How math and art led Ryan Li '17 to data science

The professional master's alumnus was recently hired by Schlumberger.

Ryan Li

From his father, Ryan Li '17 inherited an interest in building things and a gift for draftsmanship; from his mother, he learned the graceful rigors of calligraphy and the paint brush.

“I was really fascinated with math and physics at a young age. I asked my Dad a math question and he taught me calculus. My mother taught me calligraphy. I’m interested in both art and science,” said Li, who earned a B.S. in electrical and computer engineering, and a B.A. in studio art, from Rice University.

Li still paints and draws but to improve his chances to earn a good living, he spent another year at Rice and earned a professional master’s degree in ECE. As a result, he was hired in 2018 as a data scientist by Schlumberger, the world's largest oilfield services company.

“The coursework really helped me. I took ELEC 577, Optimization for Data Science, with Prof. Reinhard Heckel, and I learned a lot that I use every day on the job,” Li said.

He was born in Taizhou, a city on the coast of the East China Sea in Jiangsu province, about 145 miles north of Shanghai. His father was trained as a civil engineer and works as an architect. Li’s mother teaches Chinese linguistics at Taizhou University.

“My family has a very large influence on me,” he said. “They always made sure I was educated, and they encouraged me to study hard and learn new things.”

Li’s parents enrolled him in the UCLA Global Classroom Program for students at Jinling High School in Nanjing, where he earned college credits even before getting his high-school diploma. He narrowed his choice of universities to three but one feature at Rice cinched his decision: its student-faculty ratio is 6:1.

“I really liked that idea,” Li said. “I didn’t want one of those situations where you sit in a big lecture hall with hundreds of other students and the teacher doesn’t know your name.”

As a Rice undergraduate, Li worked most closely with Ashutosh Sabharwal, professor and chair of ECE. He supplemented his education with the professional master’s degree because of his interest in data science. In the summer of 2017, he had an internship with a Houston machine learning startup, Zdaly, which develops software that identifies and collects data, cleans and organizes it, and applies analytics to make it useful to businesses.

At Schlumberger, Li is part of an AI research group that has designed and implemented a digital avatar for hydraulic fracturing pumps using neural networks. He has a patent pending for a deep reinforcement learning algorithm that controls pumps in real-time.

“This is AI using reinforcement learning, an algorithm inspired by how animals learn, evolve and adapt,” he said. “As a data scientist, I’m interested in turning data into meaningful products for the end users.”