When Jing Li was a teenager living in Xuchang, China, her parents gave her an extraordinary gift.
“At that time,” Li says, “it was very rare for a family to have a computer.”
It was a Toshiba; her mom and dad saved a long time to buy it. “It was very exciting,” Li says. “It was precious, like a treasure. I was so careful with it.”
A teenage girl in China in the 1990s wasn’t expected to embrace math or science. Li’s parents didn’t go to college, and they wanted to give their only child every chance. Maybe they even suspected—the classic parents’ dilemma—that their gift would eventually take their daughter away from them.
“When I came here,” Li says about the United States, “my mom said it was like she was flying a kite and the string got disconnected. She didn’t know where I was flying.”
Li, 35, is still flying high. She’s an assistant professor in the department of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, and last year she received the national DARPA Young Faculty Award given to rising stars in technology research by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. She is also pleased to report that since she arrived on campus in January 2015, her parents have visited from China and approve of her new home.
“They love Madison,” Li says. “Way better than New York.”
Li lived in upstate New York while working as a researcher for IBM. Before that, it was Indiana, while she attended graduate school at Purdue University. Her area of interest—computer chip memory and developing collaborative software and hardware techniques for emerging analytic workloads—has not significantly changed, but working in both the private and public sectors has given her a broad and unique perspective.
Today, Li thinks she is in the right place at the right time—teaching and doing research at UW–Madison as the tech industry grapples with big data graph analytics and the acceleration of its applications. Memory storage is often the bottleneck.
“Industry doesn’t have a clear road map on how to move forward,” Li says. “It’s possible for us [in academia] to make a big impact.”
That’s been a goal of Li’s nearly from the beginning, when she left Xuchang for Shanghai and college. Li had her sights set on Shanghai Jian Tong University, one of the great schools in China renowned for its science curriculum.
In Li’s senior year, the college of engineering initiated a competition across all of its majors for an opportunity to spend a semester in the U.S. Four students were selected and Li was one of them.
It brought her to Purdue in 2003. Li loved the small-town feel of West Lafayette, where friendly people smiled and said hello to strangers on the street. But she struggled with English. She learned to write the language in school in China, but there had been little opportunity to speak it.
“It was embarrassing,” Li says. “In my first class, I couldn’t understand my professor.” She then taped lectures, which gave her a chance to digest them later.
After that semester, she went back to Shanghai to finish her bachelor’s degree in engineering. But she had integrated well enough in the U.S. that when it was time for graduate school, Li returned to Purdue, where her emphasis was integrated circuit design. While at Purdue, she earned an IBM Ph.D. Fellowship Award and a chance to intern in the summer at IBM in New York. She enjoyed both campus life and her time at IBM. In 2009, having received her doctorate from Purdue, she faced a choice: industry or academia?
She took a job with IBM, reasoning that she could eventually return to academia, even though moving in the reverse direction might be difficult.
It was, she feels, the right decision.
“IBM was eye-opening,” Li says. She’d spent five years wrapped up in her thesis, and it had narrowed her focus.
“My mentor at IBM said, ‘Jing, you’re very good at looking down. You have to learn to look up.’ He meant try to contribute to the larger community.”
It was a similar thought process that brought her back to academia, and UW–Madison, in 2015. She worked on phase-change memory technology for IBM and won a technical achievement award from the company in 2012. But it, too, eventually narrowed her focus to the company’s interests. Li wanted to do her own research and engage with students.
She chose UW–Madison over a few other campuses, and she’s happy she did.
“I love this place and this city,” she says.
Doug Moe is a Madison writer and a former editor of Madison Magazine. Read his weekly blog, “Doug Moe’s Madison,” on madisonmagazine.com.