Informatics

Born and raised in Nanjing, the capital of China’s eastern Jiangsu province, Wenjia Wang wanted to become an engineer.

As an undergraduate student at Southeast University in Nanjing, she majored in Information Sciences and Electrical Engineering and endured through the field’s competitive atmosphere. After graduating with her bachelor’s degree, Wenjia found herself across the Pacific Ocean in sunny Southern California. She is now one semester away from getting her M.S. in Data Informatics at USC Viterbi’s Informatics Program.

Wenjia decided to study data science instead of electrical engineering for her master’s after working as a summer intern on an interdisciplinary research project that bridged informatics with social media. During her summer internship, Wenjia worked with data scientists and journalists from Guangxi University and Fudan University to study the construction of social networks “from the relationship of reposting and being reposted in Sina microblog, [which is a] popular social networking website in China.” More specifically, they wanted to understand how people in China were connecting with each other and spreading information about a popular event that involved “protecting plane trees in Nanjing, China.” This particular event occurred in 2011, when Nanjing’s historical plane trees were being uprooted to make way for the construction of subway stations. In response, a massive protest began, lasting eight days, culminating in the Nanjing government’s compromise to leave the remaining plane trees untouched.

By bringing computational techniques to analyze real-world events, Wenjia discovered the art of turning social data into valuable insights on the processes of social networking. Wenjia’s love of data and data analysis grew as a result, and she credits her mentor whose passion for data was contagious.

At USC, Wenjia hopes to build the toolkit needed to analyze big data. Her research interests are in data mining and information retrieval, machine learning, database management systems, algorithms, and big data analytics. Wenjia particularly admires dynamic programming algorithms and their applications on real-world problems. Dynamic programming is more or less breaking down a problem into subproblems, solving each of those subproblems once, then storing their solutions to compose higher level solutions. A classic example that benefits from dynamic programming is the knapsack problem, which is considered an NP-complete problem in combinatorial optimization (but we’ll skip getting into the details of complexity theory for later). The premise of the knapsack problem is simple: Given some some items, each with a weight and a value, pack the knapsack so that the total weight is less than or equal to a given limit and that the total value is as large as possible. The problem often comes up in resource allocation situations where there are financial constraints.

In Wenjia’s opinion, journalism in China and US is very similar. Having worked with journalists before, she is very excited about the opportunity to with them again through USC Viterbi’s hybrid course with the USC Annenberg School of Journalism. For her, journalism is like an escape from the technical world of engineering.

Overall, Wenjia thinks that journalists are very good at communicating with people, as well as influencing people’s opinions and emotions. She especially admires people who can change her worldview by teaching her new things and showing her new perspectives. Wenjia is looking forward to collaborating with journalists at USC so that she can influence other people’s worldview with data-driven insights.

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