Solving Nearly Unsolvable Problems | Interview with Yunseo Choi

Solving Nearly Unsolvable Problems | Interview with Yunseo Choi

We met with student Yunseo Choi to discuss her experience as part of the Research Science Institute and the Regeneron Science Talent Search. Enjoy!

Yunseo Choi is a winner of the Regeneron Science Talent Search and alumni of the Research Science Institute, a program that brings together a diverse group of the brightest students from around the world. She has done research with Dr. Ken Ono, who is ranked among the most influential mathematicians in the world. Choi discusses the impact that the RSI summer program had on her college decision and the impact it continues to have on her as a college student. Yunseo encourages other students to persevere and not feel overwhelmed by seemingly unsolvable problems. Follow along as Regeneron Science Talent Search winner, Yunseo Choi, talks with Dr. Jed Macosko, academic director of and professor of physics at Wake Forest University.

I remember just finally getting it and realizing that it's more important to chase problems by their significance not by the methods that are required behind.” – Yunseo Choi

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Interview with Student Yunseo Choi

Interview Transcript

(Editor’s Note: The following transcript has been lightly edited to improve clarity.)

0:00:13.6Research Science Institute

Jed Macosko: Hi, this is Dr. Jed Macosko at Wake Forest University and Academic Influence. We are so thrilled today to have Yunseo, who is one of the wonderful winners of the Regeneron Talent Search Science Contest. And Every year, many students enter that, and a particular program that has had a lot of success in that competition is a program called Research Science Institute, which is another thing that Yunseo has taken part in. So this is something near and dear to my heart because I was involved in this in the 1980s.

So Yunseo, I was just gonna ask you, how did you hear about our RSI, Research Science Institute, and how did you decide you wanted to apply, and how did you apply? So tell us all about it.

Yunseo Choi: Yeah, so I went to a boarding high school in... When I was in high school. And so It’s in Exeter. It’s called Phillips Exeter Academy. And actually, a lot of students from my high school in the past went to RSI. And so they had always spoken highly of the program and always encouraged me to apply. So, I filled up the online application, just like everybody else in the program, and yeah, that’s how I applied and got involved.

Jed: Had you done any research while you were a high school student?

Yunseo: Yeah. Before I applied to RSI, I was very lucky to be a part of an undergrad math research program the year before, and so I got to work with Ken Ono , who is a great mathematician.

Jed: Who we have interviewed on this show.

Yunseo: Oh, no way, no way.

Jed: Yes, he was so fun.

Yunseo: Yeah, he was very fun.

Jed: And we actually... On his recommendation, we interviewed his brother, whose name is Santa Ono . And he is the president of a university in British Columbia, University of British Columbia.

Yunseo: That’s so cool, That’s so cool. Yeah.

Jed: Super fun guys.

Yunseo: The only thing that I know about him was that his name is Santa.

Jed: Yeah, he was super fun to interview too, so the both of them.

Yunseo: Yeah.

Jed: Boy, you were really lucky to get to work with Professor Ono.

Yunseo: Yeah, yeah. Actually, this past summer I went back to the program, and it was a lot of fun. So yeah, I worked with Ken, which was super fun, and it was such a big learning experience. And so after that, I knew that I wanted to continue research, which is why I applied to RSI the year after.

Jed: That is awesome. And it sounds like you’re gonna major in math.

Yunseo: Mm-hmm.

0:02:28.2A degree in Math

Jed: So you’ve been doing lots and lots of math. We just interviewed a professor from Harvard University, where you’re at right now, named Professor Larry Tribe. He’s very famous because many people have been his students, including Barack Obama . And he started off in math, but then he went into law, which is what he’s been doing ever since he graduated from Harvard as an undergraduate. So you were saying that you want an undergraduate major in math, but then you might do something else.

If you had to rank the top three things that you might do with your math degree, what might they be?

Yunseo: Honestly, I have no clue. I think I wanna pursue academia if I can, in a field that’s related to math. But I don’t know which field, which is what I’m trying to figure out here, just throughout my undergraduate years. But working Theoretical Economics was really fun over the past year. I’m still working with Scott, he was my mentor in RSI, at Harvard.

Jed: And he’s worked with a lot of RSI students in the past. Has he ever told you how many RSI students he has had come through his lab?

Yunseo: Actually, he was a student in the early 2000s, and then he came back as a counselor. And then I think since then, he has come for many years as an invited speaker. But I think he only had two students as his students before me.

Jed: Oh, okay. I heard he was involved with RSI a lot...

Yunseo: Definitely, [0:03:51.4] ____. Yeah.

Jed: So I assumed he had a lot of students, but it was in the capacity as being a student himself.

Yunseo: Uh-huh.

Jed: And speaking and being at Harvard when everybody else is just down the street at MIT so that’s really cool.

Yunseo: Yeah, yeah. And so that makes me wonder, your experience as a mentor versus a student, how was that different?

