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P.D. Soros Fellowship for New Americans

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Q&A: Theoretical Computer Scientist Sitan Chen Looks Back At The Fellowship

Born in Hefei, China, 2018 Paul & Daisy Soros Fellow Sitan Chen was one year old when his family immigrated to Canada so his father could complete his doctorate at the University of Toronto. They moved to Suwanee, Georgia, in the early 2000s, and Sitan's experiences throughout middle and high school with math contests and programs like the Research Science Institute ultimately motivated him to study mathematics and computer science at Harvard University. 

Since the fall of 2016, Sitan has been at MIT working with his PhD advisor Ankur Moitra on algorithmic problems in machine learning and inference. His focus is on developing new mathematical frameworks to analyze techniques like the method of moments, Gibbs sampling, and local search that are popular in practice but poorly understood in theory. Sitan has presented his work at venues including the Symposium on Theory of Computing and the Simons Institute for the Theory of Computing.

You’re now finishing up the second year of the Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowship program. Has the Fellowship been what you expected? 

I originally applied to the PD Soros Fellowship just in the hopes of getting financial support that would give me greater freedom to do the research I wanted to do, but I certainly could not anticipate the amazing level of support and fulfillment that I would end up receiving as part of this one-of-a-kind community. It has been so humbling meeting so many amazing Fellows and alumni through this program and getting to learn about the sorts of problems, both scientific and social, that keep them up at night and with which I should grapple more myself. At the same time, the wonderful people who run the Fellowship have done an incredible job of offering support to us at all stages of the program, especially during such troubling times as these.

Do you have any favorite memories from the past two years as a Paul & Daisy Soros Fellow? 

Some of my favorite outings from the PD Soros conferences included a Broadway showing of Daniel Fish's experimental remake of Oklahoma!, an impromptu food tour of Chinatown, and a tour of the Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side. But easily the most striking memory I made as a Fellow was the notoriously powerful group discussion that highlighted my first Fall Conference. Those hours of intense sharing and self-reflection really drove home for me how valuable it was to be a part of the amazing community that this Fellowship fosters.

What advice would you give to someone who is thinking of applying to The Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowships for New Americans? 

The PD Soros Fellowship is unique among graduate fellowships for the value it places on the applicant's understanding for how their own cultural roots have shaped their worldview and sense of identity. This has the dual advantage both of building a community of alumni acutely aware of their roles in driving social change for the better, and of challenging applicants to think deeply about questions that they might not otherwise be faced with in their day-to-day academic lives. So, I would encourage anyone thinking of applying to this Fellowship to treat the application, if nothing else, as a powerful exercise on introspection. And make sure to leave no stone unturned when telling your story! If some tiny detail of your journey has significance to you and you take the time and care to unpack and do justice to it in your writing, it will be sure to come across to the people reading your essays.

Where are you with your graduate program now? What’s next?

I am in the final year of my PhD program. This upcoming fall, in addition to continuing my current research projects, I'll be applying to postdocs, and in the spring of 2021, I plan on finishing up my thesis and graduating. I hope to continue pursuing a career in academia.

How do you plan to stay active with the Fellowship community in the years to come? 

One of the most important aspects of having an alumni network as extensive and diverse as PD Soros' is that at all stages of their career trajectories, Fellows have access to mentorship from people who have walked similar paths. While I'm still in the early stages of my own journey, in the coming years I hope to remain active in the Fellowship community by offering guidance to Fellows with similar aspirations or who might want a second opinion when it comes to career advice. So far, I've enjoyed helping peers in my academic network apply for the Fellowship and look forward to continuing to do so in the coming years, especially as I think there is exciting room for growth for the Fellowship in terms of representation among EECS applicants. I also hope to remain involved by attending or organizing local meetups.  ∎