Carnegie Mellon University
May 07, 2020

Senior Zhiyao Li Receives Carnegie Mellon Women’s Association Scholarship

By Emily Payne

Jocelyn Duffy
  • Associate Dean for Communications, MCS

Zhiyao (Olivia) Li is a strong advocate for women in science who empowers others to reach their fullest potential. Her passion, dedication and leadership have earned her an early graduation gift from the Carnegie Mellon Women's Association (CMWA). She was honored, along with six of her peers from each of the university's colleges, with a $1,500 scholarship.

Li’s advisors note that she is an academically exceptional leader with varied interests and passions. Li is a physics major with minors in mathematical sciences and photography. She’s a certified advanced tutor in CMU’s Academic Development Office, supporting advanced physics courses. And she conducts interdisciplinary research on cosmology and artificial intelligence with Professor of Physics Rachel Mandelbaum.

Li has presented her research at numerous local and national conferences, including conferences aimed at women in physics and astronomy, where she has not only demonstrated the strength of her work but inspired other undergraduate women to pursue their interests in these areas.

As president of the CMU Women in Science (WiS) organization, Li has supported and encouraged her peers and young students, in activities on- and off-campus, related to her love of physics and math. For decades, WiS fostered a community of leadership, mentorship and support for female students in science across the university, until about six years ago when the group dissipated and stopped meeting regularly. 

In the spring of 2017, Li and some of her peers re-ignited the group. They hit the ground running — coordinating weekly meetings, hosting woman-identifying faculty and staff in science to talk about their successes and struggles and initiating a number of networking events. Li spearheaded the creation of an Underrepresented Figures in Science Talk Series, which WiS continued hosting remotely after CMU moved to remote instruction during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The group also coordinates a number of outreach events at K-12 schools, interacting with hundreds of students over the past three years. Most recently, they volunteered to create kaleidoscopes with students at a local elementary school. 

“Her support of young scientists and leadership of the organization is truly impactful and inspiring,” said Associate Dean for Undergraduate Affairs Maggie Braun. “She helps to plan events and activities throughout the year that support all students (particularly women) interested in science at CMU.”

Outside of academics, Li has served as the recruitment chair for the CMU Fencing Club. She led her teammates in competitions locally and at national-level tournaments.

“Balancing this demanding physical activity’s practice schedule with everything else, Li truly demonstrates holistic excellence,” said Braun.

“I feel incredibly honored to receive the scholarship. It encourages me to continue my effort in empowering others, especially women in STEM, to pursue their passion,” said Li. After graduation, she will enter the physics Ph.D. program at the University of Washington. “I hope to eventually become a professor because I want to help push the boundaries of science and mentor future generations.”

The CMWA has been awarding scholarships to graduating students every year since 1964. The scholarships are funded by CMWA membership dues. CMWA membership is open to all women associated with the university.

Tris Jahanian is CMWA’s honorary president. Board members are President Jessica Shirley, Vice President of Membership Sarah Collins, Co-Vice President of Programs Chandani Sharma, Co-Vice President of Programs and Marketing Elizabeth Donaldson, Treasurer Stefanie Santo and Past President Christa Cardone.