Graduate Student Profile - Wei Wang (Computer Science)
Raised in Tianjin, a big city in northern China not far from Beijing, Wei Wang was first introduced to a computer in a high school class. She felt an immediate affinity for computer science. "I wanted to learn everything about it," she recalls, "and I found that I could learn very quickly. I could write programs to make computers do what I wanted them to do and it was very exciting."
Over the next few years, she acquired undergraduate and master's degrees in computer science at universities in China and the United States, but as she settled down to doctoral work at the State University of New York, Stony Brook, she was still looking for a research area that would fire her imagination.
Then Wei's twin sister, Jia, told her about the data mining lab operated by Dr. Richard Muntz at UCLA. Wei made a quick visit to the lab's home page, liked what she saw, and not long after an exchange of email between the sisters and Dr. Muntz, Wei arrived at UCLA in June of 1996 to pursue her PhD while working with others in the data mining lab.
Dr. Muntz's work is part of the NASA-sponsored Mission to Planet Earth project. An Earth-observing system of 20 satellites is gathering an enormous scientific database, a terrabyte of data per day. In Muntz's lab, computer scientists are creating the hardware and software that will make this database accessible to scientists in flexible and convenient ways. "Wei is one of my best students," Dr. Muntz said. "She's made outstanding contributions."
As raw data, the information transmitted from space is massive but it's not organized in ways that permit scientists to "read" it or to look for the answers to their questions. The key is to create a filing system.
"If you stored it the way you got it, it would take a long time to find anything," Wei says. "You want to store the data in a way that will let people use it very easily." She helped to build an index structure for the data and to create software applications that help users ask questions. She is working now on a structure that uses statistical techniques to store data.
Wei brought to UCLA an expertise in "fuzzy measures" that is useful in weather work. Fuzzy measures are things like clouds or warm pools of water in the ocean - physical objects that are nevertheless hard to define precisely.
Thanks in part to her work, scientists are able to ask the computer to find, for example, all the regions in California that are bigger than one square mile, in which the vegetation index has increased by more than 10 percent in the last year. The tools she helps make are being used to learn more about international weather conditions such as El Nino, but the possible applications include anything that involves geographical information, from the movement of pollutants around the globe to the movement of cars around Los Angeles.
And perhaps with a tweak or two, it could help her keep track of her far-flung family. Wei's sister, who took the lead in preparing the twins for their move to the United States four years ago, is studying in New York State. The two women spend hours at a time on the phone together to preserve family ties. Their parents travel back and forth between the United States and China, where Wei's father is a professor of mathematics at Chinese University of Hong Kong. Her mother is retired as a professor of electrical engineering.
Wei will almost certainly stay on this side of the Pacific. "Because the research environment here is much better than in China, I have to be here," she says, probably in a faculty position at a research-oriented university. With that goal, she is working on her English-language skills to improve her teaching ability.
Although Wei sometimes "visits" old friends in China in her dreams, she says she's experienced very little culture shock, given the large geographical move she's made. "It's very easy to get used to living in the United States," she says.
Published in Winter 1998, Graduate Quarterly