Alumna in Excellence

Alumna in Excellence

Kelly H. Zou

 Chinese Students and Scholars Association at the University of Rochester

Chinese Students and Scholars Association at the University of Rochester (CSSAUR) is a non-profit organization, aiming to offer academic, living, and entertainment help for UR students, postdocs, visiting scholars and their family members coming from People’s Republic of China. CSSAUR is always working to enhance mutual help and affinity among its members. CSSAUR also serves as a link between the Chinese students/scholars at UR and the Chinese Consulate General in New York. CSSAUR also provides a chance for UR students and US citizens in Great Rochester to acquire a great deal of knowledge about Chinese culture through its annual performance and various events.

She received her PhD degree in Statistics from the University of Rochester (UR), is a Fellow of the American Statistical Association (ASA), and is the Chair of the Awards Committee, the Committee of Presidents of Statistical Societies (COPSS). She was an Associate Professor at Harvard Medical School and a Director of Biostatistics at its affiliated hospital. Currently, she is a Senior Director of Statistics and a Statistics Lead at Pfizer Inc. Moreover, she authored and coauthored several statistical monographs and is on an Editorial Board represented jointly by the UK Royal Statistical Society and the American Statistical Association (ASA).

In July this year, the Dean of the UR Eastman School of Music, Professor Jamal J. Rossi, wrote a letter to one of our graduates. In this letter, he expressed his gratitude to this alumna for establishing a student scholarship. Since September, this year, The Kelly George Eastman Circle Scholarship has officially started to provide financial support to an outstanding music student or scholar. This letter was addressed to our alumna, who is our esteemed interviewee here, Dr. Kelly H. Zou.


Photo 1. Kelly Zou presented her statistical research using statistical classification, receiver-operating characteristic curve analysis (her PhD research topic under Professor W. J. Hall as her thesis advisor), and image analysis(one of her several scientific topic areas) at an international brain imaging conference in Florence, Italy.


Interview conducted and condensed by Shiyang Ma, CSSAUR and the Humans of FDFZ Interview Team, Fudan Fuzhong (FDFZ) Overseas Foundation


Interviewer It is my great pleasure to be able to invite our alumna, Dr. Kelly Zou, as our first interviewee guest by the CSSAUR. Our guest has just organized the International Conference on Health Policy Statistics, with a long history for this conference series. She was the main conference organizer, co-chair and driver. We thank her for taking time from her busy schedules and limited availability to chat with us, despite her conference trip.Dr. Kelly Zou studied in the Department of Statistics at the UR. She was a doctoral student of a renowned statistician, Professor Jack Hall. Through Professor Hall as her thesis advisor, she has literally become one of the academic “descendants” or offsprings of a mathematical genius, Carl Friedrich Gauss. How would you describe your time spent as a PhD student?


Kelly First of all, thank you, Shiyang, for your introduction! When I was a first-year PhD student, I coincidentally became a teaching assistant (TA) for my thesis advisor, Professor Hall. From that point on until present day, I have been on the path to statistical research. I am indebted to him and still deeply miss his way of teaching and thinking since he has passed away. Professor Hall’s teaching style embodied independence and creativity by combining theory and practice.

Photo 2. Kelly Zou and her PhD advisor, Professor Jack Hall at the graduation commencement.


Interviewer According to your biographical information, you have published over 120 articles in statistics and related fields. At the same time, you have been very active in a number of statistical organizations and leadership roles. You have been an achiever in both academic pursuits and societal contributions. When you were a doctoral student, did you participate in social activities?


KellyDuring my graduate education, I lived in two on-campus dormitories and have maintained friendships with several dorm-mates from several departments outside my own. I used to participate in the Rochester Friendship Council’s Global Perspective events. Through this program, I had a chance to talk about our Chinese culture and background at several elementary schools in the surrounding neighborhoods. Besides, I have kept a life-long friendship with my UR “Friendship Family,” Ms. Dorothy (“Dottie”) Roat. Almost all activities and events hosted by the Graduate Organizing Group had trace of me as a social butterfly.


Interviewer After receiving you PhD degree in Statistics, you have spent exactly ten years of academic life at Harvard, starting from being a Post-Doctoral Fellow to an Associate Professor. You have then transitioned to the industry. Have you been impacted by the demands by two career sectors, namely, academia versus industry?


Kelly I have indeed spent ten years at Harvard and have spent nearly ten years in industry. They almost felt like two lifetimes in two different fields in general. Both have their own unique challenges, but not without close similarities. For example, the spirit of collaborations and partnerships would prevail regardless of academic or industry jobs. These are important qualities for and prerequisites to successes along both career tracks.  