0:04:07.5Virtual mentoring and choosing Harvard

Jed: Yes, it was really fun to finally be able to mentor students. I mentored one your year, who did wonderful work for this company, Academic Influence. And then the following year, I had another student also working on big data projects for this company. So as a mentor, it is so fun to have an RSI student come and work, because you guys are young, you’re enthusiastic, you’re really bright, and you can get a lot done in a short amount of time because everybody else in the RSI program is trying to get a lot done, and there’s this feedback of, "Let’s get a lot done in just that short window of time." So it’s really fun, and I just enjoyed it so much, and it was only possible because of the pandemic. ’Cause here I am down in North Carolina, and the program used to be in Washington, DC, and now it’s moved up to Boston, so that’s way too far away for me to mentor anybody. But it was really fun these past two years. So I’ll miss being a mentor when it goes back to in-person, but I’ll be so glad that the new RSI people can be in person ’cause it was a little hard, wasn’t it? You mentioned that you were in South Korea, during the whole summer. So how was that for you?

Yunseo: Yeah. Luckily, there were other students all around Asia that were also part of the program, so I was put into a counselor group with them. So that was nice. But still, I had to live in the weirdest hours through the program. So yeah, that was a little rough, but I still had a lot of fun.

Jed: Do you see any of those friends from two summers ago that are now at Harvard, and do you get to see them in person?

Yunseo: All the time, all the time.

Jed: Is it fun to see them? Are some of them from your counselor group?

Yunseo: Actually, there is one other student from my counselor group. I don’t see him as often, but I’m taking one of the most advanced math courses, Math 55, here at Harvard, and there’s so many students there. There’s a very advanced biology course, LS50, that the rest of the biology kids are in. So I see them all around.

Jed: That’s great. And you only applied to Harvard.

Yunseo: Yes.

Jed: And part of that was ’cause you had such a great experience working for a Harvard professor. But were there other...

Who is your counselor and what school were they going to, and how did you decide between Harvard and let’s say Stanford, which I know a lot of other RSI-2020 students ended up going to, actually more than the ones who went to Harvard and MIT? So yeah, tell us a little bit about your thought process only applying to Harvard.

Yunseo: Actually, I applied here early, and my school has a policy where if you get in somewhere early, you have to go to that school unless it’s a circumstance like financial aid, for example. And the whole rationale behind that is that, they don’t want certain students to get into all schools and only be able to go attend one of them. So yeah, that was...

Jed: But you still had to choose which one you will applied to first.

Yunseo: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Jed: You could have applied to MIT, Stanford.

Yunseo: Yeah, I think the biggest actually was working with Scott during RSI. Because of Scott, I met the rest of his lab, and actually the lab has a lot of undergrad students and also grad students. And I was just inspired by them so much. And then I realized, "Okay, like four years from now, if I see myself, if I can be anywhere near as them, I’d just be so happy." And so that was my biggest reason why I applied here. I wanted to stay in the East Coast ’cause I lived around the East Coast a lot. So, yeah.

Jed: Perfect. That seems like a really good fit for you. And you sounded like you’re really happy going to sport games, meeting people, having roommates. You have a roomie and it’s all okay. That’s really fun.

Yunseo: Yeah, yeah.

0:08:00.7Why RSI?

Jed: So, if you could explain to somebody why RSI is so important and why it should continue, what would you say?

…I think just the amount of opportunities and new doors that it opens for you, I think is just incredible.” – Yunseo Choi

Yunseo: Yeah, I think... First of all, the community that you meet, you will just meet them everywhere like I do every day at Harvard. It is always so nice to have a group of friends to go back to, a group of friends I can always really relate to at a deep level because they also have similar interests as me. And also just working. Being able to work with Scott just was amazing because it actually wasn’t a field that I didn’t know... It wasn’t a field that I knew a lot about. And actually, two weeks into RSI, it was just like a six-week program, I had to switch mentors because my original mentor had quit his PhD. And so I was diving into a completely new field. But Scott was so supportive and just opened my eyes to this completely new field that I really wanna get to know more of, really wanna consider seriously as having a future in that career. So yeah, I think just the amount of opportunities and new doors that it opens for you, I think is just incredible.

Jed: It is really incredible. And what would your life have been like? You already got to work with Ken Ono. You already went to Phillips Exeter. So you had a lot of opportunities.

But what would have been missing from your life if you hadn’t gotten... If RSI didn’t exist, if it just wasn’t a program anymore?

Yunseo: Yeah, I think through RSI, I definitely met students from almost every state, because RSI is very conscious of choosing students from all around the country. And that was different from some of the other summer programs that I went to where everybody was from California, Massachusetts, all these really big... New York, all these states. And I definitely met a lot of international friends through RSI. A lot from Europe, a lot from Asia, especially because I was an Asian myself. And a lot of the tutor group meetings, for example, it was a lot of students from Asia and Europe that were in my tutor group. I think, yeah, working with Ken was awesome. Math was what I had previously studied... I had studied for the past few years, and working with Scott actually... It was a new field. I did not know anything about it. And so just getting introduced to a completely new field, I think would not have been possible without RSI.

