Yufei Zhao, the Class of 1956 Career Development Assistant Professor in the Department of Mathematics, has been named the second recipient of the MIT School of Science’s Future of Science Award. Zhao conducts research in discrete mathematics.
“Yufei has made tremendous contributions in combinatorics with applications to computer science,” says Michael Sipser, dean of the School of Science and the Donner Professor of Mathematics. “He is an outstanding member of the school, doing excellent work on all fronts: research, teaching, service, and outreach.”
Recently, Zhao and three undergraduates solved an open problem concerning the number of independent sets in an irregular graph — a conjecture first proposed in 2001. Understanding the number of independent sets — subsets of vertices where no two vertices are adjacent — is important to solving many other combinatorial problems.
In other research accomplishments, Zhao contributed to a better understanding of the celebrated Green-Tao theorem, which states that prime numbers contain arbitrarily long arithmetic progressions. Zhao’s proof, co-authored with Jacob Fox, Zhao’s advisor and former professor in the MIT Department of Mathematics, and David Conlon at the University of Oxford, simplifies a central part of the proof, allowing a more direct route to the Green-Tao theorem. Their work improves our understanding of pseudorandom structures — non-random objects with random-like properties — and has other applications in mathematics and computer science.
For this research, the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM) awarded Zhao the 2018 Dénes König Prize, given biennially to an early career researcher for outstanding research in discrete mathematics.
“Yufei exemplifies the best of our faculty members,” says Michel Goemans, head of the Department of Mathematics. “He is a skilled, creative researcher who is also an outstanding teacher and mentor both in and outside the classroom.”
This year, Zhao taught a first-year advising seminar on mathematical problem solving in advance of the William Lowell Putnam Mathematics Competition, an annual mathematics contest for undergraduates in North America. Zhao, himself a three-time Putnam Fellow, helped advise the MIT team, which took first place, together with five of the six Putnam Fellows this year (the highest individual scorers in the competition).
Zhao received dual BS degrees in mathematics and computer science from MIT in 2010, an MASt in mathematics from the University of Cambridge in 2011, and a PhD from MIT in 2015. Prior to returning to MIT, Zhao was the Esmée Fairbairn Junior Research Fellow in Mathematics at New College, Oxford, as well as a research fellow at the Simons Institute for the Theory of Computing at the University of California at Berkeley.
The Future of Science Fund, generously seeded by alumni Jake Xia PhD '92; Jen Lu '90, SM '91; Amy Wong ’90; Brad Hu ’84; Senad Prusac ’90; Bill Park ’93; and parents and donors Marina Chen and Chi-Fu Huang, provides unrestricted funds to support School of Science faculty and students. Recent donors to the fund include philanthropists Zhijun Yan, Gang Xiong, and Cindy Wang.