Top of Their Class

Apr 18 2016 | By Melanie A. Farmer

Outstanding seniors Linxi (Jim) Fan and Seth Olsen have earned the top academic honors as class valedictorian and salutatorian, respectively. As valedictorian, Fan will be awarded the School’s Illig Medal and is set to deliver the valedictorian speech at Engineering Class Day, May 16, 2016. For this informal Q&A, we caught up with the busy seniors to find out post-graduation plans, life mantras, what they’ll miss about SEAS, and more.


Major: Computer Science
Hometown: Shanghai, China
After graduation: Attend Stanford as a PhD candidate in computer science, emphasis in artificial intelligence

Why computer science:
Artificial intelligence never fails to fascinate me. I have always envisioned the ultimate unity of mind and computing—an advanced AI that not only understands the world like we do, but also extends our abilities beyond the wildest imagination. Studying CS brings me one step closer to this distant vision.

Favorite course:
Advanced Programming by Jae Woo Lee; On the first day of class, he said, “You will follow the river and find the C.” In the end, we not only studied the C programming language but also learned how to manage software projects, how to use open-source tools, and what it meant to be a cool hacker.

Senior design project:
Project Laminar, a recursive acronym for “Laminar Accelerated and Minimalistic Neural Architecture.” It’s a high performance C++ framework for training and deploying neural networks—brain-inspired models that power most of the cutting-edge AI [artificial intelligence] technology today.

Favorite professor:
Michael Collins at the Columbia Natural Language Processing Lab; under his guidance, I published my first coauthored paper at an international conference, which marked the beginning of my career as an AI researcher.

Best CORE course and why:
Music Humanities with Professor Ashley Nail; Nail knows how to explain musical terminology in the most memorable way and always initiates meaningful and thought-provoking discussions. Her class is well worth getting up for at 8 in the morning.

Running, entrepreneurship, web apps, [anime director] Makoto Shinkai, Game of Thrones, and House of Cards

Dream job:
Virtual reality architect

Inspirational figure in your life:
Columbia Visiting Professor Bjarne Stroustrup, inventor of the C++ programming language. He convinced me that a language or a software library can be efficient, scalable, mission-critical, user-friendly, and beautiful at the same time. Coding is not as simple as a purely logical sequence—it can have intrinsic aesthetic value as well.

Unforgettable SEAS memories:
I’ve done research with multiple labs at SEAS so I know firsthand how much passion, energy, and expertise SEAS students and professors have. I feel honored and privileged that I had the opportunity to work with them.

Your definition of engineering:
An ingenious process that turns science fiction into non-fiction, and daydreams into daily routines


Major: Applied Physics
Hometown: Princeton, NJ
After graduation: Attend Princeton as a PhD candidate in physics, emphasis in theoretical high-energy physics

Why physics:
I love the feeling of childlike wonder that I get every time I discover an exciting new answer that deepens my understanding of physics.

Favorite course:
It’s a toss-up between Thermal/Statistics Physics with Professor Denef, Quantum Mechanics with Professor Weinberg, and Advanced Quantum Mechanics with Professor Christ. Also, Jazz Vocals with Christine Correa!

Inspirational figure in your life:
My grandfather is a man of faith, integrity, compassion, broad intelligence, and deep wisdom, with a killer sense of humor. Most important, he has devoted his life to serving others in so many ways. It took an awfully long time for me to learn, but just as his father taught him, my grandfather taught me that the true reward is not in external validation, but rather in knowing that you did the best you could and took every opportunity to do the right thing. More important than the ambition-driving inspiration I draw from my grandfather's incredible accomplishments is the character-lifting inspiration I draw from the wisdom of his father, which he passed on to me: there is no glory to be found in taking shortcuts, and no fulfillment to be found in selling out.

Words to live by:
Food for thought from [musician] Prince—“I never wanted to be your weekend lover. I only wanted to be some kind of friend. Baby, I could never steal you from another. It's such a shame our friendship had to end. Purple rain, purple rain...,” and my personal mantra: “Really, everything is completely serious. So don’t take anything too seriously.”

SEAS taught you:
A chance to take physics courses and to gain research experience in both experimental and theoretical physics

Dream job:
Physics faculty member at the Institute for Advanced Study

Basketball, drums, dancing, going to concerts, watching/playing jazz, listening to and making of all kinds of music, writing, eating muffins, working out, eating more muffins, and getting every 11th Appletree sandwich for free

Last book you read:
Jailbird by Kurt Vonnegut

Last movie:
Nightcrawler (starring Jake Gyllenhaal); thumbs up but it sure was a weird one!

Your definition of engineering:
Using your own creativity along with the body of science and technology that came before you to design and implement a useful device. When I hear the word “engineering,” I can't help but think specifically of inventors like [Nikola] Tesla whose work really blew people's minds.

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