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College Stories: Michael Zhao, Mathematics

Michael Zhao, Mathematics Department, University of Utah

Michael Zhao - In Memoriam

The Mathematics Department mourns the unexpected death of Michael Zhao, an outstanding undergraduate at the University of Utah, who completed his honors degree in mathematics in 2017.

A native of Salt Lake City, Michael received the prestigious Churchill Scholarship in 2017 to study at Cambridge University in England. He was one of only 15 students nationally to receive this award and was the second Churchill Scholar for the U.

After completing his studies at Cambridge, Michael began his first-year doctoral program at Columbia University. According to Columbia, “Michael had made a promising start on his doctoral studies here and was planning to specialize in number theory or algebraic geometry.”

Many of the faculty in the U’s Math Department have fond memories of working with Michael. In an interview in 2017, professor of mathematics Gordon Savin, who served as Michael’s honors thesis advisor, said, “Mike is one of the strongest undergraduate students we have had since I have been at the University of Utah, more than 20 years. For someone his age, he already has an incredible level of maturity and mathematical knowledge.”

Michael is survived by his parents, Shaoqing Song and Fuli Zhao, and by a brother, Alan Zhao.

Services for Michael Zhao

  • Friday, December 21
    Viewing: 6 - 8 p.m.
  • Saturday, December 22
    Viewing: 12 p.m. - 2 p.m.
    Funeral: 2 p.m.


Michael Zhao

Michael Zhao, Churchill Scholar

Discover Magazine 2017

Michael Zhao, a Salt Lake City native and senior in mathematics pursuing an honors degree at the U, has received the prestigious Churchill Scholarship to study at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. Zhao is one of only 15 students in the U.S. to receive this award and is the second Churchill Scholar from the U.

“It’s a common perception that skill in mathematics is only due to talent, but hard work counts for much more,” said Zhao. “Having mentors is also extremely helpful, and I am indebted to many faculty members, graduate students and engineers for their guidance and encouragement.”

Zhao was drawn to math at an early age. Through an “Art of Problem Solving” online course he was introduced to number theory. He likens this first encounter to how the Hubble Space Telescope revealed thousands of ancient galaxies in what appeared to be a small, blank patch of the night sky.

In high school, he attended the Canada/USA Mathcamp and took math courses at the U. Upon graduating he was awarded a fouryear Eccles Scholarship – supported by the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Foundation –to continue his studies at the U.

In his freshman year at the U, Zhao took a yearlong reading course exploring algebraic number theory with Gordan Savin, a professor in mathematics. He continued his studies by taking reading courses with

Dragan Milicic, a professor in mathematics, and graduate courses in algebraic geometry, number theory, and representation theory. “We often have discussions on various topics related to these courses. I was always impressed that talking to Mike feels more like talking with a colleague and not a student,” said Milicic.

Zhao has also done research in computer science. In the summer of 2015, he participated in the Research in Industrial Projects for Students Program held on the campus of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. His project used computer vision techniques to create a logo recognition application for Android phones. In spring 2016, he was awarded the prestigious Barry Goldwater scholarship for excellence in STEM research.

This past summer, Zhao was an intern at Google. He developed a software-testing framework that allowed engineers to select exactly the servers they needed to handle login action in their software tests, thereby reducing computer memory usage and server startup times. “He is on a path to becoming a very powerful figure in whatever industry he chooses,” said Tyler Sellmayer, Zhao’s supervisor at Google. “His superpower is the ability to hold an enormous abstract structure in his head, and to speak intelligently about any aspect of it at any time.”

Currently, Zhao is working on his Honor’s thesis in number theory. His thesis advisor, Gordan Savin, says of Zhao: “Mike is one of the strongest undergraduate students we have had since I have been at the University of Utah, more than 20 years. For someone his age, he already has an incredible level of maturity and mathematical knowledge.”

Zhao will use the Churchill Scholarship to pursue a Master of Advanced Study in Pure Mathematics at Cambridge starting in the fall. Upon completion, Zhao plans to come back to the U.S. to complete his doctorate in mathematics focusing on number theory. “It wasn’t easy to choose in what area I wanted to specialize, even within computer science and mathematics, since they were all very exciting. Only by trying many different things – an internship, several research projects – was I able to make a decision,” said Zhao. Zhao aspires to become a professor, and hopes to make contributions to pure mathematics through research and teaching.

“Many times, pure mathematics research found its way to important applications, such as cryptography, relativity and GPS. From a different perspective, I believe research is important since it enriches society just as much as art, literature or philosophy,” said Zhao.

The Churchill Scholarship, established in 1963 at the request of Winston Churchill, provides undergraduates with outstanding academic achievement in the science, technology, engineering and math fields the opportunity to complete a one-year master’s program at the University of Cambridge. The Churchill Scholarship has been called “the most academically challenging of the U.K. scholarships.”

Michael Zhao - Eccles Scholarship

Eccles Honors College Alumni Spotlights

Michael Zhao knew he wanted to major in math after attending the Canada/USA MathCamp after the 11th and 12th grades in high school. He remembers feeling a similar electrifying feeling during an extra-curricular reading course that was part of his Honors College education. Michael had this “ah-ha” moment while reading Andre Weil’s Basic Number Theory and seeing a classification result whose proof synthesized ideas from what he had thought were totally disparate branches of mathematics. The excitement of that moment struck him as evidence that he was majoring in what he loved. Passion, he thought, should drive learning. He came to see passion as the catalyst for dedication, and dedication as the driver for success. This definition of success exceeds title or salary: for Michael, the pursuit of passion is also the pursuit of the self. Through this experience of “a beautiful mixture of ideas,” Michael remembers, “I understood what Stephen Gelbart described as the agony and ecstasy of modern number theory: that although the ‘promised rewards are great, the initiation process is forbidding’.”

Gelbart’s quote could stand in as metaphor for Michael’s entire time with the Honors College, in which he saw his hard work transform him into a more mature student with a greater awareness of the world around him and his trajectory in it. Michael graduated from the University of Utah in the spring of 2017 with a HBS in Mathematics. He will first attend the University of Cambridge for a Masters of Advanced Study in pure mathematics, and then Columbia University for a Ph.D. in mathematics. Michael hopes to continue on a path to university research after that, but he also plans to continue to build a broad knowledge of philosophy that began with Honors courses where he read Enlightenment philosophers, like Rousseau and Kant, and classical works like The Odyssey and Aeneid.

In fact, what first drew Michael to Honors wasn’t his passion for math, but his passion for philosophy and literature. He was intrigued by the breadth of study the Honors College offered—a place where he could read Thomas Aquinas and David Hume, while also studying Eastern philosophy and literature from texts like the Bhagavad Gita and the Daodejing. The solid foundation Michael received in Honors will continue to carry him forward, “I think the events of the past year have forced introspection onto many of us, and I believe philosophy is best suited to help us interpret the world, as technological innovations and scientific discoveries challenge traditional conceptions of ourselves, our relations to other members of society, and to the world.”

Last Updated: 12/17/18