Hongping Zhao makes a ‘Case’ for Lehigh doctoral studies excellence

An international student launches into an academic career

Later this summer, a newly-minted Lehigh doctoral candidate will join the faculty at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, realizing her lifelong dream to be a researcher and teacher. Yet this was not exactly the academic career Hongping Zhao ’11 Ph.D. had in mind as a young student in Suzhou, China, growing up with plans of being a high school teacher.

Capturing a tenure-track professorship position in the field of science and engineering is not typical so soon after earning a doctorate -- competition for these positions is very steep, often with more than 300 applicants per open tenure-track faculty position in highly-ranked engineering programs in the nation. Normally, candidates work in post-doctoral research positions for several years before obtaining faculty appointments. By all accounts a diligent and self-motivated researcher, Zhao, however, beat the odds. It certainly didn’t hurt her chances that, in her four years at Lehigh, she published more than 23 scholarly journal articles and 40 conference papers –- a very impressive level of output for a researcher in the very formative stages of their career.

Zhao was advised by Nelson Tansu, Class of 1961 Associate Professor of electrical and computer engineering. His research in photonics- and nanostructure-based energy technologies provided an avenue for Zhao to pursue her educational goals in applied physics and electrical engineering. Her research work has focused on improving the nanostructure of semiconductors used in solid-state lighting. In the Tansu Group lab, Hongping explored the growth of semiconductor materials, and the modelling, design and fabrication of LEDs (light-emitting diodes) with nanostructures that are engineered to generate visible light more efficiently than traditional means.

LEDs consume less energy and last longer than incandescent lightbulbs, and they have the potential to exceed the efficiency and reliability of fluorescent lighting as well. The impact of such work? In the U.S. alone, it is estimated that high-efficiency LED solid-state lighting could cut the nation’s total electricity consumption by more than 15 percent.

Although always motivated to learn especially about math and physics, Hongping did not originally plan on nanoengineering or even the pursuit of a doctorate degree. As an undergraduate physics student at Nanjing Normal University in China, Zhao had set her sights on becoming a high school teacher. Her aptitude for the subject matter shone with her graduating in the top 1%, and advisors urged her to consider graduate studies. She took her professors’ advice and enrolled at Southeast University in Nanjing, China, as an electrical engineering graduate student. When she earned her Master’s and was first in the class, professors at Southeast encouraged her onward.

Zhao says that along with helping her develop research and academic skills, Lehigh helped her learn about the professional side of the academic world — publishing academic work, generating funding proposals, and presenting research at conferences and other venues.

According to Zhao, she pursued her doctoral studies in the U.S. to access advanced technologies and engage in a first-rate university research environment. Lehigh’s energetic and research-oriented faculty and the Center for Optical Technologies’ state-of-the-art facilities and equipment intrigued her. She was also drawn to the relatively young research group led by Tansu, where she felt she could learn more effectively and conduct important research in a “highly-energetic and passionate research environment” typified by close interaction among advisors and students.

Tansu emphasizes intense and balanced graduate training in experimental and theoretical aspects of applied physics in energy and nanotechnology; this environment proved impactful for a doctoral student like Zhao, who aspires to advanced research via an academic career.

“Lehigh research groups work collaboratively, and try to create a positive research atmosphere to guide students to excel in their research and academic studies,” says Tansu. “We strive for excellence in PhD candidates, and academic publication is a natural by-product of this effort. And we’re proud to say that Lehigh PhD’s are as competitive as any in the nation.”

Zhao says that along with helping her develop research and academic skills, Lehigh helped her learn about the professional side of the academic world — publishing academic work, generating funding proposals, and presenting research at conferences and other venues.

“Zhao has been one of the strongest PhD students that I have seen,” Tansu says. “Strong focus and incredibly hard work, combined with strong intellectual capability, are the keys to a productive academic career. She has been a great role model for others in our group, and her strong mentorship of several younger PhD students in our group will, in turn, help her to develop into an excellent student advisor at Case.”

Yet as she embarks on her new career at Case Western, Dr. Zhao says that perhaps the most important lesson she’s learned during her PhD experience at Lehigh is this: the most important product of an academic career is not a volume of citations, journal articles or patented technologies -- it is about guiding and motivating students to set and achieve big goals. For proof and result, she needs only to look in the mirror.

--Katie Karabasz