Wang to Receive Distinguished Prof Award

Growing up in the Chinese countryside, Zhong Lin (Z.L.) Wang aspired to follow in his father’s footsteps at a local factory.

Growing up in the Chinese countryside, Zhong Lin (Z.L.) Wang aspired to follow in his father’s footsteps at a local factory.          

“From the time I was 5 years old until I was 16, college education was not available to young people in China, so I thought working in a factory was my only option,” said Wang, Regents Professor and Hightower Chair in the College of Engineering, of the period of China’s history known as the Cultural Revolution. “But during my last year of high school, things changed, and I took the national exam to go to college.”

From that point on, one opportunity led to the next. After completing college in China, Wang was invited to participate in the national examination to be selected as one of the top 100 students to attend graduate school in the United States, which is when he realized what he wanted to do in life — teach.

His love for teaching is just one of the reasons Wang was selected to receive this year’s Class of 1934 Distinguished Professor Award at the Faculty and Staff Honors Luncheon on April 11.

Taking a Research Risk that Paid Off

When Wang arrived at Tech in 1995, he was one of the few scientists conducting research in the area of nanoscience — or the study of the performance of ultra-small materials and devices.

Along the way, Wang invented the nanogenerator and figured out how it could harvest mechanical energy using nano-enabled technology.

For example, one of his projects focused on how a nanogenerator in a collapsible backpack could collect energy that could charge a person’s electronic devices such as cellphones.

“I remember being the only one doing this type of research when I started,” he said. “Now, this is a well-established research field. I took a risk, but I’d also say that it paid off.”

Growing the Family Tree

But even more important to Wang than research is mentoring students. The most satisfying part of his job is seeing students who initially aren’t excited about taking one of his courses become engaged, he said.

“One of the challenges of my job is getting students excited about the field of nanoscience,” Wang said. “But I think that, in many cases, if I share my excitement with them, it becomes contagious.”

And it’s obvious that Wang has inspired a number of young people. He has advised and graduated more than 40 Ph.D. students, three master’s students, numerous undergraduate students, and more than 110 post doctoral fellows and visiting scientists — not to mention the 10 Ph.D. students he’s currently advising.

These students are making their mark around the world, with eight teaching at U.S. research universities, while 10 are faculty in Taiwan, three in Korea, and 60 in China.

“I like to see my students choose to become professors,” Wang said. “It has been a pleasure to watch my so-called academic ‘family tree’ grow. And it is an honor to receive the distinguished professor award and be recognized for something I genuinely enjoy doing.”