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Alumni Q&A: Joe Zhu

12 September 2022

Joe is a lead statistical programming analyst and lead software engineer at Roche, a pioneer in healthcare and pharmaceuticals. He spoke to us about his career so far and how he hopes to improve the drug discovery process with AI.


Maths and statistics might not be considered the most romantic of subjects, but it’s one of the foundational parts of how we function and develop as a society! Why did you choose to study it at university?

I was always very fond of maths as I grew up. Although initially I wanted to be an actuary analyst and working on Wall Street, during my study I learned about the power of mathematical modeling. I was introduced to the potential for the same models to applied to things like stock market predictions and missile tracking, and in my case, genomics studies and past infer human demographic events from DNA sequence data.

Was carrying on to also do your Honours and PhD something you had always wanted or planned to do?

Yes definitely. I am a very hands-on person, and I learn most things through practice. The honours project was one of my very first research projects! It was really interesting – “modeling zero-inflated data” with real application to conservation studies. I fell in love with research and found that asking questions always led to new questions. It was very satisfying when I solved these puzzles and picked up new skills along the way.

Can you tell us a bit about your career so far? Any highlights?

During my PhD study, I was fully funded by the Marsden Fund. I was also awarded the New Zealand Claude McCarthy Fellowship and Chinese Government Award for Outstanding Self-financed Students Abroad (489 students globally, with only 2 from NZ) when I completed my PhD.

After study, I took two postdoc positions at the University of Oxford and worked on statistical genomics. During my academic life, I worked on many projects which led to publications – 10 of which I was the lead and senior author. In January of 2019 I was one of five representatives from Oxford to attend the Global Young Scientist Summit in Singapore, where we had the opportunity to meet with scientific leaders and recipients of Nobel Prize, Fields Medal and Millennium Technology Prizes!

What are you currently working on in your roles at pharmaceutical company, Roche?

Since joining Roche in 2020, I have taken several data analytic lead roles in drug development and digital service tools. Currently, I am the lead software engineer for an open-sourced project with a mission to develop an advanced data analytic toolkit for exploratory and regulatory use, with Roche leading this area in the pharma industry.

In 2021, our team was awarded the 2021 Roche PD Breakthrough Award and was one of the 16 winning teams out of 140 projects. It was one of the very first breakthrough awards given to a team not directly linked to drug molecules!

Where do you see yourself in your career over the next few years? Do you have any goals or new things in mind you would like to try?

My overall goal is to apply AI to the pharmaceutical industry and speed up the new drug discovery process and reduce the cost to in turn benefit our patients and their quality of life. Throughout the drug manufacturing process, AI can be applied at many stages: early discoveries of new molecules, virtual clinical trials for drug repurposing, accurately identifying patient cohorts and sub-groups, optimizing manufacturing processes with automation. Mathematics is the most important component behind AI technologies, and I am grateful for my undergrad and postgrad course training at UC for giving me the foundations to this work.

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