As a New York Attorney General’s Office Intern, Penn’s Iris Zhang Is Facing Her Fears

University of Pennsylvania student Iris Zhang calls the study of math her “deepest, darkest fear.” But this summer, she’s not only facing it, she’s conquering it. Zhang is working in Manhattan as an economics and statistics intern at the Civil Rights Bureau of the New York Attorney General’s Office.

Zhang, a rising junior from Hong Kong, says her struggles with math began in high school when she failed the subject at Diocesan Girls’ School. And the fear of math followed her to the United States when she came to attend Penn.

Two years ago, as a freshman, while many of her peers were enrolled in the more advanced course, Math 114, or were having it waived, she took Math 103, then Math 104.

Now a sociology major in the School of Arts & Sciences, Zhang is tackling Math 114. She calls the course, which she is taking online this summer, “one of the biggest hurdles I have had to overcome so far in college.”

On her internship, she studies datasets to extract statistics for ascertaining discrimination in legal cases being investigated or prosecuted by the N.Y. Attorney General’s Office, which is responsible for enforcing the state’s discrimination laws.

“I have been interested in the law for a while, but this combination of statistics and the law is something I want to specialize in,” Zhang says. “When I saw this opportunity, I jumped to apply.”

During the first month of her internship, N.Y. Attorney General Eric Schneiderman made more than three dozen major announcements including a settlement to include greater diversity in the film/TV production industry, a takedown of a worldwide drug trafficking ring, and arrests and indictments of various fraudsters.

The internship was funded by an Association of Alumnae Scholars Rosemary D. Mazzatenta Award from Penn Arts & Sciences with additional funding from Career Services.

Zhang has long been passionate about civil rights issues and the law, particularly issues involving women’s rights.

Last summer she worked as a research intern at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit that does quantitative analyses of policies’ impacts on women and families.

“I learned a lot from the researchers there and was inspired by the important role data plays in changing policy,” she says.

She credits classes taught by two Penn professors as instrumental in shaping her career aspirations: a Discrimination: Sex/Race course taught by Janice Madden, professor of regional science, urban studies, sociology and real estate, and a Benjamin Franklin Scholar course taught by Marie Gottschalk professor of political science. The courses gave Zhang new insights on gender-based employment, race and the criminal justice system in the U.S.

She says: “Every professor at Penn is laden with impressive credentials and is extremely knowledgeable, and Penn professors are some of the most caring, approachable and down-to-earth people I have ever met.”

After graduating from Penn in 2016, Zhang says she hopes to spend a few years doing research in Japan, before pursuing a joint J.D. and Ph.D. degree.