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Becoming Dr. Zheng

Updated: Jan 15

Fifteen years ago, when I was an insecure teenager with two shirts, two pairs of jeans and broken shoes to wear, I would have been terrified of the mere idea of speaking in front of an audience. When your father is a tyrant, your mother a hard-working family idealist and you the "genius" Asian stereotype in a classroom full of peak-hormone white kids, life is not about roses. (And certainly not about looking cute.) The two friends I had then, karate, a deep love for music and some money I earned from delivering newspapers from 5:45-7am every day except on Sundays (which I did for six years) kept me afloat at the time. Now, I present at international academic conferences in my second language with ease.

The journey toward defending my PhD at one of the top 10 universities in the world challenged me on multiple levels. Becoming Dr. Sarah Ying Zheng (totally flexing this once more) is the culmination of a near-decade study of the brain and human behaviour, dealing with poverty and racism, wondering about consciousness and what makes beings intelligent, interleaved with a few years of working in data science and AI consulting. Although I had entertained the thought of doing a PhD since I started university, I never felt strongly or suitable enough for a specific research topic during those early years. Neuroscience is an absolutely fascinating area to learn about, but I could not imagine continuing research in that space myself. (Handling animals, performing surgeries and computationally modelling brain cells were not really my thing... Although slicing brains and inspecting them under a microscope is one of those research experiences I would not want to have missed!) So, there I went, off to the "real world".

My first project at IBM happened to be for the Dutch Ministry of Defense. I was tasked with proposing innovative AI use cases that could be pursued against the semi-hypothetical backdrop of cyberwarfare. It was thrilling to think about what AI could do for and against humanity. This sparked my interest in the world of security and privacy of human data. Because AI is only as good as the data it gets to analyse, how could we ensure safe and secure use of AI? (You can find older blogs here in which I explored these topics.) Unfortunately, this also was the only project at IBM I enjoyed working on. A terrible year of mismanagement followed (I had three uninspiring managers in ~1.5 years time), good projects were scarce and I was completely bored out. I was glad to get headhunted by a fintech company to work on machine learning models for credit card fraud detection, where I learned a great deal about programming and software development. Meanwhile, I had made up my mind and started applying for PhD programs in cybersecurity.

My first taste of life in London and research at UCL (University College London) came in 2016. Much more than I anticipated, it was London's rich social and cultural supply that opened my mind about the world. It was one of the few times in my life when I felt I was in the right place: in a big vibrant city where it is not frowned upon to have big ambitions. It still happens to this day that Dutch people ask me things in English, assuming I am a foreigner. Not having to explain that I actually speak the dominant language is one of those semi-trivial things that made my life easier in London. I felt less of an outcast. And boy, was I over the moon to receive four scholarships to do my masters at the best neuroscience institute in Europe - and a full scholarship from the UCL Dawes Centre for Future Crime in 2020 to pursue my doctorate proposal on cyber risk profiling!

After some stressful months of remote house hunting, I arrived at St. Pancras International train station again on Sunday 27 September 2020. Armed with three suitcases, FFP2 face masks, anti-bacterial spray and COVID-19 tests, I felt determined to prove that I am doctor material. The scholarship funded me for three years only and my net income dropped about 50%, while my relative living costs went up. I had to really want this PhD instead of a stable job in the Netherlands. Yet, six weeks in, I had counted five people at my departmental office, further lockdowns were announced and London, like all other cities in the world, turned into a ghost town. I decided to save some money by moving back to my parents in the Netherlands until the situation improved again.

Ten months of isolation and monotony passed by until I moved back to London again. I had many conversations with my mother about the past, the present and the future. This was a very special time for us, although the situation gradually took a mental toll on me. Reliving the despair I had felt in that place as a child, with nothing else to do but work and no friends, nor other relatives nearby, was tough. Simultaneously, I felt responsible to do extremely well in my career after the PhD to change the course of our family situation. Eventually, I had a panic attack and dealt with intrusive thoughts for a few months. I had to learn to put less pressure on myself. But mostly, I needed the pandemic to be over and change my environment. Four paper publications, new friends and a few international trips down the line, life was back on track again. I submitted my thesis on 6 October 2023 (while getting ready to party in Ibiza) and successfully defended my thesis during 3,5 hours of interrogation two months later.

These personal experiences are a testament to how I overcame the challenges I had to face thus far. However big or small issues in life can be, if you give life the benefit of the doubt, you will find that you can achieve anything you truly want. Doing a PhD is setting yourself up to face challenging times and build resilience. Academics go through countless rejections throughout their career - from competing for grants to publishing papers - and constantly having to justify their research. It is not a place for the thin-skinned. I probably rewrote one of my paper manuscripts around a thirty times over two years while it got rejected for publication three times. From this I learned about the importance of how to frame narratives, how to explain things in simple terms, strategic decision-making and inter-disciplinary collaboration.

Thus, after a record time of three years and three months, including a 5-month fulltime internship at J.P. Morgan & Chase, I am proud of my journey to becoming Dr. Zheng. Those two letters mean all of the above to me. It is the end of an era. What lies ahead is choosing a career and sticking with it for a few years. With so many opportunities out there, I will spend some time seeing what would be best for me. But one thing is for sure: whatever is next on my path, I will do it with the greatest dedication and prowess that I have shown to be capable of. Until then, I wish you all a warm and peaceful closing of the year. May you not be alone and find purpose in what you do.

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