Jed: Okay, so just having your world broadened by different areas of STEM and people from different parts of the world, including different states. So that seems like a really important thing.

Can you give us any specific examples of people that you met from a state that you had never met anybody from, or from a country, or just something about that? Can you elaborate on that?

Yunseo: Yeah. Yeah, I think I met some friends from Bulgaria and Spain through RSI. And here I’m meeting other friends from Bulgaria and Spain, for example, or different parts of Europe, and they know each other. And so it’s always nice to have mutual friends. And so it’s always a really good introduction, just to say, "Hey, I know this person from Spain," or, "I know this person from Bulgaria or Sweden," or just any country. So that’s always... Yeah, I think that’s always just good to know.

Jed: Perfect. Well, it has been really fun to hear about all the things that you’re doing.

Was it hard to put together the Regeneron paper, and the paper that you had to write at the end of RSI? Was there a lot of sleepless nights, and do you have any stories about that?

Yunseo: I was very lucky because I was actually joint mentored. I was originally part of the MIT Mathematics Department at RSI. So MIT Mathematics usually takes 10 or so students each year, and they have head mentors or professors that have been working on with high school students for very, very many years. And they put students with grad students and to projects. And they do a very good job. For example, before final presentations, we got to present our slides to them, to the professors and get really good feedback because they know all about things we are working on. So that was terrifying to be able to present to professors that just know everything about what I’m working on. But that definitely really helped. And I also had that support group plus Scott, and so Scott read... My paper ended up being so long, like 30 pages at the end of RSI. He read through everything. He fixed even little things like grammar. So that really, really helped me finish my paper towards the end, especially because I started so much later than everybody else. But from there to Regeneron, I barely edited my paper, and so...

Yunseo: Perfect.

Yunseo: The four weeks I spent on it, there was a paper.

Jed: So it was really hard during the weeks that you were working on it in the summer with RSI, but after that...

Yunseo: I did work really hard, yeah. But after that...

Jed: Perfect.

Yunseo: Barely anything changed.

0:13:17.2Matching infinite women with infinite men

Jed: Wow, it just shows you what kind of quality experience you get from RSI that it can just generate this amazing piece of work from your research. And I’m sure people are still wondering about this whole matching infinite women with infinite men.

Is there any kinda take-home interesting thing that you can share about how to match people? If you were gonna start a dating app, would there be some secret algorithms that you’d be able to use because of something you’ve learned from that summer? Tell us something interesting about that.

Yunseo: My research is still very theoretical in the sense that in order for it to be applied, it would have to go through a few steps, because it is an infinite matching market that, you know in actuality, everything is finite. But I think it was really interesting for me to learn that while some of the properties from the finite matching market extend, other properties don’t. So I think the biggest lesson that I actually learned from working on the project was to really chase the problems, was not maybe specific about matching, it was just about the research process. One of the properties that didn’t extend, in order to prove that it didn’t extend, I had to come up with a counter example, and to do that... There was just an infinite number of counter examples that could be there. Infinite number of choices that I could make in order to get to the counter example. And so it was really daunting to jump in. And it was the kind of math that I didn’t really... That just didn’t really click with the way that I process information, but than I knew that if I get this result, it’ll be a very important result in the paper. So it was hard, but I remember spending that night awake and just... Trying to solve this problem for many hours, just scratch paper after scratch paper. And then I remember just finally getting it and realizing that it’s more important to chase problems by their significance not by the methods that are required behind.

Jed: And not by how hard they are, so not to be daunted.

Yunseo: Yeah.

Jed: But if you know there’s an important problem with a big payoff, you just keep going until you get to that eureka moment when... What was... How late at night was it when you finally got a counter example?

Yunseo: I think it was... I think something that helped me... Sometimes I would just be on study calls with other students from the US because I was staying up so late. Yeah, and that’s actually one of the best things about RSI, is that everybody else is working so hard that you’re always just so inspired to work as hard as they are... But yeah, I think it was definitely some time nearly before sunrise.

Jed: Oh my goodness. Well, good job persevering. And it definitely paid off. Your paper probably wouldn’t have been as amazing if you hadn’t found that counter example, if you hadn’t found some properties that don’t extend into the infinite space, so...

Yunseo: Yeah, yeah.

0:16:06.8Sign off

Jed: Really cool. Well thank you so much, Yunseo. It’s just been really fun to talk to you. I hope you have a fun time at Harvard. And we all, of course, you and I both hope that RSI continues into the far future with lots of people, whether they be alumni or just people interested in STEM, continue to contribute their time and resources to keep it well-funded. And we thank you for making Academic Influence a better website because of young people like you contributing your interviews. So thank you so much.

Yunseo: Yeah, thank you so much.

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