Zhao Scholarship

Taylor is the first recipient of the Michael Zhao Memorial Scholarship. She’s a senior majoring in mathematics and minoring in computer science and plans to graduate in the spring of 2020.

“The financial assistance provided by the scholarship will be of great help to me in paying for my educational expenses, and it will allow me to concentrate more of my time on studying,” said Walker. “After graduating, I plan on entering the workforce in a math related field. I hope to honor Michael’s legacy in mathematics as I continue to learn about a subject we both enjoy.”

Michael Zhao loved sushi, travel and classical music. His lifelong passion and ardent pursuit, however, was always mathematics. His fascination with math took him from the 100 Club in kindergarten to Cambridge University as a Churchill Scholar. On December 8, 2018, while at Columbia University in New York City chasing his goal of becoming a college professor, Zhao passed away due to a sudden heart attack.

But on April 18, Zhao’s zeal for math continued with the naming of the first recipient of the Michael Zhao Memorial Scholarship. Taylor Walker, a senior studying mathematics and computer science, is the first awardee.

“The scholarship aims to recognize a truly outstanding mathematics student,” said Davar Khoshnevisan, chair of the Department of Mathematics, “which is consistent with celebrating Michael’s memory.”

Zhao grew up in Salt Lake City and attended Skyline High School, where he was first chair in flute and served as captain of the debate team while also attending Canada/USA Mathcamp and taking math courses at the U. As an undergraduate at the U, Zhao received the Eccles Scholarship that supported his studies in the Honors College. Zhao 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.

In 2017 he was the second U student to win the prestigious Churchill Scholarship. “It’s a common perception that skill in mathematics is only due to talent, but hard work counts for much more” Zhao said. “Having mentors is also extremely helpful, and I am indebted to many faculty members, graduate students, and engineers for their guidance and encouragement.”

Many of the faculty in the U’s Math Department have fond memories of working with Zhao. 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, in more than 20 years. For someone his age, he already has an incredible level of maturity and mathematical knowledge."

He also worked with Dragan Miličić. In the same interview, Miličić said, “We often have discussions on various topics related to algebraic geometry, number theory, and representation theory. I was always impressed that talking to Mike feels more like talking with a colleague and not a student.”

Another professor who worked with Zhao was Braxton Osting, who said, “Many people remember Michael as a brilliant student, excelling under an almost impossible course load covering a large range of topics in mathematics and computer science. In spending time with Michael, I also came to know him as a genuinely kind person, generous with his time and helpful to his fellow students.”

After Zhao passed away, math department faculty and fellow Churchill Scholars approached Khoshnevisan with the idea of establishing a scholarship in Zhao’s name. Khoshnevisan got approval from Zhao’s parents. They, along with colleagues, friends and even his high school math teacher, reached out to their community for donations.

The new scholarship, partly funded by the Department of Mathematics and partly by donors, keeps Zhao’s memory alive. If you’d like to contribute to this scholarship, please make checks payable to the Michael Zhao Memorial Scholarship and send donations to the following: Tiffany Jensen Department of Mathematics 155 South 1400 East, JWB 233 Salt Lake City, UT 84112