It’s a trait she demonstrated at age five, when she beat her father at 24, an arithmetical card game, just a month after he’d taught her the addition, subtraction,
multiplication, and division needed to make four integers equal 24.
Her lively mind surfaced early in her first semester at Illinois Wesleyan, when Associate
Professor of Computer Science Mark Liffiton swiftly realized he could give Zhao the
briefest explanation to a concept in his introductory computer science course, and
she’d understand the notion. Soon Zhao approached him with the desire for more complex
and independent work.
“I started out by giving her journal articles to read and told her to come to me with
questions,” Liffiton said. “She picked things up remarkably quickly from a paper written
for people with years of experience, not first-year students just starting in computer
science. That’s extremely rare among students in general, and even more so in first-year
Soon Zhao was designing fairly large algorithms and converting them into code. This
foundation led to Zhao’s successful application for an Eckley Scholarship. A mathematics and computer science double major, Zhao is the first student to receive an Eckley scholarship as a first-year
“I was really excited when I learned I’d received it,” said Zhao. “It felt good that
other people were acknowledging my academic skills.”
Zhao’s Eckley project involves optimizing and improving an algorithm for analyzing
systems of constraints, which impose conditions that variables must satisfy.
“A Sudoku puzzle is a type of constraint system, where you have a lot of different
ways to fill in the numbers, but you have rules, or constraints, for how you are allowed
to do so,” Liffiton explained. “I’ve come up with an algorithm that looks at all the
constraints and tries to tell you why it’s unsatisfiable. If you had a Sudoku puzzle
where the initial numbers were filled in in such a way you could not correctly solve
the puzzle, the algorithm would tell you why. The puzzle is still impossible, but
the algorithm points out the reason.”
Liffiton said the algorithm, named MARCO for the explorer Marco Polo, has been applied
to microprocessor design verification. His work was state of the art when it was first
published a few years ago. “There’s still more we can do to make the algorithms faster
or return the results more efficiently, so Wenting is looking at ways to improve it,”
Zhao said her greatest takeaway so far has been learning how to break down a big problem
into smaller pieces so it becomes manageable.
“I’m now understanding this is a process,” she said. “I think I had romanticized research
before, and now I have a better understanding of what it really is.”
Liffiton noted one of the Eckley Scholarship’s many benefits is the student’s early
introduction to research. “Wenting is working on all types of things that will be
coming up later in the courses she’ll be taking here at Illinois Wesleyan, and she’s
learning them because they are relevant to the project, not just because they are
part of the coursework,” said Liffiton. “And students who can apply to graduate school
having done a couple of years’ worth of research, maybe even having a publication,
are in a really good position.”
As Zhao prepares to begin her second year of college, she doesn’t have a clear picture
of her plans after IWU, although she believes a graduate degree figures in the future
at some point. “I have been in love with math since I was four or five, so somehow
mathematics will be part of my life,” she said. “In math and computer science, everything
can be explained. I love that.”
Established by President Emeritus and Mrs. Robert S. Eckley before President Eckley
passed away, the Eckley Scholars & Artists fellowships are awarded to meritorious
students to remain on campus over the summer under the supervision of a faculty mentor.
The program is designed to develop and deepen a student’s creative and research competencies.
Eckley Scholars receive a $4,000 stipend and complimentary on-campus housing.