Tze Leung Lai
June 28, 1945-May 21, 2023
Tze Leung Lai (June 28, 1945–May 21, 2023), professor of statistics at Columbia University and Ray Lyman Wilbur Professor at Stanford University, passed away peacefully in his sleep on 21 May 2023. Lai lived a remarkable life, investing in his academic career, his students, and his family; he was proud of his accomplishments in each of those areas.
Growing up in postwar Hong Kong, Lai learned at an early age the value of hard work: having skipped kindergarten, he was the youngest child in his classes and had to study harder to match his older peers, many of whom would repeat a class year to ensure good grades. He attended the University of Hong Kong, where he initially pursued economics before switching to mathematics.
Graduating in 1967, Lai initially considered a career in civil service, but the local anti-government riots protesting British colonial rule that year made him reconsider. He instead decided to pursue higher education, ending up at Columbia University in 1968 in the statistics program, where he lived through the September 1968 student protests that shut down the campus.
In May 1970, Lai was preparing to take his oral qualifying exam when President Richard Nixon sent troops to Cambodia, igniting student protests that would shut down campuses across the country, including Columbia. Listening to radio coverage of the protests, Lai was sure that his own qualifying exam would be postponed and neglected to study; to his surprise, when he called to confirm on the day of the exam, he found that not only had his committee assembled for him anyway, but his chair had also invited other faculty to attend because classes had been canceled. Despite the stress, Lai was able to pass.
Only a year later, he received his PhD from the school, and he joined the faculty at Columbia as professor of statistics. During this time, he also met Letitia Chow, whom he would marry in 1975. In 1986 he was appointed Higgins Professor of Mathematical Statistics at Columbia, and the following year Lai moved across the country to Stanford, where he would continue to teach for the next thirty-six years. His work ethic was legendary among his students, who observed him coming to work mid-morning and staying through the late evening Monday through Saturday; Sunday he would begin work in the afternoon.
Such dedication engendered his success and enabled Lai to explore collaboration in diverse fields. As well as serving as chair of Stanford statistics from 2001–2004, Lai had appointments in financial mathematics, biostatistics, computational and mathematical engineering, the Biomedical Data Institute, neuroscience, and the Woods Institute for the Environment. Lai also founded the Financial and Risk Managing Institute in 2012, where he served as director. Moreover, he was an able adviser, guiding at least seventy-five students in their PhDs through completion. In 1983, Lai received the COPSS Presidents’ Award, and he was a fellow of the Institute of Mathematical Statistics, the American Statistical Association, and the Academic Sinica in Taiwan.
In addition to his wife, Lai is also survived by his sister, Anna Choi, and her husband, King Fai Choi; older son Peter Lai and his wife, Crystal Chen; younger son David Lai and his wife, Iris Law; niece Charina Chou and her husband, Jonathan Chou; niece Priscilla Choi; grandchildren Valerie and Kit Lai; and great niece Zoe Chou.