September 25, 2003

Dept. of Homeland Security Awards Grant

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The U.S. Department of Homeland Security recently honored Serena Chan, a Cornell graduate student in statistical science, with a renewable grant to research bioterrorism and epidemics for the next three years.

Like many Americans, after the events of Sept. 11, 2001, Chan “felt [she] should do something to help.”

Together with her advisor, Prof. Gennady Samorodnitsky, operations research and industrial engineering, Chan will be working to develop an epidemiological computer model of how terrorists can create an epidemic such as smallpox.

“All of my family members are here in the U.S., and so are my best friends, so I know that there’s a possibility for a terrorist attack and I want to contribute,” said Chan, 26, who moved to Los Angeles from Taiwan when she was 16.

She received a bachelor’s degree in applied mathematics from the University of California at Berkeley and came to Cornell last year.

Chan was informed about the research opportunity through a group e-mail from her department and decided to pursue it, since she is interested in stochastic processes — procedures involving random variables somehow correlated to each other.

Stochastic studies appeal to Chan “because it’s just kind of fun to look at time-dependent data sets. For example, today’s weather will depend on yesterday’s. Now let’s say with the epidemic spread case, the total number that gets infected by a virus depends on yesterday’s number.”

Samorodnitsky was Chan’s time theory professor last year.

“She decided she wanted to work with me before she knew that she had received the award,” he said.

Samorodnitsky has been working for the past few years on joint research in statistic modeling with the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., where he anticipates Chan will work as well as at Cornell.

Chan was notified of her award over the summer via a phone conversation with a representative from Homeland Security.

The fellowship will pay all of Chan’s tuition and fees in her doctoral studies at Cornell and will provide her with a $2,300 monthly stipend for 12 months.

Chan explains that the money “supports my living expenses and food so I can totally focus on the research, and I don’t need to get any outside job, because I wouldn’t get paid otherwise. I need to survive in order to do good research for them.”

“Living here can be pretty expensive. I am actually very honored to receive this generous stipend,” she added.

Chan also plans to put the money toward her research and hopes to use it to possibly travel to other institutions, such as the Naval Postgraduate School.

In terms of her project, “my advisor and I still need to read several papers before we decide what exactly we will do,” she said.

Though she is not entirely sure what her project will involve, she will be doing preparatory research for it all semester.

“I think we will be simulating and analyzing lots of data,” Chan said. “Even though I haven’t started yet, studying stochastic processes is very time-consuming because I need to understand the processes and concepts very well so I will be able to use the tools in the future. I am taking off a lot of time reading books and papers to get myself prepared. I just need to continue reading to make sure I’m familiar with the topics and that I’m updated. Even this semester, I feel really stressed out.”

Chan was among 101 initial recipients of the award, out of a pool of around 2,500 applicants. She ventures that her selection was due to her GPA, advisor and previous research at the Berkeley National Laboratory.

She plans to begin the physical work involved in the three-year fellowship next semester.

Archived article by Sarah Boxer