Yanni Lai

Yanni Lai is a PhD student and graduate research assistant in the Department of Mathematics within the UNC College of Arts & Sciences. Her research focuses on using algorithms to identify mechanical problems within the heart.

Yanni Laiphoto by Megan May
October 31st, 2018

When you were a child, what was your response to this question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

A musician. When I was 5 years old, I began studying piano and classical voice. I dreamt of going to music school and eventually getting a position in a conservatory. But when I was 14, I realized I’m not talented enough to become a professional pianist. I started to explore other instruments like the guzheng — an ancient Chinese instrument — guitar, and harp. Although I didn’t pursue a music career, it’s still one of my favorite pastimes.


“Decoding secrets of the heart.”

Share the pivotal moment in your life that helped you choose your field of study.

My undergraduate thesis focused on developing differential equations models and stochastic models of tuberculosis and HIV. Through this research, I became interested in mathematical models and their applications in the disease and healthcare fields. This experience motivated me to do similar things in graduate school.

Tell us about a time you encountered a tricky problem. How did you handle it and what did you learn from it?

Before graduate school, I had little coding experience. Since I wanted to do computational mathematics, I needed to improve those skills. During the second year of my PhD, over the course of two months, I spent one to two hours each day practicing it. After that, I felt more confident about coding. Through this

experience I learned that there are no difficult things, only new things. Every time I come across a problem, I remind myself of that.

What are your passions outside of science?

I love philosophy. It helps me think in a different way from math and enables me to explore the reasons behind things, which makes me understand a subject better.

Women in Science Wednesday highlights UNC researchers at all levels of their careers across dozens of fields. From medicine to mathematics to sociology, women at Carolina excel in research, mentorship, and advocacy. Click here to nominate an exceptional scientist.