The way she sees it, Kunyu Zhang has climbed a few mountains in her career. Not literal ascents, but long journeys just the same. After earning degrees in physics and applied physics in her native Beijing, she came to the United States to earn her second master’s degree, this one in engineering management, from Tufts University. It was the mid-1990s and the technology sector was booming.

“I got a job in database management. I liked the environment and the programming. You can see the function of your work, and I enjoy helping people with my knowledge,” Zhang says.

Two decades later, Zhang set her sights on a new peak: earning a doctorate in gerontology at UMass Boston. She will graduate with a PhD in the 2024-2025 academic year.

“As you reach a certain age and you start asking, ‘What’s my next step? What does it all mean?’ IT work pays well but I didn’t see my future in it, especially as I faced my own aging process.”

Studying gerontology has taught her new ways of thinking. “My former field was all formulas, very black and white,” she says. “There is a lot of gray in sociological theories.” Zhang found a sweet spot for research that combines the two worlds: how to use technology to improve the aging experience. “The technology world doesn’t know much about aging, so I hope to be the middle person. I have taken social theories that I learned in classes and saw how they could be applied to research, especially around how Internet use can alleviate loneliness.”

Zhang has published three papers that resulted from her doctoral dissertation. Most recently the April 2024 issue of The Gerontologist published her article, “Pathways Linking Information and Communication Technology Use and Loneliness Among Older Adults: Evidence From the Health and Retirement Study,” co-authored by UMass Boston gerontology professors Jeffrey Burr and Jan Mutchler along with Jiehua Lu, sociology professor at Peking University in Beijing.

“Kunyu is one of the most intellectually curious students I’ve had the pleasure to work with,” says Jeffrey Burr, professor of gerontology and Zhang’s adviser. “She figures out conceptual and methodology problems in great detail. She has written high quality papers that get published remarkably quickly.”

Zhang finds much of her motivation in wanting to help her mother, who lives alone at 93 in Beijing. “She has always told me that she was lonely,” Zhang says.  To cheer her up, Zhang chats with her mom every day and sends endearing old-time songs to her through WeChat, a Chinese social media platform. Online platforms also allow Zhang to do weekly grocery shopping for her mom and have her favorite dishes from neighborhood restaurants delivered to her house. “Technology makes it possible for me to take care of my mom from distance, I feel lucky we are living in this digital era,“  Zhang says. Still, technology can’t completely replace in-person care.  She plans to move back to Beijing in 2025 to help her mom in person. 

Never one to shy away from learning, Zhang looks forward to getting more up to speed on artificial intelligence, which she sees as having great potential to improve the lives of older people. In particular, she hopes to use AI to reduce loneliness and social isolation through voice-assistive agents such as social robots. She is also considering developing age-friendly, chat-based technology that could walk people through the challenging process of enrolling in and amending their Medicare coverage. Ideally, she envisions a voice-powered assistant that can guide older people through the maze of retirement, medical insurance, and medical and personal cares. This virtual assistant could help older people maintain a level of agency and independence, and importantly, offer an emotional support through engaging conversations and facilitating social engagement. 

“Voice recognition is a much more natural way for older adults to communicate. Talking is so important; many older people don’t have people to talk with all day, for many days,” she says. Virtual reality holds great promise as well, making it possible for older people to feel like they can travel to their dreamed places  or  meet their remote friends in the same room.

“I want to dive into AI to become an expert in this area,” Zhang says. “It’s another mountain, a path uncharted.” The odds are good she’ll conquer this challenge as well.