The Physics Department has chosen one of our newest members, Assistant Professor Shuang Zhou, for our October Physics Spotlight! Not only would we like to introduce him, but also highlight his research in liquid crystalline materials with a focus in active systems. As one of our Condensed Matter Physicists, we welcome him to the department and are very excited to have him join us here at UMass. Please feel free to read his Q&A below to learn more about him!
Welcome to the University of Massachusetts Amherst Campus! As a new professor, what are you excited about the most with regards to your first semester here?
Thank you! I have received many warm greetings from a whole range of people I met on campus: colleagues of different departments, students, cashier, etc. One thing I am particularly impressed by here at UMass since the job interview, and enjoying my time here now, is how people deeply care about each other, working together to make things happen.
One big change for me, being a professor is, that it gives me a lot of opportunities to meet students. It is very exciting to talk to young adults of various backgrounds, from different countries, and most importantly, with different views and approaches of the scientific problems. I have also enjoyed interacting with them in my discussion classes. I look forward to working with all of the students both in and outside of the lab.
What is your professional background? What did you major in and where? Where did you go to graduate school and for what? How can your educational background help you teach and mentor students at UMass?
I got my bachelor’s degree in applied physics from Xi’an Jiaotong University in China. After that, I worked in the LCD industry for a few years. Soon after, I went to grad school at the Liquid Crystal Institute of Kent State University and got my Ph.D. in chemical physics.
It was an exciting and enjoyable experience for me to be educated in China and in the US with school and industry. These quite different experiences compensate each other – people think and solve problems very differently in school and in industry. I would be happy to offer UMass students not only academic guidance but also instructions in their career paths.
Why did you decide to go to graduate school? How did you decide which grad school to go to? What advice would you have for a student who wants to go to graduate school?
I was a clueless young man when I left Xi’an Jiaotong University with my degree and a job offer form an LCD company just like many others at that age. I didn't know what a liquid crystal was and how LCD’s worked. I told myself to explore as much as I can, and as quickly as I can in this industry, then I will find something more interesting to do later. I was fascinated. With my hardworking colleagues, we solved quite a few of exciting technical problems in the company, but years later, I realized that the LCD application was just the tip of the iceberg in regards to the physics of liquid crystals. Sure, it is a very successful application – LCD is a $100 billion dollar industry, but there is so much more about liquid crystals than just LCD. The physics of liquid crystals is far-reaching in many fields: biology, optics, chemistry, mechanical engineering, etc. There was even a study of early universe formation using liquid crystal theory! This is like opening a treasure box for me. I felt the urge to learn more about liquid crystals physics and that is what made me decide to attend grad school. I applied to all of the graduate schools in the US that had liquid crystal physics research going on at the time. I was accepted by a few places, but eventually, I chose the Chemical Physics Interdisciplinary Program (CPIP) of the Liquid Crystal Institute at KSU. This was because they had a wide range of research going on in many different directions consisting of physics, chemistry, material science and applications.
For a student who wants to attend graduate school, my number one piece of advice is to work on a self-discovery process early. The discovery is about figuring out what you are really passionate about. One can easily find many things that are interesting, but only the real passions can motivate you to conquer difficulties that are inevitable in graduate school. It’s not a simple task. It requires serious effort in dedicating yourself to get to a certain depth. More practical advice is to get involved in doing research or having industrial experiences at a proper time. UMass offers excellent opportunities for undergrads to do research – including my labs, and industrial connections of all directions. I encourage students to take these opportunities and find out the best way to spend their graduate school years and have success.
In 140 characters, explain your research:
We explore physics of novel liquid crystalline materials, especially in active systems that are far from equilibrium.
What class in the undergraduate curriculum is closest to your research?
Liquid crystal science, like many other soft condensed matter directions, is quite interdisciplinary. I am not sure I can pinpoint one particular class, but if I am allowed to choose a few, then they should be electrodynamics, optics, and statistical mechanics.
Do you take undergraduates in your research group? What type of work do they do? Have you published any papers with undergraduates?
Yes, we welcome undergraduates to work in our group. Currently, I have one undergraduate student working on a project in collaboration with Dr. Jennifer Ross’s group. The goal of the undergraduate research is to have them experiencing and solving real research problems. This allows them to start exploring and enjoying the research process. So, the specific tasks will be tailored according to their levels and research interests. It can range from something very basic to very exploratory. The self-motivation of the students plays a significant role here.
I worked with a few undergraduate students in the past like Adam Cervenka, an REU student, in which we had published work in Phys. Rev. E. Also, more recently, when I was working as a postdoc at Harvard, I worked with Michael Huang, a Harvard undergraduate, and Jordan Howard-Jennings, an REU student. This work still needs some final touch but will be published soon.
What do you like best about being a professor and a physicist at that?
The biggest enjoyment of being a physicist lies in the process of simplifying things, extracting the principles, and expressing them in concise ways. This process is so gratifying that I can’t help sharing it with my students and teach them to enjoy it. Besides personal enjoyment, the outcomes are useful information that can decipher the secrets mother nature constantly brings to us. Being a professor now means that I have lots of freedom to choose what to explore. The freedom feels both thrilling and heavy, and therefore very exciting.
What is the most interesting research or project that you’ve worked on in the past?
It has to be the creation of our “living liquid crystal” that I did a few years back. We had the idea of combining liquid crystal with bacteria to make it active and it worked out nicely. Following this initial success, we found lots of interesting phenomena that continue to excite us today. A big portion of my research will be along this path: studying physics in active systems composed of liquid crystal and active agents.
What do you do outside of physics? Do you have a hobby?
I now spend most of my after-work time taking care of my family – we just had our first son born four months ago, so there is a lot to do at home. Hobby wise, I have been practicing Karate for a few years and am steadily going up in rank. I am expecting to get my black belt – an equivalent of Ph.D. in Physics, in one or two years! I found that martial arts and physics perfectly compensate each other: understanding physics help you understand martial arts, and doing martial arts rejuvenates your body and brain to do better physics. I recommend it to my fellow physicists.