Embracing Notre Dame’s spirit: An interview with Huili Chen ’16

Author: Xinqi Liao, Greater China Scholar

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A native of Guizhou, China, Huili Chen is a 2016 Notre Dame graduate who is currently a Ph.D. candidate at MIT. Chen was a Li Ka Shing Foundation Scholar and received a full scholarship from Notre Dame’s Greater China Scholars (GCS) Program. Recently, Chen was interviewed by fellow GCS Xinqi Liao ’23, and talked about her Notre Dame experience and where it's leading her next.

Where it all started

Unlike most people, Chen didn’t come to Notre Dame knowing what her major would be. She didn’t know what she wanted to do with her life. She was lucky enough to have a computer science major as her roommate who encouraged her to explore the industry. After taking her first introduction to engineering class her freshman year, Chen found herself fascinated by computational thinking and declared a major in computer science. Her journey of exploring academic interests didn’t stop there; instead, it was only heightened when she declared a second major in psychology a year later. So, why psychology and computer science? For Chen, this is one question that she got asked over and over again.

“To me, while psychology is about studying human minds, computer science is about how to construct an artificial mind,” Chen says.

While it’s not clear to many, Chen spotted the delicate tie between the two seemingly unrelated disciplines. As someone who loves thinking about meta-questions, Huili benefited from the unique combination of her majors and developed skill sets, which also set the foundation for her future academic path.

Throughout her four years at Notre Dame, Chen assisted at four different research labs in total. She spent most of her time at the Complex Networks Lab with Professor Tijana Milenkovic. She met with two advisors on a weekly basis for one-on-one meetings, where her advisors gave her feedback on the project she was working on.

“I was able to experience the full cycle of doing research, which started from an abstract idea and went all the way to publication,” says Chen.

She worked on developing new algorithms to model real-world biological networks in the lab, where she utilized a data-driven approach to study human phenomena. Her research experience not only prepared her for opportunities in the future, but also helped establish close relationships with professors who later helped with her graduate school applications.

Huli With Burrish
Huili with Provost Burish at the 2011 GCS Weekend

Mind and heart

As a Ph.D. candidate at MIT Media Lab, Chen has a different definition of success. She loves that Notre Dame gave her a holistic education which emphasized nurturing not only the mind, but also the heart. While achieving intellectual growth, Chen also attained some unique-to-Notre Dame traits, like solidarity and community.

“The ND spirit is what makes us united and remain resilient in this world overwhelmed with polarizations and uncertainties,” she says.

Chen’s ND spirit shined as early as the summer of her freshman year when she founded a service-learning program in Guizhou, which later became an International Summer Service Learning Program (ISSLP) with the Center for Social Concerns for several years. Her motivation for this initiative was simple: to change people’s homogenous perceptions of China and to contribute to cultural exchange, which also aligned with the Greater China Scholars values. The project took a sustainable approach to help reconcile cultural preservation and economic development in the region where the minority group “Miao” people live. Chen, along with some other ND students, came up with ways to promote Miao culture as well as promote the special cultural heritage- Miao Embroidery. They also made brochures, filmed documentaries, and conducted interviews in order to amplify their cultural campaigns.

There were some roadblocks along the way, though. The Miao locals were very shy in the beginning and weren’t giving much feedback to the proposals from the students. The highlight of this project, according to Chen, was when the locals and the ND students started having a mutual exchange of ideas. To her, this service project was a mutually beneficial program because the perception-changing went two ways for both the students and the locals. As for how she managed to make herself accepted into the local community, she shared her own interpretation of doing service.

“To serve is different from to help because the power dynamics make the nature of two acts different,” she says.

While helping others may focus more on the act of helping, therefore implying a superior status above those receiving help, the focus of serving is more on the needs of others. When asked the motivation behind her persistent passion for doing service over the years, she incorporated one of her takeaways from a theology class at Notre Dame. Different from the self-centered joy of acquiring and possessing, Chen’s sense of joy comes from feeling humbled by people’s different stories through service.

“I realized that no matter who you are and what you believe in, you are always able to feel the mystical joy to the core, as this joy flows from the bottom of your heart as well as from finding beauty in every human being you come across in your life,” she says.

Post ND and future plans

After obtaining her doctorate degree, Chen hopes to explore how to re-purpose interactive technologies for artistic expressions with a vision for social causes in China. Regarding her future plans, she said there is still much “uncertainty and complexity” and wants to explore fully where her calling comes from. She has been reflecting upon the relationship between herself and the world. No matter what she does in the future, she always wants to embody the “ND spirit” and be ready to commit to social services.

JMiao Embroidery
Huili and Dr. Jonathan Noble learn about Miao Embroidery in a field trip to a Miao village in Guizhou.