Lilly Chen ’19 is the co-founder and manager of the Colorado College E-Sports team, self-taught software engineer, and graduating senior with a degree in mathematical economics. This week, The Catalyst sat down with Chen to discuss perseverance and plans.
The Catalyst: Why did you decide to major in mathematics economics, and what is the overlap between math and economics?
Lilly Chen: I came into Colorado College as a poli-sci major after I failed pre-calculus and Computer Science I at my high school, and I thought I would never touch a quant subject again. I did enjoy AP Economics in high school, but it was like the non-math version, so I thought I’d be chill to take the Intro to Econ class here. I ended up meeting a professor, Mark Smith, who convinced me to take a few more econ classes and change my major to IPE, and then economics, and then math-econ. Math and economics are exactly the same thing. Economics is just applied mathematics. Math is just a way of describing the world, and economics is one way of looking at it through math.
TC: How did you go from swearing off math to essentially majoring in math? What prompted that transition?
LC: So, in high school at least — I mean I had a lot of mental health problems, so high school was not a good time in general — but when I got to college it was basically giving it, math and computer science especially, that second and third chance. It just became so much easier. I’m not saying math is easy now, but I do think a lot of people give up on it really early because they didn’t do too hot in like high school algebra and as a result are too scared to take calculus in college and then just kind of veer off of quant altogether.
TC: Can you describe your thesis, the process you went through in crafting it, and what econometrics is?
LC: My thesis is called “Do Senators Moderate in Election Years? Evidence from Twitter.” So the process of that is I needed to quantitatively measure and model something that’s qualitative … the qualitative thing here is language. So how do you turn words into numbers in a way that makes sense, and how can you use that to model something that compares across time. The process of doing that is natural language processing. I specifically was using topic modeling. By using a topic modeling I was able to convert all the Twitter data into numbers and then use econometrics to try to mathematically model the data and get causal effects out of it. Econometrics is applied statistics. The goal of econometrics should be to find causality and not correlation. The thesis writing for me was just drowning all the time until suddenly I wasn’t drowning. That’s kind of what happened. Basically for my entire first block of thesis I had no clue what I was doing. I knew I wanted to use Twitter data and I wanted to learn natural language processing, but in my first block I still had no clue what machine learning really was. I just kind of knew it was a buzzword. In between that and my second block I realized that not only do I need to learn how to implement those in code, but I also need to be able to explain theoretically why it works and explain it well enough that I could write my paper on it. And so that’s the process of drowning.
TC: In Your Opinion Is social media an appropriate platform for politics?
LC: I don’t think I have a valid opinion on those given that I’m not a political scientist or a policymaker, but I don’t think social media is a bad thing. For one, I think it really gets people in touch with the people that are voting. The senators and candidates that you see on social media represent themselves a little bit more humanly. They’re just more real. You see like photos of, you know, their family. They tweet about how they had to wait in line at Starbucks today. Like it just makes the people and in that sense I don’t think it’s a bad thing.
TC: From an economic perspective, can you describe why social media is increasingly being used as a platform for politics?
LC: Before social media the way that a senator would talk to the people is by arranging a time with a TV, newspaper, or a journalist of some sort. They then prepare statements and hope that the journalist is going to ask them questions that are favorable and not push too hard on things that are unfavorable. Then they have to somehow publish that content, whether it be through airtime or through the newspaper or flyers or even physical mail sent to their constituents. That’s a really expensive process that in a lot of ways is out of the senator’s control, especially if it’s written. Social media is pretty nice because they have complete control. They get to phrase everything exactly how they want and publish it as is. They have someone who’s in-house, a social media manager, who writes everything and thinks about all the possible ways that it could go wrong. It’s just a lot of control and it’s cheaper than having to organize through someone else with that high risk of them painting you poorly.
TC: Where are you from and what do you miss most about home?
LC: New Jersey! Dirty Jers … I’m from Hillsborough. What I miss about home are the bagels. Bagels and pizza. Jersey is a place of good food, and it’s cheap good food. New York has good food, but it’s expensive as hell. Jersey has good cheap food. We’re talking like 80 cents for the best bagel of your life. Can you pay 80 cents for the best anything of your life? No. Except for a bagel in New Jersey.
TC: who has been an influential figure during your cc career?
LC: Definitely my thesis advisor. Jessica Hoel in the economics department probably changed my life. I actually had taken my first class with her this year, but my sophomore year I approached her because I really wanted to be a research assistant in the economics department. I was thinking about getting a PhD in economics and she basically set me on the quant. track because originally back then I was majoring in IPE. She told me straight up I’d have to take econometric theory and real analysis if I wanted to do all these things. And I was like yeah, okay. From there she just encouraged me basically. I was a little bit nervous after doing so poorly in pre-calc. And I knew econometric theory was a lot of coding, and having failed one of the most basic versions of coding in high school, I was just really nervous. But she just believed in me every step of the way. She always believed in me. I always hated asking questions because I know how brilliant she is, but she never stopped me from asking questions and she always treated all of my questions as so valid and real. That encouragement basically took me from majoring in poli-sci to math-econ and then to computer science.
TC: What is one piece of advice you’d give to somebody looking to make the most of their CC experience?
LC: I don’t like answering advice questions because I think it introduces a lot of survivorship bias. I had a lot of mental health problems; I was diagnosed with bipolar schizophrenia. So I was out of commission for large blocks at a time — like not even just like days or weeks, but entire blocks. I think it’s really unfair for me to be like ‘say yes to everything’ or ‘reach for the stars’ or all those generic things that you could tell somebody to do because I remember there were days where it was pretty much impossible to get out of bed. I can’t tell other people, “just go do everything,” because there were large portions of my CC career where I did nothing. So honestly, I think all I could say is you know you: do what you need to do; take care of yourself; take care of your friends; support each other.
TC: Can you describe your role on the E-Sports team and how you got involved with the E-Sports community?
LC: I co-founded the E-Sports program my sophomore year. I’ve always been a longtime gamer. My claim to fame is that I was once No. 7 in North America in this one game called Dota 2. Basically when I got here, CC is such an outdoorsy place that there was no video game community. There wasn’t even a casual gaming community. And my best friend at the time, Josh Lauer, and I were like, we should make a video gaming community. And that’s a lot like the thesis process or learning how to code. It was just drowning for a year and a half. At any given moment it was basically threatening to capitulate and then eventually just took off. All of a sudden everything just fell into place. The EA Sports Lab came down; we placed first at SCAC; we added our third official team. All this stuff just kind of fell into place, but right up until that happened, everyone was drowning.
TC: Where do you see yourself in five years?
LC: Oh man, I don’t know. My life goal is to run my own startup. That would be the most ideal thing, but I don’t think I’ll get there in five years. So probably I think I’m going to stay at the company that I’m about to go work for. It’s the right culture. And I think they’re gonna let me do whatever I want which is really important. I feel like they’re gonna let me explore what exactly it is that I want my career path to be whether that’s actually software engineering, or if it’s product management, or if it’s data science. Or maybe I’ll quit grad school. Those are the options.