Photo 3. In July this year, the Dean of the UR Eastman School of Music, Professor Jamal J. Rossi, wrote a letter to one of our graduates. In this letter, he expressed his gratitude to this alumna for establishing a student scholarship. Since September, this year, The Kelly George Eastman Circle Scholarship has officially started to provide financial support to an outstanding music student or scholar. This letter was addressed to our alumna, who is our esteemed interviewee here, Dr. Kelly H. Zou (her name in Chinese is邹虹, pronounced as Zou Hong).


Interviewer As we have known by now, you have established a scholarship within the Eastman School of Music. You have the opportunity to meet and converse with the Grammy Awards winners and musician professors. Have you had an enduring interest in music and performing arts?


KellySince a very young age, music has touched my soul as a human being and has struck a chord, so to speak. Music certainly felt like something special to my early existence. I still love music, as much as literature and art. On several occasions, I would jokingly say that I might have been destined in fields other than mathematics and statistics. In my junior-high school, I was quite active in my movie critique team and became familiar with classic movies. I was also interested in William Shakespeare’s works, particularly in theater and drama. While in high-school, I was once one of few Producers and Directors at the Shanghai Television Station. I was a playwright and director to bring several theater-plays on-stage. For example, one of my writing was a short story trilogy piece, entitled “Journey,” which won the First-Place Prize from the Chinese Writers Association (CWA). Furthermore, my friends in Boston and my graduate-school friends all know that I have another major hobby, which is painting. My style is generally French impressionism. Beyond oil and acrylic media, I am also quite comfortable with art works using Chinese brushes, sketches, portraits, water colors, or multimedia.



Photo 4. Since childhood, music has been Kelly Zou’s special and enduring outlet.


Interviewer You have such a broad array of interests and a wide variety of hobbies, and you are also a sociable person. When you were in graduate school, how did you manage all and schedule your time and activities accordingly? Can you advise on how to do well in studies, hobbies, as well as maintaining a meaningful social life?


Kelly Of course, study would be the number 1 priority for any graduate student. On the other hand, to the extent possible, I would find some time to attend a music concert, visit the Interfaith Chapel, volunteered at a hospital, serve as a vision study test subject in the Department of Computer Science, teach a summer course in the Department of Mathematics, work as a clerk at the check-out counter at our science library, and as mentioned above, spread the words about our Asian and Chinese cultures to the local elementary school students. These after-hour activities helped broaden my perception of the world around me and knowledge beyond statistics.


InterviewerWhat makes you miss UR the most? What are some vivid memories from the UR that have stayed with you all these years?


KellyThere are so many fond memories and too many places to miss, just to name a few: The Eastman Theater, UR campus, River Road Residence, Susan B. Anthony Hall, Carlson Library, Hylan Building, Eerie Canal, High Falls, American Falls, Lake Ontario, and Finger Lakes… I have definitely left my footsteps, perhaps even remaining there, in each of these historical and whimsical places. One of the deepest memories that I have kept and treasured was an international potluck dinner, held in our dorm building at the very beginning of the graduate studies. Among 40 or so dorm-mates, there were graduate students from all over the world (about 25 different countries including the United States), almost like a mini version of the United Nations. We shared our dishes over a delightful dinner together at our entertainment leisure room. The scene of us enjoying learning about so many different dishes and sampling these cultures is both memorable and refreshing. Another pleasant memory was our first departmental gathering at Professor Oakes’ home. There was the most beautiful sunset that evening on a deck overlooking the woods. It was absolutely beautiful in the State of New York. Standing on that deck, one could feel peace, calm and tranquility. There were a number of witty and famous professors at this event on that particular night. As a beginner statistician and a first-year graduate student, having a conversation with them about statistics, nature and life in general made me feel as if I had suddenly grown up, or almost!



Photo 5. Professor Hall’s birthday party: the third to the left in the front row, Dr. Kelly Zou; the second to the left in the back row, Professor Hall.


Interviewer Do you have any advice and suggestions to share with us graduate students on how to effectively study in a graduate school?


KellyThere is an ancient Chinese saying, “haste brings no success.” At the start of a long graduate education, here I mean a lengthy process toward a doctoral degree, it is not necessary to hastily count the days toward graduation. In America, good students must possess creativity as a key quality to success. Besides, it is very important to identify a wonderful and reliable advisor, who can fully understand your needs, strengths and weaknesses. Every advisor has his or her teaching style and habit of and research. As a student, however, it is imperative to be proactive, rather than being passive. Although there is a gap between the Eastern and Western ways of education, advisors generally are glad to spend time, not only to discuss scientific topics, but also goals and aspirations. Therefore, I would suggest that the students be brave enough to directly talk with their potential advisors about future goals and plans. Sky is the limit.    

