Siyuan Chen PhD’18: Earth-Shaking Insights

Siyuan Chen PhD’18 wants to develop a system for reliably predicting earthquakes.
—Photo courtesy of Siyuan Chen 

Mechanical engineer Siyuan Chen PhD’18 is on a quest for “the holy grail of geology”—the ability to reliably predict earthquakes. The power to foresee seismic activity is a long elusive dream for geoscientists; even a few more minutes or seconds of warning could vastly empower communities around the world to prepare for the onset.

“This work could potentially save millions of lives,” said Chen, a PhD candidate in Professor Hod Lipson’s Creative Machines Lab.

Chen, who grew up in Shanghai and attended China’s Tongji University, came to Columbia in 2013 to extend his studies in automotive engineering to other kinds of machines and applications. He started off developing robots, but soon shifted to an algorithmic approach, using data to evolve designs. With Lipson, he is utilizing machine learning to map out the causality networks and stochastic processes of tectonic plates as a complex dynamic vibration system, creating artificial intelligence increasingly able to identify and assess signs of impending quakes.

Chen has taken on other ambitious data-driven projects in the Creative Machines Lab, too, from attempting to classify human thoughts by reading brain signals to using evolutionary algorithms to simulate soft robots ever more optimized for tasks like crawling. He also worked with Professor Sunil Agrawal’s Robotics and Rehabilitation Lab to build a cable-driven arm exoskeleton robot (CAREX) to aid with neural rehabilitation at NYU Langone Medical Center. The technology uses a data mining technique to analyze electromyography data and calibrate treatment.

Outside of the lab, Chen is cofounder of Trade Terminal Inc., a pioneering crypto-quantitative hedge fund that has outperformed even the dramatic rise in the cryptocurrency sector in recent years. And, he has served as a vice president of the Columbia University Chinese Students and Scholars Association, helping organize gatherings of thinkers and leaders on campus.

But it is the promise of anticipating earthquakes—and empowering communities to protect themselves—in which Chen has found a calling. After receiving his PhD this spring, he plans to continue working to better predict earth-shaking events.

“It isn’t so much my dream job as my dream mission,” Chen said. “This is too big not to be explored.”

by Jesse Adams

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