UChicago community remembers Shaoxiong ‘Dennis’ Zheng in campus memorial

Hundreds gather for Nov. 18 event at Rockefeller Chapel to honor life of recent graduate

Shaoxiong “Dennis” Zheng always lit up a room with his smile. He was generous and kind, inspiring both faculty and fellow students. And he was a proud graduate of the University of Chicago, a community that gathered on Thursday afternoon to honor his memory.

Nine days after Zheng, SM’21, was killed during a robbery near campus, hundreds attended a memorial at Rockefeller Memorial Chapel, celebrating his life and sharing in the grief of those who knew and loved him.

Speaking at the beginning of the ceremony, President Paul Alivisatos directed part of his comments to Zheng’s family who had flown in from China.

“Dennis was a member of our family, and by extension, that means that you are a member of our family too,” Alivisatos said.

Non-YouTube users: Access the full video and transcript here.

Born in Sichuan Province, China, Zheng arrived at UChicago in the fall of 2019, joining the master’s program in statistics. His research focused on using machine learning techniques to analyze gene information. 

Prof. Dan Nicolae, who chairs the Department of Statistics and collaborated with Zheng on his research thesis, spoke of Zheng’s drive, his dedication to learning and his intellectual curiosity. Zheng dug deeply into every question before him, Nicolae said, and loved to debate statistical methods.

“We knew from the very beginning that his aspiration, his ambition, was to solve important problems facing our society using the tools of statistics and data science,” Nicolae said. “This spirit of inquiry, creativity and independence showed me his great promise for scholarly work, and I was convinced that he would be successful in anything he decided to pursue.”

Many described Zheng’s generosity of spirit, always willing to lend his time to support others or to explain a difficult concept to a student. As a teaching assistant at the Booth School of Business and the Harris School of Public Policy, Zheng stood out for willingness to go above and beyond. Prof. Bruce Meyer, an economist at Harris, recounted that Zheng once even set up a separate Zoom call for a student in India to accommodate their time difference.

“His students were inspired to learn from him,” Meyer said. “They were also inspired to teach others the way he did.”

Delivering her remarks in both Chinese and English, Provost Ka Yee C. Lee extended her condolences to Zheng’s family and friends. Although she never met Zheng, Lee shared what she had heard about him in recent days. Those who knew him best, she said, remembered how Zheng “truly embraced and enjoyed his life,” as well as the “extraordinary impact” he made on others.

“Dennis was taken from us far too soon, and nothing can ease the pain of his loss,” Lee said.

The ceremony also included comments from Zhichun Bian, deputy consul general of the Consulate of the People’s Republic of China in Chicago, who thanked the University for their support of Zheng’s family; as well as remarks from Zheng’s parents.

Near the end of the memorial, Zheng’s mother, Rong Li, walked up to the podium. Traveling outside China for the first time in her life, she recalled the moment Zheng left home two years ago—the look on his face, the way he talked about his dreams for their future.

Two days before her son’s death, Li received a birthday present from him: a bottle of perfume. She wore the perfume to Rockefeller Chapel, she said in Chinese, hoping he would somehow recognize the scent: “Let’s go home, my son.”

To close the ceremony, the Rev. Dr. Maurice Charles, dean of Rockefeller Chapel, invited guests to stand for a moment of silence. He prayed for peace and comfort, and invited the family to reach out: “You will always be a part of this community.”

After the remarks, an organist and carillonneurs played music in honor of Zheng, and a long line of students, faculty and friends gathered to offer condolences to family members.