By Rita J. Egan
Ward Melville’s valedictorian felt like he had been checkmated, but then he heard some good news.
Ethan Li was at a chess tournament in Ohio, and he said he was feeling down after losing an important game when his friends started texting him. He discovered his 105.77 weighted average earned him the valedictorian honor for 2018.
Li moved to Stony Brook from Arizona at the beginning of ninth grade, and it was a big transition from a small private school to a large school district, but he said he’s happy his family made the move.
“I definitely felt there were more opportunities for internships, research, just in general, meeting different kinds of people who had different talents in different fields [here],” he said. “And, I felt like that was a really helpful experience to be able to reach out to them and learn somewhat from them.”
Li said he’s been inspired by his classmates through the years. A couple are former students Hugh Ferguson and Josh Farahzad, who started the nonprofit Mission: Toothbrush, which distributes oral hygiene products to those in need on Long Island. This year Li became co-president of the nonprofit.
Li will attend Princeton University this fall where he will major in operations research and financial engineering — ORFE for short. He said he became interested in ORFE while talking to friends who were first- and second-year students at the university on the same track.
“Initially, I wanted to do neuroscience, but this program combines mathematical modeling with computer science and economics,” he said. “And this seemed a lot like what I was interested in. Ideally, I would still like to combine some kind of aspect of neuroscience in my eventual career, but this just hits so many points that I’m interested in.”
With this course of study, he said plenty of career options will await him when he finishes school. He said he would love to start a company that addresses or brings innovation from neuroscience to the public sector. He said if his plan to own a startup doesn’t work out, he can work in finance or for companies like Google and Facebook in their computer science departments.
He said a recent program conducted by Google caught his attention. It involved central processing units playing chess against each other and teaching themselves in isolated loops. He said research like this relates to what he wants to do in the future: applying machine learning and pattern recognition study to neuroscience and neurogenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s.
In addition to his studies, which included several advanced placement classes, Li started the chess club at Ward Melville, and he volunteers to teach the game to students in the district. This summer he will travel to Paris, France, for a week for the International Society for Magnetic Resonance in Medicine annual meeting. The research project he did two years ago titled “Differences in Subcortical Brain Volumes Between Expert and Novice Chess Players” was selected for the conference.
Li said his dad Alan, who works in China for a construction business, and his mother Fung Wang, who works at Stony Brook Cancer Center in data sciences, have always inspired him with their work ethic. The valedictorian said his parents didn’t have any expectations, but instead just provided never-ending support so he could live up to his potential.
When it comes to juggling his education and activities, Li said he thinks of the old Nike ad, “Just Do It.”
“When you start doing one thing, it’s a domino effect upon activity,” he said. “You just want to do more and more.”