Meet Columbia Engineering’s 2023 Valedictorian and Salutatorian

Ethan Wu and Julia Zhao share what they’ll remember from Columbia as they look ahead to the future.

Apr 25 2023
Columbia Engineering 2023 valedictorian Ethan Wu and salutatorian Julia Zhao

Ethan Wu, valedictorian (L), and Julia Zhao, salutatorian (R)

Columbia Engineering has announced this year’s valedictorian and salutatorian for the Class of 2023. Ethan Wu, a senior in computer science and the Columbia Alumni Association Taiwan Scholar, was chosen as the valedictorian and Illig Medal winner, and will address his fellow graduates on Class Day on May 15, 2023. Julia Zhao, a senior in biomedical engineering from Shanghai, China, was chosen as salutatorian. 

Here, Ethan and Julia share favorite memories and classes from their time at Columbia, what inspires them today, as well as plans for the future and what engineering for humanity means to them. 

Ethan Wu

Columbia Engineering 2023 valedictorian Ethan Wu

Major: Computer Science 

Minor: Operations Research 

Hometown: Taipei, Taiwan 

Why Columbia Engineering?

Columbia Engineering really appealed to me for striking the balance between specialization and well-roundedness that I was looking for in my undergraduate education. I loved both the curricular depth in each engineering field, as well as the balance in perspective brought by the core curriculum and extensive co-curricular offerings. Together with the vibrancy of the city and the impressive talents of all the students here, these constituted an engineering education that to me was uniquely Columbia. 

Why Computer Science?

I initially chose Computer Science because of its broad applicability to different industries and for the extensive career opportunities in the field. But as I progressed in my studies, I came to cherish the types of problems I encountered in Computer Science: puzzles that required technical know-how, analytical thinking, and creative problem-solving to unlock. I also enjoyed being in such a rapidly moving field, with both the challenge of keeping up with the latest technologies and, perhaps, the opportunity one day to push forward the boundaries myself. 

Favorite course and professor? 

One of my favorite courses at Columbia has been ORCS E4200 Data-Driven Decision Modeling, jointly taught by Prof. Tony Dear and Prof. Yi Zhang. This course was the first time I really saw how the mathematical models I’ve encountered in previous courses, which had been mostly conceptual, could be applied in real-world settings to make concrete decisions or policies. 

How has your education primed you for your career?

Beyond any one technical skill, I believe my education has prepared me most for my career by teaching me how to learn effectively. Identifying gaps in knowledge, seeking appropriate resources, and drawing cross-domain connections—these skills that were demanded by the fast pace, breadth, and rigor of the Columbia Engineering education will definitely stay with me as I progress in my career. 

Plans for after graduation?

I will be joining Amazon Web Services (AWS) in Seattle as a software development engineer. I will be returning to the team for Amazon Comprehend, AWS’s natural language processing service, where I had spent last summer as an intern.

Your dream job?

Currently, I’m very excited to work in the software engineering industry. I look forward to developing impactful, novel, and cutting-edge software products. However, my interests will certainly evolve as I learn and grow—so maybe I’ll have a different answer a few years from now! 

Your hobbies?

My favorite activity on campus is traditional Chinese lion dancing with CU Lion Dance! In my personal time, I also enjoy cryptic crossword puzzles, recreational swimming, and collecting Coca-Cola bottles.

What does engineering for humanity mean to you?

As an engineer, what we learn in school and hone throughout our careers are tools and processes that, fundamentally, can be taken anywhere and applied to any work. With that freedom, however, comes the important choice of where we apply our skills. To me, engineering for humanity is the deliberate decision to commit ourselves to the betterment of our communities—to use our engineering expertise to positively impact the way people around us live and experience the world.

Julia Zhao

Columbia Engineering 2023 Salutatorian Julia Zhao

Major: Biomedical Engineering

Minor: Computer Science

Hometown: Shanghai, China.

Why Columbia Engineering?

I actually transferred to Columbia my sophomore year from UC Berkeley. I was studying molecular biology and researching protein mechanisms, but I wanted something more translational and more directly benefiting society. I resonated with the Engineering for Humanity mission a lot and I enjoyed the core curriculum, especially Contemporary Civilizations, which allowed me to have a big picture understanding of social justice and morality. It leaves me to ponder where my mission fits in as an engineer and how I can make the world a better place with ethical technology.

Why did you choose your major?

Raised by a scientist and a physician, I saw the transforming impact of biomedical innovations early on. I wanted to make my own contributions to the field while pursuing technical problems that are fascinating to me. The technicality, creativity, interdisciplinary nature, and social impact of BME attracted me.

Favorite course and professor?

I enjoyed Quantitative Physiology, a BME core class, as it paved a strong mathematical foundation for the electives and introduced me to the various physiological processes. Prof. Lance Kam for this class is an angel who shared so much care in and outside the classroom. Outside of BME, I enjoyed Artificial Intelligence by Tony Dear, a classic.

Most meaningful project/assignment?

My favorite class project has to be senior design. My team is making a medical device that helps patients with chronic respiratory diseases cough up mucus, which can avoid deadly situations. We had this idea that synthesizes all the different subfields of BME that we learned in junior year, and we were able to gain skill sets spanning EE, MechE, CS and design. A clinician at CUIMC even asked if our finished product could be trialed on her patients. Most importantly, I bonded with my teammates and we did a road trip to Philly to present our project at the Northeast Bioengineering Conference.

Outside the classroom, I work at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, where I use computational techniques to study cancer evolution and metastasis. I was able to meet several patients in my dataset (when I shadowed in the clinic) who were terminally-ill and later passed away. The emotional weight from getting to know them as individuals with their own stories urges me to find new treatment solutions through my research.

The most important thing Columbia Engineering taught you?

Collaboration. Science is a collaborative sport, and Columbia Engineering taught me to work effectively in teams that bring out the best in each other.

Plans for after graduation?

I will be pursuing a master’s in Statistics and Biology at Oxford University under the Rhodes scholarship before starting a PhD or MD-PhD in BME.

Your dream job?

Working in biomedical research and innovating to solve human ailments. I might practice clinically and do advocacy work on top.

The most inspirational people in your life?

Aside from my family and mentors, I learned a lot from my peers throughout my time at Columbia. From my classmates with surprising skills and genius thoughts, to my friends who all have unique talents and shine in their own fields, I am often amazed at how driven, passionate, and talented my peers are everyday. (Special shoutout to Carly Rivera whose winning WBB games have loud cheerleaders from Columbia BME). I also found the community to be genuinely kind and caring. A fun example is that my Orientation Leader (OL) Maya Venkatraman, who offered so much advice and had kept in touch, was the SEAS salutatorian last year. Her dedication to the Columbia community inspired me to become an OL as well, and I hope to pass this legacy forward.

Your hobbies?

Dancing with Orchesis for all my semesters at Columbia has been a blast. I also enjoy traveling, attempting to cook with my suitemates, and online shopping (my guilty pleasure). Thanks to Columbia’s PE requirements, I also took up karate, fencing, and sailing.

Words to live by?

I would like to revisit my high school senior quote which I “inherited” from my physics teacher/advisor. “As our circle of knowledge expands, so does the circumference of darkness surrounding it.” – Einstein. The idea of driving the frontier of human knowledge forward thrills me.

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