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Math triple major strives to improve health care

Graduating Arizona State University mathematics student Zhihan Jennifer Zhang accepts the 2018 Charles Wexler Mathematics Prize from Matt Hassett.

May 03, 2018

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of profiles for spring 2018 commencement

Zhihan Jennifer Zhang’s grandparents were schoolteachers who taught her math at a very young age. She has always liked math, but did not see herself majoring in math. She also liked history, reading, and English. In high school, she was on the debate team and that grew her interest in social problems.

Some of her earliest memories growing up were about the recession and its generational impacts. She spent a lot of time thinking about that, and when she entered ASU, she started out as an economics major.

Like many students, Zhang changed her major several times. After economics, she felt she needed to switch to a STEM major, so she tried mechanical engineering. Not satisfied with that, she changed to business global politics. Then she thought about what would most benefit her in future employment, so she added business law with the idea of possibly attending law school.

But she missed taking math classes and started taking a few, including applied linear algebra and mathematical structures. She randomly took ACT 201, Introduction to Actuarial Science, along with financial mathematics. Over that summer she took, and passed, the FM exam — the first in a series of professional exams needed to become credentialed as an actuary. After that she added actuarial science as a major. 

Zhang likes that actuarial science combines many of her interests. “It’s definitely math based, but it also includes economics and thinking about economics theory, finance, some knowledge about insurance, and statistics,” she explained.

With all the issues happening while Zhang’s generation was growing up, such as 9/11, the recession, climate change, the Affordable Care Act, and many major social issues, she thinks people her age will be the impetus for change.

For her part, she is interested in making health care accessible and affordable.

“Health care is not just a biological thing, it is also a social thing,” said Zhang. “We are trying to make the community better for everyone.”

After graduation, she will take a job in government health care consulting at Mercer. She will work with the team that helps the New Jersey state government set Medicaid rates.

Zhang is interested in potentially working in health policy in the future.

“Health care policy affects so many people, and yet it feels so misunderstood,” she said. “How do you form good health policy? There are the policy level questions, but the there are also the implementation level questions, the issue of pharmaceutical drugs becoming increasingly more expensive, there is more medical technology being introduced, and the fact that people are living longer — all of these are factors in play. It is the kind of interdisciplinary problem that I like thinking about.”

Zhang was awarded the 2018 Charles Wexler Mathematics Prize for outstanding achievement in undergraduate mathematics in the School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences.

The triple major in actuarial science, business global politics and business law chatted with us about her ASU journey.

Question: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study actuarial science? 

Answer: I've always enjoyed studying math, but I didn't have the "aha" moment until I took ACT 201. I discovered then that math could intersect with so many social sciences fields to solve real-world problems — it was really enlightening to me that something as simple as a geometric series could explain how a home loan works, for example.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: Many reasons! These include:

  • I didn't have a very clear idea of what to study even after graduating from high school, and I thought that the environment at ASU would be flexible enough to allow me to pursue many different fields of study
  • My family lives in Phoenix, and studying at ASU allows me to be closer to home
  • And, of course, the practical — studying in-state is less costly than traveling out of state

Q: What is something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you, that changed your perspective?

A: I think the greatest learning experience was learning how to get along with people I might clash with, personality-wise. This is something that I've studied in theoretical ways in communications classes, but it really manifested in working on various group projects. I learned a lot about how to get along with different types of people and how to talk to people with different interests and motivations, and I think that's a skill that I'll be able to draw upon no matter where I end up.

Q: Were there any faculty that had a strong influence in your college mathematics journey at ASU? 

A: The actuarial science faculty have obviously had a strong influence on me — Dr. Jelena Milovanovic, of course, has mentored me through my journey in the major and in job-searching, but Dr. Hassett and Dr. Zicarelli have also given me much advice and guidance. Dr. Brian, who organizes Ethics Bowl, has also had a strong influence on me because she has taught me how to think about complicated issues in new ways and how to present them to an audience.

Q: What do you think is most misunderstood about math by the general public?

A: I think that most people think about math the way that high school classes perhaps teach math: they think that the point of a math problem is to compute a solution based on some rules/norms that are well-established and immutable. Mathematics involves more than just computation — true knowledge of math demands an understanding of why a particular computation or proof reaches the conclusion it does.

Q: What is the best piece of advice you would give to those still in school?

A: Branch out — take classes/join clubs not in your major! Some of the best experiences I've had were in classes that aren't part of my major map. ASU offers so many different classes in so many subjects, and some of them can be surprisingly interesting to you. I think it's always helpful to get a well-rounded education, even if that means taking just a few classes that seem random at the time.

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?

A: I like studying in Noble library or the breezeway in Wexler Hall. I also like sitting in McCord Hall. The new law school building downtown is great to study/people-watch in too!

Q: What do you like to do in your spare time for fun?

A: I like to read, though occasionally my hobby-reading invariably ends up related to something I'm studying. I read a lot of fantasy/sci-fi as well as some post-modernist philosophy, so this is not terribly surprising. I also like papercrafting (modular origami to be specific), as well as crocheting.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: Education. I think a more-educated population across the globe would result in more people who are able to tackle other global challenges like political/environmental/global health issues.

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