In a broader professional community, the ASA has piloted a mentorship program during its annual Joint Statistical Meetings. Students may consider taking the advantage of such opportunities as traveling domestically and abroad to attend professional conferences or, at the very least, attending statistical, data science and informatics related seminars at a local ASA chapter. For graduate students or even outstanding undergraduate, they may consider applying for internship positions at the end of each year and up until around February in the following year. Many professional scientific organizations, including the ASA, post internship opportunities in December each year. Students may consider applying for one or more of these positions to proactively seize some career potentials. Of course, please discuss this in advance with the advisors to acquire support and approval.



Photo 6. Dr. Kelly Zou and UR graduate and Nobel Prize winner, Dr. Steven Chu, at a UR alumni event earlier this year.


The following is a translated excerpt from an interview conducted by the FDFZ Overseas Foundation. FDFZ refers to the High-School Affiliated to Fudan University, where Kelly attended in Shanghai, China. The original interview in Chinese is available at


InterviewerHave you ever regretted your career choice?


Kelly Frankly, I have not been brave enough to try out many new possibilities or alternative opportunities after witnessing several other alumni’s admirable paths to entrepreneurship, regardless whether opening a floral shop or designing applications. I wish that I had such boldness and daring in life. On the other hand, I think that in a lifelong journey, there may be unexpected chance events, which can turn out to be important deciding factors. We must learn how to enjoy one day at a time, rather than constantly trying too aggressively and too hard. If there is scant opportunity, then do not force it. One can still live through one day as a healthy human being without missing a beat in the long run. Sometimes, as Asians, we tend to worry too much about the very last 10 points on a 100-point scale. In the grand scheme of things, taking a moment to pause and think thoroughly on what is important may be what it takes in life.  A brief setback may propel one to travel far.

Interviewer What are your views on Asians’ struggles in America and on the pursuit of the American Dream?


Kelly This is a thought-provoking and frequently discussed topic, commonly known as the bamboo ceiling for Asian Americans, similar to the career glass ceiling. A key obstacle for Asians in general is that many of us are excellent workers but few ever become leaders. I have been pondering on why it is not easy to break and then surpass this artificial ceiling.


Since I have been exposed to different workers from all over the world in a multi-national and multi-functional setting, I do see things from a different angle with respect to this issue. That is, everyone has a different and innate purpose in life, and everyone must come up with and come to terms with his or her own definition of happiness. As long as life is fulfilling, it will make one’s life content. I sense that the so-called “struggles” in America may consist of both suffering and joy for many us Asians. Despite being somewhat diverse, the Asian cultures share common ground in at least unconsciously, if not consciously, yearning for a great family and a stable life. We wish for our family members to be completely free of any major illness or catastrophe. To achieve such a balance, Asians may choose to maintain “the doctrine of the mean” and value harmony, rather than constantly riding the ebbs and flows of unexpected tides. In effect, we may wonder why someone must travel that far and fly that high to pursue a goal that may or may not be tangible.


A relatively young Steve Jobs asked the vice-president at Pepsi-Cola, John Sculley: “Do you want to sell sugared water for the rest of your life? Or do you want to come with me and change the world?” As a professional statistician, I tend to think that there is no universally acceptable magical equation that will solve all of the career-related puzzles, dilemmas, and challenges. In fact, there is hardly such a common panacea to guarantee the attainment of happiness if everyone has his or her own version of definition of happiness. For some diligent workers, selling sugar water is precisely the heart of their pride and joy, and there is nothing wrong with that, either.


InterviewerBy now, your life has been so colorful and memorable. What are your future expectations?


KellyMy motto is “Never Say Never.” I did not settle down when I was fairly young. In fact, I had such wonderful opportunities to travel all around the world. I firmly believe in “Carpe Diem, Carpe Noctem,” which means in Latin to seize the day and to seize the night — to seize it all.Metaphorically speaking, events in life can unfold dramatically as if they had been displayed on tarot cards via a fortune-teller. As a statistician, I often dream of drawing a card that is nonrandom and predictive. I truly treasure little serendipity here and there, which have entered into my life unexpectedly an seemingly “disrupted” my orderly existence — thereby capitalizing on opportunities that would not have occurred otherwise. I have always wished for many layers, facets, and dimensions within one’s lifetime. Like Brownian motion, little unexpected events would bring out so many facets and colors. One life full of adventures can still be sufficiently satisfying .



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