Suixin “Cindy” Zhang ’22 has been named class marshal and will lead the Class of 2022 in its commencement processional on Sunday, May 22. The honor goes to the graduating senior with the highest GPA.
Zhang, from Guangzhou, China, is a math major with a minor in physics. This fall, she will enroll at the University of California, Davis, to pursue a Ph.D in math.
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“Cindy is one of the best students I’ve encountered. She’s an incredibly hard worker, a creative and clear thinker, curious, supportive of classmates, and an excellent writer and communicator,” said Scott Taylor, professor of mathematics and Zhang’s thesis advisor. “She has a passion for math and wants to understand it at a deep level. She loves diving into the details, but as she does so, she does not lose sight of the big picture.”
Zhang was hard-pressed to explain her commitment to math. “I love it, and I don’t have a good reason why I should love it as much as I do,” she said with a hearty laugh. “But my day is, I get up in the morning and think about what math I am going to do.”
She is drawn to both the abstract nature and the pureness of math. She loves its logic and the connections between mathematical objects, or concepts, and ideas. She also appreciates that math can be humbling. While she is very good at math, it does not come easily to her.
“A lot of times I get stuck,” said Zhang, who arrived at Colby four years ago unsure of her major. “Math is very frustrating. My friends say, ‘It must be nice to find something you love.’ People think if you find something you enjoy, there is no frustration. But that is not true. I struggle a lot. But then I just push through.”
At UC-Davis, Zhang intends to study pure math, as opposed to applied math. Pure math describes the study and research of theories and abstract mathematical concepts. Those who practice pure math often work in academics or research and development, and they’re motivated by intellectual challenges and what is often described as the “perfect beauty” of math.
Zhang wants to spend her life pursuing that beauty. “I see myself working with excellent mathematicians and scientists, producing original research that advances thoughts in pure mathematics, and becoming the mathematician I want to be.”
She developed her love of math while a first-year student at Colby. From the beginning, Zhang was an unusual student, said Carter Professor of Mathematics Fernando Gouvêa.
“She wanted to understand,” he said, emphasizing her motivation. “When most calculus students come to office hours, they ask about a problem in the homework. Cindy would ask about a detail I skipped over in class, a connection I had mentioned but not gone into detail about, a step in the proof. A famous mathematician once said that mathematics is the only subject that can be taught in a completely non-dogmatic way, since we can be explicit about assumptions and offer proofs of everything. Among my students, Cindy has come closest to seeking that ideal.”
She distinguished herself in other ways. Zhang is an exceptional writer and presenter— humanistic skills that are not often associated with math but are critical for expressing ideas and proving theories. She collaborated on a research paper with Taylor and two postdoctoral researchers and wrote a thesis about the various ways of understanding complicated geometric objects by breaking them into simpler pieces.
During a recent presentation about her thesis, she drew examples of her work on the board. When she needed to erase the board to continue, she turned to the audience and said, “Here, I took notes for you,” and on the screen appeared a one-page summary, with pictures, of everything she had done so far.
“I would have admired that move if a professional had done it,” Gouvêa said. “It’s very rare that a student has that much poise and presence of mind.”
Beyond all that, Zhang accomplished all of this while living apart from her family in China—she has not been home in more than two years—and overcoming the challenges of communicating in a second language. She also had to acclimate to a new culture and new environment.
“I come from a sub-tropical area, and here it is kind of cold,” she said, laughing once again. “But I enjoyed the snow, and I have learned to like the coldness.”