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Yinyu Ye: Sports led me from the rice fields to Stanford

An aptitude for athletics helped transform a professor of management science and engineering from a rice farmer during China’s Cultural Revolution into a world-renowned scholar.
Yinyu Ye, standing fourth from the left, played forward on his company’s basketball team. | Courtesy

Had it not been for his youthful skill at basketball, Yinyu Ye might never have enjoyed his long and distinguished career as the Kwoh-Ting Li Professor in the School of Engineering.

A professor of management science and engineering, Ye is also a professor, by courtesy, of electrical engineering.

Born in China, Ye finished high school at the start of the Cultural Revolution and was sent with his family to undergo “re-education” in the rice fields. As Ye describes below, his basketball skills helped him at the age of 30 to gain admission to the Huazhong University of Science and Technology, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in systems and control. In 1982, he moved to Stanford Engineering where he pursued a PhD in operations research.

A prolific and much-honored researcher in the field of linear programming, Ye has developed mathematical models and algorithms that optimize or make the most efficient use of scarce resources in almost any kind of system: factories, transportation, smart power grids, satellites and banking, to name a few.

A student of George Dantzig, the legendary Stanford professor who invented what has been called “the algorithm that runs the world,” Ye helped extend Dantzig’s post-World War II breakthroughs into the era of machine learning, artificial intelligence and self-driving cars. Ye, whose honors include the prestigious John von Neumann Theory Prize in 2009, has written or contributed to 12 books and more than 170 peer-reviewed papers. His topics range from algorithms for balancing financial risk to “‘Muddling Through’ in the Chinese Bureaucracy.”

From high school to hard labor

In 1970, when I was 22, I was working from sunup to sunset in China’s rice fields. If it hadn’t been for basketball, I might still be there today.

My father had been a high school principal and math teacher and I had hoped to go to a university, but Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution put a stop to that in 1966. Almost overnight, the colleges all shut down.

The government ordered millions of people back to the countryside for manual labor on farms and, in 1968, my family and I were sent to a farming village. I spent the next two years doing hard labor. It was hard to imagine any escape.

Basketball to the rescue

In 1970, however, my basketball skills saved me in the first of two times. Industrial companies were recruiting young people for jobs in the cities. Every rural young person wanted one of those jobs, but your family had to have the right political background — and mine did not. My father had been a member of the Kuomintang — the Chinese Nationalist Party, which fled to Taiwan after World War II, although he had remained in China.

My main sport in high school had been track and field. I had won several championships and even set a state high school record in the high jump. But I also played on the basketball team. I was 6 feet tall — taller than the average Chinese — and I could jump really high. I could easily dunk the ball. Fortunately for me, basketball was extremely popular in China and companies had basketball teams. A winning team was important to a company’s stature, so they were desperately looking for good players.

Yinyu Ye clearing 1.8 meters to become the high school high jump champion in Hubei Province. | Courtesy

Those skills overcame my political shortcomings, and a major chemical company hired me, and I played forward on their basketball team, and also learned how to do electrical wiring and repair and operate power equipment and electronic devices. During my seven years with the company I met my wife, Daisun Zhow, who was in my same working group. I studied math during the night shift, which helped me to pass the university entrance exam in 1977 — and once again my skill at basketball saved me.

An education on the rebound

By 1977, Deng Xiaoping had become head of the Chinese Communist Party and had started to reform the economy and re-open the universities. I was excited about going, but I was almost 30 and still didn’t have the proper political background. In addition to my father’s past, my wife’s father had owned a small manufacturing company before the Revolution, which made him a suspected “capitalist roader.”

But like the manufacturing companies, universities wanted to build basketball teams. I did very well on my entrance examinations, but the Huazhong University of Science and Technology accepted me at least in part because I could help their team.

By 1982, as I was preparing to graduate, it became possible for students to apply to universities anywhere in the world. Stanford accepted me for a master’s program in engineering, and the Chinese government gave me a scholarship for the first year. After that, I got fellowships and work as a research and teaching assistant to pursue a PhD. It was a dream come true. But I felt lonely at times, as my wife and 4-year-old daughter, Fei, had remained in China and they only joined me in 1984.

Sports helped ease me into Stanford

My first night here, I stayed with a family in Los Altos Hills and watched my first American football game on TV. I didn’t know anything about the game, but I was interested and asked a lot of questions. Sports offered me a common ground with other people. If I went to a party and talked about the 49ers or John Elway, who was playing for Stanford then, it was better than talking about my research.

I also went to high school basketball games. Lots of parents were there, cheering and having a good time. I was very impressed that people were recording all kinds of statistics — everything from minutes played to shooting percentages. For all my years playing basketball, I had never known my own percentages. It helped me understand that America is a place that emphasizes data, and I was heading in that same direction.

Three mentors who became friends for life

I remember the day I became fascinated by linear programing. It was a sunny day in 1984, and I decided to attend a guest lecture by Narendra Karmarkar of AT&T, who had just invented the first software algorithm to get a patent. The auditorium was so packed that I had to sit on the floor. I was amazed by the richness and applicability of linear programming, which can be used to optimize all sorts of real-world processes from helping farmers decide which crops to grow to balancing the electrical grid to keep the power flowing. I quickly decided to devote my PhD to this branch of mathematics.

My first mentor was George Dantzig, one of the three founders of linear programming. By the time I arrived at Stanford, he had already won almost every prize in the field — the very first John von Neumann Prize, the National Medal of Science and many others. I think he appreciated my academic curiosity and my desire to learn, and he helped me in many ways.

George was a great advisor. I actively sought out his advice and showed him my research ideas. Thanks in large part to him, I published three papers while I was working on my PhD. I continued to seek George’s advice long after I earned my doctorate and even after he retired. He and his wife became close family friends. My wife and I visited him at his bedside on the night before he died in 2005. Even at that point, he wanted to know about my latest research.

My second important mentor was David Luenberger, who founded Stanford’s Department of Engineering–Economic Systems, which later merged into what is now the Department of Management Science and Engineering. Luenberger was a giant in the area of optimization. We used his book in my first course on that subject. Years later, I became a co-author with David of that same book — Linear and Nonlinear Programming.

A third mentor was Michael Todd, at Cornell University, one of the giants in operations research. He invited me to do postdoctoral work at Cornell, and we went on to write quite few papers together, including an algorithm that is widely implemented in current open-source linear programming problem-solving software.

Mentoring as coaching

One way mentors help the next generation of researchers is by introducing them to other people in the field. Your career isn’t just your research. It’s a network. The most important thing my mentors gave me, however, was an understanding of scholarship, intellectual integrity, curiosity and rigorous thinking.

As a professor, I like students who have a great intellectual curiosity and who are willing to look into open questions that have been studied but not solved. I challenge them to do some research around that topic, and then we hold weekly meetings and continue working together. My proudest moments are when students come into my office and tell me they have found something really eye-opening, that they’ve conquered a scientific mystery.

After all these years, I still advise my students to take an interest in sports. I learned a lot from playing basketball: the importance of training hard, of team-work, of competitive spirit, but also playing by the rules. Trust me, I tell them, such qualities can change your life.