Asian Heritage Month; a profile of Liangliang Wang

May 20, 2021

Briefly introduce yourself and your research area.

I did my undergraduate study in computer science, my first Master's degree in information and signal processing at Peking University, and my second Master's degree in statistics at McGill University.  I went to UBC for my Ph.D. and started my first job at Western University, then I came to SFU in 2013, where I am now an associate professor in the Department of Statistics and Actuarial Science. My research focuses on computational statistics, and statistical machine learning.

What inspired you to be a scientist?

According to my father, I was a very curious kid, constantly asking all kinds of questions. When I was seven, my uncle chatted with me about science and challenged me with difficult math questions. I enjoyed these conversations a lot; they opened the door for me to science.

What do you love most about your work?

Being a professor allows me to make a living by constantly learning and sharing my knowledge with my students and the public. Doing research at SFU is all about experiencing and learning something new -- original theories, novel methodologies, and new applications. I also have the privilege of teaching and working with creative students. I learn a lot from them as they learn from me.

What are you proud of?

I'm proud of having a positive impact on talented young people. I graduated three Ph.D. students, and all of them found tenure-track assistant professor positions. They’ll start teaching students and share their knowledge. I feel very proud of my students.

What kinds of barriers in your work or studies have you faced?

When I was a student, many people -- my family, and even professors -- suggested that I not pursue higher education because I’m a woman. They thought I should focus on my family and take care of kids. Fortunately, I didn't listen to them. I think generally, women are less confident than men. We should be more confident and ambitious.

Another barrier is cultural differences. My educational background in China didn't focus on developing social skills and leadership. In class, teachers don't ask students questions...students just listen to lectures. In my first semester in Canada, professors encouraged students to have discussions in class, but I was too shy to speak up. It’s been much better now.

Why are the barriers higher for Asian scientists?

In graduate schools, we focus on doing research and teaching. However, our work also involves administrative work, which requires advanced social skills for us to climb up the ladder to reach higher positions. But at informal gatherings, for example, it could be uncomfortable for us to have a deeper conversation about something outside our research and teaching because of cultural differences and barriers.

What suggestions do you have on how to make academia a diverse and inclusive space?

We should encourage more women and minority students to get a higher education. Some professors avoid accepting female Ph.D. students for the reason that they may want to get married and have kids, which might eventually affect their studies. We shouldn't consider these factors as demerits when recruiting students. Everything should be based on their academic performance.

Often, female students don't realize how much they can do. It could be helpful to provide them with role models; more successful female scientists, and more training on individual career development at graduate school. We can also set up mentorships so that they can get advice when they have difficulties.