Fung Feature: Dennis Zhang, MEng ’20 (BIOE)
On living around the world, healthcare innovation, and making STEM accessible for all
Dennis is an MEng student studying bioengineering. He has lived abroad in Germany and China, and is looking forward to exploring the innovative environment of the Bay Area. Dennis is passionate about work that bridges gaps, whether they be between engineers and the public, or different technological disciplines. We had the chance to ask him some questions about his journey to MEng and his goals for the future.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
“I guess I am sort of a ‘third culture kid’: born in Berlin, Germany to Chinese parents, I spent my early childhood in this diverse and vibrant city before moving back to Shanghai, China. Back in my parents’ home country, I attended a German international school for my entire school career. It was a tremendously interesting experience, as I was exposed to the constant transition between two entirely distinct cultures.
I then returned to Germany for my undergraduate degree, receiving a B.S. in molecular biotechnology from Heidelberg University. As a tech-savvy person, I have always been drawn to the charm of Silicon Valley and the Bay Area, which is why I ultimately decided to enroll in the MEng program at Cal and see the forefront of innovation for myself. This year, I hope to learn more about the intersection between life science and technology, as well as explore the startup scene in the San Francisco Bay Area.
What inspired you to study bioengineering?
The scientific blood has always been running in my family: my grandparents worked as high school teachers in STEM subjects back in the days, while both of my parents obtained engineering degrees in college. Naturally, I was exposed to the realm of science at a very young age. On numerous occasions, I would sit together with my grandfather after school to work on complex math problems, as my appetite for numbers was not satisfied by the basic calculations in elementary school.
Coming into high school, I turned out to be very much an all-rounder in STEM. Be it mathematics, physics, chemistry or biology, I was fascinated by each of these subjects in both theory and their respective applications. Due to my broad interests, I was looking to further my education in a field that applies knowledge from multiple disciplines of science, to which engineering was the obvious choice. Bioengineering caught my eye particularly, as it directly relates to living beings and follows a human-centered approach in its application. Given the emerging challenges in the health and sustainability space, I believed that the intersection of biology and engineering will be of utmost importance in the future. That is why I became a bioengineer.
“Given the emerging challenges in the health and sustainability space, I believed that the intersection of biology and engineering will be of utmost importance in the future.”
Why did you choose the MEng program?
After completing my undergrad, I took a gap year for the sole purpose of discovering more interests outside of science. I ended up interning at one of the fastest-growing e-commerce startups in Germany, supporting the highly dynamic business development team for six months. Between managing several key accounts and leading large promotional campaigns, I realized that I wasn’t only interested in quantitative and analytical work, but more so in communicative and collaborative tasks that involved working in a team setting with other people.
At the same time, I became aware of my affinity for startups, as I deeply appreciated the dynamic and fast-moving environment that enabled and translated innovative solutions like nowhere else. Following this experience, I decided to shift from a research-focused background to a more application-focused degree that combines STEM education with elements of teamwork and communication.
I was beyond excited to find out that Berkeley, one of the top educational institutions in the world, offered a program that reflects all of these skill sets and combines all aspects into a hands-on Capstone project, while providing exposure to the highly entrepreneurial and innovation-driven culture of the San Francisco Bay Area. Given these perks, the Berkeley MEng was an easy decision.
“I realized that I wasn’t only interested in quantitative and analytical work, but more so in communicative and collaborative tasks that involved working in a team setting with other people.”
Can you tell us about your Capstone project?
I am working on the “Team Infinity” Capstone project in partnership with Coleman Fung and Blue Goji. Our project is aimed at designing diagnostic and conditioning virtual reality experiences for older adults, based on the treadmill component of Blue Goji’s Infinity Virtual Reality (VR) system. Aging-associated diseases have emerged as a critical issue in recent years, affecting a wide range of health aspects including neuromuscular function, audiovisual perception and cognitive ability. Given the current trend of population aging, their incidence will only increase over time. Through the gamification of fitness, we hope to promote healthier habits that forestall aging-associated diseases and thus help people live healthier lives.
What’s something you’re passionate about?
Growing up, I always enjoyed the process of talking with and listening to others, whether it was through a casual conversation, a classroom discussion or a debating club. The idea of connecting and bonding with other people through a simple exchange of words excites me and I strive to become an effective communicator both personally and professionally.
However, going into science made me realize that it is a discipline plagued by a lack of communication. People working in STEM tend to overuse scientific jargon and technical terms, relying on unnecessarily complicated words to assert authority and elevate the status of one’s own work. This leads to a huge disconnect between scientists and their wider audience: having worked in an academic setting before, I have seen first-hand how great research failed to translate into tangible applications due to miserable communication, as financial stakeholders were unable to understand the potential of an idea.
I believe that effective communication is key to bridging this gap between basic research and real-world applications. As a future engineer, I want to reconcile my personal passion for talking and listening with my professional responsibility for effective science communication to increase the accessibility of STEM and thereby foster innovation as a whole.
“I believe that effective communication is key to bridging this gap between basic research and real-world applications.”
Can you tell us about a cool project you worked on recently?
Last month, I participated in Health++, an annual hackathon hosted by Stanford University on the topic of health. This being my first hackathon, I had no idea what to expect and also doubted my own ability to contribute to a meaningful project in such limited time. However, the 48 hours turned out to be one of the most exhilarating and rewarding experiences ever. Recognizing major gaps in the U.S. healthcare system and the subsequent misallocation of resources, I and a team of Cal students decided to build a tool that improves the detection of healthcare fraud using machine learning. Specifically, our algorithm analyzed publicly available healthcare payment data from federal agencies to group physicians and healthcare service providers into risk groups, thereby supporting the detection of fraudulent claims and augmenting the often opaque claim review process.
This experience was incredibly inspiring: I never thought that I would be able to build something from scratch in this short amount of time, with teammates that were complete strangers to me before the event. During the weekend, I learned about so many previously unheard-of innovations and connected with wonderful people from all sorts of backgrounds, all united by the passion to create purposeful solutions for advancing human health. This will not be my last hackathon for sure.
What kind of impact do you want to have on the world?
I used to think that all scientists and engineers were driven by a desire for positive change — to advance science, to help people, to make a meaningful impact on the world. After working in both academia and industry, I became aware that this is not always the case. Sometimes “impact” is just a marketing buzzword to get traction, other times it is used as a smokescreen to conceal purely financial incentives. Moreover, impact is often very one-sided: even though a product may benefit a specific group of people, it may cause significant harm to another part of the human community or the natural ecosystem. After learning about the subjectivity of impact, I started to reflect on my own actions as an engineer and reassessed my own career ambitions regarding what I want to support with my work. In the future, I hope to contribute to a holistic form of impact: one that improves the well-being of our planet and its inhabitants on as many levels as possible, in a socially responsible, ethically-conscious and sustainable fashion.”
“In the future, I hope to contribute to a holistic form of impact: one that improves the health and wellbeing of our planet and its inhabitants on as many levels as possible, in an ethically-conscious and sustainable fashion.”
Connect with Dennis // As told to Lauren Leung
Fung Features is a series dedicated to showcasing the Fung community from various cohorts and backgrounds and learning more about their lives and their stories. If you’re interested in being featured, email email@example.com!