Shaoxiong ‘Dennis’ Zheng, SM’21, devoted scholar and friend, 1997-2021

UChicago community mourns aspiring data scientist who was ‘always willing to help’

Editor’s note: A Chinese translation of this story is available here. 本文的中文翻译请点击这里Send your condolences to the family here: 点击这里向少雄家人表达哀悼之情

Shaoxiong “Dennis” Zheng, a recent graduate of the University of Chicago master’s program in statistics, is being remembered by the UChicago community and friends as a passionate student and a generous friend.

Zheng, SM’21, was shot and killed during a robbery in Hyde Park on Nov. 9. He was 24. The University will hold a memorial service at 3 p.m. CT Nov. 18 at Rockefeller Memorial Chapel, which will be broadcast on the UChicago News website.

“The entire University community is heartbroken,” said President Paul Alivisatos during a Nov. 11 webinar.

“In addition to being a University alum, he was a loving son and caring friend to many in our community and many more around the world,” added Provost Ka Yee C. Lee.

Born in Sichuan Province, China, Zheng attended college at the University of Hong Kong. As a student in UChicago’s Department of Statistics, he used machine learning for inferring gene regulatory networks. He received his master’s degree this past June and wanted to be a data scientist, colleagues said.

“He aspired to solve important problems facing our society, and to ‘help people to help more people,’” said Mei Wang, senior instructional professor at UChicago and director of the master’s program in statistics. “He was a passionate student and a curious scholar. He loved the atmosphere of the University—the way that everyone in the department was equally open to debating processes of reasoning and statistical methods.”

“Dennis was a bright and talented student, who was dedicated in his pursuit of knowledge,” said Prof. Dan Nicolae, chair of the Department of Statistics, who collaborated with Zheng on his research thesis. “He was not only a promising scholar but also a wonderful person, always willing to help other students. He will be missed by all who knew him.”

Faculty and friends alike remembered Zheng for his ever-present smile, his constant optimism and thoughtfulness, and his willingness to help others. Nan Jiang, a close friend from high school, said Zheng always took time to encourage those around him. “Every time you asked him a question, he tried his best to help you. I think he spent a lot of time on that,” Jiang said. “No matter what, he always had an encouraging word. And I think that wasn’t just for me. It was everyone he has had contact with.”

Outside of academics, he enjoyed traveling and cooking, as well as playing piano, squash and table tennis. Zheng was also interested in Chinese calligraphy and photography—though he was less captivated by the technical aspects of capturing images than the simple act of admiring the world’s beauty, his friends said. 

“He wanted to savor every moment of life,” said his girlfriend, Shirley Cai, a graduate student in political science. “The sky, the sunset, the stars—he just wanted to keep it.”

“Meeting him was one of the most fortunate things that has ever happened to me,” she said. “I was so lucky to be with him. He was the kind of person I want to be.”

Nicholas Jackson, Zheng’s friend and neighbor in Hyde Park, said Zheng was the first to welcome nearly everyone to their building, where they built a tradition of shared jokes. “I taught him a lot of bad English slang, and when I would tell him what the phrase meant, it was like a bomb of laughter had gone off,” Jackson said. “He and I were always laughing.”

Jason Peng, who was a fellow student in the master’s program in statistics, said Zheng was “the most positive, optimistic and cheerful person I’ve ever met.” Now a Ph.D. student at the University of Texas at Austin, Peng remembered the way Zheng would devote himself wholeheartedly to whatever he did. “He would think about a concept or a problem for days,” Peng said. “He worked hard for the joy of learning and thinking, not for the grades.”

Zheng’s dedication as a scholar extended beyond his own department. He also worked as a teaching assistant at UChicago’s Harris School of Public Policy and Booth School of Business.

Bruce Meyer, the McCormick Foundation Professor at Harris, praised the dedication, creativity and insight that Zheng brought as a TA for Meyer’s class on advanced statistics for data analysis. Zheng was “beloved” by the students, and even inspired several to reach out to Meyer about becoming teaching assistants themselves in the future.

“Even a young person can have a lot of impact on others,” Meyer said. “He certainly did.”

Zheng is survived by his mother, Rong Li; and father, Xiaodong Zheng.